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War Radio: The Road Not Taken
By Donovan Wheeler
Thirty minutes into their Sunday afternoon rehearsal...
...in the midst of one of their newest songs, War Radio’s LaToshia “Tosh” Everson cuts out of her trademark powerful melody and turns to her husband, Joel. The rest of the band, bassist Dennis Furr and drummer Drew Cooper, catching the cue that a debate was on-hand, pull out of their own sets, settle into their seats, rest their elbows on their equipment, and wait for the couple to hash it out.
-----Tosh, staring at the lyrics on her iPhone, tells Joel that she doesn’t want to repeat them word-for-word when the song’s chorus reaches the second round. As she sees it, the song (unofficially dubbed “Pages” at the time) needs to keep building lyrically. Like a good poem, Tosh explains, the best songs understand that chorus repeats are clichéd unless they reinforce the larger themes on the table. For Tosh, those themes haven’t been nursed enough, and the song needs more time lyrically. As she explains herself, Joel nods his head emphatically, in sweeping upper-body motions, closing his eyes and tossing in a wry grin suggesting both full understanding and impatience.
-----“The song’s resolved…musically speaking,” Joel replies. Tosh gazes upon him, equally patient herself. Her eyes paint a mixture of love (something about these back-and-forth debates she clearly enjoys) and irritation…like she wants to embrace him and drop a 40-pound cinderblock on his head at the same time. Meanwhile, stage left, Furr picks away at his bass—the amp shut off—only occasionally turning up his eyes to the pair when they hit on a technical point…a key change or a chord adjustment…which resonates with him. Drew adjusts his weight on the drums before him, a Jedi-esque cloud of calm hovering over him.
-----“I know that…” Tosh sighs, responding both politely and stridently. “I just don’t want to repeat the chorus…just because that’s what we should do. I don’t want this to follow the pattern that most other songs follow.”
-----“I get what you’re saying,” Joel answers. As he speaks, Tosh’s face tightens. This is the point when I wonder what would happen if I weren’t sitting twenty feet away from them watching it all unfold. I turn to Furr and Cooper trying to get a sense of the norm. This appears to be it.
-----“You understand,” Joel continues, “the song doesn’t repeat lyrically, but it does repeat musically…”
-----“I understand that,” Tosh says with a deep breath, closed eyes, and not a little bit of tension in her voice. In the ensuing fifteen minutes, the couple huddles together, thumbs through a set of lyrics on their phones, and agrees—for the moment—to disagree…and also agree…or something like that.
At the heart of that on-stage negotiation...
…lies one of the many secrets to what makes War Radio not only an enormously popular band in the Greencastle and Western Indiana area, but an emerging talent hoping to take their act deeper on the road and farther away from the cover-band routine which launched them. Art, it turns out—hopefully shocking no one—is vastly more than a moment of epiphany followed by a few swift strums on the Stratocaster. No, art is work. Art is discussion. Art is patience. Art is a terse mixture of love and defiance, a convergence where people who respect and adore one another find a way to put the prize ahead of the ego. When it works, we get some of the most beautiful moments the ear has ever heard. When it doesn’t, we get every single Eagles reunion effort I can recall.
“Number one, we were trying to walk a fine line, trying to understand one another and each others' language; and also number two, what’s acceptable for the song?”
-----“Musically, he’s saying it’s resolved,” Tosh explains offering her take on the above debate with her husband, “because we’ve gone through the whole progression of chords to the end point. While I understand that…in my mind, the song wasn’t satiating the listener by the ‘end.’ They needed to have something else said to them to…I guess…finish the thought.”
-----“I think what we’re looking at in that case was a breakdown in communication,” Joel adds. “I was saying that we can’t end this song on a pre-chorus because that would leave it unresolved. Tosh was saying, ‘I don’t want to go back to the chorus because it’s not necessary.’ So she came up with a great solution, and she said, ‘Okay, instead of going back to the chorus, we need to go to an outro there,’ which is really odd—to go from a pre-chorus to an outro—because you don’t typically write like that, but it served a really good purpose.”
-----Once you parse the musical terminology—“Outro:” a song’s wrap up; “Pre-Chorus:” a 2-4 bar segment leading into a chorus; and “Chorus:” that one we all know…we’ve all read enough album dust-covers and CD-inserts in our day—you realize that song creation isn’t a simplistic linear experience. You don’t write the song, hand it out to the band, play it until you “get” it, record it, and then repeat it in one gig after another. Instead, you bring to the studio a mish-mash of lyrics, lines, chords, bass-lines, and transform them into a finished rendition—one everyone in the band salivates over when it’s cued up on the set-list. When you tell your band mates that you're willing to listen to their ideas, you have to mean it...and you have to act on it. That's never easy for creative people.
