In what could have easily been a “let’s write a new record and sort our shit out” year, Vancouver’s White Lung gave their life to the road. They played a total of ten shows at Austin’s South By Southwest. They were invited to do about 13 festivals from March to November. They did small club tours/one-offs with everyone from Ceremony to Iceage to METZ to Pissed Jeans to Off With Their Heads to even Antwon, a rising West Coast rapper whose Greedhead label hit is casually called “Dying In The Pussy”.
Hell, even in the thick of it, they released an impressive (and venomous) new 7-inch that addressed the downside of tour sex. It’s easy for anyone to question their loyalty to DIY and if they have a fetish with adjustable hotel beds but here, it isn’t an option. Critiquing the band’s performance for not being “aggressive enough” is just as bad. Mish Way (vox), Kenny Williams (guitars), and Anne-Marie Vassiliou (drums) write scuzzy punk songs but if you expect Mish to flail like she has low blood sugar or defy gravity like Eddie Vedder, then you’re ignoring the music that’s kicking you in the mouth.
White Lung deserve the comparisons they get to older, traditional alternative bands because their songs are packed and performed with seething grit. As The New York Times kindly pointed out, they’re “focused and stylized” and Way’s lyrics are “rendered loudly and publicly and with no pretension”. In almost every environment, they’re organic and interpretative but the way they reverberate against scratched out guitars and persuasive drums is what makes Way impenetrable. If you’ve ever seen White Lung live, then you’re well aware they’re intimidating. Mish herself is menacing from every angle because she’s educated, far from overproduced, and rarely distracted on stage. She’s openly ferocious 97 per cent of the time and when her inevitable coolness folds into songs like “Bunny”, her thrash-bred affirmations (“I’ll scrub your liver clean until I die”) carry enough rage to rip your skin right off.
But with plans to record a third album, Way and her road chums have to grapple with a few unforeseen changes. Their fall tour introduced Wax Idols’ frontwoman Hether Fortune on bass – a move that amplifies their presence and attitude – and also predetermined that they’d have adjust to “a new start”. Their Songs From The South 7-inch offered up two new songs (“Blow It South”, “Down With You”) that paced around noise metal tones but also circled Way’s darker howl which was the direct result of a personal struggle with nodes. Having had surgery to remove the calluses on her vocal chords when she was 18, she collided with reality and her voice’s unforgiving ultimatum: “exist or else”. With permanently damaging her vocal chords being her biggest fear (“That and burning down my house”), Way took control of it because she had to.
Because of it, White Lung find themselves in a good spot right now. People like to compare Album C to Album A and criticize transitional periods but in this case, Album C will likely destroy every last chunk of premeditated garbage that’s hurled toward the band. As Mish Way explained to us between multiple trips across the U.S., they’re excited for their new chapter – which may inevitably involve upstaging your favourite artists at even more festivals and tearing along a career path that falls somewhere between Ceremony and Converge. You can try your hardest to disagree or lazily attempt to index them as “an L7 cover band” but there’s a good chance you’ll just end up in one of their songs. Sorry, dude, it’s White Lung. It happens.
2013 has without a doubt been White Lung’s year. You’ve toured with almost everyone, played Bonnaroo and Fun Fun Fun, and have flashed a change in sound with just two songs. Has it been tough to digest what you’ve accomplished?
Yeah. I don’t think about it until someone like you says it back to me. I am just doing my job and going, going, going, so I forget to stop and reflect. This year started off weird. I ended a long term relationship after I got back from the porn awards in Vegas and I have just been focused on my own work and myself for the first time in my life. It’s great.
Has it still been difficult to find some sort of peace on the road?
I am the type of person who needs a lot of time alone. At home, I hibernate. I spend my days writing by myself so on tour I will wake up early and take my computer into the hotel bathroom and work until everyone gets up. I was with Katie and Allison Crutchfield last night because they played Vancouver and we were all talking about how it’s time to take a break from the road. It’s time to get back to privacy.
One of the most popular criticisms you guys have been subjected to is that your music doesn’t match your stage presence.
What do people want me to do up there? Blow a dude and then eat his dick off and spit it into the crowd? Look at that crazed feminist! (Laughs) Yeah, my band is pretty stoic, I guess. They don’t move much but have you seen what they are playing? That shit is hard! We are a fast band. There’s no time to showboat and it’s not our thing. If you don’t like it, go watch someone else. I mean, I have enough hand gestures for the group, you know? However, on this last November tour our stage presence has changed drastically because we now have Hether Fortune of Wax Idols on bass. She’s amazing and one of my closest friends. We sing together. She makes me happy. It’s a totally new thing. It’s perfect. In every set we would have a point where I would make her laugh. It’s so nice to actually have fun on stage again.
As you’ve mentioned to me before, taking time to focus on your voice this year was a process you had to deal with. How intense did things get when you realized you were losing your voice?
I had been ignoring the problem all summer. Just getting high and being reckless because I didn’t want to face the issue because it’s scary! I went on this motorbike trip to Joshua Tree with this L.A. guy and then I flew straight to Portland to play a festival and my voice was non-existent. Gone. I flipped. The minute I got home I went and saw the doctor who operated on my vocal chords back in 2006 and he told me I had nodes again but I could fix it with some therapy and training. So I did. I took it seriously because my voice is all I’ve got. It’s my weapon. I have to respect my weapon.
What was it like working with a speech therapist?
Shelagh Davies, my speech therapist, saved my voice. She was so encouraging and speech training is, in essence, inherently dorky and weird, and I felt stupid doing it at first but then I got off my high horse and took everything she taught me very seriously. She never made me quit smoking but I eased up. That was hard. I learned some tricks.
How difficult is it to balance your vices and your passion to be a musician?
You have to understand, being a touring musician is a ridiculous life. You get treated like a child. It’s your birthday party every night and it’s hard not to go nuts on your birthday, right? I mean, when we were doing punk tours we were so poor and we had no money so we barely partied. Plus, we were sleeping on floors and it was so much harder to be a lush. Now, it’s easier and I’ve got to watch myself. I’m the kind of person who needs a voice of reason when I forget to listen to mine and that’s why Anne-Marie is my best friend.
How did the vocal rest and the extra time influence the band’s new material?
I just published a piece in VICE called “I Fuck Therefore, I Am: Women, Desire and Self-Objectification”. That piece details what I have been thinking so much about recently. Sexuality – mine and other people’s – has always been of great interest to me. Gender roles, how those roles play out, how we break rules. I’m fascinated by it. Also, as I said, I’ve been single all year, just having fun with people, and not really caring beyond that. Sleeping with different people lets you into their brains for a minute. It’s good material for songs.
What would you say is one of the most surprising things about the new record?
You will have to wait and see but we have this new song called “Monster”. It was written as an accident because Kenny had sliced one of his fingers and could only play with three instead of four but it’s such a crazy song. It’s very heavy. I love playing it live. It’s nice to feel excited by new material. I mean, I never want to play “Glue” again in my life. I hate that song and everything it represents.
Your Songs Of The South 7-inch definitely shifts toward a new start – one that also shows everyone no longer feels frustrated with writing and experimenting. Did you guys gain more confidence from touring and doing bigger festivals?
I don’t know if it’s that, I think we have just grown. We made a big change internally in September and now things are a lot easier. Our writing process has changed.
Where do you hope these changes take you once 2014 comes around?
We have time off from touring until the new album drops, thank God. So I’m just going to write and hustle. I want to write as much as I can and spend as little time in our van as possible. I am so sick of looking at the back of Kenny’s head as I am sure he is tired of hearing me scream, “I gotta piss!” from the back seat every hour. We all need a little rest.