It’s an unusually hot Sunday afternoon in late-April Los Angeles, and I’m huddled at a rickety sidewalk café table with Mish Way, the outspoken frontwoman of the roaring punk outfit White Lung. We’re stationed outside El Huarache Azteca, a nondescript Mexican eatery in the rapidly-gentrifying Highland Park neighborhood, and one of Way’s favorite local haunts since she moved to the city last December.
The bright streets of Southern California are an unlikely place for Way to lay down roots. Not because of her personality — throughout the course of our conversation, Way is charming and engaged — but because the icy rage at the center of White Lung’s hurtling hardcore seems entirely at odds with the city’s easygoing reputation.
“I’ve always loved L.A., so moving here was an easy transition,” Way explains, fumbling for a cigarette. “I don’t get the hate for this city at all. Are people just jealous they don’t live here? L.A. is so huge. You don’t have to see or go near any of the bullshit. I mean, come on!” She sparks up a Marlboro Light and gestures toward the smogless horizon. “It’s nice all the time.”
Gazing up at the blue sky, it’s hard to disagree.
Way’s relocation from Vancouver to Los Angeles is one of a few unexpected events in the recent life of White Lung. Despite being courted by a number of punk-oriented labels, the group released Deep Fantasy — its brash and boisterous third LP — with indie behemoth Domino, home of festival-friendly, decidedly melodic acts such as Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand. It’s a move that, on its surface, doesn’t square with the group’s combative, no-fucks-given attitude.
“You don’t get the same attention when you’re on a label where all the bands sound the same,” Way explains. “I don’t know this for a fact, but I’ve heard a lot of my friends complain that if you’re not the favorite [on that kind of label], you’re just muddled in with everyone else.”
In truth, White Lung has always been a band of contradictions. They pit sonic annihilation against lyrical fragility, reclaiming a traditionally masculine genre and turning it into a viable medium to promote the ideals of nascent fourth-wave feminism. But instead of striving to unify these disparate elements, White Lung explores the friction between them. The result is White Lung’s most ambitious work to date — a highly-polished, intensely-focused collection of ferocious punk that clocks in at just over 22 minutes.
Fittingly, the group’s most confident record was born of struggle. In the later part of last year, tensions within the group had grown so severe that they delayed the band’s negotiations with Domino and stalled the writing process for Deep Fantasy. Ultimately, the strain caused the group to part with longtime bassist Grady Mackintosh.
“Band dynamics are weird,” Way says. “It’s like being married to three people you never asked to date in the first place.”
Eventually, White Lung enlisted Hether Fortune, the creative force behind goth-pop group Wax Idols — and herself a recent transplant to Los Angeles — to take over bass duties for White Lung’s live dates while Way, White Lung guitarist Kenneth William and drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou, continued to lay the groundwork for what would eventually become Deep Fantasy.
“Writing with the three of us worked a lot better,” Way reveals. “No one was happy before. You can’t write songs when you’re not happy.”
Although Mackintosh’s departure from the group ultimately brought a sense of psychological stability to White Lung, her absence, coupled with Way’s relocation to Los Angeles, created logistical challenges.
“We got to a point where we only needed to be together when we’re touring and when we’re writing — and, even then, we don’t need to be together all the time,” Way says. The band worked out the majority of Fantasy remotely, sending ideas and song fragments to one another via email. “It was a much more patchwork way of doing the album, but it worked for us. It helped me to sit and really work on my lyrics, not just write them that day only to change them later.”
“Since we didn’t have a bass player, everything had to be written so it sounded decent when we were playing it live,” William says several days later, via phone from Vancouver. “It’s definitely a limitation to have to do that — but it forces you to look at your parts in a way that you normally wouldn’t.”
This individualized approach to songwriting resulted in a newfound precision. William’s guitar lines, punctuated by 64th-note runs and intricately-layered phrases, skirt the border between mania and restraint and channel the wild, light-speed chaos of early Husker Du. Way’s vocals shift effortlessly from impassioned wails to soaring melodies, each verse as urgent as a battle cry. An unmistakable sense of doom seems to hang over the record; songs end on chilling, unresolved chords and Vassilou’s furious drumming fills all available space. It’s a musical fever dream, sinister and perplexing.
“I wanted the music to have a cold, almost sick feeling,” William says. “The album was written on a crazy deadline, and that only made it sound more anxious. It’s definitely something you hear in my guitar parts. In a weird way, it’s a reflection of who I am as a person. It actually contrasts really well against the confident vibe Mish gives.”
“If we didn’t have a deadline, Kenny wouldn’t get anything done,” Way laughs. “He would just throw every part away and say it wasn’t good enough, because he’s such a perfectionist. He could have 15 guitar parts that could easily be 15 different songs, and he’ll shove them all into one song because he doesn’t want to play the same thing twice.”
