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It was a few weeks ago but I remember exactly how it happened. I was working on this interview, it was one of those late nights where everything distracts you and it’s hard to focus. So I got up and walked to the kitchen to grab a quick drink, looked down at a pile of unread mail on my table and there was the latest issue of Wired. I quick thumbed through a few pages until stopping on an interview with Yeosayer, they were discussing what kinds of synths they used on their new record and how they were instrumental in the development of their songs.
As I closed up the magazine and tossed it back down on the table, I read this final line from the last paragraph…“Our theory was that it’s kind of easy to make a pretty song, and it’s also kind of easy to make weird sounds, but it’s difficult to make those two things work together”, which was said by band member Anand Wilder to one of Wired’s writers. So I headed back to the computer, this time with my frosty beverage and a slightly clearer head. Typing duties resumed, adjusting the screen, fidgeting with the iPod, playing with my dogs, rustling through some papers. But that quote would not leave my brain. It began to taunt me and eventually took over my night. I questioned everything about it. Was it easy to write a pretty song? Could it really be that simple? Was I missing something? Had I forgotten about Richard Marx? Had I been overlooking some simple-but-stupid element? I started to incorporate this madness into my conversation with White Laces, a four piece band from Richmond Virginia.
White Laces sound like distant relatives of Swervedriver or Dinosaur Jr, but it’s easy to tell that right away that they are ultimately headed in a different direction, one that is unplanned and largely uncharted. On each of their records they navigate their way to that new place, where their delicate side and their crushingly heavy side meet in perfect balance. But what about those pretty songs, the ones that are supposedly so easy to write?
White Laces have avoided that trap altogether, instead optioning a third way to do things. Not unlike Yeosayer, their songs are also littered with micro-soundscapes and the faint hums of decaying feedback, the kind that blend together to create a new sound, a distant harmony. Something like hearing an AM radio being played through the wall next to you. But that’s what sets the two bands apart. To White Laces, the “weird sounds” are self-contained inside of the songs, are heard (but never identified!) between layers of delay.
Like a lot of good bands, White Laces know that writing a song is a trap. With each step you take your mind is actively working towards creating something new whilst at the same time working on avoiding cliché, minding repetition and worrying about over (or under) indulgence. Because pretty is for Enya and Barbara Streisand. I’m convinced that nobody really wants pretty, but then again Streisand sells like 20 million records a year, so maybe I’ve got it all wrong.
The Smiths may be the consummate “pretty” songwriting band. There is nothing simple or easy about Johnny Marr’s guitar playing, not from any angle. He is one of the greatest living guitar players if you ask me, so I’m just a little biased. But his chords and patterns are very complex, playing any one of his songs on guitar from start to finish can be a real challenge even for seasoned guitar nerds. Probably 80% (total guesstimate) of all Smiths songs were written on guitar first, that’s just the way they got the ball rolling. Their pattern for songwriting from 1983 and on was as follows: guitar, then bass, then drums, then Morrissey. But on 1985’s “Meat Is Murder”, a lot of the songs were written on bass guitar first. If you listen closely you can almost hear the difference between those songs and their other work, ALL of those songs (except for “How Soon”, which wasn’t a part of those sessions) have really heavy rhythm sections that dominate over Moz and Johnny.
But here’s where things get weird. The songs still sound like Smiths songs, even though their principle songwriter was out buying leather couches and partying with Chic or whatever he was doing. SO how is that possible? The dueling aspects of pretty and tragedy are still there. For White Laces, The Smiths and Yeosayer alike, I think it all comes down to your band. Specifically it comes down to how they interpret your idea of pretty. Can you safely bring a pretty song to band practice? Are they going to let you pull an Enya? If they’re you’re friends and they respect you as a musician, hopefully the answer is no. Your pretty song should probably roll in the mud for a bit and get all sullied up before anybody need hear it. If you’re lucky enough to work with the same musicians all the time, sometimes you can learn to predict where each other might be going next, and that’s one way to improve on your original idea. Together, as a unit. I think that’s how you go from pretty to dynamic. It’s the push and pull of working with others that makes the song work.
White Laces are finding out that the same thing, that perfection can only be achieved through dedicated collaboration. That and superior amplification. In 2010 they put out their first EP on Harding Street Assembly Lab Records, followed the next year by another EP, a seven song cassette and a free MP3 single called “Hands In Mexico”. But this year has been their busiest so far. They have demonstrated that they follow a work ethic that puts most of us to shame, releasing a live EP, a split 10” with The Snowy Owls, a split 7” with Arches (from Philadelphia) for Worthless Junk Records and their first LP, “Moves”, which came out a few weeks ago on Speakertree Records.
This summer I spoke with three members of White Laces: Alex, Jimmy and Landis about their origin and their new records. We also got into specifics about how they write those pretty / ugly songs.
AJ – How did you guys meet and start playing music together?
