The Wholetones' Alex Dorris Talks Bluegrass Jams Under a Bridge and Living at the Alamo
You wonder: What's that thrashing?
The sky is dark. The fields have gone silent. But there's a bonfire off in the distance, surrounded by vaguely human shapes and a furious funnel of sound -- acoustic axe, banjo, cello, upright bass, mouth organ.
This is the middle of nowhere and you've just stumbled upon four-man folkcore crew The Wholetones. They became friends under a bridge. They hang out in the woods a lot. And as Crossfade's already mentioned, they're all about "abusing acoustic intruments in pursuit of some perfect bluegrass-folk-metal hybrid."
This Thursday, The Wholetones bring that thrashing to the Crossfade music series at The Stage, alongside Everymen, Brain Chips, and Uncle Scotchy. So we asked singer and guitar guy Alex Dorris about Bridge Troll Meetings, dream jam sessions, and the Alamo.
Crossfade: The Wholetones is a band that was born at a bluegrass jam. What's the story? Where, when, how, and why did it happen?
Alex Dorris: There's a fishing village called Goodland just south of where I live. The population is probably 400 people, lots of fishermen and crusty old timers and such. Under the bridge that leads to it, there's this bluegrass jam every week. They're called the Bridge Troll Meetings. I basically learned to play there, and went every week for several years. Somehow, Taylor eventually found his way down there, where we met and played together. Him and some other guys were starting a band, so he asked me to play in it.
So the band Veggie Love was formed, gained and lost members, and we changed the name to The Wholetones to deter accusations of beings hippies and questions about whether we were vegetarians.
Eventually, it was down to me and Taylor playing as a duo, so we called my cousin Russ Depa to come play bass, and Mayo Coates, who had briefly played drums in Veggie Love years earlier.
Aside from legit clubs, it seems like your band might play almost anywhere -- basements, public parks, living rooms, picnics, backyards. Do you dig bringing music to unconventional spots?
We get pretty loud, so we might not fit in everyone's living room. But yeah, we'll certainly play anywhere people will listen. Our ideal setting seems to be rowdy metal and rockabilly spots and house shows.
Let's talk personal histories and musical backgrounds ... Prior to Wholetones, were you dudes country junkies, punks, metalheads, or what?
We all have extremely diverse tastes. But each band member kind of represents their own particular style. Mayo's a metal guy, and is largely responsible for that part of our sound. Russ is into lots of dub, reggae, and hip-hop. Taylor is the folk singer-songwriter lyricist. And I bring the instrumental jazz and bluegrass influence.
What is folkcore? Is it a movement with a manifesto? Is it fast and hard? Is it purely acoustic?
Folkcore is pretty much folk-type music, bluegrass, Americana, and whatnot, channeled through the intensity and energy and heaviness of metal. It's entirely on traditional acoustic instruments, such as banjo, cello, upright bass, etc.
If you think about each of those genres, they can be pretty brutal. Metal, obviously. All those coal mining and murder bluegrass songs. Protest folk music. So we end up with a pretty aggressive, harsh style. But we make it tasteful and dynamic enough that metalheads and elderly people like it equally. We've played at traditional bluegrass festivals, biker bars, metal house shows, and we usually get about the same response.
I wanna know about the blending of bluegrass, folk, jazz, and metal. It sorta sounds like a prescription for chaos. How do you harness and control that kind of complex mix? And what are the crossover points between all those different types of music?
I grew up listening to Steve Earle, Highland bagpipe music, Social Distortion, the Pogues, the Stray Cats, the Grateful Dead, Bob Marley, Hank Williams, and on and on. Just wildly varied music, all the time. And I believe it was about the same for all the other members.
So we try to distill all that down into what we think are the best parts of each genre. The rhythms and speed and power of metal, the freedom and unpredictability of jazz, the lyricism of folk music. But I think the undercurrent for it all is bluegrass. It's the common theme. There's always at least some hint of it throughout our songs.
Everyone needs heroes. What does The Wholetones' list of heroes look like? Which musicians, living or dead or fictional, would you invite to your dream jam sesh?
Bela Fleck. For me at least, he's the biggest single influence. Hank III's a big one, Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine, Meshugga, Trampled by Turtles, the Duhks, the Dodos. And more recently, our friends the Barons of Tang.
How about non-musical influences? What other stuff feeds The Wholetones' soul and sound?
For the past two years, we lived in a big two-story house way out in the woods. It's real run down and sketchy, and the property has 15 acres of woods. When we moved out there, we grew enormously as a band, from hanging out in the woods, playing music all the time, throwing house shows with hundreds of people. It inspired quite a lot of our music. We called the house the Alamo, and our next album is actually going to be titled after it.
Everymen, The Wholetones, Brain Chips, and Uncle Scotchy as part of Crossfade Presents The Local at The Stage. Thursday, July 28. The Stage Miami, 170 NE 38th St., Miami. The rager begins at 9 p.m. and admission is free. Go RSVP for the Crossfade Music Series via Facebook. Call 305-576-9577 or visit thestagemiami.com.
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