2006: SPOTLIGHT ON...
The Gospel According
I was helping Grand Mal's Bill Whitten make a web site, I couldn't
help but notice that his prose is almost as masterful as his songwriting
skills. His in-depth bio made for some excellent reading and some
stellar listening. I've decided to share a preview of Bill's story
and accompanying music before it finds its permanent home on his
is the moniker for the prolific post-St. Johnny project of one of
my favorite songwriters, Bill Whitten. The last decade or so he's
been throwing down album after album of serious language and heavy
duty rock'n'roll that, when compiled, reads like a classic existential
novel of self-destruction, betrayal, alienation, and, particularly
of late, redemption. Don't get me wrong, it ain't all that bleak.
His tales are always told with no shortage of wit and are often
nostalgic, hedonistic, or romantic in other ways. Like Richard Hell,
Dennis Johnson, Lou Reed, Hubert Selby, Jim Carroll, and others
who have succeeded in mapping similar territory, Whitten's subjects
tend to be figures from the underside of contemporary urban life,
but are increasingly of a more universal nature. His approach varies
- from dry and subtle to exaggerated and satirical to highly personal
and melodramatic. These narratives are typically d
elivered on top
of tastefully-composed concise songs that, over time, have evolved
from dissonant fuzz to technological glam to classic r'n'r to his
current more sophisticated somewhat chamber-pop model. As you'll
see by the audio samples, despite Bill's restless stylistic shifts
and tendency towards experimentation, he retains a very distinct,
inimitable sound and general aesthetic.
Johnny, who Sonic Youth signed to Geffen, imploded in 1995, Whitten
high-tailed it to NYC and created Grand Mal. He continued to record
with St. Johnny producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips,
etc.), on a couple of landmark indie rock records for No. 6. Soon
he got swiped up by Slash/London and wound up mostly working the
UK, as Maledictions (1999) was stuck in a corporate legal
tar pit as Seagram’s purchased Slash/London's parent company
PolyGram and soon sold it to Universal Entertainment. Not long after
the label dissolved for good, Arena Rock Recording Co released the
hyper r'n'r Bad Timing in 2003 (featuring multi-instrumental
tracks by the Flaming Lips' Stephen Drozd). Though the press in
particular loved the album, Bill soon found it difficult keeping
a steady lineup together. He did however take advantage of the free-time
- realizing some of the best songs of his career at home with musician
friends like longtime Mal drummer Paker Kindred (current Antony
and the Johnsons, Adam Green, etc.), Joan Wasser (Joan as Policewoman),
plus members of Hopewell, The Fame, The Silent League, and many
more. In his words:
is one of the luxuries you have when you have no label, no band,
no manager, no lawyer, no budget, no fans, and no time limit.
You can pull back and return to the drawing board; you can call
for an aesthetic do-over.
Grand Mal recording not co-produced and engineered by Dave Fridmann,
Love Is The Best Con In Town was however "mastered
by the master himself" at Tarbox Road Studio. The piano-based
LP is more stripped down and less bombastic than previous Grand
Mal efforts – he was aiming at a collision of "early
Todd Rundgren, Holland-era Beach Boys, Hunky Dory,
and the laid back swagger of classic Grand Mal-style r’n’r"
- and succeeded quite well.
me a copy of the demos and I wound up listening to them over and
over on an overseas flight, and, when I launched the New York Night
Train label, immediately begged Bill to let me put it out. What
makes me even more biased is that I actually did about five years
in the band (1998 - 2003). I of course don't care. The reason that
I both write about, and now put out, music, is to try to get people
hip to my favorite stuff. And that of course includes many of my
friends' bands. And I see no conflict in the fact that Bill is one
of my best friends and his is one of my favorite bands - it somehow
makes all of this even more worthwhile to me and is what this site
and my label are all about.
I hope you wind up as into Bill and his Grand Mal project as I am.
interested in checking the Mal out soon, Whitten has also assembled
an impressive new incarnation with members of New York up-and-comers
like The Silent League, Great Lakes, Mason Dixon, and Stars Like
Fleas. They play out quite regularly. Also, if you want to get a
copy of the new record, you can order it here.
to Part 1 of Bill's memoirs
Go to NYNT's Grand Mal feature home