Words by Andrew Ryan Fetter
For almost 20 years, White Hills have been making space/psychedelic rock music the way they want to make it, rather than conforming to current trends within the genre. Each album has its own unique vibe while still being unmistakably White Hills. 2020’s Splintered Metal Sky saw the band flirting with more electronic/industrial sounds but still with that warm organic feel that you expect from the band. This time around, the songwriting duo of Dave W and Ego Sensation have taken the reins on almost every aspect of putting out their music. They’ve revisited their 2007 album Heads On Fire, breathing new life and energy into those songs. The end result is The Revenge Of Heads On Fire, released on the band’s own recently launched record label, Heads On Fire Industries.
Off Shelf: So after you know, a couple of very crazy years, how does it feel getting back into sort of a normal touring routine?
Dave W: It’s not normal, if I could be quite frank. As much as people want to say it’s normal and everything’s okay, it’s not. And you can just tell by just being out how not normal things are. You know, not to be a “Debbie Downer” or anything. I don’t know if Ego has a different take.
Ego Sensation: Well, we’re really concerned about staying healthy on the road. Because you’re traveling, you’re playing shows every day, you’re indoors, you’re talking to a lot of people. I know people want to think that COVID’s gone, but we’re constantly hearing from friends and other people in bands that we know that catch it out on the road. So we’re wearing our masks except for when we perform, and we are at times the only people that are wearing masks almost everywhere we go. So it’s kind of strange dealing with that, but still, it’s been great getting out and playing again. You know, we usually do a few tours a year and then we were just not doing anything for two years. It’s just a different experience than it has been in the past. But isn’t that the way life is?
OS: Well, it’s interesting. I’m in Indianapolis and various venues in the area have different protocols and requirements, and sometimes it’s also based on what the artists want. Some places don’t even require you to show a vaccination card, or wear a mask so it’s just bizarre.
DW: Yeah, every place we’ve been on this tour has had no protocol whatsoever, except for the Empty Bottle in Chicago, they did. But when we got there, the bartenders told us that – literally the day before we got there, they ended their protocol so you no longer have to show a vaccination card. They weren’t asking people to be masked inside and any of that stuff. That’s the only venue that we’ve experienced like some kind of protocol, on the venue side, which, you know, makes no fucking sense at all. But, there’s so many things that make no fucking sense to me.
OS: The two of you have collaborated for such a long time. How do you explain the creative energy you’re still able to tap into all these years?
ES: It’s just kind of what we do, you know, it’s just a natural thing. Some people, like myself, drink coffee every day. I can’t even imagine a day without coffee in the same way I can’t imagine not creating music. It’s just a part of our DNA.
DW: I think a long time ago, we both decided that this is what we do and that’s just it. So it’s like someone else getting up at 8:00 in the morning to get to a job by 9:00. We don’t see any other way to do what we do. The process is not always easy, and, I was joking about fighting, we don’t fisticuff or anything like that. But I’ll come up with something that I love so much. And then Ego will say “well, no, I don’t think this is good and we should do this instead.” And that usually means some kind of a struggle will occur. But in the end, both of us want to make the best thing we possibly can make.
OS: Do you think that tension adds to the energy and the outcome?
DW: I think in some way it does, yeah. It’s just part of the process, right? It’s like giving birth. It isn’t painless or easy. Yet for the people who decide to have a child, the joy of the child outweighs all of the pain and anguish, through the process.
OS: So your music has taken a lot of different forms, yet still in this world of psychedelic/space rock. What are some of the big changes that you’ve noticed in that scene with other bands that you’ve played with as well as your own music?
DW: This genre seems to be a bit more popular now than it was when we started. Yet still, I wouldn’t say it’s a dominating genre. I feel like newer bands that kind of come around sound like a cover band. There’s been a resurgence and a newer generation of people making psych music who are into the Grateful Dead. So I feel like these bands just try to emulate the Grateful Dead versus being just themselves. But maybe that is themselves. Who am I to say? I’ll be quite honest, I’m a music snob. And I have very… what’s the right word?
DW: Yeah, I’m very particular about music, not only that I make, but what other people make. And not to discredit someone else. I’ve said this before in interviews when people ask me about 60’s psychedelic music and to me the majority of it was just white boy blues. It wasn’t necessarily what I would consider to be “psychedelic”. So what, you take acid, great. But does jamming out a 12 bar blues for fucking 15 minutes make you psychedelic? Yesterday when we were driving, we were listening to Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love and that album psyche-fucking-delic! I could only imagine what that would have been like in 1967 when that came out. People were thinking, “what the fuck is this?” Obviously Hendrix was based in the blues, but still, even to this day, it’s very jarring.
ES: It feels hard to say after not really actually being out and touring. But we’ve played with a lot of bands on this tour so far. We’re playing with a lot of great local bands and they’re all sort of in the stoner rock vein. A little more metal too. You always see a lot of bands emulating music that they love.
DW: You know one thing that we’ve all talked about amongst ourselves over the years is no matter how many shows we play, and how many bands we see, there is no band out there that sounds like White Hills. We are totally unique unto ourselves. Over the pandemic I was watching an interview with Rick Rubin. And the interviewer was asking Rubin, “How do you define something that’s original versus something that isn’t?” And his answer was “If you are creating music that is not accepted by the masses, you are creating something original because it is not within a paradigm that people can easily digest.” And I think that that’s what we see when we go out and play. We are creating music that is something that, for the people who are really into it, touches them in the deepest parts of the core of their existence. They get something very emotional out of it. Music for the masses doesn’t really do that. It’s like something that you could just say, “Alexa, play me something that’s happy.”
