A.V. Club - First, Best, Worst, and Last: White RabbitsBy Sean O'Neal
In First, Best, Worst, And Last, we get a crash history course on artists, using only the most essential landmarks of their career, learning things about their development from beginning to end, or maybe just hearing funny stories about the worst gig they ever played or song they ever wrote.
The artist: The Brooklyn-by-way-of-Missouri band White Rabbits has had a quick evolution since its 2007 debut, Fort Nightly, which married rollicking ragtime indie-rock with a dark-calypso-by-way-of-Danny-Elfman vibe. Hiring Spoon’s Britt Daniel to produce 2009’s It’s Frightening proved to be the band’s most important creative boost to date, as well as its biggest burden: The resulting album slashed and refined their sound to a ragged cool familiar from Daniel’s work, but it also ensured that White Rabbits would see comparisons to Spoon crop up in every article written about them ever after. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.) But even as they continue along that trajectory with the new Milk Famous, White Rabbits have become more experimental with each trip to the studio, crafting an insidious, spectral assemblage of songs filled with understated soulfulness, unpredictable arrangements, and a deliciously creeping sense of unease that’s quickly becoming unique. Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Patterson talked about that evolution by revisiting his band’s history so far, in song. (And those of you at SXSW can experience it firsthand when White Rabbits headlines The A.V. Club’s day party.)
The first song:
Stephen Patterson: We wrote some songs back when we were in Columbia, Missouri. We were a band there for like a year, but it was a very different sort of lineup. I was playing drums, and I don’t think Matt [Clark, drummer] was in the band until the tail end of that year. But I do remember the first song that I felt like, “Wow, I just wrote a song”—like, “I did that”—was “Kid On My Shoulders.” Really just sitting down and writing a song, trying to do something in a practice space, trying to figure it out, that feels to me like the first song I ever wrote. And I still like it.
We actually just came up with a new version of that song, a new take on it. We’ve been playing that song longer than we’ve been playing basically any other song, and it was just getting stale. But we figured out some new arrangements that fit the set and gets us more excited about it. It’s really kind of thrilling whenever you can do that, especially with older material. You find that stuff is pretty versatile. There are a lot of songs that require being played a certain way—like, if you don’t have this guitar part, it doesn’t work, or if you don’t have this drumbeat, it doesn’t work. Some songs don’t work in any other way than in the way they are recorded. But I actually like the new version for this one. And yeah, it was the first song I ever wrote.
The A.V. Club: How did it come together? It seems like the piano riff had to come first.
SP: Yeah, the first thing was the piano riff, and then the guitar part came from the vocal melody. It came together really fast. I remember the “Boy, where are you hiding?” part was really just improvised the first time we ran through it. And the outro—there’s that part at the end that’s sort of a chant? If there were one thing I would change, I would maybe shorten that. [Laughs.] I remember walking to my girlfriend’s house in Brooklyn, and I had that piano loop stuck in my head, and the song just sort of came to me. I remember whistling it or something. Before that, I didn’t realize that you could write music like that, that you don’t have to be sitting down with an instrument. I’d heard musicians say stuff like, “It came to me while I was driving.” But that had never happened to me before that.
AVC: Has it ever happened again?
SP: Oh yeah, it’s easier now. I think that there are a lot of moments, definitely on Fort Nightly, where the things that would come naturally to me, I would resist them. But I’ve gotten over that. A lot of the time, where it is at the beginning is the best place for it to end up. And it makes writing a lot faster. I learned a lot from that song. Some people can just sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and say, “Okay, I want to write a song about this.” But I really can’t do that. I just have to sit there—usually with a guitar—and I put a drumbeat on loop in the background. Then I just play and sing and I record it, and if I find a good moment, I’ll expand on that. And I learned that from “Kid On My Shoulders.”
The best song:
SP: That question is tough, because we just finished this record, and I’m very proud of a lot of the songs. [Pauses.] I think “I Had It Coming” might be the best song I’ve ever written. It’s definitely the most enjoyable song for me to sing in the live set. I like the lyrics a lot. I find myself not thinking about the music side of it, but really just thinking about the lyrics and the melody. It’s really simple, too, so I think I really like it because of that. That’s the hardest thing to do, for me at least—to come up with a really simple melody that makes you feel something. It has a good feel to me.
Check out The A.V. Club to read the rest of this article!
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