Late last Friday, James Petralli sat in a local warehouse full of light bulbs, breaking away from a recording session to contemplate an upcoming series of performances in which his band White Denim pops up in tiny clubs throughout Austin every Thursday in February.
“The Clash did it – that’s kind of where the idea came from,” he explains. “But I think it was pretty early on for them.”
White Denim’s current situation is more analogous to late-model Clash – around the time they recorded their final studio LP, 1985’s Cut the Crap. The classic lineup had dissolved, leaving only group leader Joe Strummer, bassist Paul Simonon, and three fill-in musicians. Similarly, White Denim’s recent membership shake up has left guitarist/vocalist Petralli and bassist Steve Terebecki with three new members.
The inversion is that Cut the Crap remains the Clash’s worst album and White Denim’s Stiff, out March 25 on Downtown Records, ranks among their best. Unfettered with manic arrangements, yet still bursting with grad-school guitar riffs, the local R&B-spiked rockers have never transmitted with such clarity.
Expect new tunes to dominate White Denim’s set lists all month as the quintet graces intimate stages around Austin. Thus far, only one’s been announced: C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, tonight at 10:30pm.
Austin Chronicle: C-Boy’s used to be Trophy’s. Wasn’t that a place the band played a lot early on?
James Petralli: Oh yeah. That’s why we’re playing there. Dave [Sprauer, Trophy’s owner] died just late last year. He was such an interesting character. We spent a lot of time there, starting in 2004, but really heavily in 2005 and 2006. Josh Block [ex-drummer] and I used to play hooky from our jobs. I drove a truck and delivered plants to Home Depot and he did a similar thing, but at Lowe’s. We’d park at the Home Depot at Woodward and cruise over to Trophy’s and hang out. They were the only place to book us for a really long time. I think we did at least a year before we really got any gigs Downtown.
AC: What do you remember about the Trophy’s days?
JP: They were wild. That dude Matt Drenik [ex-Lions/current Battleme frontman] was booking the place. He really liked us. Not many people were coming out, but it felt like we could do whatever we wanted when we were there. We could just go crazy. The biggest gig we ever did there was opening for Ghostland Observatory and it was dangerously crowded, but most of the time there weren’t very many people there.
AC: That venue’s history is often overlooked locally, but like Beerland or Hole in the Wall, it was an important entry point to Austin music. Anybody who wanted to play could get a gig.
JP: Yeah, the first place I played was Beerland. I had a thing with Randall [Stockton, Beerland owner]. We got into a tussle and I got banned. So I’ve been sneaking in there for years hoping he wouldn’t recognize me. Then, just a few months ago, there was nobody at the show and it was just he and I on the patio. I apologized. He was really happy because I was way out of line and I should have apologized many years ago. I told him we want to play the club, so this whole idea came out of that reconciliation.
AC: At what point did the groundswell of community support begin happening for White Denim?
JP: The Transmission [Events] people were definitely instrumental in us getting regular gigs Downtown. They funded our first tour. They were really supportive. That was the main thing that launched us.
AC: What year, then, did everything start clicking?
JP: 2007 or 2008. We were at the tail end of MySpace. We put out our first recordings on MySpace and that dude Gorilla vs. Bear out of Dallas grabbed a couple songs, so we were getting emails from major labels and shit. None of it materialized really, but it was a weird thing to know that people liked it and that we could do more of it and people would check it out. It took a while, but as far back as 2005 or 2006 we had recordings that were circulating around.
I wish Steve [Terebecki, White Denim bassist] was here, because I can’t really remember the dates, but [James] Moody from Mohawk rented us a Mercury Mountaineer and said, “Go to CMJ!” I think that was 2006.
AC: What about this whole streak of smaller Austin shows excites you?
JP: Well, I’ve got a new band so it feels appropriate to do some clubs before I throw ‘em into theatres. That’s a huge part of it – wanting to get them on some stages and getting myself back onstage. We did some stuff this year, but really, I haven’t played.
AC: You did the Do512 at Empire last fall.
JP: Yeah, we did that and I took the guys on tour for the Bop English record a little over three weeks in Europe, but mostly we’ve been making babies and records. I picked up a multi-instrumentalist who isn’t on the record, so he’s going with us too. His name’s Mike St. Clair. He was in Polyphonic Spree for a long time, he’s in Okkervil River, and he does the Mood Illusion with Bob Hoffnar at Stay Gold. That’s kind of where I was like, “I like this guy. I’m going to take him.”
AC: He’s the guy who plays a micro Korg and the trombone?
JP: Exactly. So he joined the group a couple weeks ago, and we’ve been learning the tunes and trying to see what it’s like as a fivepiece. Two guitars and keys is a lot.
AC: The new album, Stiff, isn’t as proggy. It’s more about the songs. Is that a result of the changing of the lineup and, thus, the artistic process?
JP: Absolutely. I think back in the day it was the norm for bands to make records in the way we did this one with Ethan Johns. It was essentially a live record. We did it on 16 tracks. We didn’t have that many tracks to obscure how traditional or poppy the stuff really is at heart. Josh and I had played together for so long it was always like, “What else can we do?” or “How crazy can we make this?”
I wanted to treat this like a debut record. The band’s still called White Denim and it is because that’s what we’re calling it, essentially, but I definitely felt like we needed to go back-to-basics. It was like we write the tunes, rehearse them for a week or two weeks – we didn’t do a lot pre-production – then just bang it out. It was the first time to go in with a producer from the beginning of a record and finish with a producer as well. I’d spent maybe 20 minutes on the telephone with Ethan before we went in the studio, which was Echo Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina.
