James Petralli really does tell it like it is.
The White Denim frontman is making his morning coffee as we chat down a transatlantic phone-line and seems jovial, but makes no bones about addressing his subjects head on.
The Texan four-piece was reduced by half last year when founding member Joshua Block and guitarist Austin Jenkins left unexpectedly (Petralli confirms that they quit) – leaving the remaining two members with the task of filling the gaps and keeping the band afloat.
What followed is the new album Stiff, out later this month, the product of an intense studio session with producer Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams) and the recruitment of Jonathan Horne and Jeff Olson.
Stiff is White Denim’s most direct record to date and Petralli’s answers are equally direct – he didn’t know the new band members very well, the departures weren’t planned and he hates being the support act.
It makes for an interesting interview…
White Denim is marking 10 years as a band. How do you feel things are different now from those early days?
“Well they’re super different. Mainly, we’ve been making more hi-fi records over the past few years. So the first couple of records were really really brutal. Wild lo-fi records. Now we’re trying to get back to some of that aesthetic, we’ve kind of done the whole range of recording techniques that you can employ. So I think that’s a difference.
“The most obvious is that we have a new band! We lost an original member like a year ago and then Austin – the guy who was playing guitar with us – left with Josh. So, it’s probably the most obvious difference.
“White Denim has also been a band, it’s about the players. What we’re doing together. That’s a pretty significant shift.”
What can you tell us about the new album Stiff? How did it compare to how you approached other records?
“I think we wanted to have more rocking, direct material to work with. This is our first record to actually go into a studio with a producer. So we went in with this guy Ethan Johns, who’s got a pretty good track record as far as making commercially successful records. It was interesting.
“He likes to make records in a very old fashioned way. We recorded to a 16-track tape machine and played the songs live. You think that would be pretty normal for a band that plays live all the time, to cut a record that way – but it really isn’t. As far as my experience, it isn’t the way that most people make records these days.
“We had to basically pretend we were limited to technology that hadn’t gone beyond 1972. It was very much an old school affair.”
Was that difficult to get into at first? Or quite refreshing?
“We’d always wanted to do that – the old line-up as well. There’s something that always led us back to Pro Tools. We’ve made mostly analogue records but we’d never done a real ‘live’ record.
“It was cool, man. It was fast. Everything came together really quickly. We finished the record in 18 days. That’s really different – I’m used to spending twice that, at the very least.”
Would that be a case of one or two takes on each track?
“There were a couple of first or second takes. But we didn’t do a lot of pre-production. Ethan is based in Bath and we’re in Texas – we didn’t really talk that much about what we were going to do. We showed up on the first day, some things happened really quickly. Other things needed a bit more attention and collaboration.
“There was maybe two days were basically recording rehearsals. There were a couple of songs that needed a bit more attention. We quit counting takes after ten…”
How much does this album feel like a new beginning? Was it something you felt the band needed?
“The guys that left, quit. It was unexpected for Steve [Terebecki] and I. We hadn’t really planned on it. The fact that people might think it’s refreshing is kind of a happy side-effect. We definitely wouldn’t have chosen to shake up the line-up or disrupt the thing we had going.
“Getting new guys in was about surviving and keeping what we’ve been working on for the last ten years going.”
The idea that this was unexpected, is it good way of getting you out of your comfort zone?
“Oh absolutely. A total shake-up. I didn’t even really know the guys that I had in the studio that well.
“I was really thankful to have Ethan there in a leadership role a few times. I wasn’t sure where the boundary would be with people. I tend to push pretty hard in the studio and we have a pretty high standard of musicianship and professionalism. So we weren’t sure where the other guys were coming from, so it was nice to have a mediator.
“We were getting to know each other through this record. I took this band out as the Bop English band for three weeks. Then we rehearsed for three weeks. So I had six weeks before taking them into the most intense studio production that I have ever done. It was pretty insane.”
You recently played some shows in the UK, but you won’t be back until August. Do you have any UK venues that hold special significance for you? Good or bad?
“We’ve done so many gigs in the UK over the years. We definitely had some bad ones and definitely some great ones. The UK is our favourite place to play. We’ve always had more of a connection with British audiences better than basically anywhere else. Whenever we arrive, it feels like we’re playing to our home crowd.
“We’ve had fun at basically 90% of the gigs we’ve done, man. There’s some real shit rooms that we’ve played. But when people are into it, it really gets you through that it sounds terrible and it smells bad.”
You’ve also toured with the Arctic Monkeys previously – did that give you any insight into British culture?
“That was a cool tour. They put us in front of tons of people. We did basically middle America and Toronto with the Arctic Monkeys. Places that we were used to playing to 150-200 people in America and a few that we would just never even go – the Monkeys put us in front of 10,000 people. It was pretty interesting.
“I think I got more of an insight into American culture than British culture. They really keep to themselves, they’re super professional. I spoke to Alex [Turner] for a couple of minutes, he said thank you for doing the gig. But they’re an insular group, at least it seems that way.”
What’s it like being a support band in those sort of situations? Is it something you enjoy?
“No I hate it. I totally hate it.
“It’s nice to play to a lot of people. But they’re really into what the Arctic Monkeys are doing and nobody cares about the support band. You fight through it. Even if you feel like you’re doing a great job, it feels like 90% of the audience are like ‘get on with it’.
“You’re also playing with their stage design. I don’t know if you saw them on their last tour, but they had this cool waveform electric light show. That would be totally dark [laughs].
“So that would be set up beautifully behind us. It was very much that we were the warm-up act. That’s how it goes, you know. Every support tour we’ve done. You never feel a great sense of purpose. It feels like you’re trying to win new people, I’m not sure that’s the best circumstances for playing a rock n’ roll show.”
What should people expect from a White Denim live show then?
“We’ve always tried to present really good songs to really good musicians – and have both things work together. Normally one or the other gets sacrificed in that situation. You have really great musicians, but they’re basically… [pauses] ‘wanking’ for an entire set. We really try and avoid that.
“We let the guys play. People should expect to hear a lot of notes and high tempos. Rock n’ roll the way we think it should be! That it was for a period of time.”
That relationship between rock n’ roll and good musicianship do drift apart sometimes. They definitely still do connect. You can do both.
“I feel lucky that we’re good musicians. But I love tons of rock n’ roll music that was made my terrible musicians!
“I think as musicians you should always get at that ‘thing’ which made you want to do it in the first place. For me it was playing ‘Bad to the Bone’ really well on one string. I took one lesson and learnt that, then I quit. [laughs]
“I’m always trying to get at that ‘thing’ and I think we’ve taken a lot of different paths to get back to something that feels elemental.”
If your music was being used on a political campaign rally for a Presidential candidate, who would you let off and who would you ask to take it off their playlist?
“Oh, man. It’s not looking super good. I’m not the most politically engaged guy, but I don’t know if there’s a candidate in the race that I would be happy to have my music pumping up their crowd.”
Stiff is set for release on March 25, via Downtown Records