Why White Lung Aren’t Afraid of Pop

"The thing is, you can't keep writing the same record over and over again."

Music Features White Lung
Why White Lung Aren’t Afraid of Pop

This month will see the release of Paradise, the fourth full-length from White Lung and the follow-up to the near-universally lauded Deep Fantasy. Though labeled a punk band, the Canadian trio has made a reliable counterpoint to such confinements. Since their debut with 2010’s It’s the Evil, the group has followed up like clockwork with a release every two years, and while each has seen a slight change in dynamic for the music, it’s on Paradise that White Lung have taken their most significant musical turn yet. Pop sensibilities are nothing new to punk. Hell, if anything, pop and punk are like siblings close in age who are either kicking each other’s ass or hugging it out.

Hooks and brevity are the name of the game, and White Lung’s instinct for both are given full reign on Paradise. It’s an album that, even with its distinct differences to the band’s prior releases, still holds the group’s characteristic in-and-out songwriting that feels like a cross between a punch and a high five. For Mish Way (vocals) and Kenneth “Kenny” William (guitars), the change in creative direction wasn’t some arbitrary move in the hopes that their appeal would reach a wider audience. We caught up with Way and William recently to talk about why the change was necessary for White Lung.

Paste: Paradise is a pretty significant shift for White Lung’s sound. Was there something specific that led you guys to that change?
Mish Way: Well, we knew that we had to make a record that still sounded like us but pushed the boundaries of what we could do. We didn’t want to be afraid of pop and melody, and I wanted to prove that I could sing as well as create the best hooks that I possibly could. We put a lot of value and a lot of time into production. Kenny spent a lot of time on his guitar work and making it sound like it wasn’t a guitar half the time. The thing is, you can’t keep writing the same record over and over again. We could, but that’s not the kind of people we are, or the kind of band we want to be. It’s hard because you want to improve and grow as a band without completely alienating the loyal fans you already have. I think we struck that balance with this record.
Kenneth William: I think a lot of at least what I heard about our previous records was that all our songs sound the same, and while I respectfully disagree, I think we put a lot more work into making each song sound a lot different with the sound design and the way the guitars are, the tempo, and the little fluctuations in genre with this record, and I think we pretty much succeeded in doing that. We didn’t want to make the same record again.
Way: We took into account our personal goals as well as, like Kenny said, the criticism that all of our songs sound the same, and tried to make something that accomplished those personal goals as well as taking into account the general consensus. Plus we worked with a new producer, so that’s a whole new perspective being put into the songwriting process, because we ended up writing about 60 percent of our material in the studio. Every song we wrote came to life in the studio. Nothing was completely done, at least not on my end. Every single vocal line that I even had as an idea was changed once we got into the studio, and I think that happened maybe a little bit on Deep Fantasy but not quite as much as it did on this record. I really took my time in the studio and worked very heavily with Lars [Stalfors], who was our producer, to make the best melodies that I could.
William: There’s really only one way we can go. We have to become better songwriters and learn how to play our instruments better and make more interesting sounds, because it’s kind of the only way we can go on a new record. It would kind of be insane if we just put out a hardcore record that we recorded on a trashcan as our fourth album. [laughs]

