Performance out August 24, 2018 via City Slang
In his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus wrote that “All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great works are often born on a street corner or in a restaurant’s revolving door.” 15 years later Richard Wayne Penniman wrote “Wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom,” an undeniably powerful vocalization that on any given Wednesday in any given situation, civilized or otherwise, is still fully capable of setting somebody’s stuff aflame. Over ten years and seven long players into their career, White Denim are still in the relentless pursuit of a thread- in other words, a wick.
The band have carefully and continuously studied the greatest records ever made, but they write songs just dumb enough to drink, dance, and fight to. Theirs is a music that aims for the whole body, while equally satisfying the mind. While it has morphed, expanded, and even burst apart, White Denim’s sincere and human drive and ability to spark true exhilaration have been unerring constants of the band’s existence. Now, two years on from Stiff’s grubby blues and sweet soul inflections, singer-guitarist James Petralli and bassist Steve Terebecki have changed tack again for their sixth full-length, Performance. A new studio, new collaborators, and new techniques for writing and recording influenced the elastic possibility and liberation felt throughout.
If the album’s title seems meaningful in its prosaicness, it is. There is, of course, the meaning of “performance” that applies to anyone for whom the live arena is the proving ground. There’s also something more personal but universally acknowledged – the gap that exists between what we project and who we really are. “There is something absurd and isolating in continuing this pursuit for personal connection on such a wide scale. When writing an album or playing for an audience, I essentially leave my life to go deeper into myself and as it nears completion, I evaluate my work based on my own extremely skewed notion of what is widely relatable and still legitimately cool.” Petralli says. It has been said that “A clown enriched knows neither relation nor friend.”
The band’s new studio in downtown Austin is called Radio Milk. Once an old general store and horse stable constructed in 1902, it is now respectfully restored and sandwiched in between bars and modern condominiums. When White Denim were recording, they’d have people stopping by expecting the building to be another kitschy bar or curio shoppe. They’d sometimes knock on the door to ask what was going on or simply stand staring in from the sidewalk. They’ve since built a fence and purchased curtains for privacy, but initially, it was “a sort of low lit secret place, but people could clearly see nearly everything going on inside. It was like a bizarre sort of stage or a Petri dish.” Petralli laughs.
Once again in the producer’s role, Petralli, Terebecki, and their long time production partner and guru Jim Vollentine incorporated techniques and tones from the early tape slamming days of ‘50s era rock ‘n’ roll alongside the pristine heights of audio production reached in the ‘80s. When asked about this implausibly varied and seemingly left field influences, Petralli shrugs, “I spend a significant amount of time sitting in Austin traffic scrolling between ‘50s and ‘80s specialty radio stations. There is something comforting and inherent about the energy and amount of pleasant distortion present on a Little Richard or Jay Hawkins record. Equally, I find the precision and control — from arrangement to the sonics — achieved in ‘80s pop like Squeeze and Kate Bush to be inspiring. The production on Performance is designed to contrast the super-clean and inhuman with the raw and elemental, and in doing so, White Denim has created a densely layered and exhilarating listening experience quite unlike anything heard before.
Performance was mainly recorded over eight weeks, predominantly at Radio Milk. Two new players were key in what Petralli describes as “a super-collaborative record”: keyboardist Michael Hunter, a “young, humble genius with endless potential” and Conrad Choucroun, a “ridiculously solid” drummer with a long stint with NRBQ on his resume. “If you take nothing else from this press release at least take some time to listen to NRBQ, rock & roll scholars who shared members with the the Sun Ra Arkestra” advises Petralli. It makes sense that White Denim would develop a kinship with a player from their circle. In many ways, they are a continuation of that sort of group. One that will never stop pushing and taking every opportunity to shine a light on and exemplify what is truly good about Rock & Roll music.
Getting the songs down was a fruitfully cooperative, jam-heavy process featuring Petralli, Terebecki and Choucroun with a number of different fourth members, as Hunter wasn’t yet fully part of the picture. Says Petralli, “It was great fun in the room with the musicians jamming, feeding off each other’s energy and coming up with something everyone was excited about – that was awesome. But at the end of it,” he laughs, “I had to go and turn it into a song and make an album.” To that end, the free-association writing technique came into its own on a couple of occasions. Petralli and Terebecki would take random books from the small studio library – tape machine operation manuals, poetry volumes, trade magazines, whatever – set a timer and open them, picking two words at random so they’d have ten two-word combinations come time out. These then went up on a blackboard as lyrical components, notably for “Sky Beaming” and “Magazin”.
Petralli describes this process as “part of the distancing from the last record, which was my tunes, my words, my feelings… I really wanted to break that and be inspired by other players. I started taking guitar lessons, studying again and reading a lot more… I was just at a point where I thought, if this is a band, we need to do what bands do. Now, most of the guys that we know have been doing it for so long and there’s just a new openness in the group. It’s about fully trusting other people’s commitment to music and being totally open.”
Categorically speaking, White Denim is still impossible to narrowly pin down. There’s the glam-rock strut of “Magazin” and “It Might Get Dark”, the dueling guitars on the low-slung blues prog of “Moves On”, and the sideways jazz of “Sky Beaming”. There are plenty of pleasingly unexpected ear snags on the title track and the easy-rolling closer “Good News,” with some seriously distorted guitar. In title track “Performance” Petralli sings, “Flashing light in a tunnel, You’re indicating a change”. In many ways, White Denim is the flashing light in a dark and crowded tunnel of showbiz glop. Quietly and fiercely finding themselves and us through their work.
Ask James Petralli to outline White Denim’s mission statement from 2008 to their captivating new album Performance, and his answer is instant and unequivocal: “It remains unchanged from the beginning – which is just to make interesting new rock & roll music.”
That’s both bang on the button and too modest by half, because the Austin quartet have long “just” pulled hard at the parameters of rock & roll, admitting garage punk, soul, psychedelic boogie, prog, jazz and country blues while holding onto its vital goodtime core, and their up-tempo drive has produced a body of work defined as much by stellar musicianship as off-the-chain exhilaration. Energy and adventurism have always been paramount.
Ever progressing, never content to camp out on a plateau of their creative accomplishments, there is no other band quite like White Denim – unique in talent and legendarily potent as a live band, they are quite simply special artists. It’s a well known marketing trope to say that a band has made “their best album yet,” have “hit their stride,” or are “at the height of their powers,” but with White Denim, who continue to push themselves and top themselves on each album, who can really say? But with the effortless virtuosity wrapped around an understated soul and vibrant live feel in Performance, it certainly FEELS like it.