If You Can't Build a Whole, Build a Mosaic: An Interview with Jim White

Photos by Robin Broward

Jim White is changing the face of democracy, or at least taking the drunken poet approach to things. White talks to PopMatters about his new record, Transnormal Skiperoo.

Jim White

Transnormal Skiperoo

Label: Luaka Bop
US Release Date: 2008-03-04
UK Release Date: 2007-10-08

Jim White was pissing in the woods right before I called him. I know that because he told me.

"I live in the country now," he says in explanation, laughing. And if his decision to relieve himself outside isn't sufficient evidence of that, then his new album Transnormal Skiperoo surely will be. Of his previous albums it sounds closest to his first, Wrong-Eyed Jesus, in that it is a little more rooted and less grand than, say, his last album, Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See.

"I wanted to write about where I was in the world," White says, sounding friendly and warm on the phone, not to mention talkative. "It's a lot less spectacular than the other albums," he says of his new work, and he's right. Though it isn't smaller sonically, the elements add up to something much more "country" than his other records. White has always been (lazily) labeled alt-country, though that label may come the closest to fitting on Transnormal Skiperoo. With production help from Joe Pernice and backup from the bluegrass outfit Ollabelle, songs like "A Town Called Amen" or "Long Long Day" are warmer than his previous work, and much more inviting.

"Part of that comes from not being at war with myself," White says, and talks about the long road he's taken to here. He explains about his album titles, how they all have a sort of mystery to them. Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See is a request, a plea from White to us, the listener. "I'm slowly building a bridge back to normal people," he says, then chuckles. "Maybe when I get there no one will be interested in what I have to say."

He's joking, of course, and he should be. His new album certainly has a hope and calm to it the other records lacked, but it is hardly less interesting for being, well, happier. If anything, White has upped the ante on the new album. "I want to be a jailbird / From the prison of my own damn mind," he sings on "Jailbird". But where on Wrong-Eyed Jesus this might have been a runaway song, on Transnormal Skiperoo it is a song of discovery. There's a solitude still in these songs, but one that has been eased into, not a tortured or worn sort of isolation. The songs are still internal, for the most part, but in a way that reaches out to how we all search, how we all find the hope in the reality around us. And White seems happy to have gotten to this point, to have pushed past his demons.

"When you're a melancholy 25-year-old, you're troubled. When you're a melancholy 50-year-old, you're bitter." White sounds full of energy on the phone, eager to laugh at things that he might not have years earlier. "I don't want to be bitter," he continues. "I've got a one-and-a-half-year-old baby. I've got a wife and a house. I've got a truck that runs for the first time in my life, and I'm going to enjoy all that."

Transnormal Skiperoo finds him doing just that, as on the heartfelt song to his daughter "Piece of Heaven", or on "Diamonds to Coal", where White leaves behind his younger, more troubled days. Or on the August haze of "Fruit of the Vine" where White sings:

Doing 30 in a 45 --

Disregarding highway signs.

You learn to take your time,

In the South in the summertime.

Fruit of the vine...

But White knows this sort of lazy joy, the ability to find the good in any old day, doesn't come easily. In fact, he thinks it's historically, even anthropologically, difficult to find the positive. "I think in our minds we're programmed to be more concerned with the negative than the positive," he muses. "For 99% of our history on this earth, we've been hunters and gatherers. If you're a hunter-gatherer, a positive is finding a field full of blackberries, and if you find a negative it's a sabre-toothed tiger who chews your leg off."

White says things like this a lot. Things that sound absurd enough that you almost miss how right they are. But as good as he is at discussing the inherent sadness of the human condition, he isn't at all interested in getting bogged down in it on record. "If you wallow too much in the mire of the self, about two-thirds of the way through the album I get restless. So I try to put a bit of parsley in there," he jokes.

