f all the bands carrying the psychedelic freak flag through the second decade of the twenty first century, none are more exciting or viscerally appealing as NYC rockers White Hills. Hewn from the sound of vintage Hawkwind and the pro-punk of the Stooges and MC5 and with a large twist of sonic pyrotechnics worthy of other iconic three-piece units (in this case occasionally eked out by a wash of synthesizers) we could mention, the White Hills revolves around guitarist Dave W and bassist/vocalist Ego Sensation, with whom Ian Fraser caught up with just before a typically incendiary appearance at Birmingham’s Custard Factory during the band’s recent UK and European tour.
Dave and Ego began by telling me how they’d spent that afternoon and evening relaxing over a long dinner and catching up with the Pontiak boys (with whom they were appearing in Birmingham tonight) and getting the low down on their tour.
I was hoping to ask them about that a bit later, because Pontiak are coming to the end of their tour while you just started yours just a few days before in Cork on 13th March. How has it gone so far?
Dave – Great. Ireland was amazing. None of us had ever been there before. For years there have been people trying to get us over there but it just hadn’t worked out until now, but yeah, both shows were amazing!
Good things come to those who wait?
You spend a lot of time over here in the UK and in Europe. Would you say you were more popular here than over in the States?
Ego – Well...yeeeees [laughter] although it is starting to change a bit
Dave – I think Britain has been a strong point for us from the beginning
Why do you think that is?
Dave – Well we focused our attentions here specifically. Both of us were living in San Francisco and playing in bands. We moved to New York in the late 90s because we were fed up with the scene there. Each of us were tired with this notion of conquering America. One day I just got a bit fed up with everything and recorded what became the first White Hills record. I sent it to Adrian Shaw and to Julian Cope, and both of them gave me great feedback on it – Julian enough to the point of wanting to release it. It was all calculated. I didn’t want to spend the time on the US that I had previously done. I didn’t think it was worth it. If you look at what was going in New York at the time the scene was all this retro New Wave, No Wave thing. From the beginning I thought a UK audience would be more into it.
Would San Francisco have been more conducive to that sound in retrospect?
Dave - No not all. It’s a great place but I do think people would have been accepting of it there at the time either.
You sound as though you are very much influenced by bands like Hawkwind but there’s also a big sound of white Detroit in there (assent from both). I pick up a lot of early Alice Cooper, MC5, Stooges and so on. The new album “Frying OnThis Rock” is a case in point. It sounds very primal, almost brutal in places as if you’re trying to get back to basics after last year’s “H-p1”.
Dave – Yeah I think it’s a bit of a return to basics in some ways. It’s sonically better than any other record we’ve done. One of the reasons why we employed Martin Bisi to engineer the record was to break away from the sound we obtained on our last records we recorded at Oneida's studio, The Ocropolis.
How’s the new material going down with the fans on the tour, good?
Both – Yeah, great.
Dave – I think live, White Hills is a different beast in general from any of our records. That live experience transcends in a different way than listening to a White Hills record.
Well it’s certainly been good for me so far I have to say. A live album came out fairly recently on the Roadburn imprint, a document of your appearance at that festival. Is that something you were aware of and gave your blessing to?
Ego – Oh yes indeed, we agreed to that before the performance.
Dave – Yes it was nailed in before the show. We played a 75 minute performance from which we chose what we thought were the best points.
It was great. I’m not a big fan of live albums. They’re so often overdubbed to the extent that you lose whatever vibe was created at the gig, even gigs that I’ve been at I’ve thought the resulting live albums were disappointing, but the Roadburn album is really good.
Dave – They actually gave us the raw tracks and allowed us to mix and produce it. In the beginning I didn’t want to overdub anything. However there were some things in the performance that were in my opinion gross errors. So I went about ways of trying to fix those things without overdubbing. And then I found that it was kind of losing the charm of what it was, that actually the gross errors were to me what made the performance unique!
It’s funny you should mention that. I gave it a review a couple of months ago and I said the same thing. The reason I like it is that it is reassuringly fallible, you can hear the occasional miscue and the “whoops” and that for me makes it a live experience.
Both – Yeah.
And what a powerful rhythm section as well! Is Lee Hinshaw still drumming with you?
Ego – No, although he was the drummer on that live album
Was he at Supersonic with you last year?
Dave – No that was Nick, Nick Name, the guy who plays on the new record
Oh dear in which case I misrepresented him in a review of Supersonic I did for Optical Sounds in which I name checked Lee Hinshaw. I obviously can’t keep track of your drummers
Dave – Neither can I [further laughter]
I mentioned Hawkwind earlier. You appeared on a very fine tribute album a while back entitled “In Search of Hawkwind”. How did you come to be on that?
Ego – Was it Mugstar?
Dave – Yes although actually Trensmat was the one that broached it to begin with, but Mugstar were the ones putting it together and approached Trensamet to put out a series of 45s. They needed one more band and Mugstar are good buddies of ours...
Ego – And that track we did with Kid Millions from Oneida.
Dave – That was a one-take wonder. It just went down on a little thing like you’ve got here (points to pocket digital voice recorder on table) we found the space's sweet spot and then busted it out.
It was a great album and a great take on that track (“Be Yourself” from Hawkwind’s first album) which also turned up on the bonus disc which came with the limited edition of H-p1 released through Rough Trade
Dave – Yes that was the entire length version of the song.
Was there a Julian Cope input on that H-p1 bonus disc as well?
