White Denim - Power trio on the road from Austin
The hit of SXSW and Glastonbury, White Denim are building up an unstoppable momentum. Andy Gill meets the band who gave one of the most thrilling shows he's seen in years
Friday 10 July 2009
It's late afternoon when I meet up with White Denim in a shabby pub in Shoreditch. Just a few hundred yards up the road, expensively sunglassed Hoxton trendies are sipping overpriced lattes in boutique coffee bars, but this is another world entirely. Scattered tables are surrounded by mismatched chairs that look as though they've been salvaged from a dump. An old row of cinema seats along the wall is haemmorhaging stuffing. Grime and nicotine adorns the walls, along with fading rock'n'roll flyers from bygone decades. A few weathered punters perch atop rickety barstools, looking like characters from an Irvine Welsh novel waiting for their connections.
It's by no means the worst dive White Denim have played, though. Check out their videos on YouTube, and you're most likely to find the trio in a rubbish dump, desert or scrapyard, playing amongst towering heaps of dead cars whilst 57 varieties of gun-toting, shirtless white-trash lowlife cackle at the camera and children use a flaming mattress as a trampoline. It's a far cry indeed from the usual promo-video strategy, which seeks to dazzle gullible punters with bogus elegance and tawdry bling. But it probably offers a more accurate portrait of the band's roots in Texas, which they like to think of as the southern point of a cultural diamond whose other points are Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Houston and Dallas, where guitarist James Petralli and drummer Joshua Block grew up, are, they claim, "great for art", while their current hometown Austin, where they met boyish-looking bassist Steve Terebecki, has over the last decade and a half become the state's cultural centre, largely thanks to the South by South West festival that is now the world's greatest showcase for new music.
Last year, White Denim were one of the festival's biggest hits, their success cemented by winning the Best New Band prize at the Austin Music Awards – no small feat, given the proliferation of clubs and bands in the area. To outsiders, it appears to be mandatory to join a band when you move to Austin.
"It seems that way," grins Petralli. "You go and get a Fender Stratocaster, and a Twin Reverb..."
"...and a really cool hat!" interjects Terebecki.
"Yes, you do the Stevie Ray Vaughan thing," says Block. "There are a lot of people doing that."
"My neighbour's currently trying to be the next Steve Earle," says Terebecki. "I asked him about the drug habit part, but he said, '...minus the dope'."
Stevie Ray Vaughan remains the state's most admired musical son, while the singer-songwriter scene that spawned Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark is still Austin's greatest homegrown claim on musical fame, their reputation the lure for many of the legions of musicians drawn to the area. But there's also, the band claims, a thriving Latin funk scene – one of Prince's backing bands was a Latin funk outfit from Austin – and a healthy little garage-rock scene, which is where White Denim developed the formidable chops that make their live shows such incendiary affairs. Last year at Dingwalls, they played one of the most thrilling gigs I've witnessed in years, all the more impressive for the complete lack of the usual stage props, schtick and patter with which performers usually worm their way into punters' hearts. Just three guys in T-shirts, playing the heck out of their instruments with an intensity that brought to mind the power-trio heyday of Cream and Hendrix, filtered through the acidulated country-punk spirit of the Meat Puppets, the raw, exploratory fire of early West Coast psychedelia, and the out-there urge of avant-garde jazz.
At times, they all seemed to be soloing at once, their individual lines magically coagulating into one unified, sturdy riff. Block, in particular, is an extraordinary presence, boasting the combination of power and polyrhythmic dexterity that was once the preserve of such as Keith Moon, Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell.
Block enters into his task like a man possessed: before the band were even two songs into their set, he was up off his stool, still pounding away mercilessly, as if he'd received a sudden jolt of adrenalin and simply couldn't sit still.
"I get a lot of the energy in my playing from jazz," he says. "Like, digging in, that's what's behind my standing up at the drums. Sometimes it's for show, but usually it's because I'm digging in. A lot of that comes from that Roland Kirk thing of really nailing it hard – not as a volume thing, but more in terms of intensity.