The "musical parsley" he refers to is, on Transnormal Skiperoo, a track entitled "Turquoise House". It is a playful, funny number in which White wishes to live in a world where all is bluish-green. It does work to cleanse the palate of the more serious stuff that comes before it, but it doesn't step too far off of the record thematically. White is still happily letting his freak flag fly on this tune, settling into his own skin in a world that increasingly makes it difficult for individuals to do so. Of course, White's music is rarely overt in its politics, but perhaps that is what makes its message that much stronger.

"My heroes aren't the ones who describe sorrow well," he says at one point. "My heroes take sorrow and turn it into beauty." He names Tom Waits and Vic Chesnutt in that group, among others. But the sorrow we are talking about begins to change as the conversation goes on, from something personal to something bigger, more national. He admits to thinking more politically now, since he has a family to think about, and he wonders openly about the world they'll be left with. But he is still wary of taking world troubles on directly in his songs. "If you try to change things directly, people turn their minds off."

But he cites a song off Drill a Hole in That Substrate... called "Jesus Drove a Motor Home" in which he tries to come at things from the backdoor, trying to have a bit of fun with his provocation. It is, in one way, a song concerned with sociology, with breaking the Jesus we know these days from the regionalism he has so recently inherited. But it is also a funny song, where Jesus cruises around listening to Dylan and double-parking at shopping malls. This, White thinks, is the way to approach larger concerns. "The tyrant does not fear his political enemies, he fears the drunken poet with a good joke," White says of his -- and really any artist's -- role in the political arena. He goes on to mention the Hillary Clinton Nutcracker that has been floating around for sale. He thinks, and he's probably right, that a joke like that is much more effective than slandering Clinton's policies. "Good art does not provide answers," he goes on, moving away from politics and back to the music. "It raises questions."

It's nearly envy-inducing to hear so many smart things roll off one man's tongue, one right after the other. But, after a while, it becomes clear Jim White is not just speaking off the cuff. He is a deeply thoughtful guy. He knows what to say about personal sorrow, or politics, or the role of music in our culture, because he spends a great deal of time thinking about these things. His work on his albums is no different. He tells me a story about a guitar player he brought in to play on No Such Place. The guy, a brilliant lead guitarist, played six takes of a lead for a song, but White said it wasn't quite right yet. So the guitarist stormed off in a huff. "If I'm trying to find a lead, I'll play it 600 times," White says, without an ounce of self-congratulation.

"It takes a certain kind of person," he says about making music. "I think of it as crawling through my hands and knees in the dark." He goes on to talk about a song, "Static on the Radio", that was initially meant for No Such Place. But, according to White, he could never get the last verse right. So he spent five years on that verse. As in, everyday for five years, and didn't finally get it done until he took a loop of the track with him and drove out near the coast for ten hours the day they were set to record it. He is, suffice it to say, methodical in all he does. Which made it so perplexing when I asked him about the title of the new album, Transnormal Skiperoo.

"If you can't build a whole, build a mosaic," he replies cryptically before explaining. He has a notebook full of stray words and phrases, a fact that doesn't surprise me at all. But to settle on the title, he flipped around until he found "Transnormal", and then flipped around again until he saw "Skiperoo". And that was it, the title was chosen.

"Of course, then I had to figure out what that meant," he laughs. And while the title seems to have come about more haphazardly than the songs on the album, it fits perfectly. It is the sound of a nameless, almost unidentifiable hope, one that White has come upon in recent years and is eager to share. "It's been a long, long day" is the last line sung on Transnormal Skiperoo, but it is a line of blissful fatigue and not leaden, sad exhaustion. White is showing us that life hasn't gotten any easier, but it sure has gotten better. It's a beautiful moment to close an album that is warm and inviting, bittersweet and sublime all the way through. It may less "spectacular" than his other records, but its got just as much heart. And, when it hits US shelves in March, White apparently has big hopes for his new record.

"It's going to change the face of western democracy," he laughs, and I have to laugh with him. Partially because he's being funny, and partially because I foolishly hope he's right.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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