Written and recorded in various bedrooms over the past few years, White William’s debut, Smoke (out now on Domino/Tigerbeat Six; review), is a grab-bag of an album that mixes the sounds of glam-pop and new wave with kraut grooves and a healthy dose of electronic noise.
With the record set to be a sleeper favourite when lists are tallied at the end of the year, DiS recently caught up with Joe Williams, the man behind the music, to discuss what it’s like to inadvertently find yourself making music for a living and why listening is so important.
WHITE WILLIAMS (photo: Leonard Greco)
You’ve been touring around Europe for a while now. How have European audiences been compared to the US?
Well, we did this tour last month as support for Vampire Weekend. So I think that had a lot to do with the types of shows we had. If you look at it through that, when it’s organised that way, the shows were successful. In the States, we’ve been touring a little bit longer and we’ve only done one tour in the States on our own which is similar. But in Europe it’s more of a surprise because we go to places like Dresden, Germany.
It just seems like a place that…
… you shouldn’t be at?
No, no, it’s not that we’re miss-placed or anything, it’s just that if anyone shows up it seems like it’s pretty good and I enjoy it. I have no real expectations but that’s the one thing that’s different about Europe, it’s kind of like…a surprise to meet people from a totally different place.
It’s a surprise to meet people who like your music?
Yeah. In the States it’s more…we’re such a new band that it’s hard for me to even compare. I think we’re in some ways strangers where ever we go. The music came before the band and live shows. It’s usually the other way around, so all this stuff is super new and I’m just taking it as it comes and not trying to judge it so much. It’s been good. We’ve had a lot of fun and it’s fun to travel.
You play electronic music though and historically Europe has served as a spiritual home for it. Do you find people here are more receptive to you because of that than say back in the States?
People have said that. It makes sense. In some ways people just seem less judgemental in places like Germany or the Netherlands. People seem worried less about context. Whereas in the States it’s more about “Who do you know? Where do you come from? How do I find my way of trusting this?”. Besides just liking the music, I feel like it has to go through some sort of test…or maybe not. But I do think maybe our music is successful for people who have been listening to electronic music since before they were born and also just from the point of, culturally speaking, being open minded.
Do you like that fact?
Yeah, definitely. It’s almost awkward at first. You’re expecting certain common things to come up in conversation that don’t so much. Like there’s more room for silence and things like that. At the same time you’re not worried about all that contextual stuff.
You’ve been touring for a while now and the record came out last autumn in the States. Are you starting to tire of doing the promotional rounds?
A little bit. I’m used to…when I made the record, it wasn’t even meant to be a record, it was just a collection of songs, so I’m use to just going song by song. It’s been a long time since I really made a substantial…I haven’t made a lot of music in a while. Having a break was nice at first. I was learning things from being away from it but now I’m getting a little antsy.
Do you see yourself as a pop performer or more of a bedroom musician who likes to experiment? Basically, are you more of a Bryan Ferry or a Brian Eno?
I’d say I’m probably more of a bedroom musician, in terms of the fact that I had more experience in that. Performing…there’s so much to consider that I never had, from not going through the process of performing in a long time, I haven’t had the education that experience brings. There’s so much to think about, “Is this necessary? Are drums really necessary? How can a sound be represented? How can you take a studio project and translate it to live?” So it’s been really trial and error. I mean I enjoy collaborating with people. And I don’t see what I like about music between those two people. I like Roxy Music and things like that. I don’t feel like I need to declare it as one thing or another. My experience of recording at home has had much more trial and error than what I’ve done live.
Do you think your recent live performances are going to have an impact on your next record?
Some ways. I definitely think I’m starting to understand what my talents are, so I just want to see what happens basically. But yeah, I think the playing live has in some ways been important.
Your record was made in various bedrooms over the past few years. Any plans on taking the next one into a proper studio?
Yeah. I think I’ll produce the record the same but at some point I’ll go and use a studio. This is the first time…the only time that I’ve had an opportunity to do it. When I made my first record I didn’t know any engineers, I didn’t know studios, I never worked in a studio, still haven’t. I wouldn’t want to schedule my whole record to be done in the studio. A lot of the stuff I make comes from being at home and just being spontaneous and stopping what I’m doing. I still want to have that.
You wouldn’t consider bringing in an experienced producer?
I don’t think…I’d like to see what I can do on my own first. Again, collaborating is something that I find to be really fun. But that could mean anything, like a skilled producer. I’m definitely not a skilled engineer. I can tell you that. I recorded my record with me trying it. I liked doing it but mixing is definitely an art. There are some people that can really do it well, and I don’t think to go from composing music to then clinically getting into that head space where you listen to the songs over and over again and really look at the quality of the sounds. It’s something that people work on for years and years. I think I can get by but it’d be nice to mix bass pretty sensitively. It’s something that’s tricky to do at home.
Are you getting any pressure, now that you’ve released a record, to go and make a more studio-esque album?
Not directly. But I think there’s always that thought that people would want you to do more, to go farther and go up to…
The next level?
Yeah, but it is imaginary…
Do you even see that as a next level?
No. I just don’t want to make a record that’s made by someone else or part of someone else’s plans.
You don’t want to feel forced into doing something?
