Mish Barber-Way isn’t interested in parsing EQ levels or lighting with the sound engineer at Rock & Roll Hotel.
“It’s fast and loud,” the White Lung singer tells him. “You can just decide however you like.”
To riff on an old cliche, you can take a band out of the underground, but you can’t take the underground out of the band. Or something like that.
With each album, though, White Lung has moved further away from its past life, even if the changes are incremental.
“Hey man, there’s nothing wrong with a rider, dressing room, and a paycheck at the end of it all,” Barber-Way told me last year. “We have great fans who aren’t too punk to move along with us.”
Sitting backstage with Barber-Way and guitarist Kenneth William on the second night in August, they say the current tour has come with nicer venues and bigger crowds. There have been more subtle changes, too. “The type of songs that people choose to really start dancing to seems strange to me,” Barber -Way says.
You wouldn’t necessarily expect her to notice something like that. In concert, she performs in what feels like a trance. There are few current rock singers as furious and captivating. But if you’ve read Barber-Way’s work as a writer and journalist, you also know she possesses penetrating insight and a keen attention to detail. You can hear that in her songs, too, and she wants you to.
The dichotomy is on full display with White Lung’s recently released fourth record, Paradise. The follow-up to 2014’s Deep Fantasy is another ten-song whirlwind of punk energy, crunching guitars, and, more than ever, swooping choruses. A product of a one-month recording session with producer Lars Stalfors, Paradise captures a band smoothing out its serrated sonics while remaining as forceful and weird as ever. And after a few months, the band has gotten the hang of performing the material live.
“The record was cut and pasted together, so the first time couple of times that I tried playing it in an actual, proper sequence, I was like, ‘This fucking sucks,'” says William. “But now I’m used to it, so it’s like playing any of the other ones. I just had to get used to tap-dancing on that stupid sampler.”
“That’s right,” Barber-Way adds. “Get used to seeing us tap-dancing, hop-stepping, multitasking.”
White Lung’s Paradise is out now on Domino Records.
You seem perceptive to how White Lung’s work is interpreted or put into a narrative. What’s your reaction to how Paradise has been received?
MISH BARBER-WAY: I was very surprised when it first came out that people got what I was trying to do, especially in the area of distancing myself from a lot of the peers that I’ve been lumped in with. I didn’t want to be part of that anymore. And I was worried that it wouldn’t get come across very obviously, but it did.
I feel like people really ran with the pop narrative, too. That’s only two songs on the record.
KENNETH WILLIAM: We didn’t present a narrative like, “All of our parents were shot this year.” In absence of that, the pop narrative was one of the obvious things for people to pick up on. We weren’t leading them on, so they were like, “I don’t know, this doesn’t sound exactly the same as the last record.”
It’s all so silly. People said, “Oh, it’s so much more accessible!” I was like, “More accessible than what? The Lumineers?” I don’t understand the comparison. It’s still not something that’s been on the radio.
BARBER-WAY: “Below” has been on the radio.
WILLIAM: Like, three times maybe.
BARBER-WAY: That’s still good!
WILLIAM: I heard people saying the “more accessible” or “cleaner” thing with Deep Fantasy, too.
BARBER-WAY: That’s just how it goes. You can tell when someone is just going through it or when they’re finding a new way to talk about a band.
I remember when I was working for a newspaper in Vancouver, if I went to review a show of a band that I had any interest in – whether it was love or hate – my writing was so much better than if I was going a concert where I couldn’t care less who was on stage. In those cases, I’m going to be snoozing halfway through, just trying to stay awake and do my job.
So, I understand.
Do you identify more as a writer or a musician?
BARBER-WAY: Right now, I’m on tour, so I feel like a performer, but for me, writing is number one. Writing lyrics is still writing, though. Lyrics are really important in this band. My favorite part of listening to music is reading the words and trying to trying to get into that.
When I’m on tour, I’m dedicated to this. I’m not writing as much. I’m doing the columns that I have to do, and that’s it. There’s tons of time in the van every day but I don’t feel like sitting in the back, bumping around, trying to type. That’s not very enjoyable. It’s not like being in my nice office, having coffee.
How does one become an advice writer? Do you always feel like you gave good counsel? Kenny, do you find yourself on the receiving end of that advice often?
BARBER-WAY: Kenny has maybe asked me for advice three times. He would never take my advice.
