Prolific Texan four-piece White Denim are at it again. Ten years on from the band’s formation, they are on the verge of dropping their seventh full length record. The most unusual thing about ‘Stiff’, though, is that it is the group’s first album working with an external producer – Ethan Johns. However, unusual is suitably apt when describing White Denim, and lead guitarist and vocalist James Petralli wouldn’t have it any other way. We caught up with him to chat about artwork, literal symmetry and learning how to not care.
‘Stiff’ is the first album since the band’s reformation with Jonathon Horne and Jeff Olson coming into the band on guitar and drums respectively. Before even thinking about making a new album, James and the band’s co-founder Steve Terebecki had a lot of thinking to do elsewhere. James says he had to think about where the band had been, what it had become and whether there was a future for White Denim:
“When we were discussing whether it was a good idea to continue with the group, we were a bit nostalgic about making those first records… it was very much a ‘anything goes’ sort of environment, we really didn’t have any expectations of each other and it was just fun. So we thought if we’re really gonna do this then we have to actively reset. We wanted to get back to that kind of spirit. We made fun tunes on the last record and we were definitely chasing something new (on this record). It was just a case of getting back to not caring that much about how people might perceive it or how technical certain things are, we just wanted to go with what feels good”.
It’s refreshing to hear someone talk so candidly about the identity of a band and how that identity evolves with time. Surroundings change, sounds change and whether we like it or not, we all change as Mother Nature and Father Time take their toll. The most obvious sign of change in this case has been the introduction of Jonathan Horne and Jeff Olson on guitar and drums respectively in place of Joshua Block and Austin Jenkins. James expands on how they knew each other and how it came to be that they hooked up:
“I met Jeff a few years back at a White Denim gig and he said he was really into what we were doing. That night we were playing very different stuff from usual White Denim so I thought ‘if this guy likes this, I’m gonna remember this guy!’ and Jonathan is really good friend of Steve’s and has been in Austin forever playing a lot of free jazz and noise music so we thought it’d be a pretty interesting mix to get him in a straight-up rock n’ roll band.”
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Petralli is again charmingly honest talking about how the guys are settling in and the new band dynamic:
“They’re still kind of finding their feet so it’s being heavily led by Steve and myself. They’ve got a lot of back catalogue to learn and it’s not exactly easy material. They’re not dropping too many ideas yet, but the ones they do drop are generally pretty great. Before we never really had to talk about anything…over 10 years of working together we had worked out a way of working together without having to talk about too many things”.
2016 marks the ten-year anniversary of the inception of White Denim. The fact that they are where they are without ever (up ‘til now) having used a producer is massive testament to their continuing creativity and durability. So having Ethan Johns fully on board for Stiff is a big deal. Johns, who oversaw the entire production of the record has a pretty impressive track record and has worked with the likes of Paul McCartney and Laura Marling among others. On paper he seemed like the perfect fit to work with Petralli and co. However, James has another explanation for his choosing Johns as producer for ‘Stiff’:
“He was the only guy we had ever actually taken a meeting with, as we’ve always taken care of ourselves…But he talked to us about music and that he might wanna make a record for us and it was as though ‘this guy seems cool, he definitely speaks the same language as we do, and seems to want to make records the same way we do’. It was less a case of his track record, and more just the way he presented himself as a guy who likes to hang out, just playing guitars and drums and shit!”
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We were a bit nostalgic about making those first records…
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It’s clear James has a penchant for searing, yet endearing honesty. He goes on to describe how having an external figure in the studio helps the recording process in other ways: “It was really good to have someone to help especially as I was working with two new guys in the band. Sometimes to social aspects of music making can be pretty difficult to navigate so it was great to have an outside party steering the ship. It was cool, he had a lot of great ideas, and he’s a great musician so he played on the record too.”
Slotted right into the middle of the album are two tracks decisively different from the fast rock on either side. ‘Take It Easy’ and ‘I’m The One’ are far from the White Denim we have all gotten to know so well. As explained, it’s the placement of the tracks that’s most interesting and as James explains, there was another force at hand in choosing the track order: “To be honest, I didn’t really think about it as much as I have done on previous records. I didn’t have time to really analyse all the material in that way, it was more ‘yeah that seems good’. Also a lot of that comes down to giving Ethan more control, to make sure he could bring everything he wanted to the piece.
Going over the album you can’t help but notice little nods back to some of their old content most obvious of which is the fact that Stiff spelt backwards almost reads fits. Another nod is the track ‘Mirrored In Reverse’ which is a clear reference to the Fits track ‘Mirrored And Reverse’. With a chuckle, James admits that these are very much deliberate, but nothing more profound than that.
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“It was definitely a no-fucks-given situation!”
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It doesn’t often come up in interviews but occasionally album artwork can be of major importance and interest to the artist in question. The artwork for ‘Stiff’ is indeed immediately striking and has a bit of everything – a little bit cheeky, a not-so-subtle hint of innuendo and all very tongue in cheek. It comes courtesy of Eugenia Loli, an artist who Steve loves and produces a lot of collage work, and is similar to some of the band’s previous covers. The artist that White Denim have often worked with in the past wasn’t able to contribute on this one and James explains that getting Eugenia involved was a simple case of reaching out and asking: “(Steve) just got in touch with her and she kindly agreed to do the artwork for us. Personally I really like how similar the aesthetic is to what we used to do.”
There’s no doubt album covers are interesting things – there are plenty of ‘best artwork of the year’ lists and awards, but it’s rare that ‘best album’ and ‘best artwork’ awards match. It makes you think about the relationship between the two. Pratelli puts forward his own view on their relationship as well as the artwork for ‘Stiff’: “I like sitting with the artwork while I’m listening to a record. It’s something I’ve always done since I was a kid. I think it’s pretty important but it’s difficult for us because we’re not visual artists. This is the first time we’ve not had some kind of collaboration with the artist, but I like this one for sure, I think it’s funny and also relates to the tunes. Having said all that, I love a lot of records with terrible covers, I’ve even made a lot of records with terrible covers! At least if it’s terrible you hope people will find some kind of humour in that!”
Petralli gives off an enviable laid-back aura, and seems to live in a place not consumed by social media presence, but a place where people simply “hang out, just playing guitars and drums and shit”. In the most endearing way possible, that quote sums up Petralli and White Denim as a band. As we continue to chat about the band’s record history, touring and all round White Denim vibes, he musters the line: “It was definitely a no-fucks-given situation!”
This is a band who are consistently creative, prolific and, above all, in the constant pursuit of fun.
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‘Stiff’ is out now.
Catch White Denim at the following shows:
5 Glasgow ABC
6 Leeds University Union
7 Manchester The Ritz
8 Bristol The Academy
10 Nottingham Rock City
11 London Roundhouse
Take It Easy: White Denim Interviewed