Interview with vocalist/guitarist Kevin Whitley | By Brian O’Neill | Photo by Alison Narro
Texas’ Cherubs released their debut album, Icing, in 1992 on Trance Syndicate, the label founded by fellow Austinite and Butthole Surfer King Coffey back in 1990. By the time the band released the follow-up, Heroin Man, in 1994, they had already broken up in a cloud of fisticuffs. For two decades, the ex-Cherubs—guitarist and vocalist Kevin Whitley, bassist and vocalist Owen McMahon, and drummer Brent Prager—spread out across the country and barely played music or kept in contact.
That probably should have been the end of Cherubs, relegated to a cult obscurity whose albums go for $200 on Discogs. Except it wasn’t.
Noise rock made a comeback, with bands such as The Jesus Lizard coming out of the mothballs to tour, as well as a slew of young bands—10 of whom our own Thomas Pizzola profiled last year—finding inspiration in that potent early ’90s scene.
Much to the shock of Whitley and his bandmates, Cherubs in particular were being spoken about in reverent tones by many of the newcomers. In 2013, Unfortunate Miracle Records got 20 of them together for Everyone’s Dead Before They Leave: A Tribute to The Cherubs—rereleased by Reptilian Records the next year—which was the kick in the ass that got the original trio back to Texas to see what was left in the tank.
2015’s 2 Ynfynyty showed that the tank was full, and it was high-octane stuff, a bristling psychedelic stomp of grudge rock—not a typo—that not only didn’t tarnish the band’s legacy, it augmented it. The critical success of the album led to a deal with Relapse Records, who are set to release the follow-up, Immaculada High, on July 26.
Cherubs may not quite understand how they got a second chance, but Whitley says they’re making the most of it.
The neatest thing about Cherubs, in my mind, is backwards evolution. You were signed before playing a live show. You broke up before your defining release. You reformed by recording an album rather than doing some amazing comeback show. Was that something that, in retrospect, surprises you, or could you not even imagine it any other way?
Yeah, it doesn’t surprise me. It’s not surprising because everything that we’ve ever done had such a natural component to it that I don’t even think about it as anything but, “Oh, the next thing we’re going to do is be on Relapse Records.” Relapse Records? That didn’t make any sense to me! Then, when we started making the record, it didn’t make any sense to me at that point, now that we were on this label, that anybody would look at us any different than they ever had and a lot of people would worry about us, about the record sucking. You know, you don’t go out to make a sucky record. No one goes into the freaking recording studio to make a sucky record. You go in there to try to make something good. So, all we’ve ever done is just, like, “What about this? What about this?”
It’s kind of caveman shit. The way that we’ve approached it was, “I like that. I like that. I like that.” So, you just do the next thing, and it never has made anything but sense to us to do the next thing that we did. We crucify all of our songs. The songs that come out, there’s four behind it that are like, “I don’t know, I don’t like it. If we don’t like it, how is anyone else going to like it? Is it us? I don’t know. It kind of is us.” We do that to every fucking moment that we’re alive. So, it’s all just like, “This just feels natural.”
When you say it that way—when I thought about that the other day, I thought, “It is all back-asswards.” It is all back-asswards. I don’t know how to feel about that beyond, “Will I have enough energy to do the next ‘I like that’?” If I can have enough energy to do the next one of those, then it’s probably still going backwards, just as it always has.
The most interesting thing to me about Cherubs is that you vanished for over two decades and popped back up and did it with the original trio. It was a couple of years ago, but going back to the reformation, was it as seamless as it looks from the outside? I mean, you legendarily broke up after a fistfight.
Well, basically, we had all moved away from Austin. When we got back from the fistfight, we went our separate ways in a staggered manner. I think Brent left first and went to New York, and I might have gone second and went to Minneapolis, and Owen went to San Francisco. At that point, everyone had their alternate trajectories. I was up there for a couple years. I came back to Austin. Brent was up in New York for quite a while. Owen was in San Francisco, and then, he ended up over in Asheville, across the country in Asheville, North Carolina.
Really, because of the Austin community, everybody kept in touch with what was happening with the other person. Like, I knew that Owen had gotten married, I knew his dad had died. I knew that shit had gone down and he was moving across the country and they were on their honeymoon. I knew Brent was in New York. […] They knew that I was in Minneapolis, and that was my first wife during that time period, and we were in the process of breaking up. So, we all just went into these life tributaries and ended up coming back.
I came back and was working in Austin, and eventually, I think Owen came back and then left again, and then Brent came back. So, we always were conscious of each other. I didn’t really play music when I was gone very much, until I came back and I was in little-bitty bands here and there that were just enough to play music. That’s all it was, really.
