If you’ve never listened to a White Arrows album, do it. Pull up your Spotify and immerse yourself in a psychotropic, retro-modern union between New York consciousness and eclectic LA style. Truthfully, I am not among the many who knew about the White Arrows’ genreless music as I had never listened to them before the week of their recent performance at Lincoln Park’s Schuba’s Tavern on February 13th. Both of their albums are excellent, but there is certainly a more cohesive feel to the band’s second album, In Bardo (“bardo” being a literal Tibetan translation of “intermediate state”), than there is to their previous Dry Land Is Not A Myth as front man Mickey Church explains when I sit down with him to discuss album artwork, the early days of Coachella, and the always relevant (and brutal) Chicago weather.
When you start to write a new song or a new album, how do you begin the process? Do you determine a direction or is kind of just more of an organic flow – how does that work?
Well, we’ve only done two now, and the first one was happenstance/piecemeal, but when we write a song, Andrew and I kind of get together in my basement where we record and write, and we did that for the entire first record. I did a couple of songs on my own, previously in New York, but then for this record we wrote a bunch of the songs for In Bardo but then we actually got to take it into a proper studio and record with producer Jimmy Messer, which was a new experience for us that was really nice, really novel. The first time it didn’t even feel like a record because it was recorded at home, in between so many tours that we had the fortune of getting based on one or two songs.
So it was kind of like writing on the road?
No, because I can’t do that. It was like going on the road for six weeks and then coming back home for two weeks in between tours and then writing like 2 songs and then leaving again for four weeks and then writing 2 more songs. This time, the headspace was different. We had now been playing live and figuring out our sound because I’d never been in a band before, or never played live before. I have ADHD, so it was a lot of directions over the course of two and a half years, whereas In Bardo was recorded like a time capsule, and I love that. I love that it’s cohesive, that the lyrical content gels together because it’s one place in time. Maybe one day I was happy, one day I was sad, one day I was angry, whatever. It was the same topics that tended to ruminate and swirl around my head for six or seven months.
Because of that, could you tell a big difference in the reception of your second album than you had from your first, or was it kind of hard to tell because you were on tour?
It’s hard to tell…with the first one I was pretty obsessive with reading every single review, and it got reviewed pretty well. For the second one, during the writing and recording process, I had this revelation of just, fuck it, I don’t care anymore and it was very liberating.. I just went into it thinking, “Ok, if I don’t do music ever again, then I don’t do music ever again and I’ll still have had these crazy experiences that no ones else, unless they’ve made music or gone on the road, can have.” I just wanted this album to be something that I really wanted, that I’d fight for. Before I was too amenable because I just didn’t know you could say no to people who were telling you to do things.
So knowing the industry a little helped you through the process?
Yeah, and just knowing myself and being more comfortable. If no one heard it and I only recorded it for my friends and family, that’s how I wanted it to be. It was just darker and moodier because I was more in touch with those kinds of feelings and not as self conscious or ashamed of it.
People who are knowledgeable about the band’s history also know about your experiences with sight when you were a child. I was looking at your website and wondering how much say you had in the artwork, the way it looks and feels?
I’ve got a lot of say in the artistic creation, but it’s all collaborative, so I have a lot of say but I don’t have the visual wherewithal to put it together. Every song on the record has a visual, which is the same visual that we play to live, and so it’s all cohesive. The person who creatively directed or who did all the visuals for the record also did the album art, and he’s a friend of mine named Sus Boy. He does visuals for all the big EDM people like Skrillex, Bauer and Boys Noize but because we’re friends and he’s a big fan of the band, we’re the only band that he does it for. He did strangely surreal and beautiful work that I thought really complemented the music a lot. I love that kind of visual medium and it was really nice to work with someone with whom I knew we had a connection. We have very similar tastes in movies and artwork.
Do you think it’s important to have that visual component when you’re performing, then? For your band, I mean.
Yeah – it never felt right or good to me to just say, “here’s a song” and then introduce the song and then, “here’s the next song.” I need it to be narrated, or to flow. I want one song to connect to the next, or if there is a break, it’s to say a couple things, like a breath, but there’s a thread through everything. I think that’s the difference between a performance and just playing songs. And you want people to turn off their brains when they come to your show. When you think about anything else, like a movie, it’s cognitive but it’s also very emotional, very experiential, and that’s what’s important more than anything.
