Hard hitting, in-your-face front man Ethan Jeffrey Whitaker of Sick Mystic meets us at the film industry’s go-to coffeeshop, Kaldi Coffee & Tea in Pasadena, CA to discuss brand new singles, staying honest in your music, and the underlying competitiveness of the L.A. rock scene.
Sick Mystic is comprised of:
Ethan Jeffrey Whitaker – Vocals
Samuel Eggenschwiler – Guitar
Robert Paul Ochoa – Bass
Zhenya Prokopenko – Drums
So a little birdie told me that you’re going to be releasing some new music soon! Care to give us a sneak preview of what we get to look forward to?
Ethan Jeffrey Whitaker: Yes! Well, my name is Ethan and I’m in the band Sick Mystic. We’re in the process of recording a five song EP, and working with this 21 year old prodigious producer that we have named Keith Sorrells. He’s absolutely incredible! We had this debate on whether we should get an old fart that has more experience or move forward with this kid who’s an absolute genius. We went with the young, inspired, fresh, take instead. So we’ve been mainly focusing on singles, and then we’re gonna smash them into a five song EP that we’re hoping to have released by the end of summer. The first two singles will be “Scream,” which is a very raw, straight to the point, punch in the face track, and “Saved,” which is much more of an emotional and personal track that turned into this epic journey of music.
So awesome! Now to kind of start off with “Saved,” when I got a chance to listen to it, I kind of heard a few different musical eras blended together. I heard some modernized classic rock, maybe some Arctic Monkeys AM era. What kind of vibe were you intentionally going for? Or did it change during the recording process?
Ethan: I wonder what Sick Mystic would be like if we methodically approached certain vibes. *laughs* We’re much more of an organic being than that. With “Saved” specifically, it started out as a jam that was sounding really good. All of a sudden it becomes this thrashy, crazy, hurricane feeling. We have a lot of grunge influences, but we have a higher energy level than a lot of grunge. “Saved” started out with Robert bringing the power, then Sam started jamming on top, then all of a sudden I was like, “What if we just stopped?” So we stopped, we made these awesome breaks where they come back in, and in those little breaks I immediately started popping out this melody along with a story line. I wanted the song to be treated and recorded like a Soundgarden song. I wrote the music for the chorus inadvertently in Dorian Mode, which is like this ancient religious, type of music making. It sounds like a church, almost like a Jewish sermon of sorts. Do I know what direction we were going in? Absolutely not. But it ended up just organically growing into place like that.
And what inspired the lyrics to “Saved?”
Ethan: Now we’re getting way too personal, we’re going to have to stop this interview. *laughs* So I am a recovered drug addict and alcoholic, A lot of our music is essentially a memoir of different experiences in my life. “Saved” is no different. “Saved” is about a guy who sold everything that he had in pursuit of whatever solution that he thought he needed to have. In the mind as a drug addict, you can’t necessarily explain or rationalize anything when you’re in it. You just know that you’re depleting as a human being, that you’re slowly deteriorating, and more of you is falling to the wayside. There’s a real helplessness where you don’t know what to do. The song is just about an alternate universe where I didn’t make it out. That’s what inspired the lyrics, my history with life.
That’s so incredibly powerful. I think your experiences can help others that are also in the recovery process, especially with how intense and emotional and honest your lyrics are.
Ethan: First and foremost, music helped me. I became a musician in rehab. I found out what I was, which is a singer, a lyricist, a writer, and a musician in rehab. There was a guitar there, I started playing it, and I found my voice. That’s my story. It was the best form of therapy that I could do on my own time. To turn your negative experience into something positive is the beautiful part of music. I talk about feelings that drug addicts, people who are suffering in pain, or going through depression have in pretty graphic detail most of the time. Our bassist, Robert, has had his struggles too. Sam, our guitarist, is also a recovered drug addict and alcoholic. All of us relate to it. It’s funny because Robert always thinks I’m talking about him when really I’m just talking about my story. *laughs* In the past, people have said I should actually make my music less literal, but I’m always so damn straight to the point that you know exactly what I’m talking about. All I’m doing is being honest with myself and being inspired in the moment. It’s the music’s job to push me in whatever direction I’m supposed to go in.
