Three songs into White Lung's new album, Paradise, the Vancouver band sends an immediate signal that things are changing. The song in question, “Below,” moves at a much slower BPM than anything the band released on previous albums. It’s more conventionally pretty than the visceral two-minute punk rock rave-ups they’re mostly known for, and its production is crisper, its climax’s highs that much higher as a result of a more spacious arrangement overall. It’s not quite a ballad, not quite an anthem, but if I didn’t know any better, I’d say it’s a hit.
Mainstream radio has yet to pick up on “Below”—summer just started so there’s still time for it to reach playlist ubiquity—but commercial impact aside, the song and by extension Paradise (released in May via Domino Records), marks some notable shifts in the band’s approach. Ahead of their summer U.S. tour, vocalist Mish Barber-Way explains in a phone interview that the instinct to challenge themselves was much greater this time around.
“Think about it this way: You start off being Taylor Swift and playing your country ditties...you eventually need to branch out from there. So where do you go? You start doing something a little harder and a little edgier, because that’s the opposite of what you began with,” she says. “And I think that’s just naturally what happens. With us, we started in punk and hardcore, and you grow as a songwriter and you say ‘I want to challenge myself as a songwriter’ and do something that branches out and reaches and maybe is super unusual for us without breaking what made us great in the first place.
“That was one of the first riffs that Kenny (William, guitarist) showed me and I think I told him it sounded like a video game and I hated it,” she adds. “And then in the studio it came to life and it was like this great song with so much room to grow on. I mean, that’s probably one of my favorites on the record.”
“Below” isn’t necessarily the only song of its kind on Paradise, if only because—even at a slower tempo—it still sounds like an extension of White Lung’s previous work. Similarly, the album’s first single “Hungry” has an edgier sound to it, but one that’s less immediately aggressive than usual. With Paradise, Barber-Way, William and drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou teamed up with veteran alt-rock producer Lars Stalfors, whose credits also include albums by The Mars Volta, HEALTH and Matt and Kim. As a result it’s their biggest sounding record yet.
Dramatic examples aside, even when White Lung are firing on all cylinders and powered by punk fury, the details are often what stand out.
The low end in opening track “Dead Weight” feels massive and consuming, while William’s guitar effects on “Narcoleptic” are dreamy and hypnotic despite the general sense that the song could punch a hole clean through a brick wall. For her part, Barber-Way sounds even more dynamic as a vocalist than ever before, hitting even higher notes and showcasing a wider range in songs about serial killers, fading beauty and fucked-up white trash love.
Barber-Way—who outside of performing also writes a sex column for Vice called “Muff Stuff”—says that, in order to surpass what they’ve done before, it was important to embrace modern technology and recording techniques, rather than to get stuck in the rut of romanticizing an obsolete idea of how to make records.
“There was this interview with Jimmy Page where he was like, ‘Yeah, of course, we were using all of the technology we had available at that moment to make the craziest thing we could,’” she says. “And I’m not equating us with Zeppelin in any way, but this mentality of making something sound vintage or old, I just don’t get it. Why would you want to do that? You have all this money to do something great, why not just use it and make it weird and great?”
For how much effort White Lung have put into updating their studio creations, they’re still, at heart, a punk band. They play loud and fast, they deliver blistering live performances, and they’re likely not going to let off the intensity any time soon—even if they do manage to write a hit.
“That’s how we play together. That’s what we do really well, that’s what makes the best live songs. That’s the thing we do best, the three of us,” she says. “A song like ‘Paradise,’ which I think we wrote in the studio in like 20 minutes, it’s my favorite song on the record. Kenny played his part, and I went into the booth and was like ‘I know exactly what I’m going to do.’ I don’t think we’re going to lose the 238 BPMs because that’s how Anne-Marie drums. That’s still in there, and it’s probably never going to go away.”
Barber-Way is serious about the importance of growing in a band, but shrugs off the idea that White Lung have gone “pop” by any dramatic measure. White Lung are continuing to expand on the foundation they’ve already built via their more abrasive first three albums. And if that’s a problem with any of their fans, well, it’s sure not a problem with her.
“It’s really not that crazy of a change, you know,” she says. “I think people are blowing it out of proportion. Doing the same thing each time is so boring. But if you don’t like this one, our old records are still available and you can listen to those.”
White Lung plays July 9 at The Casbah