Though their sound has a lot in common with other New York golden boys like The Walkmen and French Kicks, White Rabbits came together in the college town of Columbia, Missouri, where guitarist-vocalist Greg Roberts met pianist-vocalist Stephen Patterson while both were working in a record store. Brought together by a shared love of reggae and vintage ska acts like The Specials, they spent a year crafting their rhythmically anxious blend of blue-eyed soul and jangly rock before deciding to chuck all their belongings in a van and head for "the biggest city." Almost overnight, they found powerful allies in Say Hey Records and producer Chris Zane (Les Savy Fav, Calla), who helped craft the group's forthcoming debut, Fort Nightly.
The A.V. Club: Your website features song reviews from "Mrs. Doyle's 8th-grade class." How did that happen?
Stephen Patterson: My aunt teaches elementary school in Evanston, Illinois, and it was an assignment for her reading class. She told me about it, and I begged her to give me copies.
AVC: Also on your website, you're reviewed by the puppet cast of Avenue Q. How did that come about?
Greg Roberts: We have no idea. It was a pretty surreal experience. We've been test-marketed with 8th-graders and puppets now.
SP: The puppets love us. And 8th-graders don't.
AVC: It seems like a lot of bands have a trouble finding practice space and moving equipment around in New York. How do you make that work?
GR: Ugh. We definitely run into those problems.
SP: We were fortunate to find a huge loft in Bushwick that we could practice in.
AVC: You all live together?
SP: In this really weird building in the middle of the ghetto. Unbeknownst to us when we moved in, a lot of bands live there, so they don't care if we play late at night.
GR: A lot of guys will escape to girlfriends' houses a few nights a week. We're also experiencing The Great Bedbug Epidemic Of 2007, so all of the mattresses have been thrown out, and people have moved to the couches and benches. It's gone from bad to worse, as far as communal living. It has nothing to do with hygiene. They just show up. You learn a lot about bedbugs when you have them.
AVC: You guys are self-described as "honky-tonk calypso." What does that mean?
GR: That little spot on the MySpace page is always a bit of a damning situation. I feel like we have honky-tonk elements in the piano. We borrow a lot of Caribbean beats.
AVC: Do you listen to calypso?
GR: Absolutely. Jamie [Levinson, drummer] used to work at a record store in Chicago called Dusty Groove, and it's one of the better-known record stores for world music, soul music, reggae. We have a lot of it floating around our house, like this series of compilations called London Is The Place For Me that's a bunch of artists from Trinidad. We like a lot of reggae and soul and girl-group, old rock stuff. Primitive beats that we like to draw from.
AVC: Speaking of beats, how did you end up with two drummers?
SP: As the album was developing, we just kept on adding more and more drums, and playing the songs out live became increasingly difficult. Jamie went to kindergarten with Greg, and he was moving to New York, so it seemed like a very obvious choice to add him. He's a very gifted drummer. He played with The Watchers in Chicago, and James Chance. With myself and Matt [Clark], there were three drummers working on the album, so inevitably, there's going to be a lot of drums.
AVC: Are you guys familiar with Todd Barry's line, "If you're a drummer, and you join a band that already has a drummer, you're an asshole"?
SP: [Laughs.] I second that.
GR: We'll be repeating that from now on.
AVC: How do you split the songwriting duties?
SP: The music arrangements are all six of us collaborating, and it's the same with me and Greg when it comes to melodies and lyrics.
GR: When Steve moved up from drums, I welcomed him with open arms. Pretty much all of my favorite bands have more than one singer, like The Band. I'm really attracted to that aspect of "no frontman."
AVC: What are some lyrical ideas that interest you?
GR: For this record, it was a lot of kitchen-sink drama. Domestic stuff, describing rooms and parties and people.
SP: We tried to take from F. Scott Fitzgerald, like The Great Gatsby. There's definitely a lot of paranoia going on.
GR: Lots of Lost Generation-type stuff.
AVC: Has moving to New York influenced your lyrics? It seems like you have more references to, say, "going downtown," which you might not necessarily have in Missouri.
GR: The record was written pretty soon after we moved here, when we were all still new and a little vulnerable, and maybe defensive or scared.
AVC: It's inevitable that you would draw comparisons with other New York bands like The Walkmen or The Strokes. Does that bother you?
SP: That's the age we live in. It's hard to describe music with words, but you can describe a sound by naming a band, and the point gets across. Fortunately, we've been compared to bands that we all like, so I don't really mind.
AVC: One thing you have in common with those bands is stage attire, which seems particularly well thought-out. Do you have a dress code?
GR: I think it's just that we spent a lot of our younger years looking like jackasses. But I remember hearing something that The Clash's Paul Simonon said, that the band should always look better than the audience.
SP: I'm not gonna say there's a dress code. I'm not gonna, like, slap Jamie if he's wearing a T-shirt.