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02 May 2017

INTERVIEW: Whimsical.

Whimsical is the Indiana-based duo of Neil Burkdoll and Krissy Vanderwoude. The project first began in 1999 as a 5-piece, and drummed up a healthy amount of attention after releasing their debut album, now a cult-classic, entitled Setting Suns are Semi-Circles. The band started work on a follow up album, to be called Sleep to Dream, but internal and external forces resulted in a dissolution of the band when the album was 90% complete. The near-finished record remained unheard until 2015, when Burkdoll rediscovered it on an old hard drive. Energized and excited by the recordings, Burkdoll and Vanderwoude decided to complete the album. Sleep to Dream came out in February 2017 via the highly lauded shoegaze label Saint Marie Records. It’s an impressive and beautiful recording that has garnered much deserved praise since it's release and will no doubt top Best of 2017 lists across the board. Enjoy getting to know the very talented Neil and Krissy of Whimsical...

How and when was the band formed?
Neil: Whimsical was officially formed in the summer of 1999, but there was an earlier attempt by Krissy and I to form the band in the beginning of 1998. I had been writing the songs that would become our album Setting Suns Are Semi-Circles since 1995, but I had no band. I had moved back to Northwest Indiana in July of ’99 and Krissy and I knew we would form the band this time around.  Our original drummer, Tim Fogle, was an old friend from high school that we asked to join right away. We had trouble finding a bass player so we placed an ad locally. Joe Santelik joined on bass after seeing our ad in a music store. Mark Milliron went to college in Florida with me and decided to move by us after we both graduated. He quickly joined the band on second guitar and was in the band by the time we played our second show. This is the lineup that recorded the first album. 

By the time we recorded most of Sleep to Dream, Tim had been replaced with Andy Muntean and Joe had been replaced by Brian Booher. Both of these guys had previously played in other bands with me and it was only natural that they join. The band fell apart in early 2005 while we were recording our second album Sleep to Dream. We were just burnt out and life had sort of gotten in the way by this point. It wasn’t until early 2015 that I discovered the old hard drive that had the mostly recorded Sleep to Dream album on it. It was at this point that Krissy and I decided to finish the album, as well as start up the band again as a two piece. Saint Marie Records signed us soon after and here we are today.

Can you tell us what the band has been working on and what you've got forthcoming in the near future (any new releases, tour, etc.)?
Neil: Sleep to Dream was released in Feb 2017 on Saint Marie Records. As a way to get our band name out there while waiting for the album to come out, Krissy and I decided to record an entirely different album consisting of covers and re-recordings of old songs called Brought to Light.  We have tried to release one song online every 4-6 weeks over the course of 2016. This was a way for Krissy and I to figure out how we can work on new songs while we live in different states.  I have already begun working on song ideas for around 12 songs so far, but it’s too early to tell how the next album will sound. I’m sort of torn with the direction I want to go in musically for the next album. I’m sure it will figure itself out somehow, but you can hear the new song “Had I Known” on the Alternative Facts compilation that DKFM just put out. There are no plans for touring, as we aren’t a live band anymore, but there is talk of maybe a one-off show in Chicago later this year.

Do you consider your music to be part of the current shoegaze/dream pop scene, or any scene? Defining one's sound by genre can be tiresome, but do you feel that the band identifies closely with any genre? How do you feel about genres in music, in a general sense?
Neil: We do feel a part of the dream pop/shoegaze scene but we will be the first to admit that we aren’t very noisy or overly MBV sounding. I personally feel like we have more in common with The Cure than say My Bloody Valentine, but I think we are just as shoegaze as early Ride, Lush, Pale Saints. Everyone has a different opinion as to what shoegaze is and I know mine is different to most, but that’s fine. I think we have our own sound and that’s more important to me than fitting into any one group.  I have no problem with genres at all and I think they generally help you discover new bands, but I don’t let a specific genre define us at all.
Krissy: We have been embraced with open arms by the shoegaze/dream pop community and the beautiful people that comprise it, and because of that we feel very much a part of the scene. It has honestly been a very humbling experience, and such an honor. Especially when considering that so many of the bands who are supporting us, and listening to our music, are bands that we have been fans of for many years. I love that we all come together and show such love for one another.  It just goes to show that there is good reason this is still dubbed as “the scene that celebrates itself” and there is no other scene I’d rather be a part of. As for the fans within this scene…WOW! Truly some of the most passionate people I’ve ever come across, when it comes to music, and I adore their desire to share what they love with the world around them. So many of our fans have now become friends and it is such a blessing.

When it comes to Whimsical songs, we are definitely not concerned about trying to follow a shoegaze or dream pop formula, to ensure that we always fit into that box. However, I think the qualities that make up that style of music will always be an underlying thread in our songs. It is a natural comfort zone for us and what we are most drawn to. Neil and I grew up listening to the classic shoegaze and dream pop bands, and although we both have such diverse taste in music, those two genres are where our hearts are at, first and foremost.

