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Interview: Whale Guitar creator Jen Long on Moby Dick, famous players, and six-string activism

 

For the past several months, live music fans around New England have been seeing a unique and beautiful instrument swimming into their favorite musicians’ hands. With its glorious sound and intricate design, it also promotes a heartfelt message about preserving the seas that many of us hold so dear. It’s known as The Whale Guitar, an electric six string that has captivated many around these parts and has created quite a buzz as well.

Just this past weekend at Newport Folk Festival, the Whale Guitar got another boost in visibility and fame when it was played by J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. That got us thinking: What’s the story behind this magnificent creation?

An idea conceived by Jen Long and brought to life with the help of artist Will Schaff, luthier Rachel Rosenkrantz, and others, The Whale Guitar has come through the doors of the Providence Public Library, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, author Herman Melville’s house in Pittsfield. The guitar pays homage to Melville’s famous novel Moby Dick, so it’ll be gracing Mystic Seaport in Connecticut with its presence tomorrow for the 30th Annual Moby Dick Marathon.

 
 

For an inside scoop on the story of the instrument, and how people can support its message of saving the whales and protecting the environment, Vanyaland reached out to the Providence-based Long for a bit of the backstory.

Rob Duguay: So for starters, how did the initial building and creating of the guitar start?

Jen Long: I had struggled many times to read Moby Dick and it finally stuck at some point when I moved out here about five years ago and I finally got all the way through the book. At the same time I had begun to play guitar through Girls Rock! Rhode Island, so I started having guitars in my hands all the time plus my husband collects guitars and he’s also a guitarist. This is a story of synergy and synchronicity with having a guitar in my hand, finally learning to begin to play guitar, finally finishing the book, living out on the East Coast and being from the Midwest, I also lived in Cleveland and Buffalo for a while, and loving the ocean. All of these things converged one day when my husband brought home a Japanese Yamaha that was blue and white. I looked at it and the whole thing overlayed, I drew a sketch of a whole thing and it’s Moby Dick in a Nantucket Sleighride which is the last chapters of the book.

 
 

Whale Guitar


It means that they have harpooned the whale and they are being dragged by the whale by the harpoon lines which are the guitar strings on The Whale Guitar. The whaling boat is the headstock and the tuning pegs are the six whalers in the whaling boat. It was also influenced by artist Megaly Ponce, who is based in Providence. She did an amazing whale installation and invited friends to The Whaling Museum in New Bedford and to a whale watch. From that whale watch is where I met Rachel Rosenkrantz for the first time. By the time I had this idea Rachel is playing in a band with me and I showed her the sketch and I asked her, “What do you think of this? Is this crazy?” and she said “No, let’s make it” because she was leaving her job as an industrial designer and had been learning to become a luthier. She wanted to make it and I had met Will due to singing in the Assembly of Light Choir, which I’ve been a member of for the last five or six years.

We became acquainted and I began to know his artwork and I realized that he would be the perfect person to really design this. I am a designer and I draw but I am a toy designer. Toys are cute and I did not want this to be cute. Will drew the whole thing up after I sent him a sketch. When I first showed him the sketch I asked “So what do you think of this? Do you think this is cheesy or do you think this is cool?” and said “It’s cool and I’ve always wanted to design a guitar”. So that’s how this whole thing happened. It was just getting involved in the music scene, finally beginning to learn how to play music and then all of these things came together. Also from reading Moby Dick as well as being concerned about the environment.

This whole thing has this mission overlay because Moby Dick is about the ego of man versus nature and running down nature. That moment of being in the Nantucket Sleighride is kind of where we are today where we run down nature so hard that it’s almost at the point of collapse. If it collapses, then we go down with it. In Moby Dick, the whale triumphs by shaking off the whaling boat and he stowed the ship. Everybody drowned except Ishmael who lived to tell the tale, and we don’t want that to happen. One of the last things Starbuck said before the last stand against Moby Dick was “Oh! Ahab, not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist”, I say that we’re in the third day. We got to desist, we got to turn our ship around, stop using plastics the way we do, stop polluting and address global warming. This mission is tied with Ocean Alliance for saving whales, addressing climate change and addressing the toxins in the ocean.

 
 


It’s an amazing mission and a hell of a backstory. It seems that a lot of great people came together to make it happen and it’s pretty awesome.

 
 

Another important person that was involved in this was Gwen Forrester who used to live in Rhode Island and she made the guts of the guitar.

Now what specifically is the guitar made out of? The whale looks like it’s made of ivory because of its shine but I know it’s not that. Where did you get the wood and everything?

I’ve always been in love with scrimshaw since I was a kid growing up in the Midwest. Whale ivory, elephant ivory, any kind of ivory is forbidden. That’s a horror story right there. It’s made out of corian, which is a composite you’ll find in a countertop. It’s plastic, which is bad for the ocean but it’s a castoff from that. The rest of it is made out of wood, it’s blood wood and it’s mahogany. The skulls that are the tuning pegs are castings from corian so I carved the first skull and then a toy sculptor that I know cast them for me, whose name is Kirk Hindman from Hasbro.

It’s a beautiful thing to look at, you could have the whole guitar framed and put up in a gallery if you wanted to.

 
 

Someday that will happen, I’m sure.

You should.

It definitely is a work of art.



It absolutely is. The Whale Guitar has been played and held by Dan Blakeslee, Jesse Lee Herdman from Accidental Seabirds, John Faraone and Steve Delmonico from The Quahogs, G. Love, Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster and even this past weekend at the Newport Folk Festival Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis got to hold it and play it for a bit. Who in your opinion would be the ultimate musician to play the guitar?

Neil Young.

Not a bad choice there.

He has been behind Farm Aid, his new album that came out this year is all about GMOs.

 
 

He’s done a lot of activism throughout his whole career.

Not only does he have a special place in my heart, but he also walks the walk. So that means a lot to me. I would also love to see Carrie Brownstein play it, Kim Gordon, I have a lot of female guitar heroes. I also feel that all of this sprouted up because of the creative community in Rhode Island, so I’m not going to abandon that and go for the big leagues now. I feel that it should always be open to our community of musicians. They’ve been so welcoming to it and I just love that so very much. Especially Bill Bartholomew from Silverteeth, have you seen him perform on it?

Yep, I have.

He just kills it, he’s great. So as far I’m concerned it would be Neil Young, we’ve reached out to The Red Hot Chili Peppers because they’ve done activism too. Our preference would be to find guitarists who are beloved for their skills but also have a commitment to the environment.

That’s the best way to get the mission out and get more awareness about the oceans and the whales. For anyone who is looking to get involved with Ocean Alliance, saving the environment and cleaning up the ocean in general, what are some of the best ways the average person can help?

Right now, Ocean Alliance has a Kickstarter going. It has 28 days left, they are looking for funds to create what they call “SnotBots.” It’s a funny name but what it is are that they are drones and they fly them over whales and they collect the droplets from the mist that comes up from their spouts. That is a non-stressful, non-painful, non-nuisance way to obtain needed information to study how the whales are doing. They can get hormones from that, they can sense what toxins in them and things like that in such a non-evasive method. The Number 1 thing that I’d like to see happen would be to drive people to that Kickstarter.

 
 


Follow Rob Duguay on Twitter @RobDuguay.