White Denim

White Denim

Three years on from their critically acclaimed “barbeque” record Corsicana Lemonade, White Denim are back with more than just a new album to commemorate. Their sixth record, Stiff - out 25 March 2016 via Downtown/Sony Red - is a return to the Austin quartet’s frenetic rock band roots, and is both a jubilant thrill ride and joyous celebration of their past ten years. Heading into the studio with an external producer to oversee a whole album for the first time - and even writing a tune with Cass McCombs (‘Thank You’) - the band teamed up with the legendary Ethan Johns (Paul McCartney, Laura Marling, The Staves) to produce their first truly live record, one teeming with a cool ‘70s undertow, tumultuous riffs and a feverish energy that’s resulted in arguably some of their biggest and brawniest songs to date.

With drummer Joshua Block and guitarist Austin Jenkins now pursuing other production ventures, vocalist/guitarist James Petralli and bassist Steve Terebecki spent a long time reassessing exactly what White Denim meant to them. “The big thing for Steve and I was trying to define what made us want to keep going,” Petralli explains of the album’s early days. “What’s our partnership about? What’s cool about this? We learnt a lot making D and Corsicana Lemonade. We wanted to take some of those lessons and apply it back to our original mission statement. We were trying to get back to some of the things that made us excited about the band in the first place.”

Opener ‘Had 2 Know (Personal)’ is the embodiment of that mission statement. Described by Petralli as “a reassertion of our initial intent to make songs that satisfy our urge to play fast”, it sets the tone brilliantly for the bulk of Stiff, right from its idiosyncratic, Red Krayola-sampling beginning to its huge, golden era chorus. While it remains distinctively White Denim, there’s a reinvigoration permeating through its riffs via new guitarist Jonathan Horne and a beefed-up rhythm section thanks to the work of new drummer Jeffrey Olson. Every single high octane turn - from the tremendously fun ‘Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)’ to the outrageously shredding ‘Holda You (I’m Psycho)’ - sounds like a band re-energised and revitalised, resulting in what Petralli describes as a “high heat, high energy, good times record”. Having previously sold out Shepherd’s Bush Empire and having toured with Tame Impala and Arctic Monkeys, Stiff is full to the brim with songs that sound ready to now lift White Denim to similar heights.

For the most part, Stiff is an album crammed with adrenaline-fuelled sing-alongs that show off the band’s staple technical abilities. But it’s also one that sees some new shades that they’ve developed along the way, too. Citing new wave and the razor-sharp pop punk of Buzzcocks as influences this time round, there’s an addictive Elvis Costello circa This Year’s Model quality to ‘Real Deal Momma’, a tune that highlights the band’s love for hummable synthesisers and curious, affecting oddities. Then there’s the cow bell calm and backing vocals laden brilliance of ‘I’m The One (Big Big Fun)’, that along with ‘Take It Easy (Ever After Lasting Love)’ (a song Petralli says “wants to be on a collection of doo wop songs written in 2016”) shows a softer and more intricate side to the band while fully emphasising Petralli’s vocal excellence.

Of the artwork - which was created by collagist Eugenia Loli - Petralli says that though they definitely weren’t trying to be outlandish, Loli was inspired and worked from the band’s previous album covers and videos as a visual template. Ultimately, it’s a fleeting visit to a place the band have been before, with the covers of Workout Holiday and D being collages too. Stiff was even originally stylised ‘Stif’, which when spelt backwards spells out the title of their second full-length Fits. Then there’s ‘Mirrored In Reverse’, a nod to the Fits track ‘Mirrored And Reverse’. “I mean, we’re ten!” Petralli says in disbelief while explaining all of the record’s throwbacks. “We did think about naming this record Ten and referencing the Pearl Jam cover!”

Recorded with nothing but equipment that Petralli describes as being “past a certain point in the ‘70s”, he explains that Stiff is an album made “entirely the old way”. “It was tracked live to 16-track tape with very little overdubs,” he says. “It was very hardcore record making –
traditional in every aspect.” Recorded with Ethan Johns in Asheville, North Carolina over a twenty-day period, Petralli and the band had an intense but deeply educational time with Johns. “It was really cool. The guy had these stories that were just unbelievable. He started talking about playing with Jimmy Page when he was a kid, and he lived in the studio where The Rolling Stones and The Faces would just hang out. Having Ethan in the room pushing us really made it more of an ‘in the moment’ and a visual thing. Capturing live performances is what he does really well.”