-----“Two things were happening,” Joel said trying to encapsulate the debate with his wife. “Number one, we were trying to walk a fine line, trying to understand one another and each others' language; and also number two, what’s acceptable for the song?”
-----“When we go through moments like this,” he added, “I try to walk a very fine between not being indulgent and not being stuck in the box.” It’s an appropriate commentary. Given that the band’s very name comes from, as Joel explains, an allusion to the backpack army radio sets often depicted in war films, the Eversons’ larger idea that music exists as a powerful form of communication resonates. Just as the band pursues its larger goal of connecting with their audiences it must also wade through its own hazards, its own booby-traps: stylistic, artistic, egotistical. First, they must communicate with each other, then they can connect with the rest of the world around them.
If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that good bands really begin…
…in childhood. Both Tosh and Joel’s biographies speak to the importance of family influence in terms of nudging that talent toward its eventual manifestation in adult life.
-----“I have been singing since I was little, and I’ve always loved music,” Tosh explains. “I’ve been singing in church since I was a little girl, and my grandfather encouraged that. Funnily enough, he and my grandmother were operating a food truck, and they would travel to all of these festivals where they would have me sing. In fact, at the [Parke County] Covered Bridge Festival, my grandfather was the master of ceremonies, and I would sing the National Anthem.”
“I remember my friend who learned to play guitar by taking lessons. Every couple weeks we would get together, and I’d say, ‘Hey check out this chord I came up with.’ He’d listen and say, ‘That’s a G-chord. That’s been around for like 500 years.’ But, to me…I would just put my fingers in places until they made sounds that were good.”
-----“[I come from] a very musical family,” Joel adds echoing his wife. “My dad played bass guitar and sang, my sister sang, and I used to spend hours sitting in front of our huge monstrosity of a record player flipping vinyls all day long.” While the frontman’s humble family influences are interesting on their own merit, his story becomes fascinating given both his original musical passion and the manner in which he’s learned to play before an audience.
-----“Drums were my first instrument and quite frankly they’re still my first love,” he says. “You would think that, when I hear a song, I hear the guitar first, but usually I listen to the drum sequence. When I write a song, I usually approach it more rhythmically, as drummer, than I do from a chord-structure or guitarists point-of-view.”
-----“I think you can tell that in the way he plays guitar,” Tosh points out. “He plays it more like a percussive instrument.” Drums, however, would not become the signature tool in Everson’s musical destiny. Necessity, as it often does, would force the budding musician to depart from the drum-set, and eventually lead him to his spot in front of the band.
-----“I eventually learned the bass guitar because our praise and worship team at church needed a bass-player, then I flipped to guitar from there.”
-----“I never went through lessons or anything,” Joel continues. “I would sit and play with the radio, and finally I hooked up an old cassette player which had a feature allowing me to actually slow down the songs so I could learn them.” As inspirational as Everson’s self-didactic story reads, his reliance on his own learning methods did often create a disconnection from other guitarists, more mastered in the art of printed music.
-----“I remember my friend who learned to play guitar by taking lessons. Every couple weeks we would get together, and I’d say, ‘Hey check out this chord I came up with.’ He’d listen and say, ‘That’s a G-chord. That’s been around for like 500 years.’ But, to me…I would just put my fingers in places until they made sounds that were good.”
-----“For whatever reason I’ve had an aversion to chord-books, and to this day I’ve never used them,” Joel remembers. “It’s probably just bull-headedness on my part, but my thinking is ‘If I can’t figure it out on my own then I don’t deserve to play it.’ I’m not really that good of a guitar player, but I was able to develop a decent ear. Now I can follow along, maybe better than I should be able to, but it’s all just based off of what I hear.”
At the origins of every band rests some form of necessity…
…be it an intrinsic necessity to fill an artistic ache or a more pragmatic need. War Radio’s birth was formed out of a mixture of the two.
-----“We started for the purpose of a conference for church, and our first ‘version’ [of the band] was the group we put together for that,” Joel explains. “We went through a couple of guitar players after that, but Drew, Tosh, and I have been with it since the very, very beginning.” Born out of that natural confluence of impulse and tactical need, the band likewise evolved, first playing, as Tosh points out, from a spontaneous launching-point where “we would all just come up with lyrics” to something more deliberate and orchestrated, to its current incarnation: a band working at a genuinely collaborative level—going as far as to go away for a weekend retreat to brainstorm…and simply jam as well.
