Discussions: Whettman Chelmets

Whettman Chelmets describes his latest The Poor. The Reign as a “a prelude and as a punctuation mark for the relentless year in which they were recorded.” Sourced from a number of recording sessions, Chelmets has pulled together an ambient album that has remarkable range. The customary drones are all there, but so too are shoegaze influences, decontextualized vocals and moments of thrilling sound art. This is no random B-sides sampler.

Your notes for the new release say these tracks “serve as a sort of prelude to the music of 2021.” How so?

Well, as far as the prelude goes, I’ve got a couple of works scheduled for release in January on Collapses Structures and in March on Drawing Room Records. The first is kind of a long-form electric guitar work with lots of drones and strings and choirs and stuff that all builds and crescendos. It’s a little more intense. The second is much more structured around these fragile movements centred around classical guitar. Caustic in its own way but not as in your face as the first.

The tracks from this release fit in between those two extremes, I think. A lot of them were sequenced in other things that just didn’t fit the flow of the story I was trying to tell, but I still felt they were good tracks. This serves as kind of an end-of-the-year cap-off sample of what next year will sound like.

The title caught my attention: From The Poor. The Reign. Where are you on the pros/cons of music with a political message? Is that your intention with this title?

To an extent, yes. I put out a three-song thing in May called The Rain, The Pour, and as I was doing this myself – and because it is a loose collection of songs as opposed to narratives I like to make – it just struck me as a good play on words. I like the images it conjures up.

I think more music needs to be political. Explicitly. I find it something severely lacking in music nowadays, which I find strange given the West’s recent flirtations with fascism and nationalism. I find it startling. 

A lot of my favourite music is political. Not all music has to be. But a lot of music should be. If it alienates people, so be it. I hope the greater result, though, is dialogue.

Totally agree. I’m especially surprised that we haven’t heard this kind of commentary from sound artists. Perhaps I’ve missed it, but it seems like a medium with such huge potential.

I personally hear it more in hip hop than anything. Certain groups like Run the Jewels have really blown up in the last few years, and you had people like Killer Mike actively campaigning with Bernie Sanders here in the States. And punk will always exist. Groups like Redbait in St. Louis exist in those spaces Crass used to inhabit.

It exists, but in terms of a top-40 kind of protest music like you had in the ’60s or even the ’00s with Green Day and American Idiot, you just don’t see it.  Now, one can argue whether these things are effective or not. Conservative leader Paul Ryan always touted Rage Against the Machine as his favourite band, so the argument is there. But in my mind, the more music that focuses on the fight, the better.  

Instrumental music can certainly inhabit that place.  I’ve gone there more explicitly in the past.

I’m interested in your use of guitar. It’s probably a reflection of my having grown up in the ’80s, but I’ve always perceived a distinction between guitar-based and synth-based music. Is that still a valid observation, or am I just carrying baggage? You’re clearly comfortable in both camps.

I mean, it’s really a question of timbre at the end of the day and a bit of a Theseus Ship problem. How many aspects of the guitar can you strip away and still call it guitar-based? At the end, it’s a music. 

I did a deep dive into Van Halen recently, even like 5150 and other Van Hagar material. There are live shows from ’86 where Eddie is playing keyboards a lot while Sammy plays guitar. Like, imagine going to a Van Halen concert only to watch Sammy Hagar play guitar! It seems inconceivable, but they obviously thought their crowd wouldn’t care, and their first #1 record hit was “Jump.” Even in the ’80s, there were bands pushing some of the preconceived baggage of synths to the side.

I’ve been playing guitar since ’94 when I was 15 years old. I had a ton of life changing moments with guitar. One was getting my first loop pedal in 2001. I loved King Crimson and Robert Fripp so it became this natural extension to create music like a pyramid – build music up instead of forward, per se. The first time I turned the guitar volume down, played a note and rolled the volume back up to create this note swell. Then I’d have those notes blend and build and repeat in totally unplanned but controlled ways – its just a natural way for me to play now for the last 20 years.  

It’s one tool. I like to work things out with sheet music too at times. It all depends on what the piece of music needs.

An artist friend of mine, Keram Malicki-Sánchez once told me that stringed instruments provide more flexibility than electronic. That you can bend notes in ways that you can’t with anything connected to a keyboard.

I can see that as a guitar player, as I’m a hack on keyboards. When I want to play music, I play guitar. It’s familiar to me. I can control it. When I want to create music, I go with whatever, and often don’t play guitar at all.

I like some of the unpredictability electronic music provides. I personally love that moment with a blank session and you have no idea what you are going to do and like hours or days later it becomes this thing which you didn’t even conceive when you started. 

Miles Davis would often come in with just notes, like play D major for 16 bars, then Eb major for 8, and just trust the people he put together to create. I love that aspect of music.

How’d you learn to play?

We had an old Les Paul knock-off in the garage growing up that I picked up at 15. I was really an awkward social outcast until I went to my first local punk rock show. That really changed my small town perception. There were others like me, just as awkward and unfitting of the mold – or maybe just fitting of a different mold – but it was exciting and inviting and I wanted to be part of it. From there it was just picking up books and techniques and ideas. There’s been times I’ve been more passionate about learning, and times I spent years barely playing. But it’s always there when I need it.

Possibly more pertinent was a friend who owned a Tascam 4-track tape recorder. That’s when the idea that you could do this – just record things that stay forever that came from nothing – really started.

How has the pandemic impacted your music, and you as a creative person?

I mean, it’s there and it’s horrible and it’s certainly taken a toll. I live in a pretty conservative part of the U.S., and the U.S. has been so horrible in response. It’s just really hard. I have a genuine visceral reaction to people not taking this seriously. So I think there’s a certain anger you can hear in my music at times, and sadness, and maybe hope as well. It’s all there.

I’ve been able to work from home primarily, so that’s given me more time with my family, which is great, and more time for music. I’ve been able to work out concepts and ideas I haven’t had time for in the past, and I’ve made a lot of music in the process. Which is a lining, I suppose. A necessary outlet, anyway. Some people can’t write right now, and I get that totally. But I’ve made a lot these past few months.

Discussions is a series of conversations with contemporary music figures. Please submit proposals to modernslove@gmail.com.

Kevin Press

The Moderns, vols. 1-3 – available exclusively from Amazon

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