Published on September 2nd, 2015 | by The Beige Baron0
Dave W from White Hills
— Main (Top) Photograph by Lucy Ling Photography
“Meditative music is not about being an escape,” says White Hills guitarist Dave W from his home in New York.
“Meditation is an enlightening experience that brings about a greater understanding of oneself and one’s place within all.”
Whether you want to unmoor your mind and float inwards towards the self, or outwards into space and time, away from life’s stress and grief and confusion, there’s no better drug than White Hills.
Pulling together threads of punk, psych, stoner, and motorik rock into one hypnotic tapestry, White Hills are revered for their ability to marry primal intensity with the delicate and ethereal.
Their songs have a three dimensionality, a texture and tactility, that allows the listener to experience them from the inside out.
But unless there’s a groove, Dave W isn’t satisfied — as demonstrated by the band’s change in direction on Walks For Motorists, a recent album that saw he and Ego Sensation [bass] abandon guitar as the principle songwriting tool in an attempt to rediscover the swing — a kind of rhythmic secret sauce — through the use of electronics.
BNU delved into this experiment in a conversation that touches — among others things — on Dave W’s relationship with guitar, the creation of White Hills’ masterpiece H-p1, and what lies ahead for the band.
BNU: All of your records seem to push into new sonic terrain, to try to find what is possible within the basic format of guitar, bass, and drums. I’m wondering if you ever felt there was a limitation with guitar as an instrument, or whether you’ve ever felt frustration with the limitation of your own playing and if there was any disconnection between trying to get down what’s in your head and what you end up recording?
DW: A limitation is only something that one places upon him or herself. I’m a self-taught guitarist and constantly push myself to look at the instrument in new ways. I’ve never desired to be one who can repeat some Eddie Van Halen lick note for note, nor has it been a concern for me to play the exact same solo note for note that I’ve put to tape when we play live.
The choice to ditch the guitar while writing the last album, Walks For Motorists, came about out of a need to regain something that I felt I had lost along the way. That something was the groove within the music. I felt that Frying On This Rock and So You Are… So You’ll Be had lost the essence of the groove.
Ditching the guitar was only one small thing that Ego and I did in order to shake up our process and get back to basics of focusing in on what was appropriate for each track.
When it comes to recording guitar, what ends up getting recorded, or played live, is what is in my head at that given moment. I don’t plan out my solos. It’s about feel more than ability.
Of course I do.
Have you ever felt bored by guitar?
Sure, but that’s when I know it’s time to force myself to go beyond what I know I can do with the instrument.
What kind of guitar music makes you want to pick up and just play?
I don’t tend to listen to guitar music in order to get inspired.
I find I get more inspired to play the guitar when I listen to music that does not have guitar in it at all. For many years I would listen to free jazz and try to translate saxophone lines on the guitar. Maybe it comes from this practice, who knows?
Do you ever reach into other cultures to get inspiration?
Do you generally think of chords first or do you experiment with effects to get the tone you want, and then build the songs around that?
I’m convinced NYC will become a bombed-out war zone at some point in the future
Usually it’s the riff that comes first. Effects tend to be secondary. My thought is, if the riff is appealing in it’s most stripped-down form, then it will translate to a listener whether the guitar is drenched in effects or not.
It all goes back to the groove. If the lick has the right groove and the band translates that, then effects are just the icing on the cake.
You guys were kind of chased out of San Francisco in the 1990s by creeping gentrification. Other bands I have spoken to [Psychic Ills and Weird Owl] complained that it’s happening in NYC to an even worse degree, which I am sure you are also affected by.
I’m wondering, since you have been to many countries and experienced many scenes, is this a worldwide phenomenon where the rich want to buy into the proximity of artists and then, ironically, end up forcing them out?
I wouldn’t say we were chased out of San Francisco. Both of us had affordable apartments in that city when we left. Rent control laws were strong then and in the favor of the leaseholder. The main reason for leaving was boredom and striving for something more than either of us had achieved while playing music in San Francisco. The fact that clubs were closing left and right and the majority of our contemporaries were choosing lives outside of music just helped to move the decision to leave along.
People are very base. They aren’t looking for something “new”, in the sense of someone breaking new ground.
