I talked to drummer Jack Brown about their upcoming album, Bryan Ferry’s synth collection and how nothing compares to rubbing shoulders with Prince.
You’ve got a busy schedule of European and UK dates, including a gig on November 30 at Leeds Stylus. Which is your favourite city or venue to play?
Well, obviously I should start by mentioning that we have always ALWAYS enjoyed playing in Leeds. Even when we were teenagers in our first band, we made it up to Leeds and had some really quite raucous shows for an unknown band, usually followed by a great night out afterwards. We have never played Stylus (I don’t think!) but I’ve just done a google image search and it’s my kind of venue. It looks cramped and sweaty which usually drives the audience on to get more involved. This tour in October / November is very exciting for us. It’s 38 dates long, and at the time of me writing this, has only been on sale for a week and a few of the bigger venues around Europe have sold out already, so I really can’t wait to get back on the road. We have a couple of shows out in Poland which I think will be amazing. They really love White Lies out there and the crowds are wild. But we are also getting to play in places like Spain, Italy and Portugal, where we rarely ever gig, so that should be fun. Also, our hometown show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire will be fun, and is only five minutes from my flat. It’s a really beautiful old venue.
How do Yorkshire crowds differ to elsewhere?
Half my family are from Yorkshire, and I spent nearly all my summers as a child on holiday in North Yorkshire on the Moors and around Whitby, so I feel quite well qualified to answer this. I love the whole attitude of the majority of people I have met and spent time with in Yorkshire. Essentially, very little nonsense is stood for, very few shits are given, and the humour is totally up my street. I feel like when you play to a Yorkshire crowd, you basically get back what you put in. The harder you work on the stage, the more love receive from the crowd. And it will come as little surprise to anyone who has met anyone from Yorkshire, but you’re basically very noisy. And in the context of a rock show, this is a thing to celebrate.
What influenced your new album ‘Friends’? Is there a concept as with ‘Big TV’?
“Friends” was a long time in the making for us, and really we allowed ourselves to be influenced by a great many more things than on previous records. There is no real lyrical “concept” as there was with BIG TV, and similarly the music explores more avenues than we have done before. Having said that, although not intrinsically linked, there is a general theme over the lyrics on the record about the change in relationships as we grow older, and that feeling that time is really starting to fly and how it affects different people in different ways. In terms of the music, perhaps because we wrote the record without having signed to a new record label (following three records with Fiction), we felt we were able to push the songs in whatever direction they seemed to be heading. Some songs give nods to late 80s FM radio rock like Tom Petty, others are full on disco tracks beacsue that seemed to suit the route the song was taking. It is all very unmistakably White Lies though. There’s a couple of tracks I feel could have come off our first album even. And then others which will be a brand new sound for people to hear on a White Lies album. I would also mention that because we recorded it all in Bryan Ferry’s London studio, we were able to use some of Roxy Music’s old synths from their first two albums. Those sounds are integral to the record, and it was a huge honour to even get to touch those things. They’re synths that haven’t been played since the late 70s and I think they really suited the mood of the record we were making, so that was a very lucky and happy coincidence.
You arrived at the tail end of the ‘indie guitar’ boom, yet seven years later with four albums and numerous awards behind you, do you feel you have anything to prove?
I don’t think we have ever felt too much like we have something to prove. Maybe this time around a few people will be surprised to still see our name playing in decent sized venues around Europe, and I will always be glad to prove to them that we are a band still well loved by quite a large number of people. I think we felt like we had made a good progression with BIG TV as a band, and the opportunity to follow that up was one we really wanted to take. I think we probably wanted to prove to ourselves that we could better it, and also prove to ourselves we were capable of self-producing a record and I think we have done both those things. I would be lying if I said I didn’t still harbour some small ambition for this record to transcend the level of our previous albums, and push us on to the next level. It does take some bands – The National or Kings of Leon being good examples – a good few albums before they really take off, and I think that is still a slim possibility. The record is certainly good enough for that, in my not so humble opinion. But equally I love the level we have reached already, and there’s not a whole lot I would change across our career so far.
Which of your albums do you feel represents you the best?
