Published May 21, 2009Andrew Whiteman is a lazy man. At least, he seems to think so. His resumé, which spans a 24-year career, begs to differ. He's been in two successful and influential bands - Broken Social Scene and Bourbon Tabernacle Choir - from completely different genres and different chapters of Canadian music history. He's written a Top Ten hit (Big Sugar's "The Scene"). His primary project, Apostle of Hustle, has three eclectic full-lengths to their name, as well as two EPs: one is a collection of hip-hop remixes, the other is a collaboration with Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq.
"I do feel like I haven't done enough," he insists, with wide-eyed sincerity. "I don't know how much I believe in Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence, but when you walk around with Rimbaud on your shoulder, you're comparing yourself to your immediate peers or your dead peers. I'm very restless." And there it is: the understatement of the year, as anyone who has ever known Andrew Whiteman will tell you. On "The Perfect Fit," from the new Apostle of Hustle album Eats Darkness, Whiteman weaves a chorus out of a line from poet David Antin: "Think about the perfect fit / Between the life you lead and the death you get." Though he's older than many of his current collaborators, Whiteman is too young to be thinking about death. Which he isn't, really. It's just that he wants to squeeze everything out of life - and not squeeze the life out of everything in the process.
He recalls reading about Crazy Horse as a kid (the Lakota warrior, not Neil Young's band). Before going into battle, the Lakota "would have to make peace with [their] personal spirits and say, 'It's a good day to die. I'll be happy if I go out there and die today,'" Whiteman explains. "'The Perfect Fit' is my version of that. It's a technique for living harder, more fully, knowing that death is on your shoulder."
That theme can be traced right back to the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir's first single, which had a carpe diem chorus: "Some day there's going to be worms crawling through your skull." Since then Whiteman has been a multitasking musical hustler par excellence, willing to try anything and everything.
The oft-told tale about Apostle of Hustle is that it was born after Whiteman and then-girlfriend Leslie Feist went on a Cuban vacation, where he was inspired to come back and explore Latin rhythms. But that's become cheap shorthand for a band with an insatiable musical appetite from every corner of the world consciousness, never mind Whiteman's own long and storied career.
He left the Bourbons, a nine-piece R&B band, in 1993, after extensive touring and competing personalities. He quickly kickstarted the prog-rock power trio Gunwalebob with drummer Andrew Henry (Venus Cures All) and bassist Julian Brown (Guh). There was a short time in garage rock band the Strap, who backed up Chicago R&B singer Andre Williams before the Sadies got the gig. A spoken word album, Fear of Zen, spawned the band ¡Que Vida! Along the way, he helped play small parts in midwifing the early careers of Feist and the New Deal. And after scoring the Big Sugar hit, he tried unsuccessfully to land a publishing deal. "I came up with a couple of great boy band songs I could still use," he deadpans.
And those are just his musical passions. These days he walks around his new home of Montreal listening to poetry and audio art he finds on the website Ubuweb ("all avant-garde, all the time"). Says the "lazy" Whiteman: "I wish I was a graduate student under [avant-garde poetry critic] Marjorie Perloff at USC in California. I did a cabaret in September, and I wish I could jump into that. I could do better. I wish getting high and watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force wasn't so funny, know what I mean?"
One of the sound collages that weave through Eats Darkness features the voice of William S. Burroughs, repeating the phrase "immeasurably old and ravenously young." At the age of 42, Andrew Whiteman is undoubtedly both.
The greatest challenge of Andrew Whiteman's career has been to whittle down and focus his myriad ideas. Ironically, it may have been the rambling mess that is Broken Social Scene that taught him how to do that. He came to the band with the most conventional background, and one has to wonder if he helped to impose some order on that band's early tendencies to drone for ten minutes at a time.
"It's not a coincidence that Broken Social Scene became more melodic when Andrew came into the band," says writer Stuart Berman, who just published an authorized biography of the group, This Book is Broken. "He brings an undeniable level of skill and expertise. Most of [that band] come from indie rock backgrounds, where technical skill is not necessarily a valued attribute. He's the closest thing they have to an in-house guitar god, in terms of a suave, smooth guitar player who has undeniable chops. There's a reason why he takes the guitar solos. Andrew is a crooner and a balladeer and a pop songwriter, but [in Apostle of Hustle] he wraps it up in textural dressing and rhythmic experimentation."
