Interview: A Q&A with White Lies’ Charles Cave
Primarily centered around core (and founding trio), Harry McVeigh (lead vocals, guitar), Charles Cave (bass, backing vocals) and Jack Lawrence-Brown (drums), the London-based post-punk act White Lies can actually trace their origins to band that the trio stated while they were in high school by the name of Fear of Flying. (For live shows, White Lies expands to a quintet with the addition of touring members Tommy Bowen and Rob Lee.) Although Charles Cave has publicly described Fear of Flying as a “weekend project,” and one of many bands each of the individual members were involved in at the time, Fear of Flying released two Stephen Street-produced double A-side singles released through Young and Lost Club Records.
Building upon the initial buzz surrounding them, Fear of Flying earned opening slots for nationally acclaimed acts like The Maccabees, Jamie T, and Laura Marling. Along with completing one UK tour as an opener, they also played the inaugural Underage Festival.
Two weeks before the trio were to start college, they decided that they would take a second gap year and perform new material, which the trio felt didn’t suit their current project. “I felt as though i couldn’t write about anything personal, so I would make up semi-comical stories that weren’t really important to anyone, not even me,” Charles Cave reflected on that period. Fear of Flying broke up in 2007 with a MySpace status that read “Fear of Flying is DEAD . . . White Lies is alive!,” before introducing a new name that the trio felt better represented their newfound maturity — and a much darker sound.
Officially forming in October 2007, the members of the then-newly formed White Lies delayed their first live shows for five months to build up media hype. And as the story goes, a few days after their live debut, the band signed with Fiction Records, who released the band’s first two singles — “Unfinished Business” and “Death,” which quickly drew comparisons to Joy Division, Editors, The Killers and Interpol. And as a result of the attention their first two singles earned, McVeigh, Cave and Lawrence-Brown wound up touring across the UK and North America, including a headlining BBC Radio 1 Big Weekend Festival set, a slot on 2009’s NME Awards tour, as well as a number of appearances across the international festival circuit.
In early 2009, the members of White Lies were prominently featured in multiple “ones to watch” polls for the coming year, including BBC’s Sound of 2009 poll and the BRITs Critics’ Choice Award. Within a few weeks of those early accolades, the act released their full-length debut, To Lose My Life, an effort that made them as the first British act that year to land a number one album on the British Charts — and the first album to debut at number one that year.
The band’s third album, 2013’s well-received and commercially successful, Ed Bueller-produced Big TV, an album that follows the story of a couple, who leave a provincial area for a big city while touching upon the theme of equality within a romantic relationship was debuted at #4 on the UK Album Charts — with album single “Getting Even” landing at #1 on the Polish Singles Chart.
Released earlier this year through [PIAS] Recordings, the London-based post-punk trio’s fifth full-length album, the aptly titled FIVE officially marks White Lies’ tenth anniversary together. Interestingly, the album finds the band deftly balancing an ambitious, arena rock friendly sound with enormous hooks and bombast for days with intimate, singer/songwriter pop lyricism that’s earnest and comes from a deeply familiar, lived-in place. Album singles “Time to Give,” “Tokyo” “Jo” and “Believe It” feature some of the biggest hooks I’ve heard this year, while describing longtime relationships at the brink, complete with the ambivalence and uncertainty of what it meant to the parties involved. “
I recently had a lengthy and wide ranging conversation with the band’s primary songwriter and bassist Charles Cave via email about what the acclaimed British post-punk act ascribes to their longevity and success; their creative process; the impact of their ten years together, on FIVE; their ongoing collaboration with filmmaker Daniel Pablos; and lastly, what fans should expect from their New York City area show. Throughout, Cave proves to be humble, revealingly honest and hilarious.
Check out the tour dates, with ticket information for the Irving Plaza show and the interview below the jump.
5/2 – NEW YORK Irving Plaza NY — Ticket info here: https://concerts1.livenation.com/event/00005627C603364F?_ga=2.242458372.705538967.1556585323-156517637.1530857820
5/3 – BOSTON Sinclair MA
5/4 – TORONTO Mod Club ON
5/7 – SAN FRANCISO August Hall CA
5/8 – LOS ANGELES Fonda Theatre CA
5/9 SAN DIEGO Music Box CA
5/15 – MEXICO CITY El Plaza Condesa MX
5/16– MEXICO CITY El Plaza Condesa MX
WRH: Who are you listening to right now?
Charles Cave: Gentle Moonby Sun Kil Moon. I had to take a break from Kozelek for a while…various reasons. I think I overdosed a bit about 5 years ago. I went to see him play maybe 5 times in the space of six months. Anyway, I’m back with him. I’m back to loving this record, and Admiral Fell Promises, and Perils From the Seaespecially.
WRH: Is there anyone from the London scene that should be getting love in the States that isn’t at the moment?
