After the critically acclaimed release Deep Fantasy (2014), White Lung return with their fourth album Paradise. Vocalist Mish Barber-Way, guitarist Kenneth William and drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou, reconnected in Los Angeles to work with engineer and producer Lars Stalfors (HEALTH, Cold War Kids, Alice Glass). In October of 2015, White Lung spent a month in the studio, working closely with Stalfors to challenge what could be done with their songs. Bringing all the energy, unique guitar work and lyrical prowess Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NME have praised them for in the past few years, White Lung curated their songs with a new pop sensibility. Mixed by Stalfors and later mastered by Joe LaPorta, Paradise is their smartest, brightest songwriting yet.
Earlier this year, Kenneth William and Mish Barber-Way sat down with fellow musician and fan, Annie Clark of St. Vincent to talk about the new album.
AC: What was the goal making this record?
KW: I wanted a record that sounded like it was made in 2016. I didn’t want it to sound like any old bands that already existed. We always get compared to dated bands that I don’t think we sound like at all. But mostly, I wanted all of the songs to each have their own vibe and sense of place.
MBW: He also wrote every song in a different key.
KW: I did that on the last record too, just no one noticed. I prefer different keys over others.
AC: Different keys have very different characters. Why go with producer Lars Stalfors?
KW: I listened to a couple producers that wanted to do our record and I just thought Lars’ stuff sounded the most modern. A lot of bands are going for this retro analog or fake analog tape, old-vintage-guitars-sound. For this band and this record, I thought that it made more sense to push forward. We did it all on Pro Tools, so we were able to change anything whenever we wanted and hear stuff immediately. Sometimes we would hack it up, fuck with it. We did a lot of things unnatural to rock records.
AC: At some point, every musician will work with an engineer who’s an analog nazi, and people insist that that’s the only way to do it. Obviously, it’s 2016.
MBW: There’s a lot of ways to skin a cat-
AC: Which Mish and I agree that we both love to do. [Laughs]
MBW: Lars was the right producer and the right influence. Plus, he was in America. I had some immigration issues because I got married to an American. When you are legally immigrating to the USA through marriage, you are not allowed to leave the country. I mean, you can leave, but they won't always let you back in.
AC: What was the interaction like between you guys before the studio and then in the studio?
MBW: For half a month, it was just me and Lars in the studio. Anne-Marie was done with her drumming within a week, maybe even less, but she would hang out when I sang. Lars would send out his assistant to get a big bottle of Fireball and he’d say, “Okay, you have your medicine. Let’s get to work.”
KW: Mish and I worked pretty separately, and I actually think that it turned out better because on some of the older albums, vocal melodies and the guitar parts are a little more intertwined, which is what happens with you write songs start to finish with four people in a room. This time they’re completely separate from each other.
AC: You were almost reacting to each other in delay. It could also be the fact that you do not need to be in the room with each other.
KW: We trust each other. I know I’m not gonna come into the studio to hear what Mish sang and it’s gonna be a hideous mess.
AC: I was really drawn to the song “Hungry”. The guitar part especially. There’s some chords that you hit, and with Mish’s vocal note that she’s playing—it’s just really unexpected and it’s really open and beautiful. How did that song come to be?
KW: That song just got kicked around for such a long time. It was one of the first songs I brought to the band. I normally do not play guitar that way, lots of weird chords and stuff. It feels different.
MBW: I do not think there is anything “different” about that song. It’s a solid, accessible White Lung song. Words like “accessible” scare rock musicians and please record labels. There’s this really stupid attitude that only punks have where it’s somehow uncool to become a better songwriter. In no other musical genre are your fans going to drop you when you start progressing. That would be like parents being disappointed in their child for graduating from kindergarten to the first grade. Paradise is the best song writing we have ever done, and I expect the next record to be the same. I have no interest in staying in kindergarten.
KW: We couldn’t just make an entire other record of same-old stuff. I listen to a ton of pop music and love it, but I also think that good songs are good songs, and any good song, you could probably switch to another genre of music.
KW: You could play an old Misfits song for one of those Disney compilations with kids singing it, and it would fit right in with anything else. If it’s catchy, it’s catchy. Catchy was one of our goals.
AC: In the song “Kiss Me When I Bleed” your guitar reminded me of evil mosquitos. How did you create that sound? It barely sounds like a guitar.
KW: During that part of the song you would normally have a big, shred-fest guitar solo and I never do that. I recorded a ton of stuff, re-pitched it, slapped it around. It came out sounding like synthesizers. You can’t just mess around with pedals and still have the guitar sound like a guitar. It’s going to sound a bit off and unsettling, and with this band it makes sense to kind of do stuff like that.
