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November 2017 - Willamena

True Kalamazoo Indie Band Still Standing and 'Strong Enough to Last'

Story by LCC Radio Reporter Sarah Spohn

WillamenaTo be nationally charting in today’s radio world is hard enough, but to do so while still being a true indie band, that’s a feat practically unheard of. Willamena, a rock/pop/alt band from Kalamazoo is doing just that. And they’re more than happy to defy the odds, day after day, track after track.

Formed in 1996 with the two original members Chad Hendrickson and Lucas Ross, Willamena has since shifted through a couple different members. Today’s lineup features Ross, Hendrickson, Mickey Calhoun, and Ted Mitchell.

Ross (lead vocals, rhythm guitar, harmonica) spoke about how the band came to be. “I encountered Willamena via my high school drummer, Nathan,” Ross said. “He was playing with these guys and said, ‘you should come and see what these guys are doing, and sing along a little bit.’ I did and I was actually really impressed with what they were doing – an interesting Allman Brothers, but with a little bit of an almost modern (1996) rock.”

The self-taught group continued to make music together, throughout the grunge movement, and looks towards 70s singer-songwriters like Neil Young, and classic rockers Tom Petty and The Kinks for inspiration.

Ross spoke about the impact the recently-passed Tom Petty had on him and Willamena’s music. “Tom Petty was a big influence,” he said. “What a songwriter – a true rock ‘n’ roll songwriter. When it wasn’t necessarily the popular thing to do, he continued to do it just because I firmly believed he loved it.”

Willamena has been compared to Roy Orbison, something Ross doesn’t necessarily hear, but certainly appreciates any nod to the “Oh Pretty Woman” singer.

“We don’t try to take from any particular artist,” Ross said. “There’s the great saying of ‘good artists borrow and great artists steal.’ But we’re not trying to steal from anybody, if we can avoid it.”
Willamena at LCC Radio
One thing the band hasn’t avoided is radio play, though. Despite being unsigned to a label, Willamena has seen its fair share of success in the charts. It’s a tough task for a band that’s split between Kalamazoo and Nashville, but it’s fulfilling none the less.

“Nationally charting is incredibly hard,” Ross said. It’s a club for people who already have a membership. It’s really hard to gain access to these radio stations and these tastemakers who are going to control whether or not your song will be heard.”

While it’s often easier to break into the AAA format, to go up against top 40 songs, and every song ever recorded, to have singles and EPS land on the charts is certainly an achievement for the “hardest working band in Michigan.”

“I think we got up to 87 in the nation,” Ross said. “That was an achievement. It’s tricky because if you don’t have a voice that people are willing to listen to, you’ll just leave a message and never get answers.”

Cold-calling radio stations and reaching out to networks isn’t an easy task, and more times than not, it can end quicker than it started, with a simple ‘no.’ Sometimes, there isn’t even a reason. Sometimes, Willamena will hear from one station they’re too poppy, and the next will tell them they’re just not poppy enough for airplay.

“It’s perspective,” Ross said. “Music is a taste-oriented field in general, so it winds up being incredibly hard to suit everybody’s taste.”

That being said, the Midwestern rock ‘n’ roll band has won awards, signaling music success, including Aris Hampers Rock Search in the late ‘90s. Willamena beat out some 140 bands that applied and competed, and to the surprise of Ross, won the title.

The motivation behind the music, however, remains the love of the craft. Not the recognition.

“Music has to be there just for the sake of doing it,” Ross said, “you can’t be doing it for the success. I think the percentage is in the same vein of personal athletes – you’re getting 0.001% of the population that is considered to be successful.”

Ross would be happy to play music full-time, but knows a back-up plan is necessary.

“We need to have jobs to support this,” he said. “It’s our passion, but frankly, winds up being a hobby because we have to make some sort of cash flow in a world where they’re just not paying us enough to do this yet.”

Michigan has provided the perfect platform for Willamena to connect with other local and regional acts, especially during their earlier days of more gigs and touring. Back in the day, they traded shows with their Lansing buddies at the Loft and Green Door, for shows in Kalamazoo’s Club Soda – promoting and propelling each other musically.

The group’s latest release, Strong Enough to Last, is a five-song EP, recorded in Nashville and Kalamazoo. They prepared much of the material pre-production before splitting time back and forth in different states. “The songwriting in my opinion, is the best that we’ve done so far. One of my favorite songs we’ve ever written is on this, it’s the second track – “Open Up the Stars,” Ross said.

While the band has experienced some hiatuses, they always seem to come back together. With Ross and Hendrickson working together for the last 26 years, Ross describes their bond as a really good working, symbiotic relationship.

Though currently not on tour, Willamena is focusing their energy on writing more music and promoting their current EP. They might even be dusting off a few songs from their catalog of over 130 tracks that had never been documented up until now.

“I think most artists are kind of in that mindset, that the newest one is your favorite baby, but your favorite one really is the one you haven’t written yet.”

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Willamena - Open Up the Stars
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