Words by Eugenia Vela.
“We’re not real good at the celebrity-on-a-pedestal thing,” says Kyle Johnson, biting into a pork slider. His friend Ram Vela sits next to him, devouring chips covered in creamy spinach artichoke dip between swigs of beer. Johnson and Vela are also bandmates, and have been since Whitman was born in 2003. Whitman played its first show July 22, 2004—a house party on Oltorf Street, just a block from where we are today at Opal Divine’s in Austin.
Johnson (guitar/keys) and Vela (guitar/vocals) met their sophomore year at the University of Texas. Vela was a radio-television-film major; Johnson studied sociology. They moved in together their junior year and have been making music ever since. They both grew up in Texas—Vela in the south, Johnson up north—and moved to Austin for college, where everything changed. “Growing up in small towns, you don’t know about bands like The Replacements or The Pixies,” says Vela with a wide-eyed look, as if just the thought of it is ludicrous. “Not until you get out of there. And you start to meet other people who tell you to check things out, and you’re like, ‘Who the fuck are The Pixies? De-vo? What the hell is a Devo?’”
“Do you remember the first time you and I heard Arcade Fire when we were in college?” Johnson asks with a smile. “And we were like, what the hell is this?”
“And it was amazing!” says Vela. “College is where it started. We heard a lot of good and new music in college.”
Vela and Johnson lead the conversation with the kind of dialogue that only flows between good friends. They’ve both been down the road of exploration together. Neither grew up surrounded by musical influences or learned how to play an instrument until their late teens, so they did all the learning—the evolving—together.
Whitman’s present lineup includes Eric Jenne on drums and bassist Micajah Nye, and by now they’ve all tuned in on what they like, who they are and what they want to represent—which is fun, rock ‘n’ roll and personal. “We are influenced by bands that span generations,” says Johnson. “I was really inspired by the second-wave Beatles revolution and bands like The Animals and The Zombies. Then into the ‘70s, Elvis Costello and The Attractions, and in the ‘80s The Replacements, and modern day bands like Wilco and The Walkmen. Even if they’re all different generations, they all did very similar things. I think that’s where we started to see our trajectory and understand where we were coming from, and you’re nothing if you don’t have roots, if you don’t understand what you’re inspired by. It just makes you that much more creative, and I think that’s where the Whitman sound came from.”
For everyone else to understand Whitman, we begin with the name. An Austinite would jump to ask—Whitman, as in Charles? The man who climbed the UT tower in 1966 and killed 16 people? “We wanted a one-word name that people would know and question. Those were the two rules,” says Johnson. “We wanted people to remember it and for them to constantly ask us where it came from. Honestly it wasn’t anything in particular, but we knew it would hit a few nerves in Austin.”
Vela instantly follows up. “One of the creepiest stories, man: I come home one day after work and I check my mailbox, and there’s a DVD that says Sniper 66,” he stops for emphasis. “And I think, what the hell is this shit? So I put it on and I’m like ‘Oh my God, this is actual footage from when Charles Whitman shot like eleven people from the UT tower!’ Who would do such a thing? And why? Why me? God damn it. Fan mail. It’s pretty much fan-fuckin’-mail!”
Something else to understand Whitman: Vela and Johnson don’t just talk; they don’t simply provide an answer to a question. Vela and Johnson speak in stories, which all start with ‘we’ and end with a full minute of laughter. Case in point: Johnson nudges Vela, urging him, “Do your guy in Massachusetts, do your guy in Massachusetts!”
Vela laughs and nods. “So we were playing this shithole, and our drummer at the time had developed gallup from eating too much fried chicken and drinking too much. True story, the motherfucker was limping everywhere,” he says, Johnson already cracking up beside him. “And I’m trying to sell some shit at the merch table, and some guy comes up to us and goes, ‘I gotta hand it to ya. You guys ain’t my style of music, ya know. I like real music, ya know, Pantera, Megadeth, Anthrax, but I gotta tell ya, ya guys got heart, heart right here.’ And he sees our drummer just limping across the dancefloor and says, ‘Hey, ain’t that guy your drummer? Man, you in bad fuckin’ shape, bad fuckin’ shape! Hey, I’ll buy a CD, how ‘bout that?’ He gives me 20 bucks and says, ‘Hey…Keep the change.’”
Vela grins. “Only 20 bucks we made that night.”
This kind of storytelling filters into Whitman’s music—three-minute stories of thriving, fleeting moments and trips with friends, summers spent driving around and drinks poured in Dixie cups. It’s evident in Weekends, their second LP which drops April 17 and will be celebrated with an April 13 release party. The record is rich with personality and feel-good songs that are personal, relateable, friendly. “Ram puts identities in narratives, which makes him a great storyteller,” says Johnson. “And what came out was 11 stories—11 chapters in the larger story that is our lives.”
Whitman recorded and engineered Weekends all on its own, resulting in a product Vela and Johnson are clearly proud of. “It’s an honest and concise piece of work,” says Johnson in an unfamiliar serious tone, one suspended by the waiter who suddenly walks by and asks, “Oh, are you talking about The Muppets movie?”
But in between the crack-ups, the beer, pork and dip, what Whitman comes down to is this: They’ve been around for almost a decade. They’ve had seven national tours. They’ve played with Quiet Company, opened for Los Lonely Boys, Titus Andronicus, The Walkmen. They’ve built a loyal following of people who volunteer to hang up posters around town, who drive eight hours to watch them play and stand front row to be doused with Vela’s sweat. They work their asses off in between jobs—Vela teaches high school special ed and referees girls’ and boys’ basketball, Johnson instructs kayaking and owns a small business that makes soap—to pay for their music, to do what they love. And now, with Weekends done, Whitman wants to keep playing and wants to keep growing. “Our ultimate goal is to have a band we really like say, ‘Why don’t you come on the road with us?’ That way we get those unsuspecting crowds every night,” says Johnson. “You know, a lot of bands see that as putting in their dues, but that’s what we love: making fans. It’s the funnest thing you can do.”
“Oh yeah,” says Vela. “It’s great when you get people who say, ‘Let us buy you guys a round! Need a place to crash? My wife will make you breakfast!’” He raises his pint glass to the sky, in an act of appreciation.
Whitman plays its album release party Friday, April 13, at the ND in Austin. For more info, visit Do512.