AC: It’s a really great way to take, you know, drums-bass-guitar-voice, and have it not necessarily feel like just those instruments all the time. It’s really cool. What is the song about, Mish?
MBW: It’s a song about a little rich girl who falls in love with a garbage man who lives in a trailer park. This is the song the bratty aristocrat from New York would scream in the face of her disapproving father when she leaves finishing school to shack up with Jesco White. “Kiss Me When I Bleed” is about pride. That kind of steadfast, I-don’t-give-a-fuck-I’m-in-love pride in that we all wish we had for someone. This song is my poor, white trash fairytale. Riches to rags and happily ever after.
AC: I was also very into to the song “Below”. The chorus guitar, chiming all alone at the beginning. The song felt so romantic—and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, I mean that in a really lovely way. It was unexpected.
KW: I used clean guitars and layered droned sounds on top. We have never done that before.
AC: It’s a really beautiful moment. Are the lyrics romantic?
MBW: “Below” is my Stevie-Nicks-meets-Celine Dion ballad. I needed to try to do a ballad about glamorous women. It’s based on a quote by Camille Paglia from an interview she did a few years ago in Toronto. “Beauty fades. Beauty is transient. That is why we value it,” she said. “Feminism’s failure to acknowledge that beauty is a value in itself, that even if a woman manages to achieve it for a particular moment, she has contributed something to the culture.” It’s a song about the preservation of glamour and beauty.
AC: I can’t think of another band that sounds like you guys, and I was telling Mish that I can’t wait to be in the pit. I feel like I wanna just feel it. I wanna feel the assault, and then I wanna feel the beautiful moments, and I just wanna feel it all. It’s rare these days in indie rock music to see just a singer. Not a singer who also plunks the keyboard, or plays rhythm guitar, but just a singer. Very few people can do it and command an audience. And you do that.
MBW: I point my fingers a lot. [Laughs] But, thank you for saying that. Being just a front person, or as my husband says, “The Lead Lead Singer” is the easiest job in the world when you are playing basement shows, drunk out of your mind, throwing yourself all over the crowd and the room. I did that. For years. I remember one show where I was so drunk I was standing on the drum kit singing a completely different song than the band was playing. It did not matter. That was a great show, but things have changed. I am doing a job now. It’s a job that I love, but still a job.
KW: We have standards now. [Laughs]
MBW: Could I have been blind drunk at Fuji Rock Festival, singing the wrong song, tone deaf and falling over? I would have been ashamed of myself.
AC: Even the architecture says, “this is a change”. You’re on a stage twelve feet above a crowd, and thousands of people are craning their necks to look at you.
MBW: We should be so lucky.
AC: I have this theory that people exist at certain “beats per minute,” and I’m sure this is actually corroborated by science and your heartbeat, but what is your BPM?
MBW: Kenny’s inner BPM is very, very high. [Laughs]
KW: I have a Keurig machine next to my bed, not even in the kitchen. First thing, when I wake up. I drink lots of it. [Laughs]
MBW: Naturally, Kenny, Anne Marie and myself have very high BPM’s but for different reasons and this is why we can write together. What would be your beats-per-minute, Kenny, for you, personally? Would you be, like, 270?
KW: I don’t know, I haven’t my blood pressure tested lately, I don’t know.
MBW: No. The BPM in your psyche.
KW: Maybe like 180, not too quick.
MBW: Get real.
AC: Don’t lie to us, Kenny. That’s a sack of bullshit. [Laughs] Finally, what were you trying to say with this album, Mish?
MBW: I am content in my life, which is really bad for writing songs. I’m not newly heart-broken or falling in love or struggling, so my dopamine is down along with my creativity. I’m married, content and happy. I make fine money. I like what I do for a living. I’m all serotonin. So, I wrote half of this album outside myself and from characters. Two songs are written from the voice of famous serial killers. Another song is two people fighting. This album is schizophrenic. I took from books, stereotypical love fables and turned them. I wrote songs based on news stories I felt deserved more attention. This album is not really about me. Of course, I wrote some songs about my own life. Mostly love songs. I wanted to be earnest. For me, it’s so much easier to write lyrics with cynicism, snark and spite then to genuinely write about being happy. I had to challenge that. But moreover, this record is a collection of other people’s stories I wanted to retell. There isn’t a lot of anger on this album. It’s colorful, bright, cotton-candy, over-saturated, neon signs and glitter… just paradise.
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