Cooking, Bullying & Sex: White Hinterland Interviewed

With White Hinterland set to appear on The Quietus' stage at the Stag and Dagger festival tomorrow evening, Ben Hewitt talks to Casey Dienel about their latest album _Kairos_

Tomorrow evening, The Quietus is sincerely hoping you join us at The MacBeth in London as part of the Stag and Dagger festival. On our stage, we’ll have the excellent Archie Bronson Outfit, the mind-warping Gyratory System, the bracing Teeth Of The Sea, and last but not least, the lush electro-pop of White Hinterland.

The Quietus recently caught up with Casey Dienel, the voice of White Hinterland, to discuss their new album Kairos – a dark and dreamy mixture of synths and sequencers that marks a radical departure from her previous piano-driven ditties – and a whole lot more besides…

Hi Casey. It’s The Quietus here. How are you?

Casey Dienel: I’m wonderful.

Good. So Kairos seems like an obvious place to start – it’s got a much different aesthetic to your previous work. Was that a conscious decision?

CD: I don’t think it was a decision so much as a total paradigm shift, and I think a lot of things had to coincide to make that happen. Initially, the line-up was a big part of it, as in working with Shawn and having a very clear idea of what White Hinterland is. In 2008, I had four different line-ups. When you start changing your band every few months, you get an inconsistency that I wasn’t pleased with.

By the time we were recording things, I was aware of how starkly different it was. When I was writing songs, I had all these big ideas and instead of adapting them to suit my capability, I just learnt to do what I needed to do to get those melodies. I was writing them without any instruments, just my loop pedal, and me, and a microphone. It was just very clear early on that they would work with drum beats – programmed drum beats – so I took three or four months where I just learnt how to do that. And I did the same thing with my voice, in that I had all these ideas for melodies but my voice wasn’t strong enough yet to do them, so I took another three months to treat my voice like any instrument that I play where I would practice for six hours a day.

Did you take any singing lessons?

CD: No, I didn’t have the money to do that! I already had lessons from when I was four years old until I was as about 21.

To me, it seems as if the influences are a lot different this time. I know in the past you’ve been compared to artists like Joni Mitchell, but with Kairos I hear bits of New Order, Bjork, Fever Ray…

CD: That’s very flattering.

You’re welcome.

[Laughs]. Yeah, I listened to a lot of New Order. And I love Bjork. I guess as an artist I’m supposed to be coy about that, but I want people to like what I like. It’s not enough for me to like a band like Dirty Projectors and keep it to myself. I want everyone to be into it. But I don’t think when we were recording that we were really citing anyone. There wasn’t really a rubric for what we were doing.

How about things like pop and R&B? Were they an influence?

CD: Totally. I think one of the benefits of growing up is that you don’t really have to give a fuck anymore about what you like and what you don’t. When you’re younger, you’re so self conscious about your tastes, so it’s nice that if I want to put on Britney Spears that’s totally cool. I love R & B, and I grew up listening to that in the privacy of my bedroom. It had a sexuality to it that I think when you’re growing up you’re kind of shy about.

In what way?

Well, the first record I ever listened to that didn’t belong to my parents was Janet Jackson’s janet. – the one where someone is holding her bosom from behind. I was nine or 10. It was pretty racy for a nine-year-old. I remember sitting and listening to it, and being totally transfixed.

We were just talking about changes in direction. Why did you decide to stop releasing music under your own name in favour of the White Hinterland moniker?

CD: I think there was a pre-emptive necessity for it. I could see in the future where I was headed, even if wasn’t apparent to the people I was working with, and I knew I had to put the structure down early on because I see myself as a long-term musician. I don’t think I was one of those people that was hyped really early on in the infancy of their music career. I mean, I didn’t even to make my first record. It was something I was doing in the off hours from school. So when I decided to be a musician full time, I made sure to do it the way I wanted to.

