Mike Behrends and Icarus Himself's Nick Whetro on going beyond singer-songwriter
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Mike Behrends sells his CDEPs in little pouches made from flannel shirts, and Nick Whetro is as likely to be pushing buttons on a sampler as he is to be strumming a guitar when he fronts his band Icarus Himself. Behrends began playing out amid the folk- and blues-riddled music scene of Duluth, while Whetro came up alongside Madison friends like Sleeping In The Aviary. Still, both are ultimately story-driven songwriters, and both work in a fertile grey area between "solo act" and "band," where taking liberties with arrangements doesn't mean drowning out the lyrics. It's a good thing the two share some common ground, because they're sharing a bill this Saturday at the Project Lodge. Behrends and Whetro—who'd never heard each other's solo music before—recently spoke with The A.V. Club and each other about being not-exactly-singer-songwriters, telling tales, and death.
The A.V. Club: You both strike a different balance between being solo acts and adding instrumental layers. How is that different from just being in a band?
Nick Whetro: Well, I just deal with it by adding layers. At first, I starter playing solo as an escape from being in a rock band [National Beekeepers Society], and then I really missed playing with other people. I added [guitarist Karl Christenson], then Brad [Kolberg] came on, and plays drums for us now. I'd rather play with a band than by myself, personally.
Mike Behrends: Whenever I've played it's been by myself, but I've played a couple shows with a drummer. When I write songs, I hear a bunch of different instruments in my head. When it's time to record, I try to get the song to sound like what it sounds like in my head. To translate that to the live show, I can't do that.
AVC: What's the most layered thing you'd like to do?
MB: I've always got some sort of percussion in mind, and if I'm playing a song on acoustic, I've always got an electric guitar part in mind. I can't really think in terms of bass, so I never hear bass, but I always hear more vocals, and keys. But I can't play keys either.
NW: When I started out recording, it was really stripped-down and simple and didn't have a whole lot on it. On the full-length, Coffins, I kind of went into it in the same way, but that's when Karl came along, and he just added a ton of stuff to it. He's a big part of that now.
AVC: Nick, you've got songs in the live set where you're singing while playing a sampler instead of guitar. Was that a weird transition to make?
NW: The sampler just came about maybe seven or eight months ago, because I was just sick of playing guitar. I play guitar in the Beekeepers, and I just want to do something different. I'm making the samples with synthesizers, keyboards, Casios. We have a Wurlitzer that we sample. We just take samples from the actual songs themselves.
AVC: You both emphasize storytelling in your songs. Do you think it's harder to get a story across if there's too much going on onstage?
MB: For me, I've never really written autobiographical songs, because not much interesting happens to write about. They always have to do with death, which is always kind of weird.
AVC: Nick used to get pegged as a "death" songwriter.
NW: There was a lot of death going on in my songs. Now there is not. Actually, all the new songs are all about my interactions with women throughout by life, be it my babysitter, or my mom, or my wife. Now it's very autobiographical. None of it's about death now.
MB: As far as instrumentation goes, as long as it remains minimal and doesn't overtake the song, I don't think it really takes away from the lyrics as much.
AVC: Like you were saying, Mike, you don't write autobiographical songs, and you both have stories that are a little vague.
NW: I guess empathy comes to mind.
MB: I've got a song "Woodsman And The Seafarer," and I didn't sit down and think, "All right, I want to write this song about a guy who this woman leaves and comes back 10 years later and ends up killing him." I just kind of flesh it out stanza by stanza. That makes it more fun to write. I start with these two lines, and then four hours later, the guy ends up getting a shotgun to the head, and it's like, "Whoa! What happened in the last three hours?"
NW: I try to work the stories into my own personal life now, and I try to make it a little more interesting. I have a song about my obese babysitter, who was a terrible woman and did terrible things to the children. It's a terrible story, but it's a true story.
MB: Really? So you don't make 'em any more evil things than she actually did?
NW: I embellish a couple things. I make it work, I guess. She actually had her license taken away from her. She was reported to the state. She used to make the children rub her back, rub her bare feet, brush her hair. She was really overweight. It was like the children were her little slaves. It's really crazy. And her house was really creepy, too. It was haunted, I think. Actually, it's kind of like a dance song, too.
AVC: Nick, you've covered a Sleeping In The Aviary song or two, and Mike has talked before about being influenced by old folk and blues guys in Duluth. What's it like having other local guys be your influences?
NW: It's because you actually get to see them and talk to them. It's fun when your friends influence you. There's a personal aspect of it that you can't get with listening to the bands you listened to when you were a kid. It's fun to meet someone where you know them and they write songs that you really like, and then you get to cover them.
MB: There's such a huge folk scene in Duluth. I would play shows with acoustic guitar and harmonica, and it was just a dime a dozen. It was interesting to come to Madison, where it's not as much of a rootsy scene. It's kind of easier to stand out a show like that. When I played the Inferno, it was easier to sound different than the other guys that were playing, whereas in Duluth, the guy before me would basically be writing the same song I am, but with different words.