White Lies' Harry McVeigh
Published Mar 30, 2009There are a million high school bands that hope, struggle, fall into disillusionment and then get "real jobs," thinking only of their former band when telling stories to their grandkids 50 years down the line. There aren't all that many, though, who turn a corner, rename themselves and have a debut album that goes straight in at number one in their home country, all while the band members are barely into their 20s. Perhaps that's why White Lies are so grounded, and so incredibly thankful about the whole thing. The band are currently travelling Europe on a tour that's headed to North America at the end of March, and we interrupted one of lead singer Harry McVeigh's rare days off to talk about the press, the hype, and the dream come true.
So you're in Germany right now?
I'm in Berlin, yeah. It's great, we had a day off today which is unusual; we don't usually get time off on tour. We got to go and see some of the sights, which was nice. We went to the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, which were both cool.
Have you had the weird sausage things from the street vendors yet?
The currywurst? I haven't tried them but after what you just said I probably won't!
Don't! How's the reception been over there? I guess the Germans love you as your music's quite dark and brooding. I think that's maybe a little bit of a stereotype! We haven't played the show here yet but the European tour's been great so far. We played a 1500-capacity venue last night in Amsterdam, which was amazing, and the night before that we were in Paris. This whole tour's been sold out for us, and we weren't expecting that at all so it's been really cool.
You're heading to North America soon - what are your goals for that leg of the tour?
Just to carry on some of the good work we've been doing in the UK and around Europe. Things are really starting to pick up for us over here now, and we just want to continue that throughout the rest of the world. It's going to be really cool because a lot of the places we're playing in Canada and America we've never played before, and most of the people there will not know very much about our music or our band, and it's cool to play to a fresh crowd every now and again. It's really good fun.
Toronto crowds are pretty enthusiastic about new bands so I think you'll go down well.
We've played Toronto before actually; we played at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern! We played there in 2008, it must have been maybe September or October.
How well do you think you represent British music to the North Americans?
I don't know, I don't think we sound that much like any bands in the UK at the moment. In fact, most of the contemporary bands we're into are from New York and North America. I don't know what people will expect, really. Maybe I sing in quite a British accent, I'm not sure!
So what bands are you into right now then?
Well, our favourite new band is a band called School of Seven Bells, from New York, they're amazing and they're coming out on tour with us round the UK in May. The guitarist from the Secret Machines started that band and the Secret Machines are one of our favourite bands. Their first album is one of our favourite albums as a band, so it's going to be amazing to have them on tour with us.
How do you feel about the British music scene at the moment?
There are a lot of female singer-songwriters, which isn't a bad thing. It's just the trend for British music and I think, to some extent, music all over the world. We have this list in the UK called the BBC Sound of 2009, which is where 150 journalists pick out the three acts they think are going to make it big this year, and three of the top five were female singer-songwriters: people like Little Boots, Florence and the Machine and La Roux, so I think that's definitely the trend for UK music at the moment. It's not a bad thing; a lot of them are really great and write fantastic songs. We were touring with Florence at the beginning of this year, on the NME Awards tour and it was great. She's an amazing singer and an amazing performer.
I was back in England last week and you guys were everywhere; it seems everyone's very excited about you. Do you think this has worked against you in any way? Bands championed by the NME, for instance, have a reputation for being overplayed and over hyped.
No, I think it's building quite slowly and naturally for us. People think that our band's come out of the blue but we've been playing music together since we were 14 or 15 years old in various bands. We've been going at it for a really long time. Things are building naturally for us and I don't think it's been forced on people too much. You know, it's never a bad thing to have a buzz around a band, and it's been really great for us as it means we're so much busier in a really good way. We get to play loads of shows and do loads of interviews and stuff instead of building up the band in a really gradual way. I'm sure to everyone else it feels a lot quicker though.
With that in mind, then, how do you feel about the media?
I think the media in Britain has quite a bad reputation, and to a certain extent it's warranted. We get compared a lot to people like Interpol and Joy Division. People started to make those comparisons very early on, and a lot of journalists in the UK are very lazy and have stuck with those comparisons. They think we're gloomy and depressed people and all that shit, but we're alright! We're not as unhappy as people think we are! I think it's going to take a little while to convince people that we're just a normal bunch of guys playing music that we really love. People also think there's something contrived about our band, something a bit forced, but we just make the music that we love to make and that we think sounds great. There's not a lot you can do about the media, other than prove them wrong I guess.
People tend to assume that the personas in the music are your personas all the time.
Yeah, and that definitely is a side to our personalities, but it's not the be-all and end-all. Everyone has that side to their personality I think, but it's not all we have.
You mentioned Interpol and Joy Division; I have to admit, when I first heard your album they were two of the names that sprang to mind, just because of the atmosphere of the production...
