Survival Guide – ‘I’ve had to learn how to take a song apart and rebuild it’

Words: Miljan Milekić

Many know Emily Whitehurst as Agent M, the vocal behind the cult punk rock heroes Tsunami Bomb, back in the late ’90s and early 2000s. However, those years are behind her. In recent years, she keeps reinventing herself through her project Survival Guide, bending genres, and breaking boundaries. This February, she released her latest record – ‘Request Hotline Volume 2’ – a cover album she created together with her fans. So, naturally, we had to reach out for an interview, and talk about the new record, being a DIY artist in 2023, the chance of playing these songs live, as well as some new original music.

Survival Guide / Photo: Mike Carey

Hi Emily! How are you?
Emily: I’m great, thanks!

So, Volume 2 of your ‘Request Hotline’ project is finally out, offering eleven new tracks, and I got nothing but love for it. Can you tell me more about the project itself, and where did the idea stem from?
Emily: Thank you so much! The whole ‘Request Hotline’ project has been a major collaboration between my patrons and me – there was a period of time when I was offering to record a cover song for each member of a particular tier of my Patreon. Gradually, the finished songs started piling up, and we started talking about whether they should be released to the world. I hadn’t initially planned on it, but it seemed there was no reason not to! The first volume didn’t have a theme, but this second one is a collection of all the punk artists I was asked to cover. I realized my patrons had requested a full album’s worth of punk songs because of my punk background, so I decided to group them together. Only a small fraction of the songs on this album ended up sounding punk though, after I was through with them!

READ MORE: Check our interview with UK’s genre-bending duo Nova Twins

Both ‘Request Hotline’ records are done together with fans, something that we don’t see too often from artists. Are there any requests you were especially happy to receive and work on?
Emily: Every song ends up being really fun to work on, but I was extra happy to have ‘Hybrid Moments’ as a request. I had covered that one years ago with my previous band, The Action Design, so it felt really good to be reimagining it for Survival Guide. Since I was so familiar with that song already, I felt compelled to make it a “live” recording and do it all in one take. Also, AFI was super fun, and ‘Cherry Bomb’ – I loved getting to be all of these iconic vocalists for a brief moment in the recording booth.

On the other hand, were there any requests that were too weird or where you just had to say no? Or some that you never thought could work but turned out to be a success?
Emily: There have definitely been requests that I procrastinated on because I wasn’t a fan of the originals! But even the requests for songs that are weird, to me, end up being a really fun challenge. Oftentimes, just making the first decision of what to do with those songs is the hardest part. Sometimes it’s my own twist that makes the song difficult, like turning a Distillers song into an orchestra piece. I have no training in how to go about doing that, so it was a bit of a struggle at times! And I certainly have room to grow and improve.

Both ‘Request Hotline’ records, as well as 1.5 EP have amazing artworks. Can you tell me a bit more about it, and how did it all come together?
Emily: Thanks, I agree! I met Ray Tattooed Boy a few years ago here in San Antonio and really loved his style of artwork. He mentioned he’d be interested in doing some album art, so when the opportunity arose to work on a project with him for ‘Request Hotline Vol. 1,’ I jumped at it! We brainstormed and conceptualized our music-loving heroine, Kat, and figured out ways to incorporate some of the artists/songs into the imagery as well. He’s really fun to work with, and we’ll definitely be doing more!

You are one of the artists who completely embraced the new technologies and power of the Internet, especially with your Twitch streams and connecting with your fans in the most direct way. How did it all start, and how did you get the idea to do something like that?
Emily: I was super unsure at first, but most of this stemmed from the combination of Survival Guide becoming a solo project and me moving to a new state. I kind of felt like my music career was a blank slate at that point. I was somewhat lost, not knowing what I was doing with music and with so much to learn. I didn’t know if anyone would be interested in my Patreon, but we’ve built a fun little community! And it’s all been so synergistic, however cheesy that may sound.

Check out our Spotify playlist featuring Survival Guide, Green Day, Iggy Pop, Turnstile, and more!

Recording these covers, while a fun thing for my patrons, has also been extremely beneficial for me as a musician! I’ve had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, starting from the ground up learning new skills on how to record, and how to take a song apart and rebuild it. At some point along the way, I felt confident enough to start writing again – which had been a major challenge. And then I decided – You know what? I could certainly stand to be a better musician. What if I did a very rough and casual livestream on Twitch every week where I play requests for people – of my own songs and various covers – which would help me improve on piano and bass while strengthening my vocals? AND I get to connect directly with fans as you said. I’m so glad I eventually built the confidence to just do it because it’s a ton of fun! Between Patreon and Twitch, I’ve turned my career as a musician into a literal journey for anyone to be part of with me. It’s very honest and real, and I love it.

Being part of both worlds in the past, how would you compare the approach you have now, with the more classical ways the music industry works, especially in the world of underground music?
Emily: Wow, things have changed so much over the years. I’ve never felt like I had a solid understanding of the way the music industry works because it’s so extremely volatile in every way. That being said, it’s AMAZING getting to have direct interaction with fans! That’s always been my favorite thing about touring and playing shows, and now I can do it any time I want. And I can actually ask people things like “Which shirt design do you prefer?” It’s hard to say whether technology has had more pros or cons for independent artists since now everyone can be a musician and release their own music through online distributors. There’s definitely an overabundance of music out there, but, at the same time, now we don’t have to wait for someone to come along and deem our music worthy of release.

Survival Guide / Photo: Mike Carey

You are known for your history in the punk scene, and while Survival Guide is not “punk” in the classic sense of the word, you still kept the “I don’t give a fuck and do what I want” ethos which I love. Do you think that, in a way, this heavily internet-based approach is a logical continuation of the DIY ethics, just with slightly different tools?
Emily: Yes, 100% yes! I appreciate you recognizing that. Every step of the way I’ve thought to myself: should I try this? And eventually, I decided – why not? If it’s fun, I’ll keep doing it. If it’s not, I won’t. Luckily it’s all been really fun and inspiring for me, so I’m continuing forward. It’s been a blast having ideas, especially collaborative ones, and executing them, like making bass picks to give away during my stream. Or making Survival Guide “Team Candy Corn” socks. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying using these internet platforms to improve myself in multiple ways while also building meaningful relationships with people who appreciate what I do.

READ MORE: Check our interview with the Swedish skate punk band No Fun At All

Back to ‘Request Hotline’ – the songs on both records include covers of vastly different artists, and yet, you made every song your own. Do you think we can see you play some of the songs on shows along with your own music? Can we expect to see you hit the stage somewhere soon?
Emily: Yes, I’m already playing a few of these songs at live shows! I can easily do the Misfits covers since they’re piano songs, and on Twitch I also do ‘Cherry Bomb’ and ’99 Red Balloons’ on bass. There’s a high probability I’ll formulate more of them with backing tracks for venue shows. I don’t currently have any tours booked, but I plan to be doing more a little later in the year…

And speaking of your original music, are there any plans for something new you would like to share with us? Should we be on the lookout for anything in the near future?
Emily: I am SO excited to tell you that I’ve written and recorded a new full-length album! It still needs a few finishing touches, but it’ll be coming out on Double Helix Records in the Fall, on vinyl and digitally. So yes, soon you should be on the lookout for my new music which has been the direct result of all of this learning and expanding, and improving! I can’t wait for everyone to hear it!

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