The Yes Wave: Whitehaus happenings and a conversation with Morgan Shaker

by John Stephen Dwyer on March 18, 2010

Morgan Shaker is prominent among the young creatives at the Whitehaus–the Jamaica Plain musician, poet, and artist co-op known for its DIY philosophy and positive “yes wave” attitude. One of many musicians under that roof, he often takes a lead role as organizer and promoter of events. Friendly and thoughtful, he’s frequently called upon to share his philosophy about what the Whitehaus Family is and does.

Right now, Morgan Shaker is busy promoting Blastfest III, March 20th, at the Cambridge YMCA. It’s an equinox celebration that runs 11 AM to 11 PM and features the talents of over two dozen acts. It’s also all ages show, and admission is $5 to $10 “on a sliding scale…no one refused”– a remarkable bargain for twelve hours of entertainment. Once admitted, you may come and go as you please.

An improbably wide variety of musical styles will be represented. Taken collectively, these dissimilar sounds contribute to Blastfest’s “Weird New America” vibe. Blastfest is an unusual event for sure, but it’s also part of a tradition of independent event promoting–and simply independent doing–that is dear to a virtual community of like-minded artists worldwide.

“Dance around a bit, meet a hippy, you know the drill” is how someone joked about Blastfest last year, but there’s more going on that that. I sat down with Morgan Shaker in the Whitehaus to discus Blastfest III, the Whitehaus Family Record vinyl double album that will also launch March 20, and why he has a passion for bringing people together.

ROAD TO THE WHITEHAUS

Like many people, I first came to the door of the Whitehaus through serendipity. It was a Friday night in 2007, and I was on a (sort of) date. Crisscrossing eclectic Jamaica Plain, we heard ska at the Alchemist Lounge, went to an unusual “dance off” at a Brazilian girls’ apartment on Perkins Street, then walked to a big, old, worn, white-ish, eight bedroom house near JP Center–the Whitehaus.

There were many guests, but this was not a party. Instead, dozens of young people were sitting still in the living room, their bodies covering not only the couches but the floor. These guests listened attentively to a young woman sing while playing a guitar, then someone reading poetry, then someone doing something else. Except for applause between performers, the crowd was mostly quiet, but there were also group jam sessions when the whole room got involved.

This was one of the Whitehaus’ now-legendary “hoots,” an artistic salon where hosts and guests shared their talents and experiences with one another. That name is short for “hootenanny” but the hoots–especially at their best–were gentle and orderly affairs with a polite, highly-engaged audience eager to give encouragement.

With a writer’s curiosity, I sought out someone to explain this phenomenon I had inadvertently become a part of. Whitehaus resident Morgan Shaker rose to the occasion and we had our first conversation about his compelling artistic and social vision. He displayed a calm, country-grandpa demeanor that suited his generous personality.

I ended up attending about twenty hoots and was never disappointed. Although the local talent was often amazing, the hoot also became a stopping point for bands on tour. Hoots allowed me to see Dark Dark Dark, the Eskalators, and other cool visiting artists, for free, from just feet (sometimes inches) away.

Whitehaus Family Record grew, in part, from a desire to document the great music made during those nights when no one knew just who would show up. The hoots are an amazing chapter in Boston’s cultural scene, but as they grew exponentially more popular they became less practical. “Happenings,” such as Blastfest and Wierdstock, have largely replaced the hootenannies, but “yes wave” ideals of artistic collaboration still resonate throughout Whitehaus-related events.

FAMILY VINYL

A week before Blastfest III, Morgan Shaker and I sat down in “the hoot room”–the large living room that has hosted innumerable Whitehaus performances in the last few years. One of the first things we talked about was the album premiering March 20.

Though the Whitehaus Family Record has released more CDs than anyone can count, and has even put out some cassette tapes, Shaker explains, “We’re releasing our first actual record, physically on a vinyl record, which is called Whitehaus Family Record Family Record. A double record, it’s just a picture of the musical culture as we see it. It’s kind of a stamp of a day in our world.”

He’s a young guy, but he’s been around long enough that vinyl records hold a special association. “Growing up with records and listening to all your favorite bands on record, you had a goal of being a musician and you’re like ‘someday I want to be on a record”…if you’re a musician, or you chose to be a musician, or you decide to go out and play or make music yourself, you’re like ‘man, I just want it out on vinyl, that’s when I feel I made it…that’s part of the motivation…what makes it feel special.’”

Selling for just $10, the double album is a 27 track anthology representing as many artists as they could fit on it–just the sort of thing one would expect from the Whitehaus. Shaker says, “The market? That’s not really why we’re doing it. It’s just the type of expression we’re looking for. A double record. It’s a cultural icon in America. We want to celebrate the moment and the people that we’re going to make music with. You know we all love each other here. You know we all care about each other so much. Why wouldn’t we all want to make something together?”

BLASTFESTIVITIES

When asked what else will make Blastfest III distinctive, Morgan Shaker mentioned his enthusiasm for Boston Zine Fair 2010, an event sharing its space with the ‘fest. He sees a relationship between the unfiltered expression of self-published zines and the subversive broadsides and pamphlets popular with our New England forebears. The presence of Boston Zine Fair is another example of the yes wave tendency to encourage people to be makers as well as consumers of art, music, and literature.

