Harley Poe, the storied, acoustic-driven punk unit, is a monster of a band lead by a very gentle soul. Alt77 was lucky to interview
Joseph Whiteford, the group's singer, songwriter, and head-designer of eerie visions.
Insightful and diplomatic, Joseph talked to me about the band's origins, his creative process and Harley Poe's most recent album, the independently released "Have a great life".
The name of the band is very striking. How did you come up with the juxtaposition of a well-known writer’s name and the motorcycle brand?
It's assumed I took the name Harley Poe from the writer and the motorcycle brand, but "Harley" came from the protagonist from the movie PumpkinHead. His name was Ed Harley. I love that movie and his name has always stuck with me. "Poe" was the last name of an older kid I had met while going to church as a young teenager. In my eyes, this kid was the epitome of cool, and I remember just wanting to be like him. The names had a nice flow together.
Your lyrics contain a lot of humor, but you’re also relating tales of violence and insanity in a visually vivid way. How comfortable are you now with thinking up about these types of topics for lyrics?
It just depends on where I'm at in my head. I enjoy horror movies. I just write what comes out, depending on what's happening in my life and what kind of fiction I'm reading or watching.
I may be asking the same question twice. Forgive me for doing so, but, let’s put it this way. How comfortable would you be with having a dinner chat with a group of pathologists and morticians?
I would make a good listener, with nothing to contribute to the conversation, I'm sure.
You’ve had a long career, previously playing in the band Calibretto 13. You’ve called Harley Poe a continuation of those musical ideas. Were you worried your new music might alienate supporters of your earlier output?
Haha I wouldn't call it a career. Harley Poe did put off a lot of the Calibretto fans back when I first began touring and releasing albums, but I wasn't worried. I was being me. I have to be me. Nowadays, fans come up to me to let me know they've been following the music since Calibretto 13 and that they feel they can relate to the changes.
Are there any topics too brutal, emotionally or visually, that you simply would not touch in your lyrics?
I suppose. I hope listeners keep in mind that I'm generally writing fiction. I'm telling stories.
In recent years, Harley Poe has been associated with the folk-punk scene? Are you happy with that tag?
You are well-known for your indie, DYI work ethic. Your most recent full-length “Have a great life.” seems to have improved on the production values as compared to your earliest records. But, what would Harley Poe album with a production of millions of dollars sound like?
"Have a Great Life." was recorded in the living room of my buddy Matt Clark. He also recorded "Lost and Losing It" and the most recent live album. We did use nicer mics for "Have a Great Life." I do what's easiest, cheap, and what gives me most control. I recently began recording demos on an 8 track recorder so I can lay down music whenever I'm in creative mode. This is nice. I love it, but I don't expect anything I do to sound better than what's been released already. I plan to release these demos as eps over the next couple years. But honestly, it would be cool to have an orchestra and a million dollars a my disposal for the next album. Do I have to pay it back? I'll take it.
Quick gear question. Since you almost exclusively play acoustic guitar, what guitar are you using and how did you come to it?
For tour, I have a Martin I picked up last year while on the road, because the guitar I was using for years finally gave out. But I really love playing Art and Lutherie guitars.
Could your music be considered an anti-advertisement for visiting your city? Is Chicago, IL such a drag?
I live in a small town an hour north of Indianapolis. And, yeah, I don't know why anyone would want to come here. I dig Chicago though.
From the full stop in the title to songs like Eat shit and die and I.Don’t.Care your recent album sounds like the chronicle to the end of some type of relationship. Is this Harley Poe’s Blood on the tracks?
I call "Fallen Down" "Lost and Losing It" and "Have a Great Life." my divorce trilogy. I express myself best through music I think. It's just what came out.
I have never heard anyone cover the Pixies quite as you did on this record. How did you decide on Where is my mind and the place where it would land among the track choices? And, was the decision to quote the Sweater Song preplanned?
I've always liked that song and began playing it at home years ago. At the time, it was a song we all enjoyed playing live. Somehow the Sweater Song got thrown on the end, and my drummer Cristian recommended speeding it up. It's one I always had wanted to record at some point and it felt right for "Have a Great Life."
Are many of your lyrics indeed inspired by horror movies or is it something even more sinister at play?
I'm drawn to horror, but I don't ever watch a movie and think to myself, "I need to turn that story into a song." But my writing is definitely inspired by these movies.
After hearing Music for teenagers, I would genuinely be scared of walking past you in a dark alley. Am I just a wimp for thinking that?
Haha, possibly. But I'm sure you'd by okay. I don't think I could ever really hurt anyone. I'm not scary...at all.
I loved your live record Alive and Alone and was curious to know if you prefer official live albums of your favorite bands or scrappy bootlegs simmering with energy, but with not much sound quality.
I'd say it depends on the band or the type of music being played.
Slayer, the Misfits, Marilyn Manson. There’s a long history of popular music getting misunderstood and even blamed for various things. Have you ever been worried this could happen to Harley Poe?
Not until recently. But whatever, people like to throw stones. That's on them.
Do you think Harley Poe could count as a descendant of the historic murder ballad music genre?
When I wrote the first HP album "In the Dark" I'd say Johnny Cash was an influence on songs like "I"m Coming for You" and "Corrupting My Better Half." So maybe.
Let’s play pretend. Bob Dylan has just asked you to recommend a song of yours to cover. What would you go with? And, what about writing an original for him. What would be the name of it?
Haha, I can't answer that silly question
Let’s play pretend. You get to pick one virtuoso guitar player to play acoustic guitar on a Harley Poe song. Who could do a tasteful enough job to warrant consideration?
If you were to soundtrack the work of a famous movie director, who would it be?
See answer above.
Is it ever too late for a Harley Poe children’s album?
Nope. Hopefully it's in the cards.
Every one of your new albums sounds like it could be your last in the sense that it sounds like you still have everything to prove. Does “Have a great life.” help bookend an era in Harley Poe’s existence?
As long as I use song writing to express myself, I imagine releasing new Harley Poe albums. And there's no point in starting any new musical projects, because they'd probably just sound like what I'm already doing as Harley Poe. I guess I'll stop when the well dries up, or until they force me to shut up.