Guitarist Kenneth William has been asked so much about White Lung’s “new” sound that’s he’s beginning to wonder if the punk-rock band accidentally created a pop masterpiece with its latest album, Paradise.
“I wouldn’t even know how to make a song that is good for radio, so I’m not really sure what people are talking about,” says William, whose band plays at The Independent on Monday, Aug. 15. “When I’m listening to pop music, I feel like I’d be the worst record executive in the world. All these songs that are now hit singles, I’d probably throw in the trash before they made it on the radio.”
Unlike its previous records, which embraced the Vancouver band’s lo-fi roots with punk production, the aural timbre of Paradise is clean and sharp. Album opener “Dead Weight” is a thrash-rock manifesto, full of twisting and rapid staccato guitar licks, and “Kiss Me When I Bleed” has the feel and message of a no-holds-barred punk anthem, but with the brainy, change-of-pace jamming of a math-rock song.
“Below,” arguably the centerpiece, is the closest White Lung has ever come to a beautiful song in the vein of The Cure or The Smiths. That track has a resonant, gleaming effect that embraces open spaces in lieu of the claustrophobic, chaotic work that marked White Lung’s previous efforts.
Yet, even with the crisper sound, there is something unsettling about Paradise, in particular William’s guitar work. His riffs are glassy, spiky creations, but a strange level of distortion leaves them slightly askew. William describes his guitar play on the record as being “clear, but somehow also covered in slime.”
That’s why he bristles at the suggestion that White Lung has become “more accessible.” He notes that the album is still unforgiving in its tempo — due in large part to drummer Anne-Marie Vassilou’s precision work behind the kit — and far from radio-friendly.
“I think ‘accessible’ is relative,” William says. “Most of the album is still probably not the type of thing that would get played on rock stations in a lot of cities. That said, we did allow ourselves to branch out a little bit.”
Throughout the album, singer Mish Barber-Way weaves chilling tales of death, mayhem, and violence inspired by the sonic template laid down by William.
“Mish would listen to my music and then come back with these lyrics about murdering people or something,” William says. “I’d always think, ‘Man, what have I done?’ ”
He says the band barely rehearsed the songs on Paradise before committing the final recordings to tape. This lack of practice actually helped the band, because they didn’t overthink the process. There was no questioning if the tunes would fit into the White Lung oeuvre.
“In the past, when we were practicing something and it didn’t click immediately, we’d just chuck it,” Williams says. “I’m sure that would have happened with some of the songs on Paradise, which would have been real unfortunate.”
The tweaked musical style has paid obvious dividends, and White Lung has plenty to be happy about. Paradise was recently shortlisted for the Polaris Prize, which is awarded annually to the best album made in Canada, and the punkers have been granted slots at major music festivals like Way Home and Panoram.
“It’s pretty cool to be on the same bill as LCD Soundsystem or Sia or Mac DeMarco,” Williams says. “It’s definitely more fun than playing some hokey, lame, rock festival, which is what we’re used to.”
White Lung has toured relentlessly in support of the album, a jaunt that recently took them through Cleveland during the Republican National Convention. However, unlike Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins — who got the chance to troll some young conservatives by uttering the now-famous phrase, “Raise your hand if you believe in science” during the band’s performance — White Lung didn’t get a similar opportunity.
“Our gig was a little outside downtown, so unfortunately we don’t have any good tales from the RNC,” William says. “Our only takeaway from the convention was that every hotel was sold out for a hundred miles, so we had to drive out of Cleveland right after we played. It’s probably a good thing that our experience was uneventful.”
White Lung’s show at The Independent is the finale of their current tour, and with the promise of a little rest and relaxation on the horizon, William is expecting a very precise performance.
“This show will have the least amount of fuck-ups onstage,” says William, whose band will hit the road again later this year in support of Paradise. “Everyone should be in a pretty good mood because we all know we’ll be sleeping in our own bed the next night.”
White Lung plays at 8 p.m., Monday, Aug. 15, at The Independent. $13-$15; theindependentsf.com.