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Sipping brews at Tempe's Time Out Lounge, The Whisperlights try to warm up on an especially chilly night in Arizona. On their table sit five paper cutouts, each bearing the face of a band member, artfully taped to wooden dowels. Drummer Wasef El-Kharouf, one of three members of the band in attendance, beams with pride, introducing each handmade mask with the fervor of a mad scientist.
Such exuberant creativity, and the wonders of a good old-fashioned phone tree, played a big part in the creation of this band. So far, so good: The recording process for their first record already had them sitting in Trent Reznor's chair (literally), drinking coffee made by a $9,000 machine, and playing John Legend's drums. Not bad, right?
The Whisperlights are a local supergroup of sorts, combining the forces of Illya Riske from Reindeer Tiger Team, Owen Marshall, who is also known as one-man experimental performer Owl Out, El-Kharouf, who has "drummed around" in Alcoholiday and Porches, and classically trained violinist Tobie Milford, also of Porches.
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Here's how it all came together: Marshall and El-Kharouf met while working in the music department at Arizona State University's radio station (disclosure: I also worked there). The two played a few shows as White Coyote and Brother Nature, sharing a passion for the merging of audio and visual elements in performance. Meanwhile, Marshall and Milford had also met at ASU and started busking on corners during First Fridays, showcasing Milford's violin looping skills and Marshall's guitar work.
Riske knew El-Kharouf from his days playing in the improvisational noise-punk project The Coke Balloons, a band known for its impromptu parking lot shows and general mayhem. Around the same time, Riske was part of Reindeer Tiger Team. Riske had recently moved back to Phoenix after a teaching stint in Kosovo, where he played in the band Por No ("something for nothing" in Spanish). He called El-Kharouf and the two decided to start making music together. Marshall joined the pack, and then Milford.
"We had a lot of debate about our band name," Milford says. "And we recently found out that it's a brand of a stove."
Riske, in contrast, assures us that he was familiar with MSR's famous backpacking stove.
Their sound is perhaps described best as The Walkmen, Andrew Bird, and Cold War Kids jamming together on a sailboat. After paying their dues in local clubs, the band recorded free of charge at the venerable Chalice Studios in Los Angeles, courtesy of El-Kharouf's longtime buddy Christopher "Creeko" Kasych, who works there.
"The recording process was generally surreal, as most of our recording time was spent at night and with relatively little sleep," Marshall says. "The place was very fancy, but windowless and disorienting. It was clear that we were nothing like the typical clientele."
"Literally the day before we went in to the studio, John Legend was recording there, and I got to play his drums," El-Kharouf says. "We definitely savored the moment."
Among the lavish accouterments were a purportedly $9,000 coffee machine and a massage chair favored by Trent Reznor. Marshall took a seat in said chair, but it wasn't as relaxing as he had hoped.
"I was creeped out pretty immediately and stopped," Marshall says. "[Reznor's] studio was next door, and it looked like the set from The Cell."
Apart from getting treatment on par with others who have recorded at Chalice, including The Beastie Boys, Alicia Keys, and Yoko Ono, the band had to pack in an album's worth of recording — seven songs in total — into three days of seven-hour sessions. Milford says, "We were all blown away by what we did." El-Kharouf adds. "They even got me to sing on it! That's something I definitely never thought I'd do."
Baby Aviators' Dave Gironda became the fifth Whisperlight after he was seen dancing outlandishly during one of the band's gigs. Gironda approached The Whisperlights, proclaiming his love for the band, and asked to join on trumpet, piano, and guitar.
"He sold himself really well, so we went for it," Milford says.
Despite the easygoing nature of The Whisperlights' members, the band is constantly working and playing out almost every week. Everyone in the band has played in other bands with varying degrees of success and stress, but this project seems to be about having fun and enjoying the ride, wherever it may lead.
"There was always the swath of political agenda [in past music projects] and this urgency of trying to make it," El-Kharouf says. "All this was ever about was good times."
"But at the same time, we're really driven 'cause we love what we're doing," Riske adds.
This year, The Whisperlights plan to release their full-length debut (working title: Symphonic Rebellion). Creeko is mixing the record, although lately he has been occupied with Timbaland. Once finalized, the band will send the record out to labels, blogs, and college radio stations and see what response it gets back, Riske says. When asked whether any labels have been seriously discussed as priorities, James Fella's Gilgongo Records comes up, as does Modern Art Records and bigger indies Merge and Fat Possum. El-Kharouf adds with a laugh, "But Gilgongo rules. Put that in there."