Nestled between the bar and the wall at the Cock & Bull on Gaston Avenue, an overstuffed shoulder bag leaning against his barstool, Jeff Whittington looks no different from any of the young professionals hoisting pints at the end of their workdays in other bars in the neighborhood. He stands out now amid the early-evening cluster of old men who've been keeping the barstools warm all afternoon, but when the pub fills up later that night, he could slip into the crowd and you'd never see him again, just dozens of versions of him. You wouldn't peg him as a musician unless he told you, and even then you'd be skeptical. The boy looks more like his day job: special-events coordinator at KERA-TV. Now that's more like it.
Of course, Whittington has never really looked the role of rocker, even during his seven-year stint as the singer-guitarist in Adam's Farm. That, he says, has always been his thing, his shtick--the glasses, the khakis, the dressed-down drag. Adam's Farm--which included Centro-matic's current rhythm section, bassist Mark Hedman and drummer Matt Pence--resembled nothing more than a trio of English majors on open-mike night, nervous young men in plaid shirts and glasses playing their ragged rock and pristine pop much louder than you'd expect. Even without Pence and Hedman around anymore, it's still Whittington's thing, at least on the surface. It wouldn't be hard for him to disappear.
And for a while, at least, he did. To everyone but his friends and the 20 or so people who turned up to his monthly gigs, it seemed as though Whittington gave up on music after he broke up Adam's Farm in December 1996. He became more selective about whom he wanted to share his songs with, and even now, his solo debut, twenty-five pin connector, is available only at his shows and to people who e-mail him (homonculous98hotmail.com) and request a copy. Whittington didn't give up completely, although playing once a month at Club Dada on either Monday or Tuesday nights is the next-best thing. He just gave up on Adam's Farm and everything that went with it--the tours that took them only as far as Oklahoma, playing with the same bands every Friday night to the same people, trying to make ends meet working temp jobs. All of it.
"I just needed a change," Whittington says. "You know, it was a really good thing for me, in that sense. The really bad thing is that the two guys I played with are two of the best musicians on the planet. It was the greatest band to have, because I could show them a song at soundcheck, and we'd play it that night. But I wasn't writing any music, and I was really frustrated. And we weren't really playing any. We did two huge tours with Deep Blue Something, and that was really good for us and really bad for us. We kind of got spoiled."
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The tours with Deep Blue Something, which was then coasting on the success of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," opened the band's eyes, and when they came home to Dallas, they didn't want to close them again, especially Whittington. He was working at the band's label, RainMaker Records, and the more he was there, the more he realized that Adam's Farm might not ever move any further in line, since owner Paul Nugent was busy managing the successes of Deep Blue Something and The Nixons. And after three modest-selling records--1994's Rock Music Machine, 1995's Want In EP, and 1996's SuperLectric--he didn't think RainMaker would be willing to invest any more money in the band.
But Whittington didn't just break up the band because he didn't see any future in it. He left Adam's Farm because he did see a future, and it was filled with the same routine he had been going through for seven years. He wanted to write different songs, play with different people. For him, Adam's Farm, as he says now, had hit its plateau. It wouldn't get any better, and Whittington didn't want to be around when it got worse.
"We turned out the records, and we just did so much, but I guess it just kind of got...I really felt stagnant, to be honest," he says. "I kind of needed to reinvigorate the creative thing. Really, I think we could have continued on, except that I decided that I wanted to retire [from music] for a little while. Work for a little while and earn some money and just see what happened."
It didn't take long for him to find out. Within six months, Whittington had a real job at KERA, a wife, and a monthly gig at the Green Room, under the name Johnny Nobody. It was just him and his electric guitar, and he found that he enjoyed the way it sounded, after being in rock bands for a decade. He grew up in Duncanville playing in bands with his friends that never amounted to much, save for a few gigs at parties and one memorable show at the late Prophet Bar. Whittington's band was barred from any further performances there after playing a Lou Reed song; Reed was a known heroin user, and that clashed with the born-again beliefs of the bar's owner, Russell Hobbs.
His first taste of playing his own songs came at Club Dada when he was 17. Whittington played a few shows opening up for Sara Hickman, who taught him the ropes about being a musician. After being paid only $15 for a set, Whittington received a $35 check from Hickman in the mail a few weeks later with a note instructing him never to accept less than a dollar for every minute onstage. It was memories like those that led him back to Club Dada, playing on Monday and Tuesday nights, the same nights he used to play with Hickman.
Shortly after beginning to play at Club Dada, he began performing under his own name again and trying to record the songs he had been working on since Adam's Farm split up. It was a much longer process than he initially thought it would be, mainly because he doesn't know many other musicians in town. And though he was still playing by himself, he wanted the recording to sound like a full band, with him playing all guitar and bass parts. He recorded a full album's worth of tracks at a friend's home studio, but he couldn't find a drummer or the time to complete the project, so he scrapped it. It wasn't until he decided to perform at last year's North Texas Music Festival that he decided to record by himself, just him and a guitar.
He recorded three songs at his friend Chris Cannon's house on a DAT recorder and put them on a disc to submit to the festival's selection committee. The recording turned out to be so good that Whittington decided to do the entire album that way. In January, Cannon brought his recording equipment over to Whittington's house just off Mockingbird Lane and recorded seven more songs. Whittington, never a fan of the studio during his time with Adam's Farm, was much more excited by the new approach, the ability to capture the moment as it happened.
"The first performance is always the best, hands down, unless you go away for a day and come back and do it again," he says. "For this project, I sat there, my friend Chris sat at the little mixer and DAT machine, miked everything up, recorded it, listened to it, 'Ah, that needs a little more vocals,' recorded it again, 'That sounds great. Let's do the rest of the songs.' And that was it." He laughs.
"It took longer to write the paragraph [in the CD's liner notes] than it did to record the record, because honestly, the whole idea for me, I just really wanted to put the songs down and get them out," he continues. "It's really neat to be able to do that again, to have this product, and it sounds exactly like what I'm doing live. This is it, the most straightforward version of the song that you can get, and that was kind of the point of it."
Due to the stripped-down sound and recording techniques, the songs on twenty-five pin connector at first come off as demos. But after a few listens, it's clear they don't need anything else. The nine originals and one Psychedelic Furs cover (the album-closing "Heaven") sound like Billy Bragg if he grew up in North Texas, all staccato power chords and wordy delivery. Using silence as his backing band, Whittington lets his words actually mean something, especially on the rock-is-fun "Trampoline" and the sadly gorgeous "Up to Five." He doesn't have room to hide behind anything; he doesn't seem to need it.
But even if Whittington doesn't necessarily need to form a band again, he wants to. His fire was lit again after playing a short reunion gig with Adam's Farm last December as part of RainMaker's five-year anniversary. By the end of the year, he hopes to have assembled a new band, one that doesn't necessarily include him on vocals. He just wants to be part of it again, musicians in the same room pushing and pulling until a song comes out. And he wants to rock again. After more than two years off, he wants to turn up his amp and let loose. Now that the pressure is off, he wants to be able to enjoy it for the first time.
"We never really had the opportunity to be able to relax about it, because it was so important to us," Whittington says of his former band. "It was really so important to me to be successful. It's kind of like when you're in high school, and you don't realize how much fun you're having until you're in college and you've got more stuff to do. And then you graduate and have to get a job and earn a living, and you don't realize how much fun you had. You were so pissed off, you didn't realize how much fun you were having. And that's kind of the same thing. I think it just happens as you get older. For me and my music career, I've just mellowed about the whole thing. There's no hurry really, anymore. As long as it's fun, good things happen."
Jeff Whittington performs at Club Dada on May 10.
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