ES: And it’s difficult to put into words. When I think about the scene today, I’m always trying to think of who are the bands that if you talk to someone that’s never heard White Hills you could say they sound like? And I want to point them to something current or sort of popular. But I can’t really point to anything, partially because the music does draw from so many different styles and it has this emotionality to it that I don’t know how to put it into words. But there are so many artists that I get that from.
OS: So this new record, it’s kind of a revisiting of your 2007 record Heads On Fire. What inspired this idea?
DW: Well, we were doing some cleaning during the pandemic, as one does, because you don’t have anything else to do. And we found two hard drives that died during the process of making Heads On Fire. And a friend was able to retrieve the information off of one of the drives, which was the drive that had all of the source material that we had recorded for what became Heads On Fire. And there was a bunch of music on it that we had completely forgotten about. Because when that drive died, the only source material that I had for the record was what was on the computer that we were mixing from. And so that’s why Heads On Fire was the album that it was in 2007. But looking back in notebooks from the era, we saw an outline for The Revenge Of Heads On Fire. We had also just recently gotten the rights back to the album, and we were looking at the fact that it was basically its 15th year anniversary. So instead of going about and doing what people would normally do, it’s the 15th year anniversary, here’s the record and then the bonus material. We decided to just make the album that we had outlined that we couldn’t make because of the fact that we didn’t understand computers and saving information at that time.
OS: It also gives a really interesting spin on the use of Revenge in the title. It has a sort of back from the dead and with a vengeance vibe. Especially on a lot of the songs like “Radiate” and “Oceans Of Sound.” Was that intentional when you started piecing it all together?
DW: Not when piecing it together, no. But in 2007, we recorded and released two records. Glitter Glamour Atrocity came out first, and then within six months Heads On Fire came out. And our drummer at that time, his rehearsal space was a recording studio as well. So that’s where we recorded both of those records. I was sitting down with him and telling him we were doing the next album in the same space. I don’t want to mic the album the same way. I wanted to create a completely different sounding record. And he and I started butting heads on that. I was just extremely adamant about what I wanted, and he reluctantly did what I wanted. So I think that some of the more tense and aggressive nature of the record comes from the fact that I was butting heads with someone about a vision that I had who was trying to dictate a vision that they may have had, but they weren’t the one who had written the music. So the music itself was just what it was when it was put together for this version of it. It was just us looking back at what we were thinking about making at that time that we had completely forgotten about. I personally have been a bit nervous about putting this record out, just because of how much we have changed. Especially with what our last record was, Splintered Metal Sky, compared to Heads On Fire, and you’re wondering if this is the same band. We’ve obviously alienated some fans who are fans of Heads On Fire. So my concern is that I’m potentially alienating new fans that we’ve made because of Splintered Metal Sky.
ES: But our goal is to alienate as many people as possible, right? There are great bands out there that make the same album over and over and some of those bands continue to make a great same album. And it’s safe and it’s enjoyable and it’s kind of branded. They like that type of music and that’s the music that they create and then they have a fan base who rely on that. It’s like rewatching a movie that you love. You’re gonna watch it over and over and over because you love it. And we’re just the type of artists that enjoy creating new and different things. There are a lot of artists that I love, like Nick Cave. In his career he has gone all over the place. So it’s always interesting to hear what’s next. I think it’s for a different type of listener who is excited and wonders what you’re going to do next. And there are some people that don’t wanna hear what’s next.
DW: And they’re more than willing to tell you their feelings. Whether you ask them or not.
OS: You decided to release this yourself on your own label. What was what was behind that decision?
ES: We’ve been wanting to start a label for a long time. So it’s something that because we had a little more time on our hands from not touring for a couple of years, we just decided to start getting it going. We’ve named it Heads On Fire Industries, so we thought what better for a first release, then doing The Revenge Of Heads On Fire? It’s kind of the future for most artists, doing it on their own terms. And we’re very focused people. We have very particular ideas about how we wanna do things and so it was always in our future to start our own label. And so we just decided that this is the time, there is no better time than now to do anything.
DW: Yeah, we aren’t opposed to doing something with another label. With the way that the industry has changed and the way that it continues to change, it seems like it changes so fast and so drastically. And you get locked into some kind of a licensing deal. What you make ends up getting lost in some way because you put it out, you release it, and you have a very short release cycle for it. The label has different goals in regard to putting out records by all these different artists. So then you’ve had like one small cycle of an album, then you’re locked into the album sitting there for 15 years. And you’re lucky if the label will repress it ten years after the fact. So the other part of it is just our ability to kind of dictate what we wanna do with our music. If something’s selling really well in our distribution and we want to repress it, we’ll repress it. We don’t necessarily have to wait for a year, two years before a label will be ready for another record. We can put out what we want when we want to.
OS: I think it kind of goes back to you talking about having a specific vision for White Hills and for what you guys want to do.
DW: Right, if you look at people like Jack White, or even Sonic Youth with SY Records. At some point if you are going to exist and continue, as an artist you actually have to kind of take the reins and do these things yourselves. The biggest issue is securing distribution, and we have been fortunate enough to do that. So it’s just to just give you more control, ultimately.
OS: What other plans do you have for the label? Is it specifically going to be something for White Hills or would you work with other bands on it as well?
DW: I would like to work with other bands, but I think that is something that we aren’t necessarily considering at this point in time due to how kind of screwed up everything still is from the pandemic.
ES: We’ve already waited almost a year to get this new record just because of the backlogs at pressing places which is still happening. It’s a tricky time, so right now we’re just focusing on our own releases for maybe a couple years. And then once we get it going, we definitely want to release other people’s music.
DW: We have started to talk to some bands that we’re friends with about doing some collaborative things. So I think that I kind of see us branching out into putting out other people’s music, but having it be like at first some kind of collaborative thing between us. And then see how our fan base reacts to these people’s music, through us.