Listening to the latest White Hills album, So You Are…So You’ll Be, feels like that moment when a spacecraft breaks free from the shackles of Earth’s gravitation (pummeling riff and rhythm) and enters the limitless possibilities of solar and astral travel. The core group, consisting of guitarist Dave W and bassist Ego Sensation (and lately augmented by drummer Nick Name) have amassed a prolific discography beginning in 2005. With the upcoming release of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, in which the group has a cameo, performing their song “Under Skin Or By Name,” and a grueling tour schedule that includes a lengthy list of US dates opening for the Cult, the band seem poised to supernova.
Lenny Kaye caught up with them at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom, a few hours ahead of their opening slot with the Cult.
I’m interested in the process of how a White Hills song comes together in the studio. Is there a lot of prior preparation, writing riffs and beats? How much improvisation is there when you record?
Dave W: Every song is different. This album was very different because we actually had a lot of stuff worked out before going into the studio. But then there were a couple of songs that I brought to the band about a week before we went in.
Ego Sensation: We’ve done a few records that were basically all improvisation, picked out from long jams. That’s how we wrote for a while.
Dave: The last record, Frying On This Rock, we had a very small window between touring and putting that album together. So a lot of that material hadn’t really been worked out. That one had more jam elements on it. For this one, we had an idea of how the songs would be, and then, basically, nuances were added between what I would do, and what Ego would do.
Is there a lot of overdubbing?
Dave: It’s pretty live. I did very few guitar overdubs on this record. I feel like, since I’m the guitarist, and I’m the one mixing and producing it, that I tend to get too heavy on guitar. I wanted to take a step back with this one and not try to fill it up so much. Instead of tracking more guitars, building things that I didn’t feel were full enough, and I wanted it to be more full. I just added more distortion in post-production. But usually we record guitar, bass and drums live. I don’t do a scratch track of vocals because a lot of the times lyrics aren’t really set before we record. Then the synths are done afterwards.
Did you consciously try to skew this record differently? It seems like there’s more dynamics, more light and dark.
Dave: I think this record is a culmination of what I’ve been striving for through the last three or four records. What I wanted to achieve with our first record I finally got with this record. Things flow better, more succinctly. Songs don’t need to go on for so long unless that is what is called for.
You worked at Martin Bisi’s celebrated studio. What input did he bring to the project?
Ego: Martin is really funny. He tends not to give you a lot of input unless you ask for it, but he’s very good at problem-solving and getting very specific sounds.
Dave: He asks what you are looking for, the kind of sound you hear. I would tell him what I was thinking and he would come in and move mics a quarter of an inch, watching out for phasing and frequency overload. For me, it’s great because it’s like going to school. He’s very involved. His studio is a Civil War armory in Gowanus [Brooklyn] and it’s a very large space — cement walls, extremely high ceilings, with two recording rooms. Typically what he does is he puts guitar amps in one room, the bass upstairs in an isolation booth upstairs right off his control room, and drums are in the big room. Everyone stands in the big room. But one of the things we did differently after the first day of recording was to move all the amps into the big room. He said he hadn’t recorded like that for almost 20 years. He was very skeptical about how we would be able to do it; but I think it ended up working out very positively. There was some baffling, but the amps were very close together, in proximity to the drums, and that’s where his knowledge of the mics, how much volume is being pushed out of an amplifier — all of those things helped define the sound on our record.
Let’s go back to the starting point of the band. When you first began, did you have a specific idea on how you wanted things to sound? Any forebears or traditions in which you consciously placed yourself?
Dave: Yes, definitely. Both of us lived in San Francisco before moving to New York. We came to New York because nothing was happening for us in San Francisco musically. We didn’t play together at the time, and we had separate things going on. I was trying to forge a different approach than what I had been doing before, Ego had this one-woman show that was kind of theater and dance and music all in one. I started playing in garage-y punk bands, and though I like that kind of music, I was kind of over it. So I sat down one day and asked myself what I wanted to do, and I decided I want to pursue my love of space rock. I got a version of Pro Tools and sat down and recorded the first record. I took inspiration from bands like Hawkwind, Pink Fairies, but also the Damned, Public Image [Limited]. I wanted to incorporate this essence of rhythm with something heavy. I wanted a power trio, but I wanted there to be synth, and an otherworldly sense of mantra. To make it heavy and brutal, and be a statement of the times: post-9/11, the world falling apart, waking up the senses.
There were bands I can hear within you as well, between Hawkwind and the current moment. I’m thinking of Spiritualized, Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine, a strange group I once came upon called Farflung…
Dave: My brother’s in Farflung!
Speaking of space travelers, how did your initial relationship with Julian Cope come about?
Dave: [Laughs.] I’ve been a fan of his since I was a teenager. My initial introduction to him was through The Teardrop Explodes. When I recorded the first White Hills record, They’ve Got Blood Like We’ve Got Blood, I thought, “What am I going to do with this?” I wanted to go to Europe and thought he might appreciate this. So I mailed him a copy and he loved it. He wrote about it on his website, and then I started receiving emails from people wondering how to get the album. And then he approached me about being on his label, Fuck Off and Die. So basically because of his interest is why I started putting a full band together. My music might have stayed a bedroom project for me to satisfy my own creative needs. He was very instrumental and helpful for us in the beginning. Having him behind us instantly made people aware of who we were. Our third show we ever played was opening up for him in London.
Do you feel like you’re part of a New York scene?
Ego: There are some great bands that we love to play with. The Psychic Ills, Oneida, Weird Owl.
Dave: We’ve never been a band that’s sat down and said we’re going to do it from the ground up, play a lot of shows in New York, people will find out who we are, and use the city as a launching pad. Our idea was Europe. Do it like Jimi Hendrix did.
You’ve worked with a lot of different drummers. Does it change how the songs come out?
Dave: I think yes and no. I think every drummer adds their flair to what we’re doing. I’m very much a dictator when it comes to the songs [laughs]. Ego and I bring in the riffs, but I have a very distinct idea on how I want it presented, I know where I want the accents to go. When we played with Kid Millions [of Oneida], that time we did way more improvisation.
Ego: He was less of a drummer that could listen to a song and learn that particular beat. He could, but that’s not his style. So we would improvise, spend a lot of time writing new material from the ground up, and so in that way it was more of a collaboration, creating songs on the spot which was really great and liberating for us.
How do the sounds and songs transform when you play live? Obviously there’s a template that you’re beginning from, but is it a vague template, or something more structured?
Dave: Definitely vague. When we go into instrumental breaks, it’s pretty much up to me. I’m not a Tony Iommi guitar player. I don’t play my solos note for note; I don’t play them like the record. I don’t think I could. I’m not concerned with recreating what’s on an album. It’s two completely different things. The recording is that song at that moment at that studio. When we’re on stage the song is it at that time.
What are your thoughts on the term “psychedelic?”
Dave: I think of it as music that is jarring to all of your senses. Overbearing. As much as I love Jefferson Airplane, I don’t consider them to be a psychedelic band, even though they’re seen as the forebears of that movement. On the other hand, a band like Cromagnon — their albums to me are a masterpiece, so strong. The Melvins, I love that band. I think a lot of what gets tagged psychedelic is really just pop music. I think we have done things that are psychedelic, but in my mind we’re a space-rock band. We’re not necessarily about mind-expanding drugs or psychedelics. I never wanted to have a tag, but if you don’t choose your own, someone else will. If a listener thinks of us as psychedelic, for them, that’s fine. Someone else thinks of it as stoner rock, that’s fine. To me, it’s space rock.