After an extended break of nearly two years, White Lies are return next month (12 August) with their third album BIG TV. Recorded with their first producer Ed Buller, the band have clearly used their time away fruitfully, not only taking stock place in the wider musical universe, but also figuring out what White Lies should actually stand for. To mark their return the band are playing a three night residency at London's Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, the scene of their first ever gig, this week (23-25 July). Q spoke to frontman Harry McVeigh (centre) about why he, bassist Charles Cave and drummer Jack Brown have returned to their roots for their new record.
How the devil are you? "I'm good. A little tired because I got back from holiday in New York yesterday, so quite jetlagged. It was pretty much the last chance to go away before we're incredibly busy."
You're going right back to the beginning this week, playing three nights at the Hoxton Bar & Kitchen in London, the scene of your first gigs... "Yep, in some senses it's right back to the very beginning. It was our first show five years ago there. I supposed the reason we're going back is it's a great place to introduce the new record. It's a great small venue, I enjoy watching shows there and it always sounds good. So I'm looking forward to playing to a packed room and I'm hoping we can get quite a few of our friends and families down too. It will be a real introduction to the record for everyone."
Hoxton Square has been good to White Lies, you mastered your debut album there too. "Definitely! We were over the road in a little studio. That tiny patch is good for us."
You were playing arenas before you took your break, any worries about readjusting to close scrutiny of a small venue? You have to walk through the crowd to get to the stage for starters... [laughs] "That aspect of it is going to be really funny, unless we just stand up on stage all night. I'm really looking forward to a sweaty, small show. It's something we've been working on with this album. It was something I was talking about before we started rehearsals. We wanted to make it a proper rock show. Almost make it dirty and more human than the album sounds, and I think this album is properly our most human! We want a real gritty rock show, we've distilled it and simplified it more than the record. You can hear everything been played, which will lend itself nicely to the venue. It's going to be sweaty!"
You've had quite a long break between the new album and your last. Was there a sense of needing time off, or needing to take stock? "I think it was a combination of the two, really. We took six months off, which by anyone standards is a long time, but it meant by the time we were writing again we were hungry for it. We were looking forward to getting our heads down and doing some hard work. When Charles and I started writing we were in a really good place. We both had really clear ideas of the music we wanted to write. From the very beginning we were really focused on the songs, perhaps more so than on any other of our records. That's what we spent the most time on. Without adding any production we were working on them for eight months. I think you can really hear that on the album and I don't think we'd have done that if we'd just gone straight back. To take that time was a really good thing for this record."
It sounds like you discovered your place in the musical word a bit more while making this record. "I'd say so, definitely. Something we've chatted about in the band a lot before doing this record is that we didn't really give a shit about trying to make a cool album or being something that we're not. Looking back on our second record, and the first one to some extent, we were always consciously trying to do that. When you realise you don't need or want to do that any more it's a good moment. It means you're trying to make a record that sounds just like your band. That was really liberating. We realised what we should be striving for was to make a really great White Lies album, something that - and this might sounds strange, maybe - sounds more White Lies than anything we've done before. We wanted to distil what we're about into its purest form. It was a eureka moment when we started writing and realised that."
Not trying to be new or different for the sake of it? "We may well do this on our fourth record, who knows, but there's a danger in trying to do something new, very different and what you think is really exciting. The most exciting thing you can do really is to write really great songs, the rest follows naturally. Rather than trying to approach it from a production stand point and do something really interesting before you actually have any thing interesting to say song-wise. I think we fell into that trap on the last album. We rushed into production and finished a bit too much music in the studio. This time we had a much more material written before we went in and I think you can hear that on the album."
Where did that rush come from? "I think it was symptomatic of the music we were listening to at the time. Bands like Nine Inch Nails, which is amazing and is great music, but it's all production-led. There's nothing wrong with that but I don't think it was very White Lies, I supposed. It's not what our band is about. I love Nine Inch Nails but it wasn't right for us."
Is there a sense that you're more confident about your music now? It doesn't sound like your worried too much about what people will think about you. "We're definitely more confident. We're really proud of the record we've made and we've sat with it for a long time now. I still enjoy listening to it every now and then and that's not something I can say with the first two records. I can't wait for people to hear it, and that goes hand-in-hand with not caring what people write about it. I'm excited for our fans to hear it and hopefully it's a record that will introduce other people to the band as well."
Possibly via karaoke? Apparently it was your aim to write at least one song on this album that will be belted out in a bar at some point in the future? "Yeah! I think we maybe have it too. There's one song we all share as a favourite on the record called First Time Caller. There are so many parts of it that lend themselves to being a pop sing-a-long that I don't think it would sound out of place if a boy band sung it, basically!" [laughs]
This goal also suggests White Lies are secret karaoke kings... "There is a burning karaoke passion in the band, but only when we go to Japan. No one else does it as well!"
Other than karaoke glory, what else inspired this record? "We've been listening to a lot of classic songwriters, but also modern people who think in a similar way to those people. We listened to a fair bit of Bruce Springsteen. He's always been amazing at always trying to make a record that's more like Bruce Springsteen than the last one. He's always trying to get to the purest thing of what he's about. Neil Young is another example and someone we listened to a lot, but also people like John Grant. His songs sound very timeless and melodically are really interesting. The focus is always on the songs which is something we aspired to. Plus I think lyrically he's the best person at swearing on record! He does it with such passion that it always puts a smile on my face when I hear him swearing in songs. I don't think we're good enough songwriters to pull off swearing... yet."
Meanwhile BIG TV is not only the title track, it's also the album's opener. Does it encapsulated the record for you? "It's one of our favourite tracks and a good introduction to the album which is why it's the opener and the title track. Sonically it touches on so many parts of the record, while lyrically it brings in the themes of the album. Roughly the album is about a young girl who leaves a very small, rural town and travels to a big city thinking that it will full opportunity. She has this romantic vision of the modern life she can lead. To her the idea of owning a big TV is symbolic of that new life. She thinks once she gets the TV she's made it in the city. So the song is about her living in a crappy apartment yet she owns this big TV. Really it doesn't mean anything and it's her starting to realise it's not all it's cracked up to be."
Is that story carried across the rest of the record? "It's not like a narrative, but it touches on different parts of the story. The story just came from the depth of Charles' imagination, but it opens up so many themes of love and loss plus the excitement of being somewhere new. It opens up lots of things to write about. If we didn't talk about it, I don't think people would pick-up on the universal theme because it moves to so many place, but it really helped Charles to write some interesting lyrics. He was able to place himself in the story and think about what everything meant."
So is a narrative something you'd like to explore more in the future? "Charles and I are big prog rock fans and we've always talked about for the next record doing a proper concept album. Just go overboard and do the full sci-fi!" [laughs] Paul Stokes @Stokesie
For more head to Whitelies.com.