Brooklyn’s White Rabbits were known for two things when they first emerged in 2007: the ska/soul affectations of their sure-footed debut, Fort Nightly (which the band, to their immediate chagrin, once described as “honky-tonk calypso”), and, to a lesser extent, their living space-a giant Bushwick loft in which all six members bunked together in the same room like college freshman or foot soldiers.
They’ve since ditched both. These days, the boys, who all met at the University of Missouri, live spread out around Brooklyn. And for their second record, It’s Frightening (released on Tuesday), they largely stopped trying to integrate all those world-music influences and instead did something much more difficult. White Rabbits crafted a great rock record, pure and simple, with Spoon’s Britt Daniel producing-nearly every track hummable and searingly smart.
On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon earlier this month, we met up with three of the six Rabbits-drummer Jamie Levinson, singer/guitarist Greg Roberts, and (eventually) singer/keyboardist Steve Patterson-at the Williamsburg bar, Iona. Sitting out back while a gaggle of fans cheered on an English Premier League soccer match televised inside, we discussed the finer points of recording with Daniel, playing basketball with the Walkmen, and opening for the Pogues.
How has not living together has affected the songwriting process? Is it less collaborative?
Jamie Levinson: It’s probably just as collaborative as it used to be. It’s less stressful-it doesn’t seem as hectic as it used to be.
Greg Roberts: Now it’s more of a treat to get everyone in the same room together.
Where do you guys practice these days?
JL: We share a space with the Walkmen in DUMBO, near the Brooklyn Bridge.
I read that you guys unearthed some of their old gear for the new record when you moved into the space.
JL: Yeah, there was an old mixing board that they had. They used to have a recording studio and they just have all these random pieces of gear. I mean, nothing works-it’s all broken gear-but they’re kind enough to let us steal a bunch of it.
So what’s the story behind hooking up with Britt Daniel? I understand there was some sort of misplaced text message. [Levinson meant to text a friend about whether the band should have Daniel produce their next album, but sent the message directly to Daniel instead.]
JL: Yeah, it was my fault.
You had been touring with him, right?
JL: Yeah, I think that’s how the number ended up in my phone more or less. My number didn’t end up in Britt’s which is why he was so confused.
Were there specific sounds-Spoon-related or not-that you were looking for? Why Britt?
SP: I think we were wanting to make more of a straight-up rock and roll album. For Fort Nightly, there was just a grab-bag of influences and all this world-music stuff. The new songs weren’t necessarily shaping up that way. And Britt just makes the best sounding rock and roll records.
Were there any worries-either beforehand or during the recording process-that working with someone that well known would overshadow your own music?
JL: Maybe before, but as soon as we started working with him, it was so copacetic. It really was just a very comfortable environment. Any concerns that we had initially were allayed quickly as soon as we started working with him….
GR: I think a lot of [Britt’s] little trademark nuances really didn’t even present themselves while we were doing it. It wasn’t like, “Alright, now I’m gonna break out my Britt Daniel bag of tricks.”
Yeah, one notices a couple trademark Spoon-isms-like the studio chatter at the beginning of a few tracks.
SP: [Britt] was a big proponent, since we were working on tape, of keeping any incidental things. There’s a moment where he says, “I hope that got on tape,” or something like that. It was just him walking into the room after I was done doing a piano take and just saying, “Keep it on there.”
JL: And even the sounds, there are definitely mistakes or bad punches that ended up contributing [to the album]. It really opened our eyes to how much that stuff can contribute. You don’t have to overthink everything. Those little mistakes really do make a cool record in the end.
You mentioned that you wanted this record to have less of a calypso/ska influence. Why? Had your influences shifted or were the songs just naturally taking on a different shape?
SP: I mean, speaking for myself, I thought people had had their fill of that thing 2008.
JL: It was also a result of what we had been listening to. That probably shapes a lot of band’s records, and I think after touring for a couple years we were just listening to a lot of different stuff.
What kind of stuff were you listening to?
JL: It’s hard to think…
JL: I mean, there are bands that we all agree on in the band-the Clash is certainly one of them. Just being able to make a meat-and-potatoes song structure and still do so much with it-that was something that we looked up to.
GR: That’s also the luxury of a second record compared to a first record…. On your first record, you’re almost forced to [rely on your influences] because there are no self-referential points. So you’re saying, “We like this and this and this.” A lot of bands [in that position] end up waving flags saying, “This is what we’re about.” [For the] second record-not that we weren’t listening to a bunch of stuff-it’s just not as important.
SP: It’s nice to be in a position where you can be influenced by yourself. You can be writing something and say, “That sounds like us. It feels right…”
[Huge cheers from inside the bar]
GR: They agree with you.
The lyrics are less narrative this time around. They seem much darker and more personal. Steve, were you drawing on any personal history? Were they all your lyrics?
SP: It fluctuates depending on the song. A lot of this record was done in the moment: we were able to record in the moment right after we’d written something, so there was really no time to think twice, which is a good thing. That’s pretty much how it all shaped out. As opposed to the first one where we had about a year [chuckles all round]. It never seemed like we had a deadline. It was the never-ending album.
GR: There was just opportunity after opportunity to second-guess things.
