“All PsychFest All the Time.” Interview with White Hills
New York-based experimental psychedelic stoner spacerockers White Hills has only been a band since ’round about 2005, yet they’ve already amassed the following discography:
They’ve Got Blood Like We’ve Got Blood (Fuck Off And Di/Head Heritage, 2005)
Koko (White Hills, 2006)
Glitter Glamour Atrocity (White Hills, 2007)
Abstractions and Mutations (White Hills, 2007/Thrill Jockey, 2009/Immune, 2012)
Heads on Fire (Rocket, 2007)
A Little Bliss Forever (Drug Space, 2008)
Oddity… A Look at How the Collective Mind Works (Drug Space, 2010)
White Hills (Thrill Jockey, 2010)
H-p1 (Thrill Jockey, 2011)
Live at Roadburn 2011 (Roadburn, 2011)
Oddity III: Basic Information (Drug Space, 2012)
Frying on This Rock (Thrill Jockey, 2012)
So You Are… So You’ll Be (Thrill Jockey, 2013)
And that’s not even including their EP and 7″ releases and compilation appearances. This also doesn’t make mention of the fact all this has all been done with members coming and going around the core of guitarist/vocalist Dave W. and bassist/vocalist Ego Sensation. A couple years back, the band was tracked down by director Jim Jarmusch and flown to Germany to perform “Under Skin or By Name” from 2007′s Glitter Glamour Atrocity for scene placement in a movie called Only Lovers Left Alive starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. Despite our never having heard of it previously and it being a bit of a commercial bust (according to IMDB), the drama/horror/romance flick was a hit with critics and on the festival circuit, garnering various high-profile nominations and awards. As Glitter Glamour Atrocity was originally released on CD-R by the band, their on-again-off-again relationship with Thrill Jockey was turned on again and the album is being re-issued and re-packaged (or packaged, as it were) for broader consumption and it’s for this reason we’re taking the time to get to know the duo of Ego Sensation and Dave W.
Tell us a little about the formation of White Hills and how the band has changed from then to now?
Ego Sensation: Dave started White Hills himself as a reaction to the influx of bland, rehashed new wave/post-punk bands that were flooding the New York scene at the time. There was nothing about the music that expanded on what it imitated to bring it into the present. It was disappointing because both of us had moved to New York because of its history of harboring innovative musicians and artists and we hoped to connect with a community of people that would value experimentation over mainstream success. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a creative void at the time. So Dave recorded the first White Hills album, No Game to Play in his tiny studio and from that decided to form a proper band with yours truly. Since then, we’ve constantly been changing and working to evolve. It’s important to us to never make the same album and to never play the same show. That is one of our main guiding principles.
You’ve been known for being fairly prolific as far as releases go. To what do you attribute this to and is this pace one you think you’ll be able to maintain?
Dave W.: As long as we want to maintain this pace and feel that we are creating something worthy, we will do so. We are artists so we create, it’s that simple.
Were there plans to re-issue/re-release Glitter Glamour Atrocity before this whole thing with Jim Jarmusch came along? Do you find yourselves doing this – re-releasing older works – very often? Do you get a lot of offers to re-issue older, smaller run stuff or to have a label do the CD of a vinyl-only release?
DW: We’ve been approached several times over the years about re-releasing Glitter but I’ve never been one to stay in the past, so it never really crossed my mind to do it. We do get offers quite often but we are a young band, even though we have a number of releases under our belt, so why just keep re-releasing old material when we continue to create new material?
The dudes at Thrill Jockey described their release of Glitter Glamour Atrocity as “the first proper issue of the hyper-limited album…which has been in dire need of a real edition since shortly after it was originally released.” Agree? Disagree?
DW: Well, I guess you could say the first release of it was improper due to its cover which was slightly offensive to some – mainly to monkeys.
Ego: And frankly we have had certain fans contact us having a small cry about not being able to find a copy of it. So “dire need” existed! It’s all relative isn’t it?
What did you know about Only Lovers Left Alive before you were approached to be in it? Have you since watched more than the part you’re in and what do you think?
DW: We knew nothing about the film before we were approached by Jim. Ego and I have seen the movie a few times since its release. The movie is fantastic! Even if we weren’t in it I would love this film. Its tone and topics explored are deep and interesting. It’s the only “vampire”-themed flick that I know of that explores the existential dilemma of eternal life. That, in and of itself, takes the genre into a completely new direction instead of relying on the cliches of the genre to sell the story. It’s also a beautiful love story. Even though the characters aren’t human, there is a humanity to them that touches you deeply.
