Interview: White Denim
Note: This is the full – unedited – transcript from the interview, for an abbreviated, nicely edited version check out the article proper over at Rivmixx.
Austin-based White Denim, whilst relatively unknown in their US homeland, have made a name for themselves in the UK with their distinctive brand of mile-a-minute, sugar-rush garage-rock.
Monday (June 22) saw the release of White Denim’s second album ‘Fits’ and the beginning of their UK tour. So Rivmixx sat down with the band to ask about their intense song writing process, Kings of Leon comparisons and what’s to follow ‘Fits’.
Rivmixx: A lot of people talk about rhythm and syncopation when referring to your music, but I find it’s actually quite melodic. How important is melody in the song writing process?
James Petralli: Yeah, well I think it’s just as important, we’re all, we’re a rhythm section band for sure.
Josh Block: You can’t have one without the other, but I think people say you “have rhythm” because the melodies are long enough that it just sounds like rhythm, melody/harmony moves from left to right [rhythm up and down].
Steve Terebecki: I think in our writing process a lot of the melodies kind of come from rhythmic moves for sure, rhythm definitely comes first but it’s not really complete until it has a melody
R: In terms of the melody is it something that you come into the studio with, or does it come out with the rhythmic elements?
JP: Most of the basic melodies and rhythms come together at a certain point when we enter the studio.
JB: ‘Radio Milk’ was definitely a melody, [to James] you were singing that line… [laughs].
JP: Yeah we got rid of the original melody for that one, we had to obscure it, that song’s been around, as long as the band actually.
ST: Three years or so.
JP: That was one of the first songs we wrote along with ‘Let’s Talk About It’ and all that kind of stuff. It’s been through a lot of different phrases.
R: It just didn’t feel right before?
JP: Yeah I think the melody was just a little too dramatic for everybody, so we kind of tried to obscure it a little bit.
R: I see you self-produced the new album, did it get you closer to achieving the sound you had in your collective heads?
ST: I’d say yeah, definitely.
R: Is it something you’d carry on doing now?
JP: I think so yeah.
JB: I really enjoyed doing it. So I think as long as we can stand how it’s sounding.
JP: Yeah, yeah, I think we made a lot of steps forward, compared to the last one as well. As far as really kind of getting what we’re after.
R: It does sound crisper, the elements are a bit more apparent than the kind of wall of sound you had on the last album…
JP: That’s really exciting to us, kind of being able to give ourselves room to larn and improve like that
R: Do you think it’s the right thing to do artistically? Do you like the idea of working with a producer in a collaborative sense?
JB: We don’t rule it out.
JP: Eventually we might want to do that, if we meet somebody that we really get along with, but that’s really all it’s about, we’ve been working in a certain comfort zone for three years now, to bring another player, or even a producer, in we’d really need to have a really open, good relationship.
R: As such a musically diverse band with a lot of ideas etc. Would you ever be open to collaborations with other artists? Be it with jazz, punk, funk, rock artists?
JP: Yeah we’d definitely be interested in doing that, as long as it kind of works for all of us.
JB: It would have to be like a partnership.
JP: There are a lot of factors there… I can foresee each of us having something to do other than the group.
R: In terms of with the group is there anyone that you guys would love to work with?
JB: Well we’ve used people in Austin, we do these special shows there where people will play live with us, this girl named Pink Nasty… We work with a guy Lucas who has helped write some stuff.
R: Is this stuff that’s on the record that they’re playing or is it an improvisational thing?
JP: Well this guy Lucas Anderson wrote the lyrics in Spanish for ‘El Hard Attack DCWYW’, then there’s a couple of organ parts that were played by one of our friends in New York named Joe Rig.
R: Your records sound like you’re having a lot of fun. Is having fun what it’s about for you guys or is the eclecticism something that’s actually borne out of a work-ethic, a desire to get record all of your ideas?
JP: I think it’s definitely both, I mean at certain points in the process you’re having a lot of fun, at other points you’re not so it’s really both, it is kind of a long arduous thing sometimes, but it’s music and it’s really fun to do…
R: I read that you treat it as day job 9-5 (at least when writing and recording), does that mean you have times when you take a complete break from the music?
JB: It’s hard to leave alone.
