Interview – White Rabbits

May 21, 2010 by  

Perched on a small ledge under an urban mini garden in Islington, I caught up with White Rabbits’ pianist/vocalist Stephen Patterson to discuss the band’s quest for that light bulb moment, being in a diva sandwich and Elvis Costello. But not their favourite colour.

So hitting the big time with an early career shot on the Late Show with Letterman, securing critical acclaim, and now attacking the UK with a high profile slot on Later with Jools Holland, not a bad life ai?

Well with the Late Show, getting [Stateside music hero] Paul Shaffer’s band involved with the hand claps on the track [Fortnightly’s ‘The Plot’] was a memorable early highlight. At the time, I never thought that would happen. Also it was great performing on live TV with Jools Holland being a personal influence – I’m a massive Squeeze fan.

Playing out your dreams, is it difficult to keep grounded or is the pressure too great?

For Later, we’d never previously done raw live TV, so I was pretty nervous. Added to that you have four or five of the most professional musicians around you, so it’s breathtaking. I mean we were flanked by Alicia Keyes and Macey Gray, and like ‘what the fuck are we doing?’, then playing and watching Jeff Beck while we play and just thinking, we have to prove ourselves at this very moment! It was great how they did it, they had a nice spirit about it and a communal vibe

And prove yourselves you did.

So a first UK TV appearance with ‘Percussion Gun’ from your second album It‘s Frightening. Did you feel you had to step it up after Fortnightly’s critical acclaim, or what was your aim?

Writing Fortnightly we really tried to throw in the kitchen sink, try be everything to everyone, incorporate many influences. There were perhaps too many influences. Luckily we feel it worked for the album but we didn’t want to do it again. There’s some pretty dark moments, but darker on the new one.

So was It’s Frightening your chance to experiment more?

We learnt a lot from Fortnightly. We hadn’t toured when writing the album, so most of it was figured out in the studio, with little chance to express the sound and play it off each other – but touring we learnt chemistry as a band to be confident in trying something different.

And how?

Well recording Fortnightly could include a smattering of loud noise, screaming, or a smattering of drums – but it could end up a wonderful thing when it came together and it felt right.

With It’s Frightening however we wanted to recreate more of a live feel, and I was interested in a vast instrumentation. As vast as it was, and as large a collective we are, we didn’t want to go big a-la Arcade Fire (which they do great). We thought it would be more exciting to channel the sound into something more intricate with detailed variation.

So something less flamboyant?

It was more about tension. Having tension In a song is important to us. That holding back and grabbing the listener, like with ‘They Done Wrong / We Done Wrong’ there’s that build before the moment where it just stops, then we hold back and keep a wanting.

Will this be what you want to translate live?

Yeh, definitely, and we’ve got a lot better doing that!

Answered by Stephen with confidence rather than arrogance, the message is clear from a determined band. But I was interested to see where that came from, or how it could be bottled up and shared with other aspiring musicians.

With Fortnightly there was much talk on your calypso or ska influence, with the Specials a noted influence. Are they your inspiration to be in a band?

For me I got into it them later, I mean I liked them but got it more after we had started. But yeh, for me what I love about them is the gang mentality – like you would not fuck with those guys. They seem so dangerous on stage, like it could fall apart at any moment, but with the safety in knowing that they keep it together.

Who has been your hero?

It’s always been Elvis Costello, but now goes beyond his music. He’s an appreciator of music, and he wants to hear other music, other acts. He really listens. He does a show doing this in the states. I love hearing him talk with such funny, quick, charismatic insight. Plus all in such detail.

So, in more detail, musically what are we to expect from White Rabbits?

Well we’ve moved on now and found our live sound. This helps us bring new elements to recording too. I’d love to record an album live rather than build tracks like we have previously. What used to turn me off about recording live was it was hard to bring those different elements and find these new or exciting sounds. We didn’t want a retro garage record. We’re trying to react off each other, and create a different take on rock instrumentation.

A lean to the more intelligent side of indie then perhaps? Along the lines of bands such as The Walkmen / Cold War Kids?

Ok firstly I have to say, honestly I’d never heard of Cold War Kids until we got compared to them. We’d never even heard their music!

Otherwise it’s still very much our own sound. I mean we have toured with The Walkmen, they’re friends of ours, we’ve even used some of their old equipment from their studio on previous demos, but we ultimately get our ideas off each other. Inevitably their will be elements of [The Walkmen] seeping in, but it’s still about us. We’re not afraid of influence though, especially from such a great band!

But album three isn’t going to be a jazz infused trip hop dance record right?

You never know, you never know!

Well we have been writing. We wrote It’s Frightening like over two years ago now. When touring – and we did this with Fortnightly – we try to find new ideas performing each song, firstly to keep us interested touring the same material, but also in view to creating the next album. For example, we‘ve been looking at a more ambient sound, like guitars, and looking more at the the different uses of space, a valuable tool.

So in that case do you prefer performing live or in the studio then?

For me, it’s about the improvising. We could start with some real mumbly bullshit until something would just snap. For me, us as a collective, and I imagine for most musicians that’s the best, that’s the best part of being in a band.
But saying that I do really enjoy the recording process, as we really get focused on a goal, and need that. We’re all perfectionists – it’s like problem solving. We want to know why something’s not working and how we can work on it to get it right.

And do you all agree?

We’re lucky we all agree in most choices in the studio. Yeh we argue, but it’s not going to end in a fist fight. The live challenge is great as we really bounce off each other – it was frustrating as what we do in the studio didn’t always come out live like on record, but we realise now it doesn’t have to – our live performances are becoming more like recording session rehearsals.

So is the new album your short term goal?

We do have a couple more weeks in Europe, and then we’ll take a break – we’re not in a bus so we don’t have the luxury of spreading out in a van – we take that break and then get the itch to play.

Do the breaks then give you renewed encouragement?

Oh definitely. After a week or so off I’ll be sitting there thinking ‘Something’s missing from my life, what is it? What am I supposed to be doing!?’ Then I pick up a guitar, hit record, and remember, this is what I’m supposed to be doing – and then comes the strict focus, the goal.

And is there anything that’s putting you off?

One of the pitfalls is being spoken to like we’re stupid.

Everyone loves music, so if you love something you want to know more, even if it feels a bit insider. I have non-musicians friends that want to know as much as possible. If you love something you want to know more.

I can’t stand some journalists. You’d expect to go a little deeper than ‘What’s your name about?’ or ‘What’s your favourite colour?’. It’s like, f*cking kindergarten. There’s a lot of shit out there.

As the interview came to close the charismatic Stephen portrayed White Rabbits as the real deal. Their refreshing blend of their ramshackle Specials like approach, with the addition of a desire to explore music with intelligence – and more importantly – substance, is exactly what we need more of in a scene laden with too many gutless wonders.

I stopped short of asking his favourite colour.


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