back to donkeyscratch industries
sounds shows sights shinola


preview from METRO | Steve Clarkson 30.08.2011
Whether it's pop or rock concerts they're advertising, gig posters tend to have a way with words. They're supposed to be designed to target particular demographics, while subtly leaving the door ajar for curious outsiders.

I say 'tend to' and 'supposed to be', because it's very rarely you see a musician billed as 'the finest in amplified ukulele mayhem'. It's a description that's appearing next to this artist's name on promotional literature around town at the moment, and it sounds strange, doesn't it?

Yes, except this is no ordinary place. He might hail from somewhere an ocean plus another thousand miles away, in Illinois, but there's something Williwaw has that belongs in Glasgow.

Not literally, of course - he's not nicked someone's Discovery pass - but in the sense that in this fair city, there's always an audience that appreciates artists like him.

By that I mean ones who draw on unique musical influences, experiment with a broad spectrum of sound, produce work that overlaps many sub-genres and are not easily categorised.

If you're going to push me, I'd say Williwaw is a blend of shoegaze and post-rock, but to try and pin down his style is probably missing the point. His music is supposed to be an enigma, an intriguing fusion of electronic and acoustic sound, which bemuses yet beguiles.

With an amplifier and some complex time signatures, his ukulele can generate a cauldron of noise, but it is also capable of transcending the chaos with a blissful melody. It can be heavy, while also ambient. Basically, no song is at all like the last.

Williwaw is fortunate that such musicians and performers find huge success when they move here, but with the talent and originality he's unpacking from his suitcase, he's certainly meeting the requirements of his lease.

extracted from Jazziz | Alexander Gelfand 06.2008

Ukulele Madness

Tiki-god party lights, leis, a handful of warm poi, maybe a '30s-era frat boy in a straw hat and raccoon coat - these are the kinds of things we tend to associate with the ukulele. But as the documentary Rock That Uke demonstrates, this tiny guitar-like instrument is nothing if not versatile.

Rock That Uke, released in 2003, but still being screened in cafes, libraries, and ukulele conventions across the country - features punk ukulele, folk ukulele, jazz ukulele, and a lot more besides. There's Casey Korder, a Las Vegas schoolteacher who performs original material on a sky-blue Konablaster, an electric uke that once sported a live .30-06 round under its bridge. (Safety concerns prompted a recall, and the casing is no powderless.) Did I mention that Korder performs - and apparenly grants interviews - in a cow suit? Well, he does.

There's Carmaig de Forest, a veteran punk uker who has opened for the Ramones, Wall of Voodoo, and Dexys Midnight Runners and whose poignant "But She Doesn't Fuck Me" nearly brought tears to my eyes.

And there's my old friend Bill Whitmer, a.k.a. Williwaw, who first introduced me to the wild and woolly world of progressive-uke music 15 years ago.

Bill and I met as graduate students in the School of Music at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Bill had a background in physics and ukulele - he had taken up the instrument when he realized just how much it annoyed his older brother - and he was far too intelligent to last long in academic musicology.

Fortunately, he didn't have to. After leaving the musicology program at the U of I, he picked up a Ph.D. from the Parmly Hearing Institute at Loyola University. He then spent a year running behavioral experiments on chinchillas (apparently, the little critters have freakishly good powers of pitch perception) before landing a job doing basic research on hearing impairment.

I find this ironic since Bill's work as a ukulelist is not exactly conducive to good ear health. While he does sometimes play unplugged, most of Bill's output as Williwaw is amplified - heavily amplified.

"I was dealing in quadrophonic sound for quite a while," Bill recently told me. He began his Williwaw career on electric uke, playing Van Halen's "Intruder" and some ditties he worked out for his home answering machine at clubs around Champaign. He soon began routing multiple signals from multiple amps - first two, then four - to multiple effects boxes. At his peak, he was up to 24 such boxes - enough to completely mask the native sound of his instrument and evoke everything from heavy metal to breaking glass.

He's since pared back a bit on the gear, but he's no less adventurous.

Back in 2001, Bill performed in the Chicago Sound, a musical free-for-all co-organized by Weasel Walter, a multi-instrumentalist who co-founded the Flying Luttenbachers, a no-wave/free-jazz/punk-rock trio with a cult following. The Chicago Sound was essentially a whacked-out karaoke session, in which musicians were required to play covers of rock classics as the originals were played over the monitors. They were, however, not allowed to tune up. "It turned into a horrible - well, not horrible... let's call it a beautiful train wreck of sound," Bill says.

Soon after, Bill caught a performance by the Alloy Orchestra, a trio that creates new scores for silent films - in this case, the classic vampire flick Nosferatu.

These two experiences led Bill to form the Williwaw Ensemble, an all-uke organization dedicated to rule-based improvisation. The group's first all-acoustic performace "basically sounded like a bunch of cicadas molting." In subsequent performances - some amplified, some not - the group has played rock, jazz, and "just noise" behind Laurel and Hardy and "Felix the Cat" shorts. They have also accompanied a video fireplace tape.

