“Music is crucial to my survival!” said Emily Whitehurst. “Survival Guide is one woman trying to shape her own place in this world as a musician.”
An electronic indie-pop artist with a background in punk, Whitehurst is the solo force behind Survival Guide. Her danceable tunes evoke a sonic birthday cake: alternating layers of Depeche Mode, Metric, Peter Gabriel, and Grimes, with vibrant melodies and vocals the icing on top.
“I build the songs with electronic beats and synths, but oftentimes I’m trying to approximate analog instruments, too, like strings, horns, guitars, etc.” Whitehurst described. “Survival Guide songs can be dark and moody, or bright and uplifting. Or downright creepy. I would like to describe it as ‘cinematic alterny-electropop’ and have that make sense. The only constant from song to song is my voice.”
A California native now residing in Texas, Whitehurst’s music obsession began with Green Day, leading her to a dreams-come-true life of punk rock as she traversed continents as “Agent M”, fronting the band Tsunami Bomb, who made Rolling Stone’s list of the “50 Greatest Pop-Punk Albums” and were mainstay standouts on the Vans Warped Tour. Over the years, her music gradually shifted toward synth pop in The Action Design, then further into the electronic indie-pop realm as Survival Guide.
Originally a duo, Survival Guide’s first album, Way To Go, – dubbed “passion behind an electronic soul” by New Noise Magazine – was released in 2015. It was around this time when Survival Guide slowly, amicably yet painfully became a solo act, leaving Whitehurst unsure of what to do next. Never having written or performed music alone, she considered everything from starting a new band to quitting music altogether. After a major geographical shift, an acoustic album, and some solo touring, she was finally ready to return as a solo Survival Guide.
“There are so many factors that come into play when you’re in a band with multiple members,” explained Whitehurst. “The more members, the more complicated things can get. And it’s not nearly enough just to be a bunch of friends who get along. You have to also be on the same page musically, and you have to all want the same goals and levels of progress for the band (and at the same pace). So far, that perfect equation has not fallen into place for me! Therefore, I keep going. When Survival Guide became a solo thing, it wasn’t because I wanted to set out on my own. But I did want to keep making music, and after all the prior experience of depending on other band members and things eventually ending, I decided the best thing I could do was learn how to stand alone. I would definitely like to have other musicians on stage with me at some point, but it’s good to know that I can do it all myself if I have to.”
This new, alter-ego Survival Guide debuted in early 2023 with RHV1.5 (short for Request Hotline, Vol. 1.5): a 7-inch mini-album, featuring two dance-party covers of AFI songs on Side A and two contemplative Misfits piano-serenade covers on Side B, which was Survival Guide’s first release with her new label, Arizona-based indie Double Helix Records (Jason DeVore, Yotam Ben Horin, Mercy Music, Near Beer). RHV1.5 served as a taster for the 11-track, digital-only Request Hotline, Vol. 2, featuring the four songs from the 7” plus an eclectic array of further punk covers from Distillers to Sleater-Kinney, each with its own bold and unique Survival Guide treatment.
“I definitely wouldn’t consider these punk releases, though, as I’ve flipped almost all of the songs into different styles of music,” offered Whitehurst.
The idea for Survival Guide’s Request Hotline series came from Whitehurst’s interactions with her loyal fans on the platform Patreon, a group that came to affectionately dub themselves Survival Guide Records.
“Way To Go came out not long after Survival Guide became a solo show, so I spent a decent amount of time after that deciding what I really wanted from being a musician,” said Whitehurst. “I was thoroughly discouraged and lacked the confidence and abilities needed to make and perform music decently on my own. I also moved states, which somehow gave me the clarity to see that I needed to keep going, even though I wasn’t sure how it would go. I decided to try and build an online community with Patreon, which brought together an amazing group of music lovers who want to hear me progress as a musician. They gave me the outlet and the confidence to try learning to record myself, which in turn gave me the confidence to start writing complete songs on my own (I’d always written my own lyrics and some instruments here and there, but never entire songs). It took a few years to write all eleven songs that I wanted to include on an album, but I did it!”
Now, deathdreams, a new, all-original Survival Guide full-length album is set for release this fall.