To make things even more celebratory, there was an extra ten day stint spent with go-to White Denim man Jim Vollentine, who Petralli describes as “my guy, man”. He continues: “we’ve made a lot of records together now. When we left the studio in Asheville with Ethan, we thought we gotta work on this record some more, you know? Though it was really just mixing, which we did with respect to Ethan’s arrangements and his recording. I feel like I really haven’t made anything like this before.”

Ultimately, Stiff is the sound of a band finding their feet again and having the time of their lives. It’s a record that refuses to buckle under the pressures of life, instead offering up a soundtrack to sing, dance, shout and scream along to. As a White Denim album, it’s a joyride through the past ten years of the band’s idiosyncratic catalogue while simultaneously pushing things further forward into new territories. “It’s similar to our first record [Workout Holiday] in that we found the initial energy and just went with that,” Petralli says of the initial studio spark that started it all. “We thought, what’s the fundamental thing that made us want to get into a van and quit our terrible jobs and start this whole thing in the first place? And it was loud, fast-playing, rock and roll.”

It's not uncommon for musicians to grow and evolve between releases -- but even by those standards, the Districts' Popular Manipulations is stunning. The Pennsylvania-borne band's third full-length represents an exponential leap in sound and cohesion, an impressive and impassioned burn with a wide scope that threatens to swallow everything else surrounding it. Perhaps it's a cliché to say so, but while listening, you might find yourself wondering why people don't make indie rock like this anymore.

The total electric charge of Popular Manipulations is just the latest evolution for the impressively young quartet, whose founding members -- vocalist/guitarist Rob Grote, bassist Connor Jacobus, and drummer Braden Lawrence -- have known each other since attending grade school together in the Pennsylvania town of Lititz. After deciding to form a band in high school, the Districts gigged hard in the tri-state area, releasing a slew of promising material (including the rootsy 2012 debut Telephone) before catching the eye of venerable indie Fat Possum. 2015's A Flourish and a Spoil found the band refining their embryonic sound with veteran producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Kurt Vile) -- and looking back on that release, there are glimmers of Popular Manipulations in chrysalis form to be found on it, hints of the fence-swinging anthemic sound they'd soon make wholly their own.

After touring behind A Flourish and a Spoil, Grote began "playing with different ideas" in his own songwriting by making demos at a prolific pace. "We knew that we wanted to change some things musically, so we were trying to come up with as many songs as possible to narrow the direction we wanted to take the material," he states. In total, they ended up with 50 song ideas, and so they were off to LA in May of 2016 with new guitarist Pat Cassidy in tow to log more recording time with Congleton, with four of Popular Manipulations' songs coming out of the sessions.

"We have a lot of overlapping tastes and preferences for how things are made," Grote gushes about working with the notably reliable studio wizard -- but acceding all credit to Congleton (who also handled the record's mixdown) would be shortchanging the Districts themselves, who went on to self-produce the remainder of the record in Philadelphia with engineer Keith Abrams. "Something we took from working with Congleton was ideas on arranging songs," Grote explains, and they certainly learned a lot: Popular Manipulations is a raucous and impressively thick-sounding album, overflowing with toothy melodies that pack a serious punch.

The distinctly intense sound of Popular Manipulations -- charging guitars, thunderous drumming, and Grote's searing vocals -- was brought on by a few cited influences, from shoegaze's aggressive swirl to the Velvet Underground's impeccable drone-rock sound. There's a distinctly Canadian flavor to this brand of indie rock, too; Spencer Krug's anthemic, lushly inscrutable work in Wolf Parade and his defunct Sunset Rubdown side project comes to mind, as does 2000s Toronto barnburners the Diableros' overlooked 2006 gem You Can't Break the Strings in Our Olympic Hearts.

But don't mistake easy comparisons for a lack of originality: on Popular Manipulations, the District are in a lane entirely their own, exploring lyrical themes of isolation and abandonment in a way that ups the music's already highly charged emotional quotient. "Capable" finds Grote turning his focus to the ruinous aftermath of divorce, and "Before I Wake" is, in his words, "About coming to terms with being isolated or alone -- even though we have a whole group of voices singing the whole time." Grote explains that even the title of the record touches on these universal concerns: "It hints at how people use each other, for good or bad, and the personal ways you manipulate yourself and other people in day-to-day interactions."

For such weighty thematic material, though, Popular Manipulations is purely life-affirming rock music, bursting with energy that cuts through the darkness of the world that surrounds us. "We're a much better distillation of who we wish to be as a band," Grote reflects on the journey that has led the Districts to this point. "We've figured out how to distill the things we've been trying to accomplish as a band, musically and lyrically. We've always viewed making music as something we're trying to do better the whole time." Mission accomplished.

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