Killer Whalers

by Ryan Snyder | @YESRyan

Just about one year ago, David Kavanaugh was in possession of a pristine black Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar that he intended to use in the formation of a rock-androll band. Today, he’s in possession of a Gibson Les Paul that’s distinguished more by the dull sheen of duct tape and floor abrasions than the glossy black finish it once presented.

“It’s the only way my guitar is held together right now,” Kavanaugh said outside of Turntable, the year-old downtown Jamestown farmhouse-turned music venue where the term “house show” perpetually applies.

What happened in between was just a product of their initial agreement to put on a fun live show above all else. He and drummer Marcus Cox sought to recruit a four-piece to play straight-ahead, wholehearted rock compositions around High Point, but were instead met with an extra-circular, profitmotivated unwillingness to play anything besides country or covers. So with little premeditated discussion about how or what they wanted to play, they set up in Kavanaugh’s living room and started jamming as a two-piece.

Out of that came the Alaskan Whalers — named for a full, but moustache-less beard that Cox once sported — a power duo that revels in the kind of gnarly, untreated garage blues that the Black Keys championed a dozen years ago on The Big Come Up. A rough demo that the duo debuted on SoundCloud last spring, inexorably invites that very comparison, only the two pastors’ kids sound decidedly more pissed off on their initial offering.

Their earliest tracks bemoan no-good women (“Messy Situation”) and the impermeability of rock radio (“Rock is Dead”), but they eventually moved into stickier territory as their sound took shape. Their scorching rebuke of bad legislation, “Citizens United,” begins with Kavanaugh bellowing “I’ve got a microphone and this is how I’m gonna use it” in a quasi-falsetto as they assert their punk credentials. There’s even a stand-alone track in which friend and burgeoning MC Koopa Fields raps over a Blakroc-inspired acid groove.

The six-song demo that was assembled from those initial recordings and an injection of heavily reverbed blues blends the unholy strut of white-hot RL Burnside riffs and ringing power chords with Cox’s fixation on trashy cymbals and violent fills. It’s rock with a brute physicality that feeds the group’s live performances, but it’s a sound mostly born in moments of quiet serenity.

“I enjoy a nice, warm bath. Usually I just lay down in the tub and get a riff in my mind,” Kavanaugh said. “We need a picture of a bathtub on our album, because that’s where all the ideas for our songs come from.”

Right now, that album only exists in the heat haze of Kavanaugh’s bathtub meditations, but when it eventually does transpire, Cox suggests it will be a live recording inside Turntable, the venue that’s become their de facto home. The relationship between the Alaskan Whalers and owners Renee and Jonathan Spencer has been simpatico from the start; Cox and Kavanaugh organized only a few months after the couple opened Turntable, and the frequency in which they’ve played the house has surely played no small part in Turntable being named the Homegrown Music Network’s Venue of the Year for 2013.

Their Saturday night performance at Turntable was preceded by a video shoot for their song “I Can’t Take It”, fiery political screed that expands on the group’s extreme political disillusionment, another of their prime creative movers. Between bemoaning western imperialism and the prison-industrial complex through high-minded lyrical dissections, Cox and Kavanaugh harmonize at max vocal effort for simple chorus that also serves as the song’s title. Kavanaugh’s voice has develop dramatically from the affectation on “Citizens United.”

The shoot was witnessed by a dozen or so early arrivals that also served as extras for the inhouse production crew’s efforts to capture the inexhaustible energy present at a typical Alaskan Whaler’s live show. The onlookers were shuffled in for the opening shot and pumped up for the nearly unbroken string of takes in which the band repeated the same passages. A large inflatable killer whale bounced around the room throughout. The sweat that quickly accumulated in Kavanaugh’s thick black hair and beard was just as much of a danger to the video’s continuity as the small crowd’s ever-changing stations. Cox leapt from his seat for the song’s explosive chorus, and Kavanaugh spun around the floor Bo Diddley-style during the instrumental breakdown. It wasn’t entirely a put-on for the sake of movie magic; Kavanaugh and Cox have a genuinely unruly live product.

“I have a lot of respect for bands that can pull their weight on stage. That was our big thing that we were adamant about before we even started writing music,” Kavanaugh said. “We hate going to shows where there’s no stage presence. We see a lot where it’s just a bunch of squares standing around so stiff. You wrote the music, so why not get into it?” Cox notes that, while a proper studio recording is not off the table, it would be difficult to capture an accurate reflection of the band at this point. They believe they could get close with the right producer, but the overall grittiness of their two-tracked demo, or the natural slapback found on the “Westchester Blues” — captured in a cavernous church hallway — present a realer depiction of their sound without the need to mount studio debt. Kavanaugh goes one step further, offering that there’s inherently greater cachet with a remarkable live show than album.

“If you’ve been to a show with some buddies who maybe aren’t musicians, you never hear something like, ‘They were playing in this triad groove, then they hit the seventh chord and the key changed up, then they just had this melodic minor groove in between. When they went to the bridge, the way the instruments complemented each other with the counterpoint melodies, it was great.’ No,” he said.

“I asked a musician buddy how Bruce Springsteen was and he said, ‘Dude, that old man is still sliding across the stage,’ or how the Chariot show at Greene Street was: ‘Oh man, the drummer came out into the crowd.’ How the songs sound is sometimes not as important, even if they sounded great.”

Cox notes, however, that the group’s raw physicality was birthed from the vulnerability that they initially felt as a two-piece act. There’s nowhere for your eyes to go, whereas a four-piece might not have that problem, he added. That the tactile component has grown into their sound’s greatest complement is no accident; they never even agreed on a sound, just a great live show.

The Alaskan Whalers headline Pop Fest at the Blind Tiger on Saturday. !