White Bush Unicorn

It's Better Than Nothing!
by Sal Serio
July 2017

White Bush Unicorn - photo by Danielle Kvatek

White Bush Unicorn
photo by Danielle Kvatek

Interviewing the 7-headed beast known as White Bush Unicorn was a real trip. A relatively new Madison musical conglomeration that makes a point of coloring way outside the lines, this is assuredly a group that will keep you guessing. White Bush Unicorn will be celebrating their debut recorded effort at Art In on Saturday, July 29, as part of a multimedia affair that will also feature Chicago rock band The Curls, and burlesque performers Unbookable Baby-Bear, Marina Mars, Mama No Shits, Claire Moon, and Melani Khandroma. Veteran Max Ink reporter Sal Serio caught up with various members of White Bush Unicorn, and the rest of this article speaks loudly for itself.

MAXIMUM INK:  I’m here at The Wisco with Larry and Kasondra… what instruments do you play?

KASONDRA WHITE:  I sing, and play keyboard, trumpet, and ukulele.

MI:  And you are all mostly based here in the Willy Street area?

LARRY BUSH:  That’s true. Actually, 6 of the 7 of us used to work at the St. Vinnie’s on Williamson Street. That’s kind of how we came together. Kas and I were doing a 2-piece thing for a while. We wanted to form a band and start recording some music, and it turns out that almost the entire rest of the band was already working at Vinnie’s. So, we just got in to a room together and started playing, and brought the songs in, and here we are.

MI:  How do you think the Willy St. culture has affected this group as friends and as a band?

KW:  Besides how cool the neighborhood is, I think that St. Vinnie’s has definitely given us physical things. We’ve gotten a lot of the instruments we play on stage from there. Otherwise, I just feel like [it’s] home here, so I’m able to be myself and have more creative freedom.

LB:  It is a laid back atmosphere, and our music is supposed to be entertaining and fun. So, it’s a perfect spot for that. [It’s] very accepting.

MI:  This is a 7-piece band that uses a lot of non-traditional instruments for a rock band. Did you already want to use these different instruments, or was that just a result of the thrift store finds?

KW:  I guess I just upgraded. I got a better keyboard from working there, and a few weeks ago got a brand new trumpet as a gift from someone else who works there.

LB:  I think that occurred naturally, because we’ve been the chief writers at this point. She writes on piano and I write on guitar, so the keyboard was going to be in there. The sax was kind of an accident. Alley [Bacon] is just a good friend of ours, who happened to play sax.

KW:  I don’t know about the melodica… that was a St. Vinnie’s find that was like, oh, we can play this on stage!

LB:  I don’t think we had any predestined plan. We just wanted to do something cool with a lot of people.

MI:  You’re obviously a band that is interested in various types of artistic endeavors, and now you’ve become the house band at Art In, which seems like a copacetic arrangement. How did that come together?

LB:  We just booked a show there like we would any other. We were trying to facilitate a touring band called The Young Step, from Florida.

KW:  We had our friend doing burlesque during that, so there were good bands, people painting while we were playing, and extra stuff.

LB:  We’ve had live painting during every show so far. But, [that night] after we finished playing, the guy who runs the joint, Jack Chandler, was really in to the music and approached me right away. He’s given us creative control to try to get people there and just have a good time.

MI:  Considering that Madison has such a robust art and music community, with so much creativity going on, I’d think more bands would be doing multi-cultural shows like you are.

KW:  I’ve seen it one other time. I’m a visual artist, and so are a few other members of the band. [But] it’s just really easy, and it’s fun to paint while you’re listening to live music.

LB:  I never approached it as filling a void or anything like that. I just play because I like performing and I’m proud of our music. But since we are both visual artists, and it’s really fun and we want it to be an entertaining audio-visual experience, we figured, why not? It’s just another element of the show.

MI:  And your CD release party is also going to be at Art In?

LB:  Yes, we’ll be releasing the CD physically when we kick off the residency on Saturday, July 29. The band that’s going to be joining us to close out the night are The Curls, coming up from Chicago, and they are super brilliant. We’re doing a full digital release with Jimmy K, prior to when this [article comes out]. We’ve put out the single and video “Weigh On Me”. The thing with the Art In, it’s something unique for the scene. We’ll be in there every third Saturday from now on, and we’re going to try to throw the biggest party possible. It will be called “White Bush Unicorn Presents”. We want to have vendors, a gallery, live painting, catering, burlesque performers, and pole dancers. My idea too, is [that] I want to showcase touring bands. Obviously, I want it to be a mixture, because I want to help build the [local] scene any way I can, but I think it’s cool to showcase underground musicians who are traveling and need the support.

MI:  Tell me more about the new recording.

LB:  We haven’t fully decided, but it will more likely just be digital and CD. It was recorded on tape, though, at Williamson Magnetic, right here on Willy St.

MI:  Who engineered it?

KW:  Mark Haines. It was cool, and he is really good!

MI:  And the name of the E.P.?

