Jamaica Plain, a part of Greater Boston, is home to many talented musicians that are constantly creating unique and/or bizarre events and contributing greatly to the personality of the city’s DIY music. One such band from the area that has been playing for a few years without laying down a record is The Woodrow Wilsons. It’s made up of some of the nicest and most genuine people you could ever meet. And just like a conversation with one of its members, the music radiates this ineffably positive feeling of warmth and empathy, subconsciously comforting and convincing you that everything is going to be alright. They all play a wide array of instruments, one of the main components being ukuleles that vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Chris McCarthy built himself out of a cigar box. In addition to bass, guitar and drums, the arrangement also includes glockenspiel, horns and a singing saw. The vocals are shared and harmonized between McCarthy and Laura Smith and the collaboration emphasizes the band’s open minds and open arms.
The Woodrow Wilsons recently released its first proper full length, Devil Jonah. The name references the biblical story of Jonah and the whale and has strong motifs of the East Coast and the ocean. As the group explains, the Atlantic seems to have strange powers over them (or at least over Smith). They associate the endless vastness with death and loneliness, but at the same time it’s something irresistible that calls them to get lost in it. It’s this sort of conflict or juxtaposition that is threaded throughout the album. Although one might think Jonah was doomed to be digested in the whale, it was actually the whale that saved Jonah from drowning. Likewise the music is a pleasant balance between somber and joyous. It has ballads and relaxing tunes, but it also has its share upbeat and irresistibly catchy songs like “Anthropomorphism” and “It Always Never Boils (The Kettle Song).”
Stream Devil Jonah in it’s entirety here.
Even though the album may be preoccupied with death and speaks a lot about personal flaws and mistakes, it also imparts this sentiment of perseverance. Smith spins her “Regrets” positively with the line, “There’s nothing like a painful memory to keep bad behavior in check.” In “Stone,” McCarthy’s perspective on individual insignificance seems liberating, “It’s only love and they’re only my thoughts and it’s only my life and it’s small/ Human beings are such funny creatures/ Always worrying, always worrying about how they feel.” Amidst the rising ocean levels, crumbling mountains and sea monsters, there is a kind of peace and calm. It’s a palpable catharsis for overcoming internal barriers. The thought is even reflected in the quote that makes up the album’s unconventional cover on the Wilsons’ bandcamp. It’s a passage from Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. Smith had been reading it during the recording process and read the quote to everyone and they all thought it went well with the Jonah and the whale idea. The quote reads as follows:
Darwin’s fish may seem small and weak, but it has within it all the power to endure being trapped in the belly of a shark. To coincide even more with the Jonah parable, there was even one naturalist who proposed that anatomically it might have made more sense for Jonah to be swallowed by a shark.
Smith explains that Darwin was a similarly conflicted person. The woman that he loved, his wife, had a lot of religious faith and his life’s work contradicted her beliefs. It just makes allusions like that all the more appropriate and Smith says that there are too many non-musical influences like that to list. Another one is mythology, specifically the story of Sisyphus in the song “Stone.” It relates Sisyphus’ struggle to push a stone up a hill for all eternity to hopeless love.
The group has two other releases available for free download on its bandcamp. They feature a couple alternate versions of songs from Devil Jonah, notably including a great version of “Stone” sung in a lower octave. There are also some fun nonsense songs with themes like the TV series The Sopranos and wanting to pet an easily spooked dog. Freedom or Decomposition Songs was a split cassette with another local band called The Points North and According to the Seasonal Tilt of the Earth was an EP released through Jamaica Plain’s Whitehaus Family Record. Less of a record label and more of an art collective, the Whitehaus is a host to dozens of talented bands and is responsible for a lot of interesting happenings across Boston.
The Wilsons say that the environment there contributed greatly to their creative process. McCarthy likens the haus to a buddy running alongside of them who’s constantly cheering them on. There are living room and basement shows regularly at the house and they also used to more frequently have “hoots.” These are essentially open mic nights, inviting anyone who wanders in off the street to share and show them all something, anything they want, for a few minutes. It was at the Whitehaus that The Wilsons first debuted their songs.
Their latest, Devil Jonah, was also released through the collective. The best way to get a physical copy is to contact the Whitehaus or to email the band (the address can be found on their facebook page). The song “I’m Not Going Under” is a cover from a Whitehaus classic act, The Cups. Evident from the title, the song fits well with The Woodrow Wilsons’ themes and it contains a really sweet and simple line, “Ask me again to button your coat…or something more intimate.”
THE BOMBER JACKET interviewed the group and discussed in a lot more detail Darwin, the Whitehaus, the recording process and the band’s simultaneous fear and love of the ocean.
TBJ: Where did the name The Woodrow Wilsons come from?
Chris McCarthy: Amelia and I were tossing names around for our once-fictional band. I was really stuck on calling the band “The Lusitania,” which is the name of a ship sunk by German U-boats during World War I and was essentially America’s excuse for jumping into the war. Amelia wasn’t sold on the idea. She said to me, “How about we name the band after someone that tried to keep us OUT of the war?”
Amelia Thrall: A continuation of the tradition of naming entities after people. Our songs are about being human and he is emblematic of the complexity of that condition, but we didn’t know either of those things at the time. It was more about liking the sound of the letter “W.”
What does Devil Jonah refer to?
Laura Smith: At some point, we started talking about the phrase “to send someone to Davy Jones’ locker,” and did some research on its origins. Nobody really agrees on where it came from, but one of the speculations is that Davy Jones is a bastardized version of the name “Devil Jonah.” The name Devil Jonah immediately resonated with us.
C: Devil Jonah is a reference to the biblical story of Jonah and the whale and was a slang term used by sailors to refer to someone who was bad luck on the ocean. There’s a consistent theme of the ocean as a metaphor for death and longing through the album and that’s what we mean to reference.
