White Denim Are No Longer Just an Austin Band
When they’re not on the road, James Petralli and Steve Terebecki are taking creative control with their own studio.
White Denim is an Austin institution, but they’re the rare group to have emerged as a national act while simultaneously gigging around town. Their early efforts landed them a deal with Downtown Records, but after 2016’s Stiff they left the label, built their own studio (Radio Milk), and released two more albums in as many years. 2018’s Performance was their first effort at their own spot, and their first for the label City Slang. Like most White Denim albums this decade, this new iteration of the group revolved around core members James Petralli and Steve Terebecki.
Performance and the recently released Side Effects are a tandem of sorts, separated by about seven months. In an era when release schedules can so often be determined by everything but the music itself, White Denim have set up an infrastructure in which they dictate how their music enters the world. It’s a strikingly independent move from a rock band, and their story gives hope to artists: Weird, interesting bands can get to a place where they have their own studio named after their own song and still stand with dignity, intact. They’re no longer just an Austin band, but a way forward.
Is it harder to differentiate between eras of White Denim now that you’re recording all the time? Is it more difficult to associate albums with certain memories?
JP: That’s going to become more obvious. We keep adding little pieces of gear, but there is something about going to a studio that documents a certain period of time. You just do it and then don’t enter a studio for a while. I’m sure it will still evolve.
ST: I think we’ll get creative in different ways as we keep writing and recording. We’ll realize that we have forty songs that all sound the same or something [laughs].
How quickly did this album come together?
ST: There were some demos from 2011 that are represented on the record. There are songs that were gonna be on Performance that ended up here, too. You could say it took eight years, but it was a lot quicker than that.
Having written some songs for Performance, did you have to reshape them to fit Side Effects?
“It’s not financially motivated, it’s now motivated by our wives.”
— Steve Terebecki
JP: I didn’t feel like we needed to re-record anything because the record is already all over the place, sonically speaking.
ST: And then there’s a tune like “Reversed Mirror,” which we recorded five times with four or five different drummers. Some tracks just feel right, and then others we have to do a bunch of times.
Austin has changed so much since y’all began playing. Has the shape of the city affected the way White Denim sounds or approaches music?
ST: I don’t think so, really. We haven’t been an active part of the scene since 2008, I’d say, because we tour so much. We only play a real non-SXSW show here once or twice a year. All the changes have been happening—all the bands and venues—but we’ve kind of existed around that.
This spot you have almost feels like it can be its own community outside of the traditional Austin structure.
JP: Yeah, it will definitely be something. We have the stage here. It’s opened us up to a lot of people who are playing jazz here—different kinds of musicians. We’ve carved out our own thing that feels like it’s growing.
ST: We had a South By party here last year, and this year it seemed like it grew exponentially.
JP: The grass is still trying to recover from the party.
Do you want to do more production here, too?
JP: We’re really pushing ourselves hard right now. We’re already working on new ideas and another body of work. After a certain amount of time I imagine we’ll want to make a few records for other people and not focus on another White Denim record for a year [laughs].
ST: We make three or four records a year here, whether for us or someone else. The last few years have been like that.
Do you record digitally or to tape in the studio?
JP: We do both.
Which do you prefer?
ST: I like both. I like the band workflow of recording to tape. If everyone is playing together live, it forces everyone to be precise and boil their ideas down. But when it comes time to do vocal takes, I wanna do twenty of those motherfuckers and pick the best one I can [laughs]. You could do that on tape, but the workflow would change so much.
This record is looser than your previous ones. Is that a product of having a studio where you don’t really have to clock in and out?
JP: Yes, definitely. We can play around more. This is our place now. The social dynamic of watching the clock isn’t totally gone—
ST: It just exists in a different way now. It’s not financially motivated, it’s now motivated by our wives [laughs].
JP: We’ve always been a band that writes while recording, too. The songwriting is never done until the final master is printed. If we were going into a studio where we had to know how to do everything before going in, we wouldn’t have the process we have now where we just stretch out.
ST: We like to experiment, too. We’ve done straight-up writing in the room where we hear it for the first time, and we’ve rehearsed a bunch before bringing an idea in, too.
“There’s definitely a part of me that’s cognizant of the kind of music that’s kept us in the mix over the years—the things we’ve done that have worked—but the most important thing to me is that we’re moving forward.”
— James Petralli
Do you have a grand vision for what the band is or can be?
JP: I don’t think we’re limited. It can be anything. There’s definitely a part of me that’s cognizant of the kind of music that’s kept us in the mix over the years—the things we’ve done that have worked—but the most important thing to me is that we’re moving forward. Shit still feels fresh and cool. It’s stuff that we’re psyched about and it makes us proud to come to work.
What was your time with Downtown Records like?
JP: It was a huge chunk of time, from 2009 to 2017. We became a real band and we were able to stop working day jobs a bit more comfortably. A lot of really great business stuff came from that period of time. We learned a lot. We were kids when we signed that contract. There were things about having to wait to release albums and feeling kind of stuck creatively, but it’s just about learning. It probably kept a lot of semi-crappy output from being in the world [laughs].
ST: We were doing our own thing for four years before that. We snapped into this world where there were way more cooks in the kitchen. We had to figure that out over the course of our three albums with them.
JP: A lot of people had ideas about how we could grow our careers. We listened to some of it. It’s weird, having these records be the defining things….
How did bringing in a bunch of different players inform the sound of this album?
JP: It was like being in this band. For two years we had a rotating cast. When you have new people in the room and you play together, it brings different things out of everybody. You listen in a different way.
You’ve mentioned working in shifts. Do you normally record nine to five, like a normal work day?
JP: Yeah, we’ve chilled out on it a little bit, but it’s still structured that way. This is a job. It takes forever to make a record. Man, it takes forever. FL