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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

December 12, 2006
J. Russo of Hopewell and Bill Whitten of Grand Mal have been friends since the 90's when they met through a series of shady circumstances involving their former bands. The following is their discussion of life, rock and roll and Grand Mal's new album.
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J. Russo: So, you have a new album out, Love is the Best Con in Town, on the indie label New York Night Train. It's the fourth release under the moniker Grand Mal. Prior to that there were three releases with the grunge-era St. Johnny... So my question is: Why don't you have a beard?

Bill Whitten: The reason I don't have a beard is because I can't grow one. I can't even grow sideburns. Now, if I could I would have a big ass beard and I would faithfully replicate the look of the lumpen-hippie circa 1968-1972. You know the look I'm talking about; the one that was inspired by the Cuban Revolution, by Che [the guy on the t-shirt] and Fidel living and fighting in the mountains for years without recourse to shaving, bathing or the services of a good barber. Because that's the reason the hippies had long hair and beards. They were imitating Marxist guerillas. Although, I'm sure that influence was probably forgotten by the fall of 1968... By the time the Beatles grew beards...

Obviously I'm bitter about the beard thing. I walk down any street in my neighborhood and I see five guys who look like Dennis Wilson and five more that look like Carl Wilson circa 1971...

But you know I cangrow a moustache. So maybe someday I will grow one and in my own small way I can pay homage to that famous American leftist, Mike Stivic, the son in law of Archie Bunker...

Lyrics seem to be the most important part of a Bill Whitten song. What are the influences? Books? Films? Or just rock music? By the way, I just finished "A Flag for Sunrise" by Robert Stone, a book that you lent me. Such a devastatingly great novel!

Whew, Robert Stone - what a misanthropic genius! His characters are always deeply flawed, complex people caught between pulverizing forces. I love his books, except for the one about yachting. And you can keep "A Flag for Sunrise" - I bought it for my brother for Christmas, but it turns out I had already given it to him for his birthday. And, yes, I am influenced by lots of great modern writers like Don Delillo, Robert Stone, Lou Reed - all the usual suspects. Is it obscene for me to say this since I am just some marginal rock guy and they are towering figures? Their art has always given me a good reason to get out of bed in the morning... now more than ever, in this time of brutality and decadence, a person needs inspiration. Don't you think? Anyways, as to how I write songs...These days I usually come up with a riff that doesn't sound like it was stolen from anybody that I am aware of, and then a vocal melody on top of that, and finally the lyrics. There is a lot of wordless chanting into the microphone before I ever get any lyrics. My neighbors must wonder what's going on in my apartment: Is that glossolalia I hear? Is Bill a charismatic Christian?The words often run through my head during the day when I'm riding the subway or washing dishes or working at my job.

Holding a copy of the new Grand Mal album aloft -- Do you play the piano?

Yes, it's obvious that I have converted to piano-ism. All you have to do is look at the cover of the album and there I am, sitting like a douchebag at a piano. If you're a rock and roll person and you sit down at a piano... I think the first impulse is to play something that sounds like the Motley Cre song, "Home Sweet Home." So you have to be careful. But anyways - isn't it the point that you are supposed to change and grow as an 'artist' - even if your 'art' is rock and roll? I can make up riffs on the piano that are a lot more interesting to me than something that I would make up on guitar. And, since I don't know music theory or anything, the piano is very mysterious to me...It's filled with strange colors and rhythmic possibilities.

Holding a copy of the new Grand Mal album aloft, makes a fist and raises it threateningly -- Why should a person buy this album?

Well, it's catchy - in a kind of Lou Reed meets the Beach Boys sort of way.

What's this crap about 'Love being the best con in town'? What the hell do you mean?

I mean that in a purely positive way. If you need to con yourself into staying alive, you know - if you need a good reason to live...Well, love is better than say, drugs or religion or political ideology. Whereas, the song "The Best Con in Town" takes the termination of a love affair and treats it as if it were a criminal partnership that has come to an end... kind of using crime as a metaphor for love...

Is that apt? Is love really like crime? Do you mean that a serial monogamist is like a career criminal?

Fuck, I don't know... it's just a rock song! But it can seem like criminal behavior at times, don't you think?

Looking down at his prepared questions, which are written on a matchbook cover -- Were you popular with the ladies in high school?

Whispering -- I can't remember...

Did you play sports?

Life didn't begin for me until after I flunked out of college. I don't see why people would ever go to a high school reunion or look back fondly on high school; I was still in a larval state then, barely conscious, barely alive.

What would you like a fan or potential fan to know about Grand Mal that isn't widely known? Conversely, what would you not want them to know?

I can shoot 10 rounds into a playing card at 100 yards. In answer to your second question; my life is an open book.

What about that time at the Rhinecliff Hotel...

Well, some of the pages have been torn out.

I guess the one other question I would ask is for you to talk a little about the fact that you pulled members of local Brooklyn bands in for your project. How did that affect the music, if at all? Were you able to get more of your idea's out and done because you didn't have to navigate the usual band politics or was it the reverse; were the players harder to work with because they had less investment in the project? Care to mention any of the bands they play in?

I was lucky enough to get my talented friends to contribute to the album. All 22 of them. It of course inspired me that people who are in bands that I dig... must have liked what I was doing enough that they would freely give their time and effort. People like you and your band-mate, Rich Meyer, would come over to my house and then...well it was like getting Christmas presents or something whenever I hit the playback button. I met most of the guys who make up the current version of Grand Mal through your brother, Justin, of the Silent League, who introduced me to Mike Fadem, the drummer in the Silent League, and many others - including Mason Dixon and The Jealous Girlfriends - who in turn introduced me to lead guitarist Mike Robertson [the leader of Mason Dixon]. And then there's Dave Sherman of GoodbyeGirlFriday, who played most of the piano on the record and is in the live band... Kevin Thaxton of the Winter Pageant... Joanaspolicewoman, Parker Kindred, Mark Ephraim - all added amazing shit.

Final question: What are you listening to these days?

Kevin Coyne's "Marjory Razorblade", John Phillips' "John, the Wolfking of LA", Hopewell's "The Notbirds EP", Mason Dixon's "Hurry through the Night", Wigwam's "Being", Procul Harum's "Broken Barricades." I listen to records over and over until I hate them. I can play a song like a thousand times in a row...

SEE ALSO: www.grandmal.com
SEE ALSO: www.hopewell.tv
SEE ALSO: www.lostatsea.net/feature.phtml?fid=127998765442f3a2ff3c11d

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