Mothers of Reinvention
Inside White Denim's Imperial Mansion
By Austin Powell, Fri., Oct. 23, 2009
Josh Block's underwear hangs from a clothesline outside his 1950s Spartan trailer in Driftwood. Firewood and a yellow bathtub gather moss nearby. A lawn chair rests atop the archaic trailer, peering out through a gap in the tree line. From such a vantage point, a smaller, 27-foot mobile home can be seen rusting in the distance.
It's here at this remote outpost that White Denim fosters its kaleidoscopic musical vision. Working in unfiltered autonomy, the local trio – round out by guitarist/vocalist James Petralli and bassist Steve Terebecki – has honed its compact juggernaut of grimy, psychedelic soul and maximum R&B. That's the comfort afforded by 30 acres of Central Texas Hill Country, nearly an hour removed from Austin. Every inch of the group's 45-foot, broken-down palace of sin, dubbed the Imperial Mansion, has been painstakingly converted into a work space.
"Built like a home, wired like a studio," quips Block, White Denim's drummer and engineer, who lives alone on the property. "I try to treat this place like a fun house. Out here everyone can touch whatever they want. I never tell the guys 'no' in the studio. We can try anything."
The living room serves as a control booth, packed with an 8-track mixer, two compressors, and an array of instruments and speakers. Contact microphones are taped to the ceiling in Block's bedroom, one wall consumed by a Farfisa organ, as is the case with the L-100 Hammond organ across from the kitchen. Thick wires run alongside the trim of a wooden deck that bridges the trailer to a cozy side cabin that serves as both rehearsal and recording space.
"There's a reason why I keep the toy piano in the bathroom," laughs Block at the end of the tour. "It's available, but not easily accessible. It's right under the sink, so when you sit down it's in front of you. Good ideas come out there."
All of White Denim's various idiosyncrasies come to fruition on the threesome's sophomore LP, Fits. Already lauded in the UK upon its release earlier this summer, Fits finally arrived stateside this week through Downtown Music, the indie label home to Gnarls Barkley, Mos Def, and Cold War Kids. Yet the album isn't meant to take the band out of the trailer. Quite the contrary.
Don't Look That Way at It
Now a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame landmark, the Austin City Limits studio has been transformed into White Denim's private playscape for Fits' lead single, "I Start to Run." A disco ball hangs in the background, and a smoke machine fogs up the place. Three stage hands in bright orange ski masks shine flashlights in hastily choreographed movements as giant cue cards instruct the small audience to "Go Crazy" and "Run!!!"
The three band members are lined up uniformly on stage, left to right, in costume.Terebecki could pass for a teen recruit to the Kiss Army in a black wig and silver lipstick. Behind the drum kit, Block hides his face behind a dirty blond mop and a glittery hat encrusted with the American flag. Petralli's grab bag outfit makes him look like a cosmic Hamburgler. Over the course of three takes, the band hams it up for the cameras in a manner that suggests the talent show segment of Napoleon Dynamite. Each one gets a bit more excessive than the last, ending with Terebecki and Petralli hoisting their instruments at one another and shuffling across the stage to the flurry of percussion that closes the song.
"The label asked for a video, so here we are," smiles Petralli to one of the extras between takes. "I hope they don't have any expectations."
Fortunately, the video shoot only slightly exaggerates the cathartic combustion of White Denim's live performances. Onstage the band is a classic power trio with a furiously lean attack that recalls the soaring post-post-psychedelia of the Meat Puppets. Block swings with the gonzo abandonment of Keith Moon, while Terebecki funks up the low-end and Petralli loops his guitar and shouts with the dynamite soul of James Brown. Their infectious looseness is an optical illusion, threatening to unravel at any moment but never really coming close to it.
