White Rabbits Interview (w/ Steve Patterson)

Aural States chats with White Rabbits’ vocalist and pianist Steve Patterson. Full interview after the jump.

Photo Credit Karen Chan/Spin.com

AS: Describe the history of the group and its formation. When, where, how, why?

SP: We all met in Columbia, Missouri. A few of us went to school there. Me and Greg, we worked in a record store together. The band was functioning in one form or another for about a year before we moved to New York in June 2005. About 6 months after our move to New York, Jamie, the guy playing drums in the center at the Ottobar, joined after moving to Brooklyn from Madison.

AS:What prompted the move? Did Say Hey offer you a contract?

SP:Nah, a few of us had graduated from college and it seemed a good time to move. We wanted to pursue the band full time and as you can probably imagine, it’s a bit hard to get attention in the middle of Missouri. So, as much as we loved Columbia, we decided to move to Brooklyn.

AS:Your sound is fairly distinctive, with a tendency towards a world music lining. What has influenced the evolution of your sound?

SP:So much has gone into it. I used to play drums when we were in Columbia, Matt, the drummer on the right in Baltimore, used to play keys. We got to Brooklyn and after a while, things were moving too slowly. So we decided to switch it up. I switched to keys, started sharing vocal duties, and played drums on the fly. Actually, I guess that’s more about how we came to our live arrangement.

I think the sound was just the way the record shaped up. With some things, it became difficult to pull off stuff live and that played a role in it. And we were all really into Squeeze, and the Specials so they were big influences.

We all listen to all kinds of music, but given that alot of us are drummers, we’re really into rhythmically driven stuff. Jamie worked in Chicago at this record shop called the Dusty Groove. It’s a pretty famous world music record store and he brought a lot of that to the table. And with 2 drum sets, alot of the music comes across that way. That music (world) is more traditionally oriented to rhythm.

AS:Your piano playing is also an integral part of the sound. It goes from a demented, saloon-style to improv jazz, even twinkling Carribean keys like a marimba. What influenced your style of playing?

SP:I went to school for music and did mostly jazz drumming. I had to learn some piano as part of my program. I maybe took lessons for 3 months. I’m a big fan of Dr John, Randy Newman. But I basically approach the piano like a bunch of drums.

AS:I hear alot of different aspects of the Specials influencing your music. What really made me first take notice was when you pulled out “Maggie’s Farm,” which seems to take the Specials cover and build on it. As well as the backing chorus of “March of the Camels” which is similar in style to those of “Ghost Town,” along with its unmistakable ska guitar upstrokes. What is your take on their music and their influence on your sound?

SP:We’re definitely going for that sound, and the “March of the Camels” thing is one of the more obvious ones. And our cover of “Maggie’s Farm” is basically us covering the Specials cover.

I’ve always really liked their second album, More Specials. I thought it was great that they could include these overtly minor key songs and yet still have this playfulness to it. That sound was always attractive to me. The typical ska guitar upstroke is in alot of our tracks. But Jerry Dammers, he would just throw in the most dissonant chords wherever he wanted; it’s bold and it sounds great. We like alot of that stuff, so it was a huge influence on us.

AS:Would you say they are your main influence? Are there others from ska or that era?

SP:Lyrically, me and Greg were really into Squeeze, Chris Difford, Randy Newman, and telling kitchen sink sort of stories. A big influence for me was Steve Nieve, pianist for the Attractions. I couldn’t touch what he does, but there are things that he does that I try to mimic. Those are the big touchstones, along with old soul records.

AS:Let’s talk some about your debut LP, “Fort Nightly.” How did the album come together? Were there any overarching themes?

SP:The big picture didn’t make itself apparent until after we were done. All 11 tracks were started before we were ready to step back and able to look at the whole. When we were writing, we would build off the previous song. That makes it easier to have a cohesive album. Finding ways to piece things together, like somehow relate “Dinner Party” with “Take A Walk…” The album came really quickly. It was done after about a month and half.

With the album, we really just wanted to go from one place to the next seamlessly. There is no real main, overarching theme lyrically…although I’ve heard a few people call it a concept album. But it’s really more of a, I don’t want to say emotional theme, but more mood based.

AS:I can definitely see that progression. A lot of the album is spent in minor key like you mentioned appreciating in the Specials. That gives it a real haunting, mysterious quality.

SP:And the great thing about the Specials is that they can do that stuff but still make songs that are playful. That’s what we tried to do…I don’t know if we succeeded, that’s up for you guys to decide.

