White Hills Let Space and Rock Take Them
New York's White Hills attain ignition through throwback, overdriven riffage. Sounds launch with distorted liquid hydrogen into deepened, darkened space. What vocalist/guitarist Dave W. and bassist Ego Sensation mainly want is to be expansive, to dabble on the atmospheric edge of volume, wondering, and shredding. Songs on their 2012 Thrill Jockey release, Frying on This Rock, are simultaneously heavy and weightless. Dave W. enters open-ended, nefarious solos and orbits inside them for indefinite periods of time—he's about letting the moment do what it needs to do. Sometimes it burns up upon reentry, sometimes it remains in stasis, and sometimes it's shot through a black-hole Black Sabbath void where even light can't survive. Frying on This Rock was recorded in the vastness of Brooklyn's BC Studio with Martin Bisi (Brian Eno, Sonic Youth, Herbie Hancock, Iggy Pop, White Zombie). Dave W. spoke as White Hills were pulling into JFK Airport for a flight to San Francisco. As we talked about space rock, they drove past the space shuttle.
Space rock is a tricky niche. You guys get put into the space rock category often.
I am literally looking at the space shuttle, right now. Fucking NASA! It's sitting on the back of a plane. This is insane.
What space rock do you like and pull from?
First off, Lemmy-era Hawkwind. You can't beat that. And bands like Pink Fairies and High Tide. Also, people call it krautrock, but Amon Düül II. Neu! is another one. Can, for that matter. This is the kind of stuff that turned me on to opening up and being expansive.
Describe your album title, Frying on This Rock. Who's frying? What's frying? Why that title?
It was a lyric in one of the songs that didn't actually end up making it onto the record. I felt like it reflected the music. It reflects my thoughts about us as humans living on this planet. Some people think it's a reference to LSD, and then there's the reference to the state of Earth at this moment. We are kind of frying on the rock of planet Earth.
We're all on this rock, and we're all on LSD, releasing dopamine. Have you ever hallucinated spiders on your skin?
I've watched the skin of a woman's face fall off as she was laughing at me, until she was just a skeleton. Her skull was the only thing left.
Then there's the natural high. Are White Hills into natural highs?
I think when we're really synced in, there's a euphoria, sure. That's like a natural high.
In the Red Hot Chili Peppers documentary Funky Monks, John Frusciante says he has orgasms sometimes when he's soloing. Just right in his pants. Does that ever happen when you solo?
Not so much. Something to work toward, I guess [laughs].
What's your approach to soloing?
When we're recording, I try not to do too many takes. I'll leave the solo as it was at that moment. I try to approach everything we do in that way. I feel like I speak through the guitar, and the way I speak is through a solo. It's my voice. It comes from deep down within. I don't think I really play anything exactly the same twice. I think what matters is if it feels good. There have been times where I've laid down a solo and didn't particularly like it, then listened to it later and thought it sounded amazing. I try not to fuss over it too much and leave it as it was in the moment. The same goes for the album. How we play the songs live now is different than how we were playing them when we recorded them. I don't think the live experience has to be the same as the recorded experience.
What do you think about when you solo?
I think about whether I turned off the stove or "did I lock the door?" [Laughs] I try not to think too much about it. I try to let go and not try to play it a certain way—just let it go where it wants to go. I try to be one step ahead, so I can signal everyone when I'm going to come out or when there's going to be a change. It's an open thing. Sometimes there are too many notes, sometimes it's really sparse. I think it reflects how I'm feeling at the moment. It's an event, where it takes me—not me taking it.
With all your effects pedals, is it ever hard to step on the right one when you're tripping your balls off on LSD? The pedals don't ever turn into spiders?
It's been while since I tried LSD [laughs]. I don't trip when I play. I have the pedals arranged in a way that works for me. Once in a while, I'll step on something I shouldn't. I don't think they would be spiders, though, they would be more amoebas, because they're fluorescent colors—more amoebas than spiders.
How was it working with Martin Bisi?
He's great. He engineered the album and had some suggestions based on the way he recorded it. We were only there for two half days; we had a time restraint. Martin takes a lot of time to mix, and we didn't have that time. He's a friend of ours. White Hills bassist, Ego, and I had recorded with him before. We have a good rapport, and I always wanted this band to record with him. I wanted to step up the quality of the recording, and he has an amazing studio with amazing gear. It's a big space there at BC Studio, and the amplifiers were separated in different rooms. We were all standing and playing in the large room where the drummer was playing.
What type of things is he conscious of?
He's conscious of things like microphone phase. I was playing out of two amplifiers. He made sure the mics were equidistant from the speakers, because if they weren't, it would cause phase. And he made sure the mics on the drums were in the exact right spot, getting the most power out of the way our drummer played. Things that people we'd worked with before didn't pay attention to. And his mics are amazing. It all made the album easier to mix in the end. There was less to do with equalization in the mix because things sounded so good just right off the mic.
What kind of amps did you record with?
Music Man HD-130 through a 4 by 12 cabinet. The other amp was a Marshall JCM900. I played both the heads through clean channels. I have one really important overdrive that I use called the Big D made by a company called HomeBrew Electronics. The great thing about his overdrive is that it just doesn't compress your sound. It works more like a Rangemaster, where it pushes a lot of volume into your amp. Then I use an octave fuzz from the same company, which uses the same circuitry as the Fuzz Face pedal that Jimi Hendrix used. I also have various delay pedals, reverb, chorus, and wah. Many things are there to send me into space.