“Over the last few years, I’ve had a handful of dreams that involved my own death in various ways, and they’ve all been profound for me,” said Whitehurst. “I decided to write songs about some of them, and those are included on the album. It seemed natural to call the album deathdreams after this theme, and I like the opposing imagery and feelings those words can conjure. I like the way dreams can be thought of as soft, sweet, or strange, and death as dark and ominous. These are all descriptors that fit various songs on the album as well, so it seemed like the right title for the collection.”
At times a darkly sonic and emotional hand grenade and others a sparkly poppy shimmering rainbow of rich melodies and textures, deathdreams is a tour de force that showcases the breadth and depth of Whitehurst’s songwriting, lyrical imagery, and vocal fortitude. Far-ranging in its topic matter, the album touches on the themes of anxiety, the power of cinema, and the dangers of societal influences, in addition to Whitehurst’s dreams about dying.
“deathdreams is definitely an 11-song journey,” Whitehurst explained. “The songs range from upbeat and punchy to horror sound effect drum beats to a ’70s Bond theme to a sad piano ballad. My favorite kinds of albums are the ones that take you places and have a song for every mood, so that’s what I made. It just makes it very hard to say that Survival Guide is one particular genre!”
Produced by Bob Hoag (Dear and the Headlights, The Ataris, The Format), at Flying Blanket Recording in Mesa, Arizona, deathdreams showcases his involvement in the record.
“I loved working with Bob!,” Whitehurst exclaimed. “I feel like he completely understood where I was going with this music, so as he produced the album, he did it in such a way that he enhanced all of my songs and made them so much better without really changing them. That’s a dream situation to me!”
For those hearing deathdreams who are already familiar with Survival Guide’s catalog, one feature of the record’s first 10 tracks immediately jumps out as something uncommon thus far – real acoustic drums.
“Bob was a drummer before he was a record producer, so he naturally heard lots of spots where real drums would add a nice layer on top of the programmed beats I brought in,” said Whitehurst. “Luckily, he’s an amazing drummer, and I was open to his ideas, so the result was lots of live drums on deathdreams. I love what the drums added to the overall sound.”
While an album is, of course, a uniquely intimate and personal account of a songwriter’s experiences, thoughts, feelings, hopes, and (death) dreams, Whitehurst follows in a long, proud tradition of musicians who understand that once their music has been released into the world, it takes on a life of its own and it becomes every listener’s music, too.
“I just hope my music and/or lyrics make people feel something, and that it’s cathartic in some way, whether it makes them feel happy, sad, energized, introspective, seen, relaxed, or weirded out,” Whitehurst said. “To me, the best thing about music is that it makes you feel.”
Above all else, perhaps it is the thematic, lyrical, and sonic maturity and worldliness of deathdreams that clearly evoke for listeners the fact that Whitehurst is just so far from being the starry-eyed kid listening to Green Day in her hometown of Los Banos, California, and dreaming of punk rock glory – and yet somehow equally far from being Agent M, who as the lead singer of Tsunami Bomb, actually achieved those exact dreams.
Unsurprisingly, Whitehurst is often asked if she misses being in Tsunami Bomb and if she would ever consider rejoining the band, so she has a lot of experience in fielding those questions.
“I do miss a few things about being in Tsunami Bomb,” said Whitehurst. “I miss the energy of performing a punk show; I miss being part of a worldwide scene of touring bands who would cross paths all the time on the road; I miss having an easy answer when people asked what kind of music my band was; I miss some of the amazing experiences and people from tour; I miss being a standing singer and getting to really connect with the audience. All that being said, Tsunami Bomb is my past. Punk rock will always hold a special place in my heart, and I’ll always be Agent M, but I don’t ever see myself rejoining the band.”
The past fully beyond her, Survival Guide is both Whitehurst’s present and future – and if deathdreams is any indication, it is a bright future for Whitehurst, her legions of fans the world over, and the many new fans for whom deathdreams will be the reason they discover Survival Guide for the first time.
“I love the simple act of singing, but it goes hand in hand with creating something positive that brings people together,” reflected Whitehurst. “Humans need music, and it’s so fulfilling when someone resonates with the music I’ve created. I am grateful to have had people share with me the ways my music has changed their lives for the better.”
And so, Whitehurst, confident, hopeful, wiser, and conscious of the impact her music can and will have on humanity, will continue to do what she loves for the foreseeable future.
“I’ve learned a lot over the last few years – not only about songwriting and recording, but also about myself and the ways I’ve been holding myself back,” said Whitehurst. “I’m excited to funnel it all into music.”