White Lung Torn Together
Published Jun 25, 2014Last December, Mish Way packed up her things and left her hometown. As the explosive lead singer for Vancouver punk band White Lung, Way had spent eight years helping to buck the city's reputation as a cultural backwater, derisively nicknamed No Fun City. Yet even as the group's popularity surged, the singer felt that she had hit a wall. "I love Vancouver," she says, "but I needed new challenges."
Way quickly settled into her new home in Los Angeles, a city that had always welcomed White Lung with open arms. But Way's defection couldn't have come at a more critical juncture for the band, who were in the middle of recording of their new album, Deep Fantasy, presenting her bandmates — guitarist Kenneth William and drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou — with their own set of new challenges. Compounding the situation, founding bass player Grady Mackintosh was booted from the group in September just before writing sessions began. "It was kind of insane," says Vassiliou. "We used to practice as a full band, and then all of a sudden, it's just Kenny and I."
Thankfully, the record was finished in time for White Lung to make the leap from Canadian punk imprint Deranged Records, who had released records from many of their Vancouver peers, to international indie powerhouse Domino. Home to a diverse roster of artists that includes Animal Collective, Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys, on paper Domino seems like an odd move for a band who built their reputation as DIY punk road warriors. And that's exactly the point. White Lung are increasingly the odd-band-out, regularly playing festivals or finding press coverage from outlets more accustomed to more mainstream, and less sonically aggressive, artists. "Domino seemed the best to me because there were no other bands on that label that were like us," Way told Exclaim! in March.
The bigger push a label like Domino can give Deep Fantasy brings with it more press and tour demands. Yet in June, when the band returned from the first leg of their tour, William decamped to Montreal, leaving Vassiliou as the only remaining member in the band's hometown. When interviews for this story were conducted band members were on separate continents: William in Australia ahead of their next touring leg; Way in Greece with friends; and Vassiliou at home in Vancouver.
White Lung's music has always thrived off the explosive chemistry of its members, onstage and in the recording studio. With the stakes higher than ever and its members' separate life-paths physically pulling the band apart, can White Lung keep things together?
Deep Fantasy boasts an expansive clarity that their previous releases lacked. Where It's the Evil and Sorry felt claustrophobic, it rages with clear-eyed vision. Rather than a premeditated change in the way the group write and record, Way says their evolving sound is simply a natural progression. "We've been playing music together for a long time now," say Way. "We know how to write together. It's very organic for things just to escalate."
With expectations high both in and outside of the band, work on the record began in October. They had yet to sign with Domino, but Way has said that labels were already reaching out. Studio time was booked. The only problem was they had no bass player.
Neither Vassiliou, Way nor William will say specifically what happened between them and Mackintosh, only that no one on either side of the situation was happy. "It had been building up for a long time," says William. "It was impossible to write in that situation or even tour and that's not how a band should be," says Vassiliou. "You should be having fun."
Undeterred, the trio set to work, laying down half the record in December at Rain City Recorders with Jesse Gander, who had produced both of the band's previous albums. Wax Idols' Hether Fortune is handling bass duties for their current tour, but they remained bass-less for the entirety of Deep Fantasy's creation. The open bass seat posed the biggest challenge to William. Never one to simply sit on a riff, his style — busy, anxious and untethered from the rhythm section — is incredibly distinctive and defines the band as much as Way's vocals. He plays bass on the album, but with no bottom end to anchor the band during writing and rehearsals, he needed to rethink his approach. "I couldn't just be fucking around up on the high strings, noodling around with leads," he says. Way needed to understand where both the guitar and bass would sit in a song so she could write melodies. "I had to actually make it sound like a song."
Their store of new material was exhausted during this round of recording, and with more sessions scheduled for the end of January, they had precious weeks to write the missing half. It was during this break that Way moved to Los Angeles, leaving William and Vassiliou to write the rest of the album's instrumental tracks. "I wrote all my parts without bass and I didn't really hear the songs until after Kenny had done his parts in the studio," says Vassiliou.
Vassiliou, 33, grew up on Vancouver's North Shore. A self-described loner, she was weaned on Nirvana and other early '90s alt-rock underground heroes. She did time playing drums with Vancouver punks the Riff Randells before she met Way about a decade ago. They both found themselves playing in a Hole cover band with future Twin Crystals member Jesse Taylor, at a local Kurt Cobain tribute show. "She sang and I played drums," recalls Vassiliou. "We decided we wanted to continue and form a real band."
They recruited Mackintosh and guitarist Natasha Reich from fellow locals Automatic Francy in 2006 and named the band after a slang term for the cough bakers get when they accidentally inhale flour. The quartet quickly immersed themselves in the city's emerging DIY noise and experimental music scene surrounding the Emergency Room, a performance and recording space in East Vancouver. "It was a wild party space and sometimes the shows would go until five in the morning," says Vassiliou. "It was an amazing part of Vancouver history."
This version of White Lung appeared on the local compilation Emergency Room Vol. 1 that documented the scene before the space closed for good in 2008. They also released a pair of well received seven-inches, the second of which was recorded at the Hive with Gander, former singer for local punk legends d.b.s. "I was amazed at how beautiful and melodic they were," he recalls. "I thought it was the most original sound I'd heard coming from a punk band in a very long time."
