Randomly waking at 5:39 a.m. recently, I turned the radio on to KEXP to hear Unnatural Helpers' "She Was Your Girlfriend" in progress. The song—from the Seattle band's new album on Hardly Art, Cracked Love & Other Drugs—struts audaciously, like something from the Music Machine circa 1966, bolstered by drummer Dean Whitmore's riveting blue-collar holler. It immediately blasted away my sleep fog and launched me out of bed—and into the bathroom to take a piss. It is quite the morning motivator...
"She Was Your Girlfriend" is emblematic of Unnatural Helpers' instantly gratifying, cut-the-fat approach to rock. The band specializes in sub-two-minute bursts of tuneful rock that draws from the Nuggets comps' garage primitiveness and first-wave punk's attitudinal snarl, with sporadic flashes of poppiness sweetening up songs that typically end way before you want them to. They are masters of the abrupt ending, the always-leave-'em-wanting-more tease.
Whitmore, Unnatural Helpers' 41-year-old auteur, started playing in bands in the early '90s, with his first significant involvement coming in 1993 with Welcome. Frustrated when his own songs weren't working within Welcome's framework, he formed Double Fudge in 1998. They were a gimmicky garage band that dressed in all brown and only played house parties and "weird" shows. Around the same time, he joined the first live incarnation of the Intelligence with Lars Finberg. Later, Whitmore formed the Dipers with Finberg and A Frames' Erin Sullivan as an outlet to make loud, sloppy rock.
At some point in the '00s (Whitmore's memory is blurry), he quit all of these bands and started recording by himself. "I initially wanted Unnatural Helpers to be just a four-track project and give it to my friends, see what they came up with, and make a record," he says. "It was not very functional that way. Then my friend Mike [Wurn] and I would meet up once or twice a week and record, and at one point we booked a show, enlisted some friends, and it became a band."
Unnatural Helpers are infamous for their revolving-door lineup, with Whitmore as the lone constant in the group's history. But this isn't because he's a despotic dictator or impatient with musicians who can't hew to his vision. Guitarist Wurn simply got burned out after playing music for 15 years; bassist Kimberly Morrison—who had a major creative role in Cracked Love—became too busy with the Dutchess and the Duke; guitarist Chris Martin similarly found his main project Kinski to be too demanding of his time and energy; Brian Standeford absconded in order to pursue a graphic-design career. Unnatural Helpers' current lineup includes guitarist Andrew Greager (Scraps, ex–Popular Shapes), bassist Andrew Sullivan (ex-Trashies and many other bands), and guitarist Charles Leo Gebhardt IV (Idle Times, for whom Whitmore also drums).
"I've enjoyed how the different players affect the music," says Whitmore. "I like when somebody jars it and throws it off-kilter. Everybody who played on the record did do stuff that I never would've thought of."
Unnatural Helpers' songs—usually smart, funny, self-deprecating tunes detailing love gone awry—are sometimes frustratingly brief. Often you're just getting into them and then—pfoom—they end. And you're left thinking, "I wanted that to go on for another two minutes."
"I'm not against longer songs," says Whitmore. "It's just how they come out. The energy you get out of it, even as a player, it's kind of jarring for me and makes me happy. We never talk about song length. It's not like a mission statement."
Albums like Wire's Pink Flag and Guided by Voices' Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes impacted Whitmore's songwriting approach, and the Kurt Bloch–produced Cracked Love deserves inclusion to that canon of catchy concision—its 15 songs clock in at 26 minutes.
Cracked Love highlight "Sunshine/Pretty Girls" has potential to be a hit; it's as irresistible as anything GBV have written, but it rejects traditional pop-song verities (the titular subjects) in favor of painful vices. "It's mostly humor," Whitmore explains. "I was probably quitting smoking again or cutting back on drinking or trying to exercise, and I thought, 'Ah, fuck it.'"
Whitmore and Morrison went through a breakup in the midst of recording Cracked Love; however, the split didn't mar the Helpers' studio experience—on the contrary, Whitmore effusively praises Morrison's energy and creativity. The album title refers to tribulations the drummer's gone through with Morrison and another ex who gave birth to his daughter. It's classic lemons-into-lemonade stuff.
Beyond the nettlesome subject matter, Unnatural Helpers' trademark is songs that bear both a sloppiness and a tightness. The music thrives upon these opposing forces.
Whitmore agrees. "When it's too tight and it's too right, it's wrong. I have a really hard time listening to things that are too well-played. They kind of lose their humanity—and luckily I'm a shitty enough musician where I please myself in that department."