ABOVE: WHITE LUNG. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GABELLO
Two minutes, 15 seconds. That’s the length of the longest track on White Lung’s latest album, Sorry (Deranged Records), a record that’s relentless in its sonic attack, a galloping onslaught of aggression. Formed in 2006, the Vancouver band trades in fast, smartly constructed jabs of guitar-driven fury. Lyrically, the group’s front woman, freelance writer Mish Way, paints obliquely feminist imagery of rot and decay, bloody noses, and an underlying compulsion to disinfect what is dirty, conjuring the sting of bleach fumes and a whiff of peroxide. Blasting through all this ruin, Sorry is an auditory exfoliant. Joining Way are Kenneth William, who deftly eviscerates on guitar, and the supertough rhythm section of drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou and bassist Grady Mackintosh.
Since the release of Sorry, its second full-length, in May of last year, the four-piece has been on the road with very little time off. And like many Vancouver bands—Japandroids, Nü Sensae—White Lung has recently garnered much praise from the mainstream music press; Rolling Stone named Sorry one of the best albums of 2012. We caught up with the band over lunch in Brooklyn, in advance of their show at Bowery Ballroom tomorrow night with Iceage.
DAVID JACK DANIELS: How’s the road been? What’s been the most embarrassing moment you’ve had so far?
MISH WAY: [Anne-Marie] had a good one in Florida the other night.
ANNE-MARIE VASSILIOU: Oh, man, yeah, loading out right after we were done playing, I was carrying a stack of all my drums. I tripped over a cord, and fell off the stage, and my drums went flying everywhere—in front of a full room, everyone’s looking at me. I’m mortified. [laughs]
DANIELS: Any major mess-ups?
VASSILIOU: I’ve had sticks fly out of my hands… and into my head. [laughs]
KENNETH WILLIAM: I haven’t broken a guitar string on this tour—that’s a first. So, fingers crossed, I don’t think we’ve ever messed up so badly that we’ve been traumatized or anything.
GRADY MACKINTOSH: Just the one night at Holy Mountain, [a club] in Texas, where my speaker didn’t work…
WAY: But that was a technical error. It’s not like you crapped your pants on stage or anything. [all laugh]
DANIELS: What do you listen to in the van, any guilty pleasures?
WAY: I’m not ashamed of anything.
VASSILIOU: All we listen to in the van is Top 40 radio.
DANIELS: You’ve covered a lot of ground touring over the last year. Any surprises?
WAY: In Hungary was where we had the most fans [at shows in Europe]. And they would, like, sing along… and they knew all the words—it was really shocking; it was weird. Some girl told me she named her cat after me. So that was nice.
DANIELS: Are there any upcoming cities you’re excited to play?
WILLIAM: Our Paris show, which got cancelled. I really wanted to play there. We’ve played pretty much everywhere in the US, though, on this tour.
DANIELS: What do you do on your time off?
WAY: Write. We don’t have any time off! We had one afternoon off in DC. They went to a movie, and I sat in a coffee shop and caught up on deadlines.
WAY: Even today. Normally, we give ourselves two days when we’re in New York so we can see friends and whatever, but we’re not doing that this time. We have shows every day… keep it busy, make money, let’s keep going. Why have a day off when you can work? That’s kind of our momentum, which is good, I guess.
DANIELS: What’s your songwriting process like?
WAY: It’s totally collaborative. It can be really painful, because we all write together, and if someone’s not inspired by what someone else is doing, it can be brutal. But once we get on a roll, it’s really good, and we’re the kind of people who have to just force it, you know? There has to be a deadline, because nothing’s going to get done—because everyone here’s a perfectionist and can scrap stuff and not give a shit. So, right now, when we go home, we have recording time booked, because if we don’t book recording time, there’s going to be no album, it’s not going to happen. You know? There’s no one person who kind of dictates. It’s totally a group thing.
DANIELS: What’s the lifespan of an idea? How long does it take for you to determine if it’s worth your while?
WILLIAM: Almost immediately.
VASSILIOU: We can tell right away if it’s not up to our standards.
WAY: We wrote one before we left for tour, and we finished the song, and we were all kind of like, “This is garbage. It’s not good enough. Chuck it.” We recorded a demo, so who knows, maybe if we’re ever desperate for a B-side sometime. You know, it’s like, why keep garbage?
DANIELS: How has the sound of the band changed from your first record, It’s the Evil [Deranged], to this most recent one? Do you feel like it was a natural progression?
MACKINTOSH: We didn’t just consciously decide we wanted to be poppier.
WAY: I know, for me, I wanted to write stronger melodies, catchier hooks. Because it’s a challenge. You want to challenge yourself. And I want to sing more than just screeching all the time.
WILLIAM: I think this record is a lot more aggressive, in a lot of ways, than the first one—it’s a lot faster. The first one, I think of as being more noisy and messy, and on this one, the songs have this weird contrast where they’re heavier, but also poppier. We branched off in two directions, then combined them. We we’re trying to take the structure of pop songs and put something really chaotic into it—that was the idea.
