We all have THAT band which formed a huge part of our youth. The ones who have reunion tours and there is no question about going. The tickets are bought and the travel plans are made. This is my band….The Killer Whales. Find out why.
Only five years ago, the native Charleston 80’s band, The Killer Whales, performed their last reunion show. Now, I am counting down the days to experience it all again. The Killer Whales are back by popular demand on Aug. 18th at The Windjammer, on the Isle of Palms in South Carolina.
I will be there, and nothing can stop me.
A bit of history for those of you who woefully missed this successful 80’s band…
The Killer Whales were a three piece band out of Charleston, SC.; David Bethany (guitar and lead vocals), Murphy Pitts (drums), and Jim Blakeslee (bass 1979-85), and later adding Tom Lentz (bass 1984-1987). They played a mix of old and contemporary pop rock blues covers, until Bethany began writing original songs, of which the band perfected and selectively entered into the set. They literally brought the new wave movement to our own backyard with their live shows. The sound became accessible to a southern coastal city for a group of fans following The Cars, Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello. The Whales suddenly were on demand and garnished a steady stream of devoted followers.
In 1981, The Killer Whales released a four song, self-titled EP. It included the hit song, “Marlene”, a pleading love song and infectious crowd pleaser. The video is full of memorable snapshots of their early days. Listen…I dare you to stand still.
The Killer Whales-Marlene
Their fame continued to spread beyond the Holy City, infiltrating the southeast. After attracting deserved national attention from their energy driven, power packed performances, they recorded their first full length album, Emotional Geography.
A stand out track is “Who Controls The Video Screen.” I found this on Bandcamp, but you can download the album on I-Tunes.
The Killer Whales-Who Controls The Video Screen
The Killer Whales jumped on a wave of popularity and opened up for some incredible bands at the time; Men at Work, Huey Lewis and The News, and REM, to name a few. They also made an exciting appearance on Star Search, a long running predecessor to America’s Got Talent. Their grueling tour schedule and the need to balance their personal lives, prompted Jim Blakeslee to step down as bassist in 1985. Tom Lentz joined the band almost immediately and supported their continued touring which eventually led to their final album, Big Bang in 1986.
Despite the fact they separated ways at the end of 1987, They have remained friends and put together a few benefit shows and reunions over the years. I attended their sold-out reunion 5 years ago, and time has not changed their popularity among loyal fans.
Since I purchased my ticket for this year’s Killer Whales reunion, I have been listening to their music on repeat, tapping into boatloads of fond memories. Today as a seasoned music blogger, I have a new musical ear that has developed over time, and discerned their music could easily stand up in today’s indie scene, as it did many years ago. In fact, many young bands are trying to reinvent that explosive era of music.
So what are they up to now….
Immersed In Cool Music Interviews The Killer Whales
Murphy Pitts (Drummer)
Murphy is the ultimate bachelor. When he left the Killer Whales he went into fine dining in Greenville, SC and stayed with that career for many years. After retiring, he put together a successful plan to return to the Isle of Palms. He now lives on the island close enough that he can bike to work at Wild Dunes Resort. He works, drums, and is seeking to liberate from emotional upheaval through his Buddhist beliefs and practices.
Murphy was the main orchestrator for this year’s reunion event. He confessed that he cleared the date with Bobby Ross, owner of The Windjammer, before telling the others in the band. By doing it this way, he hoped to take away the minor detail work and prompt them to all agree. Pretty sneaky, but it worked.
-What is going to be different this year?
He expressed several exciting differences. Tom Lentz was unable to play the last reunion show, so this time around he will be the bassist, instead of Jim Blakeslee.
“This is the first time we will be playing live with Tom in a reunion show in about 28 years. There are certain songs he knows that Jimmy didn’t and vice versa. So we will be doing stuff from all three albums, but the last album, was what Tom played on, it was called Big Bang and he leans heavily on that one as well. “
He shared another hopeful surprise to return us to those early days. Captain Harry was the first to book them in downtown Charleston at his Blue Marlin Bar. Murphy spoke fondly of his memories with Captain Harry, a Charleston legend. Through him he met Jimmy Buffet and his dad. He even alluded to a St. Patrick’s Day Savannah drunkenness ending in Captain Harry tumbling into his drum set, completely busting it. If you are also a Captain Harry fan, it is a strong possibility that he ( in his 80’s now) might step on stage once again, and introduce The Killer Whales on the 18th!
