White Denim—Feeling the Side Effects

Erudite students of everything from The Minutemen to Yes, the members of White Denim are true record collectors at heart, soaking up sounds from every corner of the musical spectrum, and ameliorating the juxtaposition of what on the surface would appear to be an odd collection of tastes. On their ninth studio album, Side Effects, the Austin quartet have once again elevated their songcraft to new heights of what’s possible, cranking out perfectly off-beat songs boiled down in their own oddball stew of punk, prog rock, folk, free jazz, and soul, while pouring on a heavy jamming technique that compliments their shrewd use of electronics and audio looping.

Breaking free of the miasma of stale rock ‘n’ roll trappings is no easy task, but White Denim has done so—largely under the radar, but not without roaring accolades from fans and critics alike. Recently, AQ sat down for a chat with the band’s vocalist and guitarist, James Petralli, to talk about the history of the band and its music, as well as offering a candid explanation as to why internal harmony is more important to him than external acclaim.

I think a lot of our readers are just getting hip to White Denim right now. My understanding is that members of two separate bands actually joined forces after an impromptu jam session, and that’s what spawned White Denim. Could you give us a little background on how the group came together?

Yeah, so this was like 15 years ago, and our old drummer and I had a group—we worked on a bunch of different projects together—but we had a punk group that was kind of like the New York Dolls. It was called Park Couch and we did a gig—one of those divey kind of punk gigs where only the other bands are watching the band–

And there’s, like, 15 of them on the bill?

Yeah, that kind of thing. So there was another band called Teach Train, with Steve (Terebecki, bassist) playing the bass. At the time, I was working at a plant farm and I had business cards, so I gave him a business card after their performance, which was really loud and really cool looking. He just knew how to put on a good show. He kind of stole the show from his band. So, I just handed him a business card after the performance and invited to come jam. And he ended up joining our group. The Park Couch group was just guitar, drums, and vocals. So, we were kind of on the prowl for a bass player, and he was the first guy we looked into and we were a good fit.

White Denim’s sound is quite a mixture of different genres and sounds. So I was wondering what are some of the band’s influences?

I think that everybody is kind of out there on the individual ones, you know? Steve is really into Chris Squire from Yes. [Also], Mike Watt from The Minutemen is a big influence on his playing. 

It’s funny that you mentioned the Minutemen. That’s what I hear when I listen to you guys.

Yeah, there’s definitely some of that. That’s kind of one of the great bands that Steve and I agree on wholeheartedly. Yes, as well. You know, I like a lot of R&B like Stevie Wonder…. Hendrix is also a huge one for me. You know, we’re like record collector guys, rock ‘n’ roll students…. So, everything is fair game for influence. That is why our music hits on so many things… you know, we’re really just seeing what we can do. We have a wide range [of influences] and just naturally want to play the things that we enjoy, and try to play like the people that we like, you know? Like, and bossa nova on one track and, like, early Funkadelic psychedelic shit on another track, you know?

Definitely. So when did you guys start writing and recording Side Effects?

Well, Side Effects, has tracks that go all the way back to 2009….

Those are some pretty old tracks then.

Yeah, a couple of songs are. We have a studio and the band has been through a lot of changes over the years. So, we kind of adapted this “studio band” approach…. If something doesn’t work for one record, we try it back in the mix for another. Some [of the songs on Side Effects] are a year old, and some of them are 10 years old. So, this album came from songs that had been written within different periods of time.

Is it hard to find cohesion within a single album with that approach?

Yes! It’s always a challenge to make a cohesive full-length record. I mean, especially with the pretty distinctive voices operating within the group. Especially with Side Effects, there was a certain point on that record where I was like, ‘Wow, this one doesn’t make that much sense.’ But, I’m not worried about a thread running through everything top to bottom…. It’s something we think about, but at a certain point during Side Effects, I kind of gave up on it and realized I liked each of these songs individually. They all serve a function in this mix tape/personal playlist kind of way. It works, but the styles and talents are everywhere. I think there are, like, four different drummers on this record. 

It seems like White Denim doesn’t get too hung up on those types of details.

Exactly. And—there’s a lot of room on this current record for whoever’s playing on any track to do exactly what they want to do…. It’s super rare that I will feed people parts. I have a ton of respect for the work that musicians put into developing what they do and I kind of look at the records [as a way to] showcase people’s strengths. It is very much a team thing, you know?

Most definitely. You know, White Denim has been around for a while, but with that being said, it feels like right now, the band’s star is really beginning to rise. Do you get that feeling as well, and if you do, how do you feel about it?

Yeah, you know, I don’t, to be honest. I feel like we’ve had a rise a few different times. I don’t know, man. It’s peaks and valleys working in music. You know, I’m super-happy that it feels that way to you. We had like a time in 2015 or something like that where I lost half the group after doing every TV show that you can do….. We’ve had some pretty high moments at points in this band, and [Side Effects] feels like where we’re at musically is definitely firing on all cylinders at this point. I’m happy about it, but…. I don’t really pay that much attention. To me, it just really comes down to the harmony of the personalities in the group, and everybody’s motivation to be using these opportunities to move past the last place.