JAMES PETRALLI sees the bigger picture. “When you’re in a band and have family and kids and responsibilities, touring can be difficult,” says White Denim’s frontman.
“I won’t lie. It isn’t an ideal situation. Sometimes, you wonder, ‘well, why am I doing this again?’ You definitely experience those moments.”
His love for music keeps him going. That, and the hope of mainstream success. “The rewards are immeasurable,” Petralli says. “You get to make records and sing to people for a living. That’s just the most amazing thing. To walk out on stage is the best feeling in the world. The other stuff might be a chore — performing never grows old. You are always crossing your fingers that your next record will be successful, so that you can bring your family on the road with you.”
Petrialli, who is married and has an eight-month-old daughter, isn’t there yet. Their five previous albums have amassed White Denim a big critical following and loyal fanbase. But they are not mass-market, despite the commercial appeal of their old-school, 1970s-inflected blues-rock.
New album, Corsicana Lemonade, has raised the Texan four-piece’s profile. They’re on magazine covers and receiving radio airplay.
After years of toil, might White Denim’s hour be here? A phlegmatic sort, Petralli would like to think so.
He isn’t getting his hopes up. That would risk crushing disappointment. “With each record, we seem to grow a little,” says the amiable singer. “Our last record did well. I don’t know if you could say it was a smashing success. We did sell a couple of more thousand copies that we usually do. The idea is that, with the new one, we can build on that. So far, it seems to be going well. You just have to get on with it, not think too hard about these things.”
Several of the new tracks were produced by Jeff Tweedy, of the cult-rock group, Wilco, at his studio in Chicago. The idea had been for White Denim to do an album with Tweedy. Logistics scuppered the plan. “Unfortunately, we only had five days to record in Chicago,” says Petralli. “When we showed up, I think maybe Jeff was under the impression we were going to do the entire album there. It would have been cool. It’s a great studio, full of personality. But I don’t think it would have been realistic to make a whole record in less than a week. In the end, we cut two tracks and messed around with some instrumental ideas.”
The goal was to capture the energy of their live performances. White Denim are at their best in concert, Petralli says. He was eager to recreate that chaos and excitement on tape.
“We wanted to capture some of that rawness — the sense of four guys in a studio, making some noise. That was one of the things foremost on our mind, as we got together to make the record,” he says.
Other sensibilities were at work. The group had a good time recording Corsicana Lemonade and have described it as their ‘party album’ (they’re all big fans of barbecues, a Texas institution). Having all recently turned 30, and with new responsibilities, the LP finds the group coming to terms with aging. It is a project of contrasts, full of life yet contemplative.
Returning from Chicago, and their Tweedy sessions, they retreated to a self-built studio overlooking Lake Travis, in Austin. The goal was to conjure an easy-going vibe — to feel as if they were at play, rather than at work. Mood plays a major part in White Denim’s music: you can hear it in their lusty guitar-fills and rumbling grooves. The difficulty is that professional recording studios are mostly antiseptic (and expensive). Petralli and company needed something more naturalistic.
The baffling album title was inspired by an obscure Texan town, 50 miles south of Dallas. Petralli and the rest of the group live in the greater Austin area, and have a curious fascination with their state’s more provincial reaches. On tour, they amuse one another by listing as many Texan towns as possible. ‘Lemonade’ refers to a fantasy drink the group imagined served in Corsicana. ‘Lemonade’ is an alcoholic brew both full-bodied and instantly refreshing — just like their music.
For all the love, the singer has mixed opinions about his native state. He doesn’t agree with the conservative politics.
That said, Austin is a liberal enclave and Texas is home. It’s where he plans to stay. With a young family, he can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“It can be a pain driving six hours just to get out of the state,” he says. “Conversely, Texas is actually pretty centrally located, in terms of touring America. It’s sort of in the middle. I remember when we first started touring, every city we visited, I wanted to live there. It was like ‘oh, I really want to move to St Louis, or I really want to move to Philadelphia’. But I’ve gotten older and realised that, really, I want to enjoy Austin. I’m happy to stay.”
* Corsicana Lemonade is out now. White Denim play Whelan’s Dublin, Nov 23.
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