At this point greed is ingrained within our culture. This is not something particular to the US. You do see it elsewhere. The wealthy co-opting the ground that artists have broken is nothing new. It just seems to be happening at an accelerated pace lately.
Of course there is. It’s all cyclical. Cities are popular to live in now, but that has not always been the case. Just a couple decades ago they weren’t. It has already been proven that this current financial model will implode. The question is, when will it bust again, and how bad will it be this time around?
I mean, how long can Wall Street go on making money off of others’ debt? The same goes for real estate. It makes no sense at all. I’m convinced NYC will become a bombed-out war zone at some point in the future, just as I’m sure it will have a revival and become a city that upward and mobile families will want to live in again.
Berlin seems to be a bit overrated.
What countries are most respectful and supportive of artists in your experience?
It’s hard for me to really say what countries are most respectful and supportive of artists as I don’t live elsewhere. What I can say is that there still are countries which actively provide public money for the arts, but from what I’m told when speaking with foreign promoters, the money given now is much less than what was given in the recent past.
Which places are overrated do you think?
Berlin seems to be a bit overrated. I’m not saying that I don’t like it there, on the contrary, I love that city, but gentrification has definitely taken its toll there since the first time I visited. That’s not to say that there is not anything going on there, as it is one of those cities like NYC where something is always happening. It just seems to be a bit less artist-friendly now than it was some years ago.
You started playing guitar-noise-drenched “space rock” when it was a pretty low-key style—I mean there were bands like Swans, but you guys were really pushing into some deep stuff when it was relatively unpopular to do so. Now so many bands are citing krautrock as a major source of inspiration and aiming for a more motorik sound. Having been something of a pioneer in this kind of music’s renaissance, how do you feel about it becoming so popular?
It’s a double-edged sword. In one way it’s great, as the renewed popularity has opened up some doors for us that were closed before. On the other hand, there is a glut of bands out there now which are all vying for the same small market.
Do you feel that a lot of what is popular at the moment is retreading old ground?
When any genre becomes trendy, yes, I do feel that the majority of what comes out of it tends to be retreading old ground. People are very base. They aren’t looking for something “new”, in the sense of someone breaking new ground. There will always be someone that takes things to new levels, but the fact remains that not everyone can or even wants to break some kind of new ground.
Do you care or are you aware of music trends?
I don’t care much for trends within music. If I did care about trends I wouldn’t have started the type of band I did at the time when I did so. In my opinion, good music will always be good music whether the genre is popular or not.
What measure do you use to identify pretenders from authentic music?
I do not feel that it is my place to judge who is pretend or authentic. It’s all a matter of personal taste. If someone is creating, whether what they create is rehashing something already done or not, then they are doing something authentic even if it’s only in their mind.
A true artist won’t shy away from their art, whether popular or not
The fact is that the majority of people who go into this business do it for all the wrong reasons. A true artist won’t shy away from their art, whether popular or not, if they are true to it.
Look at bands like Mudhoney, Bardo Pond, or the Melvins to name a few. All of these bands haven’t stopped since day one! People who end up abandoning their art are pretenders in my book, as a true artist will always be an artist creating no matter what is popular.
You personally seem to be passionate about social and environmental issues, and I guess you also have a political perspective that comes out in your music. But you’ve also stated you want to create “meditative” music that helps the listener explore their inner selves. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on politics in music? Should music be an escape from reality or should it provoke?
I remember being a slave-driver, getting the band to track song after song for hours on end
Meditative music is not about being an escape. To escape is to forget about all that surrounds you and to place yourself somewhere else. Meditation is an enlightening experience that brings about a greater understanding of oneself and one’s place within all. Ultimately it’s up to the individual as to what they see and want to get out of music.
I fancy myself a thinker and philosopher, so I tend to be drawn to music that has very strong statements. Others look to music as an escape from their daily existence.
Is one more worthy than the other? I don’t feel that it is my place to answer that question. What works for me, works for me. I don’t expect it to work for someone else, nor do I want it to.
White Hills are prolific. My favorite record of yours, though, is H-p1. There is a real sense of spaciousness in the music that’s just remarkable. What was that album like to make?
