That house partywas truly one of the best I’ve been to at Northwestern. Maybe it was because I had just the right amount to drink beforehand, or that we scored a Saferide to get there so we didn’t have to walk through the cutting January wind, or that I was with the right friends or that some unexpected faces showed up to the house a couple of minutes after I did.
But what pushed the party over the edge was the band.
I first noticed the stage was close to ready when the rainbow lights started flashing. Cute choice for a band called whysowhite, I thought. I knew that a live band was going to play, but I didn’t know where in the house or when it would be. Then I saw that this so-called stage was actually just the corner of the basement surrounded by holiday lights and the blue striped, red star-studded flag of Chicago.
People started to crowd the basement, making a beeline from the back where the kegs were, to the front where the band was going to be. All seven members had to wiggle their way through the crowd to get to their instruments, which they set up themselves an hour before. Once they got there, though, they assumed the center of attention.
Immediately, all seven managed to make that basement explode. From their first song to their cover of The Darkness’ “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” to a dance-off between the three lead men, whysowhite turned that basement into their own personal Riviera Theatre.
The cops, the bane of every college party, were sure to come, I thought. How could a party this loud, this crowded and this late be allowed to continue? Before the last song, the guitarist calmed everyone down to confront that problem.
“Are the cops here yet?” he asked the room.
“No!” replied the pulsating crowd.
“Well, then this one’s for you!” he yelled back into the mic as the keyboardist standing to his left jumped into the opening chords of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You.”
I took out my phone and wrote a message to myself reminding me of that moment, knowing that I would forget it as soon as my head hit the pillow later that night. Right then I decided I would write this article.
Before I got the green light for this article, however, I jumped at the opportunity to interview whysowhite for Mayfest’s newly minted music blog, May the Fest. I only knew the drummer, Weinberg senior Zack Levine, and reached the band through him.
I walked into the same basement where the party was, a house on Pratt called the Estate. They hold most of their practices in the same basement, but as I walked through the foyer I saw them sitting on dilapidated couches and torn armchairs. I stood against a wall and asked them to introduce themselves.
“I’m Dave ‘Big-Dick’ Sumberg. But they call me Dave ‘Str8-Boogie’ Sumberg and I play bass,” said the McCormick and Bienen senior.
“I’m Davis Haines and I also go by ‘D-Pop Fantastic,’” said the 20-year-old percussionist and one of the three front men.
“I am Nicholas McMillan and I sing. ‘Big Nick the Sun’ is my nickname too,” said the 21-year-old lead vocalist.
“Zack ‘Luscious’ Levine,” said the drummer.
“Charlie Moonbeam,” said the DePaul senior. Moonbeam, who plays keyboard, is the third of the three front men and the twin brother of Davis Haines, but he uses Moonbeam as his stage name.
“I’m Chris ‘Danger’ Miller, and I play the guitar,” said the lead guitarist, a Bienen senior.
“Charlie ‘The Funk Dr.’ Dwyer,” said the rhythm guitarist, a senior at DePaul.
After introductions, we started talking about their mix of musical styles and the mood turns hipster-serious.
“I’ve heard people describe us as the Beastie Boys, a little bit of Parliament Funk and Umphrey’s McGee — the jammier side of Umphrey’s McGee,” says Dwyer. “We’re structured more than a jam feel, but we still have a jam feel.”
“But we just tweeted like three days ago that we’re not the Beastie Boys,” McMillan shoots back. “It’s ‘cause there are three of us, and we’re white and we rap. Any hip-hop group layers their vocals. The Beastie Boys are known for their rhythmic style, and we do not match their rhythmic style.”
All three front men — Haines, Moonbeam and McMillan — write their lyrics with precision and try not to cop out and add a lazy line to make the rhyme work. The whole band gets involved as well, having rap battles via text.
“And this is speaking for all three of us,” says McMillan. “It’s about phonetics, about how the word sounds in your mouth. It’s about syllables and forming the shape. It’s not always about the word, but about how you shape the word — the expression of it. Like ‘didactic syntax’ in that first verse [of “Get Busy”]. I specifically like that because it’s really choppy, it’s a quick rhythm and it is didactic syntax — so that’s the play on words.”
Levine, who provides the driving backbeat that the rest of whysowhite relies on, finds that the abnormally large size of the band — seven members in all — helps make whysowhite so engaging.
“I feel like the three — Nick, Davis and Moonbeam — can be completely focused on being front men at certain points in time,” says Levine. “And then there’s still fucking four of us in the back, working on the groove and the feel of the song.”
They manage to work in harmony for what they see as the meaning of the band and the message they want to spread. “[The name] is not about race, but it is about color,” explains McMillan. “That’s our slogan — whysowhite is a question. It’s about blankness; it’s about nothingness. We say question your life and fill in the blank spots. Make it colorful; make your life something that is not stale, that is not static, that is not white noise. We’re against blankness and blandness.”