As for how I feel about genres…I agree with Neil, in the sense that I think genres are great for the purpose of discovering new bands that will provide ear candy, appealing to those specific taste buds.  Where I find genres to be REALLY annoying is when the “genre police” step up to their bully pulpit and immediately dismiss a band, talk shit about their sound or their songs, because they’re “not shoegaze enough”…”not dream pop enough”. That is so ridiculous to me. I feel sorry for people who become so concerned about genre borders and boundaries that it stands in the way of them listening to beautiful music.

What do you think of modern shoegaze/dream pop/psychedelia artists, any favorites?
Neil: I do like a lot of the newer bands and I know Krissy loves a ton of the newer bands.  I don’t mean this in a negative way at all, but I still listen to the original classic bands more often than not.  I am always searching for any new music that speaks to me though.  I enjoy Seasurfer, Static Daydream, La Casa Al Mare, Manon Meurt, Miniatures, Anne, MiniPop, Nothing, Alcest, Glasz, We Melt Chocolate, etc. 
Krissy: I almost cannot even keep up with the incredible number of shoegaze/dreampop bands that I’m falling in love with daily. NOW is the time for this type of music, and I’m so inspired by the bands that are pouring their hearts into it and keeping this scene alive. Artists that I’m particularly in love with these days:  The Churchhill Garden, Miniatures, Seasurfer, The City Gates, Venn, The Emerald Down, Molly, Newmoon, Fawns of Love, Blushing, Airiel, Crescendo, Lillet Blanc, rolemodel, Acid Ghost, Slowly (and Soft Wounds), CLUSTERSUN, Stella Diana, Seashine, A Thousand Hours, Lazy Legs, Broken Little Sister, We Melt Chocolate, Visiting Diplomats, VHS Dream, Cigarettes After Sex, Panda Riot, Lightfoils, The Dream Eaters, Pale Dian, Bloody Knives, Blessed Isles, Swimming Tapes, Wild Nothing, Diiv, Nothing, Static Daydream, Daywave, Hazel English, Tashaki Miyaki, The Daysleepers, New Canyons, Holygram, angel falls….OK…I will force myself to stop here,  because I could go on forever. What a great “problem” to have. I love it and I hope that this overflowing fountain of beautiful music never stops pouring over!

What is the most important piece of gear for your sound? Any particular guitars/pedals/amps that you prefer?
Neil: I still use my red Les Paul and an Ibanez Tube Screamer the most, but these days I have new gear and sounds that I didn’t have access to when the band was originally around. I used to use a Fender Twin live and for recording, but these days I mostly use a Vox virtual amp for recording. I run all the guitars and bass through it now and I can get some decent sounds pretty quickly late at night without having to mic up an amplifier and turning up the volume.

What is your process for recording your music? What gear and/or software do you use? What would you recommend for others?
Neil: Setting Suns was recorded very quickly at a local studio and I think it shows. Sleep to Dream was recorded at my home studio and we spent the time to make it sound like how we actually sounded live. These days I still record at my home studio, but I don’t have to worry about live drums or amps anymore.  The only mic’s we use are on the vocals and it makes things go pretty quickly. I use Pro Tools to record and all the instruments go through the Vox virtual amplifier before going into Pro tools. I use EZDrummer 2 for all of the drums and I use a MiniNova by Novation for any synth sounds we might need. I love EZDrummer 2 and it is actually pretty enjoyable to program drums now. I used to dread programming my old drum machines, but EZDrummer 2 is pretty fun and it sounds great.
Krissy: I definitely wear the technical hat here. Haha. Yeah right, this is Neil’s department.  I am happy to finally be set up with a home studio for recording vocals, and Neil helped walk me through that process. I wouldn’t have a clue what I was doing without him. I use the Presonus Audio Box recording system and their “Studio One” software for recording vocals. I sing into some lovely mic that Neil sent me, and that’s about as fancy as I get.

When it comes to label releases versus DIY/bandcamp and the like, what is your stance, if any?
Neil: We are happy to be on SMR and it’s still pretty surreal to think that all of this has happened over the last 2 years. Our old label Seraph was useless and we left the label soon after our first album was released. We were originally going to release Sleep to Dream on Bandcamp and press 100 CDs and then Saint Marie wanted to sign us. It was a complete surprise and it happened almost too easily.  We try to just enjoy any success or praise that we get because it’s all icing on the cake at this point.  We never expected to be signed again or be recording new music again, so we try to enjoy it as much as possible. We do release our free songs on Bandcamp and I personally love the site. I think it’s great and it works very well for bands to release music on their own. I think we will always release covers and extra B-Sides on Bandcamp when we can. It’s fun for us.
Krissy: Neil is spot on with everything he said and I stand behind every statement above. 