Yeah, I think the record should satisfy myself and my friends. People that I know really well. People I met and had experiences with before something like a record label got involved.
Considering the record was recorded over a long period of time and it wasn’t necessarily meant to be an album from end to end, do you think it’s still indicative of who you are now?
It’s hard to closely break someone down to the music that they make but I’d say that I’ve learned a lot in the times that…even right before the record came out, I’m much more in-tune, I mean, I’ve been paying much more attention to the way musicians are now. Like in whatever scenes. From people who want to make pop records to people who have experimental backgrounds. I’ve just learned a lot as far as what is currently happening. Before, I was inside of a house, literally. I mean my biggest priorities at that time where school and my relationships with my friends. Living in Ohio and San Francisco and New York, I didn’t really go out. I didn’t know what bands where happening. I don’t even mean sonically speaking. I mean like the way people act and what people’s expectations and aspirations are. I think that’s really cleared up a lot of things for me and what kind of record I can make. Also, my taste…I’m always hearing new music and it’s not just music from right now or from just America necessarily. Even just listening to radio music in America, it cycles so quick, there’s always things that I’m picking up on, so I think that the next record…I don’t remember the question now. (laughs)
Are you surprised by the amount of attention White Williams has received so far?
Um…it’s really hard to pay attention to that stuff.
But having the record put out by labels like Tigerbeat Six and Domino and touring the US and Europe…
That wasn’t really your plan was it?
No. I was going to graduate school and then was going to go work.
You have a degree in digital design?
I was going to go do more of that…
And do music on the side?
Yeah, that was what I did before. I don’t think I would be any less happy if I still had the stuff that I have now to make records and there are so many ways to show people your music now. I don’t think my feelings would have been hurt if I had to keep doing it that way. It’s flattering, obviously, getting attention from a record label or something but it’s not…I’m not trying to pursue a career in music. I think I’ve fallen into some sort of cycle of ‘You need to tour’ and now it’s time for the record and it’s almost forcing me to now think of it as a fulltime important thing. But it’s more that I really just want to play, get to record my own music, work with my friends and continue to do that.
There are benefits too. It’s not just some superficial…it’s not just money and association, fame, identity and all that stuff. Like you get to meet really interesting people, get to travel and the day to day isn’t so repetitive. Time seems to be going by a lot faster than it ever has but I guess that’s just part of getting older.
Well now that you have received a certain level of attention, that usually means you get associated to other bands. You’ve been tied to Girl Talk…
Well, the way things get publicised…when someone does press for a record they get asked for a biography. For me, again I don’t claim to be from some scene, the only thing could be called a scene would be my group of friends and that would be Andriu Strasser, the guy who does my art, and Gregg Gillis. My friend Frank Musarra, who does Trey Told Em’ (MySpace) with Girl Talk…anyway. These were guys I toured with and we were friends and made music together. We went on silly tours together and things like that. If there’s any salvageable thing from some sort of description of what I’m about is probably through these people, from being really close friends of mine. These are the people I’d rather spend time with then going out to some shows to find out about some bands.
It wasn’t about going out to be with the right people in the right place?
Right. I mean, Gregg…I’m really happy for him. He’s been doing it for a really long time. And we all have…it’s strange but press is a weird thing. That’s another thing out of all the stuff that you learn, um I think that if I was more of an active participant in music outside of mine… I’d have some more foresight with a lot of things. Not just press…
…the industry?The whole thing. The people involved. It’s great that I’m starting to really understand it. More than I did six months ago.
Do you like it? Ever find it frustrating?
Which part, you know? It’s such a big thing. There’s definitely something nice to be said for people who are making their own records and um, in some ways that makes a little more sense than working with record labels these days but I’m happy to be with Domino and things like that. I just have a much wider perspective of all of this stuff now. I feel a little bit like I was a bit naïve. Just because I didn’t really know, like who do you trust. You’re constantly meeting new people and it can kind of trick you into thinking different things. So, trying to figure that out.
So what inspires you to make the music that you do?
Um, just the experience of doing it. Being at home and having fun with music. Also, interaction between other people. When I do get to play and compose with other people, that’s really fun. It’s just sounds and also just the way you listen to things is awesome. That’s something that’s always changing. The way you listen to things. The way things are parallel. The way things can sound like each other and things that don’t. That’s probably the most fun: listening.
Do you find yourself listening more to electronic music these days than say a guitar?
Definitely. But it’s only because I feel like I’m past the point of the knowledge of how complex a guitar is from a standard musical sense. I mean, I was already working with software before I stared playing real instruments. I see a guitar as this thing that I can use effects for. That’s the most fun for me. Also, with electronics, when your music equipment is more button or knob based it’s less about the talent of the person that’s doing it and more about how the person is listening back to what they’re hearing.
It’s more conceptual in some ways?
Yeah, I guess, it’s why DJs are interesting. The act of putting on a record is not very interesting. It’s more about the sequencing. It’s about a person who can listen well.
White Williams performs at today’s Underage Festival AND At Home By The Sea, returning to support Hercules & Love Affair at KOKO on September 4 before his Bestival appearance. Smoke review is out now on Domino. Visit his MySpace HERE.