Mish Barber-Way of White Lung was this close to ripping the industrial entrails of the building straight out of the casings that adhered them to the ceiling.
It was a muggy night in New York, the kind that curls your hair and dampens every surface, and Barber-Way was in the process of running headlong into the songs of Paradise, White Lung’s brand new album and the most deliberate, ambitious effort to date. The venue—the basement of a posh gallery/media space in the Meatpacking District that could only be entered through a door in the garage of the space—was packed to the brim with thrashing, beer-spilling, fist-raising fans. (Jaden Smith was rumored to be in attendance, but it was hard to spot him given the sardine can-like closeness of the crowd.)
As Barber-Way wailed through Paradise, throwing the verses of these new songs into the dank air, her own hands joined her words as she wrapped them around the pipes that hung low over the stage. For a second there, it seemed like Barber-Way was going to not-so-metaphorically swing from the rafters... even if the rafters were just the shallow nooks in between the wires and tubes that were growing increasingly more dewy thanks to the sweat of her ecstatic and boisterous crowd.
The setting is familiar for the Vancouver-bred outfit—hot, loud, packed-to-the-gills scenes aren’t uncommon at their shows—but the context has changed: Paradise, their fourth studio album, represents a newfound determination to push the limits of how Barber-Way, guitarist Kenneth William and drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou write, perform and define punk. White Lung will spend the rest of the summer touring in support of Paradise—after a run in Europe, they’ll commence a lengthy string of dates Stateside starting in Los Angeles on July 8—but before then, we caught up with Barber-Way about the album, how it posed new challenges and what it’s taught her, so far, about what she wants for herself and her band as they continue to fall for these songs.
FUSE: That show was so fun at Milk Studios the other night. You were literally swinging from the rafters! Or the ceiling pipes, I guess.
BARBER-WAY: Every time I put my hand up there, I realized how fragile they were! When I first saw them, I was like, “Great—these are going to be a great thing to hold myself and balance myself on.” They were not that sturdy. I couldn’t really use them in the way I wanted to. But yeah, it was a fun show.
How are the new songs working into the set list? How does Paradise feel in a live setting so far?
It feels very good, but I came to the realization after these last three shows that I can no longer drink before we play. Normally, I’d always drink before we’d play; I’d be tipsy and it didn’t matter. I was trying to be a little more conscious of that on the last record [2014’s Deep Fantasy], but I got comfortable with the material. This record, I have to focus so much. The singing is so different. I may just say, “No more drinking before I play.” By the time the set is over I don’t care to do it anyway, but yeah, that was a big change. I just realized that I can’t have seven shots and then go onstage. It’s too challenging. I need to be sober and focused.
A lot of people look at tour as this thing where you take three weeks off of your day job and go and party and it’s fun. Tour is work to me, so I think my fun is going to be had at home, in the comfort of my own bed and in my house, not when I’m on the road doing my job. That’s an interesting flip that’s going to happen in my head.
That goes hand-in-hand with what we already know of the record, and where you guys are at. One of the first pieces that was out there about Paradise was on your own website, a conversation with Annie Clark—a/k/a St. Vincent—about the record and the process that went into making it. You’re talking with a musician, there, someone who thinks to ask questions about the mosquito sounds Ken [William] is able to coax out of a guitar—
Annie is a super guitar nerd, too. That’s also why I asked her [to do the interview]. I knew she would pick up on things Kenny is doing that I wouldn’t even notice.
Right! How did that conversation come about?
I met Annie in 2014 in Japan at the Fuji Rock Festival. We were both playing. She just came by our dressing room and stuck her head in the door, and she was like, “Is White Lung in here? I’m Annie! I’m such a fan of your record!” We then played this festival together that Wire curated, so it was this very small thing. We were all in the same dressing area, and we ended up going out that night—well, not Kenny, Kenny went and did something else—myself and Anne-Marie [Vassiliou, drums] and Lindsey [Troy, bass] and Annie and her girlfriend, and we all went out and partied together. I just got to know her then and we kept in touch. When it came time to do a record and I thought of this idea with someone on our team, and we asked Annie if she could do it, and she obviously said yes, because she’s a very nice person.
When you aren’t onstage with White Lung, you’re writing for a number of outlets. You don’t shy away from difficult topics in your journalistic work—drugs, love and sex, health, the works—and you don’t shy away from them in your songs, either. Is the relationship between your art and your writing symbiotic?
