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CMW 2016, Interviews, Music

Interview: White Lung talks “Paradise”, and punk rock elitism

By: Lucy Sky –

White Lung. (Photo: Rick Rodney)

White Lung. (Photo: Rick Rodney)

G rowing from their punk roots, White Lung returns with their fourth studio album Paradise, which follows their critically acclaimed 2014 LP, Deep Fantasy. The album, which is set for release today (May 6th) via Domino, features the single, “Hungry”, whose music video stars Amber Tamblyn (Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants, The Ring, 127 Hours, House).

Gradin says the video “plays with identity and perception, and the idea that sometimes public attention can create more isolation and delusion,” adding that it focuses on a self-obsessed girl as she struggles to seem important, while being haunted by the ghosts of fame, until her eventual epiphany of disposability.

In our new interview, lead singer Mish Barber-Way and guitarist Kenneth William tell us about the writing and recording process of Paradise, punk rock elitism, and more!

You said that you did a lot of things unnatural to rock records on this album. Can you expand on that a bit? Did it have anything to do with wanting to differ from the comparisons people have made?

Kenneth: Yeah, first of all, we couldn’t do all of us in a room with a bunch of microphones rocking out, because there was only three of us and we didn’t really finish writing the song before we got in the studio. (laughs) We recorded it all on ProTools, so we recorded a bunch of little pieces and added some over dubs after.

There was a lot of re arranging and pitch shifting guitar parts and stuff, running them through a ton of pedals. Some of the stuff that is on the record is actually samples that were recorded on my iPhone. We did a bunch of stuff on the computer. We just wanted to mess around with a bunch of equipment, maybe do things purposefully wrong sometimes, just to give it an edgier, more unnatural sound for this record.

Mish: We had the main goal of not wanting to work with a producer that was nostalgic, or making things sound old, or anything like that. So Lars was on board right away with, “okay, lets take the basic set up of drums, bass, guitar, and vocals and play with it using all the technology that we can to make it sound like it’s not just those instruments all the time.”

Something that is really important for our band is that we’re able to duplicate things live. Because we extended and did things that we’ve never done before, that was a whole new challenge when it came to making the songs live, but we championed that. You have to keep challenging yourself, or else it gets boring.

Kenneth: I feel like a lot of times bands get “oh this band really loves the 90’s, or 60’s garage rock,” so to make it sound a bit fresher and newer, we used a bunch of stuff that didn’t exist back then. (laughs)

Mish: Yeah, exactly. People associate our band with bands and eras that I don’t think we sound like at all, it maybe has a lot to do with me personally with influences. You say one thing four years ago and it gets recycled forever, because people are lazy. We always get compared to 90’s bands, we don’t sound anything like 90’s bands. 90’s bands played chords and then they had one guitar player on top.

Kenny has never played chords in his life. Maybe on this record on “Hungry”, [but] that’s the first time. We don’t have that sound, people don’t actually listen to the music. They’re just listening to the emotion, it’s stupid. We really wanted to make the record bright, clean, and modern, not grasping at an era that passed by.

White Lung released their new album, Paradise, on May 6th via Domino.

White Lung released their new album, Paradise, on May 6th via Domino.

I’m sure it could be frustrating being compared to bands that you don’t even like, or wasn’t what you were trying to accomplish when you put the song out there.

Mish: Yeah, of course, but that’s just the nature of criticism and review, because everyone has a different catalogue that they’re pulling from. Everyone’s got a different block of references that they know, so I could think that Viet Cong sounds a bit like Royal Trux, but if some other doesn’t know who Royal Trux are, then they don’t get that reference. Everyone is working within the confines of their own music catalogue that they pull from. So it’s fine, it’s just the nature of what it is. You can’t take it too personally, or get too mad about it.

Lars Stalfors produced the album and you said he was the right producer and right influence. What would you say he brought to the album and how did he influence your process?

Kenneth: I would say the biggest thing about it was the freedom of writing in the studio, arranging it all in ProTools and having the freedom to mess it up and use a bunch of different pedals. He’s someone who’s very modern and current I think and that’s what we wanted.

