In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
White Denim’s Steve Terebecki has two clear favorites in his band’s catalog. The rest is a tie for third in his mind.
“I hate to put numbers on things,” the bassist/vocalist explains. “It's like ranking your babies or something.”
Under duress, he made some distinctions between his albums for this interview, and broke up the four-way tie. He’s slightly less trepidatious, however, when discussing the just-released album, Performance. The psych-rock band was able to do overdubs and all the mixing for the new album at their new Austin space, Radio Milk Recording Company, which Terebecki says they were still assembling while mixing the album.
“Right now, I'm feeling pretty good about it,” he says of Performance. “It's the first record that we've fully produced ourselves since Last Day of Summer, so it's fun to sort of take back the reins and make all the little decisions on the record. So it's up there right now.”
Noisey: This was your first record after [drummer] Josh Block and [guitarist] Austin Jenkins left the band. How did that impact the recording process?
Steve Terebecki: Well, more or less, we just did way more pre-production with those guys. I'd say I think it was five of those songs that we recorded on Stiff, we had completely demoed out and played on the road for three or four months before we got into the studio, so we pestered them pretty hard to make sure that they could do it. [Laughs] So yeah, that was definitely new, and we worked fully with Ethan Johns on the record, so he was in the room the whole time and we were sort of leaning on him a little bit for some arrangement ideas. But he was just so enthusiastic about everything. We'd play a song for him and we'd be like, "Well, what do you think?" and he'd be like, "That's the tune!" So we were like "Alright." It's definitely more of a straightforward rock 'n' roll record for us, but I think it's good for that.
I read an interview where [singer] James Petralli said he felt like the band needed to go back to basics on this record. Did you feel that way too?
Yeah. I mean, you know, I think that, in spirit, that's what we wanted to do, but we were making the record in such a different way from the early records that I think the spirit of the songs and stuff, we wanted it to be like that, like a little bit more raw. Like when we played the early songs live, it was just really like a lot of energy and everything like that, and I think that's what he was talking about for this record. But as far as how we actually recorded it, you know, it was in a nice studio with a producer, so it was way different from three drunk dudes in a trailer. But yeah, I mean, I think that the energy of the record definitely speaks to the early stuff.
You mentioned Ethan Johns earlier. Tell me a little bit more about what it was like working with him on this one and how that shaped the experience.
It was an amazing learning experience. You know, he's been making records for a super long time and made tons of great records, so just hearing him share his stories, it was inspiring. He was just a big fan of the full band getting a really great live take. There wasn't a ton of editing. We left a ton of mistakes on the record. [Laughs] Which is really cool. Normally we would iron a lot of the big ones out, but on that record, we kind of just let stuff fly, which as a whole was a really interesting and different way to approach it. But yeah, he brought this engineer named Dom Monks from Real World Studios, which is Peter Gabriel's studio. This guy, he was just so insanely talented with getting sound really quickly, so we all felt really excited about the sound. I mean, it sounded like we were playing a record when we were playing in headphones, which is also pretty different for us.
Is there anything on this record that looking back, you'd do differently? Or what made you rank it in these bottom four?
You know, I always say that the reason it landed where it did was because of how much driving I had to do. [Laughs] We rented this house that was about 45 minutes away, and three of the guys—Josh, Austin, and our engineer Jim—they were staying out there, but James and I, we drove to and from the studio every day, so it was just lots of car time, and I think that while it was happening I didn't really care, but in retrospect I think that really exhausted me. But that aside, I love all those songs. I love listening to the record and, you know, the first two songs that we recorded for that record were up at The Loft in Chicago with Jeff Tweedy, and that studio is basically like a museum of instruments and amps. And he's a super cool, funny dad-type figure, so we got along with him really well. But that actual place was so distracting because there was so much cool stuff. We walked away after five days with two songs. [Laughs]
What do you think Jeff Tweedy was able to bring out of you guys sonically while you were recording in that space? Do you think being there with him had a big impact on those tracks?
You know, it seems like it did, because the two songs are some of our smoothest-sounding songs. Him and Tom Schick, the engineer they have, both have a pretty slick style. All their songs are really tight, and there's not, like, tons of low end and sub information that we kind of have on a lot of our other records. Jeff and Tom mixed the whole record, but then we had Jim Vollentine, our longtime engineer buddy, he kind of remixed half the songs. So when you listen to the record, you can tell which ones Jim did and which ones Tom did just by how much low end is there.
When this record came out, it seemed like the general critical consensus was that it was a more refined sound for you while still staying true to your aesthetic. How did you feel about that reaction? Was that something you were consciously going for?