Maybe it’s just because I knew you all there, but the music seems to strongly evoke the East Coast if not just Boston. Want to talk about the city or its influence?
L: We all grew up on the East Coast. It’s hard for me to articulate what the ocean does to me. I feel in the Atlantic an especially heart-rending combination of the specter of death and also a terribly compelling urge to swim out to the horizon, to somehow be inside it, in the middle of it. It just pulls at my heart like a siren, like a beautiful thing that’s going to kill me and I don’t care. Once, Chris and I were skinny-dipping in a large lake and I was a bit drunk. The moon was practically full and just devastatingly beautiful on the water, so much so that I felt if I didn’t start swimming as hard as I could into the darkness, my heart would explode. Nothing could convince me of what a bad idea it was and Chris had to hold me back on the pier. It seemed so foolish in the light of day the following morning, but the urge had been so strong.
A: I hadn’t thought about this before, but I suppose my counterpoint lines have the independent “live free or die” spirit, but also the considerate “no, after you” spirit of New Hampshire (those phrases sound funny together). That’s where I first started to play music and where I later fell into musical study with a group of free thinkers.
On the band’s bandcamp the album cover for Devil Jonah is a quote by Charles Darwin about a small fish in the belly of a shark that eventually kills the shark. How does the quote relate to the album?
C: Laura was reading The Voyage of the Beagle while we were recording. She read that passage aloud to us. I think it’s a great pairing with the Jonah and the whale parable. It’s like a secular version of the same tale. Both Jonah and the Diodon are in the belly of the beast, yet persevere and triumph.
Is Darwin a philosophical influence?
L: I love Charles Darwin, as a scientist and as a human being. This quote from the New Yorker about the death of Darwin’s daughter pretty much sums it up for me: “After Annie’s death, Darwin abandoned the remaining vestiges of Christian faith, the last preference for even Unitarian theology, and became, essentially, a stoic. He believed that the contemplation of the immensity of time, and the repertory of feelings, was all that was left to us. There was no inherent meaning in Annie’s dying at ten, except the recognition that mortality was the rule of existence; serenity could be found only in the contemplation of the vast indifference of the universe” (from “Rewriting Nature” by Andrew Gopnik, October 23, 2006). Darwin abandoned religion, but also agonized over the faith that his wife felt, in that he could not only not share it, but was preparing to publish works that went directly against those beliefs that brought her such comfort. Darwin was one conflicted dude.
Are there any other nonmusical influences like that?
L: Yes, there are too many to list. There are so many stories within the record and they’re all based in our day-to-day experiences. I’ve never been able to write songs that weren’t about real events or feelings.
What was the recording process like for Devil Jonah?
C: The space is a beautiful old Masonic temple in Chelsea, MA, with 30-foot ceilings and strange iconography painted on the walls. It had a natural reverb that we really wanted to take advantage of. We recorded all the basic tracks live in the same room, taking only a couple of takes. We were shooting for a really energetic, rather than polished, performance.
L: We had a very short amount of time in which we wanted to record a lot of things, so we practiced relentlessly in the weeks leading up to recording. Once we were in the studio, we played at break neck speed, ‘til we were practically delirious. It was perhaps the most fun we’ve ever had as a band. It was the first (and only) time that we’d ever just spent a week focusing only on the music and it felt really good to get up every day and go to the studio together.
A: Also, the guy behind Studio 1867 is a genius.
You play a cigar box guitar that you built yourselves, right? Were there any other unique instruments or techniques used on the record?
L: Chris and I both played cigar box ukuleles at some point during the record. It’s my primary instrument at this point, and I have continued to play it in other projects I’m currently working on.
C: I think the cigar box guitars will always be used in one way or another. During recording we used it as a microphone at times, as singing into the sound hole is amplified by the pickup. We also used some bowed metal and overdriven piano.
Want to say a few words about the Whitehaus in regards to the album?
Laura: I’m not exaggerating when I say that none of this would have happened without the Whitehaus. I was Cat Power shy when I started going to Hoots at the Whitehaus, and I cannot imagine another space in which I could have felt safe enough to begin performing. I remember very clearly playing at the Whitehaus for the first time, probably in 2007. I was scared out of my mind, having never performed in my life and much less something that I had written. We played “Decomposition Song” and the outpouring of support and excitement from the people at the hoot that night was like a living thing that I could feel breathing and pulsating around me. The Wilsons immediately became swept up in this wave of incredible creative energy, this community that was creating itself. The Whitehaus was a space in which it was impossible to not be making music. It was so inspiring and vibrant, songs just poured out of us.
C: The Whitehaus is like the buddy who’s a much better athlete than you are and who agrees to run races with you to cheer you along. You can always look to them to push you and support you and inspire you.
Have any of you ever actually bare-knuckle boxed?
C: Nope. The line immediately after “I’m a bare-knuckle boxer” is “No, that’s a lie.” That song (“It Always Never Boils (The Kettle Song)”) is about attempting bravado and then admitting that you’ve presented an inflated version of yourself. I think that’s why I’ll never be a rapper. Well, there are many reasons I’ll never be a rapper.
I am having boxing lessons from a retired Italian man in my neighborhood who teaches out of his garage. Not bare knuckle, though.
Can you tell me who plays what?
C: We do a lot of switching around. Who does what is:
Amelia Thrall: t-bone, glockenspiel/mallet percussion, saw and keys.
Chris McCarthy: uke, guitar, double bass, keys, saw and vox.
Laura Smith: uke, guitar, bass and vox.
Kyle Alspach: drums and awesome.
Vince Fairchild: bass, piano and advice.
Mitchel Barys: trumpet and positive vibes.