I did an “Ask Mish” for Vice that was more jokey years ago. I’ve always been a good advice-giver for friends, but I don’t how I got into this.
But I like it. It’s fun. Some of the e-mails I get are so good. Sometimes, I get really weird, long ones, though.
Going into making Paradise, were there things you felt you could do better?
BARBER-WAY: I knew I wanted variety. I kept saying, “We’ve got to try something slower. We can do this.” I wanted to branch out. Everything is always so fast, fast, fast, fast. I wanted to try something new.
It’s not because I thought it was necessary. It was more like, “I know I’m good at this thing; let’s try the other thing and see if I’m good at that.”
WILLIAM: This album was extremely easy to write because we just let ourselves do stuff that would have been cut out before. And since we were writing in the studio, we couldn’t second guess ourselves and get self-conscious about it. It was like, “Well, we have three more days left. We better make this good.”
BARBER-WAY: The pressure was on.
WILLIAM: I think we’re all pretty confident, though. We know we’re not going to fuck up that bad.
There was only one song that was questionable. We made ten songs, and we put ten songs.
BARBER-WAY: You know why that song got left off? It ‘s good, but my lyrics are inappropriate and brutal because I was super drunk. But I like the choruses. There are some cool parts in it, for sure. I don’t think it’s bad.
WILLIAM: Honestly, it sounds really fucked up. It doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard, and that’s not compliment. I don’t even know what to compare it to. It’s not the worst thing you’ve ever heard in the word, but if that had been on the album, it would have completely changed the message of it.
BARBER-WAY: It didn’t make sense. But I remember recording that song because Ann-Marie was in the studio that night, and I had drank a lot of Fireball, and I busted out of booth like, “We’re not cutting this song! It’s so good!” And then when I listened to it the next day, I was like, “Oh god! Why did you let me do that? This is horrible.” The lyrics were overly weird.
WILLIAM: We’ve usually had ten songs on every record. We had ten good songs.
BARBER-WAY: Eleven felt like an odd number.
WILLIAM: It’s a stupid number. You can eight, ten, twelve, and then you can have thirteen. Fifteen is fine. But you can’t have eleven. What good album has eleven songs on it?
Once you’ve produced a song like “Below”, does that change your idea of what the band can be? Will there be more songs like that on the next record?
WILLIAM: If we make another record, it will sounds less like the last record than the last record did the one before it.
BARBER-WAY: We’re always going to move away from what we just did.
WILLIAM: It’s one of those things where you have to ramp up the changes, and if it sucks, you quit. That’s the best strategy.
BARBER-WAY: We’re all on board with that: If it sucks, you quit.
We’re always going to write fast songs because those songs translate the best live. Although, “Below” translates really well, too. No matter what, it’s always going to sound like White Lung. We’re never going to do an acoustic jam and a bass solo. When bands flop is when they do something that’s so left field or ignore what they are.
WILLIAM: There’s more to this band than playing fast. People say, “Oh, the new record’s not as abrasive,” but even though it may not hurt your ears as much or be as overwhelming, I think it’s creepier and more unsettling. I don’t think it’s compromising in any way.
But I’m never able to think about what the next record is going to sound like until I’ve distanced myself from the current one completely. By the end of the tour this fall, I’ll be completely burnt out on this.
BARBER-WAY: And by the time we’re overseas in January, you’ll really hate it, and you’ll start thinking about something new. You have to run it out in your brain. And then you want to make something new. Otherwise, there’s no motive.
WILLIAM: You have to lose your good opinion.
This record just came out but it’s existed since Halloween. It sounded relevant to me then, but as it gets more and more dated, it’s like, “I need some more tricks for the next time so that this is still exciting.”
BARBER-WAY: That’s because you’re a crazy person.
WILLIAM: It needs to be relevant.
BARBER-WAY: Mmhm. Can’t wait to see what’s next! What are you going to throw at me?
Is that generally how you two collaborate?
WILLIAM: We do it all over computer. [Laughs]
BARBER-WAY: Last record, Kenny forced himself to record at least something every day on guitar, whether he scrapped it or not.
WILLIAM: I recorded a ton of different stuff. We went into the studio with three completed songs and two half-done ones. We recorded those five, and from there on, I assembled the other songs by slicing up pieces of all the other stuff I had.
I just wanted to balance everything out and make sure the record wasn’t going to be monotonous. I needed to make sure there were different atmospheres to cleanse your palate after you’ve been hearing too much of one thing.
