Q&A with Ego Sensation of White Hills on Frying on this Rock, Appearing in the new Jim Jarmusch Movie, and Christian Nightmares
While many of those featured on this blog seem to prefer delusional fairy tales to the unknown, New York City-based space rock trio White Hills fearlessly explore the deepest depths of their psyches. The band’s music seems to reflect the feeling of wishing there was a light at the end of the tunnel but knowing there probably isn’t, but their bad-acid-trip jams offer a break from the chaos from time to time, occasionally even brushing up against bliss and achieving moments of transcendence.
As for points of reference … A darker, druggier My Bloody Valentine; a more urgent Sonic Youth; and Hawkwind birthed in the Internet Age, all rolled into one. They also make things easy for me: Whenever someone says, “There’s no really great bands around right now, no one’s really pushing the envelope these days, rock isn’t what it used to be, blah blah blah … “ I simply point them to White Hills, as well as this band and this band, and tell them to shut the fuck up.
I recently caught up with bassist Ego Sensation, who along with guitarist Dave W. makes up the permanent core of White Hills. We spoke via email on the eve of the band’s show at Death by Audio in Brooklyn, as part of the Thrill Jockey 20th Anniversary celebration, and before they head out on their latest U.S. and European tours in support of their mind-blowing new album, Frying on this Rock.
The terms “space rock” and “psych rock” often get thrown around in reference to White Hills. Are you comfortable with those tags? What bands would you say have influenced you the most, and are there any current bands that you consider peers?
I’m not comfortable with tags in general but seeing that there are at least seven million bands in the world, I suppose they’re helpful. To me, “psychedelic” means something really insane like Jefferson Airplane’s “A Small Package of Value Will Come to You Shortly”—it’s a collection of sounds that may or may not sound like music but makes you feel like you dropped a few hits of acid and forgot about it. It’s not so much a groovy experience as a bizarre, unsettling trip. I like the term “space rock” for us because it brings to mind something more expansive than your average structured rock song. I don’t really mind either of those terms, though it seems like the term “psych rock” gets thrown around to describe all kinds of bands we sound nothing like. Both Dave and I listen to A LOT of different kinds of music so it’s tough to pin down specific influences but in a very general sense—sonically, Hawkwind; ethically, The Flaming Lips. We find inspiration all over the place—in fine art, cloud formations, movies. I think of The Psychic Paramount as our peers. They are brutal live!
How does your latest record, Frying on this Rock, compare to or contrast with past White Hills albums?
It’s a bit like Heads on Fire in its bombastic start and the fact that the title tracks for both records didn’t make it onto the albums. A big difference between Frying and the past two albums is that we spent a month prior to recording playing some of the material on tour. Many of our recordings catch ideas at their inception in a very loose and fresh state. There’s a good balance on this record of tried development (“Pads of Light”) and spontaneity (“Thousand Letters”).
You’re responsible for White Hills’ music videos, and I think they’re great. How important is the visual element to the band’s overall persona and presentation?
The visual element is complimentary to the music: it’s not an essential component to enjoying the music, but at the same time it creates a grander experience. We just played at Hopscotch Festival in North Carolina and there were some British girls standing in front dancing and singing along to our songs. After the show, one of them said to me, “I love your music and I’ve never seen you before. My friends and I thought you’d be a bunch of chubby, bearded men!” They were really excited by the visual surprise because our records are typically devoid of band photos. A lot of the music we make is trance inducing so it allows listeners to conjure up their own imagery. I’m a fan of theater. This is largely a drab, monotonous world so for me it’s a thrill to see a real show where the performers emanate unashamed style, boldness, glamour—otherworldliness. White Hills has been an excellent platform for me as a multifaceted artist to integrate my visual voice (through the videos) and the entertainer with the musician. It’s a layered experience—much like Dante’s Inferno or a SF-style super burrito! You can enjoy the music on it’s own, then you might see one of my films and understand the song in another light, and then you can experience the red velvet, guitar-shredding, hair-flying electric energy we bring to our concerts.
I heard that you guys are going to be in the new Jim Jarmusch movie. How did that come about and what was the experience like?
Jim curated All Tomorrow’s Parties at Kutsher’s in 2010 and invited us to play. I’m not sure how he found out about us; he’s a music fan. We sent him a copy of Frying on this Rock in March this year and within a month he asked us to play ourselves for a scene in his new movie Only Lovers Left Alive. It was a fantastic experience all around! There was a lot of amazing talent working on that film and it was such an honor to be included. At Jim’s request, I re-edited some of my video footage to be projected onto us during the performance and it was really cool to meet with both him and the director of photography to finesse it. The actors were so enthusiastic and welcoming. It was especially great to meet one of the most amazing actresses and nicest people in existence, Tilda Swinton, and be able to watch her work up close. Aside from performing, the best part for me was getting to watch Jim direct. He has a distinct vision/style, yet seems flexible enough to allow for organic moments. I stayed on set through the entire two days of shooting, drinking coffee and just soaking it in.
You guys seem really into masks, as am I. What is it about masks?
Have you ever seen Iggy Pop's performance of his song "Mask" on David Letterman from 2001? It’s amazing!
The truth is, most of us are wearing masks. We’re fitting into the profiles of our gender, profession, cultural affiliations—wearing the clothes that fit, speaking the proper language, believing the prescribed dogma and drinking the beverage that goes best with it all. I enjoy telling stories through metaphor—that’s why the majority of my films have no dialogue. Words are deceptive—the intention of the speaker rarely matches the perception of the listener. Actions are more telling. Masks are powerful symbols and can be so direct. A tiger is dangerous; a lamb is passive, etc. Masks to me in some way create an illusion of order—much like religion, no? Plus they’re creepy. What’s not to love?
Do you have any Christian nightmares?
I was walking down 11th Street in the East Village last week and there’s a beautiful neon sign above a church that says, “Jesus Saves.” I thought, “How? Cutting coupons? Priceline? Bakery outlets?” Why can’t some of that useful knowledge be in the Bible? Maybe it is. I haven’t read it.
In fact, I had a major Christian nightmare when I was about 10 years old. I had a sleepover at a friend’s place on a Saturday night so the family took me to church with them on Sunday (first and last time for me). I failed Bible school within one minute. I couldn’t figure out the weird page numbering system. I severed ties with that friend shortly after.
Also, chocolate crosses! I came across one for the first time about 12 years ago in a Target in Nevada. I love Easter candy and was perusing the offerings and there it was—a chocolate cross! Questions flooded my mind followed by all kinds of ideas. Could Jesus ever be hungry enough to eat candy shaped like the instrument of his torture? Why should this seem fun for kids at Easter time? Or are they meant to be thrown at naysayers of the Christian faith? I don’t know. Perhaps we can discuss it when I throw my next Easter party where I make vegetarian lasagna in a cross shaped pan.
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