White Rabbits have come a long way since 2009’s angular, Britt Daniel-produced LP It’s Frightening, and even longer from the self-described “honky-tonk calypso” of their noteworthy debut, Fort Nightly. Now, frontman Stephen Patterson has cited Beyonce as an influence for the band’s third album, Milk Famous. Aside from the elevator speeches and in-a-word comparisons, the Brooklyn by way of Missouri six-piece stands above the rest on its own merits: Two drummers and a traveling piano punctuate Stephen Patterson’s enigmatic lyrics with dark, distinctive hooks that stick with you long after White Rabbits have disappeared into whatever magician’s hat they came from.
The band’s smoke-and-mirrors songwriting found a perfect venue in Webster Hall on Thursday night. Aided by a light show not unlike the one in this video, Patterson and co. occupied the entirety of the stage and filled the Hall’s cavernous ceilings with the force of their muscle-riffs and dual drum hits. Every member of White Rabbits was deadly serious onstage, moving seamlessly between songs (and occasionally, instruments) sampled mostly from their last two albums, with a few off Fort Nightly. In particular, vocalist and guitarist Gregory Roberts’ sweet-voiced howls made “The Plot” one of the set’s highlights.
But it’s Patterson’s expression, by turns sinister and coaxing, that consistently makes White Rabbits a band that demands your attention. After watching him whimper and growl through the meandering Radiohead-like jam “Danny Come Inside” and “Heavy Metal”’s eerily reversed loops—not to mention “Temporary”, which began with a red herring drum machine that unexpectedly blew up into the song’s very real two-drum cacophony—I realized that Patterson does, in fact, channel Beyonce’s diversity on 4, which he revealed in an interview that he sought to emulate on Milk Famous.
A couple of days before the show, Patterson took a few minutes from the “most intense tour they’ve ever had” to answer some questions over the phone. It’s hard not to get caught up in Stephen’s emphatic, superlative-laden tangents, which answered questions I didn’t even know I had.
How has the tour been going?
It’s been long. South by Southwest was right in the middle of it, and the three days we were there felt like a tour in and of itself. It’s just a lot of driving. It’s funny how much sitting and doing nothing for eight hours in a van can wear you out.
You said that performing on TV is “nerve-racking” and “stressful.” Is it more so than live shows?
The last time we played Letterman was not only the most nerve-racking performance I’ve ever given on late-night TV, but it was the most nerve-racking experience I’ve ever had as a musician in my life.
It was our first performance after the record came out, and we hadn’t performed live in a while. Also, [“Temporary”] is just a really, really hard song. Kimmel’s great because they set it up like a club show. That was the first time I had played guitar on TV. Last night we did Fallon, and they had the best green room of any late-night show that I’ve ever done: They had a piano back there. There’s never a piano backstage. To answer your question, I wasn’t nervous before Fallon because we’re so out of our minds from being on the road that I don’t think we had the energy to be nervous. But it’s very simple why: You have one shot to get it right. When you see it live, everyone’s kind of there in the moment and there’s sympathy there as opposed to being at home watching a band on TV.
It seems like you made a conscious effort to dissociate yourself from Spoon by saying you were influenced by Beyonce. When I was listening to 4, I have to say I didn’t really hear Beyonce in your new record.
I never said that I was trying to dissociate myself from Spoon. I said I was influenced by Beyonce because I was influenced by Beyonce. I’m not actively trying to pursue a disassociation from the decisions people make to tie us to Spoon, whatever they want to infer. I don’t say something like that to get a rise out of people. I don’t think it’s funny. I don’t think it’s ironic. It’s a sincere appreciation.
When I listened to her latest record, what I really loved about it was that track “I Miss You”. That track is incredible. I love that song! I’m not really a fan of “Best Thing I Never Had”, which is the next track, but it still is so different from the track before it, you know? Like, the first two tracks on Milk Famous, “Heavy Metal” and “I’m Not Me”, have nothing to do with each other.
