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White Denim: The Music is the Message

by Emily Zemler on February 07, 2014

James Petralli doesn’t look like a rock star. Slouched in a dark booth in Los Angeles’ 101 Coffee Shop, a brown-tinged, aging diner frequented by incognito celebrities and Hollywood hipsters, the singer and guitarist of the Austin, Texas band White Denim could be anyone. Although Petralli’s hair has been varying lengths throughout the group’s career, he’s now mostly clean-cut, clad in black-rimmed glasses and a basic T-shirt. He and his wife had their first daughter in January, and Petralli’s only vice seems to be a stubbed-out cigarette butt he leaves in a tree outside the diner doors when he can’t find a garbage can.

His bandmates—drummer Joshua Block, bassist Steven Terebecki and guitarist Austin Jenkins—sit in a nearby booth with several of their crew members. The band has arrived in LA primarily to open for The Flaming Lips and Tame Impala at the Greek Theatre, but are augmenting the visit with a second show with Tame Impala at the downtown Belasco Theater the following evening. White Denim’s latest album, Corsicana Lemonade, is out today, the follow-up to 2011’s D, and the band is already receiving accolades for the 10 surging rock songs on the disc.

“This is probably the most direct album that we’ve ever made in every aspect,” Petralli concludes after nearly an hour of reflecting on its creation. “The performances are really direct. The lyrics might not be as direct as some things but for me, they’re more so than I would generally write. This record is us maybe trying to be more giving.”

Corsicana Lemonade is almost entirely a product of 2013—a fact that is surprising for White Denim, who spent two years working on D. The musicians first started considering the next record shortly after D’s release, shifting through various writing sessions and thematic ideas before deciding they needed to begin with a clean slate. The band had written D over the course of several tours, performing the songs live as they created them, so by the time that album emerged, there was a sense of fatigue associated with the music. They didn’t want that to happen so quickly with the next one. “Three records have been conceived since D,” Petralli says. “We just decided to postpone work on the other stuff.”

The album began when the musicians spent four days in Jeff Tweedy’s Chicago studio The Loft in March. White Denim had opened for Wilco during an intense West Coast tour and bonded immediately. Tweedy is the one who suggested he helm some songs for the group, a casual aside that transformed into a real session. Though Petralli sees the connection between White Denim and Wilco as primarily being the fact that everyone in both bands seriously cares about their playing, he’s not entirely certain how it all transpired.

“I think us being pretty well- versed about what they did there and showing that interest and engaging with them about that kind of thing led to them opening up a little bit more,” he says. “And, ultimately, to the invitation.”

White Denim showed up in Chicago with two songs, neither of which they had rehearsed or played for Tweedy beforehand. There wasn’t a real plan except to record. “I think Jeff thought we were going to make an entire record in four days,” Petralli says. “Low did that [with the] record they made a month before. They came in and made a beautiful record in four days.”

The two tracks, “Distant Relative Salute” and “A Place to Start,” came quickly and the band spent the remaining two and a half days messing around with Wilco’s sizeable collection of esoteric instruments. The band would suggest an old synthesizer or a piece of gear to the studio manager and 20 minutes later, he’d arrive back in The Loft, which Petralli describes as a “sprawling warehouse space,” armed with a laboratory of toys for the musicians to play with. The resulting material didn’t make the album, but Petralli feels like they’ll “do something with it eventually.”

“We had such a crazy collection of instruments there that we just did these linear one-chord grooves,” he says. “We pulled out tons of different synthesizers, tons of different guitars, their Mellotron. They have some really cool stuff. Anything that we could think of, we were just asking about it.”

White Denim translated The Loft’s concept into their own space after leaving Chicago. The band rented a house in Austin’s lake country, some miles west of downtown, and used it as a custom studio for a month. The goal was to replicate Tweedy’s setup, which involved purchasing a Mellotron and filling the room with 10 or so keyboards. Block found a mobile recording desk online that was used in the 1972 Munich Olympics and had it shipped from the Netherlands. With the help of Ryan Joseph, owner of Austin’s 5th Street Studios, where White Denim had laid down D, the lake house became an armory filled with gear. For the musicians, these unique instruments acted not as an impetus to write songs but as a way to pull them together.

“The gear provides a nice common ground for everybody in the group,” Petralli says. “It’s something that’s really concrete. It’s something that everybody can understand and get into, and it kind of dictates what you’re going to do with your instrument. In that regard, I think it definitely has a lot to do with how the songs end up for the consumer. I wouldn’t say that it really affects the writing all that much, although it can in that regard as well. Sometimes instruments come with song. People say that and it’s true. Fuzz from the old board the engineer brought in definitely birthed a couple of solos.”

They laid down the songs in the house with producer Jim Vollentine, and unintentionally divided them into two sides. The heavier tracks, which comprise Corsicana Lemonade’s first five songs, are the result of Block, Terebecki and Jenkins fiddling with arrangements together. Petralli birthed the other five on acoustic guitar. From a musicianship angle, the vision was to complete something straightforward in its complexity, a sensibility that you can hear on the album. The songs revel in sprawling electric guitar riffs and static-laced melodies, building epic rock and roll numbers with psych-rock and Southern tendencies. They tracked the entire album live, marking the first time that White Denim has done that in the studio.

“We just wanted to play together live and see how clear and direct we could be,” Block says after he and the other band members join Petralli in the dark booth. “That’s what I felt like. I wanted to be more direct personally because I always enjoyed the sound of guitar records or music when it’s just really happening in front of you, and when you’re listening to it, you can picture what the hell is going on.”

Jenkins, who joined White Denim four years ago and rounded out their initial trio, elaborates, “It’s almost like you put things more into focus when you limit what’s going on. You have to really be concise and right-on with what you’re doing, if that makes any sense. It’s like practicing. You can’t practice everything at the same time. You have to isolate certain ideas. Once we did that—isolating what we were going to do—it felt right.”

Block adds: “Instead of trying to whittle your peg to fit in a hole that’s already been recorded, we were all trying to make the same shape.”

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