In Roman mythology, Janus was the god of gates and doorways, beginnings and endings. Janus had two faces: one that peered backward into the past and one that gazed into the future. Were he double-headed like Janus, Joe Williams (who records under the name “White Williams”) would have pretty impressive views in either direction.
In 2007, Williams' debut full-length album, Smoke, received a fawning review on Pitchfork, ensuring instant credibility with the hipster set. He was also featured in Nylon magazine, among others, and invited to tour with Girl Talk, another Pitchfork favorite.
Such an action-packed past year would seem likely to lead to a bright future, and Williams, speaking from his home in Brooklyn, is eager to talk about what's in store for 2008.
The 24-year-old says one of his first New Year's resolutions is to improve his posture. When ballet is suggested as a surefire way to achieve that, he laughs.
“I guess I could've gone that way when I was a kid,” Williams says. “But I played hockey from when I was 6 or 7. I never wore a cup, and everything's stronger because of it. I have a different kind of confidence. I feel like no matter what, nothing can harm my genitals.”
Another resolution, Williams says, is to chill out.
“I have a tendency to stress out about things,” he clarifies. “I'm always thinking about a bazillion things. I'm hyperactive.”
In spite of his short attention span, Williams insists he's got a knack for keeping resolutions. Last year, he stopped drinking coffee even though his girlfriend at the time worked at a café. He's also been a strict vegetarian since he was 15. But perhaps the greatest proof of his willpower is Smoke, an album he completed entirely on his own.
“The music was made by myself in a bedroom—well, in many bedrooms,” Williams says. “I made the whole record myself. It was strange being by myself and making music, but it was made to satisfy myself. I only showed it to a few friends. There was no signal or anything to make me think that it would have any type of public interest.”
Smoke is a catchy collection of pop influenced by everything from electronic music to glam rock. It's both detached and danceable, with cheeky lyrics and smatterings of electronic frippery—a little bit Bowie and a little bit Beck. It's one of those rare releases that you can listen to all the way through without getting bored. Then again, the ADD-addled Williams doesn't seem to know the meaning of the word.
If Smoke smacks of originality, it may be because it's not spawned from a specific scene, Williams says. In his hometown of Cleveland—breeding ground for cult legends like Rocket from the Tombs, Pere Ubu, Devo and The Dead Boys—Williams started playing in a punk band at age 15. Even then, he says, he was moving in a different musical direction, though few in Cleveland were into the kind of underground electronic music that interested Williams.
After high school, he studied digital design at the University of Cincinnati's esteemed School of Design. But it wasn't the career for him.
“What I learned was rational and scientific,” he explains. “What I do with music is totally irrational.”
He says he aims to elicit this reaction: “What the fuck? Why does that sound exist?”
“I recontextualize sound with software,” he adds. “Editing is so interesting. I like to abuse [software] tools.”
The drawback to relying so heavily on machines is translating the experience to the stage. Watching a guy fiddle with a laptop is a huge bore. When interest in his music began to build, Williams had to put together a band and make the songs work in the context of live performance. Now, he has a standard rock lineup accentuated by samplers and a drum machine.
At 2007's South by Southwest festival, Williams played behind a corrugated, backlit sheet of plastic while a couple of guys set the scene with various cardboard cutouts. The visual component is no longer part of the show.
“That was before I developed what we have now,” he offers vaguely.
At the upcoming Casbah show, part of a U.S. and Canadian tour with Girl Talk and Dan Deacon, the band will mostly play selections from Smoke. When Williams gets back from the tour, he's got remix projects and a new album in the works, but for now, he says he's just focusing on the present.
After all, the guy's only got one head on his shoulders. White Williams plays at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29, with Health and Tribal Tats at The Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd. 619-232-HELL. www.myspace.com/whitewilliams.
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