Drawing from equal parts doom metal, krautrock experimentalism and Hawkwind-esque acid rock, White Hills are peerless among the New York music scene. Their new record, ‘H-p1,’ cements their position as space rock royalty with its visceral, psychedelic intensity. Released last week on Thrill Jockey Records, the album makes a powerful statement about the human condition on a slab of wax that just might melt your mind.
The band’s core consists of guitarist/vocalist Dave W. and bassist Ego Sensation. Dave W. was kind enough to take us through the whole album, track by track, and tell us a little bit more about what the record means and how they accomplished their uncompromising vision. Read on to see what he had to say, and to hear the entire record.
With every new White Hills album, I try to do something different. I feel that ‘H-p1’ is a departure for White Hills. There are many aspects to it that might seem similar to previous albums, but upon further exploration of ‘H-p1,’ I think people will see that this album is different from our other output in many ways.
We entered the studio a couple of days after our appearance at the Jim Jarmusch-curated ATP in September of 2010. Shazzula Nebula came from Europe to perform with us at ATP, and stayed along for the two-day ride, recording at the Ocropolis in Brooklyn. Also along for the proceedings was longtime White Hills collaborator Antronhy, of Julian Cope’s band. Shahin “Showtime” Motia (guitarist with Oneida) engineered the sessions. At this time, I had the concept for ‘H-p1’ but had no idea as to how it would take shape aurally.
In the initial stages of working on the album, I would send Antronhy my rough mixes and he would give me his two cents worth. One of his suggestions really influenced my aproach to mixing the album. That was to not use any compressors. Instead of using compression, he suggested using distortion. Distortion is a form of compression, but the result of using a distortion box rather than a compressor drastically changed the sound and feel of everything.
One thing I knew from the beginning was that I wanted this album to blast out of your speakers. It had to be loud and in your face. In comes Heba Kadry at The Lodge in NYC to master it. I have to give Heba a big thank you here, as she truly realized what I wanted out [of] the mastering process behind this record. It is huge and loud, but the integrity of the recording and mixing are still intact. You can make anything loud, but making it loud and having it still sound good is a different thing.
For this album, more than anything else I found influence in the Abstract Expressionism art movement: artists such as Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell. This movement was all about raw and impulsive art in which what mattered most was the the act of painting itself. I took this philosophy to heart while making this record.
Lastly, people seem curious as to what ‘H-p1’ stands for. It’s an arbitrary title that I came up with to describe what I like to call the disease of greed. I feel that we are at a tipping point in human existence. There are too many of us for the amount of resources that earth can provide. We can go on the way we have been and watch our own demise, or we can change our ways and see that there is another way to exist: one in which we are in harmony with the earth and the cosmos, one in which money and power are not the end-all, be-all of existence. It is the lack of understanding that humanity has of its existence in relation to its environment that causes so many problems. ‘H-p1’ is the name I’ve given to this line of thought, where greed dictates deadly decisions. There is another way to exist; one that is outside of ‘H-p1.’
“The Condition of Nothing”
This was the last song we recorded during the sessions for the album. It wasn’t really a song before the recording occurred, just a riff that Ego brought to the band, and one that we hadn’t played that much. I came up with the basic structure for the song while in the studio and we just bashed it out.
The lyrics didn’t come until later when we were touring the western portion of the US. We had a day off in Los Angeles and I was staying at my friend Paul Hischier’s house in the LA hills with nothing to do, so I started poking around his massive wall of books. I came across a Jim Carroll book that I hadn’t seen in years. Jim Carroll’s writing is very surreal, but very real. This book inspired me to write something in that style: surreal prose that was image-heavy. At this time, the concept of the album was in place. I definitely wanted the lyrics to reflect the concept of the album, but in a way that draws the listener in and opens up their imagination to the scenario, rather than handing them a complete storyline. The lyrics came rather easily, but they were very wordy, more so than any other White Hills song. I was having a difficult time fitting them into the song, but thankfully Ego stepped in and arranged my lyrical mess to fit the song.
