In the nine years that followed the 2007 release of Music from Regions Beyond, Californian …
If you’re arguing White Lung’s Paradise isn’t the best album of 2016, you’re wasting your breath. A roiling sea of seething punk rock, Blondie styled pop, and walls of guitar will knock you on your ass, guaranteed. For those not in the know, I feel sorry for you, I really do.
Led by ex-VICE journalist and singer Mish Barber-Way and flanked by Kenny William (guitar) and Anne-Marie Vassilou (drums), figuring out how they make that massive sound will tie you in knots. That, and their whole ass-kicking, do what you like attitude. It’s a cool, beautiful new take on punk rock recursion, punk rebelling against itself. Speaking from her Southern California home, she’s candid as she is forthright. She gives Hysteria a blow-by-blow as she walks up to her front door after a spot of shopping. “Oh my God, there’s peacocks,” she says, surprised. “Okay, we have peacocks all over our neighbourhood, and there’s one that’s always at our house and he’s in our driveway right now. They don’t move for your car, they’re so dumb.”
The Vancouver based, American-transplanted indie punks are ten years a band, but are wise beyond their decade of existence. 2010’s It’s The Evil won Exclaim! Mag’s punk album of the year, and they were nominated for punk/hardcore artist of the year in 2011’s Canadian Music Week Indie Awards. Everyone loves them. Especially when Mish drops lyrics like the “It’s the Marshall Plan, it’s the only goal.” I mean, how can you not?
Hysteria: The sound on Paradise is a monster. How did you get it to sound like that?
Mish: The sound, that’s all Kenny and Lars [Stalfors, producer.] The record, we decided to go with a new producer this time probably because we wanted to try something new and expand ourselves and probably because, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to leave the USA for a while because of immigration stuff. I had gotten married. When you have a visa and you switch it to a green card you’re in this purgatory period of not being able to work or leave the country. I mean, you could leave but they won’t let you come back.
Of course they wouldn’t.
Exactly. The label wanted us to record at a certain time and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to leave so long story short, we picked Lars. We met up with him, and Kenny knew what he wanted to do on this record and so did I. We had the same similar vision of making something very big and clean and bright and elevated. I really wanted to prove that I could sing and prove that I could write really good hooks. We met with Lars. Kenny’s main goal was to use the simple set up that we have which is the simple rock set up. Drums, guitar, bass, vocals…and use all of the technology available to us to make it sound like so much more than that.
So it was your own Blondie, “Oh wow, Debbie Harry can sing”, moment.
Something like that. Lars really understood that idea when we brought it to him and it was very natural and easy to write with him. We wrote the whole … The entire record was essentially written in the studio. We had been working on stuff and had bits and pieces but I didn’t have any, not one of my songs, entirely complete. It was a collage effort, a lot of cutting and pasting, a lot of digitally taking apart and going, ‘Well, what does that sound like here,’ and fucking around that way and it makes you a better writer when you’re able to do that.
I don’t understand this, I mean, okay you’re clearly a writer because you’re interviewing me right now and so am I. Why would I write on a fucking typewriter right now? It’s crazy. Why would you do that to yourself when you can get so much more done.
So you go with what makes it easier…makes sense.
Yeah. That was the main goal and Lars and Kenny worked really, really closely to make the record sound the way it does. I wasn’t even in the studio half the time that they were tinkering and doing all the things they were doing together. I came into complete songs basically. Kenny and I worked very separately and it’s fine. We work really well that way. We know each other. I know how to write on a Kenny song. I’ve been doing it for years. He knows how to write a song that is going to work for me. Anne-Marie is so locked into that as well so it was a seamless, interesting, fun record to make.
The lyrics are something else too. On Hungry, you reference the Marshall Plan, which is just insane. The metaphors and allusions are fresh on this record…it’s something many people probably haven’t heard in a very long time.
Sure. The lyrics are really important to me. Not only because words are important to me and it’s something I’m very good at, but when I listened to music when I was young, the lyrics were the most important part. I would obsess and I wanted to know exactly what the person said. If the lyrics weren’t in the tape or in the CD, I’d spend hours trying to figure out what they say, and this is before the Internet.
It’s okay to want to be the best at something, but it’s a losing battle if you want to be famous or notable. I don’t think that it ever ends up well, because it’s usually as a means to get to something else and you know, that’s the tale well told. [MISH]
I always cared about that, but the way I write, I’m writing almost these private jokes and references to myself. People don’t always get it. I feel like on this record … All the other records, when you’re writing punk music it’s so easy to be angry and sarcastic and cynical and have that kind of feeling about it. It’s like, the angrier, the better of course, and it’s flippant in ways. I also want it to be a little more true and a little more heartfelt on certain things. There’s more of a variety on this record.