SP: It was nice working with Britt, with him being a songwriter before [being] a producer. He was very open to the idea of us using stuff from demos on the final recording. So he didn’t have any issues over ownership. He wasn’t concerned that all things on this record had his touch on them. There were a lot of things that we just did on our own in the practice space.
Which songs in particular?
SP: We used some drum stuff from the demos of “Percussion Gun” and “Lioness.”
JL: Yeah, a large part of “Lioness” was us in our practice space. Britt really opened our eyes to the fact that you can use stuff that’s not made in the studio.
So the song is different demos stitched together?
JL: Really just one complete demo that we tried to sweeten in some way, shape, or form. In certainly conveys more of what we were feeling at the time.
SP: It was great because we were just at the practice space recording, just trying ideas out. So you’re not even thinking, “Oh, we’re recording these things. This is what people are going to hear.” You’re playing with a completely different spirit than you ever would in the studio.
Any non-musical influences?
JL: When we were making that record I wasn’t even really listening to music.
[Laughs] What could you possibly have been doing?
SP: Alcohol is important. [Steve gets up to order a Bud.]
GR: Thank god he‘s gone.
[Laughing] Alright, so what do you guys really think? Who have you had the most fun touring with? Maybe the better question is who have you had the worst time touring with?
JL: [chuckling] Uh, we can’t talk shit…
GR: The most fun would be the Walkmen, definitely.
SP: Yeah, the Walkmen are a good time.
GR: We usually end up playing football.
JL: Yeah, they’re athletic guys.
GR: We always end up with some kind of pick-up game or something before every show.
JL: They’re sportsmen.
What is their favorite pastime?
That’s interesting; I would not have thought so…
GR: They have a foot on us, easily
JL: In height and in every respect.
SP: We’re a very short band.
GR: Yeah, what was the tag line we came up with: “New York’s biggest little band”? It sounds like Branson, Missouri. [With a countrified accent] “New York’s biggest little band!”
Laughing all around.
What are your favorite places to play in the country?
SP: I really like the Bottle Tree in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s [one of the guys] from Man or Astroman. He played in Polyphonic Spree and then he was in Man or Astroman It’s great. They have an Airstream, like an old Airstream trailer-just really good accommodations.
JL: To be honest, it’s the best band accommodations out of any club. They actually care about bands.
SP: What about the Norva?
GR: Yeah dude, Norva. Hands down.
SP: That’s in Norfolk [VA] right? They have a racquetball court, a basketball court…
GR: Ping-pong tables, pool tables, all back upstairs. I guess it used to be some rec center. Huge venue. It was us and the Walkmen.
Well, there‘s some competition.
JL: The show was so secondary.
GR: Every band was upset when it was their time to go on.
JL: Every band went on stage drenched in sweat, heaving.
GR: I jacked my finger playing basketball with Peter [Bauer of the Walkmen] before we went on and I was really scared to tell you guys.
SP: Oh really?
GR: ‘Cause I couldn’t bend one of my fingers on my guitar-playing hand. That was also my anniversary with my girlfriend, and she came all the way to that show. I was in the doghouse, man.
Do you guys check your Wikipedia page? Do you fact-check it?
JL: No, I don’t, but that’s kind of the fun of it. I’ve happened upon it a couple times and it’s just outrageous. I don’t even prefer to change anything.
GR: “I happened upon it.” [mocking] You “happened upon it”?
You can make shit up about yourself, though.
JL: Yeah, I’d prefer other people just make it up.
GR: [So many Wiki pages] are just two generations of a recycled press release and all the facts are wrong. Somebody copied the press release from somebody else and posted it on there.
JL: I just like seeing our press release verbatim on blogs. That’s just my favorite.
GR: Every band in their press release should just sing their own praises to the high heavens because everybody’s just going to reprint it.
Do you read your press that much?
JL: Yeah, we’re not immune to it. My mom sends me a lot of stuff.
She sends you clippings?
JL: Yeah, even if we didn’t want to follow it, there would be a friend that would remind you. Which is good. I guess it’s nice that friends give a shit.
GR: I don’t like to do it.
SP: It can be pretty damaging.
GR: My skin is a lot thicker now.
JL: I think after the first record it was way harder to digest the whole idea. But now we’ve learned so much about how things go down.
Yeah, ’cause you guys really hadn’t been a band for that long before the first record came out.
JL: Not on the level that we all experienced after making that record-and the “responsibility” that comes with that.
The mantel, the mantel of being a Brooklyn band.
GR: I live with it every day. I have to deal with the fact that I am in a Brooklyn band.
What’s the worst show you’ve ever played?
JL: My favorite story is we played with the Pogues-which was the best show.
GR: At the Fillmore [in San Francisco].
JL: Every element of it. [We hung out] with Shane MacGowan afterwards, [and the Pogues] were really complementary-just a mind-blowing experience. And then the next day-the next day-we traveled to Cal State, which isn’t that far, and played in their commons area in a pizza parlor with kids doing their homework.
SP: Literally, I was onstage…
GR: And there were books cracked in front of you.
JL: I think that just really sums it up.
GR: Our friend Kyle who lives in LA coined the phrase, “Sometimes you open for the Pogues, sometimes you play a pizza parlor.”
SP and GR: [nearly in unison] That’s our band mantra.
White Rabbits headline the Bowery Ballroom tonight.