Kenneth William of White Lung on Being The One Man in The Band
Talking to guitarist Kenneth William on driving old Volvos, remixing Rihanna tracks and getting Tinder.
Photo courtesy of Luca Giorietto
In the span of eight years, Vancouver’s White Lung have gone from messy, DIY upstarts slogging away in their city’s “weird punk” scene to the point of ferocious acclaim. Their 2012 breakthrough Sorry turned heads at Pitchfork and brought attention to them internationally, making them blog favourites, tourmates of METZ, Antwon and Iceage, and one of the last bands to play beloved NYC venue 285 Kent when it shut down. Their brand new album, Deep Fantasy, just got BNM from Pitchfork, the first sign of many to come that this year will be the biggest ever for the band.
Now, anyone familiar with White Lung will know that their outspoken, bad-ass vocalist Mish Way almost always commands the attention. Be it on stage as the band rips through their barb-wired punk anthems, online via social media, in interviews, or even as a writer for this very site. But spend a few minutes with them and you’ll be automatically drawn to guitarist Kenneth William. Maybe it’s because he’s the only male in the band, which also consists of drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou and temporary bassist Hether Fortune. Maybe it’s because he’s the soft-spoken one. Or maybe it’s just because his deadpan style of conversation is so funny.
Just as White Lung release their highly anticipated third album, Deep Fantasy, Noisey Skyped with William, who was kind enough to wake up during an Australian tour to talk his new “fat rock record,” the band’s tendency to drive old Volvos, remixing Rihanna tracks and why Tinder keeps letting him down.
Noisey: How’s Australia?
Kenneth William: Cool. I’ve been liking it so far. It’s like the dead of winter and I’m super jet-lagged, so I’ve woken up in the dead of winter twice. I’ve slept until 4 p.m.
Mish is living in Los Angeles right now, are you too?
No, I’m going to be living in Montreal, as of next month. But I’ve been living in Vancouver and I’m just sick of it. I’ve lived there for 25 years so, I’m done with it, at least temporarily. Montreal just seems a lot more fun to me. No crazy reason.
Will that affect how the band works?
Not really because we don’t have to write another record for another year, at least. Mish was already in L.A. when we were writing it anyway, so we’re used to working like that. We’ll just meet up a few days before we go on tour or whatever. It’s not a big deal.
You shot the “Face Down” video in L.A. I like how you chose to use a Volvo. Where did that come from?
That’s actually Mish’s car. I had the same car forever, but it got hit by a bus sitting outside Quizno’s. It was the bus’ fault. I think I got like 800 bucks for it.
That scarecrow doesn’t look too heavy. In one scene though it looks like you can barely carry it though. What happened?
In that scene Pierce told me just to spin around and fall over. That wasn’t an authentic fall. I was pretty much just following direction. I let him be the master of me for the day. I did as I was told. But I actually cleaned up the beach out of the goodness of my heart. I didn’t want to litter on the nice beach in L.A. Unfortunately though, the ocean did sweep away one of them before I could fish it out. I’m not a very good swimmer.
I noticed Hether Fortune from Wax Idols joined the band. What happened with Grady Mackintosh?
Some people aren’t meant to live in a van. I don’t really want to get into it. Let’s just say it wasn’t working out. But Hether is temporary for as long as she’d like. We all like having her around a lot. She’s the type of person who won’t just want to play in our band. She has her own stuff going on. But as long as she wants to come along she is welcome. It’s been great having her around.
Mish recently described Deep Fantasy as a “fat rock record.” How did it get to sound like that?
I don’t think I would describe it that way, but I think what she means in a way. One of the reasons why it does sound thicker and fuller is that we wrote most of it separately. In the past we would all meet up and the ideas would get pieced together. This time, since Mish was in L.A. for a lot of the record I would just sit in our practice space in the middle of winter with a space heater, just playing by myself. Because there was no one else around playing bass or anything I had to kind of change the way I play guitar, so that it would actually sound like something. I couldn’t be all over the place as much. I had to hold down some chords just so that when the three of us played together it would actually sound like music. So in that sense, in the way that we were isolated did influence the way the recorded sounded. But I think in a good way it sounds a lot fuller. In terms of Mish describing it as a “fat rock record” I actually don’t think it sounds that different from Sorry. I don’t see it as much of a departure really. Maybe for her. I know she’s really happy with the melodies and the different approach to singing she took on this one. But I wouldn’t be expecting it to be popping the charts on modern rock radio this year.
What? You don’t want to be huge pop stars?
No, I mean whatever happens happens. I’m perfectly happy to continue doing things on the scale we’re doing them. But yeah, it’s too early to tell what the difference will be. Like with the label, we didn’t sign with Domino until after the album was done. I do notice that I have a lot more emails to answer now and more interviews scheduled during my time off.
Shots fired! Sorry to make you do an interview right now.
Oh, wait, that’s not directed towards you. [Laughs] I’m sure things will be different and more amazing, but it’s still early. We’ll see what happens when the record comes out.
What made you sign with Domino?
Some of the other labels that asked to put out our record I really like their labels too. But one of the things I liked most about Domino is that there are so many bands I like on it and no one sounds like us. I really like Blood Orange and Austra and those Cass McCombs records too. I’d rather be thrown in with bands like that then be on a label with similar sounding bands. I think it makes us look cooler, basically.
I know you’re all Oasis fans. Who loves Oasis the most?
Mish loves them the most. We listen to Definitely Maybe and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? a lot [sounds bothered]. She and Anne-Marie even did “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” at karaoke when we were in New York last time. I like Oasis a lot as well. It’s a shame that we went to play their hometown of Manchester and only one person came.