AS:“Kid on my shoulders” and “take a walk around the table” are, for me, two songs that best encapsulate your style and sound. If you were to pick a single to represent you to the masses, which would it be? What is your favorite track to play off the album and why?

SP:Yeah, “Take a Walk…” seems to be one that isn’t noticed alot by listeners but all the guys are really proud of it. And it probably best represents our sound. As for favorite tracks to play, we’ve been touring playing the same material for almost a year now so we are getting tired of alot of the songs. But I would say that “Take a Walk…” is still the most enjoyable too. But definitely not “The Plot.” We don’t really enjoy playing that one anymore.

And you know, the Baltimore show is the last time we’re going to play “Maggie’s Farm.” We’ve played it too much and I think it’s time to move on to some new material.

AS:Any new covers being shopped up for performance?

SP:You know, there’s this Richard Thompson song that’s probably too serious for us to be able to play. It’s on “I want to see the bright lights tonight,” the second track I think. “Calvary Cross”. I think it’d be great live. We did a Pogues cover, “Old main drag” from Sodomy and the lash. Also, Hamilton from the Walkmen suggested we cover another Specials’ track from More Specials, “I can’t stand it.”

AS:When my friend and I saw you at the Ottobar, he commented it seemed like you might have been in a screamo, hardcore, or post-hardcore band based off your vocal delivery. What is your musical history with bands?

SP:Haha, well nearly everyone we know was in bad punk bands when we were in high school. And we are guilty of that too. Maybe it comes from being a little too overzealous in the live show.

AS:I thought it provided good contrast between your vocals and Greg’s smoother vocals.

SP:Actually, people have said Greg and I sound really similar so I’m glad that you think we sound different.

AS:Your live show is an absolutely ferocious affair. You guys really build quite a cacophony. How long have you been touring and working on your live show?

SP:Thanks, it really takes tons of time. We rehearse alot. The Walkmen was the last tour we’ve done at the end of probably 7 or 8 months of touring. I think we really got things together after our first big tour of the states. I know for a fact that this year we’ve been playing alot more than we’ve ever played, obviously supporting Fort Nightly.

AS:At one time, you guys had no less than 3 members percussing something. I heard the beginnings of some potentially excellent African drum/Afrobeat songs…is this in your future?

SP:We’ve thought about doing instrumental tracks, but nah. Our sole priority is writing songs. Pop songs essentially. Trying to attempt to steer them in interesting directions.

AS:Are you guys considering diversifying your instrumentation? Adding some different kinds of drums or a horn section?

SP:I think we need to hire some roadies first with all the stuff we already have right now. When we are in New York, we get a few guys up on stage with us to play horns. I think at the last Bowery show. But that’s only when we’re in town and our friends come up. I can definitely say there will be some horns on the next album. But that’s a different story than playing live.

AS:You mentioned you just finished your tour with the Walkmen. How was that experience? Did you know them beforehand?

SP:We had some mutual friends. We are booked by the same guy. The tour was ridiculously cold, and fun. But the cold kind of zapped the energy out of us at times. Overall, a good time. The shows were really well attended and they are great guys.

AS:What have you been listening to near the end of the tour? Any surprises and new music from other openers?

SP:A lot of the Coasters lately. Gabe, our sound man, used to do sound for Antibalas so their Afrobeat has been on. I’m in love with the latest Spoon and Radiohead, just like everyone else. Actually, I’ve been listening to more Specials the past few days.

Other openers were great and we knew them. White Denim, a band from Austin, great guys and players, they opened in Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago. The Subjects are really good friends, and share our rehearsal space. So not really any surprises there.

AS:What are your plans for the rest of this year?

SP:We just finished making touring plans. We’ll be going to SXSW briefly. And touring again in the spring before going on some UK dates. We’ll be writing and recording over the next month and a half. Hopefully finishing recording the album by July.

AS:How much of the new album/material is done?

We have like 5 or 6 new ones, playing 3 or 4 out there now. So that’s potentially half the new record written if they all make it.

AS:Themes and sound?

We are basically building off Fort Nightly, using what we thought worked. Going a little bit less epic. Trying to get more of the live energy, get things a bit more raw and edgy. It’s tricky because alot of times it seems forced. We were wet behind the ears on that first record. We had alot of amazing ideas, but we weren’t the players that we are now.

AS:You’ve played DC at least 3 times in 2007 and Baltimore once. Are we scheduled for another area appearance in the coming tour?

I think so, in the spring. Not sure it’ll be Baltimore, but we are tentatively scheduled in DC.

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