Rik Cribb and The Problems will open the evening. They are a talented local band, and Murphy says the band complements the night of fun. Rik Cribb and The Problems Facebook page describes their music as fun, loud, dirty, sweet rock and roll.
The Killer Whales are hoping to create a festival atmosphere at the Windjammer. Before each set, in between, and after, the Windjammer will play the popular nostalgic tunes from the 80’s.
Murphy has also encouraged Tonya Stewart ( Toniella), a local artist, to create select art works to sell at the show. She listens to songs and carefully interprets her emotions in acrylic. For the show, she has created some works based on The Killer Whale’s songs. Murphy describes her style as pure and natural. Here is a sample of her beautiful style from her Facebook page.
A Whales fan and friend, who is also a drummer from Greenville, will be selling t-shirts with his wife. Major Tip: The popular tees with David Bethany’s logo sold out quickly 5 years ago. Buy early!
-What music are you listening to today?
Murphy is particularly fond of Indian classical, along with some local stuff. He has explored almost every genre and today he appreciates a more ethnic feel in his music. He has always liked to mess around with rhythms and the music that makes people dance.
-What is your go-to bar drink?
Full disclosure, I thought maybe this question would be an easy one that anyone can answer quickly. After chatting for @ 30 minutes with each of the band members and listening to all of their answers, I was struck by the connection their drink choice reflected their temperament and somewhat reflected their personality. I recognize this is a ridiculous generalization, but I sense a bit of truth. Don’t you know an actor has a style of clothing and way of walking to build character….isn’t it true for their cocktail choice? Somehow, I don’t see Christian Bale sipping champagne out of a skinny, crystal flute very often.
Murphy- Chuckling, as he often did in our conversation, he answered,
“I’d like a Miller Lite and a cheeseburger plate at The Windjammer.”
I believe a beer drinker is usually social, happy and an all around fun guy. They usually work hard, but don’t necessarily want to work that hard. An everyday beer choice emphasizes an unfussy attitude as well as easy to get along with. Forgive me for my grand assumptions, but I would imagine Murphy is the kind of friend who sticks by you in good times and bad.
In his humble but jovial manner, he shared a funny story,,.
“The band was together for about ten years and we had a really good streak and we didn’t really plan a lot of that. We were popular and people who were our peers would ask us, ‘What are you doing?’ and we would say ‘We don’t know’. We were very lucky, we were very blessed…Many years later, I was asked by an owner in the dining business, ‘Are you the Murphy Pitts of The Killer Whales?’ and I answered ‘yea’. Apparently he and his friends were big fans of the Killer Whales decades before. So I asked them ‘What was your favorite song?’ Then I was stunned to learn, they didn’t have a clue. They just said that wherever The Killer Whales played, that’s where all the women were.”
Murphy, is a talented drummer who rips out incredible beats which make The Whales’ music so distinctive and fun to dance to. I am sure he will embellish the musical timbre with his personable flair and style.
Tom Lentz (Bassist 84-87)
-Catch me up, what are you doing now. Do you have a family?
Tom Lentz lives in Raleigh with his wife, Lisa, and his son. After he left The Killer Whales he was in a band, WildMen from Borneo, and met his wife in Florida. He lived there for many years until he and his wife decided they missed the changing four seasons. So in 2005, they embarked on a new adventure and moved to Raleigh, NC. He now works for Paragon Bank in downtown Raleigh.
-How did you join The Killer Whales in mid-stream?
Tom recalled seeing The Killer Whales play in Myrtle Beach in the early 80’s, but didn’t know them. He thought to himself, he could really play in a band like that, because he liked their originals and the cover songs they played. Then, fast forward a few years and he heard rumors they weren’t happy with the temporary bass player they had to replace the talented Jim Blakeslee. So, eventually he met with David Bethany and hung out with him and went to see The Whales at the Windjammer. He was given a bunch of their cassette tapes and he learned all of the parts by ear. Shortly after, he heard from the band and went immediately to Charlotte to play his first gig with them. He remembers very little of that first concert, but knew he played all the parts fairly well and from that day on, he continued to tour with them.
His favorite place to play was the tiny club, The Double Door Inn in Charlotte. Eric Clapton played there, as well as a host of other renowned artists. He expressed the power of playing on a stage steeped in musical history. Sadly, The Double Door closed their doors recently, after 43 years.
