Interview: White Lies

UK trio White Lies nails their debut, To Lose My Life, with a little help from studio stars Ed Buller, Max Dingel and Alan Moulder. Some kids have all the luck
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From left: Jack Lawrence-Brown, Charles Cave, Harry McVeigh (Photo by Steve Gullick)

Ah, youth. Sometimes it takes the pure bombast and fearlessness of being in your twenties to craft a sound that so obviously borrows from the past yet places you firmly in the present. But sometimes it also takes just such a musical ambassador to not only appeal to the younger generation but also tug on the emotional memories of the over-30 crowd. Fortunately, both factions have an envoy in White Lies.

Hailing from West London, White Lies are Charles Cave (lyrics, bass, backing vocals), Harry McVeigh (vocals, guitar) and Jack Lawrence-Brown (drums). The trio's debut album, To Lose My Life (Fiction/Geffen, 2009), is a dark rumination on love and death, punctuated by huge, soaring choruses and powerful riffs. With nods to everyone from Duran Duran, The Outfield and Echo & the Bunnymen to The Cult and Clan of Xymox, White Lies' To Lose My Life is a bit of a deathrock guilty pleasure, but excellent songcraft and deft storytelling overcome any true feelings of derision.

And with production powerhouses Ed Buller (Suede, Pulp) and Max Dingel (Secret Machines, Killers) and engineering legend Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, NIN) behind the boards, White Lies have serious studio cred from the outset. Remix talks with lyricist/bassist Cave to get the story behind the recording.

Before taking the name White Lies, you were called Fear of Flying. You decided to change the band's name while writing the track "Unfinished Business." What was it about that song that motivated you to completely change tack as a band?
I think whilst the song itself—in construction, melody and instrumentation—did indeed inspire us to make a change, it was the mentality we had whilst writing that song and the result of it that was the real catalyst. We had finally got out of the teenage creative prison of worrying “what everyone''s going to think” and whether or not it''s cool. “Unfinished Business” was the first song we wrote truly for the love of music and to finally attempt to satisfy our own creative insecurities and strive for greatness in music.

Did any of your older Fear of Flying material come along with the transformation? If so, how did you adapt it for your new sound?
“Farewell to the Fairground” was a song we began working on about a month before “Unfinished Business.” We had most of the lyrics and a rough structure, but it was muddled. We didn''t look at it again until the recording for the album began and then reworked it and chiseled it down until it is what you hear today. Ironically, it is probably my least favorite song. However, I feel there are some great ideas in there, and I am very happy with the harmonies.

Do you work out song ideas together from scratch as a band, or does each of you bring in somewhat fleshed-out ideas to build from?
There are never fleshed-out ideas. Ever. We each bring vital ingredients to the process. It always starts with lyrics. Once I am happy with my lyrics and feel Harry will find them inspiring enough to want to soundtrack them with the music, then we sit down together at his house and write a song. Writing a song for us is not too hard. We have taken six years to get good at that. What is hard, depressing and totally random is the arranging of it. That can take forever.

Given that you write the lyrics, do you also write the vocal melodies?
No, very rarely. I find my emotional attachment to the lyrics can be detrimental to making them musical. To me, they are neatly arranged words, and sometimes every single word in a verse holds a special significance and personal allusion to me and my life. It''s amazing for me to hand them to Harry and sit next to him as he sings what comes naturally as he makes an instant reaction to the words and his interpretation. [With] “Unfinished Business,” for example, I remember handing him the sheet of lyrics, and he just looked at it, played an E major chord on the organ and sang, “Just give me a second” exactly as it is today.

Do you have a recording setup of your own that you used to create demos for the album?
No. We did a couple of demos before the album—“From the Stars” and “E.S.T.”—but over half the songs on the album were written in the studio as we recorded the album. So there was no time to demo them before, as they didn''t exist. We''re very much about capturing something spontaneous and magical when we record, and doing things over and over again can kill it. So, so, so many times, I have seen bands make demos that sound brilliant, then rerecord everything for an album and lose all the magic. I won''t mention any names.

We wrote “A Place to Hide,” “Fifty on Our Foreheads,” “Nothing to Give,” “The Price of Love” and “To Lose My Life” after we had arrived [at ICP Studios, Brussels] in Belgium to record the album, [though] “Nothing to Give” and “Fifty on Our Foreheads” did not come about until the final weeks.

What are your thoughts on getting the opportunity to work with the likes of Ed Buller and Alan Moulder for your debut album? No doubt, your sound fits in perfectly with these studio legends—was it your intention to work with them from the beginning?

No. The album was co-produced by Ed Buller and Max Dingel. We knew Max from way back and were sure we wanted him with us from day one. Ed was a late inspiration. We got pushed into a studio with him to do a demo for a B-side and just hit it off. He has skills and experience that are very rare in producers these days. He arranged the strings with us for the record and was very trustworthy and wise in commenting on song development in the writing process.

Alan Moulder was the cherry on the cake. He is probably one of the greatest living mix engineers and an amazingly creative one, too. He puts his stamp on everything sonically, and we love that. We love to collaborate. We have been very lucky, but in our defense, none of these people would have worked with us if they hadn''t believed in the music 100 percent—especially Alan.

How long were you in the studio? Did Buller and Dingel primarily have you record your parts separately, or did they record you playing live?

We spent just over four weeks in Belgium, then another four [at Kore Studios, Acton] in London. We did a lot of live tracking and then overdubbing, too, as half the album was unrehearsed, and we were still writing and arranging as we went on. It was not always possible to play from start to finish as a full band and keep it all. We kept getting new ideas we wanted to try on top of other things.

Describe the guitar tones on this record. Was there anything out of the ordinary you used?

The main heavy sound was a surprise setup: It came straight out of an old Marshall JMP with no effects at all. Harry also used a 2-watt Zvex amp for some wild fuzz and an amazing Kendrick reverb unit. On the bass, we used an old Ampeg guitar head for the top end of the sound and an Ampeg SVTR for the main bulk. We also tracked the bass through Max''s modular and recorded a superlow sub on everything in case we needed it in mixing. I also played everything with a metal pick.

Keyboard and synthwise, what did you reach for?
We wanted organic string sounds, nothing too processed. We didn''t use any synths, per say. It was all fairly natural. The melody sounds were inspired by Get Carter. It''s a kind of harpsichord put through distortion and reverb and a soft woody sound underneath, too.

Which track was the most interesting, difficult or fun to record?

“Death” was tricky because we had made a great demo of it that a lot of people loved. We wanted to keep a lot of it but record new parts, too, including drums. This was a huge pain because we hadn''t done the demo to a click. “Price of Love” was great fun—we were all really into that song from day one, and it had the most elaborate string arrangement on it.

What lessons did you learn through this first major recording process? Did you encounter anything unexpected?
So many lessons: the importance of being prepared but not too prepared. We learned that we work best under pressure and can work quickly when we try. We often get the best results that way. I expect the second album will be written and recorded in a fairly short period of time, too. Fingers crossed.

You guys have taken the UK by storm. How do you feel you have been received here in the U.S.?
Very well so far. We each got a golden handshake with David Letterman after our performance on [his show]. And we had a great tour recently, including Coachella. We''re coming back in September for something very special indeed, which I can''t announce yet. But so far, so good, and I would personally like to thank everyone who bought our album. We have been really touched by the international love for our music so far.

What''s next for White Lies?
Tour, tour, tour, festivals, tour, tour, Christmas, tour, new album. Rinse, repeat.