The artist: The Brooklyn-by-way-of-Missouri band White Rabbits has had a quick evolution since its 2007 debut, Fort Nightly, which married rollicking ragtime indie-rock with a dark-calypso-by-way-of-Danny-Elfman vibe. Hiring Spoon’s Britt Daniel to produce 2009’s It’s Frightening proved to be the band’s most important creative boost to date, as well as its biggest burden: The resulting album slashed and refined their sound to a ragged cool familiar from Daniel’s work, but it also ensured that White Rabbits would see comparisons to Spoon crop up in every article written about them ever after. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.) But even as they continue along that trajectory with the new Milk Famous, White Rabbits have become more experimental with each trip to the studio, crafting an insidious, spectral assemblage of songs filled with understated soulfulness, unpredictable arrangements, and a deliciously creeping sense of unease that’s quickly becoming unique. Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Patterson talked about that evolution by revisiting his band’s history so far, in song. (And those of you at SXSW can experience it firsthand when White Rabbits headlines The A.V. Club’s day party.)
The first song:
Stephen Patterson: We wrote some songs back when we were in Columbia, Missouri. We were a band there for like a year, but it was a very different sort of lineup. I was playing drums, and I don’t think Matt [Clark, drummer] was in the band until the tail end of that year. But I do remember the first song that I felt like, “Wow, I just wrote a song”—like, “I did that”—was “Kid On My Shoulders.” Really just sitting down and writing a song, trying to do something in a practice space, trying to figure it out, that feels to me like the first song I ever wrote. And I still like it.
We actually just came up with a new version of that song, a new take on it. We’ve been playing that song longer than we’ve been playing basically any other song, and it was just getting stale. But we figured out some new arrangements that fit the set and gets us more excited about it. It’s really kind of thrilling whenever you can do that, especially with older material. You find that stuff is pretty versatile. There are a lot of songs that require being played a certain way—like, if you don’t have this guitar part, it doesn’t work, or if you don’t have this drumbeat, it doesn’t work. Some songs don’t work in any other way than in the way they are recorded. But I actually like the new version for this one. And yeah, it was the first song I ever wrote.
The A.V. Club: How did it come together? It seems like the piano riff had to come first.
SP: Yeah, the first thing was the piano riff, and then the guitar part came from the vocal melody. It came together really fast. I remember the “Boy, where are you hiding?” part was really just improvised the first time we ran through it. And the outro—there’s that part at the end that’s sort of a chant? If there were one thing I would change, I would maybe shorten that. [Laughs.] I remember walking to my girlfriend’s house in Brooklyn, and I had that piano loop stuck in my head, and the song just sort of came to me. I remember whistling it or something. Before that, I didn’t realize that you could write music like that, that you don’t have to be sitting down with an instrument. I’d heard musicians say stuff like, “It came to me while I was driving.” But that had never happened to me before that.
AVC: Has it ever happened again?
SP: Oh yeah, it’s easier now. I think that there are a lot of moments, definitely on Fort Nightly, where the things that would come naturally to me, I would resist them. But I’ve gotten over that. A lot of the time, where it is at the beginning is the best place for it to end up. And it makes writing a lot faster. I learned a lot from that song. Some people can just sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and say, “Okay, I want to write a song about this.” But I really can’t do that. I just have to sit there—usually with a guitar—and I put a drumbeat on loop in the background. Then I just play and sing and I record it, and if I find a good moment, I’ll expand on that. And I learned that from “Kid On My Shoulders.”
The best song:
SP: That question is tough, because we just finished this record, and I’m very proud of a lot of the songs. [Pauses.] I think “I Had It Coming” might be the best song I’ve ever written. It’s definitely the most enjoyable song for me to sing in the live set. I like the lyrics a lot. I find myself not thinking about the music side of it, but really just thinking about the lyrics and the melody. It’s really simple, too, so I think I really like it because of that. That’s the hardest thing to do, for me at least—to come up with a really simple melody that makes you feel something. It has a good feel to me.
