White Lies have unfinished business
Indie band White Lies chat to Ed Power about avoiding the spotlight, finding their niche, and unfinished business...
Here are the young men. Actually, make that youngish men. The three very serious chaps who comprise White Lies have recently journeyed to the far side of 25. They're older and if not wiser (they'll get back to you on that) then certainly less weighed down with the troubles of the world. Maybe they've even started to mellow. If you are familiar with their music, this will probably come as a shock.
"Over our first couple of albums there was definitely a heaviness to our music," says singer Harry McVeigh "We were quite naive, trying to work out who we were. We were looking for interesting things to write about. That was then. Now we've grown up. I think we are more cynical now. More 'weathered' in a way."
It's all relative of course. Back in the day White Lies were gloomy to the point of parody. Bassist Charles Cave – most of the doomy lyrics originate with him – had such a profound fear of death he would stay up all night contemplating his mortality (when he was eight years old it occurred to him that everyone he loved would one day die, an insight he never truly got over). Singer McVeigh and drummer Jack Lawrence-Brown weren't far behind when it came to existential ennui. In their press shots, White Lies were waxwork pale and looked as if they were about to burst into tears. The wag who christened them 'boy division' was surely onto something.
"That feels like a long time ago. As a band we've definitely grown," says Harry, who, like many young English musicians nowadays, is equal parts posh and amiable. "We've begun to look around for new things to be inspired by. You have to find different ways to be inspired"
Starting out, White Lies might easily have been dismissed as another ho-hum indie troupe – loud, a bit miserable, but with coiffed hair that turned out well in photo-shoots. Circa their first 2009 debut album, intense guitar rock was their thing. However, this was a short lived vogue. Not long afterwards, the scene suffered a major extinction event, as records by Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs and others crashed, burned and exploded in slow motion.
It was a dark period for ardent young guitar-hefters. The term 'landfill' indie was raised, as did the suggestion that guitar rock was dead and buried (this, the tastemakers agreed, was mostly a good thing) Did White Lies wake one morning and wonder if they still had a career?
"I think if we were really young we might have got bogged down in all that," says McVeigh. "We got to a stage where we realised you [need] to [let] all of that just pass you by. You have to make music that you like and hope others enjoy it. That's all you can do. It is a mistake to worry about the other stuff."
Somehow White Lies have survived the historic culling of floppy fringed indie bands (it probably helps they are neither particularly flouncy of haircut or obscure in their songwriting). After a near three year silence in 2013 they roared back with their third album Big TV, a smart, shiny slab of would-be arena rock. It duly debuted at number four on the UK album charts, a highly credible placing for a traditional guitar record in this time of twerking divas and big-hatted peddlers of other people's soul moves.
"We DID worry whether anyone would care," says McVeigh. "I mean, you never know do you? Will people remember? It helps, I think, that we've made our most consistent record yet. It is the strongest we've done. We spent a long time on it. We knew we'd be doing loads of touring. When you play a lot of shows, you have to believe in the songs. You are going to be out there performing every night. We were right to take it at our own pace."
It was not preordained that McVeigh would be White Lies' frontman. After all, Cave composes the lyrics and initially took care of the songwriting. As it happens none of the three much fancied being front and centre. In the end, McVeigh was the one least opposed to having the spotlight trained on him. That's not to say he initially revelled in his position. He didn't get into music to be famous.
"It was something I definitely had to learn," he says. "I found it difficult at first, especially talking to crowds. That was much harder than singing. What do you say? For a while I had no idea. Slowly, surely I got better. I don't consider myself one of those 'charismatic' frontmen. I get nervous before concerts. What's changed is I'm better at dealing with it.
"I suppose it's unusual for the lyricist not to be the singer. We've never questioned it, really. It works for us. Charles can be more honest because he doesn't have to go up there and actually sing the songs. It places a buffer between him and the music which lets him express himself in a really truthful manner."
From suburban London, White Lies were still at school when they started playing together, initially as Fear of Flying. Having spent several years as a no-mark grunge outfit, in 2008 they changed their name , overhauled their sound and were promptly annointed the hot new thing in British rock. The way their cheerleaders in the UK music press told it, stadium-scale success was merely a matter of time.
Exceedingly youthful though, they were the band that didn't let the praise go to their heads. Which was probably as well – a heartbeat later the very publications that had led the cheerleading were writing them off as corporate sell-outs (they had committed the unforgivable crime of becoming vaguely popular).
"It's difficult," says McVeigh "One minute they love a band, the next they don't want anything to do with them. In fact, that's a criticism you can probably apply to most of the press. We used to worry about it. Now we have a dedicated following and don't let those things get to us. I would like to think we've moved past all that."
- White Lies play Ambassador, Dublin March 16 as part of Jameson St Patrick's Live. Tickets €15 from Ticketmaster.
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