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A Quietus Interview

In A Space: Dave W Of White Hills Interviewed
John Doran , August 22nd, 2013 06:00

Dave W of White Hills talks to John Doran about the philosophy, spirituality, geography and politics of space rock

Long after man has ceased to exist; long after the mountains have fallen into the sea; long after the oceans have boiled dry; long after the sun has burst and evaporated planet Earth - humankind's mark on the universe will still be felt. There will be a circular ripple of radio waves created during the 20th and 21st Centuries travelling ever outwards into the cosmos for all eternity, as if caused by a tiny pebble dropped into a perfectly still pond. And this thin, elegant wave will contain the only remnants of what we were. In it will be all of our films, radio, television, electronic communications and internet activity. It will contain all of our art, history, news and entertainment, in all of its stupidity, glory, inconsequentiality and brilliance, heading outwards across the void to the ends of time itself.

And riding this wave, out past the Shoulder of Orion, through the Tannhauser Gate, way out into the Hubble deep field, will be the brightest of pulses of information encoded into peaks and troughs. And when this pulse reaches out where evolution itself has evolved into something new, it will hit the equivalent of a being, who will turn to the equivalent of a friend and use its equivalent of a mouth to say the equivalent of: "Dude…. Seriously… Dude… Did you just hear that?"

Because New York space rock trio White Hills are the opposite of a comet on collision course with our home planet. They suck up an explosion of energy on the surface of the Earth - from the history of amplified rock music, from the weather, from spirituality, from adrenaline, from the history of synthesised electronic music, from substance use, from philosophy, from friends and enemies alike, from motherfucking electricity - and they focus it into a blinding beam of energy which they reflect back out into the void. And this beam is a message. It is a statement which reads: "Fuck you. We are here. We rock, therefore we are."

This week sees the release of their seventh full length studio album, which is entitled So You Are… So You'll Be, and is their most concentrated blast of psychedelic interstellar rock to date.

The LP is a blazing totem of rock & roll empowerment and will to power achievement, as if overseen by the spirit of Nietzsche wearing leather trousers, mirror shades, a well fitted Cuban shirt and wielding a Flying V. Building on the solid foundations laid by last year's excellent Frying On This Rock, they went back to BC Studios, Brooklyn to record once more with Martin Bisi. This time they could easily have released a great triple album, but felt that they would sooner abandon most of the material, in order to get the most concentrated blast of White Hills at their fullest potential possible onto one disc.

In an eight year history that has seen the release of seven studio albums and countless collaborations, split albums, EPs, live CDs, tour only singles, 7"s, limited edition CDrs and other spin offs, this is probably their finest achievement to date… and that's saying something. But this in turn says something about White Hills frontman Dave W's need to continue bettering what he has already achieved, to aim higher and higher.

White Hills is formed around the pulsar core of conceptualist/guitarist/vocalist Dave W and bassist Ego Sensation (their regular drummer Nick Name appears on the current album). The pair were part of the 1990s San Franciscan psychedelic rock scene, but blew the city when the dot com millionaires moved in and their friends all started going straight and having kids (those that weren't already becoming drug casualties). They decided to go East to New York for a fresh creative start in 1999, but initially despaired of the fake rock revolution offered by the Strokes and Interpol when they arrived.

To stop himself from going mad Dave recorded what would become their debut They've Got Blood Like We've Got Blood in 2004 and sent it off to Julian Cope. The Arch Drude praised the recording on his Head Heritage site and eventually released it on his Fuck Off And Di label in 2005. When Copey's worldwide army of psych fiends started getting in touch, Dave realised that he should form an actual band to support the recording, which he did in 2006, leading to the bizarre event of their third ever gig being on stage at Koko in Camden opening for Saint Julian and his acid flambéed rockers.

Since then they have gone on to set the international gold standard in what it means to be a space rock band in the 21st Century. The Quietus caught up with him via Skype on the White Hills never ending tour.

What was the first performance you saw by a rock guitarist where you thought, 'This is the life for me'?

Dave W: I was in Junior High School, in San Mateo, California. I was 11 years old and this was my first ever rock gig. I'd seen people play guitar before but this was the moment when I thought, 'This is what I want to do.' There was a band that played at lunchtime in the school gym and they were playing U.F.O.'s 'Strangers In The Night'. When I saw that, I knew what I wanted to do. They were high school kids, and I just thought it was so cool. I got a guitar not long after. I taught myself by playing to records. I didn't have any patience for scales and all that shit… I just wanted to rock.

How strong was the rock in this school?

DW: Rock was the thing.

Who were the big bands?