Now going back to what you had mentioned about people telling you to tone down your music and to not be so literal. Do you think modern society tries to push everything under the rug without talking about these heavy hitting topics?
Ethan: Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of negative stigmas, but luckily we’re in this transitional period with everything as far as addiction goes. All of that is getting looked at in a different light with the way insurance and medical treatment is being finally regulated so people can get quality care. The cool thing is that those treatments are actively involved with the arts where creative and troubled people can find it. There’s a lot of empowerment going on lately where people don’t have to run and hide, or be be afraid of their defects, or whatever their insecure brain is saying is wrong with them. People have been stuck in their ways, but I feel like free expression is on the rise and will be blooming and growing. And we’ve seen it with some really amazing films, with new music that’s popping up, and with record labels. People know how you can make money and thrive with realistic expectations. Now that they actually know that system, you can actually allow the artist to grow and become what they’re supposed to be, as opposed to this generic, processed, cookie-cutter bullshit. I believe society is growing, developing, and becoming more socially acceptable to issues and problems that pop up.
Yeah, there’s definitely been an openness to the creative work that has been put out that we hadn’t seen before. You also have a new track called “Scream.” This one very clearly has some pure hard rock, hair metal-y, grunge characteristics to the instrumentation. Did you compose the music to match the lyrics or vice-versa?
Ethan: It’s such a simple song, literally two of the verses are repeated. *laughs* It was actually one of the first songs that I wrote about a specific feeling. The song was written about that look in people’s eyes when you see them in hard core emotional pain, where they’re screaming on the inside even though they’re putting on this nice little facade for the rest of the world. How did the composition come about? I was living with Sam, and he was just playing something on the acoustic guitar. I started singing something, he did a change, and immediately I just started singing “Scream.” It all kind of happened simultaneously.
It’s interesting to hear those kind of stories where the magic happens at the same time. There’s so many people that can crank out song lyrics, and then you have people who are quick composers.
Ethan: Yeah! *laughs* Well, Sick Mystic is absolutely magical because we’re all feel-based musicians. We’ve played with each other long enough, and have connected on an emotional and spiritual level where we can be ourselves. It’s very organic. All of us individually are great, but once we’re together, we become an entirely separate organism of life.
So you guys had instant chemistry it looks like.
Ethan: Oh absolutely! We just have an awesome story of how everything just kind of melted together. Sam was the driver at the rehab I was going to. He saw me have panic attacks, coming in looking like Beetlejuice. And what do you know? We move out together, and we join a band. That band dies within a week. I find Robert, we jam, in two hours we crank out a song together, and I’m getting inspired to push my vocals to a place that it had never gone before. It was just a really fast, fluid motion of songwriting and jamming. It wasn’t controlled, so it grew into place and flowed into my life.
The universe works in mysterious ways when it sends you people. And if you could only choose one track do a music video for right now in this very moment, which song would you choose? “Scream” or “Saved?”
Ethan: Any second now, we’re actually expecting the finalized video we did for “Scream.” But if I had to choose one of the two, I definitely would have chosen “Saved” to have a music video. It’s such a powerfully connected song that’s not necessarily trendy, but it needs to be heard right now. There’s an epidemic going on in the world, and there are kids that need to know that someone relates. With that said, “Scream” already has a music video that’s getting edited right now. It’s a straight to the point progression into chaos kind of video where you have me looking like a lunatic, letting the beast out of the cage, and screaming dead on into the camera to make eye contact with whoever’s watching. Just an angry, huge, white guy with a mohawk and weird goatee screaming at you like the devil or something. *laughs*
*laughs* Well we can’t wait to see it!
Ethan: Me too! *both laugh* I don’t even know what it looks like! *laughs*
*laughs* Now going back to last year, you guys released a demo to introduce yourselves as a band. With the release of these two new songs, do you think that you would re-record any of the ones on the demo for an EP or potential full length?
Ethan: Yes! Absolutely yes! So, in early Sick Mystic, the cart was ahead of the horse. It was so magical and exciting, and still is, but at the beginning it was like, “Holy crap, what do we have here?” With me being this obsessive, crazy, person on a regular basis, I became a passionate, never-stopping, stretch myself thin, overworking type of front man. And the band of course was like, “We’ve got these songs! We need the demo! Record deals! We’ll be signed by next week!” So four months after forming the band, we recorded that demo. We popped in the studio, we spent a total of $720 for all four tracks that we mixed, mastered, and recorded.
