White Denim have an advantage at the South by Southwest festival, what with being Texan locals, and have played there several times. Austin Jenkins, the Southern garage rockers’ guitarist, has a pretty good idea of what it’s like. The annual festival transforms Austin – the city where it takes place, not the guy I’m talking to – into a frantic flurry of people racing from stage to stage each day, and things can get pretty hectic for the bands as well. Soon after joining White Denim in 2010, Jenkins played 11 shows over the course of three days at that year’s festival. “We played in a giant Doritos vending machine one time,” he casually adds, as if that’s not the most amazing detail.
As SXSW attracts more and bigger corporate sponsors, the stages get more outlandish. Doritos’ ‘Jacked’ stage was over 17 metres high and had the band playing in the bottom section of a vending machine – the bit where your chips comes out – with three levels above that where packets of Doritos bigger than people hung from pegs, as if you could buy one for $3.50 and then live like a king. “It’s almost like a Vegas kind of spectacle,” says Jenkins.
Cramming in almost a dozen shows like that over three days isn’t easy, but fortunately the showcase sets tend to be a bit shorter. “Sometimes they’re so short that they’re over before you realise they really happened,” Jenkins says. “Yeah, I’d say pacing yourself is a good thing. Usually it’s hot as all hell when South by Southwest hits as well. You’ve got to make sure that you have a healthy mix of water as well as beer, and then I think the adrenaline’s pumping so hard that it just rolls you through it.”
Those gigs earned White Denim a reputation for no-frills rocking out. Wasting no time, they’d barrel through their songs one after the other, with plenty of energy. “It’s not like GG Allin-crazy or anything like that,” Jenkins says of their live show, “but we used to not stop playing at all. We would just play continuously for however long the amount of time was, so if there was 45 minutes we would play 45 straight.” They’ve learned to slow down a little in the last few years, however. “Now we’re putting more pauses into the set just to give us a rest. It could be pretty assaulting at times I guess.”
The new outlook is helped along by the mellower songs on their latest album, Corsicana Lemonade. In the past they tended towards blues rock blasts with diversions into surprisingly complicated math-rock fiddliness, and while the new album is still upbeat, it’s also more classically structured, drawing on influences that have them sounding, to Australian ears at least, surprisingly like Powderfinger at times. “You can be mellow in those tunes even though they’re upbeat, I agree with that for sure,” says Jenkins. “They’ve lent themselves a little bit more to some space … Lately we’ve been interested in putting together medleys of songs; we were going, like, ‘Let’s put four songs in a row from four different albums.’ We’ve been trying to have some fun like that, mixing that into it. It’s just, the more material you have the more you get to paint with.”
Two of the songs on Corsicana Lemonade were recorded with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco after White Denim supported them on tour. They travelled to Chicago to work in the Loft, Wilco’s studio, and recorded ‘A Place To Start’ and ‘Distant Relative Salute’, which laid the foundations for how they’d work on the rest of the album. “If someone wanted to do an overdub, [Tweedy] would say, ‘Picture this person onstage playing this, is this someone that’s in the band actually playing the part or is this filler?’ It showed the need to think about overdubs in a more limited kind of sense, then also to really hone down what was integral to each track. I wouldn’t say [he’s] a minimalist or anything like that but he’s really got a refined sense of purpose for each instrument and each voice on a song.” After that they travelled back to Texas and built their own studio in a house overlooking a cliff. Inspired by the open floor plan of Wilco’s they created something similar, although with a vital Southern touch. “Barbecue. We barbecued a lot of meat out there on the patio. That was pretty essential.”
Having been in White Denim for three years now, Jenkins has become an integral part of the band, but he modestly downplays his own contribution to the group’s direction. “Oh shoot, I don’t know if I’ve had much of an influence at all. I think I’m just catching up! These guys were such a heavy and intense trio, one of my favourite groups to see in Austin. I think I saw them the first day I moved to Austin and they just blew my mind. I think of it like learning a language; they had their own language developed and I’ve just gotten to get inside of it and learn it from there. I don’t know if I’ve influenced them in any way – they’ve definitely influenced me. I get to come in and do some guitar work and free James [Petralli, frontman] up to do his thing a little bit more as well, which is exciting. I get a really fun role, I get to play in the rhythm section and then dance on top of it a little bit as well. It’s a sweet gig.”
BY JODY MACGREGOR
*Photo: Mark Seliger.
White Denim play Annandale Hotel on Tuesday January 7. White Denim also join Vampire Weekend, The Wombats, Neil Finn, MGMT, The Preatures, Flight Facilities and more at The Falls Music & Arts Festival, Byron Bay, Marion Bay and Lorne, Saturday December 28 – Friday January 3. Corsicana Lemonade out now through Downtown/PIAS.