Giving It A WHRL: Experimental Duo Shoots For The Stars

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When Columbus, Ohio's WHRL opened the first night of Lobsterfest (ACRN's annual celebration of local music), the Ohio University student crowd wasn't sure what to make of them.

"Playing experimental music at a more traditional show is a fun experience because we're rarely what people expect," explained Matt Umland, one-half of the highly experimental duo. "Sometimes I like to imagine we're space aliens or time travelers bringing people music from faraway places."

After listening to the band’s latest effort, 99942 Apophis, it makes sense that Umland would liken the live experience to feeling a bit like an alien. WHRL is hard to put your finger on–which is precisely why the group is so interesting.

Umland, who claims that WHRL is "inspired by the progress of human civilization," is passionate about what the band draws from to create music. Turns out it's beautiful, powerful…and a little scary.

"It's powered by the ideals of modern science. Human understanding is still in its infancy, but growing more robust everyday," he said. "It is the knowledge and understanding that we have derived through science that has allowed us to peer into the vastness of what lies beyond Earth and what we see is at times inspiring. But there are very real threats to our safety amongst the beauty of our galaxy. This polarizing combination of awe, wonder, terror, power and helplessness is at the foundation of 99942 Apophis."

WHRL may seem a bit more brainy than most bands, but, when you take into consideration the complex and highly important place that humor and sincerity have within the definition of "rock n roll," WHRL’s more normal tendencies come to light.

Ty Owen, the other half of the outfit, started playing in Athens as an undergraduate at Ohio University several years ago. Throughout that time, he became familiar with Athens' many music venues, as well as the dynamics that make up the local music scene.

"I lived in Athens for about five years as a student and played in a bunch of different bands. Over that time I started to feel at home in certain venues," he explained. "The Union was a really important place to play…if your band didn't play The Union, you were probably garbage and sounded terrible. It wasn't so much the physical space but the community of musicians, promoters and staff that made that place important to me."

Although Owen came to know The Union in a particularly fond light, that doesn’t mean he didn’t develop affections for other venues in town.

"The Smiling Skull always feels right as well, probably because it's the only venue that I've ever had bottles thrown at me during a set. It's as close to a 'house show-feel' that you can get in a bar," he said.

WHRL might seem like a bit of an oddity to Athens audiences, but, really, when you closely examine what sort of music has regularly been made over the past several years, they clearly stem from an ever-present flow of experimental music.

"Some of the best music ever to come out of Athens is highly experimental," Umland noted, then proceeded to check off a lengthy list of offbeat, yet highly skilled, acts.

"Nyodene D, Blithe Field, anything Andrew Lampela will ever do (but especially WEEDGHOST and Dead Winds Of Summer), Jimmy Kisor's Goodbye Goats, Kid Panda Hands’ projects, Submarine Spaceship, Homemade Parachutes, Lowell Jacobs, Matthew Emmons, God Versus Satan and a million more I'm forgetting."

Those acts use all types of equipment to achieve their sound, and WHRL definitely uses their share of esoteric gear to create their soundscapes.

"Given the different equipment we have, we are each more capable of providing certain types of sounds," said Owen. "Matt generally plays polyphonic instruments and provides the large synth pads, droning organ tones and melody lines. I tend to create the more ambient soundscapes, harsher sounds, percussion and driving sequences."

So far, WHRL’s idiosyncratic discography has bucked the classic album format. Last February's Split Personalities was released as 28 floppy discs (26 black, one red, one blue), and Trapped, released one month later, was simply a 16-minute single-song download.

However, according to Umland, the duo is looking to streamline things for their next release.

"We're working on an album with more distinct structure and a more traditional recording process. It's an experiment and we're excited to see where this new approach will take us."

It’s hard to believe that the band’s upcoming release will be truly "traditional." And that's what makes the prospect of a new WHRL album so exciting.