That lyric you’re talking about is a reference to a Blue Öyster Cult song about a kid who, yeah, you know what I’m talking about right?
It’s that that old Blue Öyster Cult song about that kid who wants to be famous and be in a rock band so that this girl will like him. So he toils away and he does it — he finally becomes a rock star and he still doesn’t get the love that he wants. That song Hungry is just about fame and how much people want that and just that weird thrill for it that I think always ends up…well, maybe it ends up great.
When I interviewed Joan Rivers she told me being famous is fabulous. You walk into a hospital and, “Right this way Ms. Rivers. Everything for you, Ms. Rivers.” There’s all that of course, but there’s also, I just think that it’s this losing battle to want to be famous. It’s okay to want to be the best at something, but it’s a losing battle if you want to be famous or notable. I don’t think that it ever ends up well, because it’s usually as a means to get to something else and you know, that’s the tale well told.
I was just exploring with a lot of ideas of what really means something. What is really important to me and what it boils down to is friends and family and a relationship. Now as cheesy as that sounds, there’s a lot of that.
The videos you guys made are something else too. They’re confronting, but so compelling. Especially the one you did for Below.
Well, we always really like making videos, its very fun. It’s a great part of having singles. With Below, that video … I have this friend named Richard Bates Jr. And he is a director and some indie films. He did Excision, and Suburban Gothic, and now Trash Fire, all movies I suggest you watch. They’re excellent, he’s great. He used some of our songs in these movies. That’s how I met him a million years ago and we remained good friends.
When it came time to do the Below video, he always said he wants to do one for us. Ricky, we get each other. I get his writing style and his intuitions and stuff and I asked him if he would do one for Below and I told him what the song was about and I sent him the lyrics and he came up with the idea. The label too, Warren has to do something that was, that showcased us very well since we weren’t highlighted in the first video that I did that was more of a narrative. Ricky came up with that and it was perfect.
He came up with a brilliant idea and he executed it and made it look like it was worth a lot more…he made the video look very expensive. It was insane. He’s an excellent director. You have to work with other people so it’s nice when you have friends that can also get you. We had my friend Justin Gradin did Hungry, we wrote that one together and he executed it. He’s the guy who did all that art for our albums and he did the video for Sister.
You work with certain people and they get what you’re doing and it becomes easier, but I love the video for Below. I think it’s beautiful and I think he did an excellent job. It was a brilliant, a weird concept for us to do because our videos have always been punk videos so, I’m very happy with it.
Another punk rock thing to do is having a civil conversation over a disagreement. You called metal band Allegaeon “the laziest, most pathetic sub-human beta males” for setting up a Patreon, but then you sat down, apologised, and talked it out. Is that what’s missing from music? Having common ground on things?
I think that’s missing from the Internet in general. I shouldn’t have written that mean thing that I did. I was stuck at the airport to be honest. It was totally uncalled for, but the great thing about it was the guy ended up taking me up on my offer. Whenever I insult someone I always say…er, rather, or criticise them, “if you’d like to talk to me, here’s my phone number. Here’s my email. Call me, let’s talk about it.”
He did, and he proved me wrong in a lot of ways and we respectfully disagreed on other things and it was a great thing. I’m glad we spoke. Man, metal trolls are fucking mean. Holy crap. I had no idea. Metal fans are psycho, I should’ve known. They’re totally nuts, but it resulted well and I really respected him. Especially the singer, Riley, for doing that and standing his ground, it was great.
People are so afraid to debate now. They just want to insult some more and log off…so I really respected his ability to do that.
It’s the end of the year, what are your thoughts on 2016?
We had a good year. Our last show was here in LA on the 17th of November. We had a great year. We did some awesome tours and made money. We had fun. We had our very good friend playing bass with is which was great. Yeah, it was an excellent year. It’s hard to, when you’re constantly thinking about what you’re going to do next, it’s hard to take that time and think and really reflect and appreciate what you’ve gotten to do. I’m trying to do that more, but yeah, it was a lot of touring this year. We’re just going to do this last tour over with you guys and take a break and write a new record. We’ll see.
White Lung is appearing at St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival 2017 and playing select headline dates, presented by Handsome Touring