By Andy Sears
Last year was a good year to be in the genre-hopping rock band from Austin, White Denim. Their biggest record to date, Corsica Lemonade, was released in late 2013 to much well deserved critical acclaim. From there, the band spent much of 2014 in support of it, honing their time on stage and gelling in a way that made them a must-see act for all sorts of rock music fans. Practice made perfect for certain, as they toured the country back relentlessly, playing to sold out crowds and festivals alike.
Before that watershed year though, their success seemed to fall into a weird category of a band whose hype almost stunted them from reaching their potential because of a myriad of complexities that come along with making “the record.” Where 2011’s D fell just short of that, Corsica Lemonade captured what White Denim does best; stop on a dime bass-lines, fuzzy riffs over jazzy staccato guitar, and the raspy heartfelt singing and songwriting of James Petralli. The album bottled up the first six years of the bands existence across ten tracks for a perfectly straightforward rock record.
An unintended consequence of the time, pressure and overall production that Corsica Lemonade required was that the band was only able to release just those ten songs in about a three year time span. Not exactly the plethora of work the band had grown accustomed to releasing during their early days. As a result, we now have Bop English, James Petralli’s first attempt at a solo record made up of songs that have been stockpiled throughout the course of White Denim’s half-decade existence. We got to chat with Petralli about all things White Denim, the story behind his solo act’s name and what its like living in downtown Austin during SXSW before what was to be Bop English’s show this past Wednesday night.
Allston Pudding: How did Bop English come about?
James Petralli: I had a friend when I was in college. He was kind of a homeless guy that I met in a VFW area, not fully homeless but slept on the streets once or twice a week. Anyway, we became friends and he came to the town my college was in and stayed with me for a few months. While he was there, part of the deal was he would write this book he’d been talking about writing forever. He was really into Kerouac and stuff like that, and he gave everyone in his life nick-names. That was the name he gave me in the book, so I just kept it going for this because I’ve never really had a fake name before. I didn’t really want to give myself one or use my own name.
AP: Did anything happen with this book?
JP: He dictated it to me, so it exists, I printed like fifty copies of it. So they’re around, it’s called the “Chaperito Street Metaphore.” There’s probably like fifty of us that own them.
AP: So when you say he’s interested in Kerouac, is that where the bee-bop connection is from?
JP: Yeah, I was studying lit and I was really into bee-bop. Explaining that doesn’t sound very cool. It sounds like I got the worst nick-name in the book.
AP: It makes sense now though.
JP: I was into English lit and Bop.
AP: There’s a lot of guitar tracks on the first two Bop English songs. Which leads me to question who you are bringing along on this tour. There’s no way you can do it all!
JP: I can hardly do any of them while singing, but I got this guy who’s really good—this guy named Jonathan Horne. I don’t think he’s been on the road too much, but he’s really heavy into the free jazz scene here. He plays in a band called the Young Mothers with a great drummer from Chicago named Frank Rosaly. Our bass player is from Norway—Ingebrigt Haker Flaten from the Thing. Have you ever heard “the Thing?”
JP: The Thing have been around for years There a really crazy heavy metal free jazz band. It’s pretty easy to find their music, its crazy. That’s his main job is collaborating with those two other guys.
AP: How did you come across the other players that will be out with you?
JP: I’ve been really good buddies with the bass player. He has a kid the same age as mine, and we kind of came up at the same time. He was in a band called Shearwater out of Austin for a really long time. He’d just kind of been around a lot and we ended up making the record together. He’s actually the only guy on the record that’s in my band. And I got a drummer from a university here and he’s like twenty two, so it should be really interesting to take him out on the road for the first time.
AP: Are you giving him the Whiplash treatment?
JP: No, no way man. He’s one of the best musicians I’ve ever played with. He’s like one of those kids that’s been taking piano lessons since he was three years old and basically could have done anything but chose drums from some ungodly reason. I’m not sure why anyone would take that career path, but he’s been fantastic and we feel really lucky to have him.
AP: Where did these songs come from? Are these songs that White Denim didn’t want to make or ones that you saved?
JP: White Denim has been a band now for ten years. Our career trajectory has prevented us from having the kind of output that we would have liked, especially that I would have liked to have. Releasing a record every two years is just not enough for me. So I pitched all these songs to White Denim, they were all there. We just didn’t make any of these tunes together. But they all started out as possible White Denim tracks.
AP: So it seems like White Denim is very democratic and this was your opportunity to really direct songs from start to finish.
JP: My role in both groups is pretty much the same—the front half of Corsica Lemonade being the big exception to the way that White Denim has created music over the past few years. So it’s really not all that different. I don’t know, I wish I could tell you there was some crazy different process, but I kind of have my process and I like to keep that going and whoever is down to stop by the studio to work with me is always invited. I’ve been working on this record off and on for four, closer to five years. There’s one track that made this record that was going to be on our second record which we cut in favor of “I Start to Run.” It had a really similar chord change, so we had to do one or the other. So yeah, a lot of it goes all the way back to 2009.