Mish: Yeah, and he said to me, I remember, when we first met him, “look, quote unquote on punk records, the vocals are always thought about as this after thought and they’re not really treated with the same care, so let’s really work on the vocals. Let’s make the best melodies.” Because I told him I like a lot of feedback in the studio, I want to work together, I don’t want you to leave me alone, I want you to make me a better songwriter, and he definitely did that.

He really helped me to make the best melodies I could and challenge myself. Lars is really good at his job and he’s going to be very, very successful. He had a nice hand in this record and I don’t think it would’ve turned out quite the same without him. I loved working with him. He’s also not afraid, like there would be stuff that we were afraid of and he would push us past all our worries. He’d convince me first and I would convince the other two. “Hungry” almost got cut because Anne-Marie [Vassiliou] thought it was a snooze. It’s a great pop song, so stuff like that.

You decided to go more in a pop/synthy direction with this album. Was that solely because you wanted it to sound like it was a 2016 album, or were there other influences?

Mish: There was no synth on this record, that was all guitars with weird pedals that Kenny is using. Kenny is a big fan of electronic music and I know that’s him treating the format, we were treating the songs in a way like they were electronic and I just mean that in the sense of, “okay we’ve made a song and now we can cut and paste using ProTools and move all these parts around to see what works better here. Maybe this guitar part is better here.” That’s all I mean about that, this is still a rock n’ roll record.

Kenneth: There was definitely that kind of stuff, but I feel like that’s for the best. If the entire time I was writing this record I was listening to old Dead Kennedys songs or whatever, it would sound re-hashed, so I tried to bring in some other stuff. A lot of the stuff that sounds like synthesizers is just guitar pedals, or some of it we re pitched on the computer.

Many punks really do have a certain thick skulled mindset that growth and genre hopping is almost like betrayal of their fans, but the album does still feel like rock and roll record and has a bit of a punk heart to it. What do you think that spawns from and do you think your fans will receive the change well?

Mish: That kind of mindset is very specific to underground genres, because you come up different. The whole idea is that you’re doing this not because you want attention, or because you want money, you’re doing it because you love it. So you play in basements, you toil your way across the country, you sleep on floors, that’s your whole thing, and fuck everyone else. So if you make a jump, then you’re betraying. I spoke on a panel with Nate from the Foo Fighters and Walter who did the Gorilla band. Because they were all in the 90’s, we were talking about selling out and betrayal and all that stuff and I was just like, this is only specific to the punk rock genre. Maybe some very elite noise, or other genres like that, but those genres stay… noise stays where it is. You become big in a cult way.

No one ever (laughs) dogs on a pop star for taking an endorsement, or making a bigger record, because your goal to begin with is to be huge, and to be a star. When you start in punk, your goal isn’t to be a star, or it’s not supposed to be. So it’s this weird thing, but it’s super irrational and super illogical, because if you didn’t care about anyone hearing your music, you wouldn’t take all of these opportunities that arise.

We never called ourselves a punk band. We played in that circuit when we began, because that was the only place to play, we liked playing that and we kept playing the only places that would take us. We were never like, “we’re a punk band!” We don’t have that bratty, juvenile, ridiculous attitude. We’ve never had that attitude.

Kenneth: Yeah, it’s just not the type of thing people should care about.

Mish: No! So elitist and dumb!

Kenneth: I don’t understand why you’re doing it if you’re doing it to please. It’s not something I think about a lot.

Mish: No. Like you don’t want me to become a better songwriter and challenge myself? Why? You weirdo. That’s like a parent being excited that their kid never graduated kindergarten and can’t move on. “Oh I’m so glad that you’ve never progressed.” We’re not genre hopping to the point where this whole record is all acoustic and electronic, we’ve thrown our guitars out the window and we’re making stuff with computers. It’s still a White Lung record, it’s just better than the last one. Big freaking deal.

White Lung. (Photo: Rick Rodney)

White Lung. (Photo: Rick Rodney)

I always found that interesting too. It’s kind of ironic, because it’s all about screw what everybody thinks, we’re not making it to please anybody, but if you go and change something that pleases you, you’re not pleasing us anymore, so we’re sick of you.