DW: In California we had this thing called Day On The Green, they were concerts that Bill Graham would present at Oakland Coliseum and it would be people like Aerosmith to Metallica to AC/DC… you know, all those big 70s and 80s cock rock groups. Pat Travers and stuff like that. I wasn't necessarily into those things as much. I had a friend at the time who had two older brothers who was into all this stuff. One was a freshman and the other was a sophomore in college. They were into all the New York and British music like the Sex Pistols and Patti Smith and Motorhead, and that stuff was what really got me going.

What was the first band that you heard that really set you on the road to where you are now?

Dave W: Public Image Ltd. It was hearing Metal Box that really freaked me out. It made me think of music in a completely different way. And I think that was the first thing that was like mantra music that I had heard and got into.

So the krautrock element has kind of been there since day one for you?

Dave W: Yeah but without a realisation that that was what it was.

The new album is called So You Are… So You'll Be. Can you explain the title for me please?

Dave W: It comes from two places - one which is very personal and one which is a statement about humanity. People have this kind of concept that they can't change but I feel like change is possible. So who you choose to be is who you are and who you will be. In the same respect it's kind of like saying you are what you eat… if you eat crappy food your insides are made of crap. I think that you can be enlightened in many different ways and if you choose to be enlightened and are someone who seeks out those things then you can be that and you will be that. If you want to be enlightened you will be enlightened. If you want to be an asshole you will be an asshole. But the greater scope of this statement is if you look at the history of humans, really, nothing has changed. There might be greater technology but really, we as human beings, we're the same as we ever were. There's always a ruling class that shits on a working class. There's always war over money. So we as humans aren't enlightened as a whole. So I think that you as an individual can progress under certain circumstances, so if you choose to be something and to try and learn and to try and progress then eventually it will happen but that is also who you are. You can make conscious decisions to try and do something [positive or constructive] but you are what you are.

You've got a reputation as having a very strong work ethic and it's only probably a year since I was last talking to you about the last album. When did you start writing for this album?

DW: Right after the other one was done.

Do you write on the road?

DW: If something comes into my head, sure.

And I know you don't like doing much practice before recording, how quickly did this album come together?

DW: Basically before we went to Europe, last October we had half of the album written and half of it recorded and then we went back into the studio and recorded the other half of the album. When I say half the album… we recorded enough material to have a triple album. So it only ended up being a single album because it was better for the concept and what I was trying to do. It was a more concentrated blast.

There's a lot of electronic ambient noise on this record and I'm not saying you haven't used this before but there are bits of this album that could be on an AFX or Autechre record. What was the process with synths this time?

DW: It's all written on guitars. I love synthesizers and I love electronic music and I love the avant garde and I always want to try and have some kind of element of that in the music. So once the music is put down and recorded, that's when I start to tinker with it using synths. The track 'Circulating' was composed of synth treatments for another song that ended up not being included on the record.

Has the emphasis changed regarding the lyrics on this album?

DW: I would say that there are more lyrics, relatively speaking, on this album. I was really focussed on trying to change the way that the lyrics sit within songs and how they are sung or how the words would be placed within the music. Within me, vocally, it's a huge jump [forwards]. If you look at the track 'In Your Room' - it is fairly vocal heavy all the way up through the bridge and that's when Ego does that weird thing of using those vowels from within the phrase "In your room" to make this weird percussive vocal line. So things like that are completely different. Usually the lyrics are written last but in this case they were written before the song was recorded. They did change a lot once the tracks were actually recorded and they were swapped around a lot but there was a lot more emphasis on them this time round.

'In Your Room' is like a call to arms… like a rallying cry isn't it?

DW: Yeah, yeah. I think that's just in my nature. I think there's always at least one song on each album that's quite like that.

But you're quite an old school guy in that respect aren't you? There's no room for irony or post modernism in White Hills is there?

DW: I would agree with that. But when I write lyrics, personally I don't care if the person who is listening to it understands what I'm saying or not; and I write them like that specifically. You know, I have my views; I don't feel the need to have people have the same views as me. So if they find the meaning in the songs and it's the same meaning as the one I intended then fine and dandy and if they don't, they don't. Last year we played in Norway for the first time and when we played in Oslo and there was a guy who works on the oil rigs and he was stationed in Africa and he took vacation time specifically to see us in his home town. So he flew from fucking Africa to see us and then he's telling me how when they're drilling for oil they're pumping out H-p1. Now that record in general has huge statements about organisations raping the Earth. Now here's someone who is enjoying the record who is doing something that I'm specifically speaking out against and specifically within that one song.

Well if you're not trying to influence people lyrically, are you trying to evoke a specific mood or emotion with music?