I would say, with the possible exception of our second record ‘Ritual’ – which in hindsight I feel we had to rush a bit – each of our albums has expressed well where we were “at” when it was released. So “Friends” for me, is a very accurate representation of the sort of music and album White Lies wanted to make in 2016. It expresses well our love for a variety of genres, our desire to write a record off our own steam without a label pushing us on, and our ambition to push ourselves by producing it. Musically, I think it is without a doubt our most diverse and I think that represents us very well as a trio. We don’t just sit at home listening to The Teardrop Explodes all day. Sometimes we want to dance to some Lindstrøm.
If you could collaborate with any artist, who would it be?
Over the years when we have been asked this we very often have mentioned Bjork, as she is sort of without equal, and I think we would probably all still stand by that. Whether we could actually make some music that would gel with her style is probably highly debatable! While we recording at Bryan Ferry’s place, we had a listen to his recent record, Olympia. That features an incredible collaboration with Todd Terje, the Norwegian dance producer. Their collaboration is very cool, not very classic Todd Terje at all, very mellow – but it made me think, with some of the new sounds and styles we have been adding to our repertoire someone like him would be amazing to work with. Or someone like Lindstrøm, who does that whole live sounding disco thing so well. Because the melodic sensibility of White Lies has always been focused towards the more pop end of the spectrum, I actually think we could work well with artists of many different genres.
You were once described unfairly as an ‘unremarkable Franz Ferdinand’ and often get cited as a cross between Joy Division and Editors. Do you feel you have shaken those comparisons, and who or what influences your sound?
Yeah I mean I have personally found those comparisons totally mad for the last 6 of so years. Okay, I can hear it a bit with the first album, but with each following record we have moved further and further from that sound. I suppose Harry’s voice is Harry’s voice, and that won’t change, but musically we have moved further from that sort of austere seriousness towards more joyous and poppy bombast. I just feel like any serious Joy Division fan would laugh you out the room if you played them ‘Friends’ and tried the comparison. Maybe some of the songs point a little bit to where New Order went, so I think that might be a more relevant and interesting comparison these days. With ‘Friends’, we were inspired by so many different things musically. A lot of the songs came out of the very direct desire for us to make an album that had songs people could actually dance to, and I think that is us exploring our love of older dance and even jazz and funk music. So although it still sounds very much White Lies I think there are very definite nods to those genres, with some of the guitar playing, some cheeky fretless bass, the slowed down groove of some songs, and the outrageous overdubbed tom fills.
‘Friends’ will be released on October 7, and will be your first album for three years. What has changed in the band or what has improved or remained consistent in that time?
I think as people, we are still not far off the 18 year olds we were when we started White Lies like nine years ago. We still all get on very well, which is a minor miracle, considering what being in a touring and recording band entails. I think our confidence to try something more independently as we have done with ‘Friends’ has been a big step forwards for us over the last three years and that obviously indicates that we have grown in confidence. I certainly feel that I am getting a bit closer to being what I would describe as an “adult”, and a couple of years off the road has probably contributed to that. I think we probably all explored more music in these last few years as listeners than we have ever been able to in our lives up to this point, and I think a general better knowledge of music past and present can only help push our own boundaries and musical ambition.
You covered Prince’s ‘I Would Die 4 U’ on the ‘Small TV’ EP, if he could have covered one of your own tracks, what would you have selected for him?
Well, we were all pretty stunned when we heard about Prince’s death. We had added that stripped back Prince cover to our live shows in late 2013/2014 and it had worked so well. It just goes to show how timeless the music he made was. People in their teens were singing every word of that track back to us despite it predating their own existence by decades. Part of me knows that Prince’s cover of any White Lies track would probably wipe the floor with the original, but it’s a trippy thought to imagine him doing it all the same. I would suggest that a song like ‘Don’t Want To Feel It All’ off the new album would probably work quite well. But the song ‘Swing’ off the new album is currently my favourite White Lies song so I would love to hear what he would do with that too. In a strange coincidence, Prince was the only other act allowed to use Bryan’s studio in London, and he was the last person to record in there before White Lies went in to record ‘Friends’. Quite an honour for us to follow in his footsteps.
If you could take back one white lie you’ve told, what would it be?
I have many many times in my life been late and blamed it on London’s tube service. I would like to remove my feeling of guilt towards London’s tube driver’s by fessing up that I am just late because I plan badly. And I own three nice watches which keep perfect time so I really have no excuse.
White Lies play at Leeds University Stylus on November 30. For details visit http://whitelies.com/