Who can forget that exquisite debut album by Jeff Whalen’s band, Tsar? Released at the very end of the nineties, when the golden age of underground guitar music, heralded in by Jellyfish and Beagle ten years before, was still blazing merrily away like there was endless tomorrows.
There were so many truly great albums from that time, so much new musical treasure to swim in on a weekly basis, that we were so spoilt for choice it was astounding. Yet when that first Tsar album appeared on Capitol, everyone put down what they were doing and stood in silent awe, gobsmacked at the multilayered pop genius on display.
To this day, that album remains a stone cold classic that every single one of you should own. Then, of course, it all went wrong from there. Big labels already had a depressing track record of not knowing what to do with real talent when it falls into their laps (Falkner, Wanderlust, Michael Penn, Daryll Ann… etc etc) and Capitol were ultimately no different. Soon enough Tsar found themselves in that frustrating place of huge critical acclaim with little commercial success.
Psychologically it must be like being utterly smitten by a wonderful woman. who thinks you’re the sweetest man she’s ever known and she loves you but….not in that way. Yes, you still have something wonderful in your life, it’s just not as wonderful as you desperately hoped and foolishly dreamt it could be. It’s a heart breaking place to be for any band and takes some getting your head around.
Tsar disappeared for four long years and when the second album arrived, with a new line up, it was far heavier and brasher and not at all what the faithful wanted at all. But now three quarters of Tsar and two new members have returned as The Brothers Steve with a brilliant new record and we could not be happier if we tried. Time to jump around with the marvellous Jeff Whelan and get the low down on this new high. Strap yourselves in because this is going to be great.
What are your earliest memories of first getting into music?
"I was just talking to my mom about that the other day! She was saying that when I was a little guy I was obsessed with “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad.” That I’d sit in the car singing it over and over. All the livelong day, I guess. Solid song. I don’t actually remember that, though.
I remember liking “Bingo.” Now that’s a great fuckin’ song. Great clap hook. “Clap clap N-G-O,” you know? Spelling hook. Tremendous song. I always assumed it was the dog that was named Bingo, but thinking about it now, it could just as easily be the farmer who was named Bingo. “Was a farmer, had a dog, and Bingo was his name-o.” The farmer, right? But Jesus, name-o. Incredible."
Which music artists first made you sit up and take notice?
"Probably Neil Diamond? We were a born-again Christian household at the time, but my mom and stepdad had Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits album, that silver one and when I was 6 or 7, I’d play that all the time. “Cracklin’ Rose” was my main cut, though it’s all strong.
KISS, Elton John, ELO, ABBA. They all made big impressions on me when I was a little guy, though that was strictly on weekends at my dad’s place. I remember being so freaked out by “Fire on High” by ELO, driving around with my dad. Scary track for a kid. Still scary to me as an adult, actually."
When did you start playing an instrument?
"I was in my first year in college and I asked my by-then semi-somewhat-estranged dad for a guitar for my birthday and he mailed a super-cheap acoustic guitar to my dorm room. Along with the guitar, he sent a chocolate cake that had a bullet on top, in the frosting, like where you’d put a candle. A real bullet for a gun. On the cake. He’s not at all a gun guy, so when I called him to thank him for the guitar, I asked him what he was going for with the bullet. He said “Cuz you’re 18 with a bullet.”
When did you start writing songs?
"Right away after I got the guitar! I learned some chords from a Beatles songbook I got from a thrift store, a great way to learn how to play guitar, by the way and wrote a song called “The Trout Will Walk The Earth.”
I started a band, or at least we called it a band, with a couple guys on my floor. We were called Chipp, with two Ps. We always said it that way, so it’s possible that people thought that was our actual name: Chipp With Two Ps. I dunno. I’m pretty sure no one gave it much thought.
We had me on guitar, another guy on guitar and a guy with a Casio keyboard, which also served as our rhythm section. Some of the songs were pretty catchy. I remember “The Color That Is Blue” and “Let’s Rock Tonight” as being pretty good. We acted like it was all a joke, but I was secretly genuinely excited by it all.
After my freshman year, I transferred to UC Santa Barbara and there was a fun, vibrant band/party scene there. Lots of backyard parties with bands. You’d walk around and hear some band playing and walk in and check them out. Joke bands, stoner bands, cover bands, art bands, the punk and metal bands. Most of the groups did originals and the songs were surprisingly good, or so it seemed to me. It all felt arty and fun and rock and roll and I totally wanted to be part of it.
