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To Have and Have Not

[whitespace] Phil Sherwood, Kevin Northcutt, Brendan Thompson and Eden Fineday
Edmund Lee

What's Happening: (left to right:) The What-Nots--Phil Sherwood, Kevin Northcutt, Brendan Thompson and Eden Fineday--combine melodic, touchy rock with a little Santa Cruz heart and soul.

Santa Cruz foursome the What-Nots prove that there's more to local music than fashion and labels

By Mary Spicuzza

WHEN THE WHAT-NOTS' vocalist and guitarist Eden Fineday was 5 years old, she--like many young girls-- dreamed of growing up to be a skinny blonde with long, flowing hair. But her fantasy had nothing do with Barbie--it was all about music.

"My family was freaked out--they thought I wanted to be white," laughs Fineday, a 24-year-old Vancouver native whose father is Cree. "They didn't know what I really wanted to be was Blondie's Debbie Harry. I just wanted to rock."

Since the dawn of the What-Nots nearly three years ago, fans of the foursome know they needn't worry about Fineday or the rest of the group's sense of identity. The Santa Cruz-based indie band--featuring Fineday and Phil Sherwood on guitar and vocals, Brendan Thompson on bass and Kevin Northcutt on drums-- puts little energy into trying to fit into any one musical cliché. Instead, the What-Nots have remained dedicated to playing the kind of music that moves them--an original, often unpredictable, brand of melodic, pop-influenced rock & roll.

Packed onto a couch in their practice space, a small basement shared by "a gun-ownin' Texan friend," the What-Nots could easily pass as siblings rounded up for a family vacation--except for the communal 12-pack of Schlitz serving as the centerpiece. The four tease, bicker and torment each other like family.

"Phil and Kevin have been in a band together since eighth grade," Thompson chuckles. "Yeah, ask them what they were called ... ask where they used to play." (For those who must know, their band Anonymous Clay played at cutting-edge Davis, Calif., venues like junior high schools.)

All small squabbles aside, a talk with the What-Nots quickly reveals that they do agree on the band's heart and soul--the music is most important.

"If you're going to write about us, write about the music," Fineday insists. Four heads quickly bob up and down. "Yeah, don't write about what we wear or how we look. It's the music that matters," Sherwood says.

"After all, we don't even look cool," Fineday adds, rolling her eyes as she looks over their thrift-store shirts and worn-in jeans. I reflect on typical Santa Cruz fashion, glancing down at my own stretched-out socks and hand-me-down skirt--and realize, compared to most, they actually look pretty cool.

Just as the What-Nots are opposed to squeezing into fashionable music scenes, they seem equally repulsed by those one-word descriptions--like "alternative"-- that people constantly slap on bands. "I hate that label," Fineday vents. " 'Alternative' music is on the radio all the time, and it sucks."

Thompson buries his head in his hands, lamenting, "My dad even put that on our Web site."

All artists like to think of themselves as pioneers in unexplored musical realms, but the What-Nots can truly say they have little in common with reigning alternative queen Alanis Morissette or kings of the keg party, the Dave Matthews Band.

"We tend to do melodic, touchy rock with lots of time changes," Fineday explains, later adding, "It's taken a lot of people--ourselves included--three years to realize we're not punk."

A perfect example of the What-Nots' mastery of tempo changes can be found on "Afraid," their song featured on Monkey Magnet's first compilation album, Santa Cruz Sucks. The song, written by Sherwood and Fineday, starts out as a melodic ballad--sung by both of the writers--about a distant admirer that rapidly screeches into a fast-paced frenzy. Throughout the song, their voices, whether crooning dreamily or yelling at full volume, always complement each other, no matter how quickly the lyrics are delivered.

That sound is further showcased on the What-Nots self-titled debut album from last year. The 14-song album features a range of semipunk, indie pop-rock that has become the trademark of the wonderfully quirky quartet. Throughout the album, they weave webs of tragically lost friends, broken hearts and existential angst.

"Samba" begins with Latin-influenced, bass-heavy instrumentals that lead into edgy vocals and intense drum interludes. On "Suck Me Dry," Fineday and Sherwood sing sweetly while ranting about needy friends who suck the life out of you. Fineday proves to be a master of irony, crooning, "I'll take you down," between innocent verses of "nah, nah, nah."

Many of the songs are powered by Fineday's voice. It beautifully weaves through the lyrics on "See Sharp," and breathes new life into their outstanding cover of The Beautiful South's "You Play Glockenspiel, I'll Play Drums."

Fate or Whatever

FINEDAY may remember wanting to follow in Debbie Harry's stilettoed footsteps, but even a week before the band started neither she nor "the boys"--as she affectionately calls them--planned to wind up on stage together.

"I had written songs, but it was Brendan who coaxed me into playing them," Fineday recalls. "I had only been playing guitar for about two years."