ST: Especially for Josh because he lives in the studio…
JB: It seems like for James too, I’ll get these calls…
JP: Yeah, I’m always working, nine to five makes it easy because I have to like take my wife to work and pick her up so it really works out in a family sense, but I’m definitely a workaholic for sure.
ST: Yeah I mean nine to five we’re together, and then you know the rest of the time we’re at home doing the same thing [as in the studio].
JB: Then we try and do what you’re saying, where we’ll get back from tour and we’ll say, “Ok, we get back Saturday, let’s just not go into it until Wednesday or Thursday this next week.” But, heck, by Monday we’re calling each other and by Tuesday we’re like, “Oh man come on out if [to the studio] if you want, we should just go ahead and do some stuff.”
JP: When we’re off a tour we’ll take three or four days off after a tour and then we’ll work on demoing, then in the winter is when like a lot of the real hard recording work comes in and a lot of tough decisions need to be made. During in that time we’ll take a week and not really talk to each other, but we have certain bench-marks we like to hit before we can really relax.
R: You’ve mentioned on your press sheet about the idea of a ‘paranoia regarding the congratulations you’ve received’. ‘Fits’ has already received a positive reception, do you think you’ll ever get comfortable with praise?
JP: I don’t think you ever get, just in terms of the scheduling and the life-style we’ve been leading this last year and a half, I imagine it would be really difficult to ever get really ‘comfortable’ so I don’t know. I think it’s only a healthy thing to be always concerned and working towards something better.
R: The new record has been finished for a while now, what made you hold out for summer release?
JP: That was really the label’s decision. We always say that we’re not really in the business of putting out records. We have our work flow and they kind of apply their model to it, we don’t really understand timing and the recording business and we kind of like it that way. I think they thought it would be a bit much to put out two in a calendar year.
R: Is this one going out in the US? I know you self-release stuff out there…
JP: Yeah, we’re still kind of waiting to see what’s going to happen, so the UK will probably have a couple of months on the US.
R: Is it hard to get your stuff out on your own in the US, where do you start? How do you distribute it and get it heard? Has your background in the Austin scene helped?
JP: Yes, we don’t have distribution and or anything like that, we’ve just sold our music at shows. It’s rewarding when you’re doing it yourself.
JB: It’s difficult when you see people complaining about it, in the same state or even the same city where you live, saying, “Why don’t you guys release music here?” We do, we just do it on a large scale.
JP: We don’t have it in any stores or anything, it’s basically all soft release.
R: Has your background in the Austin scene helped or hindered?
JB: I don’t know if it’s done either. I mean it helped because we had a lot of places to play so we were able to get really comfortable with the stage.
JP: If we were from like Nebraska playing for SXSW it would have been more difficult to get into that.
ST: I think Austin’s probably one of the top five cities [in the US] as far as bands go. It’s easy to build there.
JP: I think that that festival, in particular, has been [instrumental], that’s how we gained label attention in the UK and stuff like that. So that’s probably been the biggest thing for us.
R: Most of your songs are very short? Is this because of your short attention span or your audiences? Is it in an intentional thing?
JP: It just seems to be what works with this trio, moving through our ideas I think that it’s good for us to make connections and move on to parts and explore a simple idea as quickly and thoroughly as we can.
JB: I hope that doesn’t mean we have a short attention span…
ST: Well also a ten minute song at like 190bpm might be tough. All our songs are at a pretty quick tempo and they end a bit quicker.
JP: I don’t know I think there are some longer things we’ll wind up doing and a bit slower building, but I think we edit one another quite a lot. We’re really critical of one another’s playing, so a big part of our process is trimming the fat.
R: Now you’ve released your second album and once again your profile has been raised another notch, is it hard not to go through the motions with shows, press etc? How do you keep up that pace, keep innovating?
JB: We try and organise our personal time a little better when we’re on tour and in terms of the press, you try and organise that right so you can relax before you play.
JP: As far as the performances go it would be pretty difficult for any of us to be on auto-pilot and get through them because you have to be pretty dedicated but the press, it’s not an easy thing to talk about what you do creatively, but I think each of us at different times have been pretty exhausted at times with different parts of it. [Laughs] It really depends on the interviewer you know, it is hard to answer questions that you’ve answered 50 times, I don’t know how to keep it fresh. What do other people say to that question?