I was in a bunch of bands at school, with a forerunner of The Brothers Steve being my first “real” band. None of the groups I played with tried to “make it” or anything. I remember one time a girl who worked at Capitol Records was at one of our backyard shows and she gave us her card and told us she’d love for us to come down to LA and play. We totally didn’t know what to do about it. We were way too intimidated to go play an LA club, so we didn’t do anything.
When we finally moved to LA with the big “OK! Let’s do it for realsies” attitude, I still didn’t know what to do. Dan (from Tsar) and I moved to LA and got office temp jobs, which we then quit. We would just sit in our apartment and play Scrabble and smoke and listen to music. We were supposed to be trying to find guys to be in a band with us, but we didn’t know anybody and we were shy so we just ultimately ended up doing demos in the apartment by ourselves, calling ourselves Drug Boy.
The Drug Boy thing was a lot of fun. Liberating. It changed our sense of what we were doing and what we thought of our prospects. I don’t really know how or why, because we still didn’t know anybody, and we still were just two guys playing Scrabble and smoking. But suddenly, we thought we were great, like this thing was gonna be easy.
We were relaxed and laughing and ready to have a good feckin’ time getting feckin’ signed. It definitely was that in period that we thought we were on to something, somewhere in the writing of “Ordinary Gurl” or “Kathy Fong,”in there. Drug Boy."
Talk about the brilliant first album, how it came about, the buzz around it, how it felt finally recording an album in a big studio with a producer. The songs you used and those that got left off. The frustration of it being a critical success, but commercially not so much, despite your best efforts to promote it. I suppose it is just down to luck sometimes and nothing more?
"First of all, thank you! Yeah, that thing flopped pretty good back in the day. Before that, though, everything had been going easy-peasy. I mean, getting signed was maybe the easiest part of the whole experience. We had only played a handful of shows when A&R guys started their charm offensive. We had a buncha-buncha meetings with labels and we went with Hollywood Records since Rob Cavallo seemed super-excited about wanting to produce the record.
Those days were fun, but they were very, very strange, too. Almost surreal. Like living in a different world. Like, you know how now seems like an alternate timeline? Like somewhere around 2015 or 2016, we got shifted into a different kind of world, with Trump and Brexit and everything? Nothing makes sense? Like maybe some scientist from the future travelled back in time, you know, just to observe something or whatever and they accidentally stepped on a butterfly or something and it disturbed the regular chain of events. It altered reality and now we live here and it’s different and we can’t explain it? OK, so for me, getting signed and making the first Tsar record was like a personal version of that, but the fun, glam rock version of it.
Anyways, so now we had the opportunity to make a big-budget, super-produced version of the Drug Boy stuff. We didn’t really write any new songs for it, I think just “Suicide,” which didn’t end up going on the US record actually. We just focused on rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing and getting everything down as tight and solid as we could. I think for all our supposed swagger at the time, we were probably all experiencing imposter syndrome, too.
I think we thought if we prepared and prepared and tried really hard, we could maybe pull it off. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to look back and wish that I’d tried harder. It’s weird. When you’ve never done anything fully fleshed out before, just demos and whatever, you don’t really know how good you’re supposed to be, you know? You don’t know what the goal is.
So we put all we had into that first record, and for sure, we thought we had something there when it was done. Like, who could deny this record? All the label people and all the industry types were so excited about it and all the early feedback was so strong. So when it came out to crickets, we were stunned, thoroughly bewildered, and it was awful. We didn’t know what to think or what to say to each other or what to say to people we knew or how to act around strangers.
It bombed, brother. I mean, we toured and stuff, played on TV, had our mini-triumphs for sure and it was really, really fun at first, but cut to a few months after that and I’m moving back home with my mom and stepdad."
There a big gap between the first album and the second album and when it finally arrived it was a bit of a shock with its drastic change in musical direction. I’ll state now that it really wasn’t my cup of tea. What was the rationale behind this? Had you lost faith in what you had been doing up to then, because of the lack of commercial success and were looking for a different audience that might be large enough to keep you going. Taking a different run at this?
"Yeah, Band-Girls-Money is a funny one. There are things about it that I’m really proud of. At the time, the record made sense to us. It’s how we were playing at the time. At heart, it was a comic, but oh-so-deadly-serious way of “processing” our impossible-to-understand feelings about what had happened with the first record. Considering how bad we felt at the time, and with our confidence shot to hell, I’m kind of impressed with the band that we were able to make any kind of album at all.
But look, I mean, listening to the record now, I can see how fans of the first record might’ve been bummed out. God knows I’ve been nearly thrown into depression when an album I was looking forward to finally came out and wasn’t what I needed it to be.
