Matt Whipkey: Revisiting ‘Penny Park’ and the Nostalgic Effect | Q&A

When we talk about “the good old days,” it’s tempting to overstate their grandeur. Time’s passing tends to filter out the milieu, leaving golden, sparkling memories of epic summer days and live-and-die relationships.

In the mind of Omaha singer/songwriter Matt Whipkey, we do so because as young people we perceived those now trivial events as life-changing. It’s the very foundation on which his 2013 double album Penny Park: Omaha, NE; Summer 1989 was built.

“When you’re older, you criticize something as being overly romantic or wistful or youthful,” Whipkey says. “When you are that age, it is like that. If that summer relationship doesn’t work out, you’re fucked, it’s over.”

Whipkey and his band revisit the OEAA award winning epic tomorrow night at Holland Center’s 1200 Club, playing the album cover-to-cover in its entirety. Penny Park follows protagonist Penny and the surrounding characters that swoon over her during the summer of 1989. Set in the old Peony Park at 78th & Cass, it’s chalk full of historic references to concerts and common experiences that place it firmly within the Omaha canon.

In many ways, the record is his crowning achievement, the result of hours of research and weeks of dedication and isolation. He calls it both “a creative force, and maybe a destructive force” in how it consumed his life.

HN wrangled Whipkey for a phone chat earlier this week to talk about the effects of nostalgia, musician hero-worship and revisiting the massive project that changed his life.

This following interview was edited for content and clarity. Matt Whipkey performs Penny Park in its entirety Friday at Omaha’s 1200 Club with Rothsteen. Tickets are $15, and can be purchased here. RSVP here.

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Hear Nebraska: So, it’s typically customary to wait five or 10 years, a nice round anniversary, to do something like this. In your mind, what makes now the right time?

Matt Whipkey: There are a few reasons. Probably the biggest reason was, for one, we’ve never done it, I guess. We’ve played half of the songs live but half of them we never have at all, even when it came out. And then Kendra [Whitlock] at OPA (Omaha Performing Arts) was woking with me on putting together a show at the 1200 Club. We wanted something to make it more of an event as opposed to a regular gig. It’s not just your typical show.

HN: Sure. And during a conventional set, it seems a little much. But with a one time deal, it makes sense to do it this way. You might wear it out if you did it that way every night.

MW: Yeah. It’s kinda meant to be taken as a whole. There are definitely songs from it we can pull and do it randomly. But some of the pieces, they kinda work together as a whole. Like if we played part of the two minute instrumental thing, it was meant to be a transitional thing between songs on an album. Fans of the album will know what’s coming next.

HN: For those unfamiliar, what is the best way to summarize the story for us?

MW: It’s a record about transitioning from being a teenager to an adult. The idea of what an adult should be, not saying a person ever got there. It’s based around characters, Penny, she’s kinda the mysterious female character that everybody is crazy about. And everybody that is crazy about her … it’s kinda their transition. And it’s set at the old Peony Park.

HN: As something of a time capsule itself, this record repeatedly references different aspects of time. You talk about specific instances (like the 1986 Metallica show) or even generalities like going to the pool. But it feels like there’s part of this record that’s grasping onto a moment that’s fleeting. Was that part of what you were trying to capture?

MW: I think any musician kinda has a prolonged adolescence. It’s kind of our job. I started coming up with the idea for this after I turned 30. There’s a bit of a feeling when you do turn 30, the time and place, where I was in my life at that point. I was in a relationship. The idea that adulthood is upon me now at 30, looking back at being young and everything that kinda led up to that point. There’s a time in your life when you have that. I think a lot of people in that general area, at the end of your 20s, you kinda sit back and go “what was that all about?” It seems like it went quick, and it also seems like it went forever. You kinda come back to that time in your later teenage years when [you had] a lot of alliances and loyalties, whether these are friends or musicians. It was a good time for me to look back on that time in my life while filtering it through the story and these characters.

HN: I think that brings up a good point. This record won the OEAA when it came out. There’s something to its nostalgic feeling that seems to make it relatable. Why do you think people cling to these moments in such a way?

MW: There’s always this idea about the fountain of youth or being young forever, encapsulating that moment of being young. That idea appeals to people. I think on the surface, that’s the idea of the record. Now, once you get into the album, that’s all kinda gone. [There’s] divorce, loneliness, depression. Those things set in, but on the surface it’s the idea of youth.

HN: Do you think it’s because of those aspects of life that the sunnier parts of this record ring so brightly?

MW: Yeah, I think so. It was fun for me as a songwriter to craft this idea and outline a story, and say “I want these songs to have a feeling and tell a story,” and I’m gonna create them to be more major key or brighter with major key melodies. Sometimes, with other music, you go where the song takes you. And that’s the case with some of these songs. But some of them are very intentionally to fill parts of the story.

HN: And I think the fact that you name drop certain areas of Omaha or parts of the park, it gives people a point of reference.

MW: Totally. I was rehearsing one of the songs that we don’t do that often last night. When you get away from something, it’s kinda funny how … you know what it sounds like, and you get into singing the words again after not having done it in awhile. The galaxy has arrived, the black hole has arrived but it was just kinda interested how they viewed these vague terms. The ideas of a galaxy and a black hole are a lot more than just like an amusement park ride. They can be used and manipulated within a lyric.

HN: As you go back through these songs, playing some ones you probably haven’t thought about since you made the record, what is the decades old reference on the record are you still chewing on?

MW: There’s a song called “Ticket Taker.” I always enjoyed it, but we never played it as a band. We worked it up as a groove and then it took on this power. It was like, “Righ on! Maybe we should’ve done that the first time around.” That, and a song called “Sunshine,” the last song on the album that I was going through last night. I remember it hit me in a way when i wrote it, and it kinda hit me in a newer way.

