Track By Track: White Denim ‘Performance’
“We try not to over-intellectualize anything,” White Denim’s James Petralli discloses as he reflects on the material that his band drew from to create their new record, Performance. “But this album is also a representation of who we are as people. We like rock-and-roll, but we also like to think about what we’re saying, with the instruments and the voice. It’s for other people, obviously, but it’s us. We’re presenting ourselves—we’re not a showbiz kind of show-band.”
The group, which also features co-founder and bassist Steve Terebecki, keyboardist Michael Hunter and drummer Conrad Choucroun, recorded Performance at their Radio Milk studio. “It’s an old house in Austin that was built in 1902,” Petralli explains. “We renovated it so it’s got a really homey vibe, but it’s weirdly stuck in the middle of downtown, though not among the skyscrapers. So the album, and the antiquated gear that we used, captured that time capsule feeling. We were just rehearsing, writing and arranging together in the same room, trying to get real, breathing music on tape.”
It started with this T-Rex-y groove on the electric guitar and then, we had this buddy of ours named Jared Samuel, who played in The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, add this pretty cool Mellotron part that ended up being the saxophone part.
I got the idea for the lyrics from the multiple meanings of the word magazine. When we were in Europe, I saw the word without the “e” and looked it up, and it means “closet” or “garbage dump.” So that’s why we left the “e” off, hoping that somebody might go a little bit under the surface of the US Weekly interpretation of magazine.
Steve wrote the music for this one. He’s always writing these snakey, super-fast punk tunes, and this is one of those. “Performance,” to me, is a really tight pop-punk tune in the vein of Squeeze or XTC, more than Blink-182. The lyric is messing with definitions of “performance” as well, just taking a single word, interpreting it a few different ways and seeing what feelings come out when doing that.
“Fine Slime” is another one where Steve had the riff. It features Sam Cohen on electric guitar—our new drummer, Conrad, is Sam’s cousin. We did some touring with Sam on the last record and liked his style. We even tried to get him to join the band, but the best we could do was get him on the sessions, which is great. He’s just a cool dude and he brought a great energy to that track.
“Fine Slime” has got this weirdo, almost rappy Prince vibe to it, but then there’s also a Steppenwolf section—there’s definitely this biker-bar energy in that track. And there are actually a few motorcycles in the recording. Before we went into the studio, we didn’t realize we were right next to one of the busiest biker bars in Austin. So we’d be laying vocal takes down and, before we had our soundproofing or anything, we’d have to stop takes because the motorcycles were so loud. On this one, we ended up just embracing it and putting a motorcycle in the track.
“Double Death” is a literary reference to this writer named Jorge Amado who wrote this book called The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray. It’s a funny, short novel—the plot is basically Weekend at Bernie’s without the slapstick.
There’s a good bookstore in the San Francisco airport, and that’s where I picked it up and read it on a flight. I’ll buy anything that’s been put out by New Directions or Penguin Classics. It’s the way I used to be with record labels, although there are still some labels you can trust. I used to buy everything on Thrill Jockey Records when I was a kid and I still have that mentality when I’m looking for books.
The lyrics and the title of “Double Death” deal with some bigger life concepts. The groove is just Meters-style funk—the beat flips every other bar. It is another one with Jared Samuel on the keyboard, which later became saxophone. He was using the Mellotron and he kept using the saxophone patch and was writing great parts. But then, a couple weeks later, I was like, “Hey, would you mind if we used like an actual saxophone instead of the pre- recorded fake saxophone?” And he was cool with it.
Eddie Harris [who appears with Les McCann on a notable version of “Compared to What” on their Swiss Movement album, recorded live at The Montreux Jazz Festival in 1969] has that record Instant Death. He always did the crazy, maestro effects on the horns and that was another happy coincidence with this one, referencing some of his horn sounds with those horns. I love that there was an overlap with Amado and Eddie Harris.
I was excited about this one. I had all of the guitar parts worked out, and on the day of tracking, I wanted to do something that was cut time in the verses and had a proggier kind of refrain and feel, like that ‘70s prog stuff that we were messing around with on D eight years ago. So I brought it in, and Steve was like, “This sounds like Styx, man. This is like ‘Mr. Roboto.’” I was like “Oh, shit! Well, I don’t want to listen to that right now. Let’s just see where it goes.” We finished the track with him grinning the whole time because I couldn’t remember anything other than “Thank you very much,” the main hook from “Mr. Roboto.”