The way she convincingly gets inside each of these songs that each have certain emotions they’re trying to convey… it’s something every singer should be doing. She doesn’t only get into the emotion of it all, and you can feel that she’s inside the song, but she also has these soundscapes that are in Destiny’s Child party mode, but also accomplishing a lot of things.
I read in the same SPIN interview in which Beyonce was mentioned that you were “fed-up with trying to avoid being yourself,” but I still noticed these same kinds of lyrical self-disavowals. Like, “I’m not me,” talking about hiding your smile, etc. Do you think certain themes will always be present in your songwriting?
Yeah, just by nature of the way I write lyrics, which is often improvised. I often sit and record myself playing for an hour or so and oftentimes I’ll be singing nonsense words that lead to me finding a melody or a lyric, or finding a good chord change. It’s very hard for me to sit down and think, “I am inspired by this at this very moment and I am going to write these lyrics for this song.”
Is there a reason that you titled one of the tracks on Milk Famous “It’s Frightening”? Does that have anything to do with the album?
The title came second. That was one of the first songs I wrote after we got off the road touring It’s Frightening, and I just thought that the title worked really well with the song. Sometimes the title comes first. I really love it whenever the title does come first, but more often there will be some stupid working title that we use for months and months and months. And we still usually call those songs by their working title.
Until more recently than I would care to admit, I didn’t realize that you have two drummers. How did that come to be?
When we started recording Fort Nightly, that was the first time we had ever spent significant time recording material in a studio that had so much equipment. And we kept adding more drums, and more drums, and more drums. I started out as a drummer for the band, Matt is obviously a drummer, and the guy we were working with on Fort Nightly is also a drummer. So there were a lot of people thinking that way. And then (current drummer) Jamie, who was our manager at the time—I use that term loosely—approached us and said it would be a great idea. It worked out because we had no idea how we were going to pull this off live. Plus, it makes writing a lot more fun.
You shared the stage with Bradford Cox at Coachella a few years ago, and you guys play a lot of covers at your live shows, so what did you think of the whole Minneapolis “My Sharona” debacle?
That was amazing! My first reaction to the Bradford thing was that I was immediately jealous I didn’t think of that idea. It’s so funny. We were in Salt Lake City, and somebody requested that we play “The Beehive State” by Randy Newman and we played that, but we already knew that song, so that’s much different than what Bradford did.
You also met Britt Daniel in Minneapolis. How did you first approach him?
I met Eric Harvey [Spoon’s keyboardist] first. We were opening for the National in Ithaca, and there was a torrential, apocalyptic storm, so we got trapped in one of the buildings at the university. Eric and I ended up hanging out for that whole time, and we all wound up staying in touch. They were passing through Minneapolis the same time we were there, and he invited the whole band to come see us.
I’m glad to hear you were intimidated by Britt Daniel. When I interviewed Daniel Pujol, he said he wasn’t intimidated by Jack White in the recording studio, and I didn’t believe him.
I have a lot of respect for those guys, but we’re all just dudes. (Or girls.) It was much scarier going into a collaboration, and going into a studio, and sending demos the first time around.
Was recording with Mike McCarthy different than recording with Britt Daniel?
Mike is much more demanding and difficult in the way that a producer should be. When we were working with Britt, we were working with somebody who had a very similar personality to all of us, which is why we were excited about working with him. With Mike, we eventually came to a good friendship, but he takes a much more—for lack of a better term—spiritual approach to recording music. It’s easy for me to get into the small things and forget to see the big picture, which is why you have to bring a producer in the first place. He was aware of all the little things, but when we were recording, he wasn’t necessarily concerned about them. He was content to just sit back and let the music hit him, and however he was feeling, that’s what we were going to do, even if that wasn’t the plan. He’s a really particular guy and he has high expectations of the musicians that he’s working with. That’s a good thing, for all of us, to work with someone who was going to whip us into shape.