Welcome to my brand new bl……………….OK, we’ve been here before. This time I won’t give any drawn out excuses, but I guess I do owe you all an explanation as to my absence. As most of you know, I connected The View from The Booth to a regular Saturday night gig at Heebie Jeebies, cunningly called The Booth. The aim was to use this as a way of talking about the weekly adventures of that particular dancefloor, as well as giving new converts a place to dig a little deeper into my musical philosophy; hoping to build a bit more long term commitment, as well as a better selection of requests.
It was ambitious. I even admitted as much at the launch of this brave new venture. For a while it seemed positive, as my last proper, non list-related post still shows. But, inevitability hit me square in the face. The vicious circle of night outs that I mentioned (If you can’t remember, simply scroll on down to The Birth of The Booth) was too strong, which exposed my fatal flaw – relying on drunk people to remember things. Oh well, worth a shot I suppose.
In the face of the regular disappointment of The Booth, the writing became impossible, or more accurately, finding positive things to say became impossible. This relationship has been built on my honesty as a writer amongst many things, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna start polishing turds now. In the words of Bart Simpson, you’d all see through me like Grandma’s underpants. And so The View from The Booth was left dormant.
My recent departure from Heebies has broken the shackles, and I’m ready to get those fingers dancing across the keyboard once again. I make no bold claims to regularity which I will then inevitably break – all I will say is that every time there’s something I think worth talking about, you’ll hear from me. And I’ll give you plenty of warning beforehand. I promise.
I’ve got something a little special as a welcome back present. I recently commissioned/pestered James Petralli from White Denim for an interview, as a preview for their barnstorming show at East Village Arts Club (I Still can’t get my head around that name. However, EVAC sounds like a vacuum cleaner that you connect via USB, so I’m going to use the long-winded version) that was due to feature in May’s Bido Lito Magazine.
Unfortunately, due to a late change in the deadline that article never appeared. I was initially upset as I feared it could have been a welcome boost to ticket sales. I shouldn’t have worried – everyone else appears to have finally woken up to the extraordinary talents of these 4 soft spoken Texans. In honour of their new found popularity and that beast of a show, I’m reprinting the extended version of the article here, complete with a few tweaks.
It appears recently that a portal to stardom has opened for rock bands from the southern states of America. Bands such as The Black Keys and Kings of Leon are seeing words like “cult” and “fringe” (even the dreaded “hipster”) disappear from the minds of journalists drawn to discuss them, replaced by “triumphant”, and “Grammy nominated” (even the dreaded “stadium”).
The latest to pass through the stargate is White Denim, although it’s important to stress they have precious little in common with their recent forebears, outside of a similar zipcode and accent. The ascension of this unassuming gang of three (that became four) is all the more remarkable because the evolution of their sound came well before any real success, as opposed to in it’s wake. Over five albums White Denim went from the sprawling, schizophrenic thrash of debut Workout Holiday to the mature, sun baked melodies of D and latest effort Corsicana Lemonade.
Thankfully these sharp musical minds haven’t dulled with age – there are still a multitude of ideas pinballing through every song. Years spent honing their craft on gradually bigger stages to increasingly awestruck audiences mean the jigsaw pieces are now slotted together smoothly, as opposed to using sheer brute force to smack them into place. Their rock-solid live shows have given White Denim a reputation as a band loved by their fellow musicians; their fans are ogling fingers, not faces. Each member would be a virtuoso star in any other band, but rubber-limbed drummer Josh Block, bespectacled bassist Steve Terebecki, the real nicest man in Rock (c) guitarist Austin Jenkins and spellbinding frontman James Petralli somehow manage to be even greater than the sum of their spectacular parts.
The band are currently preparing to take Corsicana Lemonade to a salivating public across the UK, including East Village Arts Club on May 21st. In anticipation I attempt to capture Petralli’s excitement of as he reflects on the art of reproducing a great live show on record, how to spot a Texan, and his idiosyncratic route to stardom………
The View from The Booth: Was there a crystallizing moment when you first believed you could make a career out of the band?
James Petralli: Parque Touch (A precursor to White Denim, the first band to feature Block, Petralli & Terebecki, as well as early guitarist Lucas Anderson) was an extremely fun group to work with but I don’t think that any of us took it all that seriously. We were all in our early twenties and it was a weekend project fuelled by massive amounts of energy drinks and alcohol. We didn’t take much of anything very seriously on the surface. Josh would’ve been a professional musician with or without us eventually though. He is and always was too good to not be on a big stage somewhere.
