White Rabbits: "It was more important to be emotionally visceral and in the moment'"
White Rabbits (due tonight at the Bluebird Theater) moved from Columbia, Missouri to Brooklyn within a year of forming in 2004. The group's music had, from the beginning, an ineffably energetic spirit that could be heard by broader audiences first with its 2007 debut album, Fort Nightly. But it was the act's breakout 2009 album, It's Frightening, that found the band bearing the fruit of a creative maturity with songs that resonated deeply on an emotional and on a visceral level.
It seemed like the band had toured dozens of times on that record, but if you were lucky enough to see the White Rabbits on any of those tours, you got to witness a band that seemed to come out ready to deliver an impassioned performance every night. It was also one of those bands where it wasn't just the frontman who shined; it was obvious everyone contributed to the group's powerful delivery of well-honed pop songs.
Earlier this year, White Rabbits gave us Milk Famous, released on the TBD imprint. Sonically, it is the polar opposite of It's Frightening, but it shows another vista that this remarkable band has achieved in its songwriting. The rhythms, instead of neo-tribal in its forcefulness, are more textured and settle into your mind alongside the haunting melodies. We recently spoke with guitarist Alex Even about his introduction to interesting music through skateboarding videos, the various meanings of Milk Famous and some of the band's more high profile gigs.
Westword: This is probably going back a couple of years or so, but you played on Later With Jools Holland. What was that like, and did the producers suggest songs for you to perform?
Alex Even: I don't remember about the song choice, to be honest. But it was a really amazing experience. I've been watching bands play on that show forever. And I'm a huge Alicia Keys fan, and she was playing on the show that night as well, so we got to watch her perform, which was amazing. Jeff Beck was there, and Yeasayer was there. It was fun.
In an interview in 2009 with Inflatable Ferret, you mentioned skateboarding. Did you become familiar with music in a roundabout way through being a skateboarder?
Oh, absolutely. I remember watching a Toy Machine skate video that had a Modest Mouse song in it. That was the first time I heard Modest Mouse, and it totally blew my mind. Same thing for Gravediggaz, I remember hearing them on a skate video.
Which era of Modest Mouse was it?
I think it was Lonesome Crowded West.
Did you start playing music before you started skating?
I think around the same time. I started playing guitar when I was eleven. My first guitar was an Ibanez, the kind of guitar that your parents buy for you when you're first starting. I think it was sort of a metal guitar. I was kind of a skate punk or something so I was into metal and stuff like that. Sort of like the mid-'90s hardcore/metal crossover thing. Listening to Refused. All those bands with really heavy, half-time, breakdown chug parts.
What kinds of guitars do you play these days?
I wish I was more of a gearhead. I think I'm starting to come to understand the importance of being a gearhead. But growing up sort of in the punk scene, if you will, I feel like I had this suspicion of that sort of stuff. It was more important to be emotionally visceral and in the moment, and that sort of stuff was for the birds. Obviously, I'm older now, and I've really come to appreciate that stuff.
I've had the same guitar for maybe five years or something. It's a mid-'70s Epiphone Casino. My friend Cobra, who plays in the band Caveman, he sold it to me. He makes guitars now and Greg [Roberts] plays one. But yeah he sold it to me. It's beat up and it doesn't work totally properly but I love all of its flaws. Me and that guitar have been through a bunch of shit together.
It sounds like you play mostly clean with maybe some chorus and distortion but it's hard to tell.
We used to share a space with the Walkmen, and they moved out and left a bunch of stuff in there that we just sort of commandeered, that they didn't want anymore. One of the things was a Boss digital delay pedal. I got really obsessed with that guy, and the idea of turning my guitar playing into something that sounded more like how a hip-hop producer would use samples. Like it's being played live but it sounds like it's coming totally from left field. I still have that digital delay pedal, and I love it. It's a super old and beat up DD3.
I don't have many effects other than that, a reverb, tremolo and distortion. Pretty basic stuff. For the record, I use a Space Echo a lot of the time. I tracked most of the stuff with my Epiphone but there's a couple of songs I use a Les Paul on.