Preparing for their first ever show at the DePaul Student Center on Oct. 14 was an early sign that whysowhite was something more serious than a dorm room jam band.
“We had been in a cave for three months leading up to that,” says Moonbeam. “Socially, we didn’t hang out with our friends as much anymore. […] We rehearsed all the time; all we talked about was whysowhite. And this was the culmination of that.”
“That was the moment we were like, ‘We’re in a band, but we’re taking it seriously,’” Dwyer adds.
The first show ever featured Haines on the drum set because Levine hadn’t been found to replace him yet. Still, whysowhite began to make fans.
“That show [at DePaul] was fucking great,” says Sumberg. “We had 60 to 70 people there for our first gig ever. People were dancing and singing. It surpassed our expectations and reaffirmed why we were playing together.”
Dance Marathon was whysowhite’s introduction to Northwestern at large. The first house party at the Estate was fun and gave some students a taste of what they could do. But for this show, whysowhite put themselves on the chopping block. Instead of their normal drunken and raucous crowd, they faced sleep-deprived dancers who wanted no more than a foot massage and a chair.
The Q&A for May the Fest was an introduction of whysowhite to Northwestern on the eve of their performance at DM. In the interview, Sumberg was optimistic about what they could bring to the tired and sore dancers. “I’m excited because danceability is something we think about a lot while putting our songs together. It’s going to be a challenge for everybody because we’ll be playing the 25th hour or something. It’s tough for them because they’ve been dancing, and it’s tough for us because it’s our job to keep them dancing. We really want to do it. Our approach to this set is less about what material of ours we can get out, but how can we get these people who’ve been up for an entire day to keep moving. And completely rejuvenate them.”
Weinberg senior Jason Catanese, a Dance Marathon dancer relations co-chair and Battle of the Bands judge, selected whysowhite after their performance at Prairie Moon Feb. 21. “We ultimately selected whysowhite to perform at DM because we felt as though they could connect best to the dancers and hype of the crowd,” he says. “I think every person at BOTB would agree that their energy was contagious and it made you want to get up and dance. That is what we were looking for in a band and whysowhite delivered.”
After more than 20 hours of dancing, I was excited to see them play from what I remembered at their first house party. I moved to the center of the tent to get a better view and waited for them to finish setting up. They came onstage and played a similar set to their house party, running through their original work and the same covers. Not surprisingly, they were dancing onstage harder than the students in the crowd. But their energy must have transferred to us below, because all of a sudden I was in the middle of a crazy pit as alive as the house party two months earlier.
All of that energy onstage is exactly how whysowhite wants to put on a show. They don’t plan on holding anything back. “We generally like to start shows by berating the audience for not having as much fun as we are,” McMillan says.
“People said that historically, that is a low point,” says Miller of the reactions he got from dancers after the 30 hours were over, “and it wasn’t quite so low.”
“Whysowhite executed their set perfectly at DM and the dancers seemed to really enjoy themselves,” says Catanese. “Overall, I felt as though the performance was a win for both the dancers and whysowhite, as they seemed to really enjoy themselves onstage.”
My first whysowhite show for this story was at The Ace Bar in Lincoln Park. I was on their list so I didn’t have to risk using my friend’s fake ID. The crowd was clearly different from their first house party in late January. They were mostly older working adults who came to the bar to blow off steam on a Saturday night in early April. All of whysowhite was hanging in the back, sipping beer and watching an opening band that sounded like Hootie & the Blowfish if Darius Rucker was white. The opener even played Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” with a country twang.
McMillan laughed, pulling my shoulder back so he could look at me. “We decided tonight not to play that song again.”
Whysowhite got onstage at The Ace Bar around midnight and played like they were in the basement of that first house party. It didn’t matter that some of their crowd was more than 10 years older than them. They still jumped around onstage like second-graders on a sugar high during recess. And surprisingly, they got most of the people at the bar to stay until they finished around 2 a.m.
At the show, McMillan made sure everyone watching was excited. “Are you guys having a good time?” he asked.
“Well, we like to have the best time in the room!” Moonbeam replied, and the band began playing a cover of The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.”
Before that show, I only thought of whysowhite as a college band, meant for college students because they were all college-aged kids. And it made sense: They threw an incredible house party unlike any other at Northwestern. But they carried the stage with professionalism at The Ace Bar, despite the fact that it was only their ninth show together.
Manager and DePaul senior Joe Anhalt has been with the band since its inception. He and McMillan worked together in an a cappella group at DePaul and currently share an apartment in Lakeview.
Anhalt’s view on the band is as exultant as McMillan’s tone is optimistic. “We are confident our sound will translate to any venue,” says Anhalt. “And we are equally as excited to start playing at new venues with a new audience.”
They earned a residency spot at The Ace Bar after only their fourth show together. After hearing about the band’s previous show at Lincoln Hall, The Ace Bar’s promoter offered them a chance to play. He was so surprised at the crowd they drew after only three days of promotion through Facebook and word of mouth that he offered them a residency that night.
