Natural Rhythms

With sprawling riffs and lysergic jams, Whalebones are an anomaly in the Seattle scene.

The poet and naturalist Gary Snyder once said: "If you want to find nature, start where you're at." Nestled between two mountain ranges and perched alongside a gateway to the Pacific Ocean, Seattleites are given more opportunity to commune with nature than perhaps any other urban American dwellers. But this is still a city, and thus our connection to the natural world grows ever more frayed with each new condo-tower erection.

For Justin Deary, frontman of local mountain-jammers Whalebones, the distance between town and country is something he wrangles with daily. But when he wants to find nature amidst booming development, he turns to music.

"To me, playing music is a totally natural thing," says Deary, with the ease of a Zen master. "Playing with other people, I don't know how that happens. How it all comes together is a mystery to me, but it does, and it seems like a very organic thing to me."

The music of Whalebones is some of the most sprawling in Seattle today. In a way, they are an anomaly in the local scene. Because of their connection to the earth and roots in psychedelic jams, they have more to do with the freaked-out grooves of certain California and Vancouver, B.C., bands than they do the minor-key sobriety of most Seattle acts. With Deary lurching forward and back, his knees bouncing rapidly and guitar slung as if it were a chain saw, his movements summon the band to play inward like some kind of tribal affair.

On their eight-songSpirit Quest EP, tracks like "Don't You Know" and "Blood Bank" are built of giant riffs and foot-stomping drive. Elsewhere, on "Lady Fingers" and "Other Jungle," they summon the rootsy swagger of the Rolling Stones. Meanwhile, Deary's acoustic "Skeleton Land" turns morose and introspective, while "To Be a Dragon" leaps with the playful glam-blues of the New York Dolls.

It's a massive sounding EP, especially considering what little polish it's been given; and live, Whalebones turn those songs into riff-fueled beasts. With the wave-crashing drums of Jon Teneff, the steady bass of Nick Dewitt, and the razor-sharp classic-rock fills of guitarist Joram Young, Whalebones are indeed a force to be reckoned with. And with the addition of Deary's girlfriend, Amy Blashke, on harmony, a robust quality lifts Deary's twangy lead vocal.

I've seen Whalebones upstage Oakley Hall (no small feat) at the Tractor Tavern, and they've been reported to blow away audiences as openers for Canadian indie rockers Wolf Parade and Frog Eyes. Yet Deary would never look to outdo another band on purpose. He's far too humble for that. When commenting on his own music, Deary simply says: "I just want to make music that feels good and that people feel good listening to."

While Deary sings of nature, he's still no John Denver. Rather, his songs often reflect the damage human deeds can do. Chilling imagery abounds, such as earthquakes on "The Captain," ripping trees from an already barren landscape on "Skeleton Land," and telling of inner-city poverty and one man's attempts to feed his family in acid rocker "Blood Bank." On the latter, Deary's delivery suggests that it was not the man who was to blame for this poverty but rather the unforgiving city.

All the elements are in place for Whalebones to become a success. They are a ripping band with a couple good tours under their belt and a solid Seattle fan base. And they keep getting better. But while Deary is aware of how well things are going, he maintains his unwavering devotion to the land.

"If I had to choose between nature and music," he says. "I'd choose nature."

bbarr@seattleweekly.com

 
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