CC: God, no. The UK music scene is in a shocking state. I can’t remember the last time I got really excited by a new British artist or band. But I think it’s partly because the venues in the UK are in such a shocking state. Falling to pieces. Horrible places, on the whole. We tour a lot out in Europe, and places like The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium . . . those countries seemingly have governments that put good money into the arts and into music especially which includes making live venues wonderful places for both artists to play, and fans to watch. Australia and the USA have been producing far better music than the UK for a while. Sweden too.
WRH: White Lies can actually trace their origins to when the founding trio met while attending school and formed a band together Fear of Flying, which received a little bit of attention back home and eventually after some time, your previous band together morphed into White Lies. So while you’ve all known each other for a while, your latest album Five marks White Lies’ tenth anniversary together. In this landscape, surviving 10 years is quite an achievement – and perhaps on some level, kind of miraculous. What do you ascribe to the band’s longevity and success?
CC: We don’t believe our own shit. I think deep down we find it perpetually amazing that anyone cares about our music. And that helps. We’ve seen a lot of bands fall; and the cause of that is some manifestation of ego-issues. If you believe in your own shit too much, the moment the public raises questions about a piece of your work then the carpet comes out from under your feet and you fall. I would say we spend 80% of our energy on the work, and the remaining 20% we put into taking the piss out of everyone as much as possible. Humour and hard work. There you go. That’s probably true about marriage too?
WRH: The members of the band are split between San Francisco and London. How does your creative process work? How do you manage your creative process with the distance and time differences involved? Has the distance changed how you write and record material?
CC: Harry [McVeigh] has moved back home now. But while he was kind of living in San Francisco we just worked by me waiting for him to come back to London and then writing some music here. He wasn’t there long enough to warrant some tedious new-fangled way of writing together over the internet or whatever. I don’t like to write music every day, anyway. I burn out quite easily. So it actually worked well have these intense weeks of writing, and then a few weeks of doing other things when he went home. Maybe that was the key to our new album being so good? Now that he’s back we’ll suck.
WRH: How do you know when you have a finished song?
CC: That’s a good question: I often think songs are finished really early. But managers and labels love to say “….yeah, when that’s finished it’s going to be great…” Personally, I think I warm more to songs that aren’t quite finished but have come from a place of real desperation and honesty. A song with a kick-ass middle 8 can often fall a little flat on me, because I know too well that middle-8 probably went through 30 versions. And there’s nothing desperate about that. Or at least that’s a desperation that comes from wanting to write a clever middle-8, and not trying to get a pure sentiment across in the most effective and exciting way. But sometimes you just have to chop away. Harry is very good at those little magic finishing touches. I wrote the song ‘Death’ just sat on a plane, humming in my head. And I probably thought it was finished. But then Harry changed up the chords in the chorus, and we then took it to a rehearsal room and figured out the arrangement in a way I couldn’t have done on my own.
WRH: What I personally love about the new album is that it reveals a band that deftly balances an arena rock-like sound with enormous hooks with intimate, insightful, singer/songwriter pop lyricism. It’s boldly ambitious yet it comes from a familiar, lived-in place – songs like “Time to Give” “Finish Line,” “Kick Me” and “Denial” seem to describe longtime relationships at the brink, complete with the ambivalence and uncertainty of what it means to both parties involved; “Tokyo,” “Jo,” and “Believe It” feature some of the biggest hooks I’ve heard this year, while displaying elements of New Order, Depeche Mode and others. Was it difficult to manage deep, emotional intimacy with such a rousing, arena rock-like sound?
CC: That’s such a nice thing to hear. Thank you. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s really what we’re going for. I see the band almost like a singer-songwriter who got given Tears for Fears as backing musicians. I’ve never felt White Lies is a real BAND, you know? Not a BAND like The Strokes, or Muse, or something. Maybe that’s why we have always kind of floated on the side-lines a bit. We’re a little odd. Hard to classify. It’s a strange dynamic where I write what Harry has to sing. We’re lucky in that Harry has a voice you really want to listen to. And he sings clearly. very clearly, I think. It gives a directness to the lyrics – whatever they happen to be. Our music is big and bombastic for sure. I think if we were singing about aliens, or wizards, or really generic pop stuff then our songs would fall totally into the wrong camp. The lyrics (I THINK and HOPE) really are crucial in balancing out the music.
WRH: What inspired the overall sound and approach of the new album?
CC: To be honest, I can’t answer that. Every morning Harry and I listen to maybe two hours of music — ALL music — over coffee and then get to work. One song might have been a result of listening to some Italian prog, the next because we listened to Jason Derulo…I don’t know. However, we knew we wanted to be a little more ‘human’ with instrumentation on this album. So we brought in some piano and acoustic guitar. There’s perhaps not quite as much electronics as there was on some previous records.