Ethan: No, we had a crazy deal! If you ever want that kind of work done, Hear No Evil Studio in the City of Orange. Elliot Koenig was the producer of our demo. However, because the car was ahead of the horse, we did not invest enough money and had not done enough pre-production on any of those songs to really know what they were yet. The next song that we record with our new producer Keith Sorrells, will be “Party Animal,” which was one of the hits on that demo. When that song is done, we’re gonna make the decision on whether or not we release it as a single. If that’s the case, then we’re taking the demo off permanently. Our musicianship has developed so much more since that first recording session. We all have more experience in the studio, want to invest more money, and have more time perfecting it to make it the best that it can possibly be. It is no longer a correct representation of what we are and what we’ve grown into. Even though it’s still great and we love the songs, the recording process and the investment that we made was not enough to actually capture the beast that is Sick Mystic. It served its purpose as a demo, as something online, as something to hand out and spread. Hundreds of people have that demo, a lot of people have it on their playlists, and it makes us excited to release our new music.
You can always use the demo for throwback promos. “Remember when we did this little demo?” *laughs* You guys have played many different parts of L.A. from the Sunset Strip to the Valley to Long Beach. How would you the music scenes are different from each other?
Ethan: I think there’s a little goodness in every part of town. We throw great shows. Even if there’s three people there, we still play as if there’s thousands of people in the room. If there’s no one there or it’s, like, a shit venue, we’re like, “Alright, cool! Free rehearsal!” It’s funny, the last time we played in Long Beach, we were playing “Scream” live and the energy was right there in the room. We were playing at Muldoon’s Saloon in Long Beach, and this drunk guy was just so into “Scream.” The second the song was done, he jumped onstage, yelled “Oh my God dude!” gave me a five, and hugged me. Even though that was a little bit of a shit show, I’m glad I literally made that guy’s night because I know he hasn’t heard anything like us in a long time.
You really touched him with your music!
Ethan: I touched him so much that he felt compelled to jump up on stage and give me a hug. *laughs* That was so awesome! As of right now my favorite place to play is The Viper Room, or just the Sunset Strip in general. We always bring the power there, but when you play at a place with so much history, you’re basically competing with all the bands that have played there before. At least that’s the way I kind of see it. Our band is really competitive, well, I am. I love it when I have amazing singers playing the same night. I love it, because the competition is on!
So you’re saying that the L.A. rock scene is a bit competitive.
Ethan: It really is, especially if you get socially accepted by Hollywood with all of its layers of pretentiousness. I worked at the W Hollywood for years. I saw the club scene. Everybody’s a ‘somebody.’ Blah blah blah. When you actually have something special and get to show it off to them, all of sudden everybody who is somebody, or not, is bobbing their head and nodding. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction that you get if you can make that scene be excited that you’re there. The hardest place to please people is on the Sunset Strip, and also having to deal with Californians who have everything creative available to them in excess. Art is everywhere here. Film, art, music, it’s such a melting pot of influences.
That’s what they always say, “If you can make it in L.A., you can make it anywhere!”
Ethan: Yeah! Also, if you can pay your rent here, you can pay your rent anywhere else too! *laughs*
*laughs* Sad, but true. So apart from the guy that jumped on stage for “Scream,” what other memorable moments have you experienced at other shows?
Ethan: Last year we went on this tour up to Northern California. A friend of ours lives in Chile, and they have a band called, QueenMilk. Me and their guitarist Rodrigo became friends on Instagram, and they needed help booking shows for their California tour. This wasn’t necessarily a show, but just the experience of driving up to Northern California and back within 45 hours for a few shows was just really intense and crazy. Getting to play these awesome shows with QueenMilk was a lot of fun! They’re really good! When we’d open up for them we’d be like, “Damn! I hope we were good enough!” Then when you close up shop you’re like, “Alright, we won,” or whatever goes on in your head. It’s just nice seeing people get excited, and spending time with seasoned international musicians who express their gratitude.