It just annoys us when people mention them as our "biggest influences", just because they hear that in our music. Joy Division has been kind of ruined for me, purely because I never really listened to them before and we get compared to them so much it's tainted the band. I can't listen to them in the right way and I don't think I'll ever be able to listen to them, really, which is a shame. They're a band that demands a lot of respect, and they had a huge influence on music afterwards. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of worse bands we could get compared to, and I'm not at all bothered about the comparisons in that way, I just think its slightly lazy journalism; I think people could try and find something more in our music.
So what bands did influence you?
Well, I mentioned Secret Machines before, that's a record we listened to a lot when we first started White Lies. The first record, Now Here Is Nowhere [ed - September 000 was actually their first record], is a masterpiece I think. There's such a wide range of things really. Ever since we were 14, growing up we've liked a huge range of bands. As different members we like totally different things. I'm really into Queens of the Stone Age, they've been one of my favourite bands for a long time, and when we started writing our first songs Charles and I were listening to a lot of Björk and a lot of a band called the Cars. You might not necessary hear that in our music but if you listen carefully there are elements there to pick up on.
So what's the worst thing that's been said about you in the media?
I don't know, it gets to me that people assume we're gloomy, down people just because of our music. But we're not misquoted that much and we've actually had a pretty good time with media. I'm moaning now but we've been really lucky with that whole side of things. People have been very supportive of our band in general. We get the odd bad review but it's good to split opinion rather than be straight down the road having everyone like you. It's much better to divide people in their opinion of your music. It's much more interesting I think.
What's the best thing that's been said about you?
I guess it's when someone reviews your album and they've got it right rather than just saying what everyone else is saying; they've actually spoken their opinion. Whether it be a good review or a bad review, if they've gotten the gist and the feel of the band in what they're writing down then it's always good. It's good to feel like people understand your music. It's always nice when you get a positive review, it makes you feel good, and when you get a bad review, well, I try not to read them to be honest! Because the music is so personal to us it's as if someone's attacked you rather than the music.
Well, songs like "To Lose My Life" are very intense, especially towards the end. How emotional is it to perform songs like that?
There's such a huge amount of emotion in the lyrics, definitely, and that's the basis for the feel of the songs and the music itself. When you perform it live... I wouldn't say I break down in tears on stage or anything, but it's very easy to sing out loud about things like that. It feels great, like you're getting those feelings off your chest. "To Lose My Life," for me, although the lyrics have a dark edge, is quite a romantic, happy song. It's a celebration of being in love with someone or sharing your life with someone and not wanting to ever be apart from them, so dying at the same time. It's quite a romantic notion I think, quite touching.
My friends are getting married next year actually, and they're talking about having that song as one of their first songs at the wedding.
Amazing! That's incredible! Tell them thank you very much, that's an absolute honour.
As its Charles, your bassist, and not yourself that writes the lyrics, do you feel detached from the songs at all or does performing them you feel closer to him?
It's very easy to find emotion in those lyrics, they've very powerful. The reason he writes them and not me is that he's so much better at it, I kind of suck at writing lyrics. One of the good things about the way we write is that if I interpret Charles' lyrics in my own way and find my own feelings in the words, when people listen to our music, I can imagine that they can do the same thing and interpret them in their own way. The way I sing them isn't much to do with him personally. I think that's why it works.
The issues you deal with are universal as well, especially on a song like "Death."
Definitely. That's what we wanted in our music, that's what we believe in. We didn't want to make it at all relevant to the time or the place in which the songs were written because we wanted it to reach out to a lot of people, and it has. A lot of bands in the UK, like the Arctic Monkeys, write songs about the time and the place they grew up in and what they're doing now. It's great, they write fantastic songs and its really good social commentary, but the lyrics aren't timeless. We wanted to make something timeless and we spent a lot of time perfecting our song writing and our lyric writing.
It's only been about a year since your first gig as White Lies - how different is life in this band compared to Fear of Flying?
It's completely different; we had no degree of success in Fear of Flying. We worked very hard but we weren't really writing music that was personal to us and we didn't really believe we were writing music that was "cool" in London at the time. We realized when we wrote the first White Lies song that we were onto something completely different, and I think a lot better, so we decided to scrap all the old Fear of Flying stuff. We started something new, fresh. It really worked for us and we've been doing the right thing ever since, I guess.
So it was a natural progression and not a conscious effort?
Definitely. Towards the end of Fear of Flying we were starting to write songs that were more like White Lies songs, so yeah it was a very natural progression. It was very sudden, but it was because we wrote "Unfinished Business" and thought it was so different, defined and coherent that we could write a whole album of songs like that. So that's what we did, and we started a new band.
Do you think your next album will have a different sound?
Who knows? I'd like to think so. I'd like to think we can move on and still keep the core elements of what makes us White Lies. There are a few hints on our record, like the songs "Nothing to Give" and "The Price of Love." We were very ambitious when we recorded those songs and I think that's maybe a taster of what's to come for our band. It's very early days though, so it's hard to say what we'll do next.