It’s a Thursday night and the walls of the back room in Cargo, Shoreditch are suitably slathered in sweat as three Texans jut, writhe and scream to a frenetic garage beat. It’s 2008, I’d only just moved to London, and as I stand at the front with a belly full of Red Stripe, buzz band of the moment, White Denim, are baptizing me in what London’s live music scene has to offer.
Five years on and nowadays my liver quivers at the thought of weekday drinking, I get giddily excited when I realise a show is seated, and Shoreditch has fallen from grace into the manicure hands of The Only Way Is Essex. People grow-up, places move on - time’s hand cannot be halted – and White Denim are no exception to this.
Since the release of their debut, Workout Holiday, White Denim have matured modestly away from the warmth of the spotlight that first graced their arrival. Following their critically applauded debut they released, Fits, a record that shunned the big choruses and simple structures that had initially won them praise to delve fiercely into the frenetic time signatures and jazz freak-outs. Last Days Of Summer - a collection of songs self-released in-between albums and with the addition of second guitarist, Austin Jenkins – then relinquished some of the manic energy worked-up in Fits in favour of laid-back, dreamy harmonies. And, their last album, ‘D’, tempered both offerings by mixing James Petralli’s milky melodies with the band’s signature off-kilter rhythms.
This year, White Denim’s sixth album, Corsicana Lemonade, quietly continues this evolution. However, the making of the album saw the band popping more cherries than usual as rather than recording in drummer Josh Block’s silver bullet caravan (as they had with previous releases) the album was made in the band’s new studio in a house overlooking tranquility of Lake Travis. Jeff Tweedy also came on board to produce a couple of the tracks insisting that for the first time in their careers the band track live. And, most notably instead of James solely shouldering the majority of the writing responsibilities the band worked on the songs collaboratively.
And the result? White Denim’s most commercial and accessible record to date. Opener ‘At Night In Dreams’ has a riff Dan Auerbach would naked mud wrestle Jack White for, title track ‘Corsicana Lemonade’ makes disco-jazz work and ‘Let It Feel Good (Eagles)’ is as easy as Don Henley in 1977. On Corsicana LemonadeWhite Denim are still White Denim but as with people, places and erm livers they’ve grown.
It’s a sentiment echoed by James when we speak to him during the band’s recent UK tour. “Six years ago all I wanted to do was smash” James says laughing. “I’m calming down a little bit, I’m half and half now.” We take time talk about how becoming a Dad influenced the record (“It brought a lot of things into focus for me”), Texas Music (“basically pop-rock with a Texas accent, acoustic guitars and boots”), and how he’d not so secretly like to finally get White Denim the recognition they so much deserve.
You released your sixth album, Corsicana Lemonade, this year and you’ve been playing some dates in the UK. How’s it translating live?
With this more than any record we’ve made before the stage was considered throughout the entire process of making this record, so it’s been a fairly natural and easy transition to take it from the studio to the stage. It’s been a lot easier than our other ones, it’s going pretty well.
How did you approach this album?
The recording was a lot like our first couple of records but with much better equipment. We built a studio on the lake in Austin and we just kinda hung-out for five weeks, so it was really relaxed and we worked out a lot of stuff in the studio. Basically, the writing was more collaborative; the band worked on the arrangements and then I wrote melodies and parts for them.
As you said you built your own studio at Lake Travis whereas before that you recorded all of your records in Josh’s silver bullet caravan. Did having your own studio give you more freedom?
Yeah, it’s nice to not have to watch the clock and make the record on your own time. Sometimes a proper studio can be a little bit stiff, or I would say clinical - this one was really fun.
Would you say that this is one of your most collaborative records?
Yeah, I think so...With this one it was really cool as we started the sessions with the intent to actually write together, which was a lot of fun.
Jeff Tweedy produced the album. What was it like working with him? What did he bring out in you as a band?
Oh man, it was really fun. We had a lot of respect for Jeff and the studio, his place, is amazing. We only did five days with Jeff, so two of the songs he worked on made the record. Those were the first things we did for the record, so it set the tone for the rest of the process which was really great. It was really relaxed up there...we were kinda under-prepared for the session, so we spent a lot of time around the table talking records and eating potato chips.
It sounds like some bonding retreat with Jeff saying, “let’s all get to know each other a little better”...
Yeah, it was! If you’d told me I’d be doing that five years ago I just wouldn’t have believed you - it was a pretty amazing experience for us.
Did you approach him or did he approach you?
He approached us. He actually called and said, “I want you guys to be co-producers on the record.” It was a really collaborative cool thing.
Jeff made you play live during the recordings. How did that help with the album? Was it something you'd done before?
We hadn’t really done that before because of space issues and we didn’t have the right set-up to do that in the studio before. But at the loft it would be silly to do it any other way as it’s like a gigantic open space with tonnes of instruments. We wanted to track live but never had the facility to do it. Jeff was talking about how all of our records felt like that, so we definitely tracked live there. I just think it’s the most natural way to capture a band. It’s always been done that way and for good reason - songs just feel better when people are playing them together, especially when you have traditional instruments. I love electronic music as well, but if you’re making a rock n roll record you gotta get the band together.
