White Denim on Prog Rock, Pottery, and Their Favorite Letter
Photo by Bobby Weiss
White Denim's D provides a lot to chew on but is easy to digest.
Released in May by Downtown Records, the fourth LP from the Austin quartet gleefully cribs inspiration from all over the
place, throwing bits and pieces of progressive rock, garage rock,
Afropop, and other genres together into a tuneful collage. The result is dazzling, imposing, exhausting, worthwhile, and most
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definitely a grower.
Tonight, White Denim plays at Revolution with
caught up with drummer Josh Block to discuss the band's preferred school
of sound, the obscure sounds that fill their van, D's title, and the role Downtown Records played in shaping the record.
New Times: Although White Denim's sound blends several different genres together, singer/guitarist James Petralli has voiced his affection for prog rock and how he identifies White Denim with the genre. Why does the band play prog specifically versus something else like jazz or punk?
Josh Block: I don't think we set out exactly toward something stylistically, but we have clear interests in [prog rock's] history up to a certain point, so it's kinda cool to bring it forward maybe in a different direction than it has been brought by other progressive bands. It's also still relatable, and it's kinda cool to get responses once in a while. Before we started this band, I did get to play in a lot of groups that were just in the wrong place. I'm sure if we lived in a different area, then maybe we'd play different music, but being in Texas, it felt like [playing prog rock started] a little more of a conversation than a lot of other music. Especially living in Austin, there's not much jazz there, so it felt comfortable to push in this direction.
In past interviews, James has named a few bands that you guys are interested in: Yes, King Crimson, Captain Beefheart, and Frank Zappa. Is there anything all of you have been listening to nowadays?
Yeah, it's all that stuff, and then we built on it. There's this band that I think's still around. Their first two records we've been listening to a lot -- this guy Nitzinger. That's been played a lot in the car. Necromandus -- that stuff is awesome. [Block also seems to name pianist Michiel Braam, although the recording grows muddled here, so it's tough to tell for certain.] And then Steve's [Terebecki, bassist] been working playlists pretty hard, so it's pretty extensive, but Insane Clown Posse.
Structurally, White Denim's sound can be incredibly hectic with so many ideas and genres springing up at one time in any given song. Is it difficult to put these songs together?
It depends on the song. Some of the songs jump right out, like "I know exactly what to play on this." But other songs, I had to write out parts and rerecord demos and go through it several times to make sure my instrument was being used in the correct way. We just wanted to make sure we were acknowledging the music spatially. There were a few tunes that were somewhat difficult, but all in all, James does a good job of writing for the group and writing for our abilities.
What's the story behind titling the record D? Was it chosen because it's White Denim's fourth record?
Yeah, [it's] D for our fourth record. Also, it's kind of our favorite letter of the alphabet, honestly. I don't know why. Several years ago, it became this obsession that everyone's names should start with D. Also, if you put it in front of White Denim, it's a pretty awesome-sounding name.
Do you have a favorite word that starts with D?
A lot of our favorite words start with D, especially names [like] Devon. Derek's kind of unanimous among the group. It's kind of that type of thing.
It feels a bit like Sesame Street right now, what with discussing favorite letters.
Yeah, it feels like that in the van sometimes too.
James has also mentioned taking inspiration for White Denim from sources such as photographs, adjectives, and Francis Bacon and Pieter Brueghel paintings. Do you take inspiration from anything when putting together a record?
Yeah, definitely. I grew up around a lot of folk art, especially Southwestern and Southern folk art. [Those artists'] process is directed by narrative a lot of times. I try to think about that when I'm thinking about the approach for rhythms and the way they bend and shape for and around melody. I try to think of that as an empty jug and then what gets added. It already has a form, but what the kiln process and all the natural elements do to [jugs has] always kind of inspired my playing.
One last thing from another James interview: He discussed feeling a considerable amount of pressure from Downtown Records while creating D because the label wanted the songs to be poppier. Did you feel that pressure yourself?
Everyone felt that pressure. Going into a studio, it's not just a writer who feels that. I mean, everyone wonders if it's something they did [if they receive feedback for changes], especially if you're a drummer. You wonder if you put enough back beats in it or if you should really simplify what you're doing and make it sound a bit more easy.
Do you think that feedback played a major role in determining D's final sound?
No, I don't think it did. I think everyone's pleasantly surprised [with the results]. In the U.K., a song called "Is and Is and Is" has done pretty well. We were very uncompromising, and I have two drum tracks recorded on it and a really funky bass line that moves quite a lot, so from the rhythm section's point of view, that was a total surprise, and we're happy with that. No one really caved in on that tune. Then there's this tune called "Street Joy" that's done really well. That's one that was just natural. The space and the breadth that was put into our parts onto that song was kind of just naturally what we felt should happen. No one felt those pressures working on that song. It was just kind of in the music already. We only felt that pressure on one song ["Drug"], and I did the best I could to play like a regular drummer on that tune. [laughs] I'm still happy with [D], and I still think it worked out great.
White Denim, with Manchester Orchestra and the Dear Hunter. 6 p.m. Monday, November 21, at Revolution, 200 W. Broward Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $18. Call 954-449-1025, or click here.
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