After a month or two of working as a trio (after Anderson’s departure to Russia) we started to gig out and began sharing recordings on the web. We got an email from one of the guys who ran DFA asking for more tracks. At the time they were the coolest young label releasing records and I thought we would be signed and playing stadiums within months. Obviously that didn’t happen. It didn’t even come close to happening actually. After that moment our pursuit became much more vigorous though. A year or two later a local company in Austin called Transmission lent us enough money to play at CMJ in New York. We started touring and recording as much as we possibly could and we haven’t looked back since.
I remember you telling me one of your 1st shows was to see The Dave Matthews Band - was he one of your musical inspirations (!), and if not, who was?
I can’t believe you remember that! I guess that show influenced me to the extent that I saw the lights, and smelled the smoke in the air, and watched the girls swaying around out of time to the band and really wanted to be a part of a music group in any way that I could. I didn’t play or sing back then but I really wanted to. I used to lie to the kids in my carpool on the way to school about all the guitars I had and all the tunes that I knew. The stuff that really moved me back then is the stuff that still moves me today. I always liked soul music and was learning about jazz. Back then I thought I was suited to be a doctor of English and a Poet. I guess Kerouac, Coltrane, Hendrix, Miles, and Stevie (Wonder) etc. were really big for me. I was basically a pretentious little asshole looking back- always carrying what I was reading cover out y’know. Pretending…That’s what you do until you don’t have to anymore I guess.
Your 1st album was released here in Europe before America, and your fan base here has always been strong. Were you surprised to find fans so far away when you couldn’t get much support at home?
Yes absolutely. Frankly I am still a little shocked each time I get on stage and there are people in front of me. It certainly helps a ton to work in a group of extraordinary music people. Sometimes I think at least half of the people there are young musicians looking to figure something out.
I must admit as a fan I was slightly worried when Last Days of Summer was released for free, as self-releasing material often seems to be the last act of a band with a dwindling fan base. Did the album’s overwhelmingly positive reception precipitate the full release, or was that always the intention?
I was really worried as well. That was purely an act of desperation. We went from having a constant green light creatively and a very nurturing relationship with Full Time Hobby (London based record label that released White Denim’s first 2 albums) to having to learn how to play an entirely different game at our new label (Sony subsidiary Downtown Records, home to Cold War Kids, Scissor Sisters & MSTRKRFT) . We weren’t ready for that shift and that release was us trying to get out of that deal and get back into the old one in the only way we could think of. It was extremely foolish in the end because everyone involved with us benefited from that record in some minutely measurable way except for us. It wasn’t actually free by the way. We clearly asked people to pay for that record. We just gave them the option not to and 99 percent of them didn’t. As it turns out that whole thing was pretty half baked on our end and I fully regret the way we let it go down. I am really proud of us for making that music though. That is my favourite White Denim record.
LDOS seems to be the moment where you began to showcase the sweet emotions of your voice, and your songwriting, embracing a more countrified sound alongside the screaming, yelping, mile-a-minute blues-punk explosion. How much confidence did the reaction give you that your fans were willing to accept this evolution? Did it also have an influence in the direction of D, which I believe was already being written & recorded?
Aside from a mix and a handful of guitar overdubs ‘D’ was actually done when we made ‘Last Day of Summer’. So it didn’t really influence that record much. To me ‘LDOS’ is slightly more focused on the songs themselves rather than the wow factor prodigious instrumentalists can lend to songs. That is not to say that there isn’t remarkable playing from the band on that record or that those things are necessarily mutually exclusive, it just seems to me to be more balanced on that recording for some reason. Perhaps that is due mostly to the writing. The band always does its best to play what the tune is asking for and the music of that record contains some questions that hadn’t yet been asked in our repertoire. The music called for different approaches and that is what the band gave to the music. I think it worked out nicely.
Corsicana Lemonade sounds like it was a lot of fun to make; I can even hear you laughing as you sing on Distant Relative Salute. Was it that much fun, and do you feel you’ve hit upon a winning formula for future work?
The record was really fun to make. We recorded on a cliff overlooking a beautiful lake during the best time of year in Austin. The band was engaging in a different way as well. At some point I stopped trying to manage anything that was happening in the music and the group was beginning to write together again in a way that hadn’t occurred since the recording of “Shake x3” or “Darksided Computer Mouth” or “Let’s Talk About It”. To me it felt like we were collectively getting back to something - a better time for the band or an experience of creating that we could all own in the same way. I think we had to make a record and tour this way in order to grow. Each of us has dedicated our lives to this music and thereby one another, it is right that we feel connected to it and individually represented by it.