At the end of the day, I was like, “Alright, let’s fucking listen to Styx and see where we diverged.” And I could hear why he was saying that, but we liked the tune and decided to keep it. It’s lighthearted fun. It’s not a very weighty idea that he put the moves on, kind of like a jealous lover thing. It’s a fun jammer that is a social experiment to see how far into my subconscious I was ripping off Styx. [Laughs.]
“IT MIGHT GET DARK”
The musical reference for “It Might Get Dark” is this record that I’ve been a huge fan of, Born Again in the USA. It’s by this band called Loose Fur, which was Jeff Tweedy, Glenn Kotche and Jim O’Rourke. In my mind, it’s every bit as good as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or any of the Wilco records people celebrate. For some reason, not everybody knows this record, but it’s one that I’ve listened to a ton. When we were on the road with Wilco, I was picking Jeff’s brain about the production of that record and there were a couple of tunes where we lifted some production modes. The conversation that’s happening between the filtered percussion, the piano and the acoustic guitar is very much a Jim O’Rourke production reference.
It’s also based on this old riff that White Denim used to play called “Pretty Boys and Girls.” We probably played it every night during our first three years, but rather than just record that old thing, which we still might, it’s a nod to that idea. I wrote most of those lyrics right after the election, so I was in a state of shock and a little bit frustrated with myself and things in general.
“Sky Beaming” is another one of Steve’s. I still really don’t understand it, even though I’ve played it a lot—he’s just got such an interesting ear and way of writing parts. I can’t really remember what his demo sounded like, but I really tried hard to push it into the territory of that Weather Report record Black Market. Our new keyboard player is a big Stevie Wonder guy. He’s into stuff like Joe Zawinul, the Moog synthesizer Model D and Bernie Worrell. So that one was a softball for him because it came through and he just flew on it.
The lyrics to that one came out of an exercise. I bought this big chalkboard for the studio and instead of getting soundproofing material, like those wooden things that you see all over studios, I got bookshelves and brought in all my books and records and stuff like that. The idea of this record was to be a lot more collaborative and do more as a band in the room. That can be like pulling teeth with a group of grown men who watch too much TV. But for “Sky Beaming” I was like, “Let’s take five books at random and I’m going to set this timer; you’ve got 30 seconds to pick two words out of each of these books and go write the two words on the chalkboard.” So we filled up the chalkboard—and it’s really big—and then we just started creating this map and connecting phrases that would come out of instruction manuals to different kinds of fiction and stuff like that. Then I built the lyrics to that tune from that exercise.
We were going for something in between Stevie Wonder and Weather Report on the head of this tune, but it’s mostly a Stevie Wonder nod in feel and production. “Backseat Driver” and “It Might Get Dark” were the first two tunes and, when I wrote them, I was in the same headspace and just skeptical.
The feel of the Les McCann tune, “Compared to What”—the is it real or not at all sentiment. That’s been one of my favorite tunes for a long time. I’m trying to echo that sentiment as a reference to [Marvin Gaye’s] “Inner City Blues” and “It Might Get Dark”—we’re not making that music. We’re not doing that kind of production, not making that kind of music necessarily, but I’m super connected to that. That’s been my favorite stuff since I could drive. So we’re just trying to align ourselves in a more spiritual way rather than in an overtly referential way.
“Good News” is another one that Sam is on. “Fine Slime” and “Good News” are the only two that featured another guitar player on the record, and it can’t get better than Sam. On that one, I just had that descending acoustic guitar thing that was kind of like the Doug Sahm song “I Don’t Want to Go Home.” It’s a really beautiful song. So it’s similar to that. I wanted to have a groovy, acoustic, sentimental- feeling tune, although it ended up rocking a lot harder than I had imagined.
Sam brought that lead part, and it kind of led us to the Swedish band Dungen. We mentioned that group a couple of times in the sessions—“Why don’t we try to make it groovy like that.” It’s also a nod to Mayo Thompson; he was in this psychedelic band Red Krayola from Houston. On the front of the last record, we used this intro: “We’re gonna have music…” and that bit is from a Red Krayola album [“Music” on God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It]. He did a solo record that’s brilliant called Corky’s Debt to His Father— “Telephone, telephone, please end my blues” is a line from it [on “Horses”]. It’s a great record, and I’m hoping that a little bit of it rubs off on our thing.
This article originally appears in the September 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.