At the time, Thompson and Fineday were an item, and Thompson had met Sherwood while taking classes at Cabrillo College. Pointing to Sherwood and Northcutt as the two pretend to snuggle on the couch, Thompson explains that the pair grew up together in Davis. Fineday and her blond bassist beau were looking for a drummer, and Sherwood and Northcutt needed a bassist. Fineday says it was Sherwood who came up with the idea of the four becoming a single unit, but the group consensus is that is felt more like fate.

"It worked out perfectly," Sherwood says. "We just came together."

Like any band, the What-Nots have experienced musical and personal peaks and plateaus. But Fineday and Thompson managed to accomplish a difficult task that's destroyed many a fine band--constantly, and harmoniously, working with an ex.

When asked how the couple's break-up a year-and-a- half ago affected the band, Thompson looks down, "I almost quit the band."

"I almost quit the band, too," Sherwood adds as Fineday and Thompson look at him with surprise. "What? I did! I even talked to Kevin about it."

"I didn't want to quit," Fineday adds. "But I was really afraid other people were thinking about it."

Now past their bumpy transitional period, the foursome has matured into a new dynamic. As they talk about the band, the members shift between a brothers/sister bond-- "You should see Phil on our bus. He can't sit still"-- and a delicate four-person relationship, charged with an electric creative connection that fills their tiny practice room.

That unmistakable chemistry is obviously paying off. Last fall, the What-Nots enjoyed rave reviews for their debut CD from local press and out-of-town indie zines. UCSC's Fish Rap Live hailed it as "a cutting-edge indie-pop masterpiece," and the best representative of the underground music scene since Santa Cruz Sucks.

Forget Me Not

THE NOW-SEASONED group, whose average age is a mere 24 years old, is preparing for next month's 10-day tour with fellow indie-rockers Edaline, which will take them north along the Pacific coast to Seattle and inland to music halls throughout Montana.

The What-Nots have earned their reputation through well-written lyrics, excellent vocals and a virile command of bass- and drum-fueled rapid tempo changes. But it's the band members' humility and sense of humor that makes them endearing as well as talented.

"I don't even remember where our first show was," Fineday confesses, "but I know it was heinous. I was so nervous the first year-and-a-half [of playing live] ... I had butterflies, nausea and terror every time we performed. And we were way too loud."

Thompson says their first show together was in Santa Cruz's Third Street basement, as their first incarnation, Kapha Vada. ("It's an Ayurvedic medicine-- we were horrible at picking a name," he laughs.)

But the four are probably their own worst critics. The What-Nots have racked up a loyal legion of local fans since their early days, and Fineday's era of preshow panic is behind her--at least when she and the boys perform. (She says she saves the nervous jitters for her new band, the Peggy Hills, a collaborative effort with Miya from the Muggs and local jazz diva India).

"Now we know how we sound best together," Fineday says. "We just get up there and rock."

Many local fans can attest to that chemistry. After the release of the album, the group has continued to play packed shows at house parties and venues like the Vet's Hall, Skinny McDoogle's, the Whole Earth and Palookaville. The age range at shows reportedly spans from 12 years old to 50.

"For some reason, old bikers seem to love us," Sherwood shrugs.

Though they are enjoying their current wave of local success, the What-Nots have no intention of jumping on the San Francisco-bound bandwagon as have many of their fellow musicians, though they do share frustration over Santa Cruz's limited venues and high cost of living.

At the top of the band's wish list for Santa Cruz are easier-to-come-by sound permits, which would mean more spots to play. "Like opening up the Drop-In Center for benefit concerts," Thompson suggests.

Though Fineday and Sherwood are in the midst of a songwriting frenzy, they're not going public with any formal plans for the next album. "The What-Nots are available for everything from concerts, club dates ... bar mitzvahs, Irish wakes, May Day celebrations," their Web page declares. "And just so you don't think we're too jolly, we'll do divorces and funerals, too. If you can take it, so can we."

In a year, they'd like to be "on tour while being distributed nationally by a minor label," a mission statement they unanimously agree upon after about five minutes of laughter-choked negotiation.

"We want to be the Fleetwood Mac of the next millennium," Northcutt proclaims, falling onto the couch.

The What-Nots may not be as famous as Blondie yet, but they're making tracks with a pioneering spirit, hard work and endearing sense of humor. Northcutt sums up the What-Nots' magic simply. "If we ever break up it would take me 15 years to find another band that connects like us ... our chemistry just doesn't come that easy."

The What-Nots play with Krupted Peasant Farmers, Junk Sick Dawn and Tsunami Bomb on Friday (Aug. 14) at 8pm at the Vets Hall, 846 Front St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $5. Their CD is available from Fiver Records and at Streetlight Records.

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From the August 13-19, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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