You’ve built a fantastic reputation for your live shows; energetic, exciting and ferocious. Never have I seen organised chaos executed so perfectly. Would you say that was down to a sheer volume of shows, or have you always enjoyed a great musical understanding?
Thanks! It has do with experience and also being dedicated to being in the moment that you are in. The stage is great because it provides another space to be a human. It isn’t like making a record or a painting or a film where you can perfect the result before the world sees it. The people on stage have to work together and be open and ready to respond to one another.
Our understanding of the group has grown over the years, but it is pretty universal that you need to be prepared to react and converse with your fellow performers when you hit the stage. Nothing is more boring to me that seeing a group run through the motions on stage. It happens. We all do it to varying degrees, especially when you’re performing outside of a purely improvisational context.
It is good to keep the lines of communication open and the spirit of collaboration in the front of your mind when you play though. That’s what that line “If you see me, well you’ve seen me just where I am” from “If You’re Changing” is all about.
A common school of thought is that you’ve struggled in the past to capture that live magic on record; an accusation which I find strange as to me it feels like your live performance is directly influenced by the breakneck, telepathic time changes of Fits. You’ve been reported as saying that the intention on this new album was to capture that live sound. How did that approach differ from previous albums?
I still maintain that studio and stage are totally different spaces/mediums. It is impossible for a band to make a “live” record in studio. There is no substitute for the energy exchange that occurs between the musicians and the audience in a live setting.
This record sounds like us playing together in a studio whereas some of our older material sounds like us trying to sound like we are playing live together in a studio. We wanted to actually play the songs together in studio to avoid this whole extreme overdubbing conundrum that modern recording technology often can drop you into.
In the past we recorded our parts separately to a metronome/reference tracks because we didn’t have the space or equipment to do it the other way. This led us in some cases to really creative and unusual productions and in other cases to over-analyzation and sucking the energy out of cool songs and cool parts.
Your videos indicate a band that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and “At night in Dreams” is no different, paying homage to local Icon Big Tex. How did you hook up with director Brian K Jones, and how proud are you of your Texan roots?
That video is really strange, even to me and I made ‘Pretty Green’ with longtime friend and collaborator Michael Hammett. I didn’t have really anything to do with that one. Brian is a friend of Josh’s. I think he made some work that dealt with burning of Big Tex that Josh really fell in love with. It is nice to see where people will take the moving image in relation to the music. This one was particularly interesting conceptually.
Some of us are Texans through and through. Look for the boots and belt buckles- you’ll know who. You have to really love Texas to live in Dallas! I grew up near there. It has so much to offer you just got to know where to look and what to ignore. All of us like living in the states though. I’ve got no plans of leaving anytime soon. I would still really love to live in England for a spell though. I’ve been talking about it for years!
You’ve played 4 (or maybe 5?) shows in Liverpool down the years, at nearly every decent venue. What memories (if any ) do you have of the city?
We got really loose at a Wombats after party once. They had just played some enormous place and somehow we were allowed in to dance and drink the night away with a few hundred of their closest friends. Lovely folks. Best Liverpool gig for us was with Pond a few years back though. We had a nice time working with them and I believe that led to us doing some dates with Tame Impala as well as some possible future Pond dates. Even lovelier folks.
Although this is a relatively brief tour, you’re coming back for the End of the Road Festival in August. Do you enjoy the summer festival season, or do you prefer to play to those who know and love you?
I like it all Mo. Festivals pay the bills and playing club gigs to your own fans makes you feel like you are on the right track. They are both fun opportunities. I think I might slightly prefer playing shorter sets to people who have never heard us before.
Finally, as the acclaim from both critics and fans has grown over the last 2 years, have you had time to stop and think about how far you’ve come since the dark days of self-releasing LSOD?
I believe that everything that has happened went down in the only way that it could have. We have almost always done exactly what we wanted to do for better or worse. This view helps me to move on and keep pushing forward as a person. I am mostly proud of where we have been and I am excited to still be involved after almost a decade of music making. I’m very much looking forward to tomorrow.
No big fanfare, just a heads up……….new View From the Booth coming this weekend.
Keep your eyes peeled.