[Interview] The Whistles and the Bells Premiere Modern Plagues
Cover Photo: New West Records
I showed up to 3rd & Lindsley on Sunday evening for The Whistles and the Bells and was particularly excited, especially after I had the opportunity to talk to Bryan, the band’s creator. It was their record release show with Lightning 100, a local Nashville radio station, for Modern Plagues. He told me that the bones of the record had been finished an exact year prior to its release date of April 28.
I didn’t realize how much 3rd & Lindsley had changed since the last time I went there. The atmosphere and the added space is wonderful. The bar was somewhat crowded for a Sunday night, but that should speak for the talented musicians and creative lyrics that The Whistles & The Bells has. The band came out and opened up the show with “Head in the Sand” from the brand new record.
This man is the reason I play the mandolin the way I do. • • I received article no. 2 of my autographed auditory artifact collection today. I've been Bryan Simpson's biggest fan for a decade, from back in the Cadillac Sky days. His musical style may have changed, but so has his heart and spirit. Thanks, @thewhistlesandthebells for all your music and your testimony. They don't fall on deaf ears. #thewhistlesandthebells
What were the key factors in your creation of The Whistles and the Bells?
B: Basically just a spiritual awakening. Becoming a believer. Recognizing that I’m the created and there’s a creator, and all of the implications that come along with that in my life. Trying to sort of allow those to take precedence over my life. The struggles of faith and trying to believe in something bigger than me, more important than me. Trying to understand my role in humanity, my role in the universe, and things of that nature and difficulties I found with that.
One of the things, especially after becoming a believer in Jesus, I was struggling to find music that sort of tapped into what I was struggling with, which was this rocky road of faith. Opposed to the songs I would hear on the radio where they had created a sort of soundscape that wasn’t quite in tune with what I was going through trying to implement some new thoughts on old hardware. So I found that to be difficult. So I tried to write… well… I didn’t try to write. All of a sudden some songs started bubbling up to the top that certainly had a thread to them and operated as some sort of narrator to what I was trying to deal with. There’s a lot of the old me left and was trying to live in this way of honoring God and in doing so was honoring of my fellow human beings, you know, my neighbor. Trying to love well and think of other people besides myself.
That’s something that’s hard to learn.
B: My default mechanisms are always, definitely, to think of me first and everybody else second. So the last about nine years now, I’ve been trying to deal and operate in that mindset.
You’ve said some really interesting things about what Modern Plagues is. Tell us what this record means to you?
B: These are songs about me and other people. These are wacky times. These are strange times and they’re sensitive times. I felt like making a full record that was strange, but possibly not overtly sensitive. For some odd reason, it doesn’t seem fiscally responsible of me, but I’m drawn to polarizing topics and drawn to talk about them and they’re on both sides of the ledger. We’re kind of all sleeping on this sort of very bumpy bed of contradictions on a nightly basis and we don’t see it. There are a few songs that definitely sort of speak about that stuff.
I don’t know how to explain the new record to be honest with you. I constantly am like every day is the oldest I’ve ever been. There are parts of me that are like what are the responsibilities of me? I’m sort of at that intersection of still wanting to watch TV and just listen to music, but at the same time there’s obviously this huge responsibility to actively pursue justice and actively fight against wrongdoings in the world. Trying to figure out where I sit in that. Some days I feel I can just get apathetic towards everything especially with everything being, especially the last few years, kind of upside down.
The music video for “Harry Potter” was very interesting. Tell us about it.
B: I had this idea for it. I sort of get in a wrestling match with a vending machine. It’s strange. Most things in life that you really, really, really want bad, once you get them they never live up to what you expected them to be. That’s kind of what the music video is about. It’s just about expectations. I guess that’s what the video is about. I told Joshua Shoemaker I wanted to do that, make a video with a vending machine, and somebody getting in this wrestling match with it. He was like, 'Okay, let’s buy a vending machine.' He actually still has the vending machine in his house, which is awesome. He ended up buying the vending machine. So, that’s pretty cool. Having a vending machine in your house is pretty awesome. It reminds me of Big. Do you remember that movie, Big, with Tom Hanks? Joshua had the coke machine in his apartment.
You have written several songs for country music artists such as Blake Shelton and Brad Paisley. How do you juggle The Whistles and the Bells along with writing for other artists?