Mish: Oh yeah! Punks are the most elitist, the most stuck up. They have this rulebook. Not the true ones, but the ones that have that very snobby attitude that’s so dumb. Who cares.

Kenneth: No one is putting a gun to their head and forcing them to listen to this record, so I don’t really care.

Mish: Exactly, so move along. If you don’t like it, don’t look. Go away. There’s a million bands in the world.

What are you guys listening to lately? Were there any specific influences that you can pinpoint?

Kenneth: I listen to tons of music, I’m constantly finding new stuff, so it’s hard to say what sticks and what actually influenced anything on the record. If I’m in the zone for songwriting for this band, I try to avoid listening to anything that sounds anything like it. Just so I don’t subconsciously take little pieces from it. Most of the time, I was mostly listening to rap music (laughs) when this album was being made. Completely separate from that, [it’s] hard to say what effect that had on this record.

Mish: I actually do the exact same thing. When I’m writing I don’t listen to anything that sounds remotely close to what we’re doing. I don’t like rap music, I was listening to a lot of really old country, honkey tonk blues, and stuff like that. Blues and country because of the storytelling aspect, and I love that music. I didn’t want to listen to rock when we’re writing a record, or punk, or anything that’s close, because yeah, you might rip it off. You don’t want to overload it. I think that probably influenced us in weird ways, but I don’t know. Like Kenny said, you can’t really tell.

Kenneth: Also it’s just… not that I think our new record is groundbreaking or anything, but I think a lot of rock music written now is obsessed with the past and most of the innovation is going on in other kinds of music. Just thinking of production ideas, or ways that we wanted to record it, it made more sense for me to listen to other stuff.

“Hungry” touches on some really interesting, but relatively dark things. What was the message you were aiming to get across and how did Amber Tamblyn get involved in the video?

Mish: I became friends with Amber a few years ago and she asked me and the band to perform in the movie that she made and she gave me a small role. We just got along really well and we’ve maintained that friendship ever since. I love her, I’d do anything for that crazy woman. So I asked her to be in it. I had been living in Los Angeles for three years and there’s a certain breed here and a certain mentality that is so gross, but you get caught in it too. It’s a self pollution thing, it’s so bleh.

The desperation of notoriety and fame and just how delusional people get. How social media has perpetuated this narcissistic bloated culture of people who live in these little bubbles where you think you mean something and we all don’t mean anything. It’s all just so dumb. I was thinking about those things and really struggling with “what’s the point?” It’s just gross. It feels so pointless sometimes, and so deluded, I can’t think of any other word than delusion. When you have people breathing down your neck about it, the whole idea of followers and likes. It’s like oh god, who cares.

The concept of the video ended up… I told Justin [Gradin] about the lyrics and I helped him read them and we developed the story about this girl who thinks she’s super famous, but she’s really just a model on this can of condensed milk. She’s obsessed and trying to be all pretty, trying to act like she’s bigger than she is, but she’s just weird and self obsessed. She’s living in this totally delusional world where no one gives a shit but herself. That’s what I was talking about I guess.

In the video though, it plays on public attention creating more isolation. I found that interesting, because I read in an interview with Gradin, that he is quite against modern day communication. He directed the video, was the song at all influenced by his views on the new age need to be constantly in connection to each other, when really that can end up isolating us more?

Mish: Yeah, I guess and also Justin and I were throwing around ideas. He made the video, he directed it, so there is that in there. Yeah, perhaps he had that focus on there, [but] I can’t really speak for him. He directed the video and we wrote the concept together.

Tamblyn’s character has this epiphany of disposability in the video. Do you think that happens with musicians as well, when the idea of a band or music being somewhat disposable comes to mind?

Mish: I think about that sometimes, I think that was an idea that was wrestling in my brain for the last year and something I was thinking about in relation to my own career and my own self. So yes, that’s part of what the song is about. Justin did a good job at creating a story that fit with everything I was talking about.

“Kiss Me When I Bleed” has some interesting contrast in it as well, but solely in the storyline of it. Were you aiming for that with the album? Were there any other themes that you implemented in the songwriting and recording process?

