Unnatural Helpers' Yacht Rock

Looking toward shore from Andrew Sullivan's sailboat, the quartet makes Land Grab.

On the first chilly day after weeks of heat and sunshine, the four members of the local punk-pop band Unnatural Helpers board their bassist Andrew Sullivan's sailboat, the USS Malagueña—named after the Trashmen's surfy version of the traditional Mexican folk song—and set sail from Lakewood Moorage in Seward Park. It's the first time the band has voyaged together, an event meant to celebrate the last blast of summer, but the weather's not cooperating. Sullivan mans the wheel and calls out orders to his bandmates: drummer/vocalist Dean Whitmore and guitarists Andrew Greager and Johnnie Heinz. Within minutes, a gust of wind abruptly blows the boom over, knocking over Whitmore's can of beer and conking Heinz in the head.

"That's my first bonk on this boat. I was hoping for a bonkless season," says Sullivan. "But if anyone can take it, it's Haymaker Heinz." They decline to explain the nickname. "That's a really ugly story," is all Heinz will disclose. On his left leg, the red-headed guitarist has tattoos of a slug, a puzzle piece, a log, and a Modern Lovers heart. His bandmates refer to him as "Merch Table Johnnie": Heinz doesn't have a driver's license, so he's made to man the merch table to make up for skimping on driving duties on tour.

Also on board is Whitmore's 9-year-old daughter, Cassidy, who goes by Cass and calls her dad "Dude." She sports a Hello Kitty bikini and a bright-orange-and-yellow hair extension that she got a couple weeks ago at Bumbershoot after watching her father play. "Yeah, I think it's pretty cool," she says of her dad's music, then goes back to playing with his iPhone.

Whitmore, the singing drummer, is the band's founder. He originally played with lineups that included Kimberly Morrison of The Duchess and the Duke, ex-Catheters Charles Leo Gebhardt IV and Brian Standeford, and Chris Martin of Kinski. But around the time that Unnatural Helpers' 2010 Hardly Art debut Cracked Love & Other Drugs came out, all Whitmore's bandmates left the group to focus on other bands or careers, and he quickly assembled the current lineup.

"It's changed," he says. "I used to be the authoritarian. I used to be the guy, I wrote all the songs. It's gotten a lot looser." Case in point: Three songs—"Hate Your Teachers," "Toil," and "You're Right"—on the band's new album, Land Grab, were conceived not by Whitmore but by Greager and Heinz. "[Having] three other songwriting influences was a big deal and both energizing and scary to me," says Whitmore. "I had to let go of a lot of control after eight years of having my way."

Greager and Heinz sit next to Whitmore, sipping Olympias, while Sullivan steadies the wheel with one hand and grips his beer with the other. "We're more into pop-punk; the last guitarists were more into psychedelic, good stuff," he says.

"Do you wish one of us would quit?" Greager asks Whitmore.

"No, I don't!" he answers sincerely.

 

Land Grab was written and recorded during one session in late 2010, and another nine months later after Whitmore had taken some time off. The songs are spastic and lively, but a pop mind-set shows in tracks like the opener, "Medication," which ends with a series of peppy "Ooo!"s, and "Over You," which chugs steadily as Whitmore proclaims, "The sun shines warm/The air breathes rare/Since we've been through." Much was made of Cracked Love's brevity—just 25 minutes. Clocking in at 30 minutes, 35 seconds, Land Grab is longer, but just barely. Ten of the 13 songs are under two minutes, and two are under three. "I Trust It Hurts" bursts in and out at 1:01. It's like riding a fast roller coaster that stops at the apex of its highest drop.

"We could play another chorus and write a bridge and another verse, but I think we'd all get bored. I find myself watching bands and being like, 'Ooo, that would've been the sweet spot, the height of involvement, to end it,' " says Whitmore. "We're pop fans. Nobody was asking Buddy Holly or the Beatles or the Kinks why their songs were only 1:48."

"And they're the best songs ever," adds Greager.

There is one epic song on Land Grab: "Julie Jewel," the nine-minute, 45-second tale of dying love ("I'm concerned we're permanent mates") that closes the album, but Whitmore says it was meant to be an anomaly. "That's just . . . we're just fucking off and jamming," he says.

 

It's the golden hour on Lake Washington. The sun is dipping down and the wind is whipping a little colder. Greager, Heinz, and Sullivan strip down, put a white captain's hat on Whitmore's head, and jump into the water. Heinz claims the water is warm, but he was hit in the head with an aluminum spar not too long ago. He, Greager, and Sullivan ignore Whitmore's protests and splash water up at him.

"Every day there's a certain point where they want to pull over and get into a body of water," says Whitmore, the band patriarch—not only the founder, he's also a good 15 years older than his three bandmates. "I started hanging out with these guys when they were in their early 20s, so by now they seem old to me!" he laughs.

"I don't really think about it," he says of their age difference. "They're mature enough and I'm immature enough that it works. When you get to be 43, there aren't a lot of guys playing rock music anymore."

Cass tugs at his sleeve, interrupting him. "Dad, you're 44."

He pauses, considers his daughter's interjection, and then laughs again. "Oh yeah, I am!"

ethompson@seattleweekly.com

 
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