R: You’re actually the first band I’ve thought to ask, as you’re on the up and making that transition…
JP: Really? It’s really weird man, it’s still really new. The only thing we’ve got to compare it to is last year when we did a little bit of press and we were excited about that because it was the first time that anybody was ever interested enough to ask us.
JB: We’re still thankful for it, that helps. Just being appreciative, the being on stage is what we look forward to all day. You spend ten hours of your day just looking forwards to that.
ST: The travelling sucks.
JB: You went to bed thinking about what you just did on stage and you wake up thinking, “Alright, I know what I wanna do tonight. I know what parts I messed up on etc…”
R: The Independent tipped you for Kings-of-Leon-style cross-over success in the UK, do feel any pressure to live up to such expectations?
JP: I don’t feel any pressure because we don’t write like that. I can’t really see us writing any of the tunes that they’ve written for the last four or five years. That would such a compromise for this band.
R: So it’s not something you would even want?
ST: No, when we read it, it was like a “Uh oh”, it was more a “Really?”.
JP: I think we would be so content to not have that type of crossover success. We would be wondering what we did wrong!
JB: There’s some ideas I giggle at you know? [To James] that stuff when you were just laying on the bed with the microphone going… I think that could be some crossover success [Josh then promptly cracks up at the thought].
JP: Well yeah! There are some guilty pleasure tunes that we have in the catalogue. Ideas that could be anthemic.
JB: But they’re just to like have fun with.
JP: That music [Kings of Leon‘s latest] really seems alien to me at this point, the past couple of records I’m just like, [adopts a slightly baffled tone] “Wow guys… Good night.” Good for them you know, but I don’t wanna do stadium rock. I don’t think so. If it happens I guess it happens, but I think we’d be pretty upset if we had to try and make a connection with 3000 people all of a sudden.. That would be pressure.
You’re undertaking a fairly extensive UK tour, taking in some towns that visiting bands don’t always bother with (Nottingham, Bristol, Southampton). Is that because you’ve visited the UK before and wanted to see more? Do you prefer smaller towns and crowds?
JB: We’ve only skipped Bristol once. We love that town. They went nuts for us last time, it was such a great show.
JP: Yeah that was fun.
ST: We’ve always toured a lot of UK cities for some reason, I think Oxford is the only one we haven’t done and maybe Edinburgh. We’ve done a lot of them.
JP: I think our music, it feels better in an intimate setting and I think the people we’re working with are sensitive to that, rather than doing bigger regional shows.
R: It would be interesting to hear your perspective regarding what is it about American bands, particularly from the South, that UK audiences can get into?
ST: I guess we really haven’t traditionally released and distributed a record in the US so our fans are a little bit more… Maybe they’ve seen us before in the city, or read about us or ordered us specifically… That sort of fan. They’ve not really stumbled across us on the radio or whatever.
JB: A lot of the people who listen to us in the states feel like they’ve discovered something. What’s fortunate, talking and meeting people after the shows – it feels the same here, but with the label here [the UK] we have the ability to reach a larger amount of them. It’s actually given us confidence to think that we could release heavily in the states and not lose that intimacy with the audience. That’s a big fear of ours.
R: Does it bother you the way people talk about discovering you? Like a fashion trend or whatever?
JP: Well, I think that we all see certain flaws in that, but that’s kind of who we are. We kind of have to be, you know. And over here really, the people that we speak to after shows, they don’t really fit into a certain niche.
JB: They’re not totally hip either…
JP: Yeah, I’d say our audience for the most part is people like us, anyone between 15 and 60.
R: Just that ‘small’ bracket then…
JP: I don’t know maybe it’s because the music is so personal to us we think that the people who like it are relatable, but in our experience in meeting are audience it’s been good to see a lot similarities.
JB: It’s a real surprise that I meet someone in the audience that I don’t get along with. It’s really rare that I feel like an alien in the audience, they’re mostly people I can get along with.
R: What are you planning after the European dates?
JP: I know, well we’re coming back for Reading and Leeds, but we’ve been working on this kind of companion piece to this record so we’ll probably get back in the studio and finish that.
R: So that’s not necessarily the next album…
JP: It’ll be more like a continuation of this record. It could end up playing like a full-length, but we’re kind of referencing things that we’re between the lines with on this record.
Originally written for Rivmixx