If you're into bands that stay the same with each record they release, Raleigh's Whatever Brains are not for you. In 2011, after a string of compelling 7-inches, the punk pranksters offered their self-titled debut, a marvelous mess of twisted psych-rock detritus that shifted from aggressively mumbled verses to sarcastically epic choruses without missing a beat. The next year, they released another LP called Whatever Brains, not caring one iota that this move might confuse ill-informed consumers. The second album is sharper and more straightforward, getting most of its mileage from the dizzying interplay between guitarists Rich Ivey and William Evans.
In December, Whatever Brains sequestered themselves for three days in Raleigh's Kings Barcade, transforming the rock club—where Evans sometimes runs sound—into their own private studio. If the past is any indication, listeners can expect another stylistic shift that still fits with Ivey's supremely sardonic songs. We caught up with Evans, who produced the Brains' as-of-yet untitled new effort, to gain some early insight into the record.
INDY WEEK: You produced the first two records as well. How was this experience different? You recorded the first two records in your practice space, right?
WILLIAM EVANS: Yeah. We recorded all of the drums for the first record at a house that Matt [Watson, bass] and Rich and this guy John used to live at. They had a big back room with super-high ceilings that was real cool. For the second record, we did some of them in that same room and then some in the kitchen in a little house I used to live in with Evan [Williams, drums] and Cameron from Shards. Everything else was done in the practice space.
For this one, it was different because we got to do everything in one place. We did the drums set up on-stage and coming through the main speakers like I would mix them for a show. It was cool because I could leave the drums set up on-stage with all the mics set-up and then Josh (Lawson), our newer keyboard player, brought in—I think he had a total of 16 keyboards, including a modular synthesizer that he had built himself in his basement. So he had like two or three long tables of keyboards all set-up. He had all of those running into a 16-channel mixer and then running that out to his amp, so he could leave all of his keyboards set-up and ready to go. So if he wanted to do a different sound or get a different keyboard, it was ready to go.
The guitars we just sort of recorded in the back in a corner. There’s some carpet, so it wasn’t too live. Without people in Kings, it’s real echo-y. We used the men’s room for some pretty cool natural reverb on some bass clarinet that Hank [Shore], our original keyboard player, played and some guitar stuff that Rich was playing where he would play this one electric guitar, but he would be standing in the bathroom with a mic in there and I would mic the amp that was in another room. You couldn't really get an amp in the bathroom, but it was like the unplugged sound of an electric guitar bouncing around.
It was great because I could leave everything plugged-in, everything set-up. We just sort of had to show up and do it. Also, everyone was there at the same time, so we just would take turns while somebody did their part. They could work on their own on headphones, and then I could move onto somebody else with just a push of a button.
How did being able to record all at once together like that impact the sound as opposed to the piecemeal way you did things with the first two records? Did it give you more of a live sound?
I think it did wind up sounding more like a live record even though it’s all done in parts. I think mainly that’s because of the gear I got to use, the Kings board and some of the Kings mics. Cheetie [Kumar, Kings co-owner] let me use a really nice mic. All that stuff and also the room itself led to recordings where I didn't have to mess with as much to get them to sound good. It was just pretty high-fidelity and pretty much what I wanted just right out of the box. I think that lends it more of a live sound.
It definitely happened a lot faster, and that was sort of the idea going into it before we even figured out how we were going to do it. We just wanted to, as Rich said, have like a lock-in sort of situation with as many of us as could be there at all times. That helped me a lot. I slept maybe 12 hours over three days, but it was great because instead of two weeks of meeting up to do a bass overdub for an hour and then like Rich’s guitar or vocal overdubs for a couple hours here and a couple hours there, everyone could do as much as they wanted to or as much as they could at a time. Then somebody else would be ready to do something while the first person figured out their part or figured out a sound. It streamlined things a whole lot.
The last record was very much about the intricacy of you and Rich’s guitar parts. The synthesizers have obviously become a more dominant part of the live show. Is that coming through on the record?
Yeah, definitely. We sort of joke about the second record being the rock record. This record, the keyboard is definitely at the forefront. I think there are several songs without any guitar, maybe just a bass. I think on four or five songs I’m doing auxiliary percussion and not even playing guitar, and Rich is playing really minimal stuff or like a sampler or this noise generator that Josh built. It’s definitely a lot more percussion. Also, I think because of the room and recording in there, the drums come through a lot more, and the drums are a lot more intricate. They have a lot more detail to them. It’s definitely all about what Hank and Josh are doing on keyboards and what Evan’s doing on drums. I wouldn't say it’s a rock record.
What pushed you guys in that direction?
All of the records are usually just a chronological chunk of what Rich has written, obviously, not really in order on the track list. The first record had 17 songs; there are a couple we’d had left over from the 7-inches that we had done that we wanted to get on record that were kind of out of order, but for the most part all of those songs were written in a row. And then for the second record, they were definitely all written pretty much straight in a row, same thing for this one.
I think the major factor of how many keyboards there were was because we had two keyboard players. When Hank came back from Chicago, we already had Josh in the band, and instead of kicking him out or anything, we just added Hank back. Having two keyboards, we had to sort of make room for them in the arrangements, so it wasn't too crowded or messy.
You guys released a few demos on a CD-R near the end of last year and another in a video online. Are all those songs on the album? How would you characterize the sonic improvements to those songs?
I think they’re pretty much infinitely more hi-fi. When Rich did those demos, definitely fidelity was not at all in his mind. I think that’s fine because the sound of them is really kind of cool, and that was something I was nervous about going into the record, like why are we re-recording these when Rich already has a cool-sounding version of them. For one of them, “Eat Forever,” I think we used the vocal takes from the demo. Rich still had it broken up into tracks, so we literally took them from the demo and put them in the song. So it’s like the vocals and vocal effects that he had on them. And he had done a lot of Casio keyboard percussion that was going to be really hard to recreate, so we just used them and then added our own live percussion on top of it.
For a lot of the demos, we used them as a map of the songs for recording, to get like tempos. Evan does the drums on pretty much everything, so it was good or him to just play to that and then we just mixed the demo out because we had other things added in.
Whatever Brains play Durham's Casbah Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 9 p.m. in support of Cusses. Tickets are $7. Octopus Jones and PC Worship open.