When it comes to DIY releases, I am inspired to see how many bands have been able to break through and reach so many listeners through platforms like bBandcamp/YouTube/Soundcloud (Cigarettes After Sex, for example). It is INCREDIBLE to see the number of people that they have reached with their music, and it essentially started for them because people were sharing and listening to their songs on YouTube. Millions of views later, they’re now doing sold out shows, worldwide tours, and I’m convinced that they will become a household name. Social media is an incredible outlet for spreading the word about music, and surely helps extend the reach of DIY artists.

However, in our case, I still firmly believe that so many of the people that support us and listen to our music today initially gave us a chance because they saw that we had the Saint Marie backing. Wyatt has done a GREAT job of making sure that his label is a reputable and dependable source for the best that there is to offer, within the shoegaze and dream pop genres of music. Because of that, many loyal Saint Marie followers will trust that any band he signs is going to be something worth listening to. This has definitely helped to extend our reach to a wider audience, than if we had just done this as a self-release. We are very grateful to have this opportunity and are forever grateful to Wyatt for believing in us. I know of many other bands that have tried to sign with SMR, but haven’t been able to, and it makes it even more humbling to know that he saw enough in us to want to sign us for not only this album, but another to follow.

Do you prefer vinyl, CD, cassette tape or mp3 format when listening to music? Do you have any strong feelings toward any of them?
Neil: I’m still a CD guy but I instantly put it into my iPod as a high quality mp3.  I do buy a ton of downloads on Bandcamp because sometimes that’s the only way I can get them.  If I was rich I’d buy more vinyl, but I still think CDs sound better. People can argue with me all day long, but this is what I know. When I record songs and I hear it back on cd, that’s what it sounded like when I was mixing it. Vinyl does not sound that way to me at all.
Krissy: Being the true music addict that I am, I’ll take my drug in any form.  Most of my new music purchases these days are in digital download/mp3 format, because it’s easy and accessible, but I have love for it all. If it’s a band that I’m especially enamored by, I like to have the tangible item as a collectible (such as the Slowdive bundle I just preordered, which will allow me to get my fix via CD, vinyl, or mp3 format!)

What artists (musicians or otherwise) have most influenced your work?
Neil: I’d have to say that Robert Smith is pretty much my number one influence overall. When I started writing songs for Whimsical, I knew that I didn’t want the very long slow songs that I had been doing in my previous band. A huge influence on me was the Chicago band Motorhome that put out two albums. We don’t sound like them at all, but they showed me that I could make upbeat songs that were based on energy and not depression. Josiah from Motorhome went on to form the band Light FM and is still going strong today. I’m sure Neil Halstead and Mark/Andy from Ride were influences as well in some way. I can’t forget to mention Justin Broadrick from Godflesh/Jesu because when I was 13, he showed me how I could make emotionally heavy music and it sort of put me on the path to where I am now.  Streetcleaner by Godflesh was a huge eye opener for me when it originally came out.
Krissy: Vocally, I would say that I have been most inspired by Liz Fraser, Rachel Goswell, Harriet Wheeler and Lisa Gerrard.  While I don’t sound like any of them, I have always been so in love with their unique vocals. I was impressed by the fact that they found their own style of singing and made it a song signature, exclusive to them. Even if it were a song I had never heard before, I’d be able to identify their voices immediately. I cannot think of another singer that sounds like any one of them, and there is something to be said about that. I would personally never try to emulate the vocals of anyone else, and have just tried to stay true to whatever feels natural for me when I am singing. I hope that I can also bring something unique to our music because of that. 

What is your philosophy (on life), if any, that you live by?
Neil: Krissy will laugh at me for saying this cause I sort of have a dry sense of humor and I really don’t have time for bullshit, but my number one rule is Don’t Be An Asshole. Seriously, if everyone lived by those four words, the world would be a better place.  I think everyone has the right to be happy and as long as it doesn’t involve me and isn’t hurting anyone, then I stay out of everyone’s business.
Krissy: Me? Laugh at you Neil? Unheard of. (Haha!) I actually really love your answer and will adopt that as one of my new life mottos as well. Validation as to why you’re holding strong to that bestie title. As for some rules I try to live by…I have a few that I’m pretty committed to. The golden rule…I treat others as I would like to be treated. It’s such a simple concept, with a profound impact and the power to make such a difference. 

This quote also gives me life: “A tiger doesn’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep”. I have always tried to stay true to myself, and not conform to the opinions of others, or dwell on who they think I should be or what I should do. With that, there will also come some inevitable criticism. I’m cool with the fact that not everyone will like me, many may even hate what I do, and I promise that I annoy the hell out of others.  This even applies to our music. I know full well that some will love our music and I guarantee some will hate it, and that’s ok. We will focus on those that love it and be all the more grateful for them. 

Practice random acts of kindness, and smile at strangers. Last but not least, THIS: Do everything with a good heart and expect nothing in return. It’s hard to be disappointed when you go through life with that mentality.