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Beneath the top hat and sunglasses that singer/songwriter Dylan Whitlow wears, an alter ego crafts blues-inspired lyrics and guitar riffs. Carefully toeing that narrow line between madman and genius keeps the spirit of The Static Trees fresh while retaining the wisdom passed down by generations of blues writers. For such a young band to create such well-thought-out lyrics takes a touch of eccentricity, and Whitlow taps into the energy, thoughts, and desires of his alter ego to develop more complex situations, passions, and pains than he has yet had the time to personally experience.
“It may sound a little silly, but I’ve got this alter ego for myself that I call Abraham Lennon. We were playing a show once where this guy in the audience drew a caricature of me wearing a pair of round, John Lennon style glasses and a top hat. Underneath the picture he wrote, ‘Abraham Lennon.’ Those are two people who inspire me. Every time I pick up an instrument, he comes out. To me, he’s like an old blues singer from the 1940s. He comes up with a lot of the stories, especially those with the more bluesy lyrics and guitar riffs.”
Whitlow makes it known that he enjoys blues music, and that music from the ’60s comprises a majority of what he currently listens to – on vinyl, as much as possible. “I listen to blues music, and old rock and roll from the ’60s. I prefer vinyl for the sound of it, the texture of it. I like the experience of vinyl with the bigger artwork and the back story written on the back panel. I feel like downloading an album steals that experience of getting to really know the artist as well,” says Whitlow.
A Bob Dylan or Beatles approach cements the tone and feel of what Whitlow wants for The Static Trees, but what pervades is a sentiment of contentment, actually. The lyrics in “Come On” find the narrator calling his muse to “blow off obligations” and “stay until the sun burns out,” which speaks to an air of tension and uncertainty, but the guitar work feels carefree and fun.
The closing track on the duo’s recent EP Necessary Risks, “Angelique,” did take Whitlow on a different path. He explains, “Writing music comes easy to me. Most of the time, I come up with a riff and set lines to it. Music and the melody come naturally, but I think about the lines a few at a time, trying to get them to say something. With ‘Angelique,’ the closing track, I didn’t follow the same sort of path; it isn’t a blues song at all. I had been listening to The Velvet Underground, and their slower song ‘Jesus.’ I had detuned my guitar while playing around with that song. The lyrics to ‘Angelique’ came quickly without metaphor or rhyme. The whole thing came out of me in about 30 seconds – the first things that came to my head. It might have been the first love song I ever wrote.” The sweet sentiments, “I just want to make music with you” and the blatant chorus, “Yeah, I love you, I swear to God you’re part of me and I’m part of you,” speak to a dawn of horizons for Whitlow, and his musical partner in the ’Trees, Nikki Barber. If he wears the top hats, she wears the boots.
The raw sound characterized by bands like The Velvet Underground may have left a bit of a bad taste in Whitlow’s mouth after going through a more extensive, professional recording process with producer Dustin Kirkendall. Whitlow says, “The one complaint I would have with Necessary Risks is that it sounds too produced to me. I like a more edgy, raw kind of sound.”
Before meeting Kirkendall, who was a judge for a showcase The Static Trees played, Whitlow had written over 70 original songs. According to Whitlow, he wrote a song that he wanted to hear sung by a female lead. “It was sort of a spur-of-the-moment decision; out of the blue I asked if she [Nikki Barber] wanted to sing it. She did, and we liked it. Now when we play, we usually have a full band with us; it’s not just the two of us.” When asked how his songwriting process changed after Barber started singing, Whitlow says, “I write songs from a female perspective more often now, which is different. I think we got lucky because I love the blues and she was good at singing the blues, so we’ve gotten much bluesier as we’ve progressed.”
The dynamic of being in a relationship with a member of the band comes with its pros and cons: “An obvious pro is the natural chemistry onstage. In front of big crowds we work well together and feed off each other,” Whitlow explains. Stylistic differences that may cause tension in songwriting could be seen as a con, but as Whitlow says, “While I love the blues, Nikki seems to lean a bit more on alternative rock or punk. That can cause a ripple in our music, but doesn’t really get in the way of our relationship.”
