Is and Is and Is: An Interview with White Denim

White Denim

The first I’d ever heard of White Denim was at this year’s South by Southwest Music Conference. The Austin, Texas rockers were playing an evening set at Club De Ville and I was told I “absolutely had to go”. Despite the fact that I “absolutely had to go” see every band playing every venue the entire week, I pushed my way up to the front of that show, and leaned on the stage looking up at James Petralli, the band’s unofficial leader, main songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist. He was at a perfect angle that a bead of his sweat could have easily dropped and landed right on my head, had the (un)luck befallen me.

From that vantage point, I had a perfect angle to watch Petralli’s feet stomp on his guitar pedals, and I could easily turn my head to watch bass player Steve Terebecki — who looked like he was getting progressively younger as the show went on — or past him and watch Austin Jenkins set fire to his guitar fret board. Or I could turn my head back and get the perfect angle to watch drummer Josh Block wreak sentimental havoc on his drum kit. By the end of that show, I didn’t care what else I had seen that day, or what else I would see for the rest of the week — White Denim had won.

Their style was one I couldn’t put my finger on, though I tried. It’s at first a bit southern, but only in feeling. Petralli’s vocals and Terebecki’s harmonies bring an element of psychedelia, but not so much that you immediately think, “hippies” and sneer at them in unjustified anger. As songwriting goes, they land somewhere between Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Yes, with a touch of America to even it out (the band, and the country).

It was about two months later that their new album dropped, and they hit the road on an extended tour that will probably end around winter time. D, their fourth official release to date, is also their most coherent. Where they previously found disjointed and funky section breaks motored by odd time signatures, they now use those same time signatures to fuel a fire of intricate guitar duels and pouncing melodies.

They don’t really sound like anything you can easily classify, so I soon decided that it was pointless to put a label on them at all. Recently, I had the chance to talk with drummer Josh Block, and I learned that it’s that same inability — or unwillingness — to classify themselves that keeps the band looking forward.

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How are you guys feeling about the new album?

Yeah, I mean, we were happy. It seems to be a step forward, and as long as that’s going on we’re really happy about it. You know there’s always things that you might have changed in hindsight, but I’m kind of overthinking that at this point. But when I’m able to kind of sit down and listen to it as a whole, not thinking of any of those things, then yeah, I am good and happy. You know as far as how it’s received, I think I might read that stuff the least in the band, maybe tied with [bass player] Steve [Terebecki]. But it’s hard for me to read reviews and like, know how to take ’em. So I just kind of turn a blind eye. No offense, you know, I appreciate it getting done, I appreciate all of it, and I read it about other bands, but it’s just hard for me to read it about my own.

Why is that exactly? You don’t want that outside influence coming in, and only want to be influenced by your own creativity?

Yeah, I mean, that’s part of it. The influence is part of it, and then it’s just so easy to just take it slightly personal. Not be influenced by it but be like “Dang, I didn’t.” Even if it’s a good review, sometimes you can really read into it a little. So instead of going down those roads, it’s easier for me just to not read. [laughs]

I can see how that would affect it, because everyone tries to classify you.

Yeah, that is the hard part, yeah. Like, I heard that Jethro Tull is being used, for the flute on one of the songs, and that’s strange to me.

You don’t listen to Jethro Tull?

I love Jethro Tull, and I think Ian Anderson was a great player but man, I didn’t think that at all. I was thinking, I was behind the walls while the guy was playing it, like, “Oh this sounds oddly like Herbie Mann.” You know it’s like I take that part personally, but you know it’s a weird thing to read or listen to. And it’s on both sides of it. If there’s accolades or if it’s being really well received, the process of taking that in is just as strange as the process of taking in a bad review. You know, it’s like, what are you supposed to do with it? There’s some people that it’s really easy for them to kind of celebrate it, or brush it off, and I’m not really sure which kind of person I am because I’ve never given myself the opportunity to pick either one.

I heard one review, if you don’t mind me quoting someone, that said, “the Austin rocker’s fourth album features Southern-fried guitar licks and stoner harmonies.”

I mean that’s pretty good. [laughs]

What do you think of [classifications like] that?

I mean I think that’s cool. We definitely enjoy choogling here and there, as far as the Southern-fried licks. And you know, James’ harmonies, at least his vocal layering just sets the time, I really enjoy it. If that’s stoner, then cool.

Yeah, it’s an interesting way to interpret the music for you guys because I think most Southern-fried musicians probably would just do more straight ahead things, but with those harmonies, it definitely adds another layer.

Yeah, and also Southern-fried odd time signatures are like, half the record. I listen to a lot of groovy southern music from the 70s. Pretty much all the music on my phone right now is, well most of what my girlfriend listens to. One of her favorite bands is Alabama, so I’m hearing that stuff all the time, and the parallels are slightly there, but I’m sure we go off.

