Bile Oasis: White Lung

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White Lung Frontwoman Mish Way delivers soaring vocals. Photo: Reid Haithcock

White Lung’s Mish Way was running on four hours of sleep. “I just spent the last four days with porn stars in Las Vegas for a story, and I’ve barely slept, so my head is crushed,” she says. “I went to the AVN Awards and AE Expo in Las Vegas to trail Jesse Jane and do a story about the porn industry.” In the midst of her freelance journalism career, Way fronts Vancouver’s White Lung, who play fast-paced punk and deliver vitriol, yet incorporate virtuosic musicianship. Way adds grime to the band, and also conjures a squalid sort of glamour. Aside from her appreciation of photos of Lindsay Lohan and other women who fit a “hot mess” archetype on White Lung’s Tumblr page, Way beautifies the sketchy, drug-marred aspects of 20-something relationships with her language in White Lung’s sophomore release, Sorry: “The toilet frog says you got clean/But I’ve seen you cut and ugly in a little magazine,” reads a verse in “St. Dad.” White Lung have typified a moody catchiness in the music they play, which has earned them and Sorry top-album spots on music critics’ lists in 2012, just in time for SXSW 2013 and a show in Salt Lake City on March 20.

White Lung started in 2006 with Way, bassist Grady Mackintosh, drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou and former guitarist Natasha Reich. Current guitarist Kenneth William rounded out the band in 2009, and they released their debut full-length, It’s the Evil (which Exclaim deemed “Punk Album of the Year”) on June 10, 2010 after a slew of singles. It’s the Evil supplies a hearty dose of hardcore punk in which Way coalesces from despondent singing to gravelly shouts, and William marks his guitar-playing style with slides and erratic but controlled chord changes; the seedlings of Sorry may well be found in the dynamics and aural character of “Sleep Creep” and “Two Seen.”

With Sorry, released May 29 of last year, it was like White Lung pulled the hot lover of every band’s autoerotic wet dream—it’s mysterious, shapely in all the right places and, in relation to It’s the Evil, transcendent. Beginning with Vassiliou’s tom-y intro and William’s anxious melodies found in the high-frequency chords of “Take the Mirror,” the band executes a cohesive record. Over the past eight months, there’s just one word that sticks to how I think of Sorry: bellicose. “Thick Lip,” for instance, marks Vassiliou’s push for faster beats and Mackintosh’s tendency to strum a solid bass note and then spiral along a riff, acting as a sonic fulcrum. Willam tightropes between melody and curvaceous rhythm with his guitar work, which sets the stage for Way to teeter with shouts on the cusp of becoming shrieks, almost in a call-and-response structure with William. In “Bag,” William’s shimmering melodies oblige Way to re-situate her aggression in the form of drawn-out, sonorous crooning that, again, almost breaks, teasing the ear to expect a scream, making her timbre excruciatingly pleasing. What’s more is that William’s playing is simultaneously euphonious and noise-esque, which allows the record a sense of grace amid its punk rock zeal.

“Our creative process can be super painful,” Way says. “Like when you’re a kid and you block out really traumatic events from your memory … I don’t remember writing Sorry, really … Music isn’t like that. It’s like fucking or walking. You just do it and you don’t think.” Way refers to her lyric-writing as “reactionary,” where her language sprouts almost immediately from situations with other people who affront her psyche. Way dissects “Vanity, disconnects, alcoholism, sex, everything,” she says. “I tend to take one event that happened that affected me and sing about it. It’s secret therapy because you’d have no idea [what I’m singing about].” Way obliterates the paper trail of how her life weaves into the music of White Lung, as singular events can potentially be displaced throughout the album, and one song can encompass six different subjects for Way. Poignant images flood Sorry—“Bunny” reads, “You know that I dream of scrubbing your little rotten liver clean/You say you’ll never die, but thin blood just doesn’t lie.” Way’s disjoined illustrations have polished the macabre allure that Vassiliou, Mackintosh and William supply instrumentally.