What was it like to play at Coachella, to be with established artists and up-and-coming ones?
That was huge because I’d been going to that festival for so many years.
Because you’re from Southern California?
Yeah, from Los Angeles. We’d all been going for so many years, and gone for every year except one, the very first one. I was 12 when I started hitchhiking with older kids from my school, and this is before the festival made money, or was a thing to go to. They had really good lineups but it was still a new festival and not a lot of people were going. It was before social media and that kind of stuff, so it was kind of like they were losing money on the festival, getting the big names to build a name for themselves. But I went in a friend’s sedan , and we’d pull up to the Mohave tent, which is a side tent, and be like “hey, we’re playing, today…we’re Devendra Banhart.” And they’d be like “oh, yeah, we see Devendra Banhart here” *looks down at list* “go right in.” And now there are chips embedded everywhere, and they scan you and there are four layers of security. It was nice, it was a very big moment to be able to go and say “I’m playing” and not feel like a total liar.
So you’ve performed in large, outdoor venues and you’ve performed in smaller venues like the one upstairs.
We’ve performed in smaller venues than the one upstairs.
Really? Oh my goodness.
Ooohhhhhh yeah. House parties. Last night we played a bowling alley in Cleveland.
Hopefully like an older style bowling alley?
100%. I was about to say, it was not trying to be retro, it just hadn’t been updated since 1981. It was cool, it was a cool venue.
So do you have a preference, then, for one or the other?
Nah, festivals are cool cause they’re like a summer camp for bands, so you’re like “oh hey, I haven’t seen you in a while” or, “oh I’ve been wanting to meet you!” Everyone is coming out backstage, and you also get to check all of the bands who you’ve been meaning to see off the list because they’re all in one place. So they’re really exciting cause you’re running around doing press, then you play a show. But big shows are good. Small shows are good too because they’re obviously intimate, like everyone says. And there’s an energy. I like it when the walls are sweating.
That’s a good way to put it! So which venues have you found are the most fun – are there any that stand out?
Some are just really iconic and beautiful, and there’s a reason why they’ve been around as long as they have. There’s the Fox Theatre in Oakland where you walk in and just look at the structure, and you’re like “wow, this is amazing,” and then you think about the history of the place, and you think 70 or 80 years ago this was the place where this many people would congregate to see a silent movie. You know? Those theatres just used to be movie theatres and I can’t even imagine 500 people sitting in a room silently let alone 3,000 people sitting in a room silently watching a movie. But there are a bunch of cool venues. We’re about to play, on this next tour, at the Wiltern, which is one of my favorite venues in Los Angeles. It’s a very beautiful, 3,000/4,000-cap venue. I saw a concert in high school, Sigur Ros, that kind of changed my life. Speaking of, that’s probably what it is – I just had a revelation – that was when I realized that moving images go with music…it was just so beautiful – their lights, their music, everything was so beautiful. I think I wrote my college essay on movies and music, that you can’t have one without the other, and one is as meaningful to the other as the other is to it.
Right, they interact with each other.
Ok, so this is a little different. What’s the most helpful piece of advice you’ve been given about the music industry, or maybe that you’ve just discovered on your own?
There’s so much. I guess you just have to know that no one is going to care as much as you do about what you’re doing, and that’s just it. People might be passionate, and people might help you, but you’re your own island when it comes to making the decisions. And also to have patience is a big thing. Don’t, especially in this day and age, don’t put anything out before it’s ready. Take your time. Fuck up many, many times. Show your friends, show your family, play out a bunch, but don’t put it on the internet under the name that you want to go by because it’ll live forever.
Yes – so true. It seems like the music industry has had to evolve with that issue a lot.
I just have one last question: have you done anything quintessentially Chicago since you’ve been in town?
Yes – no, not today. We played an Audiotree session today, so we drove in early to do a live session which is streamed online. But last time we came through town we played Chive Fest, and so we got to play in Chicago Bears’ stadium. That was very Chicago – I snuck out onto the field and got to touch the grass. That was cool. But it’s cold.
Yeah, being from LA, I’m sure!
Being from anywhere, I think it’s pretty unanimously cold. I think it’s the wind that gets you.