So, we heard those first five songs, and then we were like, “What’s going to make these sound the best with each other?” It’s like on one of those chef shows where they have five ingredients and they have to figure how to bring a meal together.
BARBER-WAY: The other thing that was competently different on this record was that we weren’t four people sitting in a room writing songs, and then recording them live off the floor.
Kenny would go in and do guitars and drums with Ann-Marie. I wouldn’t even be there for half those days. I would come in and Lars would play me this song, and it would totally fresh to me. I would just get to go into the booth and mess around until I created something I liked.
In the past, Kenny would play a guitar part and I’d listen to it for months, trying to figure out what to sing, and it would be glued into my brain. None of that was happening this time. I could come in fresh, karaoking or making up my own words. I could do whatever I wanted. I wasn’t already imprinted with this song. That’s why the melodies are so much stronger: I wasn’t following instruments that I been listening to for months. It was complete separation.
It felt like when we used to write songs, and our practice space was loud that I could barely hear what was happening, and I would just go for it without overthinking how I belonged in the song. I would go into the booth, try what works, figure out the melody, then go home and work on the lyrics for an evening or two. That’s so different from the way we wrote things before.
How do you end up with two songs rooted in the stories of serial killers?
BARBER-WAY: First of all, I’m fascinated with true crime. I love true crime.
But, mostly, I was doing a study for Broadly last year about women who team up with their husbands and boyfriends to rape and murder. Generally, female serial killers get off with a lesser sentence. It’s the same with female pedophiles. We don’t believe that women can commit those kind of evils.
It was a really fun, interesting study. I’ve always been a little fascinated with Karla Homolka, and especially Rosemary West – her husband was such a pussy. He raped their children, they killed together, and when they finally get busted, what does he do? He kills himself in jail. He doesn’t want to face the consequences. Meanwhile, she’s still sitting there, saying, “I stand for what I did.” She was horrible, too. They were both nasty, disgusting people.
So, I did this study and wrote those stories. That’s the other thing: Last year, I was making a record; I wasn’t touring. We did one tour and couple of fly-outs to festivals. All of this stuff that I reading and writing and listening to and thinking about becomes material for the album.
And it’s fun to write a song from the voice of Fred and Rosemary fighting. It’s interesting to write a song from the perspective of Karla Homolka apologizing to her sister, who she accidentally killed when she offered up her virginity to her husband as a Christmas gift. That’s much more interesting from my life.
What about true crime appeals to you? Series killer stories rattle me.
BARBER-WAY: I love it. It never creeps me out. I’m fascinated with the psychology of it.
In a previous interview, you had told me, “As I get older and smarter, I start to be disgusted by the world more and care less.” If that doesn’t disgust you, what does?
BARBER-WAY: How stupid people have become. How vapid people have become. How sarcastic people have become. Social media has turned us into these whiny, emotional hemophiliacs who think that all of our feelings and opinions fucking matter, even though we have no basis for them. Murder has been happening forever. It’s primal shit. I’m sorry, it’s disgusting – nobody said the world was perfect, and it’s not going to be.
Looking at how self-important people are makes me sad. I mean, I’m guilty of it, too. We all are. How do you protect your children from that? What do I do if I have kids? You can’t protect them from that.
WILLIAM: Make them read a book.
BARBER-WAY: Of course, if you’re a good parent, you interact with them. But once they get to a certain age where they’re socializing and they go to school, that’s just part of life. I don’t want to think about an eight-year old having an Instagram account. That’s gross. Go play outside. That’s the stuff that scares. That disgusts me. Murder has been happening forever. We kill each other every day. This is new; this kind of communicating that’s devoid of sympathy, and is so disconnected, and is me, me, me.
As someone who’s given a lot of interviews and written so much, are there things you regret expressing?
BARBER-WAY: All the time. I’m going through a thing right now – I’m married, I’m getting older. My views of the world are changing as I get older. I think that’s a natural thing. But it’s different when you’re 25 and really self-righteous, and you’re talking to people and having them document it. It’s not a big deal, though. People grow. People change.
The most embarrassing thing is that there are certain songs on our first album where I’m like, “Ah, why didn’t I redo that?!?” That stuff pains me more than saying something I don’t agree with now in an old interview. Peoples views of the world change. Hearing songs where I can remember being too lazy or self-conscious to go back in and try it again, that makes me angry.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.