White Hills are a New York-based heavy psychedelic rock group that released its first full-length for Thrill Jockey this year, after a number of self-released albums and collaborations. The group enjoys a healthy fan base in Europe after years of extensive touring, and the States are just starting to catch up with White Hills. The band is masterminded by Dave W., who played all of the instruments on the earliest recordings; live, the band is filled out by bassist Ego Sensation and a rotating cast. Here, Dave W. discusses, after a stunning Sunday matinee set on the ATP festival’s second stage, the current line-up, the Brooklyn scene and the power of setting goals.
For your set at ATP this year, you were a quartet. Is that the full line-up now?
That woman that was playing synthesizer with us, she’s from France and she plays in a band called Aqua Nebula Oscillator. It’s somebody that I became friendly with, and when we were over in Paris, she played with us when we opened up for Mono. Then she came to Berlin and played with us in Berlin. At that time she was talking about coming out to the U.S., and I was like, “We’re playing ATP, you should come out and let’s do it up.”
Is this the first time she’s played with you in the states?
Did you guys rehearse, or did she just hop on?
Yes and no. We were up here on Friday, and she flew into New York on Friday. Then we woke up early on Saturday morning, drove out, picked her up and did a quick rehearsal. Just basically saying, “Here’s the set — she knows our music — here’s where we want you to do stuff in between things. So what she did last night [White Hills had opened for Mudhoney the previous night in New York] was very different from what she did today. I do all that stuff on the records, and I’ve been searching for somebody to try to do that live for so long. She’s been the one that has fit in the most with doing it, but unfortunately she lives in Europe.
I’ve seen you play a few times in Brooklyn, and its always a decent draw at Cake Shop or Don Pedro, places like that. But I know you tour Europe pretty extensively. What kind of a crowd you get there?
It’s more like today’s show. Definitely, when I decided to start this band it was like that. I’d been in other bands and done a lot of touring in the U.S., and I just decided to do everything different from how I’d done it before. That involved saying “Fuck the States,” and I’m not gonna bust my ass to drive hundreds and hundreds of miles to play to nobody. The music, I felt, was at that time more acceptable to a European audience. I just wanna go to Europe and do what other people have done before and build up a name out of a European audience and then in turn hopefully that would generate something here. Fortunately, it has worked out that way.
You have a European label?
The first record I did by myself, I burned a couple of copies of it and I sent one to Julian Cope and one to this guy Adrian Shaw [British psychedelic musician currently playing with The Bevis Frond]. Both of them really liked it and then Julian had a label where he was putting some stuff out, called Fuck Off and Di. So he approached me and said “I’d love to put it out,” and he put it out so, out of that, I decided “Okay, I guess there are people who kind of like this,” and then I had to put a band together.
You played all the instruments on the first record. Drums, bass, the whole works?
Yeah. So out of that this label Rocket Recordings contacted us in early 2007, and we had just self-released an album, Glitter Glamour Atrocity, and they really liked that and wanted to put that out. At that time Rocket was partnering with Invada, Geoff Barrow’s [of Portishead and Beak>] label. When they went to Invada and said we want to put out this record, Geoff was like, “Why don’t you see if they’ll do a new album? Because that album is so new, they just released it, what’s the point of us putting it out?” So they asked us to do a new album, put a new album together — Heads on Fire — and it just happens that one of the guys who runs Rocket, his girlfriend at the time runs Thrill Jockey in Europe. So we’re constantly touring, going over there and through her and through [Thrill Jockey label head] Bettina hearing about us and seeing what we had done that’s kind of how we came to the attention of Thrill Jockey.
Have you played Eastern Europe?
The furthest east we’ve done is Prague. But this next tour that we’re doing in November, we’re playing Poland, possibly Romania as well.
The self-titled has a nice reflective cover, and all your records have a very defined aesthetic. The packaging, artwork, and putting it out on vinyl: Is that really important to you?