As for the plot of the shoestring-budget video, the band appears on Paranoid Power Hour – a fictitious late-night television infomercial peddling "Big Brother Blocker" and a "Technology Buster" to conspiracy theorists – in one last-ditch attempt for exposure. The skit makes light of the paranoia addressed in the lyrics, but more so offers a comical recap of the band's grappling with the business side of the music industry. At this point, the Paranoid Power Hour is about the only thing White Denim hasn't tried.
'Let's Talk About It'
The origins of White Denim trace back to Parque Touch. The confrontational noise-rock outfit was formed by Block and Petralli in the summer of 2005 but led by a bottle rocket named Lucas Anderson, who went by the stage name Byshop Massive. The band added Terebecki after sharing a bill with his hot shot combo Peach Train.
"It was so ridiculous and over the top, but they had some pretty cool moves going on," Terebecki says of Parque Touch. "Afterwards Lucas gave me a business card to come jam. It just said 'Byshop Massive' and his phone number."
Anderson moved to Moscow the following February, leaving the three remaining members, ages 26 to 28, to retreat back to Block's Driftwood homestead. Only then did the Venn diagram of White Denim begin to emerge.
Terebecki, who studied music composition at Old Dominion University in Virginia, was weaned on his father's vinyl collection, particularly the oddball iconoclasm of the Ralph Records canon, before honing his craft via the catalogs of Mike Watt's Minutemen and Jaco Pastorius' jazz-funk. Likewise, Block tried his hand at jazz studies in Dallas-Fort Worth and worked as a session musician in the area. The son of former Texas Rangers catcher Gino Petralli, James is less technical than his two bandmates, focusing more on sonic textures informed by the progressive funk of Sly & the Family Stone.
The band's debut 7-inch, Let's Talk About It, self-released in mid-2007, pinpoints where the three overlap: the absurdist freak-outs of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, the Stooges' Raw Power, and the vintage psychedelia of Os Mutantes, Dukes of Stratosphear, and the Pretty Things. Yet like Captain Beefheart, another prime influence, White Denim shapes such divergent styles in its own DIY image.
A breakthrough marathon at South by Southwest 2008 led to the group's signing with hip European label Full Time Hobby, which shortly thereafter issued Denim's debut, Workout Holiday, coupling Let's Talk About It with eight then-unreleased tracks. The album was praised by the likes of Mojo and NME, leading to several UK tours, appearances at the Reading and Leeds festivals, a few BBC Radio sessions, and even an episode on producer Nigel Godrich's In the Basement series. Back in America the band struggled to gain traction.
"It's a lot more traditional over there as far as releasing records, the press, and the whole marketing part of it," Terebecki reflects. "Over here it's been completely untraditional. We've just been doing whatever."
The group's repeated attempts to capitalize on its notoriety online exemplified both the possibilities and pitfalls of the digital age. Aside from offering free downloads on MySpace, the trio licensed an exclusive EP to the ad-driven website RcrdLbl.com, an offshoot of Downtown Music.
Then, through Austin's Transmission Entertainment, the band decided to digitally release its full-length American debut, Exposion, essentially a mastered compilation of the band's early recordings, most of which had previously appeared on the Fall Tour '08 CD-R. Without a solid distribution network, Exposion drifted into obscurity. White Denim tried to compensate by starting its own subscription service, an idea truncated when the group parted ways with the local booking enterprise.
"People had to look really hard to find it," bemoans Terebecki.
"I don't know what our expectation was, but I remember feeling pretty disappointed," Petralli adds, though he's quick to point out that it was a sorely needed financial contribution from Transmission that allowed them to quit their respective day jobs and tour consistently. "That was a rough time for us."
James Petralli describes the sessions for Exposion as "happy accidents." The 2008 release is a dizzying listen that's as cluttered as the band's first Spartan studio trailer, where the exposed R-11 insulation served as soundproofing and a dry erase board struggled to keep track of all the various, unfinished ideas. It sounds as though they were throwing everything up against the wall and all of it managed to stick.
