Stiff Upper Lip

White Denim have always dealt with adversity. When I first discovered the band at a tiny showcase at SXSW in 2008, they were already celebrated in their hometown of Austin, but while playing to out-of-towners on their own turf, the band’s identity crisis was manifested in audience reactions both bewildered and awestruck. Started as a power trio, they had yet to incorporate the ambitious musicianship that defined their last two albums, D and Corsicana Lemonade. Sure, there was energy and a raw spirit that drove them, but it would take a few years before virtuosity overtook the proceedings.

With the release of Corsicana Lemonade, those enigmatic, nearly-prog rock jams began to define their sound. More than simply a poor man’s Black Keys, founding member James Petralli sought to mix Southern rock and soul with Rush-like intensity. It worked. But soon after that sudden rise and peak of White Denim’s powers, the brotherhood of the band dissolved. 2014 was yet another hurdle with two core members, Austin Jenkins and Justin Block, leaving to join and produce the now critically acclaimed throwback Leon Bridges. That left Petralli and bassist Steve Terebecki starting again from zero, but they were determined to regain that glory.

This month’s Stiff sounds as if the new recruits closed the gap pretty quickly. While the lightning-quick arpeggios and complicated shifts remain, it’s more grounded, deeply rooted, and dependent on Petralli’s soulful, timeless croon. Like each of White Denim’s albums, the slight tinkering with their sound—this time breezy and spacious—should indeed garner a whole new legion of fans.

(614) recently talked with Petralli from Austin as the band was finishing up a series of intimate shows in anticipation of the Stiff tour.

For Stiff and this tour, it’s an entirely new band. What was the process like in finding a new dynamic for White Denim?

I had been playing with these guys as The Bop English touring band for like three months, so it was a natural thing. The formation was just like forming any new band. Every musician brings their own thing. It was new but it felt familiar. It’s different but it still feels like us.

I wouldn’t say Stiff is a departure—it still has the White Denim spirit—but it’s definitely more soulful and personal in parts. Where did the inspiration for that sound come from?

I think that personal element comes through in the production. It’s a lot more stripped back than I’m used to. It was recorded mostly live on 16-track. I don’t think it was more personal than any other record we have done. But knowing that we had only so much to work with, we had to tighten it up and be more concise.

[2015 solo album] The Bop English was something I hadn’t known about until hearing about Stiff’s release. What were you trying to achieve with that record? Why didn’t more people hear it?

It’s been an ongoing thing that I’ve done for four years in earnest. The time off let me finally finish that record. It was extra material that didn’t fit White Denim. I had access to a great studio and had the freedom to make music with amazing equipment. I don’t have a story as to why no one heard it. It did a lot better in the U.K. than over here. It’s very much just a “hangout” record.

When you first started you were very much a power trio and primarily associated with indie rock—over the years the sound has expanded and you’ve been called everything from a jam band to a Southern rock band. Do you identify with any of those tags?

I indentify with pretty much anything that has been thrown at us at this point. We all listen to a lot of different music and try to approach things that we are interested in. I don’t ever think about it that much. But the audience has grown as we have evolved for sure.

Going back to that, White Denim has a sound that can play to both festival crowds and very intimate performances. Do you have a preference when it comes to playing this album on the road? It’s very much a party record.

For this record it’s been nice because we’ve been playing some very intimate shows here in Austin. It’s a very natural thing for a new band to play places where new bands have to play. I prefer the smaller venues, but playing the big ones help us evolve.

You sound reinvigorated. Do you have any lofty goals for Stiff and where you want to take the band next?

Really I just have personal goals to be in better shape, as a person and as a musician over the course of this tour. That’s how the band has always been—to always try to get better.


White Denim play Skully’s Music Diner April 28. For more, visit whitedenimmusic.com. 

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