Photographs by Sara Sanger
Real: 'Logan was one of the only performers I know who was exactly the same onstage as off,' says Michael Houghton.
By Sara Bir
The album of 2007 was released the day after Christmas 2006. We were shepherds watching our flocks of plastic snowmen lawn ornaments, and Logan Whitehurst's Very Tiny Songs came upon us, glowing with goodness and light.
Logan Whitehurst, founding drummer of the Velvet Teen and the tireless creative engine behind his solo project, Logan Whitehurst and the Junior Science Club, passed away on Dec. 3, 2006, after fighting brain cancer for several years. He was 29. A tribute to his life and art is slated for Feb. 10.
If this is a story of loss, it is also one of legacy, one in which Logan's swan song, the joyful, 76-minute micro-opus Very Tiny Songs, offers a bittersweet tonic of comfort. Listening to Very Tiny Songs is the audio equivalent of eating an entire bag of M&Ms and savoring every bite.
Logan grew up in the Central Valley, kidding around with his cousins and siblings, winning spelling bees and recording goofy skits. He got into music when his stepbrother started a band. "I went out in the garage, and I'd kind of bang on stuff to keep time for them," Logan said in a 2003 interview with the Bohemian. "My stepmother heard this and went and paid $75 and bought a drum kit." Logan would use that same sparkly red drum kit throughout his entire drumming career.
While pursuing a printmaking degree at Sonoma State University, Logan became an integral figure in the Sonoma County music scene. He met Owen Otto in 1995, when Otto's geek-rock band Little Tin Frog put up flyers looking for a drummer. "It had a They Might Be Giants reference, 'Rhythm Section Want Ad,'" Otto recalls. "We put Logan in, and instantly it just worked."
During that time in Little Tin Frog, Logan began recording songs on his own. "I didn't know how to use a four-track, and I didn't know how to play any instruments," Logan said of his early experiments with songwriting. "I couldn't work out my ideas very well, and I just wanted to play with sounds. I'd sit down and try to harmonize with myself or start a drum machine . . . and that lack of skill translated to great appeal. It sounded like I was either trying really hard to make it bad, or I was just having fun."
Thus, Logan Whitehurst and the Junior Science Club was born. With a vacant, smiling plastic snowman named Vanilla as his sidekick, Logan charmed audiences with his complete disregard for image and coolness--which, of course, only made him that much cooler. "Logan was one of the only performers I know who was exactly the same onstage as off," says Michael Houghton, who published the underground music magazine Section M, to which Logan contributed a darkly funny comic strip, "Jonathan Quimby."
"But I think that ease and earnestness is so rare that it was completely riveting," Houghton continues. "I've talked to the hardest of little street punks who pretty much hate everything, who would gather around and sit in a semicircle when Logan played, giggling and cheering for more."
Through websites like MP3.com, where his songs had over 100,000 downloads, Logan Whitehurst and the Junior Science Club built a dedicated online following. "It wasn't just for distributing his music," says Otto. "He would get in conversation with fans."
"I think as his music got more of a cult following, he was getting that sort of instant gratification from more and more fans," Houghton says. "Which is a big part of why he was always so gracious and personable to everyone he met, because they were a big part of his enjoyment of making art."
Barry Hansen--better known as Dr. Demento, host of an eponymous long-standing weekly radio program showcasing "mad music and crazy comedy"--has championed Logan's music since 2000, but it wasn't until he came across Goodbye, My 4-Track in 2003 that something clicked. "Goodbye, My 4-Track just knocked me out from beginning to end," he says. "It was a bit like hearing Sgt. Pepper for the first time."
Logan's solo work--and there are piles of it, a total of seven releases as the Junior Science Club and dozens of unreleased songs--combines a keen sense of wit with offbeat references both highbrow (plate tectonics) and lowbrow (the Spice Girls), all with a vaudevillian knack for showmanship.
"I've met a lot of talented people in my 36 years in radio, but Logan is extra special," says Dr. Demento. "He creates a world that is a lot of fun to be in, even when darker things happen. His music is uncommonly melodic and absolutely loaded with hooks. And when I eventually got to know him a little, he turned out to be so gracious and witty, articulate and confident yet modest."
Your friend, Logan: A celebration of Logan Whitehurst's life is planned for Feb. 10 at the Phoenix Theater.
