Prior to the pandemic, James Whitehouse wanted to form a band. But amid isolation, this idea started to take on growing importance. “The pandemic created this urgency that things needed to happen sooner rather than later,” Whitehouse said. “And the key word was need. It felt like need more than want.”
This urgency bled into everything from the songwriting – Whitehouse wrote and recorded throughout stay-at-home, intending to exit quarantine with enough material to immediately launch a project – to the steps the musician took to ensure he could get the vaccine as soon as it became available, a process that involved undergoing exposure therapy for his needle phobia.
After receiving the vaccine, Whitehouse, who described himself as an introvert by nature, then challenged himself to attend as many local shows as possible, “which is something I had to force myself to do at first,” he said. “And that usually meant going to shows alone, which is understandably scary for a lot of people, including myself. But you can usually find one other person who is also alone, and who might feel the same way. And I learned to talk to them, and I talked to the musicians who played. People wanted to be talked to more than I realized. And the more I talked, the easier it got.”
Growing up, Whitehouse gravitated naturally to music, drawn to the form via his father’s record collection, which grew via visits to various thrift stores, the two regularly combing through boxes of dusty 45s. But while his father was a music lover, Whitehouse was determined to take it a step further and create a soundtrack of his own. And so, as a teenager, he started listening to his own collection more critically, breaking down the elements that drew him into a particular musician’s sonic world.
“J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. is my favorite guitarist, and he seems like he’s in a trance when he’s playing, and it’s so buttery and effortless. And even playing a portion of one of the solos he recorded makes me a better guitarist, and gives me that much more appreciation for what he does,” Whitehouse said. “Being a creator gives you a different window into how things are put together. And it’s a balance, to some extent, because some of the magic is taken away. But it also creates this other level where it’s less mystery and more science, in an amazing kind of way, knowing how things are put together and knowing what it takes for somebody to do something.”
Poison Door songs can walk a similar divide, often veering between craft and chaos – a tension magnified onstage, where Whitehouse has learned to completely shed his introverted tendencies, tapping into a deep, previously unknown primal reserve. “It’s not like I’m taking on a different persona, but I have a different electricity running through me in those moments,” said Whitehouse, who will join bandmates Michael Akins (rhythm guitar), Chase Sutherland (drums) and Anson Bryant (bass guitar) onstage at Kafe Kerouac on Saturday, June 17, where the four-piece will celebrate the release of new single “Satisfied.” (A full length album is expected in late July.) “I suppose you could say it’s something that was within me, but … it wasn’t awoken until we started playing shows.”
Sonically, Poison Door songs tend to be urgent and abrasive, drawing on punk pioneers such as the Stooges. There are also dark undercurrents shot through the songs, which deal with heavy subjects like disconnect, fear, anxiety and resonation – the kinds of emotions Whitehouse navigated while writing at the height of the pandemic, and at a time the fibers appeared to be fraying in virtually every aspect of society. And yet, the music isn’t hopeless, the mood leavened by gallows humor and a degree of playfulness. Witness “Satisfied,” where Whitehouse delivers the line “I’m content to be consumed” with a knowing wink. (The singer said the pronunciation can veer between con-tent and cun-tent, depending on his mood, because “some days I feel one way, and some days I feel the other.”)
“In my lifetime, if there was ever a time to make art about coping with that darkness, this is it,” Whitehouse said. “The lyrics will make fun of the absurdities of everyday life, even though those absurdities are rooted in extremely dark, challenging, unprecedented things. But I think it’s important to acknowledge not only that those dark things exist, but that we have to deal with them. And music is one pretty joyous way of doing that.”