When we entered the studio to record the album, I had three people that have played drums with White Hills at various times in one place. Kid Millions had already released his ‘Man Forever’ album (an all-drum excursion into ‘Metal Machine Music’ territory), and I thought why not take his lead and get all of them together in the studio to record a drum improv. I wasn’t sure if it would work, but I thought it would at least be interesting. The jam they laid down was around 25 minutes in length and had three very distinctive movements to it. Instead of mixing it myself, I sent the tracks to Antronhy, one of the drummers behind the jam. I gave him some instructions as to what I wanted: three distinct and separate pieces mixed from what I saw as the three different movements of the piece.
At first, I was going to use these three pieces as bridges between the different sections of the album, but that obviously didn’t happen. The three different pieces Antronhy came up with blew me away. They were much more than just simple pieces to use as bridges, but rather complete pieces unto themselves.
In listening back to the tracks, I was taken aback by the treatments and use of electronics he added to the original jam. What you hear on this track is the electronic treatments from two different mixes Antronhy did. I took these treatments and mixed them together. My idea behind this was to create a sound that represented the industrial beating of a machine. Something brutal and oppressive, in the same way that the system in which we live is brutal and oppressive. The nature and feeling of this sound was so contradictory to the surreal imagery of the lyrics to “Condition,” I felt they had to go back-to-back. Where the lyrics for “Condition” seem to have hope, the reality is that the beating heart of the all-consuming machine will always try to knock you back in line.
“No Other Way”
“No Other Way” is another track that was not fully worked out before heading into the studio. It’s another riff that Ego brought to the plate. Every version we’ve done of this track previously was very different from each other. This is also the track that I added the most to while mixing it. There are a number of guitar tracks and synth tracks laid over each other that really give this track a massive feeling.
This one features the drumming of Kid Millions and actually comes from the sessions to our self-titled record from 2010. The song originally had a bass and guitar line to it, but somehow they just didn’t really fit in with the drum part. During the sessions for ‘H-p1,’ I decided to try recording the song again, but once again it was just laying flat.
While getting the songs together for ‘H-p1,’ I went back and revisited the version we recorded with Kid. Upon listening, I muted the guitar and bass and was blown away by the sheer power behind the drums. I had a moment of inspiration and started to lay down synth tracks over the drums. Each track was recorded in one pass. I then asked Ego to come to the studio and lay down some synth tracks as well, which were recorded in the same way — just one pass, no going back to overdub or correct a part.
The track is free and uplifting and signifies a shift of thought for the central character behind the ‘H-p1’ narrative. I think this track came out great. It’s my favorite on the album!
As much as I like to let White Hills songs fly into the netherworld, I’m always trying to write that perfect rock song. “Upon Arrival” is one of those attempts. This song is the second of three that has vocals on the album. The lyrics reflect an awakening: the protagonist’s realization (their arrival, so to speak) that they have to break free from the chains that bind them. This realization comes after their inner experience that there is a “Paradise,” which is encompassed in the track before.
“A Need to Know”
This track was recorded by myself at 60B studios. As I was putting the track order together, I felt like the album was missing something between “Upon Arrival” and “Hand in Hand.” What was missing was something cinematic, like a track out of a Herzog film. It is from this place that “A Need to Know” came from.
“Hand in Hand”
“Hand in Hand” was one of those magical moments in the studio where everything fell into place perfectly. We were at the end of a long improv piece, the band was winding down, but Shazzula kept on playing. Ego came in with that towering bass line, and then I came in ever so slightly, laying down a mellow guitar drone to fill it out. I ended up adding some synth to it afterwards. It’s moments like this that I love so much about playing music. You never know where something might go or what someone will do that will inspire you to go places you wouldn’t have thought to go before… purely magical.
This is one of the pieces that Antronhy did out of the drum jam I spoke of earlier. It’s the only one of the three that made it on the album in its entirety. It’s a massive piece, one of grand stature, like Antronhy himself — hence the name “Monument.” Working with a new person in a production capacity on this album really opened up new directions. This, as well as “Movement,” are perfect examples of that. What Antronhy did with the drum jam really pushed me to go to areas that I wouldn’t have if not for his involvement on the album.
What to say about this one… it started out as just the beginning riff and developed via exploration into what you get on the album. This was another one of those songs that just seemed to take new form every time it was played. The actual recording caught it at a certain point in its development. The lyrics were written by myself and Danny Morton. Danny and I go way back to my days in San Francisco. He’s an amazing singer and lyricist. It’s powerful and poignant.
Buy H-p1 directly from Thrill Jockey.
For the band’s upcoming shows, check out their blog.