Interview: White Lung

Tobi Vail

By Tobi Vail

on 01.03.13 in Interviews

Remember the first time you got wasted at a house party as a teenager? Let me remind you: Someone puts on the Ramones, turns it up full blast and you pogo with all your crushes until you can’t stand up. You are Judy! You are Sheena! You are a misfit who finally fits! A cretin at the hop! The night gets fuzzy, you get dizzy, you stumble upstairs. You need to sit down. Suddenly, the scene turns sinister. This is your introduction to sex, drugs and violence. You start to crave a different soundtrack. You play X’s Los Angeles and soon you’re puking your guts out a second story window to “Nausea,” watching your friends scatter while the cops show up. As the flashing siren lights up your view from the bathroom floor, life becomes noir, and you realize you need to rewrite the script to avoid being victimized.

The next day at the coffeeshop you see a girl you vaguely remember from the night before. She is writing in a notebook that’s full of her drawings. She shows you a comic depicting prey vs. predator, demanding to know which one you are. Determined to survive, you ask her to sing for your band, which doesn’t exist yet. She has a leather jacket and shows you how to apply liquid eyeliner like Mary Weiss from the Shangri-Las. Together you are invincible.

I am always looking for that girl — the one who can save me with her words, the one who will reflect the world I see back to me and encourage me to resist. She is who I seek in music, in writing, in a friend. At their best, White Lung evoke that rare moment of tough-girl solidarity that exists behind genuine female camaraderie. Singer Mish Way is a punk poet in a lineage that extends from Exene Cervenka to Kat Bjelland to Kathleen Hanna, telling stories of existential angst that use addiction as a metaphor for life under capitalism. Her lyrics document the rampant alienation experienced by those who seek refuge in nihilism as a way of refusing culture that turns people into objects through mindless consumerism. I talked with her via email while the band was in the throes of a European tour.

I saw you guys play Olympia several times early on, and still listen to the early singles — how has the band changed since then?

Obviously, the addition of a new guitarist has changed our sound. I think that Kenny [McCorkell]‘s style of playing is a lot more aggressive, nervous and anxious then our old guitarist, but it works much better for us. When you saw us play in Olympia, we didn’t have the musical and personal unity we have now. It’s just time, you know? We are a band that knows how to write together, tour together, just be together. I have changed as a frontwoman. I feel much more comfortable on stage.

Do you consider yourself a feminist punk band?

I am a feminist and I am proud to declare that. I believe my bandmates have feminist attitudes, but they would not necessarily label themselves as such. I do not feel the need to call us a “feminist band,” because it’s not something that we have ever discussed. Yes, feminism bleeds into my lyrics because it’s a part of my life, but I am not consciously trying to relate a very obvious message with my lyrics.

Anything I say could be considered a feminist issue if you really dissected it. For example, let’s say I’m singing about men in my life, complaining about them hate-fucking girls they don’t respect. The listener could just read that as a song about hate-fucking and that’s it — just a moment in a bed that is complicated. Or, it could be a song about gender imbalance. Why do men commonly hate-fuck? Well, because men fuck and women get fucked — then it’s an issue of biology mixing with our common social understanding of heterosexual interactions and, boom, feminist issue. You know?

Can you name a band that inspired you to play music?

Well, your band Bikini Kill inspired me. I used to cover “Capri Pants” in my first band. We did a lot of covers because we couldn’t actually play our own songs, or we were too afraid. I was the main songwriter — it was like Liz Phair threw up all over a really, really distorted guitar. I was like 19 years old, I was writing super graphic lyrics over simple, loving chords then just cranking it up. The Wipers inspired me — they still do. They did it right. I can’t think of one song of theirs that I don’t like. The Replacements. I get really inspired by the attitudes of certain front people, the performance, Paul Westerberg is one of those influences, so is Cristina Martinez. Hole, Babes in Toyland and L7 inspired me. The ’90s alt-punk scene just sucked me in. I just kept uncovering more and more and more and then the influences of those bands. When you first discover music, it’s like this onion you just keep peeling. It never ends. There is always something new to find.

Do you all have day jobs?

Yeah, we do. I am a writer who focuses mostly on music journalism.

How does economics inform the band?

I remember being in Atlanta, Georgia, two years ago on tour. I was so broke. I had so much debt waiting for me at home. I was constantly scared about money, because I had none. We had just played a show and had found out that the promoter had totally fucked us on payment and paid the other band way, way more because they were aggressive dudes who demanded it and we didn’t. I just felt so defeated and annoyed. I remember calling my dad on that tour, just begging to borrow $100 so I could eat for the next few weeks and he was like, “Nope, you chose this life so you deal with it.” I’m glad he said that, but at the time, I just cried.

Anyway, I was at this guy Ruby’s house, and there was an old zine with some piece Kathleen Hanna had written, and it was talking about the exact things I was going through. It just made me even sadder. I wrote a lot on that tour because I was constantly defeated. I was letting the bad outweigh the good. Being in a band is not a desirable ‘career choice.’ It’s the most expensive sport. But there is nothing like it, and I wouldn’t trade my life choices for anything. If I wasn’t in a band, I’d be very unhappy. I went into this knowing that being in a band would never be something I could make money from. But I loved playing music. I loved being on stage.

What is the point of punk rock in 2013 from your perspective?

The point of punk rock is to be exposed and vulgar. To get shit out. For me, it always has been.