I didn’t know what kind of record it was going to be and I didn’t know what the process was going to be. I’d just sent him some demos and he was like, “These are great, we’re going to be fine.” I didn’t know if he’d be digging into the arrangements. With these kids I’m working with, I’m into their shit, hard! I was kind of thinking that he’d be like that – getting into the arrangements – so I didn’t want to get attached to anything. I didn’t really do a bunch of the usual stuff that I’d try to do with a White Denim record. We got in there, did our first couple of passes, and I’d say, “This is just a basic idea. What do you think we can do?” And he’d say, “That’s a take!”
We we’re just kind of like, [sighs] “All right.”
Then at night, we’d all be like, “What are we going to do here?” We hadn’t even really thought about it that much. Usually there’s a lot of time with guitars in front of the speakers saying, “We could do this” or “What if we harmonize it this way?” or “Let’s try this effect.” Before, we’d been getting into the textural aspect of record making, how to make it psychedelic or whatever. This one was just like: Play, then go to the lounge.
AC: There are a lot of soul reference points on Stiff. “Big Big Fun” sounds like Curtis Mayfield and “Take it Easy” evokes Al Green.
JP: Oh yeah. For sure. The Curtis Mayfield track, for me, is that “Ha Ha Yeah” song. It really started with me, sitting in my garage, playing around with “Pusherman.” R&B, in general, is where it’s at for me. That’s my biggest thing. I listen to the Happy Feet Dance Party, man.
AC: You’re talking about John L. Hanson Jr. on KUTX?
JP: Everything that guy plays, I’m in. I have notes on my phone of songs he plays that I’ve never heard before. That’s my stuff, man. I like R&B.
AC: Which was the chicken or the egg? Was it Austin [Jenkins, ex-White Denim guitarist] and Josh concentrating their efforts on Leon Bridges that ushered this new era of White Denim? Or was the new era of White Denim coming and they had to move aside to make room?
JP: Oh man, that Leon thing hit hard for those guys. They quit back in March of last year and I had Bop English stuff on the books, so it was pretty shocking honestly. I haven’t really talked to them much, but I don’t think they expected it either. When we left off in October of 2014, it was like, “All right cool, Steve’s gonna have a kid and take three months the way we did when my wife had my daughter.”
It was pretty crazy, man. It shook things up for Steve and I. Steve ended up coming on the road with me because I was like, “Come on man, you don’t have anything to do. Jump in the van and go. Let’s see if these new guys are going to be cool.” It turned out that they were. I was lucky I had that tour booked.
AC: So this wouldn’t have been the same album if you had Austin and Josh still in the band?
JP: No way. Our plan, ending that tour for Corsicana Lemonade was to get back together in spring and write music together. For that lineup, it had always been me writing a lot of songs, then taking them to the band and us working on a lot of arrangements together. We’d done that a lot and we were ready to make a band record – all writing in the same room together. It felt like everybody was super gung-ho about that.
AC: Hard to fault them. They bought a scratch off ticket and won the million dollar prize.
JP: They did. It’s been a long year of me trying to process that and be okay with it. It’s hard for me to relate to because I’m not that good at supporting. Even if I could have, I wouldn’t have made the same decision, but now I totally understand. I want to drive home that we’re all cool. It was fucking shocking though. Also Josh is no longer with the Leon group. He’s had a family and we’re in touch.
AC: Does listening to this album make you okay with the journey that it took to get there?
JP: I like the process of this record. I like what I’ve taken from it. I’m never one to celebrate any record. I don’t think I’ve made one ever that I can listen to and say, “That was fuckin’ good, dude. Way to go!” As soon as it’s done, I’m like, “Ugh, I hate this thing.” I can’t wait to get to rehearsal and do all the things I wish I‘d done on the record for stage. That’s all led to an interesting difference between what we do in the studio and what we’ve done on stage. I’m super happy with the new guys.
AC: Jonathan Horne’s a fascinating guitar player.
JP: He’s a really interesting guy. We have a lot of the same musical tastes and we like a lot of the same horn players. That was a big part of wanting to have him. He’s into free jazz, but I don’t hear him as a free jazz musician even though he’s a great improviser. I think of him as the most rock & roll motherfucker around, just because he’s wild. You don’t hear people taking risks like that. That’s what drew me to his playing. Now I have a question mark in the band, adding that element of surprise back in.
AC: Austinites will have four chances to see him in action this month. Are you happy to be doing four small shows instead of one big one?
JP: I don’t really like playing big shows in Austin, honestly. It feels weird.
AC: Did it feel weird when y’all played the Moody for the Austin City Limits taping?
JP: Totally. It was the weirdest thing ever. We’re referencing some of those performances to get the stage show ready. It was very unexpected and cool, but I hope we get another chance to do that show. I’ll go crazy and not wear a sports coat. I think that’s a thing. You get into these environments and you feel like ....
AC: Like you have to put on a sports coat?
JP: Yeah! It all started when we did this tour with Wilco where we played opera houses. We’d played big gigs in New York and London and festivals, but playing a 3,000- to 5,000-seat opera house is a totally different thing, man. You can’t play triplets on everything. It just doesn’t work. You have to play to the room. I think we were so shocked by that experience that it created this snowball effect of, “This is how it needs to be done when you’re at this level.” It’s kind of weird.
It all had to happen and it’s cool, but if I had my way, we’d find a way to survive just doing club shows. I don’t know if that’s practical, but any chance we get, we’ll play a small room. Especially in Austin.
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