In Apostle, Whiteman gets indispensable help from bassist Julian Brown and percussionist Dean Stone, two men capable of infinite musical possibilities. Producer Marty Kinack, who has helmed the last two Apostle of Hustle full-lengths, has been granted the mixed blessing of attempting to sculpt a finished product out of the avalanche of raw material the three members put to tape. On 2007's National Anthem of Nowhere, Kinack says there was enough unused material to put together a completely different version of the album: different melodies, different rhythms, different textures. On Eats Darkness, he laid down the law from the outset.
"When I used to make pizza," says Kinack, "I would put so many toppings on it that it would just be a crazy goulash. Now I just use pineapple, that's it. So I'd tell them, 'Dudes, we just need some pineapple. We have the crust, the sauce, maybe two kinds of cheese, but all we need right now is some pineapple.'"
Even at its simplest, Apostle of Hustle is deliciously dense. They don't make background music, or albums that necessarily make sense on first listen - which explains why they're the dark horse of the extended Broken Social Scene family. They don't fit easily into games revolving around the phrase "recommended if you like."
"We are music for introverted people," says Whiteman, "so I don't know what [fans] get out of it or read into it. I have no fucking clue. I don't know anyone else who sounds like our band; I wish I did. It's always a horrible conversation when someone says, 'Who does your band sound like?' or 'Who do you want to go on the road with?' Which sounds high and mighty, but when you get down to it, nobody really does do this." Apostle of Hustle's 2005 debut, Folkloric Feel, was years in the making - and sounds like it. It's the type of album that still reveals new discoveries listening to it four years later. Yet its principal strength is also its drawback: it can be an exhausting experience.
Whiteman struggles with this, and has been telling interviewers for years that he's trying to boil down what he does to one chord, or what he calls "trance" music. It's a term that demands a definition for anyone with a hangover from the '90s.
"I could be talking about North African music or Jamaican dancehall," he begins. "It's ecstatic states. It's also about sorcery. I think about some of those Sonic Youth jams that are very much about how this reality is surrounded by a net, it's about looking at the holes in the net and the pores of the fabric and how the music dissolves those momentarily so that you have contact with the non-empirical reality surrounding us." Without pausing for breath, he concludes: "Music is definitely a form of sorcery, and that's what I want to do."
Julian Brown, whom Whiteman lovingly describes as a "monkey familiar" in the band's attempts at sorcery, explains the one-chord thesis in more direct musical terms. "It's about putting rhythm and melody first and using those things to create form. The more chords you have, the more static the other elements tend to be. There's only so much you can hear at a time without wrecking your brain. When you remove that idea of harmonic change, then it becomes about other things: rhythm, texture and melody. I'm super into that. I'm also into playing stuff that has 100 chords in it. For me, the attraction is extremes."
Eats Darkness revels in extremes. At 35 minutes, it's the shortest Apostle of Hustle album, and yet it feels like the longest, most satisfying journey of them all. It's at once their most sparse and their most dense effort; simple skeletons of songs are draped with tiny textures that reveal themselves slowly. It finds them at their most pop ("Soul Unwind") and their most experimental (the title track). Sound collages of poetry, artillery noise and Deadwood dialogue provide a loose narrative running through the tracks, like tuning into a Negativland broadcast in between songs.
Eats Darkness was originally intended as an EP, just a studio experiment. As it expanded, Whiteman still wasn't convinced of its merits, and suggested releasing it online for fans only. Then he played it for his A&R rep - who happens to be Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew - who insisted that it be a full-fledged release.
Andrew Whiteman doesn't kid himself. Despite the critical accolades, he is well aware that a big reason he's getting any attention in the first place is because of his involvement with Broken Social Scene. After years of insisting that Apostle of Hustle was not a side project, he's come to terms with some harsh truths.