As Way’s words wax and wane through tenures of working out her vocals, melody acts as a mnemonic device to render and solidify her lyrics. It is here that William shines as a cornerstone for the band’s synergy. Way says, “We usually start with a riff from Kenny and just try to jam and build on it. We all write our own parts, but we make suggestions. Kenny is a very, very intense, original guitar player who’s a genius songwriter. I mean, [in] ‘Glue,’ my chorus is just singing to his guitar part.” Way emphasizes that there is “no dictator” in White Lung and that their equal voices can sometimes contribute to the sense of “pain” that songwriting can incur for the band. Her admiration for William’s musical ingenuity, however, seems to override that pain. In my mistaken suggestion that Sorry might have been recorded with just one guitar track, Way replies, saying, “Kenny does record over-dubbed guitars, but it’s subtle.” In light of this disclosure, it’s clear that the band purposefully works hard to create high-caliber music. On White Lung’s Facebook page, one member had made a post that says, “If LP3 is not better than the last one, I will shoot myself in the head live on David Letterman.” White Lung’s gloomy overtones in their work notwithstanding, severe comments such as these indicate that their work’s crisp character is no accident. “That’s Kenny saying that!” Way says of the Facebook comment. “He’s partly joking, but he’s partly not. Perfectionist. He’s hard on himself. We all are, and that is why we made a good record.” Perhaps self-inflicted pain is White Lung’s MO, as White Lung’s newest, self-titled single, released on their Bandcamp page Oct. 24, 2012, demonstrates the band’s continued style, but shows signs of growth. In “Two Of You,” Way exhibits another take on her vocal styling where she ensconces a sultry, dirty rasp. “Hunting Holiday” features William’s iridescent, sliding guitar playing, but the post-production effects in the recording seem toned down, which clarifies that William has come into his own technical style. Way says, “The next LP should show growth. We should remain White Lung while still experimenting and growing (sonically) and making stronger songs.” If their self-titled EP is any indication of what’s to come for the next full-length, they’re well on their way.

In a live setting, White Lung poise themselves for eruption. Way’s capstone for “therapy” would seem to be the act of performance, wherein she can work her language in a visceral manner. “Onstage, it’s more vulgar, exposed and freeing. Of course, I am self-aware, but onstage is the one place where I can explode all my anger, frustration and just scream, and people accept it. I take advantage of that,” she says. Additionally, Way’s vigorous work ethic as a freelance writer is a foil to her stage presence. “There [are] two parts of me: work versus play,” says Way. “I am a very self-disciplined and responsible person. I work hard, and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be paying my bills doing two things I love, [writing and playing music].” Way allows her “play” side to seep through in her online persona via her articles for FFWD Weekly, The Georgia Straight, Noisey and VICE magazine, interviews and the aforementioned porn star story, it would seem, and openly celebrates the idea of cultural figures like Lohan and Courtney Love as people. “I think I like hot messes and am intrigued by them because half of me is one. I have a hot mess in me,” Way says. White Lung’s stark sense of structure serves as a vehicle for Way to release and be animal amid her push for success, which likely contributes to the band’s appeal. Of course, Way isn’t limited to the “hot mess” trope, nor the genre entrapments that surround a band mainly consisting of females and a frontwoman (à la all that’s been made out of the influence of Hole and Love on Way): “I listen to more than just ’90s girl shit. I want to clear that,” Way says. “Current records out by [my] turntable: Janis Joplin, American Snakeskin, Fang, Mariah Carey. I also think Danny Brown is genius.” Like their music, White Lung evade classification of themselves as people. Way says, “Our jokes are dumb. We can be wildly immature and perverted, and we just make fun of one another all the time. That’s how we communicate. People don’t understand it.”

SXSW 2013 marks White Lung’s first visit to the festival. Although Way offhandedly insists that the only reason she’s going is to see Danny Brown, a performance at SXSW is indicative of upward mobility for a band, and Way appears humbly tickled by White Lung’s success. She says, “You know what Liam Gallagher once said? ‘Any band who says they don’t want to be as a big as The Beatles is full of shit.’ There’s some truth in that. Everyone wants their work to be appreciated and to be a ‘rock star’ because we are taught that this is the ultimate accomplishment. However, the reality of it is not the fantasy engrained in our brains. I just want to make good records and pay my rent. We’ll see what happens.”

This month will also welcome White Lung to Salt Lake City for the first time. “I have no idea what to expect there!” Way says. “I don’t even know anyone in that city, so it’s, like, totally new territory.” As White Lung have imprinted a fresh take on what punk rock can be, March 20’s show at The Shred Shed with Foster Body, Creative Adult and Filth Lords will surely garner lasting first impressions—hot, messy and fucked.

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