Just last week, after The Brothers Steve practice, Dylan and I were talking about Guns N’ Roses’ "Use Your Illusion" and how intensely we had been looking forward to it. How, when it came out, we strangely tried to deny how disappointed we were. To ourselves and to everybody. We covered for it, you know? Tried to act like it was OK, this terrible disappointment, like Use Your Illusion was an abusive parent or something. We acted like it was OK. But it wasn’t OK. It wasn’t OK. We kept making excuses for it and trying to convince ourselves that it was what we deserved and they kept on ladling out the abuse. I mean, shit, we were just kids!
They made everybody deal with Use Your Illusion for years! They just kept making videos for it and touring and acting like it was OK to make the world deal with it and this just went on and on. Like, two years later, here’s the fuckin’ “Estranged” video, you know? Just awful, awful abuse.
Hopefully, Band-Girls-Money wasn’t like that for anybody. "
How does the song writing process work with you? Are you slow or prolific? Do you have times when the songs just pour out and other times when it’s like getting blood from a stone?
"Yes. All of that, yes."
So Tsar returned with an excellent ep and the promise of a new album to follow and then…
"Thanks! Yeah, I like the EP. We recorded it ourselves, which probably wasn’t a great idea for our relationships, considering that the band was just freshly back playing together again. The original plan was to have The Dark Stuff EP, which we did and then record a “light stuff” EP too, of poppier stuff, which we didn’t and then put them out together as an album. Which we didn’t."
So instead you make a solo album with the help of pledge music. How was that and why was Linus of Hollywood wisely chosen to produce it…where did the songs come from..were they written for the album or taken from archives or both. Lots of great feedback…the great lost pop genius returns all guns blazing sort of thing..how does that feel ?
"It feels good, actually! Yeah, Linus is tremendous. I’m kind of in awe of him as a creative force and I also like him a lot as a person-type person. We’d been aware of each other, but I don’t think we met until Tsar played some shows with Nerf Herder during The Dark Stuff period. We had a few good drunken conversations of the John-versus-Paul variety after shows. I made a mental note that it might be fun to record with him.
The album really was fun and easy to make. We worked hard on it, definitely, but it didn’t have that freaked-out, white-knuckle, the-world-hangs-in-the-balance intensity of the Tsar records. Maybe because we didn’t have a label or anyone with any expectations watching. Even the Pledge part of it didn’t come until after we’d already finished the thing.
Most of the songs I wrote specifically for the record, but there were a handful of tunes from before that I’d had in my back pocket. I’d been waiting for a good opportunity to take them out of my back pocket, if nothing else, just to make it more comfortable to sit down."
So we come to the Brothers Steve which pretty much cements your return to the pop world. Lots of praise from the press. How did it all come together and what does the future hold in store?
We got invited to play a party for some UC Santa Barbara friends from back in the day, so we rehearsed a bit and played the party. Then we said, well hell, we might as well make a record. Iit was a lot of fun. I really love those guys in the band, they’re like my best friends of my whole life. I wish Dan from Tsar could be part of it. I’d love for him to produce our next record, actually."
What would you say were your biggest influences right now?
"Probably my biggest influences are somebody really obvious, like the Beatles or Bowie or somebody. But lately I’ve been thinking about how inspired I’ve been by fake bands. Fake bands living in fake worlds. The Archies in Riverdale, or The Monkees in their version of Los Angeles. I mean, what’s the difference, ultimately, between them and some real band in a real place? Like one of those sci-fi deals where you have to ask the question, “why isn’t a robot a person?” Blade Runner or Black Mirror or something."
A lot of times, I’m super-excited by the fake bands within the “real” fake band’s universe, about The Monkees or Archies' rival bands or whatever. Like on The Monkees’ show, they’ll be friends or rivals or whatever with bands called The Foreign Agents or The Jolly Green Giants.
Those guys’ll be all dressed up like spies or Jolly Green Giants heading to the gig, right? Amazing. You never get to hear their music, but I’d buy all their records, if they had any. Like The Robots from Archie comics. They’re a band of robots. I’d totally buy all their records, right now. Same with the Cycle Tones from The Archies, they play on motorcycles. So I’ve been thinking a bit about that."
Thanks Jeff, great interview!
You can buy The Brothers Steve album on CD here or here or Vinyl here. Jeff Whalen's solo album is available here. You can buy The Dark Stuff EP from Lojinx here. Both Tsar albums are available from most online sellers.