Ask White Lies for their personal highlights of the 18-month world tour they undertook in support of 2009’s To Lose My LIfe and the answers come suitably fast, impassioned and diverse.
For drummer Jack Lawrence-Brown, he was reminded of his special memory a couple of months ago. “I found a t-shirt that we all got given when we went on the David Letterman show in New York. That was a huge moment for me. This is what real bands do: play to an international audience, millions of people, with one of the most famous men in the world. Being part of that was incredible. We were like little kids, running about the studio, sitting in his chair. Probably the most ‘big-time’ thing we got to do.”
Charles Cave, bass player, got his moment of thrilling validation by the side of a Polish motorway. “We’d never played Poland before, and our bus broke down four hours from a festival we were booked at. We sat there for ten hours. They sent cars out to get us. And we were thinking, we’ve got a 9pm slot in a tent in a country we’ve never played before. Is this all worth it? What are we stressing out for? But we got there, got changed, and walked on stage to probably the most insane crowd we’ve ever had. There must have been 20,000 people crammed into this tent. And when the first song started, it was obvious everyone knew every single word.”
“I felt a bit sick to be honest,” admits the band’s loquacious, thoughtful lyricist. “I’ve never felt quite so emotionally battered by a gig. And now Poland is one of our best places to go. And that show represents the hard work that we put in outside of the UK. A lot of bands that I suppose are our rivals, or our contemporaries, are doing a lot better than us statistically in the UK. But we have a fanbase around the world, places like Poland, Russia, Japan, Mexico…”
“The two nights at Brixton Academy were very special,” says Harry McVeigh, singer with the three-piece who formed in west London in 2006. “Kind of homecoming shows, but it just felt amazing to be in a venue we’d all grown up going to. And to bring in a huge production – we felt like a professional band,” he adds. “Suddenly it was this ‘huge’ thing.”
A huge thing indeed. To Lose My Life entered the UK charts at number one when released in January 2009 and went on to sell well over 750,000 copies around the world. New band of the year gongs at both the Q and Mojo awards alongside NME cover features and a coveted number 2 slot in the NME readers album of the year poll confirmed that 2009 had been some year for White Lies.
And so to late 2010. Recharged, excited and buoyed by a new-found self-belief, White Lies have taken the experiences they gleaned traveling the world and alchemised them into Ritual, their full-blooded, big-booted tech-rock second album.
The trio’s confidence, gung-ho vigour and ambition are on display in the moody, classically-framed electronica of Peace And Quiet, Lawrence-Brown’s favourite track. “It means a lot to me. It was the last one we did in the studio, so there was quite a lot of closure involved. But, for me, it’s the high point of the record. It felt different recording it – freer, much looser. It has the most organic feel, even though it has electronic drums at the start and end.”
And then there’s the band’s choice of Alan Moulder as producer. Alongside Max Dingel, who worked on To Lose My Life, the legendary man behind classic records by everyone from Them Crooked Vultures back to My Bloody Valentine, helped the band shape their ideas in his Assault And Battery studios in northwest London. “Alan’s the man we needed,” says Cave. “He’s older, wiser, a technical genius, and without a doubt he helped us realise everything we wanted to do but didn’t quite know how to get there.”
And those qualities are the foundation of Ritual – a record that was written in five quick-smart weeks and recorded in six. No messing around, no faffing or flailing in search of a “new direction” or “sure-hit singles”. Just a band of teenage friends, evolving into a tight, focused, imaginative, mutually supportive three-way unit.
“Initially we did have grand plans – we visited this really nice studio in Paris,” recalls Cave. “But this was three weeks into the writing process, and things were really going well. Two weeks later we were done. The vast difference in the writing this time was that Harry and I wrote it on his computer at home. Whereas last time we wrote it on a keyboard then translated it instantly into a three-piece set-up, recorded that, then added some more bits afterwards.”
But not that many bits – many elements of the demos for the songs on Ritual have survived. That’s how emboldened White Lies were. A development, they admit, that comes in part from the fact that their record collections have expanded “twenty-fold” since they made their first album.
“Touring we’d built a huge bank of influences, songs and artists that we really liked,” says McVeigh. “For the first time in our lives we had a bit of money and the first thing we did was spent it on a load of music. That had a big impact – we were soaking all this new music up.
Their new listening habits – Richie Hawtin, in his Plastikman guise and other nommes de bleep; Swedish metal band Opeth; Danish producer Trentemøller – directly informed the techno throb of The Power & The Glory. “The glitchy sounding electronic percussion in that song is a direct homage to those things,” says Cave.
The first single is the towering, glowering, thumping Bigger Than Us.
“It has quite a big chorus,” grins McVeigh. “It’s a good song for radio. I know it sounds like we think about which songs will do well, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We’re a very ambitious band. We want the best for our record.”
The closing Come Down is another pivotal song. McVeigh’s voice, rich and resonant, floats over a minimal electronic beat-scape, both icy and warm, before… going somewhere else entirely.
“We started off wanting that to be like a stripped down Tears For Fears,” smiles Cave. “Within ten minutes that idea had gone. The middle section which is full-on gospel and very R&B – well, we sat listening to it, smiling to each other, but going: I dunno, is this cool, is this any good? But we’re really proud of that moment. We like the fact that some people are gonna go, what the fuck is this?”
The album title, the lyricist adds, derives from the fact that “a lot of the songs deal with various rituals: daily rites of passage, things that all humans do which aren’t necessarily good for them. So a song like Holy Ghost is very literal, making observations on really extreme examples of fundamental religion. Whereas Strangers looks at the ritual of having a very unemotional, physical relationship with someone.
“And in a way the album links all these different things and draws them all to the same conclusion. Is doing this really just a way of killing time or trying to find some purpose in life? And is someone who gets up every morning and prays for three hours any different in the way that they view their life compared to someone who sleeps with a different person or drinks themselves silly every night?”
Adds McVeigh, “I like the title because it means everything but nothing all at the same time. It can refer to religion or love as the most important things in your life. Or it can refer to how every night you get back from work and watch TV, and that’s your ritual.”
And for their next highlights… Live, last time round, White Lies expanded to a four-piece. This time they will be five. “More space, more power, more back-up,” nods Jack Brown.
“I think we’ve just changed the intent. With the first record, while we might have denied it at the time, we were very much trying to be bombastic,” says Charles Cave with the brilliant, fierce honesty that informs everything White Lies do. “Quite overly dramatic. We were desperate to have a full string section! We wanted to be as big sounding as possible. I know that’s a loose, dangerous word that’s always thrown about by bands. But we did want that – and we possibly went a little too far.”
“And we received a bit of criticism for sounding a little sterile at some points, or un-genuine. But we’ve fixed that – for one, the lyrics on the first album concerned fictional stories, albeit influenced by real people and events. That always makes it quite hard to get emotionally involved. But this time we’ve been much more ambitious, but in a quite unconventional way. We wanted to see how many cracks we could leave in the final thing. There are less than perfect performances in there. Harry’s voice has been worked like a horse over the last two years, and after 18 months of touring and smoking and drinking, it’s not the young, angelic, clear voice it was before. Which for me is absolutely perfect.”
Power, glory, peace, quiet, sex, religion, mistakes, passion, cracks, heart, soul – Ritual offers all these. And sometimes more. And sometimes less.
C.D. Guillermo Amor
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