Deep Fantasy also marks the first time that Way’s lyrics, abstract musings on sexual politics and power usually rendered unintelligible by the band’s sonic fury, are pushed to the fore. The resulting songs are anthems delivered in double-time, piercing and defiant attacks upon Way’s faceless psychological enemies. Throughout the album’s brief run time, she addresses rape (“I Believe You”), conformity (“Face Down”) and addiction (“Drown With the Monster”).
Way is no stranger to political discourse. In her job as a journalist for outlets such as Noisey and BUST, she draws attention to many of the same issues that inform her work with White Lung. She’s called Britney Spears’ club-ready hit “Work Bitch” the “ultimate capitalist cheer,” and has written extensively about the double standards faced by women who publicly assert their sexuality. She admits that spending so much of her creative energy tackling such fraught subjects can be emotionally draining — regardless of the medium.
“Last year, I wrote so much,” she recalls. “I feel like I exhausted every story I had in me. When we were writing, I had to figure out how to retell some of those stories, or find different angles in those stories that were interesting.”
As passionate as Way is about her personal politics, she is quick to point out that her beliefs don’t set White Lung’s agenda. I mention the media’s tendency to label White Lung — or any female-fronted punk band with a left-leaning edge — a direct descendent of the riot grrrl movement, as if the mere existence of a female band member is enough to dictate a band’s identity. Way admits it’s a judgment she encounters regularly.
“We’ve never sought to be a ‘political band,’” she says. “Riot grrrl bands had a very specific agenda that was combating a masculine, aggressive hardcore scene full of white males that didn’t want women there. It started off more about politics than it did about music. Our band started because we wanted to play music.”
Indeed, Way’s lyrics on Deep Fantasy read more like pages from a secret diary than a political pamphlet — so much so that it’s difficult to separate Way, the person, from Way, the narrator. The brutally honest depiction of body dysmorphia found on “Snake Jaw” is so raw and honest, it’s almost unsettling. “If I get fat one day, will you run away?” Way asks at a particularly wrenching moment in the song. “I’ll starve if you promise to save me.”
No stranger to the guilt and sadness brought on by eating disorders, I begin to share my own experiences with Way, each of us dissecting the ways in which our adult lives had been shaped by a lack of confidence. We’re interrupted when an elderly woman emerges from the restaurant with our food. She sets down a massive al pastor burrito — the culinary calling card of Los Angeles — smothered in salsa and cheese on the table.
Way eyes the burrito suspiciously, and laughs as she notes the irony between the plate of food before her and the conversation at hand.
“[Body image] is something I’ve always had an issue with,” she begins. “It’s a very real part of our culture. I think every woman struggles. I’m sure men do too, but I can’t speak for men because I don’t know what it’s like to be a man. I can’t write from that perspective.”
The vulnerability is hard to square with the confident aura Way projects onstage. There, she’s a snarling presence with a mess of blonde hair and bold red lipstick, glaring at the audience, exuding raw power. But beneath that steely veneer, Way still wrestles with insecurity.
“If I lose my voice, I get critical of myself,” she admits. “It’s no one else’s fault but my own. I had all these vocal issues last year, and it was totally my fault. I was not taking care of my voice, and when you can’t perform, you feel totally pathetic. You let your bandmates down. I’m so hard on myself all the time. I’ve been that way since I was a kid.”
Way’s childhood stints as a competitive figure skater and ballet dancer were early catalysts for her struggle with self-esteem. These individualized sports, she explains, are inherently feminized, and consider physical appearance an integral component to competition. As a result, Way began to internalize her guilt, blaming herself if she failed to perform up to standard in her sport.
“When I used to fuck up in figure skating, I’d get off the ice and be so mad with myself. There was no one to blame for, like, not passing me the ball. When you’re by yourself, the only person you can blame is yourself.”
When Way sings, “I’m not as strong as you,” on “Down it Goes” or laments that she’s sinking “to the belly of the weak again” in “Face Down,” it’s clear her sense of personal guilt continues to battle the empowerment and self-respect for which she advocates so passionately in her writing. Wrestling her demons onstage is how Way combats her own self-doubt.
“I really believe in talking about things that aren’t supposed to be talked about,” she explains. “We’re all going through these emotions hundreds of times a day, every day. It feels good to hear about them in a place you normally wouldn’t — like a song.”
At that moment, a car noisily revs its engine and speeds down the street — a loud, flashy and wholly unnecessary display of comical braggadocio that successfully derails Way’s train of thought. She motions toward the speeding car.
“L.A. has so many fucking freaks!” She settles back into her chair, adjusting to balance on the broken sidewalk. “It’s funny, because I’m starting to really know the city now. Once you figure out how L.A. works, it’s kinda weird. It doesn’t really make sense at all, but —”
She trails off into silence. It’s a familiar silence — a writer’s silence, where stray, disconnected thoughts start finding one another in the dark and forming ideas.
“It’s almost like the album,” she says finally. “You know — it was weird the way we wrote it, but once it all came together, it all made sense. And honestly? I think it’s the best record we’ve ever done.”
And, for the second time that afternoon, it’s hard to disagree.