Until recently, Anchorage hasn't been especially noted for its local music scene. While some bands have managed to make bigger names for themselves nationally after leaving town, Anchorage has struggled to maintain a substantial collection of quality home-grown musicians.
That's changing, with bands like Historian and The Modern Savage asserting themselves as ones to watch. And according to longtime local music linchpins The Whipsaws, the city has become a more vibrant place musically.
"The music scene in Alaska is more cohesive than ever, and it seems like lots of bands spend time together as friends," said Whipsaws singer and guitarist Evan Phillips. "I also think you're seeing Alaskan bands starting to believe that they don't need to move to the Lower 48 to be successful."
In many ways, The Whipsaws prepared the city for this new wave of bands. Over the past 10 years they've encouraged other local groups while becoming one of the most successful bands in Anchorage, though they don't consider themselves leaders of the burgeoning scene. Drummer James Dommek Jr. said he sees The Whipsaws "more as mentors than patriarchs."
The band will celebrate its decade together Thursday, playing Bear Tooth's November First Tap with a new self-titled record in tow.
The album finds the band moving away from the twang shared with musical influence and one-time stage-mate Wilco to a sound more its own. Sure, that influence is still evident and tracks like "Coralee" still focus on that lilt, but the band also stretches into jammy forays on tracks like "Shutdown Checklist," a six-minute show-stopper complete with horns.
"As we continue to evolve, I think we finally figured out how to skirt the line between revivalist and revisionist, musically speaking," Dommek explained.
Dommek, also known as Junior, said that the latest album is simply titled "The Whipsaws" because it's the group's best work yet. It finds the band hitting a lot of familiar strides, but with fuller, more lush production. Phillips explained how that came while trying to maintain the band's raw energy.
"It's the first Whipsaws album that was a total collaboration between all band members. All the songs were co-written as a band," he said. "The other thing that distinguishes 'The Whipsaws' from our other albums is that we recorded it live in the studio."
That led to a sound that Phillips said better captured the group's raucous live shows, but the material -- which Dommek called a "love letter to the history of rock 'n' roll" -- was originally written and recorded in 2008 and 2009. The record release and much of the band's activity was derailed after that, with Phillips dealing with a chronic injury resulting from a climbing accident.
The record's big unveiling comes at a venue that has long been a friend to the band, having featured the group in previous First Taps and offering opening spots for national acts. Now the band is using this gig to showcase some of the new up-and-coming artists that represent the next wave of Anchorage bands, including The Modern Savage (and special guests, as The Whipsaws website notes).
"When we first started off 10 years ago, the scene in Anchorage had a small town, Midwest sort of feel. Now, it's closer to something you see on the West Coast," Junior said. "It's an exciting time for Anchorage."
And as the local scene continues to evolve, you can expect The Whipsaws to maintain a central role, especially when you consider Phillips' work as a solo artist and as a producer for many local bands, as well as members of the band actively participating in other groups such as Meg Mackey Band and Jack River Kings. (Bassist Ivan Molesky will pull double-duty Thursday, also playing in The Modern Savage.)
"I joined the band when I was 20 years old, and I spent my entire twenties in the Whipsaws," Dommek explained. "It's pretty much the longest lasting relationship I've had."
"These guys are my brothers," he later added. "And as long as we're having fun and continue to challenge ourselves, we will keep making music together."
By David Harper
Daily News correspondent