-----“I’m really excited about it,” Tosh says. “Some great stuff can come out of just…jamming. When we first started, for the first 30 minutes of our practices, that’s all we did. You can get a lot of good stuff out of that.”
-----“That’s true,” bassist Dennis Furr adds wryly, “but long jams are definitely more for the enjoyment of the band than they are for the audience, so it’s nice to be able to do them in the privacy of a practice setting.” If you listen to their debut album, Tracks, and compare the songs to their live renditions, you can often catch them indulging in more than one improvisational jam riff or two, where the instrumental segment in a powerful tune such as “Slots” extends into a minute long back-and-forth before culminating in another 60-second closing sequence. Anchoring the moment, as he does every other as well, is Drew Cooper at the drums. Quiet, often visibly pensive, Cooper wears a serene expression as he reads cues from Dennis and Joel, but amazingly keeps that zen appearance while his body explodes spreading the blurring image of his drumsticks across his set.
“What I like about [playing covers] is that we try to make it sound as much like us as we possibly can,” Tosh says. “When we play ‘No Diggity’…you know? People look at us and think, ‘What? That’s Blackstreet.’ But here’s a girl singing it, and it’s something different."
-----A half-dozen feet away, Furr stands tall, slightly leaning back as he pulls on the strings of his Fender, evoking an aura of utter calm in the midst of one of the most unpredictable and often highly stressful phases in the musician’s trade: the live show. His demeanor stands in stark contrast to Joel Everson, who rounds his back over his acoustic guitar working through the closing outro—with his trademark failing elbow and repeated foot stomping, making it appear as if he’s kick-starting an old Honda X-125. But mixed together, this tiny flavor of poise and theatrics works with Tosh’s multi-ranged vocals (she can pull off Adele and Prince with no need to suspend disbelief whatsoever) produces an act which does something remarkable in the bar setting: it makes people sitting at their tables cease their conversations and watch.
-----And when the song is designed for Joel’s lead instead of his wife (or when she’s home with flu as she was one Friday night a couple years ago), his raspy high-octaves—while limited in range—work extremely well and often accentuate the soft-lit cocktail mood. It’s arguably the perfect voice for the lounge setting.
Everyone in War Radio agrees…
…that existing as a cover band has been both a blessing and a handicap, depending on the circumstances.
-----“What I like about [playing covers] is that we try to make it sound as much like us as we possibly can,” Tosh says. “When we play ‘No Diggity’…you know? People look at us and think, ‘What? That’s Blackstreet.’ But here’s a girl singing it, and it’s something different.
-----“We recently played ‘Love Shack,’ which is not a song that any of us would ever play, but we did it for New Year’s Eve, and it was a blast.”
-----“And we played it as a gospel, soul version,” Joel adds, “and it was fun…I wouldn’t play it all the time, but it was fun.” And while improvising and embellishing established pop hits clearly spice up an evening gig, more technical benefits come as a by-product of slogging away in the cover-band stage.
-----“I think that learning covers…in addition to getting us paid…helps from a writing standpoint,” Furr explains. “I’ve learned base-lines, which I simply never would have learned had I not been playing all of these songs, and I’ve learned how to incorporate them and adapt them into the material we’ve been creating.”
-----Indy blues artist Jon Strahl spoke of the musician’s evolution from cover artist to original material artist, to recording artist as a “natural progression,” and in War Radio, that innate artistic desire—to break away from that chunk of popular staples which were never your own to begin with—and concentrate on your own body of work is a basic, natural urge. After a little over a half-decade, the band has transformed. It’s a metamorphosis which may not be apparent to the local fans who watch them play every month at the Swizzle Stick or throughout the Indy/Greencastle area in between, but the transition is real nonetheless.
-----“We always have a meeting at the beginning of every year, and we say, ‘What do we want this year to look like for War Radio?’” Tosh says. “Our big goal this year is that we want to do some type of mini-tour, and we want to focus more on original venues because we’re doing all of this writing, and have all of these songs in this ‘vault.’ We’d like to unearth them, and create them, and be able to play them when we want to.”
What began as a band hungry to form itself…
…to experiment with their talent, and build an audience has grown into a next-level band now ready to define itself not on its ability to adapt an Adele tune to their style, but on their own stage-chops and their own musical and lyrical sense of who they are. It’s the natural progression of creativity, and it’s the next route on War Radio’s road map.