Austin rock ‘n’ roll rabble rousers White Denim have a wild approach to music. There’s always a flurry of energy to go with frontman James Petralli’s screaming blues voice and unparalleled shredding on guitar. There’s also an abundance of rhythm backing it all up thanks to bassist Steven Terebecki combining his talents with Conrad Choucroun on drums. Michael Hunter completes their sound on keys and adds another dimension to their amplified arsenal.
On Aug. 24, White Denim put out their eighth album, Performance, their first for City Slang. It sees the band going back to their boundary-pushing ways.
Petralli takes a moment to chat about keeping things interesting, working with a new label in City Slang, the increased cost of living in Austin, and how music is always changing but some things about it stay the same.
Performance delves more into the experimental side of White Denim’s music that’s reminiscent of the band’s early material. It also sounds a bit less polished than the past two albums. Did you want to go back to your roots with the album? What was the main artistic goal?
We just wanted to make music that was interesting to us. [2016’s] Stiff and [2013’s] Corsicana Lemonade are good records; I’m proud of them, but they’re probably my least favorite White Denim records. Both of those were produced by outside producers, and the process was a little bit different than our first five records. We wanted to take the reins and get back to doing exactly what we wanted to do.
With the album art, what’s with the clown’s head on the stump? Does it symbolize anything, or did you just think it was something cool to put on the cover?
I sometimes think about the idea of the clown as an entertainer. I like clowns, but there isn’t any specific meaning other than the idea of clowns performing. So many people are scared of clowns, and I get it. Masks in general are pretty scary, but it’s an image that I’m interested in. I have these sad clown paintings that I picked up from thrift stores, and our old studio used to have a sad clown vocal booth with these clown paintings that people never wanted to put in there. I’ve always liked the idea of the entertainer hiding behind a layer; there’s a façade there that applies to everybody, and it’s interesting to me.
Who’s the artist who drew it?
It’s this guy named Will Gainer, who is an artist that lives in Austin.
The new album is also the band’s first release with the German label City Slang. You were part of Downtown Records for nearly a decade, so what made the band want to switch labels?
We’re just trying it out. We got into this traditional trajectory where we would write a record and wait a few months to record it. Then, after it was done, we’d wait six months to release it, and then, we’d tour for 18 months. What that meant for us creatively was that we would be waiting, and it made us creatively stagnant. We made a couple records in between times that never came out, and the old model wasn’t working for us. We wanted to be a bit more free and do as much music as we want and release it however we want to.
Sometimes you just need to change it around and spice things up.
Austin seems to always be used an example of the gentrification that’s been happening in America’s cities. Do you see a future in which music can thrive in an environment that seems to be getting more and more unfriendly to artists and musicians?
It is difficult for musicians, especially ones who play instruments and do the old thing. Pop music is made on computers, so those are cheap. I think music is constantly changing, and it’s harder to live in Austin. Everyone wants to live downtown and have an experience with the culture, but it is getting more and more difficult. People aren’t as interested in guitar music as they were 20 years ago, even 10 years ago. Until that comes back around, music will be made in people’s bedrooms on laptops in every city until the end of time, I imagine.
The process is changing, and people’s expectations are changing as well. No one is making records that sound as good as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Home studios are where it’s at, and no one’s really paying for records, and that’s pretty obvious. I think the industry and people not experiencing as much success on a local or national level [has] more [to do] with the public’s interest than it does with gentrification.
Do you think the internet plays a bigger part than people realize when it comes to buying records and the disinterest people have when it comes to rock ’n’ roll?
Yeah. In some scenes, album consumption has never been a really big deal. Most of the Deadheads who I know aren’t studio record guys, so I’m sure The Grateful Dead sold a shit-ton of records—I don’t really know. I’m part of the first generation that has the expectation that music should be free. During my first semester of college, there was Kazaa. Do you remember that program?
Oh, yeah. There were also LimeWire and Napster.
I had Kazaa, and I downloaded the entire Prince catalog and every current record that I read a review on. I used to read album reviews and just rip records constantly, so I was part of building that expectation that music should be free. Karmically, I’m paying for that so far [laughs]. People need to go out to shows, and that’s not changing. Hopefully, there’s a better royalty from Spotify or whatever, but it’s not something that I’m holding my breath for. I also really understand the consumer perspective that Spotify is super convenient and records take up a lot of space—you could probably connect that to the gentrification with small living spaces too.
I don’t see it as a problem that can really be changed. That’s music culture now, and you gotta embrace it. Write new tunes, play good shows, and try to make people happy.
Photo by Pooneh Ghana