Q&A with Steve Terebecki of White Denim
White Denim is to modern psychedelic post-punk what Alice Donut was to punk rock -- weird and unafraid to let their varied musical freak flags fly. Across the Austin trio's latest record, Fits, you can hear elements of old progressive rock, garage rock, jazz, splintered blues, as well as aesthetic nods to the aforementioned styles.
Fans of the Flaming Lips and Frank Zappa will find something appealing in the demented compositions White Denim (due this evening at the Larimer Lounge) seem to come up with each song. But the act's music isn't weird just to be weird, and in the following interview with Steve Terebecki, the group's bassist, he reveals his own early roots in what many would consider bizarre music.
Westword (Tom Murphy): That video for "I Start to Run" is funny and dark at the same time. Was it mainly Andy Cope's idea or the band's -- or both -- and if so, does it go along with the theme of the song?
Steve Terebecki: There's two videos for "I Start to Run." One is by Tom Haines which has me running through these mountains. The other one is by Andy Cope. For some reason, we had to make two different videos for the song -- the Andy Cope video is sort of the US version.
WW: Tom Haines also did the video for "Shake Shake Shake." It reminds me of old Minutemen videos, "Shit From an Old Notebook" and "King of the Hill," down to the way everything looks and the pacing. Was this intentional and was that band at all an influence on your own?
ST: We talked to him a lot about different styles. That video was our first video that we were involved in, in terms of how it was going to look. We talked a lot about not music videos so much as overall style.
We did talk a bit about old Captain Beefheart videos and stuff like that. If you watch his version of "I Start to Run," it uses sort of the same style. That sort of El Topo, Alejandro Jodorowsky stuff. We're all fans of weird characters and weird corners of the world and creatures that inhabit them.
WW: How did you decide on the name White Denim for your group? Just wondering because, if you'll excuse the pun, you and your bandmates' previous projects had more colorful names?
ST: When Lucas from Parque Touch moved to Russia, we suddenly had to think of a name because we had a gig a few days later. We were really into the idea of having a really bad name. So we had a bad-name-off -- we just wanted to get it over with. We named names for twenty minutes, and we had no idea we were going to be a band for four or five years and releasing records and touring. That's it. We don't have much of an emotional attachment to the name.
WW: Why did you agree to join Parque Touch, and how has the songwriting changed from that band to White Denim?
ST: My old band, Peach Train, played with Parque Touch. We didn't know each other, we just happened to play a show together at Beerland. They didn't have a bass player, they were just a trio -- guitar, drums and vocals. They just asked me to play, and I liked what I was hearing.
WW: To say your band's music is eclectic is a bit of an understatement. But it seems like there is an internal consistency that gives you the flexibility to write whatever kind of song you like. The only other band I could compare you to is Skeletons from New York. What's your songwriting process like?
ST: Back in the day, it was James Petralli with an acoustic guitar, and he would bring Josh Block and I recordings of his riffs and we'd lay down our impressions on top of them. Then we'd make arrangements based on his recordings. To a certain extent, that still happens but we all bring riffs and ideas.
James had a large bank of songs when we first started. We went on those for a while, but starting with Fits, Josh and I started contributing more. It's sort of the same style, almost like sketch comedy where you bring ideas to the table and then whatever the other people seem to be into is what sticks.
WW: A lot of critics struggle to put labels on your band even though they have to despite any reservations they might bear. Do you feel that quality about your band has in any way helped or hindered your band being accepted by wider audiences, and is that even something you think about?
ST: We actually don't think about that. We just like so many different kinds of music. James will write an R&B song, a pop song or a rap song or whatever. Electronic songs. Every genre you can think of. We'll finish the song and record it. Then we'll try to fit it onto a record and an EP. We have a large bank of songs just waiting for enough songs that are similar enough to release it.
That's how we make our records. We record whatever we're feeling, and we make records as though they're compilations in a way. It's like Ween in a way, in that they have a lot of stuff going on on their records.