Milk Famous has an overall more atmospheric and moody sound than It's Frightening. What lead to what seems like a very different sonic palette for you guys?
There's a lot of layers to how I would answer that. I think generally we were, drum-wise, sort of interested in moving away from relying solely on the power of drums. The typical sort of violence of sound it makes. We were getting more interested in using the tools that we have to make more understated, interlocking rhythmic things happen with the drums.
Some of the more ethereal qualities...A lot of that was influenced by...We toured for so long for It's Frightening that the only way that we could stay sane was by completely re-envisioning the songs every couple of months, and that sort of helped us to open up new vistas sonically doing maybe more atmospheric stuff, for instance, than we have before. Just because we didn't know before that we were even capable of doing that and that it would sound good. Then we found out that it did sound kind of good.
There's definitely an expanded sonic palette on Milk Famous for sure. It's Frightening feels a bit austere and insular to me. I don't necessarily get that vibe from Milk Famous.
This isn't a direct parallel because your music is very different but you're familiar with Abe Vigoda?
Earlier on, they were kind of a punky band, but their most recent album, Crush had them going from surf punk to Roxy Music in one album.
Is there a significance to the title of the new album?
Of course. I think if you asked any member of the band they'd give you a different answer. But my answer is that I think the initial allure is that the actual sound of the whose words together, the phonetics, was pleasing. It feels nice to say it. And it's kind of an absurd combination of words.
I think more specifically it's a way of saying sort of becoming infamous. Or attaining some level of celebrity for something you don't necessarily want to happen or want to be publicized or being known for something you don't necessarily want to be known for.
You know the campaign in the '50s or whatever in America, where they put the faces of missing children on the sides of milk cartons? That's sort of the origin of that. I thought that the irony and the absurdity of "Milk Famous" applied well to the themes of the record.
Also the uneasiness of fame and what fame can do for you but that you know what kind of a sham it can be sometimes. But you make the best of it even though you see the truth of it for what it is.
There's a song called "It's Frightening" on Milk Famous. Was that a leftover from your previous sessions of songwriting and if not, why did you want to put a song with that title on your new album?
It wasn't from a session from the last record. That was sort of the tune that Steve [Patterson] had been playing around with for a while. Whenever we weren't working on another song, we would sort of dabble with that and see if we could make cool sounds for it. I think calling it "It's Frightening" we just thought was a bit cheeky. It seemed like that song could benefit from having another sort of layer of meaning and "It's Frightening" would make people think, "Where does this come from?"
Also, the lyrics of the song are clearly about coming to an understanding and acceptance of your past. In that way "It's Frightening" made a lot of sense because that was the last project we spent a lot of time on, you know?
Your song "Percussion Gun" has been featured in Friday Night Lights, Gossip Girl and other media outlets. Do you approve those uses of your song, and has that opened any doors for you?
Yeah, those things have to be approved by us. I'm not really sure if those things have opened any doors for us. I told somebody else the other day that that sort of stuff is more...I have friends who like Gossip Girl and they think it's really cool that the song is on there. It's neat for them that their friends can be on the show. Those are the things that you can point to to your parents and go, "Look, I'm not a total failure." But other than that, I'm not really that interested. Maybe it has done something for us but it's hard to quantify.
You've played at places like the Larimer Lounge in Denver and at Wembley Stadium in London. What are the challenges and benefits of playing small clubs and stadiums or large festivals?
We're definitely more acquainted with the smaller club setting. So the benefits of that are that we have become somewhat adept at being able to control the sound and the pacing. And just sort of generally engineer the experience the way that we think it should be. That becomes a bit harder when you're in massive settings and there are more people. That feels like you have a little less control. That's why people, when they play those big sort of places, have to get huge light displays or video displays because it's hard to manage and pace the experience with music alone in those bigger sort of settings.
Oh yeah, you've played with Muse and their light show is massive.
Yeah, they have spaceships and shit. It's bananas.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.