-Do you still play the bass? What bands are you currently listening to?
“I have always played bass. In fact, Paul McCartney was the one who got me to play. I never stopped playing, it’s just part of my marrow or my makeup or something. Fortunately, I have a room here in our house that has all my music collections and my basses and my amps. Any weekend I don’t play about four hours or so, I am just miserable. In fact, I enjoy playing with my tapes of music and picking out the bass parts. I learned to play by ear and like the more complex, like Steely Dan.”
Tom expressed several current bands he enjoyed, Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire, Gomez and as of late, Warpaint . Warpaint is an all female psych rock-dream pop foursome. He confessed he saw them on TV and noticed the bass player plays a Rickenbacker bass. He has one and is captivated by it’s sound. In fact, he is captivated with collecting and has a Fender bassman amp from 1966. It is refurbished and treasured. He takes it to Charleston when he practices with David and Murphy. He also chatted about a vintage shop in Raleigh which has a few pieces he has his eyes on. He clearly recognizes the history in the instruments of other musicians and values it deeply.
His son is coming to The Whales reunion show, along with his wife, Lisa. With a sense of pride he expresses,
“It will be the first time my son has seen me play live.”
-What is your go-to bar drink?
“I like craft beers, mainly dark ales that pack a wallop, something dark similar to a Guinness.”
I imagine craft beer drinkers like Tom, pay attention to the subtle details and nuances of any and all particular flavors. Choosing a craft beer may be somewhat like his discerning ears, and the abilility to pick out and play a complicated song. Craft beer drinkers like to experiment, and are open to discovering new things. He was listening to more contemporary artists, and discussed his pleasure at learning about new bands, while still playing his favorites. Craft drinkers are connoisseurs, but in a more humble, accessible way.
Tom is a guy who seems to have a heartfelt passion for music and playing the bass. I expect he will be a highly qualified addition to the reunion show. I can’t wait to see the guitar he brings, and watch him make it sing with some crafty bass lines.
David Bethany (lead vocals, guitar)
-Are you getting excited and are y’all ready for the upcoming reunion show?
“That’s two questions, I am getting excited, I’m not sure we’re ready. I think we’ll be ready.”
“When we first started, it was like trying to start a car that’s been in your back yard for three years, the windows are out and the rain has been in and morning glories are growing up through the engine and all that stuff , even raccoons are nesting in the back seat.”
He said their practices have helped them to strip away the rust. The songs are so familiar to them, and they are simply reconnecting with the tunes.
-Do you play everyday, do you still write?
For several years, Bethany has been playing an acoustic gig pretty regularly in the summer at the Banana Cabana, on the Isle of Palms. Check their schedule if you are in town or on vacation.
-Catch me up to your life today, do you have family, children?
After the Killer Whales parted, he enrolled in grad school and became a family therapist and mental health counselor. Because his music career was such a ride, he wanted to explore something he found equally as interesting.
“They are really the same skill sets, from writing songs about people, to trying to figure people out and help them make sense of things.”
He has a wife Jan and three children, two girls and a son. His oldest lives and works in Amsterdam. His middle child just left Seattle to go to grad school at UNC Chapel Hill to study for her Master’s in Social Work. His youngest, is an architect at a major firm in Atlanta and a graphic artist. He is coming to the reunion show with 50 posters he designed and screen printed by hand.
-Do you have any new songs or new material?
He completed an album, True Love, in 2011. He said that the songs on it were written over the course of many years, and “Can’t Hold On” was even written during The Killer Whales time. He enjoyed making the album because he was able to fully arrange it and play multiple instruments. You can download it on I-Tunes.
Even with a demanding career, he has written and saved fragments of things and always recognizes great lines and great phrases.
“I do have several songs I wish we had time for the Whales to work up. Random thoughts that come through my head, although nothing well formed.”
Once a writer always a writer.
-Do you have a favorite band you shared a stage with, or a fond memory of touring?
Opening for Men at Work seemed to stick out in his mind the most, although there were many great bands. The bands were compatible, a large packed coliseum, with a local crowd. The experience ranks near the top of his Killer Whales memories.
Although there were many great memories, he recalled a rather harrowing concert opening for Joan Jett in Greenville, NC.