Yeah, it's pretty accurate. I mean, it's definitely the least weird record of our first five records. I think that's what the critics were picking up on. All the parts are a little more—I don't want to say straightforward, but they're a little more easy to digest, I guess. A lot of the record was put together in the studio, so a lot of our weird crap from all of our demos didn't leak onto the songs. It was more just getting really good performances and parts in the studio. So I think that was part of the refinement that people heard.
This was your US debut. What were your goals or expectations going into recording it?
Well, more or less, we were just kind of breaking out of music as a hobby, you know? When we first started the band, we would get together on weekends and jam and write parts and record, and a lot of stuff on Exposion was sort of borne of those weekends. We were just kind of partying but also doing what we loved doing, and the limitations that we had with the gear and everything were pretty vast, so we were having to be pretty creative with how we were putting all the songs together and getting the sounds that we wanted and everything like that. But yeah, most of the songs on there are the first things we ever recorded. Lots of exploration.
It's been ten years since it came out. Do you go back and listen to it frequently? How often do you go back and revisit your early stuff?
I've been doing it a little bit more lately because we've been playing with some different drummers and stuff, so to kind of learn the old songs using the records as a reference. Yeah, it's crazy. After ten years, it's a really fun listen in an awesome, "what the hell were we thinking" type of way. [Laughs] It's totally insane, but I think it's a super fun listen. We did a good job in retrospect, despite not having really great gear and stuff.
What made you rank this one where you did? I'm kind of surprised it's not higher, to be honest.
Well, I feel like this is the first time where we recorded at like a nice studio, and I think that we were so nervous about having to watch the clock for the first time that we did a ton of work before the record writing parts and kind of mapping out the songs, how we wanted them to be. So we were maybe for the first time—or only time—overprepared in the studio. We wrote the hell out of that record, I think, and when we went in the studio, we just banged it out super quick. It's a super well-thought-out, well-played kind of record, and I think it turned out really well.
How did it feel to have it included in that 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die book?
It's funny, I just learned that it was in that book yesterday.
Yeah, I couldn't believe it. It's amazing. You know, I know that it was a fan-favorite and that it was well-received and stuff, but yeah, that's a huge honor for sure. Amazing.
So, we're now out of the four records you wanted to have in a tie and into second place, so what is it about this record that you think makes it a cut above the others?
You know, we were still in the trailer, and I think that we had amassed such a large group of songs over the three years of recording bits and pieces of songs, so we kind of put that record together from a lot of good, good pieces that we were into from over the years that we had recorded them. A big thing on that record is we wanted to have like a hard side and a soft side on the record, where side A is the hard side and side B is the soft side. It's sort of risky to roll that way, I think, as far as cohesiveness, but somehow, front to back, the record is super cohesive. There's some of the dirtiest sounds on the record but also some really sweet ones. I just think it's probably our most well-rounded record from everything that we are into or were into as a band. And all the songs on side A that we regularly played live, those songs were sort of the songs that got people's attention. The songs were just suited really well to play live.
I'm assuming the new studio, Radio Milk, is named after "Radio Milk How Can You Stand It." What was it about that song that made you want to name the studio and the production company after it?
Yeah, I think it's as simple as we wrote a bunch of names down, and Radio Milk just sounded really good. [Laughs] We're sort of notoriously bad at naming stuff—or maybe I don't want to say "bad," but we like to choose some ridiculous names for things, like Exposion for example. Everybody still calls that record Explosion, but I noticed that you got it right, so good job. But yeah, more or less, we wanted something that people or at least fans would know it was a White Denim studio without calling it a White Denim studio. So that was part of it for sure. And we liked the name.
What is it about this record that makes you rank it as your best?
I don't know. That record has sort of like a magic to it that I can't put my finger on. That's why I rank it at the top, because there's still a little bit of a mystery to it when I listen to it. And I mean, a lot of the songs on there are just so weird that it's super fun to listen to from front to back. We sort of honed our skills in the trailer—that was the third and final record that we recorded in the trailer—so we really mastered the space and made the best of the space that we could for recording. And there was a little bit, in writing it, of D, where we kind of wrote a lot beforehand, before we recorded it. So there was a lot of consideration with the parts, and we were at the height of our being super weird with our songwriting, so I think that all kind of came through on the record.
Is there anything from this album specifically that you've taken and applied to your subsequent albums? Was there something that kind of clicked for you while you were doing it?
You know, that's the thing. We didn't really do anything drastically different. [Laughs] That's why it's still like a mystery. I mean, we always try to channel the record in one way or another in our songwriting and stuff, but yeah. There's just something about it. And it's funny because a lot of those songs on the record we don't play live because they're so hard to get to sound good. So it's just funny like that. I mean, those songs, they needed so much more than just like four dudes could provide.