"We were recording on the weekends, so it was like a vacation for us," Petralli agrees. "We didn't know what we wanted. We were just trying different ideas and then shaping them into something. Sometimes we wouldn't mic things directly to try and get a lot of different sounds, good and bad. We'd add more to cover things up and vice versa. We weren't really concerned with how it was going to come off on a record. We were just doing it."
Mirroring White Denim's transition into the more spacious and surprisingly tidy Imperial Mansion, Fits by contrast is a more focused, consolidated effort. Written and recorded last winter between tours, Fits was approached by its makers as a full-time job, sessions taking place daily between 10am and 6pm.
"This felt like our first real record," Petralli offers. "Everyone was more involved in the songwriting. We were all present at every point. For the most part, we tried to capture what we've been doing onstage over the past year. The energy flow is a lot better, but parts of it we'll still probably never be able to do outside of the studio."
The result is a frenetic fusion of heavy psych sorcery and Faustian studio experimentation that, with the three-way call-and-response of "Everybody Somebody" sequenced behind "I Start to Run" – as on the vinyl edition – possesses two distinct movements. The first side steamrolls over with Jack Johnson-era Miles Davis electricity and Funkadelic boogie, while the latter half slows down and stretches out with mercurial Krautrock and soulful balladry.
Fits marks a turning point for White Denim, serving as a summation of its history to date and a promise of what's yet to come. The chunky Detroit grit of "El Hard Attack Dcwyw," a longtime live staple, dates back to Parque Touch, while the liquid funk instrumental "Sex Prayer" reveals Terebecki finding his compositional voice within the group. As an added bonus, Exposion is being packaged with Fits to make up for its lack of distribution.
"We really try to push every instrument delicately," Terebecki stresses. "It's really groove oriented, and there's nothing that's overlooked. It's not about the solo or the chorus or one instrument coming out. We try to focus on the tone or the quality of the instruments and how it all melds together.
"It doesn't matter what comes out so long as we like the sounds we're getting."
Mirrored and Reversed
Back in Driftwood, Petralli and Block are huddled over a monitor in the living room. The constant tick of a metronome counts off the seconds. In a matter of days, White Denim will leave on a national tour – its first in support of a new album – and is spending the remainder of its downtime working on new material.
"We're always recording," acknowledges Terebecki, lounging outside on the deck that separates the trailer from the side cabin. "We like to have twice as much material as what goes on a record. We're sort of making, like, five different records right now."
"A thousand," cracks Block, popping his head out between guitar takes.
"We could call one the prog record, one the hard-blues rock & roll record, one the dance record, and one the smooth record," Terebecki furthers. "We have all these different directions that we want to go."
That much is made clear as Petralli lays down take after take of jazzy guitar on an expanded, alternative version of Fits' "I'd Have It Just the Way We Were," before overdubbing some acidic fuzz-guitar that cuts like John Cipollina through Quicksilver Messenger Service. A different rendition sampled later sounds a bit like an R. Kelly remix, while a third ends in a fury of distortion.
"After touring some of this material in the UK, we wanted to hear what it would sound like if we approached these songs a bit differently," Petralli explains. "We had this idea to take some of the elements from those songs and stretch them to see how many different things we can pull out. We're essentially trying to make a mixtape, but with our own source material. I don't know if it's going to happen, but some pretty good tunes have come out of it.
"The publishing aspect of this is the coolest part for us," Petralli continues. We look at that as an opportunity to make a lot of music and build a library. We genuinely feel like we have an opportunity to do something here, and if a label has an interest in that music and can push it to other artists even, that's great. We just want to look at ourselves as song machines."
Such is the luxury provided by the Imperial Mansion. It's a shelter from the ransom demands of the music industry and life on the road, a place where White Denim can comfortably work without compromise or supervision. And whenever the band needs a break, there's always that lawn chair waiting atop the trailer.
"That's the best spot," Block nods. "You can take your shirt off and just relax."
White Denim celebrates the release of Fits at Mohawk on Saturday with Brazos.