Cool! And kind of staying on the topic of touring. If you could choose three artists to go on your own personal world tour with, who would they be, and what would your tour be named?
Ethan: Oh my goodness. *laughs* Ok, if I had to choose three bands to tour with it would have to be Alice In Chains, Tool, and Primus. Just because.
And because you can!
Ethan: Exactly! *laughs* And what the tour be named? Oh my god…I have no idea. *laughs* The Greatest Tour In History Tour? Ethan Whitaker’s Favorite Bands Tour? *laughs* This one Dude’s Dream Tour…and Sick Mystic! *laughs* See, that question in my head boils down to: Who do I learn from? Who do I want to tour with? Who do I want to spend as much time as possible with? Who are my mentors that are still alive? If I could convince Ozzy Osbourne, and Tony Iommi, and Geezer Butler to do another Black Sabbath tour then of course they would be on the top of the list. But they might be done. Alice In Chains for sure because of Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley, may he rest in peace. I’m wearing an Alice In Chains shirt right now, they are my favorite band. I thought that they brought something completely different to the table. Tool and Primus are just intense. I’d just love to see the human side of my idols, to see how they deal with life. Plus, it’d be cool to pick their brains. *laughs*
The Picking Brains Tour, 2018. *laughs* And since you kind of named some of your influencers right now, how are they similar or different from the other members of your band?
Ethan: Hmm. That’s a multi-layered question there. I grew up with three older sisters and a mom who was an equity actress for years. I know every Phantom of the Opera song. I know so many musical soundtracks because my mom made us listen to them in the car everywhere we went. I know every single Journey song, and I also know the classics. As a vocalist, I am very anal about vocal and tone control while singing. It is a complete obsession for me. I’m very intense in singing with as much power while making sure that I am true to my tone and pitch. I remember when I found my own voice as a young kid, and the obsession was to pinpoint exact precision and imitate it. Nailing every single Steve Perry, Aerosmith, and Black Sabbath song to the T. Even when I was younger, I’d hear Josh Groban and go, “Wow, what an amazing singer! I wonder if I can nail that!” Once I heard my own voice nailing it behind closed doors I was like, “Well, shit, maybe I’ve got something special here!” Back in the day it was just whatever I was exposed to. Nowadays, it’s Chris Cornell and Layne Staley. But what I care about most is the ability to express your heart and soul with your voice, and to show a certain tenderness and humanity while maintaining those notes to tell a story. If you want to be monotone, you’re robbing the audience of the multi-dimensional thing that a song can be. We have great diction, because what’s the point of writing great lyrics if people can’t understand what you’re saying? I love the words that I write. It’s all personal to me so I want to be heard. Anyway, now who are are my main influences as a pinpoint precise vocalist? Johnny Mathis, absolutely. I’ve never heard anyone on live recording with as much tender, extreme, precise vocal control. He had the ability to rise and bring such emphasis on the emotional part, and absolutely knew his thresholds as a vocalist. Nat King Cole also. The way he was able to push out certain moods and vibes with complete ease is a mystery. He just had a certain way of tone control with the way he pronounced things. And the last one, though my pride doesn’t like admitting it, is my sister Brenna [Whitaker]. She is the greatest live singer that I’ve ever heard. I did her touring security for years when she was signed by Verve and Universal Records, so I was everywhere she went. I’ve seen my sister perform live more than any other musician and she is an extreme example of vocal control and emotional connection. Now as a songwriter, I have no freakin idea where those influences come from! The cool thing about songwriting is that I translate whatever the hell’s going on by whatever means I have and by whatever skill set I have. Lyrics and melody are synonymous to me, the melody itself has lyrics to it. Sometimes I have a melody first and I try to find what’s going on in the background. Is it bouncy? Is it staccato? Is it kind of funky? I don’t really know. My phone just has an endless amount of recordings of me singing weird ass noises, that somehow turn into songs. *laughs*
So I’ve told my influences in detail. *laughs* Robert’s are not too far off from me. He has some Alice In Chains in there, a lot of grunge, a lot of 90s, but he’s most heavily influenced by Justin Chancellor from Tool. You can totally hear that in his playing. Robert was a bassist at first, but then he wanted to write more songs so he became a guitarist. Then when I came in the picture, I forced him to become a bassist again because that’s where he belongs. *laughs* He belongs on a bass because he plays differently than any other bassist I know. He’s very melodic, and not just the run of the mill, standard, chilling with the groove kinda of guy. He actually has his own identity, and you can hear that when he plays.