R. Stevie Moore is the godfather of home recording, and he's been releasing records since the '60s, and he has written in every genre of music you can imagine, because he's just a fan of making music and recording. I think we're really similar to that.
WW: Reading the titles to your songs, I haven't read a string of words that weird since the last time I saw a complete list of Flaming Lips song titles. Are the titles related to the songs, and either way, how is it that you decide on those names?
ST: Some of them are plays on words, some of them are just funny ideas. "Syncn," for example, he's talking about how his heart's sinking. When I wrote it, we had this dry erase board, and I wrote it as a homonym. We do that sort of thing a lot.
That is sort of an instrumental song. I had another name for it, but James said that one name over it. We use numerous titles during the demo process and whatever one we end up liking the most sticks, whether it's related to the lyrics or not.
WW: What first got you interested in music that was decidedly not in the mainstream?
ST: For me, my dad had a huge record collection while I was growing up, and as a four- or five-year-old, I would pull something from the record tower and put it on. I was never exposed to mainstream music at all.
I always had a lot of other music going on. My dad would make me mixtapes. The most mainstream stuff would like the Beatles, Yes and Led Zeppelin and not the mainstream for the current time. I kind of lucked out.
One thing, in retrospect, that I really grabbed on to was everything on Ralph Records, like the Residents, Tuxedomoon, Snakefinger and all those bands. Without knowing what it was as a kid, I gravitated toward all of them. Even though they were released on the same record label, I didn't realize it until I was a little bit older.
WW: As a band from Austin, how would you describe the scene there, and how would say the climate -- social, artistic and otherwise -- has influenced you as a musician?
ST: For the latter question, there are so many musicians that you can't help but be competitive. When you go play at a club, it would be embarrassing to just do a half-ass job. There are a lot of people that are, at the very least, mediocre. It just helps you want to be prepared. When I moved here five years ago, I felt myself grow as a musician very quickly just for that reason.
It's hard to pick a scene and the way I narrow it down is by club. I guess that's pretty common in other big music cities. There's a street, Red River, that has all the rock and roll and punk and indie music and stuff like that.
Then there's Sixth Street that has a lot of the bar bands, like Stevie Ray Vaughan blues, pop, singer-songwriter kind of stuff.
As far as specific genres, you can go to a club and they'll have a line-up that you never think would match up. But I always thought that was cool about Austin -- they try to mix things up. Sometimes it backfires but it's always entertaining nonetheless.
WW: Some of your songs such as "Mirrored in Reverse" strike me as being akin to the sound collages of bands like Broadcast. How would you describe your layering of sounds?
ST: We're definitely fans of layering sounds and that whole thing. We approach our recording process a lot differently than we approach our live act as a three-piece. We have a good time putting way more than three people could on a record.
We've built a pretty decent bank of instruments over the past few years. It's just a lot of fun to add stuff and take it away -- that's at the heart of how we work. It's like a collage. Josh has his own studio in Driftwood, in an Airstream, in the middle of the woods, and we can jam as loud as we want, whenever we want. We can turn up loud. It's limitless in a way, except for our gear.
WW: You've played in both Europe and the USA. Is there a difference in how crowds respond to you in both places?
ST: One thing I can definitely say is that having a proper record released definitely makes the crowd more enthusiastic. We've taken about four years to properly release a record in the States.
In Europe, we went there after we had a proper release, and it was instant enthusiasm with the crowds and crowd surfing and people singing along. I feel like in the States people read how good our show is, good on a blog or something, and they'll go after hearing only one or two songs. That's how it's been for a while. But since we've released our record there are a little more people dancing and singing along, but still not to the same degree as Europe.
WW: What would be your dream gig to play with anyone anywhere?
ST: Now, I'd say Cass McCombs, who is on Domino Records. I've been listening to his records way too much the past three or four years, and I find it weird that I don't get tired of him. I've never seen him live. He's doesn't tour much, for some reason. Ever. I guess it would be pretty great to play with Beefheart, Zappa and those Ralph Records dudes. I could list all day, but those would be at the top of the list.
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