KW:  ‘Better Than Nothing’. [laughing]

LB:  It’s going to be released independently, but we’ve been sending press kits to labels, just because it’s worth a shot. But, there’s a lot of labels we look up that say they don’t even accept new music anymore. They’re more about scouting, than people coming to them, which I understand. It’s idealistic, but we’ve been trying to conquer that aspect.

MI:  You mentioned the video for “Weigh On Me”. Is it on YouTube?

KW:  “Weigh On Me” is kind of my baby. It’s one of the favorite songs I’ve ever written… it just kind of fell out of me. But, our band member, the other guitar player Marco [Antoniolli], was talking about getting old video clips together, all the free public domain stuff online, and so he pieced it together. It’s kind of creepy, so it fits the song. He gave us a rough sample and then went back and edited it, figured out how to do fades… he did it all himself. It was crazy that it was the first video he’s ever made.

LB:  And to digress, [about] the ‘Better Than Nothing’ title… Kas and I devised this idea a couple years ago that we would have this babysitting service, or this cleaning service, where we just do, like, an “okay” job. [laughing] They come home, you know, and the kids are covered in syrup, and it’s like, well they’re alive, it’s better than nothing!

KW:  Same with the E.P. It’s only a few songs, but it’s better than nothing!

MI:  I listened to the four songs, and found them very interesting. There’s a lot of avant grade stuff going on. With 7 different musicians and all the various instruments you have in the mix, the music really breaks out of that bass-drums-guitar rock format. Which lends itself to those songs having unique identities and personalities. Also, Larry, I know you’re a big Zappa fan… and I hear a little bit of that, but even more Captain Beefheart. What’s your connection to that kind of music, and how does it inspire you?

LB:  You don’t hear things like that very often, and I think it’s okay to try new things just for the sake of trying them. As much as I adore rock ‘n roll, and I’ve written a shit ton of rock, folk, and country songs, I don’t necessarily want to write that as much anymore. I just want to try to stretch things out and wiggle my hands around and see if weird things happen. So, I guess just the uniqueness if it, and the madcap comedic nature of it too… part of our stage performance is to be goofy and make faces, so, I think music should be fun and unique. I’m lucky too, because even though I bring most of the songs, I don’t ever tell anyone what to play. And I don’t know music theory, how to read or write music, so it’s all off-the-cuff. That’s the difference between us, and someone like Frank, who was an utter control freak and wrote what everyone [had to play]. It produced some brilliant stuff, but I would never want to do that because I trust the players around me to be creative. That’s why we are who we are. Everyone is so god damn creative and interesting.

KW:  Everyone is so talented.

MI:  Who writes the lyrics, both of you?

LB:  Typically, if I’m singing it, I wrote it. The John and Paul thing.

MI:  Some of it, like ‘Cosmo’, was really cracking me up. It seemed kind of autobiographical.

KW:  Yeah, that’s such a great song! It was like, what would make your day shitty, and he was writing down a bunch of things! [laughing]

LB:  That was the genesis of it. It’s not super autobiographical. Most of it is hypothetical. [But there is the line] “My kids call me Larry and they hate my jokes”. That is basically a nihilistic song where this guy is having the worst day ever. All this terrible shit is happening. Then he realizes how small he is in the universe, and he learns to just take a deep breath and enjoy it.

MI:  How did you two get together with the other 5 members of White Bush Unicorn?

KW:  We wanted to try to record some of our music, and we knew [all] these people. We had jammed before, just hanging out. I think as soon as Raul, the drummer, came [in]…

LB:  That’s when it got real.

KW:  Yeah, so, we’re all working at Vinnie’s and jamming together. Raul was drumming with their other band, the Grunt Bunch, and we stole him! [laughing]

LB:  White Bush Unicorn consumed [Grunt Bunch]… everyone that was in that band is in this band now. We just kind of ate them! I wanted to get a band together for this type of music for a long time. It’s absolutely my dream band. I’ve played in rock ‘n roll bands and I super loved that. It’s primal and a beautiful thing, but some of this stuff I couldn’t bring to those bands. It wouldn’t have come to life.

MI:  But this group is still pretty new, right? When was the first gig?

LB:  January of this year.

KW:  Our first practice was Halloween. We practiced and then got a gig at the High Noon right away!

MI:  I was going to say, it seemed like you got some fairly high profile gigs right away.

LB:  The reason we got our debut show at High Noon with Nester and Dash Hounds, two bands that are way over our heads, is they knew us personally and just invited us. They had no idea what we sounded like.

KW:  It’s been a lot of friends doing us favors, for sure.

LB:  And we’ve been working hard and staying really busy. I’m one of those weirdos that thinks we’re going to make it. So, we’re trying to book a 2-week tour in October, and we’re playing at least once a month in town, and we really want to put Art In on the map, and make that an “event”. We want it to be a cultural thing.

KW:  It’s always going to be a party that Saturday, whether it’s food, art, burlesque… all that stuff.

