It’s an interesting time for Austin’s White Denim. The band was one of the more successful Austin acts of the mid-aughts and early teens, releasing a slew of well-received albums that built them a following both in Texas and around the world. Not only did they stay busy playing clubs in the U.S., but theaters in Europe, their brand of psych-influenced guitar rock recalling the later days of the British Invasion and the Haight/Ashbury sound of sixties San Francisco as much as their Texas roots.
Now, though, things have changed: Two of the band’s founding members left last year to join Leon Bridges’s band full-time, and after a crisis of confidence, White Denim decided to recruit new members, get back on the road, and cut their latest album, Stiff—which you can stream in full below, in advance of its release on Friday. Texas Monthly caught up with the band’s singer and guitarist James Petralli to talk about the new record, hitting the reset button, and his love/hate relationship with ZZ Top.
Dan Solomon: The sound on this record is a little more straightforward than your last one. What were you listening to that got you thinking along those lines?
James Petralli: I was kind of listening to the same stuff that I always listen to, classic rock and R&B, or the contemporary equivalent kind of doing that kind of stuff—Thundercat and Unknown Mortal Orchestra and stuff like that. My wife had just given birth to my second child, my son, so I was really busy with that and I would have a two to three week period of time where I was writing really intensely, and then going inside and making sure that everything was still going okay with the family. That was a pretty intense time, but I think it led to a kind of back to basics, more elemental kind of writing style for me than maybe the last few records.
DS: Was that a good feeling?
JP: We had talked about doing that for a while, so it was a good feeling, you know—a conscious decision. Felt great to take out some of the possibilities for studio effects and more over the top musical passages.
DS: What were the “back-to-basics” conversations within the band like?
JP: Two of our guys split. They found that kid Leon Bridges, so they made that record and that did really well, so they split off. Steve and I were just kind of talking about what was worthwhile about our group in the first place. We both wanted to continue making music together. “Should we call it White Denim? Is that the right thing to do?” I think that we kind of just boiled it down to the spirit of band is really just like about making fun rock n’ roll music, and presenting an energetic and hopefully precise live show. We figured, yeah, we can do that—if we get the right players in place and have the spirit together, yeah, we can continue.
DS: When you hear a band come back with new members and a new sound, it looks like a turning point from the outside. Does it feel that way inside the band?
JP: I don’t know. I don’t really think of it like that. If anything, it’s kind of like hitting the reset button a little bit. Musicians are so different. Everybody’s got their own thing, so the band is never going to sound the way that it did, so in that sense it’s kind of a turning point. I kind of like to think about it as more of a reset rather than a hard left turn. It’s still sounds like our group to me.
DS: It’s hard to have a career in music that lasts a long time. This is your seventh album. Your band is a decade old now. What it’s like to watch some of the other guys in the band go on and be in Leon Bridges’ band and watch that guy get famous?
JP: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little bit frustrating in some ways. I don’t know—you just try to stay positive, I guess. High tide raises all ships thing, just kind of repeat that as a mantra. We’ve never been all that concerned about commercial success. It’s always been about sustaining for us: What do we need to do to have a good time, get along, and be able to continue and have the kind of life that we want to? I don’t feel like we’ve had to make too many compromises creatively. There definitely have been a few moments where we would have liked to have presented a much weirder kind of thing than we have, but it’s still like a rockin’ fun thing to do, and we’re lucky that people have stuck with us. We’ll see how this cycle goes. I’m optimistic about it, but every record is kind of like a little bit of a test. Ten years, but it feels good. I feel like we’ve kind of reached a point where I know we can continue to play clubs and make some people happy. That’s good for me.
DS: This record feels very much like a Texas record, in ways that feel new to your music. It feels like there’s a little more ZZ Top in this record.
JP: Like the material feels more Top? Like, light-hearted? It’s interesting that you say that. I like ZZ Top. I’ve kind of had a love/hate relationship with them. I think that they’re an amazing band. You’re not the first person to make that comment that this sounds more like a Texas record—like, people have been asking me if I’ve been listening to Gary Clark Jr. a lot, which I think is a completely ridiculous and hilarious question.
DS: I don’t really hear Gary Clark Jr. on it.
JP: Neither do I, although I might do that. I might listen to nothing but Gary Clark Jr. for a while and see what comes out. I don’t know, man. We’re Texans—essentially by now, we’re educated in Texas. I guess the way that we made records in the past, there was a little bit of distance. It’s hard to explain. Making a live record, it’s a lot harder to conceal or maybe blur the lines a little bit. This record is very much like, ‘Here they are, this is what they sound like when they play together, and there’s not a lot of studio trickery or anything kind of covering that up.’ So yeah, I was really just purely acting, and maybe a little twang comes out a little more when I’m not really thinking about my accent or whatever.
DS: White Denim started treating Austin much more like a tour stop than a hometown pretty early on. What’s your relationship to the city like now?
JP: We’ve been kind of out of it for a while. We just did like four small club shows in like most of the places we used to play when we were first starting out and it was really fun to be able to do that, but Austin is one of those cities that they’re always looking for what’s new. I don’t know how to say this without sounding really career-oriented, but you want it be a profitable show. The fewer times you play, the more anticipation you build around a show. The hope is that the more people will come out and you can do a bigger room, that kind of thing. We haven’t really tried to make the scene so much over the past 7 or 8 years. I think that it’s worked out. I do feel a little bit disconnected from the community, which is unfortunate. There are a lot of great people working there. But having new members has definitely connected us again in a way that we weren’t for quite a while. I love the city. My complaints about it are the same as everybody else’s—my property taxes, traffic, all that stuff. But it’s a really great place. I used to, like, roll into St. Louis or Chicago, and every city I wanted to move to. “I can imagine myself living in a house in St. Louis.” No way, man. I’m a Texan through and through. I like being in Austin. There aren’t many places like that.