It’s kind of funny that our other records were made that way. There’s a lot of records that surprise me that were made that way; it’s amazing like Unknown Mortal Orchestra - I love those records so much and it’s all that one guy - it’s very convincing, makes it feel like a band.
Do you think you could go back to recording in that way or has Jeff shown you the light?
I don’t know if I’d go that far, I never like to rule anything out. It was a great experience, but the kind of environment and the piece of music dictates how we’re going to do it. We learned a lot but I also learned a lot recording on a 4-track cassette player when I was a kid, so I go back to that sometimes if that feels like the comfortable thing to do. You pick-up things along the way and incorporate it if needed.
You’ve said that Thin Lizzy were a specific influence on the record. In what way?
Sometimes to make a record we all think about what kind of music the band has been listening to on tour; we take turns DJing on long drives and Thin Lizzy was one of those bands where everyone had a different record on their phone or whatever. The shuffles, the guitar harmonies and vocal phrasing were something that really excited the group and we wanted to capture that, that kind of feel.
You’ve said that the record – obviously because of its name- is a love letter to Texas. How do you feel about your home state? What is it about Texas that you wanted to get across?
I guess it is, I don’t know if I can say it’s a ‘love letter’. The song ‘Corsicana Lemonade’ is definitely calling out cities in Texas and it’s the title track - I like Texas, we all like it. There was a quick moment where we considered calling this album, ‘Texas Music’, because it’s a genre that only exists in Texas. Have you ever heard of Texas Music?
It’s basically pop-rock with a Texas accent, acoustic guitars and boots. It’s this regional music that’s super popular, I mean there are guys that have great careers and all they do is play little towns in Texas. I did want to put that idea out there that we wanted to be like that just for the people in Texas, because it’s so funny as the music isn’t good in mine opinion but people seem to love it so I thought it’d be really funny to do that.
So, 'Corsicana Lemonade’ is a more subtle ‘wake-up, Texas! We’re from you!” kinda thing. We have really small shows in Austin, Dallas and Houston and we have to come over here [UK] to connect with people.
It must be frustrating when you’re more popular here – like many American bands – rather than in your home state or the US.
When I’m there it’s frustrating, but the reality is we’re extremely lucky to have been able to make as many records and to have played to as many people as we have over the past few years. It would be nice if we didn’t have to fly so often, but it’s really great - I love it here. It’s amazing, touring Europe is so much different than the States and I learn something new every time I do it. The people are excited about music in a much different way, so it’s super cool.
What’s your most favourite thing about England?
Now I’ve been here a few times I have some really good friends in London, Bristol and Glasgow as well so I guess my buddies are my favourite thing about coming to England now. What else do I love? London is really the most diverse place I’ve ever been culturally, so I can kill an afternoon happily people watching on a nice day.
You had a baby just before you started recoding the album. How did being a new dad inform the record?
It brought a lot of things into focus for me, everything I was doing had new meaning, especially with the music I was more interested in communicating something rather than making general statements or putting words together that I think are pretty. For the lyrical aspects of this record a lot of the meaning maybe difficult for some people to get, but it’s definitely there for me.
Is there one overarching message that you wanted to get across?
Not really, I can’t say there’s one pointed thing that I wanted to say with this record. For every tune I wanted it to be more human and about more essential things that happen in people’s lives, like it sounds boring to say but relationships and growing older. I don’t know if there’s anything I can really say, like a message, I think I wanted to make a more human record that would be more relatable in 30 years, 40 years or whatever.
Now you’re touring the record, how’s it been being away from your family?
It’s really hard, it’s really difficult, we’re doing the best we can - this is my job. I have a really understanding partner, she’s really supportive, I spend a lot of time on Skype. It’s so new I’m still getting used to it, I guess. I take it day by day and try to make the most of the time we do have together and make that count.
When you started your sound was ferocious garage - Workout Holiday now it seems a world away from Corsicana Lemonade. How do you think you’ve developed as a band since then?
I really don’t know, that’s a difficult question. The first record our singles were definitely straight-edge garage rock tracks, but there were even some things from the first record that weren’t exactly…like, there was a song called ‘Sitting’ where we were trying to be Randy Newman!
There’s always been other stuff, with Josh [Block, drums] there’s a huge jazz element; I think it’s just learning how to use those tools and focus them in different ways. I really don’t know, I think the band is better at playing together and interpreting one and other’s ideas than we ever have been. But, it’s so much different now as six years ago all I wanted to do was smash, y’know? I’m calming down a little bit, I’m half and half now.
What are your hopes for the record?
Every record and every tour I hope for the same thing - to keep moving forward and keep growing. I really don’t have huge ambitions, I’d like to be able to sustain and keep playing and not have to go back to college or anything like that.
Secretly, I’m hoping that one of these songs does well… I guess not so secretly as I’m telling you! I want it to do really well and send my girl to college and maybe get a new car in the next couple of years, but I’m a satisfied man, I can’t really complain too much.
Corsicana Lemonade is out now.