White Hills: THE HILLS Are Alive...

From dream journals to vampire movies, the pair take us into their whimsical world…

o band in recent memory has taken the mindblowing sonic skyscraper ethos higher than New York duo White Hills

The interstellar motorik and cathartic wah-wah wipeouts forged by Dave W and Ego Sensation as White Hills over the last 10 years even render the earthly term ‘space-rock’ somewhat inadequate.

The pair’s latest album, Walks For Motorists, took them away from home turf and into a fresh new phase, steering their multi-hued psychedelic hydra in radically new directions and resulting in their most accessible work to date.

Recording with producer David Wrench in a remote North Wales studio, its nine songs are stripped down to introduce electronic elements (including drums) and greater emphasis on groove, resulting in an opiated embracing of post-punk, goth and even Peter Hammill’s sonic experiments.

This thrill-packed harnessing of the White Hills electric storm is the next step in a musical journey which began for Dave W at the age of four, when he stumbled on a Jefferson Airplane album in his dad’s jazz records collection at home in his native San Francisco.

He never looked back as he explored the city’s illustrious musical heritage: Grateful Dead leading to The Doors, Love, The Seeds, garage-psych and a teenage obsession with British groups such as the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie And The Banshees and Public Image Limited, whose futuristic death disco brought him to the likes of Hawkwind, Pink Fairies and krautrock giants such as Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk, Faust and Guru Guru. He also recalls being smitten by the monolithic intensity of Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator after John Lydon raved about the free jazz trail-blazing of fearless titans such as Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, “trying to play on my guitar what these people were playing on a saxophone.”

Such a healthy cross-fertilisation of influences bred a disparaging attitude to musical pigeon-holing and gestated in the no-holds-barred astral flights he started creating. He carried these to New York’s then-funky East Village with Southern California-born bassist Ego Sensation in 1999, after the couple decided to flee “the first dot-com boom” which had squashed their local music scene.

Looking to make “hypnotic, motorik, mantra-like music” but enduring ridicule when advertising for musicians into ‘space-rock’, Dave recorded a solo album as White Hills which Julian Cope liked enough to release on his Fuck Off And Di imprint in 2005 as They’ve Got Blood Like We’ve Got Blood. His gamble that Europe might get what White Hills were doing before the US had paid off.

“That basically started the whole process of everything,” Dave explains. “It was from that I thought I should put a band together.” With Ego entering the fray on bass and vocals, this meant a continual revolving cast of drummers. The duo’s first album as White Hills was 2007’s self-released Glitter Glamour Atrocity (reissued last year), a visionary hotbed of conscious social comment, scathing psych and keening motorik beats which snarfed a deal with the UK’s Rocket Records, who then released 2009’s towering Heads On Fire.

This led to a deal with Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records, 2010’s self-titled space-blues masterpiece igniting the duo’s uniquely idiosyncratic creative starburst on 2011’s monolithic H-p1, 2012’s Frying On This Rock and 2013’s So You Are…So You’ll Be.

They also found time to issue one of the decade’s most brain-melting live albums, Live At Roadburn 2011, and gained their biggest exposure yet when director Jim Jarmusch recruited them for his 2013 vampire movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, performing Under Skin Or By Name in a Detroit club.

The pair had met Jarmusch when he was curating 2010’s All Tomorrow’s Parties event in New York and invited them to appear, alongside the Stooges, Sonic Youth and Sunn O))). “We had no idea that he was a fan and knew about us,” says Dave. “We met him the day we played, then sent him every record we released. His movie touches on the existential dilemma of having eternal life and seeing people screwing everything up. He wanted a visually striking band and White Hills was that band.”

In 2013, though, the pair were forced out of their East Village apartment by the snowballing gentrification infesting New York. They landed in the happening musical scene in Brooklyn. When it came to record their next album, Ego and Dave felt another change was necessary to maintain their upward trajectory. With David Wrench producing, engineering and mixing, the couple relocated to Wales and the tiny Bryn Derwen Studios in Bethesda, set among the pine forests and mountainous terrain of Snowdonia national park (near the fabled Village of 60s cult TV show The Prisoner).

“It was a beautiful experience,” says Ego. “Every time we make a record we approach it from the stand-point that we want to make a new record. We don’t want to make a new Glitter Glamour or …So You’ll Be, but sometimes you get into patterns you don’t even realise you’re in. Part of the process of recording in a different country was a way of removing us from our comfort zone because we were forced to do things differently. There were a lot of instruments there to help us in the writing process. We spent a lot of time on the piano, coming up with ideas.”

With lyrics inspired by the couple’s dream journals then cut up Burroughs-style, Ego and Dave worked closely with Wrench (who has produced Caribou, Bat For Lashes, local bands and his own projects) on building their new sound, sometimes just from a synth line, creating the vibrant stylistic panorama of outings such as £SD Or USB, Automated City and nine-minute Lead The Way’s ultimate statement of the epic transcendental alchemy they have made their own.

“It was amazing,” enthuses Dave. “I felt so inspired. Everything was different. My mantra for the record was ‘less is more’. It was all about deconstructing more than it was about constructing. We really focused on what the appropriate length of the tracks should be. Did the song need to be 15 minutes long? This record is definitely our most cared about, in every respect.”

Walks For Motorists is out now on Thrill Jockey. See www.whitehillsmusic.tumblr.com for more info.

Kris Needs

Kris Needs is a British journalist and author, known for writings on music from the 1970s onwards. Previously secretary of the Mott The Hoople fan club, he became editor of ZigZag in 1977 and has written biographies of stars including Primal Scream, Joe Strummer and Keith Richards. He's also written for MOJO, Record Collector, Classic Rock, Prog, Electronic Sound, Vive Le Rock and Shindig!