Record company offices can be as anodyne as any other open-plan set of workstations and Fiction Records is no exception.
Its cramped "board room" looks more like a storage facility, though today it has the feel of a military bunker.
Part of that is down to the concentrated energy of West London trio White Lies as they go about the task of signing inlays for a seven-inch box set of their debut album that they hope will tempt downloaders to part with some cash. Moreover, there is the nervy expectation of a band under siege.
For the White Lies come with an inordinate amount of baggage for a bunch of well-spoken, fresh-faced 20-year olds. In the face of so many colourful, solo female acts, White Lies proudly fly the flag for maudlin, anthemic rock and are quick out of the blocks with the year's first landmark album To Lose My Life. It comes hot on the heels of last September's major label debut single, the starkly titled "Death". They follow it up this week with the album's just-as-cheery title track.
So much has been written about them already: are they miserable doom merchants? Chancers that have ripped off every credible band from the early Eighties? Or, even more galling, manufactured as much as Girls Aloud? Rather than clam up with suspicion, though, the band are happy to take on all comers, especially bullish drummer Jack Brown. When I ask about positivity, he comes back, "I deliberately read the bad press, so I can get angry," before lyricist/bassist Charles Cave gently points out we were talking about his songwriting.
It is Cave's unremitting morbidity that is part of the problem, for while death, funerals and loss regularly crop up, neither the band or the writer himself are down on anything, even if he does allude to some kind of counselling. "There weren't specific events that altered the way I saw things, I'm just a pessimistic person with a dark sense of humour and pretty insecure. There was a stage as a teenager when I was not the happiest person. I went to see this professional and the first thing I said was 'I'm not feeling good about things, but I don't want to change. I don't like happy people or want to be happy myself."
Harry McVeigh is the bluff guitarist with the stentorian voice that invites comparisons with Ian Curtis and Julian Cope. His job is to provide the uplifting melodies that make Cave's grim thoughts more palatable. He brushes off any idea that he should be worried about his writing partner's bleakness. "I imagine there's a lot about Charles I don't know and I steer clear of asking him, but then it did happen gradually. The lyrics became slightly darker and less comedy. I just felt it made sense for us and Charles because they connect with people and meant something to me as soon as I heard them. People remember darker times better than the happy ones."
"People do have different sides to their personality," Brown adds. "When Charles writes his lyrics, he's just in one frame of mind. You can't read that much into a person." For the record, there is a fair amount of hope scattered throughout To Lose My Life. On their infectious new single, McVeigh sings, "Let's grow old together... and die at the same time", while in "Farewell To The Fairground", Cave feeds him the line "There's no place like home". "Hmmm, that is meant to be sarcastic," he admits, though the vocalist interjects, "Some of the songs, like that one, are about an escape from those dark feelings."
Harder to dismiss, though more irritating for the band, are constant comparisons with Joy Division and the stern-faced groups that followed in the wake of Curtis's tragic death, most obviously Echo and The Bunnymen. Problem is, Cave explains, the band were not particularly aware of most of these bands until the parallels were pointed out. "It's one of the most frustrating things, because people can't understand you can write a similar song and it's just a happy coincidence." He instead cites Texan trio Secret Machines as the biggest influence on their sound. "We didn't know The Cure were signed to Fiction," adds Brown.
"I've listened to the Best of Joy Division and got fairly bored. I like the romantic idea of the band, but...," the drummer shrugs. "Fans listen to it and look for clues as to why he killed himself," Cave goes on. "When they were around they were making an impact, but they could have been a brilliant band. They were still at the learning phase." Less contentious is that White Lies have enjoyed a dizzying ascent, part of the reason for suspicion about their motives and record label input. Their first gig was only last February and the group, seeming to emerge fully formed, were signed soon afterwards, though there is a back story.
The threesome have been making music since they were 15 and after early forays into skate punk made tangible, if slight, progress in 2007 with Fear Of Flying, a group that struggled on the oversaturated post-post-punk scene, before the trio found their own sound. "We were still at school at the time and still had that mindset, of conforming to what was expected of us," Cave remembers. "Changing from that group to White Lies was a quick and long process at the same time. Fear Of Flying lasted three years and we did slowly get like we are today, but it was only when we got a bit depressed about our situation that we stopped caring what anyone thought."
Cave came up with "Death" and "Unfinished Business", which they decided to put up on a new Myspace page, one without giving away any clue as to who they were – no photographs, no biog and a new name that reflected how the soaring, major key melodies disguised their sombre lyrics. "We'd always wanted to create a big sound and liked a lot of dramatic music. For a long time we thought the more you put on a song, the bigger it was, whereas with 'Unfinished Business' we realised the most dramatic moments can just have a voice and a minimal drumbeat. It's about space and building."
"We were doing what we thought people wanted to hear, just to get attention," Brown admits. "Finally, Fear Of Flying wasn't really relevant any more. We started when we were 16 and it was an immeasurable period of change. We'd gone from boys to men," to joshing from his bandmates. They also started wearing black, in the mistaken idea that people then would be unable to prejudge them. "We didn't want people to know what we were like," Cave explains. "And we didn't want to wear all white like Johnny Borrell. Only later did we realise we'd messed up."
"Unfinished Business" became the template for the White Lies sound that they honed in rehearsal rooms for several months before unleashing themselves on the live scene. White Lies' songs immediately sparked interest and their first gig at an industry showcase immediately caused a flurry of offers and a deal with Fiction. Now To Lose My Life takes that mix of dark and light into intriguing directions. "Death" swaggers in the manner of The Psychedelic Furs given a Killers sheen, "EST" raises hairs like early Human League remixed by Xenomania, while "From The Fairground" bounces along with the bombast of Julian Cope fronting U2.
With the album already under his belt, Cave is comfortable with his band's position at the forefront of new acts for 2009. "Our album's going to set the bar really high," he boasts, "But even more, all the other acts being bigged up in these lists and tips and whatever, they've got to go and make an album knowing that people think they're going to be huge." For Brown, its release is a relief. "A lot of people have already written off our band because we're too big and we haven't done anything yet." Oh, but they have – and it is time to hear White Lies' side of the story.
'To Lose My Life' is out on 19 January on Fiction RecordsReuse content