Mish: That song, it’s kind of a little side joke to my husband, he’s a hillbilly. I wanted to write a song about that really true, stubborn, prideful love. That young very “I don’t give a shit what my dad says, I don’t give a shit what my mother thinks, I love this man!” Natural born killers, that kind of steadfast, delusional, perfect love. I was getting really obsessed with The White Family from West Virginia, and I was in this aristocratic New York, wanting to marry Jessica White and what her family would think of her moving into a trailer park in West Virginia to be snorting pills and learning appellation tap-dancing with this hillbilly that beats her.

I was just creating this weird fairy tale in my head, the opposite riches to rags fairy tale, but happily ever after. That song too, that’s a song where being in a character [let] me be able to write these images. Like singing “I’ll give birth in a trailer, huffing the gas in the air.” That’s a very clear image. I could see those images, because I feel like I’ve always been very up for interpretation in a lot of my lyrics and I didn’t want to be that way on this record. I just wanted to say it. I love that song, I think it’s one of my favourites on the record. It’s a great song, Lars made a good decision on that song. Lars and I messed with that song a lot and it turned out right.

I find it pretty cool, how it’s kind of like an anti, backwards fairy tale. Disney is always having the poor servant go off with the prince, but it gets flipped around when you end up in a trailer park, coming from this rich family and it’s almost against society, it shouldn’t really matter what they have in their pocket.

Mish: Yeah! Exactly. The whole thing for me is the theme of love. Relationships and love are a challenge, and you have to really want someone despite everything else to be able to make that work. I liked the idea of writing a fairy tale that not a lot of people would consider a fairy tale, so that’s what I wanted to do.

One last thing on the whole punk topic. I heard you say that they’re not the true punks. I notice this fashion punk, “I’m in it because this is cool and screw you if you don’t stay true to our scene,” and if you think it, if you really care about the music, that’s what punk is supposed to be. You shouldn’t lose fans over that. How would you react to people saying that kind of thing, once they receive the album?

Mish: I just feel like if anyone can’t listen to this record as a whole… I mean this is still very much a White Lung record. It’s a little cleaner, but the songwriting is the same. We ventured out, we wrote two radio hits, big deal. People are always going to love what you do, you can’t think about who cares. If every time I wrote an article, I obsessed and worried if everyone would like it, I would never put anything out. You don’t do it because of that. That’s the line that you tow with punk. It’s always going to be that way and you choose to ignore the people who are going to be juvenile, and a bit ridiculous, and harbour these really stupid ideas.

Being punk to me is doing what you want and not worrying what other people think. So why would I sit there and care that my music and the production wasn’t punk enough? Like what does that even mean? It’s such a stupid word to attach yourself to when it’s filled with all of that. It gets to a certain point… I remember when we were touring years ago before we had any money, it was when Scion car company was really trying to invest in music and they offered to give us a car. Not give us, but let us borrow a car for a tour.

Now, this is an east coast tour, we were expected to fly there, pay for it ourself, rent our own van, drive ourselves around, play these shows in basements. Of course we have to take the car! And what’s the trade off? Oh, we have to put a few pictures on our Tumblr of us standing outside of it? Big deal. Anyone that judged us on that… I remember some kids being like “oh Scion.” I was like “you’re the dickheads that go to the show, don’t want to pay the five dollars at the door, want to offer me two dollars for my seven inch, that’s worth seven. Fuck you! How do you think I get… it’s expensive to fly from Vancouver to Toronto to play shows. At a certain point you have to be realistic about how you’re going to continue to do the things you want to do and that means compromise with, unfortunately, brands, and other things.

The music industry is not what it used to be. No one buys records. You don’t make money that way. You make money touring and you make money connecting with brands. If you do it in a way that makes you happy, then fine, bottom line. And anyone that’s still concerned about that, get real! It’s 2016, are you living in 1992?

It’s still a business right, and I think people lose touch with that.

Mish: Well also it’s like alright, this is how I’m making money from this. You have to start re evaluating your choices, but if you do it in a way that makes you happy, it’s that same whole attitude that can be very frustrating to jump around. I don’t predict any super negative feedback, but if there is, if you don’t like it, don’t listen. Or listen to the old albums. They’re still there for your pleasure.

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