You're just trying to give yourself to what you're doing, just trying to be in the moment," adds Petralli. "I'm not a jazz player, by any means, but it's my favourite music to listen to. Lately, I've been really getting into that Sonny Rollins record, The Bridge, I've been listening to that a lot. And I've always liked Mingus, Eric Dolphy, a lot of Sun Ra's Arkestra stuff, and all of Roland Kirk."
"I love watching Roland Kirk videos," says Block, "for those moments when you go, 'Damn! Whoa!'."
"Yeah," agrees Petralli, "you get in your own group and you really want to have those moments for yourself."
Their enthusiasm for music of such visceral immediacy is what fires White Denim's own creativity. Much of the music on last year's debut album Workout Holiday and the new follow-up Fits was written through improvised jams, from which the trio settle upon themes which then get developed into verses or choruses. Alternatively, one or the other member will bring in an idea of their own. "Sex Prayer", from the new album, an organ and guitar instrumental that sounds like a Doors backing-track waiting for a Morrison vocal, was pretty much all Terebecki's work; and Petralli comes up with lots of ideas on his back porch.
"The records that you listen to, you're listening to the process, every point after James's porch – and James's porch is starting to be included in some of the stuff too," explains Block. "We're trying to make it so you can hear the process of composition in the music, trying to capture something that appealed to us a day or two before: we'll put something on, or James will play a few notes that really excite us, and we'll go home and work on that, see how we can develop it."
As with great jazz players, there's something extraordinary about the way three potent musicians can pursue their own individual paths with no apparent restrictions on what each can do, yet have those paths somehow interlace in a common direction.
"I think we all really have our own specific sound that we strive for," muses Terebecki, "and it's just cool that they fit together so well."
"A little of it might have to do with listening, too," adds Block. "In fact, sometimes we listen too hard to each other, and because we're sensitive, sometimes it ends in fits!"
Something similar could be said about Petralli's singing style, which rarely bothers about minor concerns like clarity or meaning, slipping from quiet croon to furious blurt to Spanish exclamation, depending on the mood of a song. Often it seems buried in the mix, inaudible amongst the welter of instrumentation.
"We've always wanted to treat the voice as just another instrument, but then if people can pick out the lyrics that's great," says Petralli. "We're also trying to write to one another's abilities as well. It's very important for us to excite one another, musically. We write as much as we can, then get in there so we can see what gets the eyebrows raising."
"In there", refers to the band's home studio, a trailer out in the woods on the outskirts of Austin, which also doubles as Josh Block's home. "Yes, the band has fully taken over Josh's life now!" chuckles Petralli. "He lives out there, and he's got nothing to do but look at the studio all day!"
Sadly, it's not a classic streamlined shiny Airstream trailer like the one on the cover of Ry Cooder's first album, but a Spartan, "a big European thing from the Fifties", which replaced the Forties trailer in which Workout Holiday was recorded. That album's title derived from its having been recorded on weekends and holidays, and new album Fits has a similarly ironic origin, related to the band's promotion to full-time musicians.
"Throughout the process of making the record we were touring, then we'd come home and try and treat the music thing like a day job," explains Petralli. "So we'd get home and immediately go in and work on it from Monday to Friday, nine to five, then go out touring again, and it put us through a lot of insanity. We were really close to each other all through last year, and it put us through these childish little tantrums, things like that. Also, some people find our music jarring and intense, for no apparent reason, so we thought it would be funny to have a little play on that."
For Block in particular, it means being constantly involved in the music, even when the others aren't there. Doesn't he ever stop working at it?
"You don't have any choice but to stop working sometimes," he admits. "You get to a point where you're not adding anything good to it. Then I just pop in a movie, open a beer and cry!"
'Fits' is out now on Full Time Hobby. The single 'I Start To Run' is out on Monday
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