White Lies - Guitar heroes lift the doom and gloom
West London three-piece White Lies and their new album, Ritual, disprove the notion that rock is dead, says Gillian Orr
Friday 14 January 2011
The death knell for guitar bands rang loudly this week. Following reports that rock music now makes up just three percent of all music single sales, industry commentators have been quick to point out that R&B, hip-hop and pop are now where the big business is.
Not that White Lies are worried about unleashing their second album, guitars and all, into such a seemingly hostile musical landscape. After all, they've been here before.
When the London trio released their debut album, To Lose My Life..., two years ago, people were making similar claims. Only in 2009, if you had a guitar, you apparently stood no chance next to the lure of the glittery, electropop sirens. White Lies came second in the influential BBC Sound of 2009 poll, with La Roux, Little Boots and Florence and the Machine also being championed in the top five.
And what happened next? To Lose My Life... flew straight to the top of the charts on release, their doom-rock seemingly striking all the right chords.
Now White Lies are preparing to release their second album, Ritual, and we're discussing the current predicament for bands in a Soho cinema café, one particularly rainy, grey January morning. The weather might be miserable, but the boys, despite their famously gloomy image, are upbeat, well-spoken and chatty.
"I think that first album came out at a really difficult time for anyone playing guitar music," says the band's drummer, Jack Brown. "It was the start of when guitar music didn't matter for two years really. I was quite proud of that. Despite it not really being in the public's general vision of what was happening musically, bands really weren't doing anything, I'm glad that we still made an impact."
Not that they were expecting a No 1 album. Their frontman Harry McVeigh notes: "Looking back on it with a couple of years' experience in the industry, I think it was definitely what our label wanted and what they planned for. But it was still a great moment when we got it. I wasn't expecting it but I think they were. A No 1 record sounded so unreal to me; it was a really great achievement."
But surely a band has to be nervous about following up on such a rapid ascension. A wave of hype and the perfect timing of the BBC poll no doubt contributed to White Lies' early success. Can they repeat such a coup?
"I don't think it will go to No 1 personally," Brown announces. "Take That and Rihanna are selling too many records."
"I think regardless of whether the album goes to No 1 or not, it's already making an impact," adds McVeigh. "People are definitely picking up on it and people are excited about it. I just want it to come out more than anything, regardless of where it charts, because when we play our live shows I'd like people to know our songs and feel like they have a favourite and be waiting for the song they want to hear off our second record."
White Lies officially formed in 2007, after the trio decided to put their first band, Fear of Flying, to bed. Having met at school in west London, they went on to achieve modest success with the perky, jaunty indie of their previous group, and were thinking of packing it all in and heading off to university when the band wrote a number of tracks so different to anything they'd done before, tracks they had such confidence in, that they decided to put off further education for one more year to see how far they could go with their new incarnation.
Emerging clad in black with a bunch of macabre songs about murder, revenge and lust, delivered in a way that invited comparisons to bands such as Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen and Interpol, initially the transition was met with suspicion, and people queried if they were not just another product of the major labels' marketing men. However, it's an uncharitable person who thinks that teenagers (as they were at the time) can't develop and change their musical direction and it seems a far more natural trajectory than some would claim it to be.
Still, much was made of their dark aesthetic when they arrived. With track titles like "Death", lyrics including "You've got blood on your hands and I know it's mine" and a propensity to use church organ synths, it's certainly contributed to the band's identity. But then most of the songs are delivered with the sort of epic choruses that suggest the boys have the potential to eventually fill stadiums.
After a successful album and the opportunity to tour the world, have the boys lightened up over the last couple of years? After all, the band seems to have ditched the black uniforms.
"Essentially, we're still the same people," says McVeigh. "But I think we took it a lot further on this record than the first. I think we were able to take it a lot further through what we've learnt. I suppose our collections of music have grown so much and that enabled us to draw on different influences."
Produced by Alan Moulder, famed for his work with bands such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Depeche Mode, among many others, Moulder had mixed the boys' debut album and he was a trusted friend by the time they got into the studio together for Ritual. It's clear they were excited to have him on board producing.
"We knew what we were expecting to some extent from Alan in the studio," recalls McVeigh. "We listened to a lot of the records that he produced while we were writing and we wanted to try a few things with electronic instruments and electronic sounds and different ways of approaching songwriting. We just wanted to make an ambitious record."
The band say that they have broadened their musical horizons over the past two years and they name check Nine Inch Nails, John Grant and Alicia Keys as some of the records they listened to the most when they recorded the album. "It's one of the good things about being in the studio, you can listen to music on really good speakers, really loud and not bother anyone."
McVeigh's lugubrious vocals still guide the songs but a preoccupation with the existence of love and the different approaches to human relationships permeates the album. "I think this record is a lot more confident in the lyrics than the first record was," say Charles Cave, the band's bassist and lyricist. "On the first album there was probably a lot of scepticism and quite naive worry, which was completely appropriate for being an 18-year-old boy, I think. This time round it's a lot more realistic. Whereas before I was quite a romantic person when it came to writing, I was quite excited and moved by various emotions, now I find it quite tiring and want to be a bit more real. When I went to write the lyrics it was much easier this time because I had much more solid things to write about and I had quite sure ideas of what I wanted to write about because last time it was almost fantasy in a way."
There's no doubt the band, now all in their early twenties, have grown up. When they wrote the last album they were still living with their parents, before going off on tour for a lengthy period. "It's been great during the last year to go out and find a place to live and move in," agrees McVeigh. "I think we have all grown up a bit through that experience, and also the experiences we've just had in life. Everyone grows up in that period of their lives anyway, it doesn't really matter what they're doing."
They are still driven by the restlessness of youth, though. You get the impression this is a band who can't sit still and they work remarkably hard. They were supposed to take three months off last year, after touring for pretty much 18 months straight, including high-profile (and exhausting) support slots for Kings of Leon and Coldplay, but they got bored and started working on the new album instead. Ambition is not a dirty word for them.
"We're still a young British band," explains Brown. "And there are still a lot of people who may have heard our name but not heard a record by us. Just because we have had people buy our record in the past, I don't think that means they will necessarily buy this album. But I would like them to because I think this record is more diverse and more exciting. It's a massive step for us."
The death of rock? Not if these guys have anything to do with it.
White Lies' new album, 'Ritual', is out on Monday. White Lies tour the UK from 4 February (www.whitelies.com). Andy Gill reviews the album on page 20
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