AVC: What kind of feelings does it evoke in you?
SP: I think it maybe calms me down or something. It has a reassuring feeling to me. A feeling of comfort. [Pauses.] It’s a tough question, man. [Laughs.] I’m also really, really proud of “Heavy Metal,” but that’s more of an arrangement. But that song, when I listen to that, I’m like, “I can’t believe that was something I was involved with.” I’m really proud of it. The same goes for “Danny Come Inside,” too. There are a lot of new songs that I’m really attached to or that I feel really proud of, since we just finished the record, and I’m not sick of the songs yet.
AVC: So you put the best song you’ve ever written at the very end of the album?
SP: Yeah, that’s true. A strong finish. [Laughs.] Yeah, I mean, that’s why we put it there! So people will listen all the way through.
The worst song:
SP: I remember starting—but never finishing, thank God—a song when I was 12 or 13 called “Poser.” Me and my friend were fighting over a girl, but I had my sights set on her waaay before he did. So it really pissed me off when he started going after her too. Looking back, I think the real reason I was angry was that I knew I didn’t stand a chance next to him. I still had braces, a bland haircut, and thin-rimmed glasses with really thick lenses. Anyway, if I remember correctly, the chorus went, “Nobody knows her like I knows her / Nobody chose her ’til I chose her / Everybody can see it / You’ll just repeat it / Cuz you are just a poser.” [Laughs.] Real top-notch stuff.
The last song:
SP: The last song I wrote was actually titled “Milk Famous.” It’s called “Milk Famous,” but it’s not actually on Milk Famous; we actually just got it mastered last night, so it should be coming out soon. We recorded it at a studio in Philly after we finished the record in Austin. It’s a completely improvised vocal take, tracked three times. And this is going to sound so pretentious, but I actually think it might be the best thing I’ve ever done. The vocals are slowed down, and I recorded three improvised vocal tracks over a tape. And I had a set of lyrics that I was reciting, but there was no form or anything. For lack of a better term, it has a spoken-word kind of feel. And yeah, that was the last song we recorded. It actually made me think differently about how I should be writing.
AVC: It seems like each album has had some sort of drastic change in your approach to writing. It’s Frightening was much more minimalist and punchier than Fort Nightly, while this record feels like you really focused on building songs around sounds, rather than vice versa.
SP: We never really settle on something. We get bored easily, and we always want to try something different. Hopefully it ends up feeling new. It’s never a preconceived thing, though. We go into the studio and record, and it could be influenced by anything—how late you stayed up the night before, how you’re feeling that day. You don’t just go in with a vision. The vision always changes. I think we just have a tendency that, if we’re writing a song and it sounds too much like something else we’ve already done, we change it. And that isn’t always a concern for a lot of bands—even though there are a lot of records that I like where all the songs sound the same. It’s also more that there are a lot of us in the band, the five of us have been playing together for a while now, and we can jump around between instruments. We look at the band as, you know, we can do whatever with it. We don’t feel locked into a certain sound or a certain setup. We feel unrestricted.
And yeah, we find it difficult to have a consistent thing, I suppose. I actually feel like the writing always seems the same—to me, at least. Like, if you were just to play that on the guitar, it still sounds like something we would write. And there are plenty of songs on this record that you can see how we got here form Fort Nightly. The arrangement has changed, and we’re excited by different types of music than we were back then, but the writing is very similar. You learn things along the way. But it’s still you writing the songs, so for me, there is a consistence between all three of the albums that we’ve put out.
Look at when The Beatles put out Sgt. Pepper’s after Revolver. It was such a big change in sound. And then they put out Magical Mystery Tour after that, and Magical Mystery Tour didn’t make as big of a splash because it wasn’t such a huge change. But that was a fucking rad album. And my dad would always say, when we were listening to albums—I don’t care who it was, it could have been the fucking Doobie Brothers—but he would always say, “I love how this song is different from that one.” And that’s something that’s always been in my head ever since, come to think about it. It became a positive association.