Then, when they came back, there was always vague talk of getting the band back together. But after 10 years, 15 years, I didn’t—number one, noise music went away. I mean, I paid attention to music fairly consistently this whole time. Unsane maybe stayed around, but who else was around? There [were] not very many people making noise rock. I remember, specifically for us, when we were starting to hear about Whores., we were like, “What the—?”
The truth is there was no internet when we were doing this before. So, we started hearing pokes through Facebook, through social media. “What are you guys doing? We’ve got the band here that’s playing this music, and we love Heroin Man.” It’s like, “How did you know about Heroin Man?” So, we started to find out that there’s this underground of people who are really interested in this music. I remember talking to Brent [about how] I’ve never thought anybody would ever be interested in this music ever again. I thought, “This doesn’t—” It’s crazy to me. Then you hear these bands, and you go, “Holy shit, this shit is really happening again!”
So, we thought, “OK, the kids are going to enjoy this, but we certainly aren’t!” We thought we’ll get in the room, and I was adamant that I was never going to play old songs. I said, “I am not playing old songs. We’re going to get in there and write shit or we’re not going to do this. I’m not playing old songs.” Of course, that was just me being an asshole.
So, we got back together. Owen had come back from Asheville, and we said, “Do not move here to be in this band, because we are not committing to doing this. Just move back because you want to move back, not committing to this.” He was back for a while, and we finally got in the room together, and it was weird. It was like riding a bicycle. It just kind of—there it was. It was just sitting there, and there it was when we started playing. New songs came really easily, and we were just looking at each other like, “This is the stupidest thing ever,” because it does not make sense that we’re now in our late 40s and 50s and this is interesting. It shouldn’t have been interesting.
I guess it was kind of like [Primal] Scream Therapy or something. You get in there, and you just blast some shit. Your ears are ringing, and you’re wiped out a little bit, and you go, “Oh, there’s that feeling. I haven’t had that in freaking 20 to 25 years.”
You mentioned the resurgence and interest in noise rock, but it wasn’t just noise rock, it was also Cherubs in particular. I mean, before you reformed, you had Everybody’s Dead Before They Leave, an actual tribute album to you.
Well, that had a lot to do with it! It was crazy. I think that really affected us on a real emotional level. I don’t even quite understand the odyssey of that recording, but it is an odyssey. The group that ended up putting it out is not the group that started it. They’ll correct me when this comes out, but it started out with a group. Somebody got sick and somebody else took it over, shepherded it through, and then they got sick and it had to be taken over by another group. And all the while, this is a community of people who didn’t quite know each other. They only knew each other through us, and they shepherded this thing through these travails.
That is fucking amazing! That doesn’t happen. That does not happen. Usually when these things happen, it’s super tight, organized, put together, and maybe even funded. This was a labor of love by a bunch of people who were passing files to each other and getting recordings from god knows where, and that is fucking amazing.
We were so shocked and honored and a little emotional about it that we thought, “Well, fuck, man. These people really care. We should take ourselves a little seriously—at least seriously enough for the people who we’ve actually made a difference to. That’s amazing.” So, we were spurred on by that for damn sure.
I wrote in my notes, “Cherubs could only come from Austin,” but with what you’re telling me—Minneapolis, San Francisco, even New York, these are communities that are known for having vibrant underground scenes with music that is conducive to what Cherubs are all about. Even though the band started [in Austin], I think you may have taken some of that stuff back to Austin with you.
I think there’s no doubt about that. I mean, it’s not like we were going into these separate scenes and mining deeply into all of the music culture that was going on there. We had become part of the audience at that point. We weren’t literally playing in bands anymore as much. Owen may have jammed with some people there. I know Brent jammed with some people in New York. I didn’t jam with anybody in Minneapolis. I played the guitar some.
It could be that the maturity of just letting shit sit there and becoming who we were might have made us a little bit better at disseminating—not disseminating but synthesizing our own identity. It might have made us better at being able to tune out what was out there and tune in to what maybe we were more. So, I can get with you on that about the fact that it helped push us along.
Some of it could have been that [what we] developed was absolutely suspended in time at that point, and we simply picked up where we left off. It’s crazy, but it feels like that sometimes. Some songs really feel like that. Like, specific songs sometimes feel like, “Oh, this thing has just been sitting in this freaking formaldehyde jar.”
Which songs in particular come to mind?
Well, the truth is “Evil May Acre” on 2 Ynfynyty was a song that we cobbled together from a song that we had written back in the day that we had a live recording of from Emo’s at the time. I remembered the song from back in the day, and we put that together.