It’s hard to explain it without sounding somewhat flippant about the music I’ve made in the past. I’m not flippant, I had to make music the way I did to be able to do what I’m doing now, and I’m really happy with those records. But after the record I put out under my solo name I got kind of icky, because of a couple of record labels that were really psyched to have another girl playing piano at their disposal. I felt kind of toxic, and it wasn’t really the direction I wanted to go in.

“Amsterdam” by White Hinterland from Secretly Jag on Vimeo.

How much of what you do now is motivated by a discontent with what went before?

CD: I wouldn’t say I was discontented… I’m just more content when I’m challenged. I’m mainly happy when I’m in the thick of something new or scary; I’m very turned on by being scared of things. I think of every record or album as these imprints that I’ve made in periods of my life, and I think it’s great that I have a window in what I was thinking when I was 18 or 19. I don’t know if I’m in response to my old work now. I’m just restless – but I’m not angry about it. When something doesn’t work, it’s not a failure, it’s just a lesson.

I think the concept of having to make certain records to get to a certain point is really interesting. It’s like Virginia Woolf having to write The Voyage Out and Night and Day – pretty traditional novels – before she produced more experimental work. She had to understand the conventions before she could discard them.

CD: Yeah, totally. I think with experience comes a new set of goals and I think when you’re green you don’t have those skills. I’m not somebody that gets things right on the first try. I just love experimenting, and I’m not so concerned about nailing it on the first go.

Restlessness seems to be a theme on the record, especially lyrically, with lines such as "I can’t sit still or stay in one place" and "I’m afraid of so many things/ But I don’t fear the future".

CD: I think part of being a great writer is you take some of your character flaws and turn them into assets, and I think in my personal life my restlessness is not always such an awesome thing, but in my creative life it’s useful. It gets me to go to spaces I wouldn’t have gone to.

Are you reckless in your personal life?

CD: No, I’m a really moderate person. I’m not like a crazy druggie. I think what it is, is that I’m really dreamy, but I hate talking about it because I think when people hear ‘dreamy’ they assume you’re not intelligent. But I am dreamy. I have dreams when I’m awake all the time.

The record has a really dreamy, ethereal feel to it.

CD: Yeah, I am dreamy [laughs]. It’s like when people describe your hair colour in a way that you don’t like – like when people say you have dirty brown hair, and you want it to be chestnut. You cringe because you know it’s true. You know, ‘Spacey Casey’ – urgh. I cringe because it’s true.

Spacey Casey?

CD: Yeah, that was my nickname as a kid. Among other nicknames – I had quite a lot of nicknames as a kid.

You could do worse than Spacey Casey.

CD: There was a worse nickname, but you don’t need to know that.

Come on Casey, you can tell me.

CD: Egghead.

Egghead? Do you have a head shaped like an egg?

CD: My head was very big. I had a big brain!

Well, the bigger your brain, the bigger your head. That’s almost certainly a fact, I think.

CD: [Laughs] I think my head was something I had to grow into.

It looks pretty normal-sized now.

CD: I remember a kid one day got an egg on the bus and he was like, ‘Hey, egg head, watch this!’ and he threw it on the floor and stomped on it.

It could have been worse. At least he didn’t throw it at you.

CD: Well, I got in big trouble because I hit him.

You punched him? In the face?

CD: I did.


CD: I hit him with my backpack.

So basically, it was assault with a weapon?

CD: Yeah. And I tried to explain at school what happened, but they said it was no excuse for violence.

How hard did you hit him? Was he injured?

CD: He cried, but there was no bloodshed. He was fine. I was a scrappy kid.

Did you fight a lot?

CD: I was argumentative. I was a little over-defensive. And I was always the new kid, we moved a lot when I was young.

I’d probably be argumentative if people called me egg head.

CD: Yeah. And I had glasses…I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this…

Maybe it’s therapeutic?

CD: Well, the girls – they were the worst. The boys were mean but the girls were really bad. One day this group of girls were like, ‘Your glasses are dirty, we want to wash them for you’. And they took my glasses and cracked them. So I started shouting at them in the middle of the class and got in trouble for something.

Listen to ‘Icarus’ here.

