Music profile: Songwriter/musician J.P. Whipple of Tycoon Machete | Music | Salt Lake City Weekly

Music profile: Songwriter/musician J.P. Whipple of Tycoon Machete 

Music and lyrics meld in multi-genre work

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John Whipple - DAVID SEELIG
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  • John Whipple

Underneath the ordinary endeavors into music criticism, there is a governing belief that sprinkles itself quietly throughout music-driven conversations: You can be a good musician, or a meaningful lyricist, but good luck entertaining both skill sets. It's the prototypical Jack-Of-All-Trades-Master-Of-None rationalization, i.e.: "Bob Dylan's a poet, but I hate his squalling voice," or "Kurt Cobain was an obvious lyrical talent, but a clearly lousy guitarist." This noiselessly accepted philosophical kernel leads to a more dire circumstance: the loss of both art forms—the written lyric and the musical medium—via the near refusal to put the two in conversation with one another, unless in an effort to place them at odds.

The answer to this silent yet deep seated ailment comes in the form of J.P. Whipple, local inimitable musician involved in three projects, including solo work (performing under the moniker J.P. Whipple, aka Barefoot John Whipple), Tycoon Machete (a band consisting of Whipple on banjo/guitar/vocals, Erin Stout on bass, Sean McCarthy on synthesizer, and James Perry on drums), as well a duet with Tycoon Machete's Stout (The Erin & John Show).

The long and winding road that led to Whipple being so deeply submerged in the art of music began with an acute fascination with creating a psychedelic-based band, but he "wound up doing folk songs with an acoustic guitar, because I could." What started as a methodology to stay tapped into music without rigging a stage up with cumbersome instruments and sound equipment, turned into a realization that would shape one major facet of Whipple's songwriting.

"I went up to Alaska, and had a pretty hard time, and came back with a real appreciation for the blues," Whipple said. "That music struck me as this real, honest and powerful low-tech emotional transfer from an artist to you. You can really feel that what came through on very limited recording equipment straight to wax was just pure heart and soul. That kind of changed my worldview, as far as music went, and I started to drift towards that."

Coming into his own as a solo, roots-based act did not mean a divergence from his original, psychedelic-soaked route. Rather, his solo work remains a project that informs and explores different, but equally enticing, elements than the traditional psych-based band. "Now, lately, I have technology and synthesizers and all of these wonderful toys, so I'm kind of going back towards psychedelia, but informed with slide guitar and slide banjo," Whipple said.

This genre-blending (and -bending) has become the tell-tale heart of Tycoon Machete. The band is currently working on a concept album—with Whipple at the lyrical helm—which "becomes this metaphor for today's world: these kind of media-savvy people that are just terrible, but they accumulate all this wealth and power, because it's the United States and you can ride a long way on a wave of bullshit. So I am trying to write songs to that theme," Whipple said.

Not entirely in contrast, but not entirely congruently, he said, his "roots music tends to be about the relationship between people and the earth, and it's very primal that way. It talks about land, or storms, or weather, or drought. Which I find useful now, because people don't necessarily connect with that anymore, so it's nice to play music that does."

What ties these two projects neatly together, though, is the steadfast steering of equal parts successful melody-making, and lyrical insights created in tandem. As Whipple says, "a lot of the time, I will write from whatever music that is being created, and just let the words kind of come out. And then it starts to make sense after a while. Or it doesn't make sense. Music is a language, so certain words are going to sound right with a melody and other words are not, and I think a good song is one that actually works with that. We build words to sound like what we're describing. A lot of words are like that. They sound a lot like the emotion you're expressing."

Stringing emotions together across time is the perpetual pursuit of making music that becomes not just an earworm that beats across your brain, but converses with itself. Understanding both a song's melodies and its lyrics is something that Whipple comprehends not just of music, but of sound and time, and how the two interchange.

"Music is always on the moment. It's always an artform that is expressed through time, and that to me means that through music, we try to tune our bodies, our soul, our minds, and our spirits to a moment that we are creating," he said. "And it's really important, for me at least, to have this understanding and communication with this moment, and to feel that moment, and be a part of the harmony or the dance to have the moment being consumed and being used to harmonize with the world or the universe."

And what does this do? It adds layers to an artform that has the power to capture evanescent experiences. Further, as Whipple sees it, "[it] adds depth to this very fractured-phrase, short-sentence, headline-oriented time in the world." Coupling lyrical achievement to not strictly accompany, but feel out a piece of time, is altogether possible and certainly encouraged, if you are of the same rare artistic breed as J.P. Whipple. Find his and Tycoon Machete's work on Bandcamp, YouTube, Spotify, live (!), or any social media you frequent.

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Sophie Caligiuri

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