MI:  I glad to hear that you want to tour. I always encourage local bands to do that.

LB:  Yeah, we’re looking forward to that. It’s going to be hard, and maybe it’s going to suck. Maybe we’ll fall apart, but we won’t know until we try it. To that effect, I’ve already done that with two different bands in this town, where we formed a band, we played some really cool shows for a couple of years, and we kind of faded out. I’ve done that, and [now] it’s time to go for it. As my guitar player put it to me the other day, we have to start hitting it now, because we’re both 27, [and] that’s like “this close” to balding, man! [laughing]

KW:  None of us have families or anything. We’re not tied down to anything.

LB:  That’s another great aspect. We’re all essentially single, or dating, or whatever. There [are] 3 couples in the band!

[at this point Alley and Raul join us]

LB:  This is Alley, she plays saxophone.

MI:  Hi Alley! We’re just winding down this interview. Is there anything you’d like to say about White Bush Unicorn?

RAUL RAMOS:  We’re not nice people. [laughing]

MI:  Aha… so, you’re the drummer! I heard you were the missing link. Every band needs a good drummer.

LB:  Raul is like a weirdo kid who likes mostly modern music. I’m trying to convert him…

KW:  He doesn’t know any old music! [laughing]

RR:  Yeah, I’m not sure who The Rolling Stones are, or any of that shit. It’s funny, because Larry and I are very much music nerds, but of different eras. Most of the bands I listen to are from the 2010s, and the way I find them is through Bandcamp and YouTube, and that’s just like a foreign language for Larry.

LB:  It is! His style is more like math-rocky, super weird, all over the place, and I’m kind of odd in my own way [but] still kind of traditional. Kas has got everything going on…

KW:  I’m super poppy.

LB:  The other guitar player [Marco] is like a punk rock guy.

ALLEY BACON:  I don’t what the fuck I do.

LB:  Yeah, you and Ahna are different, I don’t know… [referring to AhnaMarie Grove: marching bells, flute, melodica, vocals]

KW:  You guys are musically trained though. You read sheet music.

  Jordi [Hipple, bass guitar] is a snobby musical person too, though. He reads a bunch of sheet music and knows all the terms. Unlike Larry…

RR:  It’s just a melting pot of weirdness.

AB:  We are [all] very different, in our musical styles.

LB:  It’s weird to me, because, you know I’m a big Frank Zappa fan, I never shut up about it. But, I never thought that anything we did ever sounded like [that]. I knew [our music] was kind of weird maybe, but on a technical level, it’s not even close. But, almost every show now somebody says that. It’s makes me wonder about the subconscious aspect of writing. It’s not like I do it on purpose or anything, but when multiple people say that, it’s like, maybe it is creeping in, you know?

RR:  Your influences definitely bleed out in to everything you play.

MI:  But, I said Beefheart, remember? [laughing] Because your music is more wide open. Zappa is too immediately identifiable, but you did have the humorous lyrics, so maybe that has a lot to do with the FZ association.

KW:  [to me] I think you know Frank Zappa more than the common person. Just assuming!

LB:  I don’t ever want to be that rigid either. That’s why there’s a couple punk songs in the set, there’s a blues song, there’s… whatever the fuck “Cosmo” is… whatever “Weigh On Me” is…

RR:  It’s a power ballad.

KW:  We have a waltz…

LB:  When people [ask] what kind of music we play, I say I don’t know. I don’t know if we ask too much of an audience, not like it’s super sophisticated or anything, but the ideal situation, to me, would be to appeal to the super music geek and the average listener. That is like the utopia. Sometimes I wonder if we’re throwing too much shit at people [but] we’ve gotten a lot of positive reinforcement. People seem to like us so far.

MI:  Cool. Well, since I’ve got four of you here now, let’s wrap this up with the question: if I were a complete stranger and knew nothing about your band, why should I go to your record release party on July 29th?

AB:  There’s going to be a bunch of different people there doing different things. Music is going to be a part of it, but there’s going to be different acts going on. Artists, burlesque dancers…

KW:  Our friend the “Unbookable Baby-Bear” will be there!

AB:  He’s a burlesque dancer…

KW:  Yeah, he’s got a beard! He’s a great emcee.

LB:  He’s going to emcee the event. “Baby-Bear” will be co-producing every month, basically booking all non-live music aspects of the show.

KW:  He has his own monthly thing going on at club FIVE. I’m going to say [show up because] there’s going to be free stuff. People love free stuff!

RR:  It’s going to be an event mixed with really good music. The Curls, from Chicago, [who are] an insane band. We’re going to have a lot of talented people doing a lot of weird shit.

AB:  It’s going to be entertaining.

LB:  That pretty much hits the nail on the head. It’s going to be a huge party. Audio, visual, good people from every type of community in the city… It’s going to be diverse, fun, and loose. I don’t know why you wouldn’t come!

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White Bush Unicorn
CD: Better Than Nothing Record Label: White Bush Unicorn