Now, that one is actually from a jar of formaldehyde! But [there are] other songs that just feel like—there’s a song on the new record called “Old Lady Shoe” that feels like it could have been on Heroin Man. That’s just like some kind of DNA song right there. Some of them have this weird thing that’s just specific to us somehow.
Of course, after you reformed, you did 2 Ynfynyty, and now, you’ve got Immaculada High. I imagine it was different transitioning into the first time you’ve been writing songs together for 20 years, then suddenly jumping right into a traditional album cycle again—was there a transition to that as well?
I don’t think that we have graduated to an album cycle. When we put out Icing, we named it that because it felt like we had been gifted the opportunity to even put that record out. I mean, King put that record out without [us] ever having a live show, so we were already ahead of the game. We were like, “Tell, this is icing on a cake that’s not there.” That’s why that’s named Icing.
When we got to 2 Ynfynyty, it was the same fucking thing. It was like, “Holy shit, we’re getting this opportunity to do this again, and we’re way down the line, older dudes.” It felt like we were getting the opportunity all over again. The truth of it is when Relapse offered to do this record, it felt like, “What, are you kidding? We’re getting to do this again?”
So, every time that we’ve been able to do this, it’s felt miraculous. I understand, and I know what you mean when you say the album cycle. It’s 2019, and we put [the last record] out in 2015. Now, we’ve got a two-record deal with Relapse. Now is probably the first time that we are on the cycle. Our development between [1996’s] Short of Popular and 2 Ynfynyty is whatever that is. The development between 2 Ynfynyty to Immaculada High, though, is really interesting, because this record has a bunch of weirdo shit on it, and I’m saying that as, supposedly, a bona fide weirdo! So, if I’m saying that, then for us, it is a very weird thing that’s going to be happening with this record.
People may hate us after this record, but there’s some shit on there that’s super Cherubs, and they’re going to love it—but only now are we on the cycle. This next record is the record that will be the first record on the cycle to me, so I’m looking forward to this. I was talking to the guys today; I’m already working on the art for this [next] record. We don’t even know what it is! We’ve got some songs left over—I shouldn’t say this out loud, but we have some songs left over from the record, [and] we were thinking about putting out a double-record, because we have enough recorded material to do that. It felt like, “Ah, that’d be crazy. It’d be just crazy to put out something like that.”
So, we have this leftover stuff. We’re already figuring out how we want to put this next record together, and this one feels like the first time that we’re making our own shoes. The cobbler is making their own shoes and, like, getting in there like, “Oh, what are we going to do?” Which sounds, to me, like a recipe for sucking. That is what it sounds like.
Or it sounds like a recipe you had 20 years to catch up on.
Well, maybe so! Yeah, exactly, I’ll go with that! The fear of sucking will literally suck the life out of you anyway. So, I’ll definitely go for the life of turning an ankle.
In my considered opinion, the new album, Immaculada High, does not suck at all. One thing I found funny about the title is it sounds like a Catholic School, but if you use the word “High” as, instead of an institution of education, “a feeling of euphoria, especially from drugs or alcohol”—to quote the dictionary—it has a slightly different connotation. I’m not sure whether it was an intentional double entendre or not.
It totally was. Heroin Man is what it is. We had a friend die, and we had a whole bunch of people dying all over the place during that time period, and so, it was what it was. There was nothing about it that was anything but what it was. But 2 Ynfynyty is about a little bit of redemption, it’s about foreverness. That’s what Immaculada High is about too.
The title was taken from when I was a kid. There was this family we lived next to in Louisiana, and they were Catholic. They had fucking eight kids in that family, and they all went to Catholic School, of course. They wore uniforms all week except for Friday. Friday was for casual dress. One of the older girls wore these fucking pants that were so—they were red and white stripes. It was American flag pants, red-and-white-striped bell-bottoms, and her butt and the hip area was the stars.
I had a crush on Friday, because Friday was the day that I associated with them going to Immaculada High, which is where the older ones went. That high school is not there anymore, but specifically, her pants and her—it was all one thing to me. I didn’t have a crush on her. I didn’t have a crush on the pants, per se. I had a crush on them standing at the bus stop, her and her brothers and sisters on Friday when they didn’t have to wear uniforms. Her statement was, “I’m free, and I will wear these fucking bell-bottom pants.” So, I always associated that with Immaculada High.