WAY: That progression that happens with a band… I mean, look at The Men, the way they progressed, or The Replacements, or even Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s not a conscious kind of thing, that you just go in this more digestible direction… I mean, what’s digestible, you know? I think it’s important to grow without losing what made you unique in the first place.
DANIELS: What direction do you see the band moving in? What’s next?
WAY: Write a really amazing record.
WILLIAM: We want three in a row, all good. That’s our goal.
WAY: I want to make it a bit darker. I’d like less sugar, but still keep the pop sensibilities, to play with tempo a little more, and try and stretch out what I can do with my voice. But I also don’t want to lose all the things about us that make us what we are. We’ll see what happens…
DANIELS: What do you think about haters, or the sell-out police?
WAY: Kenny said it once really well… This is the thing, when you make the kind of music we’re making, which is aggressive or punk or whatever, people align all these politics with it that you haven’t necessarily ever talked about, so they just assume all these various ways of thinking, judging you only by your sound, which is ridiculous.
WILLIAM: It’s just gotten so ingrained. Like, people who don’t even follow those ethics themselves will be like, “Oh, look how punk you are, staying in a hotel,” or something and, it’s like, what world do you live in? It’s crazy to me.
WAY: There are other, more important things to care about. You know?
DANIELS: Why do you think some music fans become so possessive of a band or a scene?
WAY: When I first started getting into music, people coveted their scene so heavily, like they didn’t want to let anyone else in, because it’s all a bunch of misfit geeks who never had that cool thing, and now they’ve got it, and they don’t want to share it with anyone.
DANIELS: Do you think there’s room for high fashion in a punk scene?
WAY: Coming from punk and hardcore scenes, I always felt I had to suppress my femininity to be accepted, and what I realized is that that just ends up perpetuating that stereotype, and I refuse to do that now. If I want to be fashionable, if I want to wear whatever, I’m gonna do it… I just think that there’s room to have your integrity, or whatever makes you unique, and still grow. People are super judgmental. You can’t please everybody. It’s about yourself. Everyone’s going to have an opinion.
DANIELS: How have you liked the bands you’ve been on tour with?
WAY: We played a lot of shows with Merchandise. We really love that band; they’re bridging this amazing gap between post-punk and pop without cheapening it—their hooks are so brilliant. I really like Destruction Unit, from Phoenix. They’re the kind of band where I watch them, and I want to grow a penis and be in that band—I just want to be a dude in that band. We’re getting ready to tour with Iceage, who we really respect—we think they’re great.
DANIELS: What do you think the difference is between you guys and a band like Iceage?
WAY: Well, they’re four gorgeous young men, and we’re three old witches and this guy. [all laugh] No, I’m just kidding.
VASSILIOU: They’re four perfect princes.
WAY: Yes, four perfect princes. Little angels.
DANIELS: How do your families feel about you being on the road and pursuing a life as a musician?
WAY: I’ll tell you something weird about us, all of our parents are still together. That’s weird, huh?
VASSILIOU: My parents are very supportive. They bought me my first drum kit.
MACKINTOSH: My dad’s a musician as well, so he’s living vicariously through me. [laughs] He’s very proud.
WAY: I moved out when I was really young, but my parents are really supportive. They’ve always kind of been like, “Your life, your thing—do it.”
WILLIAM: I think if it was up to them, if they got to check in a box, this probably wouldn’t have been what they wanted, but, like, they’re fine with it.
DANIELS: What are some things that first influenced you?
MACKINTOSH: When I first heard Hole. The Wipers, the Pixies, the Misfits . . .
VASSILIOU: Nirvana, Chuck Biscuits [drummer for Black Flag, D.O.A., Circle Jerks, Danzig].
WILLIAM: I don’t know. I always get uncomfortable with that kind of question because I never felt like I’ve had that experience where I heard this one album and it was like, “Yes! This is what I’ve been waiting for.” That’s never happened. I’ve always just loved music. So, some guitarists, Johnny Marr, Bernard Sumner…
WAY: Feminism is a huge part of my life. I don’t really draw so much lyrically on inspiration from books or whatever. Mostly, it’s all from personal experiences. But, books? Simon De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Nymphomania by Carol Groneman, Dinah Washington, Paul Westerburg, Courtney Love…
DANIELS: In an article you wrote about Courtney Love for Vice, you said, “I want my rock stars to go big or go die.” Do you try to live up to that yourself?
WAY: Come on! I feel like if you’re going to do this kind of thing… When I’m onstage, I’m there to get all my emotions out—that’s the point of music, to me. The writing is the intellectual process; the performance, raw and vulgar. That’s what I like. So, for me, it’s supposed to be wild, it’s supposed to be crazy, it’s supposed to be unpredictable. I like my rock stars to be rock stars.
SORRY IS OUT NOW. WHITE LUNG PLAYS BOWERY BALLROOM TOMORROW NIGHT, APRIL 20. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, PLEASE VISIT ITS WEBSITE.