What Comes Naturally
Then, Now, and the Mental Toughness of Unnatural Helpers
In 1979, there was a leadership program started in Seattle schools called Natural Helpers—a sort of peer-counseling network for troubled youth. If you're a thirtysomething who grew up in Washington State, you might remember it (I certainly don't—my school only had D.A.R.E., the anti-drug initiative that taught teens exactly how to talk about drugs with drug dealers later in life). So the band I'd like to tell to you about, Unnatural Helpers, gets its name from that considerate program. Dean Whitmore remembers: "We couldn't just call it the Natural Helpers. It was obvious we should just go Unnatural Helpers."
While we're on the subject of Washington State peers, allow me to slow down in the KNOWN ZONE before I get issued an Inside Job ticket. I know the people who make up the current iteration of Unnatural Helpers. I lived with two of them alternately in a delightful house made entirely out of black mold, our bands have played together throughout the years, and we currently share a label. I'd say our relationship is somewhere on the "great to see you" hug spectrum but hasn't crossed into the "come over for a baptism" family dinner realm. Yet.
The Unnatural Helpers are Whitmore (drums/vocals), Andrew Sullivan (bass), Andrew Greager (guitar), and Johnnie Heinz (guitar). Their music is sturdy and tough; muscular without being gross, its muscles hidden underneath shirts; absolutely not tan or shiny. Think about aggressive fun and compact punk and garage aesthetics. Think about brash yell-singing and lyrics that wryly address problems of a social and personal nature. Now think about Seattle, 10 years ago.
The Helpers started around 2002 from an opportunity to play with Canadian punk band the Evaporators. Whitmore was standing with friends (and sometimes bandmates) Lars Finberg and Jed Maheu when Brian Foss (current Funhouse owner, past Gibson's booker) asked if he could add them to the Evaporators bill. "All of our other bands were either dead or in some state of dysfunction," Whitmore says. "I had some easy leftover songs, so, not wanting to let the chance to play with the Evaporators slip by, we told him we had a new band and that we'd take the show. That was the first version of Unnatural Helpers. We played that show and a party in Ballard—and that was it." After that, Whitmore spent the next few years writing, recording, and being a dad.
"I would record drums and vocals, and then, depending on what I was able to do—I wasn't very proficient at my four-track—I'd get down whatever else was most important. I was writing all the parts and being really specific about what I wanted," Whitmore says of his earliest methods. "This was shortly after Cass was born. I had already quit the Intelligence, quit everything I was doing, and just started writing songs, trying to figure out how to do it myself."
Cass is Whitmore's 9-year-old daughter. As the Helpers and I enjoy cans of Rainier and Mike's Hard Lemonade (fine, the latter was enjoyed only by me), Cass does math homework and listens to the old people talk about punk-rock history. "I thought my headphones were malfunctioning once while I was recording," Whitmore laughs, "but it turned out Cass was just standing behind me, singing along." He later sends me the bare-bones demo, and it's excellent. It almost sounds like a different band altogether, since Whitmore uses a keyboard to pick out notes that will later be played on guitar. "I've always just made demos to show to other people who can actually play instruments."
Whitmore is being modest, of course. His effortless gold-medal drumming and singing are better than most people's attempts at those things separately. He's like the Bo Jackson of football drumming and baseball singing! (Sorry about the sports talk, I blame the football game that was on during the interview—the recording is sprinkled with outbursts like "Did he break his nose?" and "That was a double doink!")
Since Whitmore decided to take the demos out of the basement, Unnatural Helpers have been a revolving door of lineup changes. It's an impressive talent tangle, rolodexing through some of the best musicians this town has to offer: Kimberly Morrison (the Dutchess and the Duke), Brian Standeford (the Catheters), Lars Finberg (the Intelligence), Charles Leo Gebhardt IV (also of the Catheters), and Chris Martin (Kinski), to name a few. "And nobody's ever been kicked out," Sullivan points out. "They're all just a bunch of quitters," Greager jokes.
Through the tumult, the band has managed to retain its special essence (Eau de Helper), a testament to Whitmore's ability to capture his ideas and shape them into something strong. Greager recalls his first practice with the band. He came prepared to play every song from the previous album, Cracked Love & Other Drugs, front to back. But instead, Whitmore wanted to jam on something else. "He had called [Sullivan] earlier that day and told him to hang up so he could call back and leave a voice mail. At practice, we plugged the phone into the PA, and it was just Dean's voice going DUN NUNNA DU NUNNA NUNNA."
That voice mail eventually turned into the song "Walk" off of the new Land Grab. "He does that now and then," Heinz says. "It's happened more than once." At this point, everyone breaks into a rendition of Whitmore's verbal demos, complete with light beatboxing: Doon cha doon doon cha, doon cha doon doon cha.
"We don't have any issues," Whitmore says of the current lineup. "Everyone is easygoing and on the same level. We just have the mind-set that we're going to do as much as we can. It's not a bunch of people shooting for the stars. We're realistic and it feels healthy... We like each other." So far, they've been together longer than any other combination. This is evident when they play live—they're a well-maintained thrash machine of precision and sweat. "In the beginning, the band was just whoever could play—now we don't play shows unless everyone can do it." The band duties are also more evenly distributed these days, with everyone writing and contributing to the newest album.
Land Grab is the Helpers' second long dawg (industry speak for full-length record) on Hardly Art, their third total, and the first thing I noticed about it was the pro packaging. The front cover is simple—a vaguely vintage photo of summery dandelions tangled across dark green grass. White sans-serif type sits politely in the upper left-hand corner. I was impressed—it's practically elegant! Then I opened it: Inside, the band is captured in mid-fucked-uppery against a stark backstage graffiti wall with the words Stale, Fresh, Itchy Poopkin woz here, and covered in cum positioned above each member's head. Ah, yes, that's more like it.
Land Grab is confident. The songs have shifted away from the failed relationships/bad decision themes of Cracked Love, focusing the scalding rants outward this time in a way that somehow rings positive. Everyone's contributions jell nicely, my favorite addition being the poppy backing vocals. When asked if the new album's title is a reference to the board game Risk, Whitmore explains that it has more to do with living situations or a commentary on how the world lives. "Oh, Dean will give you the 15-minute explanation," Sullivan says with a grin.
Whitmore riffs for a few more minutes while the others dissolve into laughter. "We wanted to call the album Mental Toughness," Greager says, giggling. The beers are gone and nothing makes sense anymore, but it's nice to see the Helpers' peer-counseling network has found its stability.