story / Matthew Stolarz
photos / Stephen Busken
London’s White Lies often get lumped in with England’s dark post punk legacy, journalists referencing everyone from Joy Division to Editors, but this is a superficial comparison at best. Sure, vocalist/guitarist Harry McVeigh’s dishes out a deep croon and the band doesn’t avoid touching on themes of alienation and introspection, but there is a bright, uplifting stadium-sized bombast here as well. This is much a part of their sound as any familiar solemnity. And now the band has released their third album Big TV, reuniting with producer Ed Buller (who helped sculpt their 2008 debut “To Lose My Life…”) in an attempt to get back to the core of their songwriting and make an album that is pure White Lies. With eager fan response and positive reviews they seem to have accomplished their mission. McVeigh spoke with Ladygunn about social media, songwriting and the process of trying to pull off a truly honest album.
You’re a band that came up in the Myspace era, and some argue that there is no modern-day equivalent to that in terms of exposure for up-and-coming bands.
Yeah, it’s very difficult for bands now. With the whole MySpace thing I think teenagers discovered bands through the internet way before mass media did, and I think now magazines and newspapers pick out new bands before people have a chance to discover them themselves, and before the bands have a chance to grow a little bit. I think we were very lucky actually that we came through just at the back end of the MySpace generation. There were a lot of our friends and people around who knew who we were and came to our shows and stuff. But we weren’t written about in big newspapers and magazines when we were still called Fear of Flying and I think that was great for us because if that had happened then we would have had to hang on to what we were then rather than starting over again like we did.
Generally, when you approach a new album do you think “Okay, let’s do something new” or does it just transition from what you were doing the last time? How did that work with Big TV?
Well, funny enough I think that we went through that stage more with our second album, wanting entirely something new and to move away from the stuff we were doing on our first record. But on Big TV we really tried to find out what the essence and the core of the sound of our band was, and just tried to purify it and write songs that were very obviously White Lies and very honest I suppose. We were trying not to do something new and radical but just really stick to what we are and be true to ourselves. A lot of that came out of giving up trying to be in any way cool and just trying to write some really good White Lies songs. I think in a lot of ways it worked, this album has gone down really well with our fans. I’m really happy about that because we really wanted to write a great White Lies record that our fans would really enjoy. [This is true] even in the decision to go back and work with Ed Buller again, the producer who I think understands the sound of our band, because he shaped the sound of our band more than anyone else.
In one interview you said you didn’t even have enough songs for the album when you went to record it…
We approached this record slightly different than the other two. We actually spent a lot of time writing. By the time we went in the studio we had seven tracks finished, but those tracks we’d been working on for probably seven or eight months. I suppose it depends on how you look at it. We wrote lots of pieces of music that we immediately discarded, things that we’d work on for maybe half an hour that wouldn’t work and we’d chuck away. I wouldn’t count that as a song. Every song that we had finished in some form, and I would put some lyrics on, went on to the record in one shape or another. I suppose it comes out of trying to be perfectionists and really whittling away at one piece of music rather than writing tons of songs and discarding the bad ones. It’s just our way of working.
Perpetually we’re always in a state of not having enough music for a record. This album was very nearly a nine-track album but we realized we were contractually obliged to write ten so we had to finish off another one in the studio! But every track that we made this record with we’re really pleased with, even the ones that we finished in a day. I think it’s a really nice balance: very chiseled, refined songwriting and stuff that’s quite immediate and, I don’t know, a bit more fun I suppose.
So, you’d been working on these songs for months and months, but had you played them out live in some version or another?
Well, not really. Everything was done in stages. Me and Charles [Cave, bassist] would write the very basic structure of the song. Usually we’d write it at my apartment or his and there would just be us sitting down playing with a really basic keyboard sound and a drum machine and my vocal and quite soon after that we’d set up the multi track with Jack [Lawrence-Brown, drummer] who started to figure out how the drums would work. But because we finished the demos to the extent they had almost everything on them, then by the time we got to the studio we were sitting in a room together playing the songs when we were recording, which I think you can really hear on the album. It sounds like a full 3-piece band I suppose, with extra keyboards. That’s kind of what we wanted to go for, a slightly more live sound, a little bit more rough around the edges than maybe our other records.
Having a label involved, often giving you deadlines so you won’t overthink it, by the time you wrapped up this record did you feel complete, like “oh this is done” or did you have to taper it off and say “alright, time to move on”?
During the writing process, and even up until the recording process we were always told by our label “you’ve got as much time as you need, you don’t need to rush anything.” But we definitely put that kind of pressure on ourselves. When it came to the final stages we were kind of ready. It pays it off quite nicely, we lived with the songs between recording them and mixing them and we knew that they were finished. Whenever we had little bits that needed to be added, if there were any at all then we’d just go into a small studio and a guitar part or a bass part or a vocal or whatever and just get it finished. But really we were happy with everything by the time it was being mixed.
Is there anything you think you failed to address on this record, be it themes or sounds?
Yeah, it’s very tough when you’re making records because there will always be things expected of you and always things you want to change. If there are any regrets on this album I think we’ll probably see them down the line. It’s very hard to tell before you’re playing the songs again and again, night after night. Off the top of my head I feel like we could have maybe done a few songs that were a little bit different, you know? Still in keeping with the sound of White Lies and our songwriting but maybe just be a different pace. Or even a few more ballads, a few more slow tracks. One of my favorite moments on the record is a song called “Change” which is very atmospheric and almost filmic in quality. I think we could have done with a couple more ballads like that on the record. It’s a really great track and one of my favorites and even a lot of our fans really love it. It’s just very different. But then the great thing about it is you can always make another album (chuckles). Me and Charles, when we were having a walk today we were already talking about what we would like to do next.