HN: What was different about it?

MW: When I wrote it, I know I wanted it to address a certain type of sadness and regret one has as they get older, with maybe things not working out the way they had planned to. And maybe three or four years since having written it, and not really performing it a lot and going through singing it, that batch of concepts came more to life for me personally. I don’t think it was necessarily [omniscient] on my part, it’s just how it went.

HN: I think it’s funny when it happens with other people’s music. Like you hear a record when you’re younger and then relate to it more strongly as you age. Is it strange for that to happen with your own music?

MW: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think a lot of the writing I’ve done was maybe imagining how certain things would feel when they came about, how that feeling would go down. And then it happens. And that song in particular, I’ve always liked it, but I kinda wanna go cut the vocal again. I feel like I could give those lyrics and that experience [life] that maybe it didn’t have when I recorded it. It wasn’t that long ago but a lot happened in three years.

HN: On the original, (Omaha singer/songwriter) Tara Vaughan guest-vocalized Penny on “Long Distance Dedication.” The line that sticks out to me is “Penny, it takes patience to get this high.” I’m curious about your specific reference.

MW: That’s an interesting song in the sense that I wrote that song a long time ago. Summer of 2006. Some of the songs on Penny Park were written that long ago and sat around in the song bank unfinished. When it came time to make this record and the story was filling itself out, that was one of the songs I used. I redid the lyric for it to fit in with the character. I think it’s careless, being young, kids, drugs. Ya know?

HN: Why was Cliff Burton Penny’s favorite Metallica member?

MW: Oh man, he was just the coolest. There’s a funny story behind that song. My drummer, Scott Zimmerman, he is of the age that he actually saw Metallica in 1986 at Penny Park. He was like 15 or 16. It’s like one of those shows. There are these cornerstone concerts in Omaha that I’ve had the luxury of going to, but some of them I didn’t. I didn’t see cliff burton in ‘86 with Metallica. I didn’t see Springsteen in ‘78. These famous tours … and that’s what always stuck out. Cliff Burton was such an iconic guy. I kinda wrote that with him in mind.

I was running a lot that summer when I wrote that song. Part of this route that I was running through town, there was a CD that was thrown on the ground, like tossed from a car window. For like two weeks it stayed there, and I never picked it up. It was Ride the Lightning by Metallica. Eventually after enough times of running by it, I picked up a guitar and literally sang that first line, “She always talked about that time she saw Metallica.” It’s the idea that when you’re young, 13, 14, 15 years old, these people are just top of the world for you. You had the posters and … at least I did. I hope teenagers still do. Metallica was one of those bands that the hessian girl would definitely be into (laughs).

And then he died! What a tragedy. I remember how it made me feel when Kurt Cobain died, I was in seventh grade. When you look up to somebody playing music and they die it’s almost like part of your family.

HN: Totally. And some of these moments you weren’t around for, you were too young. It feels like you’re transposing some of your experiences back onto that time period. How else did you go about constructing some of those moments?

MW: So the record takes place in the summer of ‘89. I was very strict about keeping things in the time frame historically accurate. That’s my journalism background. I’m a real stickler about dates and times. I think the whole album would hold up under the microscope in comparing times of when things happened. I did a lot of research. I was eight [in 1989], I definitely have my very young childhood memories of the place. And that helps a lot. I wasn’t going in never having been there. It helped too with Zip, my drummer, who was there. I talked to alot of people that were around at the time. And what’s cool is that whole idea of youth, that particular age group had this awesome park where kids just ran wild.

HN: It feels like something Grease-like, almost.

MW: Yeah, totally! It takes on that mythical, almost hollywood quality, but that’s not like fake or insincere. That stuff really happened! You look back on it like being your late ‘20s or ‘30s and it’s very romanticized. When you’re 16, that’s how shit actually goes down. When you’re older, you criticize something as being overly romantic or wistful or youthful. When you are that age, it is like that. If that summer relationship doesn’t work out, you’re fucked, it’s over.

photo by Chip Duden

HN: What will make Friday night a success for you?

MW: I’m real happy with the work we’ve put into it, re-creating some of these songs. Some of the songs may sound a touch different, but in a good way, I think. I got Dan Sullivan and John Rogers with High Heel and the Sneakers. Dan played with me on the record, and they were the house band at Peony Park all those years, so that’s pretty cool. I’m just excited to play the whole thing in order, to perform it like that. We haven’t even played it start to finish in practice yet.

HN: So you’re gonna go at it Friday, for the first time, all the way through?

MW: We have rehearsals all this week. I don’t know if we’ll do the whole thing, but we’ll definitely do all the songs. But that might be the first time we do it start to finish. It’ll sort of have a sense of recklessness to it, which I like. What’s interesting is that we just did three shows with Dwight (Yoakam) and we didn’t do any Penny Park songs. It’s been kinda fun as a band to … switch to an entirely different mindset.

One thing I like about this album is that, personally, for me, it opened up a lot of doors. It was just this crazy idea that I had one day with my friend Doug. I start chipping away at these songs and they were coming to life. It just got nuts and took over my life. I look back at that time in my life and scratch my head like, what happened? It’s been a blur. It was a creative force, and maybe a destructive force in how it completely took me over. It’s interesting how albums can do that. I’ve maybe learned since how to tame that a little bit, but that was pure obsession.

It’s gonna be interesting, with some perspective, to present them as a whole. A lot of my other works, like underwater, I wrote those songs real quick and loved it for the how honest it was. But they’re about very specific things and people. I can see maybe five, 10 years down the line, feelings may have changed toward subjects on that record. With Penny, the beauty of it being almost a work of fiction, is that I can always inhabit that story without it being a part of me that I don’t wanna revisit onstage sometimes.