He calls himself Jimmy Whispers, but there is nothing quiet about how the man born James Cicero performs.
When the Los Angeles-via-Chicago pop auteur gets on stage, he has a writhing, rapturous presence, furiously pacing back and forth, undergoing mock resurrections and generally behaving like a man possessed. Singing, shrieking, and howling along to prerecorded backing music, Whispers has no interest in traditional live setups, often breaking the barrier between artist and attendee by wandering deep into the heart of the crowd. Going to his show is like witnessing a spiritual awakening, only the audience is comprised of kids drunk on cheap beer, and not pious religious folk.
“I’ve always been way more influenced by people like Steven Martin and Andy Kaufman, as opposed to musicians,” says Whispers, who opens for slack-rockers Ducktails at the Independent on Thursday, June 29. “I like the idea of being a classic entertainer and putting on a real show. Standing up there with a guitar or some shit and going through the motions just seems boring to me.”
There is nothing conventional about Whispers, who first gained notice playing in the Chicago music circuit alongside friends from bands like Whitney and Twin Peaks. While those groups specialize in more recognizable music genres — folk and garage rock, respectively — Whispers’ songs are sparse, minimalist affairs that feature little more than his voice and an organ. He records in a severely lo-fi environment, giving his sound an immediate, brutally honest feel — nothing about his music is polished or beautified.
His 2015 album, Summer in Pain, feels like a satirical record at times, with random interjections of bizarre carnival music and spoken-word interjections. But when Whispers commits to an idea, he has an uncanny knack for penning devastating pop melodies. The songs on Summer in Pain are ostensibly about coping with the heartbreak from a broken relationship, but on repeated listens, they reveal something much deeper.
When Whispers sings repeatedly that he “needs a vacation,” over a simple, insistent organ line and robotic drum beat, he manages to do so in a way that feels desperate and unrestrained — as if his life were on the line. It turns out he was writing about mortality, although at first he didn’t realize the profundity of his songs.
“With the Summer in Pain record, I thought I was just writing some long songs really quick,” Whispers says. “And then I started looking over it, and it is actually mostly about violence in Chicago. I think that happens a lot for me. I don’t go in with an intention, I find the intention after I’m done writing.”
First impressions give off the feel that Whispers is an impish trickster, mocking the staid traditions and sanctimony of studio-crafted music. But he said he’s really concerned with finding an immediate, empathetic approach to his art.
“With the imperfections and the minimalist kind of approach, I think the sincerity kind of pokes its head out a little more,” Whispers says.
A song like “Pain in My Love,” can make the hair on the back of your arms stand up, particularly when Whispers delivers the brutal couplet, “I want to change the way I’m thinking / About everything.” All the noise that does not exist in that song is what makes it so powerful. It presents a person, in solitude, confessing everything.
Since relocating to Los Angeles last October, Whispers has been working consistently on a bevy of new material, although he is mum on when he’ll release any of it. He has a few one-off dates scheduled for the future, including an appearance at Deathstock, a two-day music festival in July celebrating San Francisco’s boutique record label, Death Records. Once he releases new material, Whispers says there will be plenty of opportunities to see him live and to take part in his indie-rock version of church.
“I plan on hitting the road hard and never coming back,” he says. “There is nothing better in the world for me than performing.”
plays at 9 p.m., Thursday, June 29, at the Independent. $14; theindependentsf.com