These days, Brooklyn’s filled with an influx of experimental rock bands traversing all across America to get there before the magic runs out. Since the late ‘90s, many talented and variegated musical artists have seemingly come out of the woodwork, or more likely, the red-bricked apartments of Williamsburg – Manhattan’s cheaper alternative conveniently located just across the Hudson River. Currently residing in or around the Kings County hotbed are internationally renowned indie bands such as Animal Collective (Baltimore), The National (Cincinnati), Liars (Australia/ Los Angeles), Black Dice (Rhode Island), Hold Steady (Minnesota/ Wisconsin), Fiery Furnaces (Illinois), and Grizzly Bear (East-West).
Originating in the Show-Me State, the White Rabbits ‘07 debut, Fort Nightly, took a rhythmically fascinating post-new wave approach to winsome pop and scored points with underground pundits. On top of that, the high-rising Missouri-bred outfit convincingly spiked their charming melodies with well-placed orbital baroque piano whirlwinds, exotic South American dance beats, and scant Gypsy-flamenco sashays. Guitarists’ Greg Roberts and Alex Even, alongside keyboardist Steve Patterson, share vocal duties, using their collective moxie to move from cockeyed whimsy to ebullient buoyancy with an organic fluidity rarely seen. Curiously love-struck lyrical revelations prove to be dramatically moving, tearing at the heart with an enormous sentimentality perfected and refined by “Leave It At The Door,” the ghostly dirge closing ‘09s triumphant return, It’s Frightening.
Friends since kindergarden, singer Greg Roberts and main drummer, Jamie Levinson, grew up in the same St. Louis neighborhood and shared a freshman dorm at University of Missouri. The duo cut their teeth in crappy mid-‘90s ska bands during the reggae-influenced style’s third wave resurgence, claiming post-punk icons the Specials and Style Council as early inspiration. Before joining White Rabbits full time, Levinson moved to Chicago, played in a few bands, then attended graduate school at Madison, Wisconsin, becoming the young combo’s initial manager while Roberts and his Midwest clan settled in Brooklyn.
Though they had trouble getting off the ground and finding decent gigs, the White Rabbits worked hard at the beginning to get Fort Nightly proper indie exposure. Levinson added a great pair of hands to finish the album, helping the surging sextet strategize and conquer. As sweeping three-part harmonies abound, the guiding tambourine-shaken rhythm quickens the pulse of strolling roundabout, “The Plot” (recalling quirky ‘80s Brit-pop champions, XTC). A piano-based tango groove hexes the climactic multi-harmony swoon enriching Cabaret-darkened “Kid On My Shoulders.” And a busy Afro-beat gallop consumes the sanguine vocalizing on “I Used To Complain Now I Don’t” (where Beirut’s Jon Natchez plies ska-derived sax to an unearthly delight with an arty Talking Heads penchant).
Returning two years hence, the White Rabbits have gained confident, increased conviction, and fulfilled their initial promise. It’s Frightening gives percussionists Levinson and Matthew Clark a more prominent role also afforded new bassist Brian Betancourt. A thunderous Burundi tribal stomp raids the bewitchingly sumptuous mantra, “Percussion Gun” (with its blistered guitar riff and ominous piano). Heightening the tension, sweet-voiced ascensions hover above the kick-drummed tambourine-slapped rumble, “Rudie Fails.” Bastard Latino hybrid, “Company I Keep,” offers a slow and sensitive bossa nova provocation while “The Lady Vanishes” indirectly recalls Beatles knockoffs such as Badfinger and Squeeze in its own unique way. A true cornucopia of well-defined musical ideas linked to, but never forged in, the recent past, give It’s Frightening a commanding presence its still-vital predecessor, Fort Nightly, more than hinted at.
Making the jump from the rural agrarian countryside of Columbia, Missouri to the musty city congestion of Brooklyn, the White Rabbits have made serious headway navigating their way through New York’s latest cultural evolution.
I spoke to Levinson via phone from Asheville, North Carolina, where his band had just completed a gig the hot August night before.
What growth has the band experienced since the debut, Fort Nightly, came out?
JAMIE: We did nothing but tour for two years when the debut came out. We’d been living together in a loft. It could be tough being in close quarters traveling with a band 75% of the year. But we cut our teeth on the road. We felt we were just playing a Wall Of Sound hitting as hard as we could every night. When we got done, we wanted to space things out a bit so everyone could hone in on what they felt comfortable with. That’s the attitude we took into the studio for the writing process of the second record. We wanted to streamline and not be balls-out every time.
I agree. “The Salesman” and “Leave It At the Door” are transcending. On the other hand, the staggering Burundi percussion keeps the momentum intense on a few choice cuts.
Oh yeah. In fact, the working title for “Percussion Gun” was “Burundi.” That’s how it ends up on the set list.
“Rudie Fails” also benefits from the African-styled rhythmic flurry.
I actually used to work in Chicago record store, Dusty Groove. They have a website too, specializing in hard-to-find global music that was largely responsible for putting tropicalia back on the map with David Byrne. It was a very informative time for me to be around that music, absorbing it all day. Steve majored in playing Jazz drums. Everyone has a studied past with different rhythms. When we get together, it’s a very democratic songwriting process. A lot of that filters out. If there’s a beat someone knows, he passes it down to the rest.
White Rabbits music seems based on simple rock settings, but I can’t find specific referential sources – maybe Radiohead on “Lionness” and “The Salesman.”
We could do worse than be compared to our ironic label mates, Radiohead, who put out In Rainbows on TBD Records. Around the time we were making the record, there were a few touchstones the band agreed upon, especially while driving around – The Clash and The Beatles. There’s so much economy in what they put across.
We concerned ourselves with being good at our craft as songwriters. We’re just trying to learn to be concise. With our first record, we put our influences on the table, but the new record – which we tried to not make as weird – was influenced by noisier elements and tried to be more experimental. Also, working with Spoon’s Britt Daniel was a great experience. He helped hone in on what we wanted to streamline and get across tempered with straight-up pop songwriting.
What did Britt add to the overall sound?
His involvement was organic. We toured with Spoon for a month-an-a-half and befriended him. He put out some classic rock records. We thought he’d be a good choice since he’s a musician instead of a traditional producer who’d take over the session and mold everything. We demoed the summer of ’08. He was in Portland. We sent demos he’d check out and bring in ideas – but he never took the reins. He put us first and encouraged us to experiment. He’s such a great gage of if it’s good or bad. When we’re unsure of an idea, he built up our confidence.
Is there a semi-thematic flow threading It’s Frightening? Are the songs more introspective?
It’s more personal than Fort Nightly. We wanted to make a complete piece where you don’t need to cherry pick. We consciously mixed the record with Mike McCarthy, who’d worked with Spoon. He’d gifted at creating a classic vibe-out headphone experience. We wanted the songs to be an experience unto itself instead of two singles held together by weaker fare.
Why use the title It’s Frightening?
(laughter) I like fairly ambiguous titles. We looked at a few in an all night session. In the wee hours of the morning, we picked it. It seemed cohesive. We keep songs open-ended so people could put themselves inside it.
Why move to New York City to find success? How’d the change of scenery make the band better?
There’s a limitation on how far you could take it in Columbia, Missouri. We were up for the challenge going to a place where we were unknown looking to make ourselves heard. Everyone packed up with the thought it was something we’d work for. It allowed us to get practice space without disturbing neighbors. A move to New York could tear a band apart. It’s stressful. But we made it through the hard times.
How’s the live show gotten better?
We tried to re-think new versions of Fort Nightly’s tunes, turning things around and on its head. Experiment – this is what we do 24/7.