Landis – White Laces started out as a series of demos that came together a couple years ago while I was living in this weird party house with eight other people and generally being completely aimless. I pieced together a handful of songs (all of which would end up on the Shdwply 12”) in my bedroom using an acoustic guitar, a sampler, and a couple of relatively busted old keyboards. I got approached about releasing some songs and I realized that it would make way more sense as a band. I had seen Jimmy play with his band Field Day, and he absolutely destroyed his kit live. He was definitely one of the heaviest hitters I had ever seen and I knew that if I was going to do these songs with a band it would have to involve him. So we went through a few different guitarists/bass players and recorded a couple different cassette release and the EP as a duo before picking up Alex and Jay in the fall of last year. Since then it’s been strictly a band affair. As for job stuff, I work for a Forensic Psychologist doing case research/writing/etc. in cases involving people with mental diseases and sexually violent predators.
AJ – OK. That sounds kind of awesome.
Alex – I saw one of the original line-ups of the band play one night and talked to Landis about lining a show with my old band. After that I think we met over coffee and at some point it was proposed that I should play guitar for White Laces. I think a Line 6 delay/echo made that album, then I adopted/broke it. Richmond, Virginia is an easy place to be a service industry musician; I work at a coffee shop.
AJ – Service industry musicians? Ha. Sounds exactly like Denver. Every restaurant worker and server here is in three bands. I guess we have that in common with Richmond.
Jimmy – I first met Landis while he was working on the early demos for White Laces. He was super drunk and talking very loudly about how underrated The Lilys were. It wasn’t long until we ended up jamming in his garage. Our current line up played for the first time together on the local radio station, WRIR. I think it was the very first time we had all been in the same room together.
AJ – The first thing I heard from you guys was your first EP, and I’m curious – what kind of gear did you guys use on that? You really found some great tones on that.
Landis – For the 12” EP we basically just used what was around the studio we recorded it at in Boston. I believe I was using an Ampeg amp and my old blue Jaguar (which was stolen this summer, RIP). It was basically us laying down a ton of scuzzy sounds and our engineer Kevin Micka making sense of it all.
AJ – How do you share the duties of songwriting – do you have a process, or do things just come together naturally?
Jimmy – I think the band is definitely getting more cohesive in the sense that we all are more conscious of the other players. I try not to cross the line between playing with someone and playing over someone. A lot of this can be ascribed to making rough recordings of our songs more, which gives us a ton of reference demos. Also, we don’t practice right next to super loud bands who use two 8×10 bass cabs for rehearsal.
AJ – Reference tapes. Yes. This is where I live.
Alex – It has become a group songwriting session for sure. We’ll all work on our individual parts to ideas that Landis brings in, then its just trying to figure out how they all work best with each other in the context of the song.
AJ – Who writes the lyrics?
Landis – I write all the lyrics, and it’s typically the thing I procrastinate the most on. I’ll have six or seven drafts of the same song and kind of cross my fingers that they’ll find a way to merge by the time we’re in the studio. As far as songwriting, things have shifted from me bringing in completed songs to all of us working things out together. Especially for the LP, I worked out the rhythms/riffs with Jimmy and we just whittled things down and then let things fall together when we got in a room with the rest of the band. It definitely feels way more elastic and natural now than it did before. I still do demos sometimes, but they bear little to no resemblance to the final song, with the exception of the melodies.
AJ – OK. How did you get your first record out – did someone offer to release it or did you send out demos?
Landis – We had put a tape out through Harding Street Assembly Lab, and we had talked to a couple people about doing a EP to follow it up. I was a big fan of what Shdwply were doing with Gary War, Super Vacations, and Ducktails, and so I pestered Matt about helping us out and things ended up working out.
AJ – You guys have a really impressive work ethic, I’ve gotta say. Tell me all about your new recordings, I know you told me earlier on email that you were recording a whole bunch of new stuff this year.
Landis – A lot of our new stuff isn’t quite recorded yet, just written. We’ve been doing demos consistently throughout the past couple months, and it’s definitely a departure from what we were working on before. We’ve been really focused on the idea of making things lush and giving songs depth rather than relying on sheer volume for impact. It definitely feels more comfortable for us and I think we’re all extremely excited to be stretching out of our comfort zones and into more unknown territory.
Alex – Post-EP consisted of two sessions, one at Sound of Music in Richmond, and one at Mystic Fortress in Roanoke, both of which contributing to the recent 7” and 10” splits. Recently, live and practice space demos are the only recordings of our newer works for the LP. Those have mainly been used for sending to industry peoples, but one track did get used on a Czech compilation, AMDISKS.
Jimmy – We’re also getting ready to record the single for what will be our next LP. I’m really excited ‘cause I think our shift in sound will lend itself to the recording process. We’re going to Mystic Fortress again, which means we can take one step out of the studio and have a scenic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains right in front of us. Hopefully this will contribute to the lushness Landis was talking about.
AJ – Definitely. I keep seeing these great show listings with your name on them. That’s great to hear. How were your shows with DIIV and Frankie Rose?
Landis – Frankie Rose and DIIV were really awesome. It was an odd show because it was on Easter Sunday, but it was pretty awesome nonetheless. May do a couple more shows with DIIV this fall.
AJ – Nice. What about your LP? When will that be out?
Landis – It’s called “Moves” and it will be released digitally and on vinyl by Speakertree Records and cassette by Treetop Sorbet. Should be out in August.
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