What can you say about musicians whose debut album opens with a song declaring, "All we are is nothing at all" and closes with one in which "prosthetic limbs fall from the trees"?
Well, you could point out that their music isn't nearly as downbeat as their lyrics. Or that they don't sound quite like anyone else. Or that they're named after their hometown's most successful mass murderer, Charles Whitman, who killed 13 people and injured 31 more during a 1966 shooting spree from a University of Texas tower before police killed him.
Whitman keyboardist Kyle Johnson acknowledges that "the Charles Whitman reference was partially just because we wanted to ruffle people's feathers in Austin. But it wasn't entirely because of that. We wanted a one-word name we liked, and I think Whitman has a lot of different connotations worldwide. You know, if people don't know we're from Texas, they ask about Walt Whitman."
Like Walt, the Austin pop-rock quartet tends to labor over its efforts, which are definitely more complex and developed than most indie groups on the current club circuit. "The Evangelist," the standout track on its Torch Songs album, is smart and hooky enough to appear on one of fellow Austinite Michael Hall's albums (though the band's never really heard him), while "An American Dream" ventures into rock anthem terrain without sounding dated.
So who writes the really depressing songs?
"That would have to be Kyle," says vocalist/guitarist Ram Vela.
"Like which ones?" asks Johnson.
There are so many to choose from, but how about "Isaac's Eyes"?
"That's Ram," says Johnson with obvious delight. "See, I'm not the sadsack around here."
"When I wrote that song and presented it to Kyle," says Vela, "I said, "Well, this is gonna be about Isaac, the son of Abraham.' But then playing that song in the studio for our producer, it hit him hard because he had a miscarriage like the year before."
"He didn't," Johnson says, correcting. "His wife did."
"Forget it, Kyle, I'm trying to tell a story here," Vela says. "No, this is serious shit. These are heavy lyrics. It could be about a miscarriage, or a son you never had. So now it's open to interpretation. Everybody who's heard that song is like, "Who's Isaac, what's the story, is he all right?'"
"But no matter the specifics," adds Johnson, "it's a song about sacrifice."
Musically, says Vela, "People compare us to everyone from Elvis Costello & the Attractions to Wilco to Spoon. Yeah, we've gotten a lot of comparisons, but nothing that really makes sense."
Then again, adds Johnson, "I don't know what would make sense for us, because we really have no idea, either."
Vela and Johnson started jamming as junior-year college roommates, but it wasn't until bassist, keyboardist and third songwriter Ryan Ermis joined up that their sound coalesced.
"I think honestly Ryan helped bring the pop monster out of us, and we kind of figured out how to structure real songs," says Johnson. "We've evolved a lot from those early days."
Exactly how much?
"When we first got together, the idea, at least for Ram and I, was writing kind of epic, more progressive stuff, like from the era of Rush and Yes," says Johnson. "We did do that for a while, and then it got tired, like it does for anyone."
Anyone, that is, who doesn't wear a cape.
"Yeah," says Ram, "But we're still gonna bring our lasers and spaceships to the show."