AP: Now that the Corsica Lemonade tour is done—and you’ve mentioned being frustrated with not being able to get material out—have you had the opportunity to look back at it as a success, or did you think it would be bigger or do more?
JP: I’m proud of the work we did. I’m proud of that record and of the band and what we were able to do on stage, but there were a lot more constraints in making that record in anything I’ve ever done before, which was kind of a drag. I think at the onset we had this period of time and whatever we would be able to get done would be the record, and that would be cool, but looking back there were some things that I would have done differently to create a better studio vibe, band vibe—all that stuff. I think it’s a good record. It’s not my favorite, but I’m proud of it. Anytime we can get a record out and have a reception like we got with that album it’s a win, ya know?
AP: Commercially, did it perform like you thought it would? Was it a record that set you up in a way that you don’t have to worry about not reaching this certain bar of success again now that you’ve made it?
JP: I don’t think that the record did that for us, but the touring around the record definitely raised our profile in a significant way. So I guess the record did that. It didn’t sell like crazy. It was our best selling record to date. I guess there’s a lot to be said for that, especially with the state of the music market or whatever. But yeah, it was a success. I’m really proud of it. We started playing theaters and a lot of larger markets and came home with a little more money than we were used to. So yeah, I’m still at this point in my career where anytime I get to come home and even put a little money in the bank and live to see another record is a great success to me.
AP: Your bandmates discovered this guy Leon Bridges. Do you have someone like this you’re championing or back these days?
JP: I’m working on some bands but no, not really. I’m a writer and that’s my focus. My focus is writing songs and singing them.
AP: I know Jeff Tweedy and Wilco gave you guys a big push from letting you record up in the Loft and just kind of having their names tagged to it. Do you think that these days, you need to have someone tagged to you along to put you in a spotlight?
JP: From a marketing standpoint, it really helps publicists do their job. So it seems almost essential ever since like Bon Iver, y’know, the cabin in the woods story. The story of the making of the record had this fairy tale status. In reality, anyone who has ever made a record can tell you how excruciatingly boring it can be. It’s weird. I think people are doing anything they possibly can to add value or perceived value to records. I still think the value is in the music and the process is what it is. The people need a story, but I don’t think it matters to the actual music.
In the case of going to Chicago though, that was our first time to ever work with an outside producer, really. I don’t think we would have done that. It took us five records to concede to letting anybody get involved, and Tweedy was such a role model for us from early in our career with the things he’s been able to accomplish with Wilco. We just kind of had to do that. It was a once in a lifetime thing we were just like “yeah, we’re gonna do that.”
AP: Are two Bop English songs out about anything in particular?
JP: “Sentimental Wilderness” is just like a little vignette of things and the words are like a description of a scene. I hadn’t really written too much like that before. And “Dani’s Blues” is about making music, essentially. A little bit of the business of making music there, like borrowing money to make a record and paying it back tenfold. Is that sufficient? I’m not really good at talking about that stuff.
AP: That’s cool. Coming from Austin what’s your perspective on what SXSW has become? Have you been able to see it evolve as a festival over the years?
JP: The first time I went was about twelve years ago. It was before anybody used to even walk down the street East of 35. That’s kind of an exaggeration, but it was a bad neighborhood. The whole Eastside thing didn’t exist. It was really kind of focused on 6th street and Red river and the hippest stuff was on the East side—it was more of a secret and cool. There was a lot less corporate involvement, which I think made for a better experience for attendees at the festival. It was really an industry thing. We got our first record deal from playing a showcase. That story was a lot more likely then, I think. It feels like a chance now for corporations to push whatever they’re working on or their image or a new product or whatever. Less about discovery—that stuff is still there—but its seems deemphasized over the last decade and a half. It was smaller this year than last year, last year was seriously out of hand. We had some gnarly shit go down. I think the city is making efforts to try and control it a little bit more. Its ok, I’m not super into it if you can’t tell. Having lived here for about 15 years, the traffic is insane. Last year I was trying to get across town to do something and I got so upset in my car sitting in traffic that I bit trough a cigarette. I was clenching my jaw that hard. That might be an exaggerated amount of stress that locals feel during SXSW, but yeah, living downtown and trying to get anywhere is outrageously inconvenient.
AP: Any chance of a new White Denim records in the works?
JP: I’ve been writing all winter. The other guys have been busy with Leon Bridges, so we’ll see what happens with that.
AP: Are they touring with Leon Bridges?
JP: Yeah, Austin is the music director and Josh is in the band and manning the controls in the studio. They got swept up in that whole thing. Steven and I will be getting into the studio on Monday, so either way I think White Denim will being doing new stuff soon.
Bop English’s debut record is out now on Downtown Records. His tour date scheduled for April 29th at Great Scott has indefinitely been postponed—keep an eye out for rescheduling.