Originally published in MOO Magazine (September 1995)

(The Story Behind the Story)

I posted this on on November 22, 2005 following the news that Chris Whitley had passed away.

I was a fan of Chris Whitley’s first record, Living With the Law, mostly because of it’s big hit single, “Big Sky Country.” His second record, however, knocked me on my ass. Din of Ecstasy was a dirty, grungy, some-say-heroin-fueled album that forever erased Whitley’s “regular guy” image that he (or more likely the label) had developed while touring for his first record.

When Din of Ecstasy came out, I was writing for MOO magazine. After watching a fellow writer jet off to Virginia (I think) to spend a few days with Royal Trux for a feature in another magazine, I decided to ask Whitley’s publicist if I could spend a few days with him in Cleveland when he was playing there as part of his residency tour (he was playing 3 nights in a row in a number of different cities to promote his new record). The publicist told me that Whitley liked to keep to himself and that he smoked a LOT and that she really couldn’t set up a multi-day interview with him because it would drive both Whitley and the interviewer crazy. She was able, however, to hook me up with an interview at Whitley’s hotel in the midst of his residency tour at the Grog Shop.

As a tribute to Chris Whitley, who passed away on Sunday from lung cancer, here is the Chris Whitley feature that ran in MOO in September 1995.


A shirtless Chris Whitley answers the door to his far-from-posh hotel room on the far East Side of Cleveland, a good twenty-minute drive from the Grog Shop where he is two-thirds of the way through a three-night residency.

A portable boom box hidden amid stacks of CDs on the room’s air conditioning unit is emitting music from an old Portastatic CD. Whitley, wearing the same jeans he wore in the previous night’s performance, graciously invites me into the room that has a distinct cigarette smell. Whitley’s publicist has warned me that during the course of the interview, Whitley would probably smoke like a chimney and, true to her warning, he does.

As he sits down on his bed, I hit him with a comment that seems to be making the rounds about his second release, Din of Ecstasy.

Me: Some critics have commented that the new album sounds like it was created in the record company boardroom.

Chris: Oh man. I think it’s so weird. Well, it’s not weird, it’s just that the way that Columbia marketed my first record, and because of the production and shit, it makes almost anything else I do seem dishonest. It’s more organic for me, this record than the first one. I have a band and the record label was not swell on me making it. It is much more ballsy. I’ve been moved to different labels, drawing budgets, all this other shit because I made this album.

Me: You were actually moved within labels, from Columbia to the Work label, weren’t you?

Chris: I wasn’t their Jeff Buckley so they went to look for someone else. In a way, it’s good for me because I feel more freed up. Even with this record, there was so much scrutiny. With the first record I was just playing solo and I really sort of got produced.

The first record of which Whitley speaks is the highly-touted Living With the Law, an album that produced the breaktaking single, “Big Sky Country” and a tour with Tom Petty. That whole experience, going from a menial factory job, where his paychecks went to support his wife and daughter, to opening for one of the legendary American songwriters of our generation, was rather overwhelming.

Me: Looking back, do you like the way the first album turned out?

Chris: I can’t say that I don’t like the first album. But I liked the songs better acoustically. It may have been my tastes too. I didn’t want what I wanted to express to be produced. There is more edginess in the songwriting than is apparent because of the production. It comes off sounding like a rockabilly record. It can make for an easier-to-listen-to record, but a less strong expression. My tastes changed a little in that regard. I had just gotten signed out of my factory job. I learned a lot of stuff. Through Malcolm (Burns, Living With the Law’s producer) I got signed to a publisher by accident. Malcolm’s a cool guy, but people have different tastes.

Me: Did the inspiration for the music come from your hard-luck situation?

Chris: I really wrote the songs because I was playing solo only one night a week. Writing for a while started to focus my stuff. I was in a desperate scene and I put a lot of that into the tunes. On their own, because of the sound of the shitty guitar, they actually sound like what the tune is about … I was drunk most of the time, and sort of bewildered and flattered that I was playing with people I didn’t know.

When it came time to record Din of Ecstasy, Whitley released many of the demons that plagued his first record through heavy-handed electric guitar theatrics, a move that startled many of his fans, as well as critics, who accused him of being “the Hendrix guy” or of jumping on “the grunge bandwagon.” Whitley replies to this criticism that he has been “doing this shit for years.” Din of Ecstasy certainly does convey a side of Whitley that not many have seen before. No longer is he an acoustic blues/folk musician. He may now even be considered a true rock n’ roll star. Whitley finds amusement in being considered some kind of guitar god by magazines that freely pass out the deity title.

“Mostly I’m a songwriter,” Whitley says, staring at an imaginary object on the hotel room wall. “In the last five years I haven’t even thought about myself as a guitar player, I just think, ‘Oh yeah, I happen to play guitar.’”

His passion for playing guitar was hatched as Whitley strummed the air guitar to his mother’s Led Zeppelin and Beatles records. When he moved to New York during his teenage years, Whitley was struck by the punk movement that was starting to take shape at clubs like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. It was at these now legendary dives that Whitley witness first hand the all-out energy and excitement of bands like the Dead Boys and Tuff Darts. Getting to know the scene was something that Whitley relished. When Arto Lindsey and John Zorn, two seminal avant-garde experimental musicians, asked a young Whitley to join their band, the Ambitious Lovers, Whitley jumped at the chance, despite the fact that the instrument he was required to play wasn’t a guitar. While he enjoyed playing with such respectable musicians, Whitley, never one to settle down for too long, itched to escape the Big Apple. He headed to Europe where his newfound heroes, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, were starting to make serious dents in the world of music.

Chris: This girlfriend broke up with me and this Belgian guy I had met a year before offered to take me over there. I was listening mostly to Bowie’s Heroes and the first Peter Gabriel record. At the time, Berlin was where a lot of bands were going. Europe was really less blues, less R&B;, it was more like really weird, cool music and I wanted to be around that. I started playing in electro-beat bands over there, I played a guitar-synthesizer. A lot of that stuff comes from Front 242, the early industrial new beat, instead of the old Eurodance shit.

I played on other people’s records and I did an EP on an independent over there that I really hated. The label always recorded Sons of Arca, ethno-experimental stuff. They were either that or, like, Samantha Fox bullshit. They were really little and they were just fitting in somewhere real obvious. For a little record label they can program all the shit themselves and sell it real cheap and give it to the deejays and it can be a hit, forget about the radio. They were just starting this record label and I didn’t fit into either of that stuff, I didn’t want to do Eurodisco music. Mostly it was developmental for me. I made a shitty record, but it was the band I had. It was an education time. I still like to use the machinery, but I’m more of a purist.

It’s hard to believe that the man who can create such magic with his 10 fingers and a six-string guitar often relied on machines to do the work for him. Despite the fact that he gave up playing in bands that relied more on machines than on man, Whitley says that he admires musicians like Beck that can integrate many different musical styles into one song. Whitley tells me during the closing minutes of the interview that maybe someday he will dust off his drum machine and record an album that strays from his standard fare.

Later that night I swing by the Grog Ship to catch Whitley’s final performance. I watch the faces of the sweat-drenched fans who are standing against the stage, singing along to all of Whitley’s songs and calling out requests. If they don’t mind the broad jump between Whitley’s first two albums, they might not mind something more experimental from their hero. Judging by the satisfied expressions on their faces, I think they’d like just about anything that Whitley does, even if it is created in the boardroom.

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