Interview with vocalist/guitarist Tony Esposito | By Nicholas Senior
An album like You Deserve Love, out Oct. 18 via Elektra Records, and, what’s more, a band like White Reaper, could only be influenced by outdated technologies. Whether it’s hearing a favorite classic rock radio tune in the backseat of your parents’ van, jamming cassettes and CDs in your friend’s bedroom, or watching old VHS tapes and DVDs in the basement, White Reaper pull inspiration from and display an admiration for a plethora of old-fashioned goodness.
Based in Kentucky, in the home of the Louisville slugger, White Reaper knock it out of the park like few bands can. Their throwback garage punk sound absolutely nails what classic music can do and how it can make a listener feel. Make no mistake, You Deserve Love is destined to be admired for decades to come. The album is overflowing with retro rock anthems that are perfect for Saturday BBQs and sunny Sunday drives. Through their breezy, brazen major label debut, White Reaper are sowing the seeds of love and reaping good vibes.
Here, White Reaper reify their 2017 sophomore album’s boast that they are the world’s best American band. The new songs are light and almost carefree in their adoration of the almighty guitar lick and earworm hook. However, like most gems, You Deserve Love was the result of a pressurized scenario.
“I was nervous because of all the resources we now had available to us,” vocalist and guitarist Tony Esposito reflects. “I just really wanted to make sure that the record we put out was the right one and the songs were the right ones and were as good as they could be. I was scared at first to start writing, because I was just so terrified of what would happen if everything sucked. It was all pressure I was putting on myself.”
The idea for the album came through an iPhone message from his band—one of the few instances in which modern technology came to the rescue—yet, as the band’s primary songwriter, Esposito still leaned on an old faithful. “I have a lot of black moleskin notebooks that I’ll carry with me sometimes and just write down lines here and there,” he says. “Whenever I’m stuck for lyrics, I’ll go back to one of those, like pulling from my toolbox.”
White Reaper seem more confident about who they are. Before, they sounded classic and retro, but You Deserve Love feels wider in its musical scope, almost outside of time or era. What got them interested in this style of music? It’s not like classic rock radio has changed their 40-song playlist in the past decade.
“That’s where it started,” Esposito shares. “When I was a kid, my dad and mom would drive me around, and they were listening to classic rock radio all the time. You’re right, you hear the same 50 to 100 songs every time; there’s not a lot of variety on those classic rock playlists. But if you grow up listening to that, you find out about those bands, and with the advent of Spotify and streaming, you can listen to all of their records, not just the ones that have been on the radio forever. If you read about it online, you can figure out who produced the record, who played guitar on the record, and you can find other similar bands through this crazy network of music. Whatever your entry point, it’s cool to have that deep exploration you’re able to do as a music listener today.”
“We listened to a lot of records like [The Beatles’] Love,” he continues, “and The Tubes and weird stuff from the ’60s and ’70s I had never heard before. While it’s not new, it was a breath of fresh air. Even if you do the same thing over and over again, just like there’s a million different ways to get to that chorus or that second verse you like so much, you discover something new each listen.”
It’s humorous, then, that the song that lit the fire of music in Esposito’s soul is from another contemporary band whose sound feels timeless. “I saw The Hives’ video for ‘Hate To Say I Told You So,’” he reveals. “I didn’t even catch the band name, and I didn’t even find that out until years later, but that video hit me and made me want to be in a band.”
The Eric Clapton paradox—the idea that you don’t have to play fast, complex tunes to pluck at a person’s heartstrings—is at play on You Deserve Love. White Reaper make resonant, resoundingly great music that shoots straight to the listener’s soul. “I think of writing as an extraction process,” Esposito says. “In my head, I hear an entire song, all its parts—the drums, bass, guitars, keys, and singing—and I just hear it all at once. Whenever I’m demoing, I’m trying to match it in my head as much as I possibly can. It’s less building something and more trying to replicate these thoughts that I have.”
There’s definitely a sense that these songs are supposed to make the listener feel rather than remain laser-focused on music theory. There’s an organic energy that can’t be accessed through clinical songwriting. “When I’m writing, it’s all based on feeling, because I don’t have the other tools to use,” Esposito laughs.
“The last time I took a guitar lesson, I was 5 years old and I wanted to play drums,” he relates. “My mom wouldn’t let me play drums until after I played piano. Whenever I was taking lessons, I was coasting through it and not absorbing it because I wanted to play drums, so I don’t really know anything about music theory. I don’t know all that much about time signatures and don’t really know that many scales—I know the major scale and the minor scale, and that’s it. Everything else is trying to learn songs by hearing them and playing along to them, trying to use my ear as much as I can.”
“When I was a kid, the interest and passion just wasn’t there, but I kept up with drums for a long time,” Esposito adds. “I played drums in the band at church for years and years, and that’s how I met [keyboardist] Ryan Hater; he was also playing in the church band. With keys, that’s how I’ll often start songs, and I enjoy it now, but I wish I kept with it. I could be way better, but I was a stubborn little idiot. Now, I’ve got to live with that.”
Esposito and Hater started out playing odes to Jesus, Mary, Peter, and Paul, but they really wanted to sing the praises of St. Billie Joe and St. Gerard. “[We met] when [Green Day’s] American Idiot came out [in 2004], so we were all jamming to that,” Esposito says. “Then, it was the My Chemical Romance years. We totally bonded over the nonreligious music we actually loved listening to and playing. I made a lot of friends with the guys in church band, so whenever we didn’t have to play ‘Every Move I Make’ or whatever, we’d go to each other’s houses and watch ‘Detroit Rock City’ and try to learn songs we actually cared about.”
“I was lucky to be born at that exact time,” he continues. “My parents would not have bought me a record with a parental advisory sticker on it, but they weren’t smart enough to know that I could just buy that stuff on iTunes. All I had to do was click the box that asked if I was 16, and I always clicked yes. Got ’em,” he laughs.
White Reaper may have joked about being the biggest and best American band in the world, but with You Deserve Love, there’s a chance they very well could be. Has the ambition settled down or are they just getting started? “I think there’s a little bit of both,” Esposito admits. “Maybe we get bigger, maybe things get better for us, or maybe they don’t. It’s been a crazy past couple of weeks flying all over the country. It’s been a whole lot of fun. Every time I’m on a plane with the band, I think, ‘If we die right now, we’ve had a good run.’ I really feel like the ultimate goals for us are to make each record better than the last and to play bigger shows. That’s it.”
White Reaper’s newest effort is gleefully connected to the past, but it’s ushering in a very bright future. Has Esposito ever felt like the band have “made it”? “I’d like to think I have not felt that way yet, but I think the first time we took a plane to a show, that kinda blew my mind,” he says. “We got to open for The Killers, which was pretty sick. When it’s never better than it is, you’ve made it, right?”
For Esposito and White Reaper, “making it” may just mean making fans happy. If music, at its core, is meant to make listeners feel something—connected, fulfilled, or just more inclined to smile—few albums do that as well as You Deserve Love. “That’s what I want people to get out of it!” he exclaims. “We’ve all been through hard times and dark days. It’s really a mental thing, but if you can just feel better, you’re going to be better off. I’m not perfect; I get bummed out a lot. It’s also just a reminder for the band. Especially after naming the last record The World’s Best American Band, we wanted to chill out and name it something nice that everyone could smile about.”