I’m the feels guy, I have no taught musical experience whatsoever. I am just a purely what sounds good in the moment, flow, whatever dude. *laughs* Now with that said, both of Sam’s parents are professors in universities, so he’s had an educated approach on life. He’s the music theory guy! He’ll be like “Oh yeah! That’s like a German major augmented sixth chord,” and I’m like, “Oh yeah! I knew that!” *laughs* I have no idea what I’m playing, but he likes that I play weird, dissonant shit that I come up with. I can’t even start on Sam’s influences. He goes to Amoeba Music so many times a month just to buy whatever classical artist, rap artist, unknown artist that’s available. Sam is like a complete library of musical knowledge, music theory knowledge, and everything in between. He’s classically trained in guitar and has been playing for like 19 years, so he’s definitely the most musically educated in the band.
And now to get to Zhenya, our Russian refugee seeking asylum in the United States. *laughs* Just kidding just kidding! But Zhenya is definitely the most professional in the band. He’s the most experienced with bands, tours, recording, you name it, and has a great feel for music. Ever since he joined Sick Mystic, we’ve become so much tighter because he really syncs up the bass. It’s just been phenomenal! And Zhenya is all over the place too! You’ve got Prince to Michael Jackson to Lamb of God. A lot of heavy metal, a lot of death metal, just a lot of everything! Nirvana, Alice In Chains, whatever. He also is a complete music junkie like Sam. All of our influences are different, but still have some overlapping similarities.
Which three artists would you like to collaborate with in the future and why?
Ethan: I really want Michael Beinhorn to pre-produce one of our albums. He did the Mother’s Milk album by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He also did Super Unknown by Soundgarden, which is quite possibly the greatest beginning to end rock record of all time. And he did the Untouchables Korn album, and I don’t like to admit this, but I love Korn! I love NuMetal! I relate to Jonathan Davis‘ pain, and as a kid at thirteen, all of my pent up rage just went into listening to that album. Korn went into the recording for it, and they got rid of every song that they were going to record. They took nine months to pre-produce this amazing, epic, record that is the Untouchables album, which is quite arguably their best album. Michael Beinhorn makes albums, and that’s why I’m interested in him. What’s crazy is that I’ve actually talked with the guy I want to work with! Luckily we have management with Sick Mystic now that can negotiate to see if we can get him involved.
Yay, there’s a chance!
Ethan: *laughs* Yes, there’s definitely a chance. We’ve already had an hour and a half conversation over Facebook. Somehow, I forced my way into his life. *laughs* Now who else? Well, because I’m an ambitious asshole, I want Rick Rubin and Brendan O’Brien! My three favorite producers! If that happens, then great, but if not, that’s fine too.
And what do you hope that your audience will take away from your music? We kind of started discussing it at the beginning of the interview, but there’s always more that can be said.
Ethan: Do you remember that time in-between ten and fourteen when all of a sudden…
You become an asshole? *both laugh*
Ethan: Essentially! But, in that process of becoming an asshole, you heard a song or two that you had this spiritual connection with, where all of a sudden the world becomes a bigger place. You’re looking at what your idea of what human is and what little life experience you have, because you’ve just been trying to be socially acceptable in a group of children. You’re starting to find your identity, you’re starting to find out that you’re supposed to become something separate from your family unit. During that time you’ll have a lot of profound experiences. One of my biggest most profound experiences ever was when I was thirteen years old and I think a little bit stoned. *both laugh* Anyways, I was in my room in Kansas, where I’m from, and I’m sitting at my huge Dell desktop computer with probably a bunch of illegally downloaded music from Limewire. I’m not incriminating myself I swear! *laughs* I remember my first spiritual experience with music was the first time I put on the self-titled Black Sabbath album. You get into the first track with the rain falling, the church bell ringing, and then you hear “Black Sabbath” the song. Like, holy shit, being a thirteen year old kid who’s a little bit stoned with your headphones on as high as they can go, was an absolutely spiritual moment. My goal is to be that for another kid. I really care about people, and I want to be helpful in this new life that I get to live. My main priority as a musician, and as a human being, is that I can have an affect on the next generation. I want a kid to put on “Saved,” or any one of our songs, and have that same experience that I had. I don’t even care if I’m rich or famous in the end, because money doesn’t make you happy. It really doesn’t. I’m already a success story by my terms because I get an opportunity to wake up and live happily making music. I just want as many people as possible to hear our music, and hopefully I can be there for some kid who’s feeling alone, or alienated, or trying to find out who and what they are. Music was such a great peace and relief from all of that for me. I just want to keep making music that people in all walks of life can connect to.
