White Lies grow up

White Lies talk marriages, transatlantic collaboration, and finding Steely Dan.

January 30, 2017

It’s something that happens quite often with young teenagers — bonding over music. For Harry McVeigh, Charles Cave, and Jack Lawrence-Brown, the trio behind the English post-punk band White Lies, after-school and weekend hangouts were largely dedicated to playing music or listening to it. Particularly, they shared a mutual affection for Rage Against The Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers. 

“I wouldn’t say they are a huge influence on our music now,” chuckles vocalist and guitarist McVeigh, “but then we just loved the way that they played, and we loved the songs, and I guess it was all part of our teenage rebellion. And we probably loved it a bit more because of the fact that most people’s parents hated it… We had a lot of great moments listening to that music, going to shows and stuff like that. And I’m pretty sure that all of ours’ first show was probably a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert.” 

McVeigh is speaking over the phone from his apartment in San Francisco, the coastal city he and his wife moved to this past year. The relocation came a week after White Lies wrapped up working on their fourth studio album, Friends — a record that, appropriately, is about how relationships change as we get older. Now approaching their thirties, the longtime pals are slowly finding themselves arriving at that stage where one begins to definitively feel like an adult — people are getting married (Lawrence-Brown, too, wed last year), moving away from home, and, well, growing up. As the group put the album together over the length of a couple of years, Cave, White Lies’ primary songwriter, penned the songs keeping these evolutions in mind as they were happening.

“I think that those two years really typified what the album’s about, and you can really feel that Charles is writing that from that exact moment in our lives — the lives of all of our friends and families,” McVeigh explains. “It’s interesting, and I love the lyrics on this album because I think everyone can relate to that. I think everyone goes through that period in their lives.” 

It will also be interesting, he continues, to see how San Francisco will go on to influence the band’s music in the future. “I haven’t really spoken to the guys about this,” McVeigh laughs, “but I’d really love to get Charles out here just work on a bit of the writing, because it would just be a really nice change of scene.”

“You see every walk of life here, and you see every kind of different culture, and it all meets largely in a great harmony and I love that — and I love that there’s no aspect of life or wealth or culture that isn’t represented in the city,” he continues. “It’s just a really interesting place to be and a really interesting place to walk around and experience, and I love walking through the city, because you don’t know what you’re going to see.” 

White Lies has been playing together for 10 years. Longevity is something that McVeigh is unequivocally grateful for, especially when it comes to the dedicated following the band has maintained. “I don’t know, it just makes you believe in humanity at large, I think,” he says, adding that he was deeply moved at their fans’ enthusiasm during the band’s recent tour of Europe. “I think music is one of those things that will never be explained — how the emotional connection works, and why it works, and it’s one of the beautiful things about the human mind. And to be a part of that — to be able to play music for people, for people to come and fall in love with it like that — is just great.” 

Exuberant melodies, glittery synths, smart songwriting, and McVeigh’s impassioned baritone are hard not to get lost in. The group’s ‘80s new wave leanings have been their cornerstone since their critically-acclaimed 2009 debut, To Lose My Life — of course, Talking Heads would ultimately fare to be more of a profound influence on their sound than Rage or the Chili Peppers would — and on Friends, White Lies channel their strengths. The anthemic quality of To Lose My Life, the dark edge of 2011’s Ritual, and the pop sensibilities of 2013’s Big TV all contribute to form a strong and succinct record, while facilitating artistic growth. And with each album they make, the band finds that both experience and the chase of creative satisfaction constantly motivates them to continually push themselves to be better. 

“I think we’ve learned a lot over the last decade on how to write songs, how to approach making an album, producing an album,” McVeigh says. “I still think that our first record is probably our best,  and I think the reason for that is because we were young, and we didn’t have a laptop, even — we didn’t have any sort of equipment, we just wanted to play music. And, actually, we weren’t really even thinking about making an album. Just through plugging away at that and practicing together as a band, we wrote a few really great songs, and all it needed was a bit of good production, and we ended up with the album that we ended up with. I think the first album is still my favourite for that reason, because it gave us everything that we have now and it allowed us to make those mistakes, and for people to invest in the band, and come to shows, and still to connect with those songs. And having said that, I think that our best album is probably still ahead of us. Maybe not the next one, and maybe three of four albums down the line, but I think we still have the capacity to improve, and I think we will still work all the time to do that.” 

He adds, “And the thing is, with music — with any art, actually, with any creative process — there’s no defined end point. There’s no point where you can say to yourself, ‘okay, I’m finished. This is best thing I’m ever going to do.’” 

It’s about bending those established rules of harmony and melody, he maintains — the preconceived theories of what makes a song sound good. “David Bowie is a great example [of doing that]. He’s always great at throwing in a chord, especially a harmony in a song, that is so weird and on paper it shouldn’t really work in any way, but when you listen to the song, it just flows beautifully and it just works and it’s just wonderful. And I think that’s something that we always try to do and we always find very inspiring.”  

Suede, McVeigh continues, with whom White Lies share Ed Buller as a frequent producer, are also masters of this. “Especially on [their] first two [albums], they nailed that kind of great, weird chord, and just making it work, and just making it really flow. That’s something that we’ll always strive for.”

“Don’t Fall,” the closing ballad on Friends, is McVeigh’s favourite. Sonically, it’s heavily influenced by Steely Dan — a band the singer admits passed him by as a teenager because he’d simply dismissed them as uncool. Then, during the process of making the new album, they suddenly resonated. “It was like, ‘wow, this is incredible music, it’s played incredibly well,’” McVeigh enthuses. “Their approach to songwriting and their approach to making albums, in many ways, is really tongue in cheek. A lot of their songs are almost taking the piss out of themselves, which I loved.” The groove and the rhythm of “Don’t Fall,” particularly the chorus —infectious, poppy, and nuanced — was written with Steely Dan in mind.

It’s a track that, like the rest of the album, reflects the goings-on during a transformative moment in the lives of three friends.

“I just know when I listen to that song in 20 years time, it’ll take me right back to that moment when we were writing it and listening to Steely Dan in my kitchen with Charles, drinking coffee and whatever else,” McVeigh says. “I love it for that reason.”

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