We talked about the fact that all the Blastfest artists, including those only loosely associated with the Whitehaus, are performing for free just to be a part of a feel-good thing. Shaker, ever wary of the relationship between creative integrity and financial reward, prefers this sort of collaborative partnership. He also remarked that while some musicians strive to support themselves through their talents, “… it also might make it feel like a job once you do that.” Although a few Whitehaus-related people are indeed seeking professional careers in music, more seem to have an autotelic devotion to art for art’s sake.

The line-up for Blastfest III has some performers whose dusty Americana or folksy twee will be represented by catchy tunes tinged with nostalgia. Conversely, there are also some with a bold avant garde spirit and an enthusiasm for long, a-melodic arrangements and unfamiliar sounds that some listeners find challenging. I asked a careful question: Will there be material at Blastfest III that more than a few audience members are likely to find inaccessible?

Shaker thought and answered, “Inaccessible? I don’t think so. Inaccessible’s a weird word. If folks are interested in listening, I can guarantee you that all sounds that are going to be generated that day are going to be a high quality listening experience. So in that case, it’s accessible, of course. Is every one a total radio friendly whatever? It’s tricky…”

But he also added “…can it be on the radio? Yeah, we’re on the radio.” He went on to mention, WZBC (Boston College), WMBR (MIT), WUMB and other local and non-local stations that have played Whitehaus Family Record music. Noting that Whitehaus Family Record music tends fall into the “left of the dial category,” he says what even the weirdest Whitehaus stuff does get exposure through small, cool, stations.

Shaker might also have mentioned that the Blastfest schedule only allows for about twenty minutes per performer. If you really can’t dig a certain vibe even after trying, that’s not a long time to wait for the next act.

The music represented at Blastfest III, like the music in the Whitehaus Family Record catalog itself, is remarkable in its variety, its creativity, and its raw authenticity. This music has a large following of people who don’t care much about genre. Rather, they’re receptive to the music of Whitehaus Family Record and other very indy music makers that share a certain DIY aesthetic and people-positive sensibility. It’s fun to call this attitude “the yes wave.”

YES WAVE

Shaker asked, “You know noise pollution? You got to believe in the opposite of that. Beautiful sounds are going to make a space more beautiful. So if you make music, and you really inform people, or turn them on, or whatever you want to call it, you make the world a better place, right? Guaranteed.” That’s the frequency of the yes wave.

When I asked for a working definition of yes wave, Shaker laughed and referred me to the Urban Dictionary entry posted by Whitehaus beat poet Brian S. Ellis. In it, the lauded wordsmith calls the yes wave a “model of staying personally and interpersonally true in a world full of infinite moral possibilities.” Other Whitehaus people suggested “the yes wave that can be named is not the true yes wave.”

All true, but more can be said. The yes wave is also about using music and art to create transformative experiences that help people feel connected. Organizers and fans may communicate and coordinate online through various social media, but the ultimate purpose is gathering in real space not just to talk, or to party, but to be moved by authentic creative expression untainted by the corporate touch.

According to Shaker, events like Blastfest “…help people male connections. The show is about just doing something with the world. There’s this infrastructure out there, you know? There’s this big empty theatre. Fill it with something awesome.”

Shaker has a gift not only in making connections, but in appreciating each individual involved, and that’s yes wave too. According to him, “anyone who goes to a show, or wants to talk about this stuff, or comes to a hoot, or comes to any Whitehaus thing–that emotional connection happens to each and every person who was there, so the story becomes as much about the person who is showing up. Like John, why did you reach out to talk to me about this? That’s just as interesting as ‘why Blastfest is cool.’ It’s informing our future decisions and the things that we care about.”

VOCATIONAL AWARENESS

Morgan Shaker told me how the Whitehaus hoots helped him find his own vocation and said, “…you probably remember when the hoots were going…and there was this moment when we were all suddenly captivated.”

He continued, “I was a little bit younger, and I had a lot more question marks up in the air, I was a lot less sorted out than I am now. Just something about this musical expression-sharing sort of concept we came up with just really rang came true. Then it let a little light in the door. Like, ‘my goodness, I am seeing something that’s really connecting right to my core: promoting and hosting music and helping make connections between great musicians and people who like to listen to them.’”

Now, he says, “the vocational aspect of hosting shows and making those connections has consumed the part of me that had the question ‘what do I want to do with myself?’” While many of the musicians he works with have established followings, he also actively encourages the burgeoning creativity of everyone he can. “If you’re interested in playing music or writing songs, you probably can do that,” he says, “if that’s what you’re into and you have a deep passionate side of yourself.”

READY FOR BLAST OFF

When asked how he’s getting ready for Blastfest III, Shaker said, “I don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s gonna be sick. I got the energy. When we did Wierdstock, I ran sound for like 3 straight days from noon til eleven. That took a lot.” He also acknowledges the unpredictability of such a popular, well-publicized event saying, “There’s always the chance that sum fucked up shit is gonna happen.”

Besides peace, love, and understanding, Blastfest III is poised to showcase some of the best, coolest, most enjoyably authentic, most unexpectedly creative live music that can be heard. “It’s conscientious for sure,” Shaker said before adding pragmatically, “but at the end of day, people like to go to shows.”

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