Paste: Was this a more challenging record than previous ones, just considering the new musical direction?
Way: I can only speak for me, but I spent most of this record alone with Lars. Kenny and Anne-Marie [Vassiliou] were occasionally in the studio while I was doing my vocals, but I don’t like to have an audience when I’m writing a song. It’s enough that Lars and his assistant are there. [Lars] was extremely encouraging and pushed me to not be afraid to write the best things that I could. He would say stuff like with the song “Hungry,” “You gotta give me my bumper sticker chorus!” [laughs] He really just pushed me to get out of this too-cool attitude and not be afraid to go to that place. But it’s also that you’re your own worst critic, too. To me, when I look at certain songs I’m like, “Oh man, that’s such a change, and it’s so there.” But someone who’s been to a bunch of your shows and listened to your music for a long time, they don’t see this great big difference. We put ourselves under a microscope, so I had to learn to calm down. I think we all had to learn to calm down. Of course it’s also different once the record label gets hold of it and the publicists and the managers hear it, and then you get that rush of encouragement. But as I said, Lars had a very heavy hand in pushing me in the right direction and pushing me to grow, and making me believe that I could sing, and that I should prove that.
William: With some of the other records, I think it’s kind of good that we sort of boxed ourselves into making a record that was very consistent in the way it sounded. But with this one, we did decide ahead of time that we would step out of that and make more room for more experimental stuff and songs that were slower tempo. Since we had so many new ideas to work with, I honestly think it was the easiest to do.
Way: Yeah, I agree. There’s so much more variety in the songs, and like [Kenny] said, it was just stepping out of that box and saying, “Okay, we’re gonna write a slow song. We’re gonna do our version of a ballad.” Four years ago that would have never happened, but that’s growth.

Paste: There’s definitely a feeling of you guys being comfortable and loose with this record, if that makes sense.
Way: It’s all about your own confidence. I’m completely confident in all of our abilities to write great songs together. I know we’re never gonna steer so far that it becomes ridiculous where two people aren’t happy and one’s going on a whole new train. [laughs] We know how to write better and keep that in check.

Paste: White Lung has been a band for 10 years now. Do you see yourselves and the band as a whole removed from who you were then?
Way: Well, when we started the band originally, Kenny wasn’t in it. It was Anne-Marie and myself and two other girls, and that was just a bogus version. There was too much fighting for anything to really happen. We made one 7-inch and barely did anything. It wasn’t until Kenny joined at the end of 2009 that we actually got our shit together and wrote a record in 2010 and went on tour. So I don’t really count those years as the beginning, really, until Kenny joined the band. But even thinking about that, we barely knew each other then. Touring makes you have this family-like bond, and I’m sure Kenny and I hate each other as much as we love each other. [laughs] But you also know that you need that other person to do what it is that you’re doing, and this band wouldn’t be anything without the three of us. I’m happy with how things have gone. It’s really interesting to look back to when Kenny first joined. What, were you like 20?
William: Yeah. [laughs]

Paste: Speaking of Kenny, I wanted to ask about the guitar tones on Paradise. There are several moments where I hear The Cure and The Smiths where the chords are really bright and sharp.
William: I’d say that’s pretty accurate. The kind of bands I like, a lot of them are from the ‘80s. I really like The Smiths and The Cure and stuff like that. I just naturally gravitate toward people who have their own kind of style. Like Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine is another person. I just like people that you can tell it’s them playing even if you haven’t heard the song before, so I tried to kind of aspire to play in a way that I think sounds like me. For this one, though, I think my personal influences did show up a little bit more, but hopefully it still sounds like Kenny. [laughs]

Paste: Considering the more pop-oriented sound of Paradise, you guys are in an interesting place as far as the pop, punk and indie rock worlds. Do you see those specific scenes as being more open to artists who aren’t rooted too deeply in any of them?
Way: There’s been a lot of cross-pollinating of genres so that there are fewer rules now. But there’s still this thing where if you wanna be big in any kind of way, and I’m talking about the middle-class indie world, you have to follow certain rules. That’s just what it is. There’s a lot less freedom there. We come from punk, which is a place where you’d expect a lot of freedom, you’d expect it to be free of judgment, but I think there are actually a lot more rules in that culture, so I think this sort middle place we’re in now where no one can exactly peg what our band is, is a good spot to be in. I like that spot. It’s also frustrating because people don’t know where to put you, but I think ultimately it lends itself to the most creativity and ability to play and change and play around with things rather than “okay, this is the kind of band they are; this is what we expect.” Also, no one’s banking on us to feed their children, so we don’t have to remain this way and write the hit song that’s gonna make everyone a lot of money. No one’s expecting that of us, so we’re already in a great creative place when it comes to freedom.

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