DW: Yeah, I want people to go inwards. I want people to look at themselves. I want people to go into a space for meditation. It's funny to use a word like meditation as the music is fairly brutal but there is a hypnotic element to it and the way that I try and create that for someone just happens to be through a fairly heavy form of music. I feel that for me, there is so much that happens in our world today and so many things that are constantly going on. You are constantly barraged and beaten down with a lot of bullshit and I find that heavy and extreme music helps me to go into a very tranquil place and I hope, more than anything, that the music does create a space for people to go inward with.

What's your definition of space rock?

DW: Something that takes you out of yourself and out of your normal realm. And if space happens to be that inner space or outer space it's a very personal thing. I think that mantra is space music. I think that Native American tribal drumming is space music. Anything that allows you to go inward to go outward and to move within a space that is not normal to your reality.

How did you and Ego meet?

DW: We were both in bands in San Francisco. The drummer in her band was someone that I knew. When they did their first show the drummer asked me to come, we met then, so at that time in SF there was a huge community of like-minded people so we all began to melt into this group that were doing shows together and hanging out. But it was a long time before we started to make music together.

Why did you leave San Francisco?

DW: Because that whole dot com thing was on. A lot of the clubs were in industrial areas and then the city started zoning those areas for live spaces and then a lot of rich people moving in were pissed off that there were clubs making all this noise so all these great clubs started to close down. There were a lot of people taking too many drugs and dying or realising that they needed to go sober and then the community that was there by the late 90s was gone and a lot of people started to get married and started to have kids and it wasn't anything that I wanted to do and it wasn't anything Ego wanted. She wanted to continue making music. She said to me, "I'm thinking of moving to New York." And I said, "Can I come with you?"

How did White Hills start?

DW: I recorded what became They Have Blood in early 2004. But I'd been in New York since early 1999. I started to write and record music under a band name called Violate The Drug Space. Ego Sensation had this whole show that revolved round a story and it was very interactive and had a mix of theatre, live music and video. So I played around a little bit and recorded an album that I didn't do anything with and then I started playing in another band and they were doing a punky garage thing. I was still trying to find people to play space rock. You'd put ads in Craig's List and people would laugh at you. You know, you'd get these assholes sending me emails like, "What the fuck's space rock you fucking idiot?" And I was like, "Fuck you, I could give a shit about The Strokes. I could give a shit about fucking Interpol. Don't tell me that any of that shit is new or interesting." So I thought what the fuck am I doing playing this fucking punky garage bullshit. So I went out and bought gear and recorded a record for myself for my own sanity. When it was done I thought that Julian Cope would like it and that's really how it got started.

How did he get back in touch with you?

DW: The first that I knew he liked it was that he mentioned it in one of his monthly Drudians. And then it was though this guy Seth – if you go onto Head Herritage and look on the home page there's a section called the Seth Man – it was through him. Then Julian got in touch with me with the idea of releasing it through Fuck Off And Di.

So how did it go from being this home recorded demo to being a band?

DW: Well, I started getting emails from people in Julian's community, wondering where they could get a copy. So I started selling a version that I had and then I started to feel like, "Oh if there are all these people who are interested in it then I should try and put a band together." And it took a year to settle on who would be in the band and what form it would take. So that was into 2005 when Julian finally released it and then into 2006 when he had us open up for him at Koko in Camden.

How was that gig?

DW: It was great. It was nerve wracking. Our drummer at the time couldn't come out for the show so Julian hooked us up with Antrony who we've been collaborating with ever since.

What does the name mean?

DW: Nothing! It's an image. When I first said it, it brought to mind two things: drugs and nature. And I liked the way it rolled off the tongue.

Say if over the next month literally everyone in Williamsburg formed space rock groups would you fuck it off and do something else? Do you relish being an outsider?

DW: No. I think I'd like to be accepted. And in some ways I think White Hills is accepted. But I at this point I don't spend time trying to be in the clique or in the scene because those things don't matter to me. What matters to me is creating something from my heart for what I want to do. I think now in Brooklyn there is way more of what you could call a psychedelic scene or a space rock scene but to me personally these bands make pop music. Tame Impala aren't from Brooklyn but you know, they're a good band, write good songs, they're a bit trippy, but they aren't a psychedelic band, they're a pop band. I'd say the same thing about The Black Angels. I like it; it's fine and dandy but ultimately they're playing pop music. Same with Wooden Shjips.

Which song by White Hills is the closest thing you have to an anthem or mission statement?

DW: I'd say 'H-p1'. I like the lyrical content and the statement of it. Everything in that song came together really well. It forged a lot of things that I'm trying to do with White Hills in making heavy mantra music.

What's your main aim for White Hills in the future?

DW: Just to continue. You have these visions of grandeur of you taking over the entire world! But really I've been very fortunate with this band and there's been this constant trajectory upwards and there are always other things happening. You always wonder when it's going to plateau, so for me I would just like it to continue to go up.

So You Are… So You'll Be is out on Thrill Jockey now