You know of all the influences I’ve heard in your guys’ music, I don’t think Alabama was one of them.

No, I don’t think that’s an influence. You know we weren’t in the studio going, “Yeah, put some Alabama-type stuff in here,” you know. That did not happen. [laughs]

So do you guys classify yourselves at all, or do you just play and figure it out as you go.

Man, we do pretty much play and figure it out; I think that’s a good way to put it. But at the same time I’d be lying if I didn’t say that a part didn’t come up when, say, James sends a demo, and in my head I’m thinking, “Oh that does sound like Southern R&B a little bit. What would it sound like if I did a little chugging groove underneath it.” So, it’s a fine line but we do just kind of try to step away from it a little bit. And James is really in tune with the band, so he and I are pulling out records on the floor in the van, and if it’s stuff he wasn’t too keen on before he’ll go home and give it a really good chance and kind of write from our interest at times. So behind the scenes there’s a little bit of that going on. Like if Steve and I are obsessed with some prog records or country music, James will try to pick it up and try to flavor it in there.

You guys recently brought in a new guitarist, Austin Jenkins. What’s it like working with him? How’d you bring him on?

Austin moved around a bit. He’s originally a Texan but he came back to Austin, and we met him right after he came back — he came to a show. And he’s a really good player, so whenever we wanted extra players, there were two people we used to call. It was either Austin or this guy Martin from the band Brazos, we’d call one of the two of them. And Austin was there, so it kind of made sense.

Did Austin change your guys writing style? Did he have the influence that made D sound so different?

He came onto D after we had finished basic tracking, in the middle of the process. But you know, all of Austin’s parts were kind of overdubbed, and you know honestly he filled it out really well. There’s a couple tunes where I think, to me personally, his parts made a really big influence on the songs. Like, the guitar solo on “Street Joy”. Also the solo on “Keys”, which I absolutely love, his melodic breaking on that song is good and powerful, and he did the solo on “Drug” and played guitars on that, and then he did overdubs on several other tunes. I think he’s on “At the Farm”, and some of the larger guitar pieces where it’s more guitars over each other. So he had an influence on that, and to be fair with Austin, every time he played with us, he influenced us musically … he’s a smart musician, so it’s not like what he offers the group won’t fit in, I actually feel like he has a talent to blend right in with the group. Not to talk him up too much, but he’s kind of a badass.

I remember I first saw you guys at SXSW and he was just tearing it up.

Yeah, and a great energy, too. Man, I enjoy having him up there. It’s really fun. If you’re a trio, you’re used to looking at the other two guys, and I get some form of comfort from him. A lot of times you look up at the other players and you could use some confidence, and it meant a lot to add a fourth player and have him just fit right into that. Like, I look at Austin, and he makes me feel like twice the drummer.

As far as songwriting, how does it go? It sounds like James is the main songwriter and he brings it to you guys to give your input.

Yeah, the way we did D is he did a lot of porch writing. Then once a song was there and he had a good tune going, he’d set it up for the band, and Steve and I — we did it almost via the internet at first as far as the demoing process goes — Steve and I added parts to it and then sent it back to James, then James worked with it, sent it back to us, we worked with it a little bit, and we’d do that in chunks of maybe five tunes. And then we went to the rehearsal studio and rehearsed a few, really worked out all the kinks, which changes everyone’s parts a little bit, and then we went into the studio and recorded it live to tape. And we did about five songs at a time till we had about 14, 15 songs, and then we kind of went from there. So it’s our first really standard studio album, as far as the process goes, you know. Starts on the porch, sends out the demo. It was fun.

You say it’s your first real standard album. What was Fits like, or your other two before that?

Well they were done out of the trailer I used to live in, in Driftwood, and James would come in. It was a lot of auditioning in those days. Similar to porch writing, but he would come over when the ideas were completely fresh and audition them in bits and pieces. Sometimes he’d lay down a whole track, and sometimes he’d work it out at the trailer with us there, and we’d work on an album track by track instead of song by song. And this album we kind of worked on it song by song because we were in a studio and we were working with tape, and the old method doesn’t work unless we have like 100 Grand to spend, you know on reels and studio time and stuff like that. So it just made sense. These days the guy who owns the studio in Austin is kind of on board with the band, so the next record we do we’ll have the ability to do a lot of the old style of the way we worked, mixed in with the new style, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens.

Yeah, that is exciting, as you guys have more recording freedom, to see where that’ll allow you to go.

Yeah, we have the freedom we used to have in the trailer where we had like, really inexpensive means and had as much time as we wanted to plug at it. Then, actually in the studio environment, the way D was done where we could sit there and rehearse and really work on parts, separate from the studio and go in and spend some time on some really nice equipment, and get that sound. So we’ll be able to do a little of both of that from now on. Which is totally cool. So we’ll be pretty excited.