Things have been a little slow lately, but the continued circulation of Rock That Uke, which features lots of footage of Bill talking and playing, has him thinking about his next Williwaw Ensemble project.

(When he isn't playing the ukulele, Bill plays Javanese drums in a gamelan orchestra maintained by the Friends Of The Gamelan, a non-profit group associated with the University of Chicago. The Friends started playing in the 1970s on a collection of instruments that were brought from Java to the United States for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 - the same world's fair that introduced the Hawaiian ukulele to mainland audiences.)

I, for one, cannor wait. But while I do, I will content myself with the performance footage on Rock That Uke. After all, how often do you get to see Robert Moritz of the '90s-era electric uke band "Uke Til U Puke" smashing his tiny ax on the ground like Pete Townsend in a funhouse mirror?

Not often enough.

a very brief mention in a Rock That Uke review from Film Threat | Mark Bell 11.06.2008
... make[s] the kind of wall of sound music that Phil Spector would shoot you over.
preview from the Chicago Reader | Monica Kendrick 03.02.2006
Outwardly Bill Whitmer is pretty aw-shucks about his work as an improviser--he plays the electric ukulele, a choice of instrument that would seem to dictate humility, and song titles like "What Good Waffles Do" and "Pit Stop--Pissing My Life Away" are certainly not the handiwork of a Serious Artist. But if you underestimate him, it's your loss. Over the course of many years and many self-released albums he's nimbly piloted his unlikely vehicle into uncharted territory again and again, making pulsating, variegated, beautiful noise--and when I imagine him returning from one of those wild flights, there's nothing self-effacing about the radiant grin he's wearing. Like many improvising groups, the Williwaw Ensemble is more a loose collective than a regular working band; Whitmer says that this time it'll probably be at least a six-piece, including mandolinist Kenneth 'Kip' Rainey from Tangleweed and guitarist Nathaniel Braddock from the Ancient Greeks.
review from Splendid E-Zine | Rodney Gibbs 12.02.2001
You know, there just isn't enough ukulele music out there. With Tiny Tim's passing, the instrument's most notable poster boy no longer draws our attention to the wee guitar. I recall a dude named Carmaig deForest who played solo punk shows with nothing but the little four-stringer. And there's some outfit in LA called Uke Fink that writes clever rock ditties with the help of it. But what about experimental uke music? Fuhgeddaboutit.

Or at least that's what I thought until an unassuming firecracker of a CD out of Champaign, Illinois found its way to me. Hell, if John Cage could make music by plucking the pricks of a cactus, who's to say the ukulele can't steal the spotlight from guitars and keyboards now and then -- especially when it comes to batshit-crazy tunes like those dished out by Williwaw?

The tracks on A Portrait of Shelves are tough to identify by name, so please forgive me for sticking to the numbers. Track two, clocking in at fourteen minutes, runs the gamut from simple, unadulterated uke plucking to a chugging, indecipherably thick aural assault. When Williwaw gears up the effects and latches on to a catchy hook, look out, because this noise will not only piss off the neighbors -- it'll stir your soul a bit too.

While the first few balls-to-the-wall tracks strive to overwhelm you with strident uke gusto, some later cuts mellow, casting the instrument as a hypnotic rhythm maker. Track 6, for instance, with its hypnotically repetitive patterns that evolve so slowly you're almost lulled into sleep, could well be a Steve Reich composition. Yet, lest the listener grow too comfortable, Williwaw follows up that cut with a distorted rocker. As the fuzzy uke lead builds over a droning sea of distant howls, one wonders if Sonic Youth or Flipper might have contributed to this odd album.

The CD concludes with two long tracks, one of which could very well be a recording of werewolf whales, if there were such a thing. Its sonorous moans straddle ecstasy and agony so effectively that you don't know whether to be comforted or deeply troubled. Williwaw's entire CD is like that. I'm so stunned by the versatility, beauty and ugliness unleashed by this little chunk of aluminum that I took for granted that I don't know whether to love it or fear it. Perhaps that's just the way Williwaw -- and maybe even Tiny Tim -- would have it.