Apparently there’s a pretty neat story about you and all your gear being flown over to Germany to be in this movie. Can you tell us about that? Was your trip over exclusively for the movie or did you manage to get some tour dates in?
DW: We went to Germany specifically to shoot the scene we were in. We were flown in in-between tours in the US. The timing was perfect for us.
Ego: It was actually great to not have any tour dates scheduled but instead spend some extra days on the set watching Jim work and getting to talk about music and film with him on breaks. Being a filmmaker myself, I felt really honored to get a behind the scenes look at a master directing seriously high-class talent. The actors were all fun to work with, especially Tilda Swinton who has a wildly infectious creative spirit. In between takes, Dave stepped in and gave her a little acting guidance which she graciously listened to. She’s so smooth and loose – like Iggy Pop!
As I understand, your live shows are quite the visual spectacle as much as they are musical event. Can you describe what goes on, the impetus for going beyond the basics of a rock show and if you have any future plans to expand upon what you’re doing now?
Ego: No, I can’t describe what goes on – you’re just going to have to come see it! A lot of what happens on stage is spontaneous and is generated by the energy of the players and the audience that culminates in a sort of ecstasy. For Dave and I, it isn’t just a rock show and White Hills isn’t just a band. You have to care more than that. Mental mediocrity is impolite when it’s brought to a public forum. Our impetus for creating a larger experience with our shows comes from a deep-seated value that what you put out into the world should be something you would enjoy as an audience member and can personally be proud of. And we will continue to grow, develop and expand the show into something revolutionary!
Judging by some of the gig posters I’ve seen online, there are numerous psychedelic festivals in Europe. Is there a really strong fanbase for this type of music over there? Do European crowds/fans react differently towards you and bands of your ilk than people over here do?
DW: “Psychedelic” appears to be the in thing right now. Europe has more of a festival culture than the US does, so it’s of no surprise to me that you see more “psych” themed festivals over there. Europeans have a different attitude towards music and, more specifically, towards live music. It is taken more seriously there. In the US, everyone’s focus seems to be on money. That creates a completely different culture and mindset that keeps people from taking a risk. You don’t see that as much in Europe which creates a different culture and atmosphere from the promoter all the way down to the fan.
Do you subscribe to the “born in the wrong era” mentality when it comes to the music you write, play and listen to or do you feel you are actively applying new elements to psychedelic rock as opposed to doing what some bands do and simply rehash the 60s/70s?
DW: Fuck no! I live now. That is what matters to me. I never set out to copy something from a previous era, but rather take what has existed and bring it into the present. That’s what the Sex Pistols and their peers did. They took 50′s rock n’ roll and brought it into the present for their generation. It wasn’t anything new, just updated. You can say the same thing about Nirvana, Soundgarden, Sonic Youth and that generation of “indie” bands. They took what came before them and updated it for their time.
Ego: I don’t subscribe to the “born in the wrong era” mentality. I think it’s a lazy excuse to not create something unique to your own time. Any artist is always fortunate to have whatever came before them as a model or inspiration. At this point in my career I have no interest in imitating other people’s art. Imitation is often an important first step for a musician. When I was fifteen I picked up the guitar with my main goal to learn “The Rain Song.” If you choose to move forward as artist you have to find your own voice which is, of course, informed by all the art you take in: music, film, theater, dance, painting, photography, etc. as well as your life experiences. You must let yourself be altered by experience because otherwise you’re the living dead. Because we don’t exist in a vacuum, the uniqueness of our ideas is usually the product of an existing idea filtering through a different perspective and this is what gives it new life.
I’m going to assume you have a bunch of stuff in the works. Care to share what’s upcoming in your world?
Ego: You bet we do! We’re headed out on a European tour in September that starts at Oslo PsychFest and culminates at the Liverpool PsychFest. It’s all PsychFest all the time these days! Then, we’ll be staying over in the UK and going to Wales for a few weeks to record a new album with a producer which is a first for us.
DW: There’s a new documentary film that we’re featured in Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio about Martin Bisi’s legacy where we recorded our last two albums. It opened in New York, Philadelphia and Boston in July and hopefully will be getting a wider release this fall. And, in my immediate future, is another cup of coffee!