Originally, I started writing very personal pieces and trying to talk about anything having to do with recreational drug use or anything that I would normally keep secret—how much you drink, all your vices. I think part of me did it to keep myself in check: If I’m documenting this and writing about it, I’m not hiding it from anyone, and therefore I’m never hiding it from myself. Maybe that was my thinking when I would do things like that, and of course exploring topics, like, people really only want to write in retrospect once they’ve conquered the demon they can write about it. “Now that I’m sober,” or whatever—I wanted to write about it as it was happening in the moment.
Now I feel as though I’ve grown up quite a bit, and a lot of those things in my life have changed, but my journalistic work always ends up bleeding into the record, and I think that’s just thinking about what your brain is obsessing over and the context of what you’re interested in. My interests always lie in the same categories. When it comes to songwriting, you have to find a new way to talk about things. It’s kind of hard to find new ways of talking about things you’ve already explored and written about. I did a lot of different things on Paradise which helped me get out of writing about myself, exploring my own demons. I didn’t really have much of a choice otherwise.
You’re in a different place than you were when you wrote the last record. “Kiss Me When I Bleed” stands out as a track on Paradise for its intensity, as you’re writing about giving birth in trailers in your music while writing pieces that crack jokes about your husband ripping out your IUD with his teeth. You’ve written about families and motherhood and how attitudes change about things like that. You’ve shared that in your music and your articles, and that’s relatable. You hear that on Paradise, too: You were present before, but you get swept away with a visceral, punk din on previous White Lung records, and your voice is at the forefront on Paradise. We can actually hear your words this time.
There was a consciousness with that, too. When we went in and decided to work with Lars [Stalford], who helped produce the record, he said to me before we even went into the studio that he wanted to make the vocals stand out, to put them high up in production. He didn’t want them to be an afterthought, which they generally can be on punk rock records. He wanted to treat the vocals with a bit more of a pop sensibility, really pushing this melody. Maybe I was a little self-consciously aware of that, and it changed the way I wrote. I also did this thing on the record, which I’ve never done before—and you only realize this stuff in retrospect, this is always how it is—that I didn’t leave things out for the listener. I didn’t really write abstract lyrics that could be interpreted in any way. I’ve always been a fan of great imagery, but the line you just said from “Kiss Me When I Bleed,” you can’t confuse that line. I’m giving you an image that’s of a woman giving birth in a trailer park, huffing gas with a baby coming through her in a bath of molasses. You can’t interpret that in any other way, it’s a very specific image. I wanted to do that a lot more with this record, create these pictures that would pop up in each song instead of leaving them in this more emotionally driven, interpretative space. That all comes with confidence and doing things for longer and longer.
I was really struck how you had said about how becoming a better songwriter is an uncool thing to do in punk. Have you found that to be the case in the weeks following Paradise’s release?
I feel that we’ve had a really positive response. Saying the thing that I did would make people more aggravated, but it’s true. Punk is the only genre where fans will be pissed that you excelled or started to change. It’s a really juvenile idea of integrity that I don’t understand. This is another thing, too, that blows my mind. People get mad, like, “I don’t like the last record, I don’t like this new record.” Okay, well, this artist has four other ones they’ve already completed and you can listen to those instead. What is the difference? That’s what they’re there for! People act like you’ve burned your previous releases, you know what I mean?
We’ve had a very positive response. I haven’t noticed too much negativity. I’m sure there is. But as I said, that’s fine: We need to do what we need to do, and they can listen to the old albums that are still there. It’s so illogical to me. I would never get mad at an artist for changing. We didn’t even change! The only thing different on this record is the production value. Big whoop. I can’t control how other people feel about how the things I’m writing or singing, and I can’t control the projection. I’m not going to be upset about it. The only thing you can control in this world is yourself. That’s it, really.
What did Paradise bring out of White Lung that Deep Fantasy didn’t?
I think the most important thing on this record is Kenny: The way Kenny is playing, the sounds he was able to create, the fact that he took a guitar and made it sound like a synthesizer sometimes and other times made it sound like mosquitos, like Annie said. Kenny really went outside of himself. I mean, yes, I brought melodies to the table, and I went for it; I wanted to sing big choruses. But Kenny’s work on this record is really incredible, and I don’t really understand how he does what he does. All I know is that I couldn’t create the songs that we do in White Lung without him or Anne-Marie for that matter. But really, I think this record is the best work Kenny’s ever done, and the work that came after this, having to transfer all these really unusual things he did in the studio, and the fact that he’s been able to build and program all these things and make it so that he can reproduce it live and have it sound exactly the same—he’s so talented. It’s all about Kenny on this record.