The Emergency Room's demise coincided with White Lung's near break-up. With their home-base gone, White Lung and their peers were left with nowhere to play. Problems with Reich simultaneously inhibited the band's creativity. Unable to write or play, the group effectively split up. "There was something about the combination of the four of us that was keeping us from working," Way told Exclaim! in 2010. Reich eventually left the group in 2009, and rather than pack it in, Way, Vassiliou and Mackintosh started searching for a replacement, leading them to William.
Born in East Vancouver, Kenneth William, 25, moved with his family to the city's Kitsilano neighbourhood as a teenager. Taken with groups like Crystal Castles and Death From Above 1979, he formed the bands Cheeleader Camp and Pro Nails while still in high school. "I could go and see other shows because they wouldn't ID us," he says. William knew of Way from watching White Lung play shows with locals groups like Defektors and Channels 3&4. But he got to know her from her job working at Pat's Pub. A hotel dive-bar on Vancouver's Downtown East Side, Pat's briefly hosted shows before succumbing to the city's creeping gentrification. "She wouldn't ID us and gave us drinks when we were 17."
For his tryout, William learned several of the band's older songs from their Myspace page. "I was pretty shocked that it ended up being me," he says. "I knew they wanted a girl. But I heard that everyone else that tried out just sucked." He also brought along an original riff that would eventually form the basis of "Atlanta," the first song that the newly configured band would record together.
Reinvigorated, White Lung immediately set their sights outside of the Lower Mainland. Their debut album, It's the Evil, announced the band to the world outside of their hometown. Sorry followed in 2012, introducing a new level of melody to their cacophonous fury. It also brought the band to an audience outside of the close-knit punk community who had originally embraced them. Pitchfork gave the record an 8.0 and music critic and author Rob Sheffield included the album on his list of the best records of the year in Rolling Stone of all places. Its success set the stage for their step up to Domino.
Five years Vassiliou's junior, 28-year-old "Mish" Way also grew up in North Vancouver. A performer for most of her life, she was a competitive figure skater until she was 16 and developed a love of early '90s alt-rock, especially the era's female icons like L7, Boss Hog's Cristina Martinez and Hole. Way enrolled in Simon Fraser University's creative writing program but quickly switched over to gender studies, themes of which run throughout both her freelance writing and lyrics. "I took a feminist philosophy class, and my world suddenly made sense," she recently told Rookie Mag.
Her fierce vocal delivery, magnetic stage presence and outspoken opinions have elevated Way's profile far above her punk peers. She moonlights as bass player for Vancouver super-group Eating Out with members of Nu Sensae and Peace, but it's her writing career that's really allowed Way to express herself outside of the band. She is prolific, having written for Vice, Salon and The Talkhouse to name a few. Music is a frequent subject, although she also regularly mines her personal life for material that frankly divulges and explores her insecurities.
Fans now look to her the same way she looked to her heroes growing up, even if what they identify with — the hyper-confident rock star feminist — is only part of her story. "The great thing about being in a band and being on stage is that you get to choose a very specific part of your multi-dimensional self and just hyper-inflate that one part for the performance."
But Way demurs at the suggestion that she's become something of a celebrity in certain corners of the Internet. "I'm really grateful that there are people who listen to the music I make and read the writing I write and try to have conversations with me," she says. "Because a lot of people put their stuff out there and no one really cares."
Even if she hasn't fully embraced her growing fame, Way's profile isn't lost on her bandmates. On early White Lung releases William is credited with his surname. He switched to his middle name for fear of scaring off potential employers. "I don't want them looking up stories about Mish railing a line of cocaine and driving into a tree."
Way's voice appears higher up in Deep Fantasy's mix than ever before, a function of the newfound clarity she found in her writing. Way knew her lyrics would increasingly take centre stage in the press so she wanted to make them as inclusive as possible by conveying universal feelings about personal experiences. The track "Snake Jaw" for instance chronicles her struggle with body dysmorphia. "If I have the opportunity to say something I want to say something important," she says. "I want to say something challenging, I want to say something that facilitates discussion and not alienate people from that discussion."
Chronic procrastinators, White Lung have always split the recording of their records into two sessions. "The second time we go in to record tends to be a reaction to the first set of songs," says William. "I'll be trying to balance out the record and make sure it doesn't lean to far one way."
The pressure to finish the record caused him a lot of anxiety. He caught the flu twice over the course of the record's creation. "I ended up being in [our practice room] alone with no windows in the cold for pretty much three months straight."
But Deep Fantasy's fractured creative process gave White Lung the time and space to do something they'd never done before: edit their music. "The band had grown and perfected what they had been working towards for a very long time," says Gander. "It was really curated," confirms Way. "Kenny had a lot of time to tool away with this guitar parts and only bring to me what he thought was worthy of being a song. If we were just rehearsing or jamming, I might pursue a riff that he had that he didn't want to."
With the pressure to finish the album gone and its members slowly spreading themselves across North America, White Lung maintain that physical distance won't impede their continued success. "We don't need to live in the same city," insists Vassiliou. "We only really practice before a tour or when we're writing an album."
"This is what we've chosen to do for our lives," says Way, reaffirming her commitment to the band. "Get in front of a group of people and make noise and hope that they like it. Or not give a shit that they don't."
Besides, it seems that the life in a travelling band is starting to take its toll on White Lung's state of mind. Although all three members still maintain some form of day-job, steady touring keeps members feeling restless. "There was nothing else I could get out of Vancouver," says Way, "and I'm sure at some point I'll feel the same way about L.A. and I'll move to Kentucky." William agrees. "I will get cabin fever if I'm in a city for two months and I don't get to leave," he says. "You can't make plans around this kind of life."