“It was around ’83 or ’84, it was wild… There must have been a military base nearby, because I remember the sea of cropped haircuts and they each held a beer in each hand. When they began playing their songs, the guys were throwing stuff at them. It was like a hail storm of stuff.”
That night he decided to wear a new jacket on stage and Joan Jett had acquired a new set of stage lights. He was incredibly hot, and they had beer cans flying at them. He recalled seeing an empty handle of Jack Daniels coming toward him. He could see it shine in the lights from the corner of his eye, but fortunately no one was hit or hurt. After they left the stage, he just thought to himself, “Why would anybody want to do this?”
In Savannah they played at a nightclub called Night Flight (a folk music club with a tiny stage), a guy jumped up on stage with them. Immediately, Bethany noticed the rather large knife in his hand, a buck knife. Because the stage was so small, he was worried, but kept on playing. As it turned out, the guy grabbed his shirt and ripped out the shoulders with the knife. He was having such a good time, he just had to tear his shirt!
“That was the weirdest thing.”
-What kind of music are you listening to now?
Over the years he has found himself broadening his listening, and even filling in some gaps with older blues, like Muddy Waters and Albert King. He received an Albert King CD as a gift recently. I decided to give him a listen too. It is worth a share because it is so bad ass.
Albert King-Born Under A Bad Sign (with Stevie Ray Vaughan)
“Desmond Dekker and the early 60’s stuff are also heartfelt and unaffected, not pushing their luck, full throttle and having some fun.”
-What’s your favorite song you will play that get’s you pumped up?
He always enjoys playing, “Who Controls The Video Screen” and “Here In The Modern World”
After I expressed the lyrics are as valid today as they were then, he hinted he may change a line of “Here In The Modern World”
When he sings,
“we got Hare Krishna pulling our coats and refugees rolling up on boats…”
It sounded a bit dated to him so he wants to change it to…
“we got gluten free avocado toast and refugees rolling up on boats”
After a thoughtful pause, he shared something else that he felt was pretty relevant….
“About 4 years ago I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and had symptoms well before that, including the show we did 5 years ago. I was experiencing a lot of those symptoms when we did that last show. I was not entirely sure I was going to do it at all. At that time I didn’t really understand. In Jan 2013, I got the formal diagnosis, and got on some medication. Knowing what I was facing and getting on the medication made a world of difference. My guitar playing has come back to a large extent, not where it was before, but some of it is because I don’t play as much as I used to, cause I’m rusty. It is such a full throttle thing when we’re on stage, that I feel it rekindles my life force. “
Reminding him about the loyal fans anticipating the show, the groups of friends attending the sold out show, and the love that would be there, he went on…
“You know the response to the whole thing is sort of mind boggling. Looking back at that time, I used to compare our music to the bands in NYC and their fans and success. But what we had here in Charleston was pretty much the same. The music in Charleston, Columbia, and Charlotte was a scene, everybody was there, everybody was tuned in, it was new, it was fun, it was fresh, and everyone had a good time. It may not have had the same business success or the same visibility as the bands in New York, but it had the same impact on people’s lives and that has been a real treasure.”
They were truly one of the very first bands to get national attention coming out of the southeast and Charleston. All of their fame came from word of mouth, with no internet, Facebook, or Instagram. Their shows were simply where you wanted to be.
-So last question, what is your favorite go-to drink?
“Usually Scotch on the Rocks, but this summer I have enjoyed Gin and Tonics.”
I have to admit, I was overwhelmed by the colorful descriptions David Bethany used in our candid conversation. His words were thoughtful and vibrant, almost poetic. Every story he shared came to life in my mind. He struck me as a really bright guy with a certain eloquence and articulation. Stay with me here, his drink choice also seems to reflect that subtle sophistication. I imagine him to be a deep thinker, and maybe a bit on the mysterious side. Scotch drinkers will tell you they sample variations and rare small batches, similar to Bethany’s exploration of music leaning toward the great guitarists and the foundations of rock and roll. With success in two very different realms, I’d say he leads a pretty compelling life.
David is a keen observer. He reflects that in his songwriting and has the singing chops to express it with depth, and the guitar skills to rattle off a jamming riff. His music career has been a wild ride, but the reunion success also demonstrates the hard work and dedication which must have been a large part.
The fans and the band may be a little older, but when we listen to the music our hearts are forever young.