Frank Krolicki, editor of Chicago music blog Windy City Rock, knows the importance of social media to any band trying to get attention. He has seen bands rise and fall in Chicago over the years and knows why some make it and others don’t.
“From what I’ve seen, it’s pretty tough to impress people as a live band in Chicago,” says Krolicki. “You have to be really outstanding, and sometimes that doesn’t even seem to be enough to get people out. Not only do you have to be amazing at performing, you have to be really skilled at using social media and promoting yourself to get people aware of you and excited about coming out to see your show. Bands have to work hard.”
Getting the gig is every struggling band’s hope, and The Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman sifts through the noise to find the perfect bands to play most nights at his Ukrainian Village bar and nightclub.
Finkelman finds artists through links sent by bands themselves or referrals from friends around town. “Basically you’re looking for music that’s relevant, music that has something to it,” says Finkelman. “I might not like it, but I’ll still understand if there’s something to it.”
The Empty Bottle has brought Passion Pit, Girl Talk, The White Stripes and Arcade Fire to Chicago in their 18 years of operation, so Finkelman has developed an ear for what could be the next big thing.
“There’s no specific type of band that gets the best reception,” says Finkelman. “It’s more or less if the band has something going for them — something that’s good. I think it all goes down to if they’re good at what they do — if they’re passionate, if they’re true to their concept.”
A week after their show at The Ace Bar, whysowhite threw their second house party at the Estate. It was louder, longer, sweatier and drunker than what they threw the first time around. Buzz had built up a little more on campus: Word spread that they threw “the best party at Northwestern.” Or at least their Facebook event said so.
Before they finished their second song — “Renegade,” a whysowhite original — they blew a fuse and had to wait it out. Not a man to be deterred, Moonbeam grabbed a megaphone and controlled the energy of the crowd while the power to the amps and lights were down. Moments later, the power came back and the band jumped back to the spot where they were cut off.
The entire band agreed that their second party at the Estate was better than their first. If there is one barometer of how energetic their shows can be, it’s the state of their shirts after their encore, says Miller. “There is a direct correlation between how much we sweat and how much we play.”
“And that was the most we’ve ever sweat,” says McMillan of their second Estate party, finishing Miller’s thought.
The power failed twice more, but Moonbeam, McMillan and Haines kept the crowd entertained with some a cappella singing, improvised dance moves and more megaphone. “Playing the kind of music we play, we have to be very conscious of the crowd’s energy,” says Moonbeam. “I think that’s one thing that I came away from our most recent gig, the house party we had [April 8]. That was huge for us. The power went out three times, and we had to analyze the energy of the crowd and calm them down. We were able to do that and keep rocking out. For us, that’s a really important skill that we have.”
After seeing whysowhite play in a basement packed with students, Weinberg senior Jackie Beard and Communication senior Elisa Redish were sold. “Everyone was jumping up around,” says Redish. “People around me were hitting their head on the ceiling. I’ve been to other parties there, but that [whysowhite] party was so crowded.”
Beard recognized the band as something stereotypical that she had been missing during her four years on campus. “This is what I thought college would be like,” Beard says.
Ambitiously, whysowhite are trying to break into the Chicago music scene. In six months, they hope to be playing regularly around Chicago.
“The idea of playing at Northwestern was kind of exotic at first,” says Moonbeam. “It was a no-brainer because a couple of guys in the band go here, but in the beginning we were planning on becoming a Chicago band. In order to truly represent Chicago, we believe that we need to be known and welcomed in every neighborhood.”
Krolicki, who has seen the demise of dozens of Chicago bands and the rise of a lucky few, believes that promotion can make or break the band. “Getting the word out in every way possible can make a huge difference,” Krolicki says. Playing an incredible live show isn’t enough in the Chicago music scene, and he thinks Facebook, Twitter and a band blog can help to make the jump from a novelty act to the real thing.
To spread their music and get more gigs, whysowhite is at work recording their first CD this spring and they hope to release it late summer or early fall. They’ve already written enough original material for a full-length album.
Finkelman has seen bands with promise and the right energy fail because they couldn’t focus on their future. The most frustrating part of his job is when he books a great sounding band that does nothing to promote the show at The Empty Bottle. Then they get onstage and play a great set to a handful of people.
Sharing comes easily for the band and they keep an active online presence through witty posts on Facebook and Twitter. They have also filmed a music video of their first house party at Northwestern, made a mini-documentary that features their original song, “Exhale,” and are accustomed to photographers snapping shots during their live sets. They’re confident that they will be heard locally and around the country. “This is a band with a message and a very powerful and unique voice,” says Anhalt. “It will be heard by millions, I kid you not.”
Whysowhite may be playing in basements now, but Moonbeam’s sights are set on something bigger for the future. “Northwestern has been good to us,” he says half-joking, half-serious. “But we think the world would be better.”