Locked in a groove
Whirligig’s Sunday night jam session lasted 20 years and counting
Whirligig, circa 1998: Kelly Oliver, David Merritt, Dylan Layton, Paul Moore, Mike Back, Matt Casteel
I came to Tulsa for a wedding in 1999, and the entertainment that night was provided by a local outfit called Whirligig. At night’s end, my legs limp like wet pasta from all the boogie, I was so smitten that I would end up making several return trips to Tulsa just to catch them play. The marriage we celebrated that night in 1999 didn’t make it a year. Whirligig, on the other hand, went another 15, and they’ll celebrate their 20th anniversary with a special concert at Fassler Hall on Nov. 14.
To mark that milestone (and seriously, if you’ve ever attempted a creative collaboration with multiple people for any length of time, you know what an impressive milestone it is), I invited the band to sit down for a few drinks and talk about those 20 years.
Present are Dylan Layton (lead guitar), Paul Moore (drums, vocals), Matt Casteel (bass) and Damon Daniel (drums, percussion). Absent are Kelly Oliver (guitar, vocals) and Michael Back (drums, percussion).
So you know what’s first. How’d Whirligig start?
Dylan Layton: Kelly and I have known each other since middle school, and we would jam together a little bit, up through high school. We probably would’ve jammed more, but I think his parents thought I was a bad influence.
Paul Moore: No!
Dylan: And they were right. [Laughter] And then Matt, Paul and Mike went to Bishop Kelley together.
Dylan: We used to have these crazy jams at this guy Dave Merritt’s house. This would be around 1993. It was a pretty wild scene over there—show up, hang out, play music for 18 hours straight.
Matt Casteel: All kinds of people, all kinds of instruments.
Dylan: Members of Medicine Show, Glass House, Jacob Fred … everyone would just come and play. It was super free-form. But eventually the same people kept showing up and songs started coming together.
Paul: I saw Mike [Back] at Cafe Olé one time. He invited me over to Dave’s for the Sunday jams. I didn’t go for a long time, but one Sunday I just happened to go and take a guitar. I walked in like I knew what I was doing, I sat my guitar down and picked up a mic, “OK, you guys follow me.” And I played and sang, and people played along and it was really nice. Then when I finished, Kelly and Dylan started to play guitar, and I’m like, “Oh shit. I am not a guitarist.” But I really liked what was happening, so I told them, “Hey, I play drums too!”
I couldn’t believe the music I was hearing. I had never heard guys play guitar like that—together in unison. It was like Allman Brothers-style dual melodies that you just don’t hear a lot of. So I went and told Matt about the jams, said they needed a bass player, and convinced him to come. So when Matt came, the band kind of started to get its footing.
Matt: Before long, the other bands we hung out with at those Sunday parties kind of kicked us out of the casual jams. They started saying, “Come on guys. You’re a real band. Why are you playing in a living room?”
Paul: We played at a place called Club 1 a lot in those days. It’s not there anymore. It’s an apartment building on Riverside. But it’s weird—it was an apartment building back then too. But it had this cool club.
Dylan: We only played there because it was so fun. We loved it. The pay was half of anywhere else. It was so hot. It was smoky. But it was the place you could go and do absolutely whatever—musically and otherwise.
Paul: I remember one night Steve Pryor came and sat in with us, and before we started he turned around and said, “All right guys—if you see me duck, you’ll want to duck too.” And I started thinking, “What the hell are we in for tonight? Is someone going to shoot at us?”
Dylan: So all of a sudden we’re this band with lots of gigs—we’d play at Club 1, Full Moon, Sunset Grill, Woody’s. We went from jamming in living rooms to getting voted best band in Tulsa—in some publication [Ed. note: An argument ensues over which one]—in just a couple years. And we were shocked, because all we did was play gigs and have fun.
So, from the living room to Tulsa’s favorite band, give me an idea of what you were playing over that couple years. Covers? Originals? 30-minute improv jams?
Dylan: We started out playing Grateful Dead covers, and then stuff that was influenced by Medicine Show. They were the jam band in Tulsa. That was back when there weren’t a lot of jam bands. There was the Dead and the Allman Brothers. Phish and Widespread Panic were just barely starting to get big. There weren’t a hundred jam band festivals. It was kind of an underground scene back then.
Paul: So we’re playing a lot of covers, and the original songs just kind of came organically—and pretty quickly, because with the kind of music we were playing, it was a lot of improvising, so Kelly and Dylan were very good at organizing cohesive songs out of some of the improv. We definitely modeled what we did after Medicine Show, doing covers but injecting our own style into it and taking it to new places.
Dylan: Most of us would’ve been perfectly happy doing the cover thing. We had some originals, or at least the beginnings of some. But it got to a point where we said, “If we’re going to really try to do anything with this band, we gotta have original music.” And Kelly, more than anybody, really stepped up to the plate and started writing.
Matt: None of us are the kind of people who want to take a leadership role and say, “It’s gotta be my way or the highway. I want to dominate.”
Dylan: We’re all the most passive aggressive motherfuckers you’ve ever met, honestly.
Paul: Nobody wanted to carry a leadership role, but inevitably, something had to happen.
Matt: Well, it’s Kelly. And it’s not only a personality thing, he just has a sense of where we needed to go. And it comes down to: We all communicate well with Kelly.
Dylan: Whirligig wouldn’t be Whirligig without Kelly. They’ve done it for a while without me. They’ve done it for a while without Paul. But there’s really no Whirligig without Kelly.
Paul: And he would never tell you that he’s that guy.
Matt: He’s probably not here for that very reason. [Laughter]
But we all have this unspoken thing between us, musically. We’ve played together so long. And the band being so guitar-driven, the interplay between Dylan and Kelly is a special thing. Lots of people say that, actually, and always have. There’s something magical about those two playing together.
Skipping ahead to the present, you’ve got the 20th anniversary gig at Fassler coming up. Any other plans on the horizon?
Dylan: Brian Horton and I have been throwing around the idea of maybe putting together a retrospective album that also has some new tunes. I’d like to see that happen. We have some new tunes, it’s just a matter of making time to do it.
Paul: Yeah, we all just have so much going on nowadays. I have two daughters, so it’s tough to tell my wife after she’s been working all week, “Hey, I’m going to play music with my friends—Friday night and Saturday night—cool?”
Matt: Life just happens. All of us are still here in town. Tulsa kind of has that gravitational pull.
Paul: And many of us play with different people and in different incarnations of this band, but it’s a larger musical family that we’re a part of. We’ve been seeing a lot of familiar faces for a long time. But at the root of what Whirligig is, it does pretty much retain its core.
Dylan: The chemistry when we’re all together—it’s just special.
Whirligig - 20th Anniversary show // Friday, Nov. 14, 10ish p.m. // Fassler Hall, 304 S. Elgin. See selections from Whirligig’s stripped-down set at a recent installment of the Voice's Courtyard Concert Series.