I feel like that’s every musician’s goal.
Ethan: Absolutely! Because music is divine. I feel like I’m always hearing it or making it up in my head. Music is something that just is. Music is something completely synonymous with God, and energy, and everything like that. There’s a reason why it affects us emotionally. It’s crazy. You hear a dissonant chord and you feel emotions. You know? It’s why some things can sound happy but the words tell a different story! Music is the most amazing thing ever, and everyone can translate it their own way because it’s completely personal to them. I love that.
One last question, what big plans should we expect from Sick Mystic apart from an EP and a music video?
Ethan: I’m keeping my expectations at a minimum. *laughs* We’re definitely getting better with our writing process streamlining lately. It’s crazy! We’re getting softer and more emotional, but way heavier at the same time. Our contrast in our set list will be this very melodic, bluesy, emotional ballad before we go right into this crazy, hectic, thrashing hurricane, where you’re getting thrown around. *laughs* I think we’re getting almost Pantera-heavy with pretty vocals on top. So what do you have to look forward to? Within the next few months there will be an EP, one music video will be popping out any second now, and then you’ll be seeing us on a bunch of sponsored ads all over Facebook and Instagram. My main goal right now is just to be able to do a national tour within the next year and a half. Maybe two years? Whatever, I don’t give a shit. *laughs* All I need is massive amounts of people to hear who we are, and then I’m not worried about a damn thing after that point. Once the door’s open, we’re just gonna punch and claw and scream and yell at people as much as we possibly can to stay there and wait for the next door to open. It’s my job as the band leader to manage everyone’s expectations and risks, and to make sure that there’s some sort of plan of attack. And now we have an amazing manager, and people who can help us out with social media and making content. So what do you have to look forward to? Better shows, better songs, a lot of fucking awesome partying and celebration, a lot more soul, a lot more passion, and a lot more connection. Expect what music has been missing for a while, that certain amount of grit, truth, and raw artistry that’s needed to come back. I feel like there is a nice little window of opportunity opening for the world right now. What the world has to look forward to is a lot of amazing beautiful things. But don’t forget, today is a gift first and the future is the rest of today.
About Kaldi Coffee & Tea:
Ever wondered where they shot the coffee scenes for films like Lady Bird, Prom Night, The Ugly Truth (AKA my favorite rom-com ever in the entire world) and tv shows like Brothers & Sisters, Parenthood, and most recently Splitting Up Together? Who knew that it was right underneath our noses tucked away in beautiful Pasadena, CA! Kaldi Coffee & Tea certainly has the appeal of the go-to coffeeshop with its weathered brick walls, worn wooden seating arrangements, maintained hardwood flooring, and classic oldies tracks playing in the background. Even with its somewhat infamous reputation in the film and television realm, the food and drink options are reasonably priced. An array of classic coffee and tea options with a seasonal signatures, like the deliciously refreshing honey vanilla latte that I couldn’t help but choose, showcase that they try to cater to every type of customer that rolls in.
From the minute you step through the shop’s forest green framed doors, you can just tell that generations of coffee lover have come through here. Plus there is a strong sense of community with local artwork on display, and a bulletin board with notes of local events, offers, listings, etc. tacked to them. If you’re looking for a relaxing spot to spend the day reading, playing music (on their front seating area of course), or are a movie and tv buff looking to visit a place with some history, Kaldi Coffee & Tea is the hidden gem you’ve been looking for.