White Denim: Magic Mirror

Larson Sutton on July 30, 2019
White Denim: Magic Mirror

photo by Jo Bongard

White Denim have long used the studio as a sonic lab, on par with their improv friendly live shows. And now, thanks to the power of modern technology, they’ve finally figured out a way to release their music at the pace they create it.

White Denim’s James Petralli and Steve Terebecki are standing on the sidewalk in front of Gold-Diggers, a former bikini bar on the East Hollywood stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard. From the outside, there isn’t much to suggest that the establishment has shed its “so-bad-it’s-good” reputation but, as with a lot of things in Movie Town, appearances aren’t always what they seem.

Resurrected as a scrubbed-down hipster hang, Gold-Diggers is still a place to get a drink—now for a few bucks more, but without the scantily clad entertainment. A once-dormant boutique hotel is connected above the space; inspired by New York City’s legendary Chelsea, its refurbished rooms are adorned in modern art and velvet.

Mark McLewee, White Denim’s manager, ushers the band behind a locked gate that he opens with a key code, down a narrow alley and into an adjacent recording studio also under Gold-Diggers’ purview. This place, a former production home for infamous 1950s camp-noir director Ed Wood, also has a colorful history.

The Soundstage space is 40 feet by 20 feet, with 20-foot walls, stocked with guitars, amps, a drum kit and a piano. Petralli and Terebecki sit on a couch lined with garish gold fabric. “I’ll bet this is a great live room,” Petralli says, his voice quickly dissolving into soft and complete silence without the slightest reverberation. He turns to Terebecki and adds, “We should record an EP here.”

It’s a Saturday afternoon in April, and White Denim are in between sold-out headline shows at the Teragram Ballroom in downtown Los Angeles, winding down their spring itinerary before returning to Europe and the U.K. in summer. About a month earlier, they released their eighth album, Side Effects, which was recorded and released less than a year after their previous LP, Performance. Both were recorded in the group’s new Austin, Texas studio, Radio Milk. Within minutes of stepping into this room, Petralli is firing off ideas for something new.

Their new, accelerated release schedule falls in line with current industry trends—the rise of affordable technology has enabled artists to accumulate gear and set up shop on their own. Marketing is now about social-media posts. Distribution takes place at a merch table or through a Spotify click. The time between a completed record and its audience can be virtually instantaneous.

Partially, if not predominantly, this explains the arrival of Side Effects, just seven months after Performance. The tour in support of the latter tightened the group’s live show and their lineup, cementing its newest members, keyboardist Michael Hunter and drummer Greg Clifford. Without a label insisting that they pause before putting out their next record, they pushed aside the traditional two-year cycle of promotion and, instead, decamped to their new Radio Milk digs, assembling a nine-track compilation of songs and releasing it as soon as they could through indie imprint City Slang. (In June 2019, the group expanded the space to include a full record label, Radio Milk Records.)

In a way, Side Effects is the realization of the original White Denim manifesto. Born in 2006 as a trio—guitarist and singer Petralli, bassist Terebecki and drummer Josh Block—the members of White Denim collected as much gear as they could afford, gathering on weekends in Block’s old Spartan trailer to track and layer their budding repertoire. “We were building the songs out over a period of time,” says Terebecki. “There was no deadline. We made the songs exactly the way we wanted to.”

After a few early albums that played as post-apocalyptic fever dreams, they added a second guitarist, Austin Jenkins, and issued a string of progressive rock records—Last Day of Summer, D and Corsicana Lemonade—that elevated the group from Texas curiosity to national and international prominence. Thanks to some solid festival gigs and a live show that appealed to fans of both Frank Zappa and The Black Keys, they emerged as a buzz band, scoring spots on The Late Show with David Letterman and opening slots for Wilco. Yet, behind the scene, all was not well.

“It was crisis time for us, honestly,” Petralli says. “It was four dudes all bringing really strong energy to this thing and, frankly, being on opposite ends of the room a lot of time.”

Petralli released a solo record as Bop English, after Coriscana’s tour wrapped, and toured behind the project with help from Terebecki. Around the same time, Jenkins discovered a then-unknown Leon Bridges at a Texas bar and threw his weight behind the soul singer. The guitarist and Block worked with Bridges on his debut album, backed him during some key live gigs and brought in White Denim’s management company. Eventually, the pair left to work with Bridges and start their own production group.

“I think Corsicana Lemonade is a really cool record, but side A is four band compositions; everybody doing the thing. Then, in the middle of the sessions, it was like, ‘This isn’t happening,’” says Petralli. “In a panic moment, I said, ‘Well, here are five Bop English tunes, or whatever.’ We were just drawing lines, doing what bands do after they have been on the road for two years.”

Petralli and Terebecki soldiered on, reconfiguring White Denim’s lineup and starting work on their next studio project, 2016’s Stiff, with the help of some Bop English collaborators. The band’s live lineup and studio team also remained in something of a state of flux throughout the next three years. Petralli cites the “Steely Dan-approach” when talking about using a variety of personnel on Side Effects; each of the nine songs feature different musical configurations, including five different drummers.

Likewise, the duo started to mine their own catalog for some new inspiration, especially on “Reversed Mirror.” The tune’s main musical theme is one that has been at the center of two prior recordings, “Mirrored and Reverse” from 2009’s Fits and “Mirrored in Reverse” from Stiff (an album title that’s apparently the reverse of Fits). It has also been used as part of various segues between songs in their live sets. Petralli admits to having fun with the reincarnation—it’s simply a shuffle in the key of E—but Terebecki offers a more illuminating clue as to the multiplicity, and to White Denim, itself. “It’s an endless exploration of a theme,” he says.