What?!? When was that?
Like two weeks ago. Everything else was great. Don’t get me wrong. The tour was fun. But that was one of the worst shows we played ever. There was only one guy to see us there, so obviously we weren’t playing properly. I was playing “Hot Cross Buns” and “Jingle Bells” and it probably lasted about 15 minutes before we left. [Laughs]
I’ve heard you say that you felt Sorry was a much more aggressive album than It’s the Evil. How do you feel Deep Fantasy compares as far as aggression?
Well, some of the songs on Sorry were a lot less aggressive than songs on It’s the Evil. I think in this case a similar thing happened. The boundaries got pushed out a bit more. Like there are some songs here that are borderline metal, and the last song on the record is the closest we’ve come to writing a slower song. I wouldn’t say overall it’s more aggressive, but some of it sure is.
I know Mish loves grunge and ’90s alt-rock, and I feel the album really fits in well with a lot of that music, like Alice In Chains
Yeah, mm-hmm. Mish and Anne-Marie are more into that stuff than I am. And that’s just because they’re older than me. I was a bit further separated from that. But I do like Alice In Chains and I actually do kind of see a similarity between Dirt and this record. Both feel a bit gross to me. When I was writing this record I kept getting sick, and I feel like you can kind of tell. They sort of sound like they’re covered in slime or something. A lot of the chorus and reverb smothered over them. It kind of reminds me of Alice In Chains in a way.
So this record sounds like barfy guitars?
Yeah. Someone asked me how I would say this one is different and I said the guitars on the last one had a fever.
Mish described your guitar playing as “orchestra shit.” How did you get so awesome at playing the guitar?
I quit for years and years and didn’t start playing until I joined this band. I quit when I was in grade ten, and then I basically played different instruments, like drums, synths and sequencers. I actually just picked up the guitar again because I heard they need a guitarist and I thought it might be fun.
What is the hardest White Lung song for you to play? Which one do you fuck up most often?
I fuck up a lot of them. None of them are really that crazy, but they tend to be really uncomfortable to play. If I have trouble writing something I’ll purposely start doing things that are wrong, like no one else would play because it’s so stupid. It doesn’t even sound that complicated by “Just For You” off the new record is pretty much impossible for me to pull off live without fucking it up. It’s just sliding around all over the place. It’s a mess. But I’m getting better at it after butchering it about 15 times in a row. I think I’ve got it now.
I heard your Rihanna remix for “Where Have You Been.” What inspired you to do that?
That was basically done while I was on autopilot during the making of the album. I had been working on it for so long, then I had absolutely nothing to do after, so that came out of me just being bored out of my mind. But I might do more stuff like that in Montreal, since I won’t be working on any White Lung songs for a while.
I know you really love pop music. What is your current jam?
I used to listen to the radio a lot while I would drive around but unfortunately it broke in my Volvo. So I’m really behind on my Top 40 knowledge right now. I love that new song by Iggy Azalea with Charli XCX. I saw Charli XCX in Brighton, which was cool. They accidentally gave me the wrong passes to shows, and were supposed to give me passes to our own show. But for some reason they gave me passes to her show. So I just walked and saw her before we played. It was during the Great Escape festival. It was totally fine with me because I wanted to go see her.
Did you happen to read a Noisey piece called “How To Survive Being The Only Dude In A Band”?
Mish sent it to me but I didn’t read it. I figured it would make me either mad or think I wouldn’t learn anything from it.
Well, I was just curious if you agreed with some of his points.
I’m sure being the only guy in this band is completely different and way more messed up than being the only guy in that other band. [Laughs] But go ahead.
“Let go of control.”
That seems like poor advice to me. No one in this band likes to be told what to do. But oftentimes I’ll need to make sure that we’re not late for everything.
Are you the most responsible member of White Lung?
I am quite responsible, actually. Someone needs to be. If we’re in the States, we’ll never take anyone with us: no tour managers, no drivers. Because even though it might be easier having people tell you when to wake up or when it’s time to leave, but it gets super annoying having those people around. We just cut that out completely. I actually do most of the driving because I like it.
“Get used to driving. Like a lot.”
I like it. Mish is a little bit of a sketchy driver, but she has gotten better. I feel like it’s in my best interest to drive though.
“The van cannot smell like farts.” I guess he wasn’t allowed to fart.
Yeah, that’s never been a problem in our van.
“Nobody is looking at you.”
It’s actually kind of funny, because a lot of the time after we’re done playing I tend to get the most attention because it’s always these nerdy guys that are too shy to talk to Mish and Anne-Marie. So they’ll often come and hang out with me.
“Resist the urge to beat the fuck out of rude audience members.”
I usually just ignore it. I don’t even care if people throw stuff at me. Mish will make some comment about them being a drunken bum and then they’ll leave.
“Embrace the Smiths and the Cure.”
Mish and I like the Smiths but Anne-Marie hates them. More than anything else in the world. We try keeping them to a minimum. I think she can’t handle Morrissey’s voice. And I think we all like the Cure but never listen to them.
“Get used to one-sided conversations.”
No, that’s not the case. He sounds like a really big complainer to me.
Finally, I saw on Facebook that you’ve taken up Tinder. How are you finding it? Any luck?
Not good. It’s a waste of my time. But I’m not giving up yet. Maybe a different city will work better. It matches you based on what you like, but the only ones that consistently come up are Jersey Shore, partying and Kesha. Those are the only three things that show up. I don’t know Australia very well. I’m in a suburb of Sydney right now, so maybe that’s just the scene here. I don’t know.
Cam Lindsay is a writer living in Toronto. He's on Twitter.