The showcase that introduced The Static Trees to producer Kirkendall set more into motion than just Necessary Risks. When Whitlow self-funded the trip to Nashville for the showcase, he further cemented the desire to move The Static Trees to the Music City. “It felt like I was a part of a community where people value creating music. For them, it seemed as common as going to church on Sunday, and the fact that music was a part of their everyday life made more of an impact on me.”
The title of the EP stands out as perfectly suited to the position The Static Trees find themselves in. Whitlow says, “We are planning to move to Nashville; we have a four-person band now and our newest member won’t be able to move until June. We’re also trying to plan a tour in June, so we might not move until the fall if the tour works out.” The title, Necessary Risks, comes recycled from one of the earlier-recorded songs. Whitlow says that the band does pull from the older repertoire for live shows, especially when a gig calls for a three or four hour set, but they knew this song wouldn’t be used again on the professionally recorded EP. “I always think about re-releasing older material, but there’s a lot more creativity involved with the newer songs. ‘Necessary Risks’ was actually the title to a song on our very first album. We thought it would be clever to re-use the title because of our situation. We’ve always been very self-reliant, and able to do so much by ourselves, but with Necessary Risks we allowed a producer to take us to Nashville to record, produce, and promote it.”
While Whitlow admits an enduring love of the blues and claims to draw his inspiration from it, the music of The Static Trees follows more of an upbeat style than what classic blues calls for. Blues inserts itself into a great majority of popular music and artists as varied as Metallica to Blind Melon borrow from the genre while retaining disparate labels. The story of The Static Trees as a band, however, follows a more classic blues outline – at least as far as those who orient the blues with the story – telling of icons like Robert Johnson with his tale of selling his soul for the sound at the Crossroads.
Of icons from whom Whitlow draws inspiration, he says, “Salvador Dalí, Beethoven, van Gogh; these people have a very temperamental side, and stay on the borderline of having two personalities. Their outward eccentricity balances against their internal humanism. I get that; how somebody can be so human and so inhuman at the same time, and that inspires me.”
Songs on the EP like “Pearly Gates” and “The Road” qualify that need to strike on and take the risk to make the band successful. Whitlow says, “Touring can always be considered a necessary risk because of the financial commitment that may or may not work out as we hope. Moving to Nashville, where the music scene is better, also means a lot more competition.” The themes of finding one’s self or meeting up at the ‘pearly gates’ resonates with Whitlow’s personality. He even draws inspiration from events that mirror his future. “John Lennon is one of my favorite songwriters of all time, and he went to Germany with The Beatles. Moving from England to Germany feels a lot like moving from Pennsylvania to Tennessee to me.”
For a group so dedicated to that narrow path between madman and utter genius, a do-it-yourself approach feels more comfortable for the band. Whitlow says The Static Trees don’t currently have a great deal of professional help with publicity for the EP because the recording process took much longer than he thought. When asked about how the band plans to tour, Whitlow explains, “Nikki and I both have jobs and we’re saving up for a touring vehicle; a giant van kind of thing. We are hoping to team up with other bands in local cities that need opening bands. We want to head South, then maybe over to Texas, and loop back up North.”
Whitlow lives, breathes, and wears his art. The inspiration he draws from Salvador Dalí calls him to live as eccentrically as possible. Whitlow says Dalí is “one of my heroes. I love the whole mad genius sort of thing. His eccentricity – I live a rather eccentric life, as well. I feel like he inspires me to be more eccentric in my lifestyle, which influences my songwriting.”
Though, as with any artist, musician, or writer who treads that thin rope between outward insanity and internal struggle, Whitlow remembers to harness a feeling of catharsis from his music. When asked about the fine line between the eccentric, mad genius and the real-life pain of people like Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain, Whitlow responds with, “I hope I can push myself to walk that line without ever falling off of it. I just feel it’s sad.”
Scribbling between the lines and making a plan while on the road characterizes The Static Trees. The release of Necessary Risks fired up the move to tour the Southeast, and hopefully a move to Nashville with its larger music scene. Beneath Whitlow’s top hat and inside of Barber’s boots comes a powerful force that certainly won’t remain static.
Photos by Gina Binkley