Dave – When he originally approached us he wanted the release just to be the song “No Game To Play”. He had an idea of something he wanted to do with that track and so he asked me if I could extend it to be around the half-hour mark. And so I did, leaving some room open within it based upon what he was saying he wanted to do with it. Then when he got the track and had a chance to mess around with his idea he decided it wasn’t gelling with his cranium. So he had another idea of what he wanted to do with the release and what you get is what appears on the disc. So to dispel any rumours Julian did not play on it.
You came to my attention two or three years back when you did a couple of collaborations, one with The Heads and another with Gnod, both of which were excellent. How did that work, did you get in the studio together or did you do you bit and then FedEx it over to Bristol or Manchester or wherever?
Ego – The Heads release was a split, so there side is there side and ours is ours. It was put by Rocket Recordings who thought the two would work well together, and they did.
Dave – Rocket had an idea of doing a series called “Collision” and they approached us to do it. We recorded it in one take on a 2-track machine. The Gnod collaboration, came out of our meeting when they booked a show for us in Manchester back in 2007. I fell in love with them when I saw them the first time. At the time, I’d just finished doing a collaboration with this San Francisco band called White Pee and so I was all big on this idea of doing collaborations. Gnod had some source material, which they gave to me and then we added stuff onto their material and then weaved it in and out of some of our own material as well. This was released as "Aquarian Downer". The way that Drop Out” came about was when they asked if I would do a repress of "Aquarian Downer". I wasn't into the idea, so I just said to them well why don’t they let me do the same to this material you gave me months ago instead? We spent a weekend on it, added in some new stuff, threw in a few of our own songs, and then I approached Rocket with it and said “you guys should put this out”, and they agreed.
What’s your approach to song writing?
Dave – What approach? [Laughter].
Ego – It varies. There are some things where Dave writes the riff, brings it in to practice and we play around with it, use it as a starting point. Then there are other times when we just jam and we’ll play and see what happens.
Dave – Yeah, sometimes I’ll have a song that’s pretty much complete, other times it's from jamming, or just having one small idea to start. That track “The Condition of Nothing”, Ego brought that one in. We do record every time we rehearse, during which time we obviously spend a lot of time noodling around. Sometimes when you’re doing this you don’t think it sounds so good, but then when it sits for a while you end up going back and listening to some things and you think “wow, that part of that jam is really good”. We actually do a lot of that, extracting bits and pieces.
You’re signed to probably the coolest label on the planet right now – Thrill Jockey – can you tell me how that came about?
Dave – well, it’s what you might call a case of symbiosis. Have you ever heard of that thing called The Gift? We just went out there and gifted ourselves. (Laughter) Actually, it’s a case of six degrees of separation. It basically happened through Rocket. One of the guys who run Rocket, his girlfriend at the time runs Thrill Jockey in the UK. That’s how we met the amazing Anthea Leyland. As we kept on coming over, Ego and I were always hatching things in our brains about where we wanted to go, what we wanted to do, and setting goals for ourselves. We started thinking that it was time for us to get on a label that can take us to the next level. So we sat down, brainstormed, came up with a list on top of that list was Thrill Jockey and one of the reasons for that was our connection with Anthea. We saw a work ethic in her that we wanted on our side. Then after a Euro tour, I was contacted by Eric Keldsen, who just so happens to work for Thrill Jockey in the US. He contacted us as a fan wanting to get copies of some of our releases. His name rang a bell as we had heard Anthea talk about him. I asked if he was who I thought he was, sent him a package and the rest is history. Thrill Jockey is a great label and
Bettina (Richards, Head of Thrill Jockey) is a wonderful person. We feel honoured to be part of their roster.
So do you full artistic license with them?
In unison – Yes!
No interference, like “you can’t put that out” or “we want you to do this”
Ego – No not at all
That’s very refreshing indeed. You have such an A-list roster is there any competition between the bands that keeps you all on your toes and urges you on to bigger and better things?
Ego – no, certainly not that I’m aware of and not with us.
Dave – I’m only concerned with trying to do something that I think is the best thing that White Hills can do at that moment in time, you know.
Ego – Bettina’s picked out such a variety of acts
Dave – I think it’s great that she’s made this transition into harder out there music as well.
Well when you think of a lot of the bands who played here back In October at Supersonic, they were on Thrill Jockey
Dave – Yeah, Barn Owl, Eternal Tapestry, Alexander Tucker..
All good stuff. How’s my battery? Oh still good, just. Last weekend I was at All Tomorrow’s Parties. You’ve done that a few times I believe
Ego – Yeah, we did “Nightmare Before Christmas” over here a couple of years back.
Dave –We also did the last one they did at Kutcher’s Country Club in New York.
Didn’t you do the “In Between Days” one with the Krautrockers as well?
Dave – Oh yeah, that followed on from “Nightmare”
Ego – Ah yes that’s the one where we joined Oneida during their day long performance.
Would you ever consider doing one of their “Don’t Look Back” concerts where you get to perform one of your iconic albums from beginning to end?
Dave – I don’t think people consider us to be old enough to warrant doing that, and anyway I don’t think we could even play one of our albums from end to end [much laughter].
So what’s next up for White Hills?
Dave – Oh we’re touring all the way through May at this point. We have a fairly long stint in the States with Sleepy Sun and then we have a week off, then we go to the West Coast, we do all of California all the way up through British Columbia
Sounds pretty tiring
Ego – It can be but it’s fun
Well as long as you enjoy what you’re doing. How long do you envisage this going on for, this constant recording, touring, recording, touring?
Ego –Til death us do part
Dave – I personally only want it to go further and further! I think I can speak for the both of us and say that this is what we live for. The best thing is to never to set limitations for your-self.
What a good way to end
For information about White Hills releases and other activities visit www.thrilljockey.com
Feature interview and photos: Ian Fraser. Artwork & layout: Phil McMullen © Terrascope Online 2012