review from Rubberneck Magazine | Gus Garside fall.2001
There's a period from about 6-18 months into seriously and creatively applying yourself to your first instrument when you feel you're really getting to grips with it and you've discovered a few things that you must share with the world. It is one of the most exciting and angst-free periods of a musician's development. Then it dawns on you how long a road stretches before you. Shimmering Coaster Of Light belongs to that period. I hope that American Williwaw's personal community is for him on this one, though I suspect his mum may have her doubts. But I'm never sure about the relationship between projects like this and the broader public other than perhaps to remind us how truly special music is at all stages. It moves from amplified ukulele to a kind of mock kora to noise guitar with little in between. Minimalist in the extreme.
extracted from Splendid E-Zine | Andrew Magilow 08.01.2001
While it's difficult to discern, Williwaw is ultimately one man with one ukulele on a particular mission. This isn't another round of twangy bluegrass, however, as each track on Shimmering Coaster of Light layers thickly distorted uke chords on top of one another, generating the absolute antithesis of what you'd normally picture a ukulele doing. While the first two tracks lack a distinct direction, the majority remind me of the bastard child of Skullflower, with an awe-inspiring wall of sound. Williwaw's textured noise ranges from a dense cloud of glistening notes to a cacophonous explosion of distorted treble that wiggles uncontrollably, like a bowing metal saw. So don't assume that the cute li'l uke is here for petty entertainment, as the disc's grinding improvisational numbers breaks down the traditional boundaries of this four stringed instrument.
preview/review from the Chicago Reader | Monica Kendrick 02.12.1999
Bill Whitmer, a recent transplant from Champaign, has built his second record, Shimmering Coaster of Light, almost entirely from sounds "translated from rectified nylon vibrations into electromagnetic oscillations with an antiquated German transducer." It may or may not eventually become clear to the listener that for the most part this means "amplified ukulele," and that sometimes it means "amplified ukulele recorded in a toilet." But over the course of its eight pieces, it runs the gamut from clear and delicate chimes to shuddering shimmering Sonny Sharrock-like frequencies with a paradoxical natural grace.
excerpt from The Octopus | Aimee Rickman 05.1998
[...] Whitmer, a young, wild-eyed, local musician, has been playing his signature brand of screaming electric ukulele in Champaign-Urbana for the past six years. His music epitomizes a section of the local music scene -- innovative, heavily amplified, individualistic, boldly teetering on the brink of oddity. Audience members at a typical Williwaw show also tend to embody these characteristics, drawing together a mix of local musicians, downtown scenesters, music students and eccentrics.
review from CMJ New Music Report 516 | Robin Edgerton & Douglas Wolk 07.04.1997
Details are sketchy on this lovingly packaged cassette release of avant-garde ukulele music; all we've been able to determine is that it's by a Champaign-Urbana local type, and that the cassette was midwifed by Rick of the Poster Children. Whoever Williwaw is, he's got a lot of effects pedals, and a taste for both '20s pop conventions and extreme noise. When he's not strumming the uke Bugs Bunny-style, he's forcing sound out of it note-by-note and smothering it in effects. The tape returns over and over to a few melodic motifs, re-presented in new contexts, each suggesting the next : with echo, with distortion, backwards, with an effect that suggests an electric piano, and so on. One particularly neat bit in the second half backs the note patterns with laughing noises - a reference to the "laughing records" that also flourished in the '20s.
extracted from the Daily Illini | Mary P Cory 05.05.1998

Man, He's Loud

When Williwaw takes the stage and hunches over his cute lil' ukulele, you might think you're in for some mellow bluegrass tunes or hokey Hawaiian ditties. But the distortion pedals at his feet should tip you off that he's got something else in store.

Williwaw's thang is to pump out his tiny uke's plinkaplinkaplinka noise as loud as the PA guy will let him. "Most people who've ever run a PA are partially deaf, so they let me go wild." His music is grinding, non-linear and unapologetically loud. "I think the volume may be an ego thing. Or maybe it's my deeply subliminated evil interior seeping out. Whatever-I just hope that when I get really loud it sounds like Slayer in their heyday."

Bill Whitmer, Champaign resident and UI grad student in ethnomusicology, became Williwaw in 1994 when he opened for local band Lonely Trailer. "Yeah, I was a big hit right away - the three people there loved it." He has continued to play around town, often including other local musicians as special guests. On stage he sticks to the uke, though he's been known to play a mean (and did I mention "loud"?) electric Barney jack-in-the-box.

Bill's self-entitled cassette, recorded at Poster Kid Rick Valentin's house studio, earned him recognition by the national press as a "forerunner of avant garde ukulele music." Like the stage show, the sounds on his tape are hard to describe. "It's basically a long thing, broken up by several shorter things. And then some medium things follow," Bill clarifies.

Young Bill played trumpet in his school band, but later switched to the ukulele when he found a plastic one in the band room garage can. He took to it right off. "With the trumpet, the sky's the limit. But I actually like the fact that the ukulele is kind of constraining. There are only four strings, 12 frets. You either have to work within those limits or explode them. I usually end up imploding all over the place."

/// /// /// ///


the doughnut-hole story
A williwaw is a violent squall, and also a sonic malestrom produced by the two hands, two feet, four strings, and many forms of amplification under the direction of Wm. McAllister Whitmer. Whitmer was born a polydactyl in the former screw capital of the world, and currently resides in the former shipbuilding capital of the world. Between screws and ships, Whitmer began mitigating the spectrotemporal constraints of the ’ukulele with the stochastic and bombastic properties of amplification under the stage name of williwaw. Twentysome years on, williwaw continues to provide this most particular blend of amplified 'ukulele mayhem to all the stalwarts hep to its machinations. On numerous occasions, williwaw has also played sonic foil to silent reels o' film, and plays nice with others in the sandlot.
when not fighting all who rob and plunder, our humble, lovable shoeshine boy does hearing research. if that alone isn't boring 'nuff for the likes o' you, then perhaps y'might be in'erested in this or that.