So, when they bought a wooden shack, as Terebecki describes it, in East Austin and transformed it into their Radio Milk studio, it became a clubhouse dedicated to those endless explorations. And, when they cut the ribbon in March of ‘18, they threw a party during SXSW and invited a host of other bands to join them at a performance space in the studio’s backyard. They loosened up in other ways, too. (For a photo shoot promoting Performance, Petralli wore splotchy clown makeup and Terebecki dressed in a gaudy Las Vegas mesh half-shirt.)

White Denim’s core members are avid gearheads and techgeeks, habitually reading books and watching YouTube videos. Starting with their trailer days, they’ve amassed a cache of vintage equipment, some dating back to the ‘30s, as well as every desired contemporary advent. They staffed Radio Milk with their longtime engineer, Jim Vollentine, whose encyclopedic breadth of recording knowledge is incalculable. Ask Vollentine anything and, 10 cigarettes later, he has still more to tell.

Their perpetual quest to make a record that not only “sounds awesome,” but is also worthy of shelf space next to those of Petralli’s highest order, such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin or Zappa, at its worst, can be artistically paralyzing. “If I’m being completely honest, I can’t really see myself happy with…” Petralli starts but doesn’t finish. “It’s the reason why we don’t have a live record out.”

There is, however, the mythical Camelot. They recorded an entire U.K. tour and were content enough with the raw material to consider prepping a live release, with the working title, Live at Camelot. Inspired by the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun, Petralli suggested listening to their concert tracks on headphones and playing along to them in the studio, resulting in stacks and stacks of overdubs. “It was really crazy, but when it was all said and done, it just wasn’t a live record,” says Terebecki. “Maybe [we’ll release it] if we let it simmer for another 10 years.”

Petralli admits it’s hard to step away. He’s prone to fussing over the little details and keeping the band captive during his efforts. As White Denim’s visionary and primary songwriter, he’s seen the effect of that role on his bandmates.

Most of the ideas he brought to the band for D were already fully-formed. A random photo of the band onstage during the album’s tour magnified his sense of disconnect. “It’s the three guys, and I’m over on the other side of the stage, 15 feet to the left,” says Petralli. “I feel that way a lot of times when I bring material to the band.”

At Radio Milk, Petralli’s been determined to democratize the process. His lyrics, keenly observational, yet idiosyncratic, often imply an inside joke, a personal catharsis or both, articulated with a beat poet’s vocabulary and a bluesman’s resolve. At the studio, Petralli installed a chalkboard, handed out books on random subjects, and gave his mates three minutes to select two-word couplets from the text. With the chosen phrases on the board, they diagrammed evocative connections.

“The song ‘Magazin’ started from doing that exercise,” says Petralli. “There’s something about being able to stand around it and all look at the same thing. The chalkboard is probably the best piece of gear we’ve bought.”

Side Effects essentially collects the songs that had been living on their own proverbial chalkboard, waiting for a connection to a complete piece. Of the nine, only “NY Money” comes closest to representing the band’s present quartet configuration, albeit augmented with piano and steel guitar. Even so, given the additional recording, and mixing, done at Radio Milk, it succeeds as a sonic and stylistic companion to Performance.

White Denim open their set at The Teragram with “Backseat Driver.” Inside the shifting mid-tempo bopper, Petralli sings, “I ride with wild fires.” The show-starter transitions seamlessly, without ending, to a rapid reading of “Moves On,” and for the next half an hour, the music never stops. Four acting as one, White Denim is alive and mutating, coursing through an unbroken medley with breath-stealing speed and skill.

The rampant rock-and-roll abates just long enough for Petralli to say, “Let’s play more hard, fast music. Yep, let’s do it.” They launch into “Real Deal Momma,” and, once again, hitch a ride on a wild fire.

“The fact that our drummer is 23 years old really helps us to take it straight into the next thing that’s going to be 15 minutes of playing as hard as we can,” says Petralli. “At this moment, it feels really good to be as tight as we possibly can be, and keep the energy maxed out.”

Indeed, Clifford is a marvel. The newly minted college grad has both the flawless fundamental ability and young man’s stamina to encourage the ensemble to push everything to the edges. Terebecki proudly says that the band has a three hour live repertoire rehearsed and at the ready. On this night, the set clocks in at over 30 songs—and only about half of those tunes are repeats from the previous show.

Simply from a physical perspective, it’s impressive. With the task of recreating the dexterous, multi-layered arrangements from the records onstage, while delivering the lead vocal on every song, Petralli won’t rule out the return of a second guitarist to the fold at some point. “Right now, we have [Hunter on keyboards] playing guitar parts,” says Terebecki. “We’d be more likely to make a gigantic medley of every song we’ve ever done before we’d jam.”

“To be able to [improvise] really well, like Mahavishnu Orchestra or the Dead, is such a brave thing,” Petralli explains.

These unrelenting performances, he says, drive the machine. It’s where the magic and the marketplace coalesce, allowing the band to make records when and how they want, create a unique live experience and sell their music directly to their fans at shows.

“Ideally, we want to release music at the pace that we create it,” Petralli says. “We wouldn’t rule out the right partner but, creatively, we need to move. If we feel like we have some music that people need to hear and we’ve got a tour coming up, neither of us are in the mood to wait 12 months. We’re trying to stay in it and continue growing.”

This article originally appears in the July/August 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.