That is pretty mean, but I’ve also got this vision of you like The Incredible Hulk, as if you’d just lose the plot if people pushed you over the edge.

CD: Yeah, I had a lot of strange discipline issues when I was little. I wasn’t horrible, but I’d have to deal with things in a certain way. Even now I still kind of feel like that.

One of the things I wanted to ask you about the album – and you’ll have to forgive the repressed Britishness here – is how much sexier, and more sensual, it is than your previous work.

CD: Oh yeah, definitely. That was something that crept its way in very early on, especially lyrically. In the past maybe I would have edited that out, but in this instance I felt it would be inappropriate to edit those things out. I think sexuality is the final frontier of adulthood. It’s important as part of growing up – it’s important to me, anyway. I think with a lot of these songs all I wanted to do was make something very beautiful, so I feel good when I’m singing them. And I felt really good writing them. It was cathartic, and not just in a ‘I’m crying into my cocoa’ way, but because my whole body is being used to sing.

I think sexuality, especially the way I was raised – which was toned down, and in indie-rock it’s especially turned down. Maybe because indie-rock is mostly guys, and women have to abandon some terms of having effortless sexuality. It’s spiritual, it’s not brash or obscene. It’s a very beautiful thing. I’m not saying there can’t be sexy men. There are sexy men too.

Some men are sexy. Not all of them, though.

CD: There’s a really good quote by Nigella Lawson about feminist sexuality. I can’t remember it, but it’s awesome. Of course it’s awesome!

Nigella Lawson the chef?

CD: Yeah. She’s pretty sexy.

Sexuality is a massive part of all music, I guess, but indie-rock is really sexless. I can’t think of anything less sexy than indie-rock.

CD: Yeah, that might be the kind of music I want to listen to when I’m driving, but when I have a companion over at my house I don’t want to listen to it.

It’s certainly not bedroom music.

CD: No, definitely not. You don’t want to do that when you listen to it. When I was recording the album, I was thinking ‘I hope somebody has a serious make out session to this… I’d be totally psyched’. We played a show recently and apparently a young couple were having sex in the back.

Were you proud of that?

CD: Well, I wasn’t offended! I think my friend that told me thought I’d be offended. I don’t know where this idea of my personal modesty came about.

I think it’s a compliment. People having sex at your show is better than them walking out.

CD: Yeah, I was just like, ‘Well, be good about it!’.

What kind of things do you like to do when you’re not making music? You like cooking, right?

CD: I love to cook. I love French cooking. I do a lot of simple, basic French cooking. Right now though, I’m really fixated on Japanese cooking. It’s so fresh and clean, and it’s really quick to cook, which is good because I’m really busy.

Listen to ‘No Logic’ here

I offered to cook for someone recently, and I’m still not sure why.

CD: Well, it’s spring time, so are you vegetarian?

No. I shouldn’t have volunteered, to be honest. I was a bit drunk and claimed I was really good at cooking. It’s my own fault for lying.

CD: I always like eating lamb in the spring. Or you should so something with rhubarb – rhubarb is in season now. Rhubarb crumble would be so good.

Is it hard to make?

CD: No, I usually get a cup of sugar per pound of rhubarb, and then you mix butter with oats and brown sugar, and a bit of flour and salt.

OK. I think I could do that.

CD: You should totally do it. And you should get some lemon zest. You could always put in a knob of pure ginger…

Alright, I think you’re getting too ambitious. Let’s get the basics sorted first.

CD: No! If I was in town right now I would show you. You can totally do it.

So you’ll be playing at the Stag & Dagger in London. Are you looking forward to it?

CD: I’m so excited. I’m kind of beside myself, I can’t really believe how much work we have this year. It’s really thrilling for me, because last year we couldn’t tour and now we’re touring for like three months. It’s pretty exciting. A lot can change, apparently, in three months.

Well, we’ll look forward to seeing you in London.

CD: Yeah, I can’t wait to meet you in person.

You can show me how to make some rhubarb crumble if you like.

CD: If I’m not busy, I’m totally down.

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