I don’t know how it came back on my radar, but it felt very much like a 2 Ynfynyty-style name, where it was rooted in this mundane bullshit, and yet it had this aspiring thing—and they were fucking potheads! Bob was the one who was like, always smelled like weed. I was like, “What is that exotic, herbal smell that Bob smells like?” and the rest of them would be like, “It’s weed, man. It’s weed.” I didn’t know what weed was; I was, like, in fifth grade!
So, Immaculada High, the double entendre is in full effect on that. That’s hinted at with the band on the cover.
Pitchfork said that Cherubs were the noisiest pop music on the planet. On Immaculada High, I feel the pop side of Cherubs is on display a lot more than in the past.
I think that’s true. I think, for us, a perfect song would be if we could just play a riff that we absolutely loved for 15 minutes and just fucking play it harder and harder and harder and harder and never change. If we could do that and be comfortable with that and love that, we would do it every song, but there’s also something in us—we all grew up with Candy-O [by The Cars]. We all grew up with these just fucking pop gems, and we all love that stuff. It’s impossible to not love that stuff.
So, it’s the polarity of who we are. I want it to be big and rich and chocolate and to also have the sweetness in it too. I think “Sooey [Pig]” is a really interesting song, because it’s like a songcraft song where pieces lead into pieces: one piece leads into the other, and you leave that one behind, and it just goes somewhere and never stops. It just ends in a different place than it began, and that’s a really nice thing to do—but it doesn’t really work unless you have a fucking nasty thing on one side or the other, because I personally can’t have a sweet cookie unless there’s some salt in it. A good cookie or a good piece of cake or any kind of sweet, the only way it works for me is if there’s just enough salt in it to where it gets a little like a monster. It’s got a little monster in it, and that is when it is good.
So, for us, if the monster is still in there, you let the monster take over sometimes, and then, sometimes, you let the sweet takeover. That’s where we stick it. So, what I’m hoping is—really what I’m hoping is, is that the next record is going to lean a little more salt, because I feel like that’s where we’re always gonna be, wavering between the two.
But even “IMCG,” for instance, where the fuck did that song come from, and why is that even interesting to us? Well, it became interesting to us. I have no idea why, but it got really interesting to us and it still stands up for us, so we play it.
You came back to a scene that has nostalgia for the old noise rock—The Jesus Lizard are back and kicking ass—but there are younger bands and also younger fans. When you plug in and see a bunch of young kids out there or you’re playing with a bunch of young kids who are sort of taking up the mantle, is there a part of you that’s like, “I’m going to show these whippersnappers how it’s done”?
[Laughs] You know, I don’t feel like we need to do that. The truth of it is we can’t: we’re only made of what we did, and we’re only made of what we’re doing. We use it as inspiration, but I don’t use it as inspiration to kick their ass. I use it as inspiration to be better, to try to be better.
Here’s a good for instance: Low Dose, who we’re playing with tonight, their singer has been listening to us since she was probably—I don’t know how young. She’s young right now! I don’t know when she was listening to this shit! They have a song that they played last night, and it’s not on the record yet. It’s called “Away.” I had been watching them, and I walked off and I was talking to someone else, and they started playing this song and it was badass. I had to stop talking to this person, [and] I had to look back over there at them and just listen to this, because it was so fucking good. That is its own amazing thing. At that point, it doesn’t matter if it’s them playing it or who’s playing it or where, if that shit is that good and it’s just coming out of the ether, that is fucking amazing.
I just told them today, I said, “Man, when y’all hit that fucking last song, whatever that thing was—” and they said, “It’s our new song. We love that song.” I was like, “I could tell that you love it, because it was just bleeding out of y’all. It was just fucking cool.” That is when I feel the surge of that inspiration.
Another truth is we don’t see enough young kids at our shows. We played with Mudhoney in Houston, and there were these young kids up front. These aren’t all-ages venues. They’re not all-ages shows. We don’t get invited. We’re old-guard. We don’t get invited to play the cool community center shows with all the kids. We don’t get that kind of offer. When these kids were at the show, they were rocking out, and I was like, “This is amazing to be playing to fucking kids that are my daughter’s age. That’s amazing!”
How old is your daughter?
She’s going to be 16. She had friends at school who were asking her about our show, because they were going with their dads to our show in Austin, and they fucking couldn’t get in because it wasn’t an all-ages show. They couldn’t get in with their parents, and it just crushed me.
She’s coming out of her theater class, and there’s her friend who’s going, [and] he goes, “Hey, I can’t wait to go to your show!” A kid in high school with my daughter standing right there is telling me that.
My daughter’s rolling her eyes like, “Oh my god, this is so embarrassing,” but I’m like, “This is the best thing to ever happen to me!”