- Whitechapel: They're not new wave, they're New Order (from left: Eric Pollarine, Nate Tomasch, and Ben Childs).
Music has a little bit to do with it too. The Cleveland trio might be the city's most signable band. It's definitely the most danceable. On a recent Thursday night, the three members are swimming in booze and floating on cigarette smoke in the back room of the Lakewood tavern Mullen's of Letterfrack.
Childs and bassist Eric Pollarine live on the other side of town, but Lakewood is Whitechapel's home. The two have been best friends since 2000, and if you haven't seen them play live, you still might recognize them if you attended a Phantasy '80s night around 2002. They were the ringleaders of a frantically dancing circle of regulars, trying hard to recreate the hard-kibitzing vibe of Manchester's Hacienda nightclub, as dramatized in 24 Hour Party People. The dancing, booze, and pills didn't quite satisfy them, so they went one step further, recreating the Mancunian music. In just over a year as a band, Whitechapel has released three EPs and an LP, refining a sound that's more like classic New Order than any New Order albums from the last decade.
"People walk up and say, 'We love you,'" says keyboardist Nate Tomasch. "So I say, 'Great. Buy a New Order CD.' I'm so tired of artists who won't admit their influences. When it comes to artistic integrity, truth is a silver bullet. Admitting your influences is not an egregious crime."
A hulk in wire-rimmed glasses, Tomasch is a most rare creature: a computer geek who can kick your ass. Standing six foot eight and weighing 329 pounds, the art brute is a student of chemistry, philosophy, and judo. He honed practical self-defense skills as a bouncer across town, where he developed a distaste for passive local music fans, which Childs shares.
"I hate crowds where people won't react," Childs says, stringy dishwater-blond hair hanging in his face, a dark scarf looped around his neck. "Like at the Hi-Fi Club, some guy's standing at the bar, but he's afraid to clap because that will interrupt him standing around and looking like Jack White. Annabell's in Akron is the Sarlaacc Pit from Return of the Jedi, but it's a great place to play. When we played there, there was shit dripping from the ceiling, but it was a phenomenal show, because people got up and danced."
"I would really like to be a driving force in Cleveland, because we have civic pride," adds Pollarine, dressed in a dark suit, his striped tie loosened -- he's not trying to look like he's in Interpol; he's unwinding from his day job as a banker. "But Cleveland could give a shit. Unfortunately, Akron-Canton is more receptive to what we do."
Whitechapel formed in late 2004, taking its name from the London district where Jack the Ripper did his wet work. Before Tomasch joined, Childs and Pollarine had floundered through a series of projects from acoustic to rockabilly. Childs' breathy early vocals were described as "Morrissey meets Danzig," while Pollarine developed a Peter Hook-indebted one-string bass style.
Childs writes Whitechapel's somewhat nasty lyrics, ably continuing the ice-cold British tradition of razor-sharp missives from disappointed romantics. In songs like "Love Goes" and "Yesterday," he has an emo-like, nakedly egocentric reaction to love's travails, but expresses it with some style and substance, writing obsessively about girls he doesn't even seem to really like.
Live, the band members boost the mix up 20 BPM faster, sweating out all the beer they warmed up with, occasionally pausing to destroy a bass. Tomasch keeps the rhythm stable as Childs and Pollarine careen around, moving from one song to another through trancelike transitions, locked into simple beats from a pre-programmed EMU Proteus PK-6 synthesizer. Tomasch calls the steady rhythm from the primitive keyboard "dancing within the box."
For all their boozing, the band members are workaholics. In 14 months, they've played 57 shows, and the band's most notable lack of discipline is its tendency to announce a hiatus from live gigs, then end the break a week later. Unlike most popular regional groups, they don't stick to a couple venues or hold out for better shows. In addition to Cleveland's A-list circuit, they accept invitations to Pat's in the Flats, Akron's Thursdays Lounge, and Sadie Rene's in Canton.
"We can keep playing to our fans, but we're after what I call the 'walk-in fans,'" says Tomasch. "Expanding your fan base makes the difference."
Childs swears that Whitechapel will start 2006 by taking a break after this week's gig at the Grog, but that already looks doubtful. For this year, members say, their top priorities are to get sponsored by Guinness and a cigarette company. Then they want to get some rest and work on their next disc.
"We want to record an album of extremely polished, commercial songs," says Tomasch. "A kickass, modern, relevant album."
For the second LP, they plan to move beyond the New Order-Joy Division thing, but just a little: Maybe add some live drums, then venture out of Ohio, hit New York City, Chicago, Detroit -- someplace where everybody dances. Their prospects are good. Whitechapel could be the city's best shot at joining the '80s revival, even if the group members don't see themselves as part of the zeitgeist.
"We don't consider ourselves part of the nü -- umlaut on the 'nu' -- wave," says Childs. "We've been working toward this our whole lives."
"Retro '80s is the Bravery," says Tomasch. "And that's fake. We are the evolution of that era, that style. We're not new wave -- we're New Order."
Pollarine says Whitechapel is just concerned with its triangle of friends and the music they can make, not with fitting someone else's art-boy image.
"I agree with Eric from Downtown Daggers," Pollarine says, rows of empty Labatt Blue bottles lined up in front of him in neat pairs. "He says we are the most punk-rock band in Cleveland, because we are not punk rock. We go onstage, we do what we do, and we go home."