As Colorado’s preeminent guitar-and-drums noise-punk duo, In The Whale have achieved a lot over the past decade. They’ve played music festivals like Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza, toured with bands ranging from Agent Orange to Gogol Bordello, and released a series of full-throttle EPs that, as Music Existence writer Chandler Owen put it, make you “grit your teeth, mosh on command, and maybe shed a tear or two.”
None of these things were on the radar when singer/guitarist Nate Valdez, while finishing up his master’s in educational psychology at the University of Northern Colorado-Greeley, met up with drummer Eric Riley. Upon graduating, the two musicians moved to Denver to make a name for themselves. Now, after surviving a year of hibernation, Valdez and Riley are getting ready to take In The Whale back on the road for a six-week national tour that includes a July 11 stop at The Black Sheep.
We caught up with Valdez last week to talk about rural upbringings, effects pedals and that guy at Guitar Center.
Indy: You two make a lot of racket together onstage, yet you started out playing acoustic shows. How is that even possible?
Nate Valdez: Yeah, In The Whale kind of started off as me playing acoustic guitar, and being upset and loud as much as I could be. And then Eric, he was in another band at the time, and we hung out in Greeley quite a bit. So we just kind of put our creative juices in the same pot and decided, “let’s make this a real thing,” instead of being on the fence and going “are we acoustic, or are we rock, or whatever.”
Did any of the songs from your pre-Whale existence end up being released?
No, we kind of just scrapped everything and closed the book on that chapter.
In the Cavity video, we see Eric stage-diving. How long do you think it will be before any of us can do that again?
I’m not exactly sure. I know from what I’m hearing through the grapevine that most venues are almost at full capacity. We have a show this weekend in Fort Collins, and they had opened up as a 100-person room and now I believe the capacity is 500. It’s nice to be at a point where a good portion of people have already been vaccinated. The drummer and I have been vaccinated and I’m hopeful that things will go without a hitch.
The governor said that venues like Red Rocks and Coors Field can go full capacity, but of course they’re outdoors. Still, it’s a good sign, hopefully.
Yeah, our friends and fans are just itching to see music again. It’s so crazy. It’s such a big part of my life, and then to kind of go cold turkey — nothing all at once — it was really difficult. You go from basically being in a venue or a bar six nights a week to just sitting at home doing artwork and playing guitar and driving your wife crazy — it’s a big transition.
You were born and raised in Colorado, right?
Yeah, I was born in La Junta and raised in Las Animas, which is 15 minutes away.
What was that like?
I think the population is 3,000 people. It’s just kind of like a rural plain area, a lot of cows, agriculture, alfalfa. So it was kind of weird growing up in a place like that. Like, I wanted to go see rock bands, and they didn’t have any of that come through. They had country come through from time to time, but I was very much into bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine, who did not come anywhere near there.
At what point did you start playing guitar?
I was 14 or 15. Now I’m 34.
And what was the first song that you learned?
I was learning a Jim Croce song called “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”
Oh my god.
It’s not a hard song, but the thing that was interesting is the cadence and the vocals over the guitar melody. I mean, that was one of many. I learned “My Girl” by the Temptations and “Smoke on the Water,” which every human being on the planet that plays guitar learns.
So you were the guy who’d be playing that riff at the Guitar Center.
I was never able to get to a Guitar Center, but yeah, I would have been.
As a two-piece band, you naturally use a lot of effects pedals onstage. Do you rely on as many today as when you started out?
I’ve actually cut things down and simplified it. When I first started, I had like nine or 10 pedals — that’s kind of a random guess — and now I’m down to about five. The simpler it is, the less chance for error.
What was your first effects pedal?
The first pedal, if I’m remembering correctly, was a gift. It wasn’t a distortion pedal. It was an all-purple flanger pedal that I believe was made by Ibanez. And I didn’t use it for anything.
Honestly, my first pedal should have been a tuner, for crying out loud. But anyway, a flanger pedal makes such a unique and specific sound, and I couldn’t do anything with it with my limited skill set. So, yeah, you don’t want to have a flanger on the whole time during “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”
So what was the first pedal you actually fell in love with?
The first pedal that I was really into was the Big Muff distortion pedal. It was this old big metal tin casing pedal and I was like, holy cow, this is like a game-changer. You run it through a clean Fender amp, just turn up as loud as you can get it, and it just screams and rips your face off. It was perfect.