"It's a labour of love right now, and that's all it can be," he admits. "It's a lack of time and resources that prevents Apostle from being my number one creative launch pad. I love Social Scene so much, and it's my number one priority. I love the people and I'm excited about new tunes."
Whiteman's passion for BSS is actually recently renewed. Marty Kinack - who in addition to being Apostle of Hustle's producer is Whiteman's close friend and BSS's soundman - says, "He's kind of the loner in the band. He keeps to himself, goes to the gym by himself, disappears all the time." Whiteman took 2007 off from the band - not unusual, in that professionally polyamorous musical collective - in part because he wanted to concentrate on touring with Apostle of Hustle for the first time ever. But, say some sources, there was also no love lost when his hiatus began, which was at a particularly acrimonious time for the band, at the end of 2006. That's history now, and he's been fully back on board since December 2007.
Now that BSS is recording a new album that Whiteman will be involved in, Apostle will be on the backburner after a quick tour to launch Eats Darkness. Both he and his band take it in stride. "There's been a certain frustration level," admits Julian Brown. "But there's a real value to it, which is that we don't get sick of what we're doing. It stays reasonably fresh."
By the end of their 2007 tour, where they were mostly playing opening sets for Andrew Bird and Stars, they were conditioned to provide maximum impact in minimal time, and often playing the same set every night - which they're perfectly capable of doing, but Apostle of Hustle is capable of much more, and deserve to do so on their own terms, and on their own time. If that makes them a part-time band, say they, so be it. "That was probably the first time we battled boredom," says Brown, "and we had to decide how we were going to switch things up."
But those tours also helped them focus. They expanded to a five-piece in an attempt to cover all the parts they had heaped on to National Anthem; they later realized that the strength of the core trio was more important than replicating their record. They also realized how to distil the essence of their musical aims without overwhelming an audience. Those lessons learned are on full display in the grooves of the lean, mean Eats Darkness.
"We've done stuff that is a little too cluttered," says Brown, "and it's hard for people to get. Then you go on the road and spend all that energy and wreck your domestic life and come out the other end saying, 'You know, I don't think we really got anything across to people.' That can be demoralizing."
In the spring of 2008, Andrew Whiteman had rejoined Broken Social Scene and started work on Eats Darkness. Then he got a call from his high school friends in the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir - with some of whom he's still very close - about an invitation to reunite for the Hillside Festival in Guelph. Whiteman balked. "I'm anti-nostalgia," he insists. "I'm too interested in right now. I'm ecstatic about what's happening right now."
After some prodding, however, he agreed to the gig. As it turns out, he feels his gut was right. "That was then, this is now. It's not exciting or thrilling. I'm not at the edge of my seat. There's no trance, no sorcery, no nothing. And you know what man? Let's be honest: it was a drag. That's how I feel about it. I'm just not into nostalgia."
Unprompted, this leads into a, er, spirited discussion of Stuart Berman's Broken Social Scene book. Whiteman has no beef with Berman, and he hasn't seen the book, but he's resistant to history being written of a story that's still evolving. BSS, after all, was a band that initially formed to play all new songs at every gig. Only its success turned it into a slightly more predictable rock'n'roll machine.
After prodding, Whiteman admits that he's too inside to be objective. "Kevin [Drew] was ranting the other day about how we've given up the mystery. And it's true. He was ranting at [Brendan] Canning for doing eTalk Daily. And I agree - I think it's bullshit. At the same time, that's our job. And if we didn't have that job, we wouldn't be able to do a lot of this."
Andrew Whiteman takes every one of his jobs seriously: in Apostle, in BSS, as a poetry student, as an insatiable culture sponge. And he's deadly sincere about each. This is not a man who takes half steps.
"One thing I took from the Grateful Dead was that [Bill Graham] quote that they're not the best at what they do - they're the only ones at what they do," he says. "Or like Gonzales, who wanted to be the supervillain, the master of music, and that's why he can afford to have this excellent prankster, shit-disturbing character. And why? Because when he sits at the piano, he can kill you. And he will kill you, because he's a master, a genius of music.
"Becoming masters of our music is the least I can do for myself and for our fans. Even if I can't do anything else successfully, I want to be master of my fucking realm."