In 2000, Logan joined his former Little Tin Frog bandmate Judah Nagler in the art-pop band the Velvet Teen. Along with bassist Josh Staples, the trio maintained an ambitious touring schedule. It was shortly before leaving to tour Japan with the Velvet Teen that Logan began to suffer from headaches, nausea and dizziness. After many visits to many doctors, Logan was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2004. He moved in with his parents in Los Banos, where ridding his body of cancer though a demanding series of treatments became the singular focus in his life.
"What he went through being sick would have crushed a lot of people a lot earlier," says Otto. "He had a philosophy of 'this is my life and this is who I am, and I can't control everything, so I have to go with the flow of what's happening.' He was an enormously optimistic and positive person in general. I could tell you dozens of stories of times where as a band we'd be driving around in the van all miserable, and he'd be upbeat, making jokes and trying to turn the situation around."
Very Tiny Songs was Logan's return to making music. This past summer, his doctors were optimistic; his cancer treatment came to a close, and he moved into what all hoped would be an extended period of remission. After being physically unable to make music for several years, Logan was motivated and eager to prove himself. With a future so open it was equally thrilling and terrifying, he looked to his online friends for inspiration and began writing and recording songs on the fly as mechanism to get back into the swing of things.
"I thought, 'I'd better get ready, because I'm going to start doing stuff again,'" he said when he spoke to me on the phone from Los Banos last July. "I hit on this idea that I could get some sort of communication going with people again if I put it out there that I want suggestions for songs. I'll make a bunch of songs to put on my website and you guys'll download them and see that I'm still out there and still wanna do music."
Fans, many of whom Logan had never met in person, inundated him with song suggestions, and he threw himself into the project, writing one to six songs a day for a month. By the time he was done, he'd recorded 81 songs. Most run only about a minute long, but each one is its own distinct entity--very short stories, or very concise jingles. More properly, they are very tiny songs, and they are hugely entertaining.
Very Tiny Songs is a privileged look into Logan's creative process, and it conjures up all kinds of fascinating ideas about opening up the mind, dumping it out and seeing the surprising order in what's there. "I was very much in the moment; there are some songs on there that I'm kind of surprised I actually wrote," Logan said. "When I would sit down and think, 'This isn't good enough,' the songs would slow down, and it kind of spiraled. So most of the time, if I found I was thinking too much, I would do the first thing that came to mind, the first thing that rhymed."
Having been recorded in such a freewheeling manner, Very Tiny Songs betrays nary a whiff of sloppy impressionism; the song's musical concepts are compressed, yes, but undeniably fully formed. "Unicorns" opens with a dewy, soft-focus harp that's pure fantasy clichÈ, but suddenly veers into '80s dance-hall synth with a rap interlude worthy of Eric B. & Rakim: "Gonna bust a move with a unicorn / Gonna get on down with the one big horn." In "Michael Is the President of the English Club," Logan's mock-stuffy riff on Anglophilia could easily stand toe-to-toe with an installment of Masterpiece Theatre.
"Pop songs usually have two or three parts: verse, chorus or maybe a bridge," Otto says. "In most of those songs on Very Tiny Songs, he has the parts. To make it a longer song is the easy part. It would take most people a lot longer to write 81 songs."
Very Tiny Songs' relentless sense of melody and ambitious scope can overwhelm the listener on the first three or even 12 plays, with surprising benefits. "It is such a long album, invariably you're going to need a snack or someone's going to call your cell phone," says Josh Drake of Pandacide Records, the label that released Very Tiny Songs. "In that 70-plus minutes of music, you'll miss a song, so you're always finding new ones. He didn't write a bad song on the whole thing."
Weeks after he completed the songs and artwork for Very Tiny Songs, Logan was plagued with headaches and dizzy spells. A visit to the doctor revealed that his cancer had returned with a vengeance, and he was told he'd likely have less than a year to live.
After Logan's death, response from fans and online friends was enormous.
Dr. Demento featured Logan's music on his first program of the year; tribute videos cropped up on YouTube; people posted consoling thoughts on the Junior Science Club's MySpace page. On far-flung message boards and obscure podcasts, people came forward to remember Logan.
When writing e-mails to fans, Logan always closed with "Your Friend, Logan." Reading that always made me feel warm, excited--Logan is my friend!--because, even in the inexpressive confines of text on a computer screen, you could tell he truly meant it. Anyone would be fortunate to have a friend like Logan, and he was a friend to many.
There will be a memorial celebrating the life, art and music of Logan Whitehurst on Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Phoenix Theater. The public is welcome to attend. 201 Washington St., Petaluma. 8pm. 707.762.3565. Those wanting to learn more about Logan and his music can visit www.loganwhitehurst.com and www.juniorscienceclub.com.