We set up for two days at Oneida’s studio in Brooklyn for those recording sessions. I had the concept of the album together before entering the studio and half of the songs were already written. The other half came out of jams in the studio that I edited into shape.
I remember being a slave-driver, getting the band to track song after song for hours on end with little to no breaks as I wanted to take advantage of all the time we had in the studio. A couple of the people involved in the sessions broke down during this process, so I sent them home as they were just a nuisance, and continued forging ahead without them.
What is your favorite White Hills album?
I don’t judge my art as what is my favorite, rather I look at what I’ve created and judge my work on a level of whether the idea behind it was fully realized or not.
All of our output is a reflection of that moment in time. For this reason they are all dear to me in very different ways.
That said, I do feel that there are a couple albums that were not fully realized.
You have collaborated with many incredible bands such as Earthless and Gnod as well as sharing stages with, well, basically everyone. I’m wondering if anyone you have worked with or played with has personally affected how you approach making music, be it practically or philosophically?
Working with other people is always a welcome change. It gets you out of your comfort zone and forces you to approach the process in a new way. I’ve recently been collaborating with a poet, Dan McGuire, who has been putting together an album of his work. This has been one of the most challenging and fulfilling collaborations I’ve been involved in as it’s so far out of my comfort zone.
I approach every gig the same way: that is to command the audience and take them on a trip. To me the size of the venue doesn’t matter, you can always connect with someone in the audience. The key is to find that person or people and play your heart out for them!
How do you cope with life on the road? You mentioned that So You Are… So You’ll Be was in some part about becoming what your actions or behaviors or desires make you, so in that context, how do you deal with not getting enough sleep, maybe eating badly, drinking or binging or whatever? I’m kind of curious as to whether the lifestyle spoils the enjoyment of playing?
I live to be on the road. I find the lifestyle to be quite enjoyable and don’t have an issue with it at all. For me, there is nothing about it that spoils my enjoyment of playing. It’s when I’m home for too long that things start to become a problem.
Drunk punks were yelling insults and throwing beer at us. There was a tension in the air
Can you recall any gigs where you felt everything was perfect?
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a gig where everything was perfect. There are just too many variables in this line of work for everything to fall into place and be perfect.
However, on our last tour of Europe we did a festival in Germany called the Ruport Rodeo Festival. This is a traditional punk fest with bands like The Exploited playing, so to have us on board felt a bit strange to say the least.
While we were setting up the drunk punks were yelling insults and throwing beer at us. There was a tension in the air that I don’t normally feel at our shows, but once we hit the stage we blew the crowds collective cranium off and those who were dismissing us due to our look were championing us by the end. That might be as close to a perfect show as I could ask for.
Some other shows that have been near perfect were the series we did around the premiere of [Jim Jarmusch’s film] Only Lovers Left Alive. Everyone involved with the music in the film performed after a series of premiere screenings in Europe and the US. These shows were so enjoyable that any problem there may have been with a performance was overshadowed by the fun I was having at the time.
You’ve been playing music for a long time. I wonder how you feel about getting older. Has your opinion on this changed as you’ve grown older?
I don’t look at myself as old. The way I see it, I’ll always be younger than someone else out there that is performing. Old is a state of mind. I know people in their 20s that are old and people in their 70s that are young.
Society and our culture place so much importance on youth for all of the wrong reasons.
As a listener, though, how do you feel about when older bands reform and issue an album, and it generally is not as good as their old stuff (with few exceptions), and in the context of this, do you think bands or artists have a “peak time”?
As for a band’s “peak time”, it’s subjective. What is a peak album for one is not for another and the like with a band reforming.
Do you think it is necessary to change musically as you grow older? And do you feel your best work is ahead of you?
If I felt that I had done my best work by now, I would have packed it in
For me it is very important to change musically as I grow as an artist. That has nothing to do with age; it’s just a natural part of the process for me. If I felt that I had done my best work by now, I would have packed it in at this point, so to answer your question, YES, I feel that there is better work ahead of me!
What will the next White Hills album sound like? Do you have any clues as to what we can expect? Will you be working with anyone special with recording or are you gonna go back to basics?
Now you really don’t want me to give away any secrets, do you? All I can say is that we have started to write new music and we do have some ideas as to people that we would like to work with, but we have not reached out to any of them at this point in time.