Singer and guitarist Kevin Whitley talks about the passing of his father, conversing with birds and the trio's excellent new LP
One unusually still night a couple of weeks back, Cherubs singer and guitarist Kevin Whitley was seated with friends at a picnic table in the backyard of his home in Austin, Texas. As the group talked quietly, a mockingbird piped up, joining in the conversation.
“It was up there, and it was like it was going, ‘Hey, I’m here. I’m talking with you guys, too,” said Whitley, who will join bandmates Owen McMahon (bass) and Brent Prager (drums) in concert at Ruby Tuesday on Saturday, Aug. 10 (the trio will also take part in a meet-and-greet at Elizabeth’s Records at 2 p.m. the same day). “So we would talk a little bit and stop, and then it would talk, then we’d talk a little bit more, and then it would talk, and it was cool because it felt like it was only happening because it had gotten quiet enough for the bird to feel safe enough to say something, or to even feel like it would be heard.”
Despite a well-earned, decades-long reputation for delivering paint-peeling squalls of noise, these still moments are essential to Whitley’s creative process, which can cause his daughter significant consternation whenever she’s subjected to the nearly seven-hour drive across Texas for visits.
“She lives with me some and some with her mom in West Texas, and we go back and forth, and she hates that drive with me because I don’t want any sound. … She thinks it’s crazy that I’m going to go play this fucked up music but then I want quiet all the time,” Whitley said. “But for me, if I don’t have quiet, it doesn’t allow my brain to collect stuff. It’s almost like someone whispering to you. If you can’t be quiet enough, you can’t hear what it’s trying to tell you.”Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
On Cherubs’ fifth album, Immaculada High, these gathered whispers are often released in a full-throated roar, songs building on beautifully abrasive, acidic guitar tones, pliant bass and pummeling, rail-spike-driver drums. Throughout, Whitley delivers cautionary words about death and planetary destruction like a man desperate to shake humankind from its collected apathy.
The added focus on mortality was informed, in part, by the 2018 death of Whitley’s father, which surfaces in songs like the album-closing “Nobodies,” where Whitley repeats the line, "Up, up they float,” until it begins to feel like soul separating from flesh (aka “No bodies”) and ascending into another realm.
“It’s the feeling that you want to transcend reality, that you want to transcend whatever this is,” said Whitley, whose father passed quietly at home surrounded by loved ones. “Your body can be a prison, or it can be great and fun. It can have cancer. It can have sex. It can do all these crazy, cool things, and it can be a horrible fucking chamber. But your spirit it something different than that. Your spirit is just something that’s passing through and who the fuck knows where it goes. But the yearning for it to keep on going, or the yearning for that freedom, that’s the key. … And the truth is the whole damn record is maudlin as hell, because every song is about that.”
“Tigers in the Sky,” for instance, takes its name from part of the program during bassist McMahon’s high school reunions when photos of classmates who have died are shared under the header “Tigers in the Sky” (the school mascot is a tiger).
“And it’s such a sweet, sad fucking thing,” Whitley said. “And then every once in a while you’ll see someone make a Facebook post about the newest ‘Tiger in the Sky,’ which is brutal but also beautiful.”
Not that the band ignores this earthly realm, either. “Sooey Pig” is maybe the most melodic noise-rock song penned yet about the current administration being devoured by 30 to 50 feral hogs, and animals such as hissing snakes, wolves and tigers make appearances throughout, serving as a reminder of humankind’s “powerlessness against these forces that are so much greater than us,” Whitley said.
“If our stuff was just about human beings, there’s a little bit of arrogance to that, like human beings are the be all and end all to existence, which we’re just not,” Whitley continued. “For us, having the world, having animals, having nature … it’s a little bit of a humility to the power of everything else.”
While Cherubs’ music and messaging can, at times, veer caustic, with Whitley howling about a dying, at-risk planet and a human body destined for the dirt, the music is interrupted by occasional flashes of beauty both lyrically and musically — moments that serve to remind that there are still reasons to carry onward, which Whitley described as essential.
“For us, it doesn’t work unless it’s that way,” Whitley said. “Maybe you have to work for them a little bit, but it’s those little glimpses of beauty coming through that make everything click. I feel like that’s the core [of the record]. It’s about realizing people need to take care of each other, that we’re all here together, and that there’s really no separation between all of us.”