Yeah, definitely. I think that the majority of people don’t view music as an art form. For, me it’s always been an art form. Everything is very specific. Everything’s very planned out, the way the songs flow in and out of each other, what song proceeds or follows everything else it’s like a painting or like a film
Does that translate to putting a set list together too?
Yeah, definitely. For me it’s like holding up a record cover is like a piece of art, and it should be a piece of art. The whole aesthetic of everything is well though out. The majority of the albums are things that I’ve designed, I think there’s only like four records out of the whole slew we’ve done that were done by someone else, and actually it’s the other guy from Rocket Recordings.
Do you have a formal art background?
I’ve tinkered. I draw, I do some painting, sculpting. It’s just another outlet but the main focus is “painting with the pick.” Aural painting. [Laughs.]
Do you guys live in Brooklyn?
The bass player and the drummer live in Brooklyn. I live in Manhattan.
Do you consider yourself a part of a New York or a Brooklyn scene?
I don’t feel part of a scene. I don’t involve myself with the things that go along with a scene. To be honest with you, I don’t know how much of a scene there really is, you know? I think that Oneida, and around Oneida and The Ocropolis [Oneida’s Williamsburg studio and rehearsal space] and Secret Project Robot, I think that’s a scene, and that’s really cool. It’s a whole group of people that are working together and are friends and are there for a common goal. I just haven’t spent my time trying to involve myself with that. We’re vaguely associated with that due to Kid [Millions, drummer for Oneida] playing with us, but I don’t feel a part of it aside from the people I know within it.
I think a lot of people try to get importance out of being a part of a scene, like making them feel better. Whatever, that’s fine, and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but that wasn’t my goal. My goal is to put a band together that fuckin’ releases records and works and goes out and does things, that plays festivals in Europe and is out there all the time. I don’t need to feel like I’m some cool guy in and out of New York.
This is your first ATP. Did it come as a surprise when Jim Jarmusch asked you?
We didn’t know we were playing on Sunday at first. We were in Europe when ATP initially approached Thrill Jockey, and we didn’t have a U.S. agent at that time — we do now. We had it all done through our European booking agent, so we didn’t know it was on the day that Jim was curating. Maybe a couple of months ago we found out it was on that day, it was like, “How the fuck does Jim Jarmusch know about White Hills?” Then I was thinking maybe ATP is somehow involved with it.
Like they passed your name along?
That’s what I was thinking, but then Jim mentioned us in his interview in the Village Voice and I started reading some other things. And no: He picked all the bands. I was like, “Wow, that’s cool.” And to have him jump up on the stage when we finished and thank us. You kind of wish those things happened, and then they happen you’re like, “Fuck yeah.”
Had you heard of ATP before, what it was all about?
Oh, of course. I’m a very focused person, and I’m kind of a goals-oriented person. I’m constantly putting forth goals of what I want White Hills to do in all aspects, and ATP was something that was actually on the list, for having done this year. I think when you focus and when you put forth goals you do these things. In some way, putting that out there, putting the work into it, it comes back in some way. One of the greatest things, it’s a thrill for me, I feel so thankful that the fact that all of the goals that I’ve put forth since the beginning have been achieved and as I go along the way, they just become bigger, the momentum keeps on going. I feel so fortunate, but it’s also work.
There’s a lot of bands out there, there’s shorter attention spans…
Yeah you can’t just piddle around. Rehearse in your space, play some shows around your town. Whatever. You wanna do shit, you gotta be like, “OK, I wanna do this. How am I gonna get this done?” Then you gotta work your ass off to get it done.
Sounds like you’re pretty optimistic about the White Hills going into the future. It sounds like things are starting to take off.
Yeah, it feels that way. It’s like sometimes you just like look at it and its overwhelming in some ways. It’s what you want, and then you sit there and you say “I checked this off the list, I checked that off the list.” Like playing with Mudhoney, that was something we wanted to do. We’re playing with The Flaming Lips in California in the beginning of October. That’s another thing; that’s another huge thrill. Their agent contacts our agent and says that they want us. How the fuck do those guys know about us? How did they hear our music and like it enough to ask us to play with them?