WRH:“Tokyo” and “Believe It” are two of my favorite songs on the entire album. Can you tell me about the inspiration behind both songs?
CC: “Tokyo” probably comes from a love of Scritti Politti and bands like that. I love that super hi-fi pop. It’s a song about an awful man who is losing his girl, and the twist is we’re kind of hearing it from his point of view, which only makes him seem MORE awful, and MORE of an idiot than we would have observed if told from an omniscient point of view. “Believe It” is a pretty ABC song for us. In many ways I feel like that’s one we decided was finished a little too early. But anyway, it’s fun and delivers a nice big chorus. It’s a gentle critique of new therapies that aim to make money out of the mental health epidemic.
WRH: The videos for “Tokyo” and “Believe It” were shot in Tijuana, Mexico and found you working with longtime visual collaborator David Pablos. How did that collaboration begin? And can you tell me how you and David came about the treatments for both?
CC: Our manager saw his film The Chosen Ones on Netflix and loved it. We watched it and decided it would be a great collaboration. It turned out David was a fan and the rest is history. David comes up with the treatments. We like to allow total control to a video director. We wouldn’t work with someone who we didn’t feel comfortable giving that much control. It’s important to us to allow the collaboration to be honest and untainted by us. We spent a long time making the music, now we hand it over and allow the artist total control of the reigns to express their own understanding of the song.
WRH: I turned 40 last month and as with all milestone birthdays and milestone events, I’ve been in a rather introspective mood, and the albums I’ve been obsessed with lately have reflected that in some way. As I mentioned earlier, the new album marks a milestone for the band. Has your tenth anniversary as band influenced some of the material’s introspective nature? And how much of the material draws from the personal experiences of the bandmembers – or of people you know?
CC: Hard to say. I’m sure the ten-year thing had an emotional impact on the making of this record. I think we continue to be amazed we’re still doing this. I feel like I’ve been in a state of mild shock since our first album got released. I would say all of the material comes from my personal experiences, or the experiences of people I know or meet. I’m starting to understand that really I’ve been writing about all the same things since day 1. I’m just learning to express myself a little more articulately, and with hopefully a little more grace.
WRH: I’ve listened to the album about 15 times now, and if the album’s songs were arranged differently, it would feel like a vastly different album emotionally and thematically to me. How difficult was it to come up with the album’s final song sequence? Was there any material that was cut from the album? And if there was, why?
CC: Totally agree. We had a lot of different track running orders. Our keyboard player was so dead against us opening with “Time To Give”!! He thought we were mad, and that nobody would listen to the whole thing every time. But I am so glad we stuck to our guns. Track order is so so so important if you actually care about the album as a piece of work. You just need to live with the songs a while, and then usually the correct order presents itself. Within the three core band members we’ve never had a big disagreement about the track order.
WRH: The lyric videos for “Believe It” and “White Lies” in my mind helped to introduce the album’s overall artwork, which employs the use of Kobigraph Braille. The band then went on to collaborate with the RNIB to create a Braille lyric companion book; in fact, from what I understand the members of the band desperately wanted to include tactile Braille. What inspired the album’s artwork? And how did the collaboration with RNIB come about?
CC: Yeah unfortunately including tactile braille in the album art was an expense too far for our label. So I got thinking about other ways to do something…I did some research and saw that the braille lyric book had never been done before by a band. Madness!! So I just sent a message to the RNIB and they thought it was a wonderful idea and helped out. The artwork was a result of me sending over the Kobigraph alphabet to a great designer called Casey Roarty. He worked with it and the colours to produce what we have now. I think the album and single art is beautiful. Our most cohesive campaign yet.
WRH: The album finds you collaborating on a few songs with renowned producer Flood, who plays keys on a couple of the album’s songs. How did that come about?
CC: Flood was hanging out at the studio (which he co-owns). He wanted to hear what we were working on so came in one night and we played him stuff. He thought the songs were so strong, and also had some fantastic ideas. So he asked if he could come in the following day and play around with us. Of course, we insisted he did, and had a fantastic time. He programmed some wonderful synths in the verses of “Tokyo” and “Never Alone.”
WRH: You’re playing a short New American tour that includes two NYC dates. I’m really looking forward to catching you guys. Curiously, what should we expect from the tour?
CC: It’s going to be White Lies very much exposed. Coming to the USA is painfully expensive. We can’t afford a big light show; we can’t afford anything like that. So to be honest it’s going to be us on stage just trying to blow our fans away with the songs, and how we play them.
WRH: After you finish the North American tour, what’s next for the band?
CC: Some big shows in Mexico. Our music really connects down there. We’re going to play to maybe 6000 people in Mexico City and then do some festivals too. After that we head home and start the European festivals which takes us up to September, hitting some wonderful spots like Puglia, Lake Lugano, Spain, Holland, Germany . . . and then we start some To Lose My Life anniversary shows in the Autumn. Busy year!