B: I don’t know. It’s funny. I have no good answer to this question for sure. I’m writing for all kinds of other artists. I look at it as a math equation a lot of times to try to write something, to try to carve out words and music that’s going to work on such a commercial level. I think that’s kind of interesting and it’s own challenge. When I write The Whistles and the Bells I am the only sculptor for the most part. It’s what I want to sing and there’s really no boundaries to the music. When you’re writing commercial music for other genres and of course there’s limitations and walls, and you’ve got to work within those limitations. I found that interesting.
I write for all kinds of genres. I just happened to have a couple of songs that landed in the country music vein. Glen Ballard is somebody I remember reading about and his success in different genres of music. I found that super interesting, and why not? A part of me some days is like, man, I should never do that again. Maybe that’s not cool or something like that. I like making different kinds of music. You have the ability to try to enter into someone else’s world and help them craft a song that’s going to speak to what they want to sing about. At the same time, with The Whistles & The Bells, I obviously have this in a full-fledged beast; release the hounds.
Was this your first year playing at SXSW and how did you like it?
B: We actually played last year, but it was in such a small venue. This year might as well be our first year. Last year we were in between records and went out there and played. Obviously, with things buzzing around the new record maybe there was a bigger ripple made this time. Yeah, it was pretty good. It was fun. I mean we played the Continental Club, which is this old sort of western swing hardcore country club down there in Austin, which is an odd fit for what we do. That was interesting. I love odd strange fits. I was probably, as a child, trying to put the square block in the circle hole. It was really enchanting. I thought there was something interesting about that.
I’m still kinda trying to do that I like the idea of taking music from different places that don’t necessarily seem like the perfect fit. I like making music that seems to contradict. Like this music looks like that or this music sounds like that. And I’m like eh, perhaps. Perhaps it does sound like that, but it doesn’t have to be shaped with these instruments. Perhaps we can use these instruments in this genre and it can be based upon the song. It can sort of open up a new vein for something that maybe hasn’t taken place yet. That sounds pretentious, but I’m sure it’s all taken place.
You’re from Texas, was playing at SXSW kind of like a homecoming at all?
B: Well, I got to go home to my mama’s house and sleep in the bed back in the room she kind of keeps reserved for me when I wanna come home and crash. It’s got some old pictures and stuff like that on the wall. It’s got a little bit of a small shrine. It’s relatively uncomfortable. I didn’t actually get to go home on the way there. It’s about three hours after that to get to Austin, so it was just for one night, but it’s always good to get home.
I understand the shrine. I think a lot of parents might have those.
B: Possibly, without a doubt. It’s fun though. I like that kind of love. It’s that deep bias that’s pretty awesome. There’s not enough of that going around, to be honest with you. I wish there more of that. Me and you are obviously blessed to have parents that love us well.
You’re sort of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to the music industry. You’re a singer/ songwriter who doubles as a producer and you can play multiple instruments. What is something you wish to learn?
B: Jack-of-all-trades; Master of none. I’m trying to learn the piano. I’m starting to take lessons in piano. I played when I was four or five years old for about six months. Then I gave it up to start playing other instruments like the guitar and stuff like that. I would like to be proficient. The problem is that I have really small short stubby fingers kind of like breakfast sausages. So it’s going to make things very difficult. I need those sort of skeleton hands that are long, but I don’t have those. I’m thinking it’s going to be problematic, but I push forward anyway.
Well tonight I got out to see my brother @theasalanedrums tear it up at his cd release show with @thewhistlesandthebells in Nashville. If you're a drummer or into vintage drums and you don't follow this guy, you're missing out. Plus he's a great friend! - - #sugarpercussion #nashville #drummer #drums #vintagedrums #thewhistlesandthebells
During the show, I felt like I was taken on the same spiritual journey that Bryan had spoken of. I could see every relationship and situation play out in front of me. The emotional roller coasters that the songs lyrically brought me through, paired with their brutally honest performance, created a journey within itself. Despite what I was told, the album is extremely dancey at times. If I wasn’t sober, I would have been up and dancing around the room. I would even go as far to say that it was sort of like a revival was happening right in front of me, in a good way. At one point, Bryan took to the side of the stage with no microphone and began singing his heart out to the crowd. It was such an authentic moment and we could truly hear how talented he is vocally. The band went on to play many more songs. Some from the latest record, Modern Plagues, were “Harry Potter” and “Highlight Reel.” The live show may have been even better than a recorded version. Alas, I can’t attend every single Whistles & Bells show so I’ll have to buy a copy and make due.
Catch The Whistles & The Bells on The Freak Out Tour. You won’t be disappointed. You can check cities and purchase tickets here.