INTERVIEW White Rabbits Need No Lucky Foot
Steve Patterson Regales With Tales of NYC, Network TV, and Frankenstein Instruments
Last March, I proclaimed White Rabbit’s debut LP Fort Nightly album of 2007, wildly ignoring the laws of conservative announcements and completely forgetting that there were still nine months left in the year. The claim sticks, and I’m not the only one who thinks so; since then, their calypso-infused and darkly danceable debut has garnered serious attention from music press bigwigs. The band was playlisted by Pitchfork Media, made Band of the Day by Spin, earned NPR’s Song of the Day with single “The Plot,” and named one of the top four bands to watch in 2007 by The Onion A.V. Club.
Following their network television debut on the David Letterman this July, I saw them in concert at Siren Music Festival at Coney Island, playing to a thoroughly enthusiastic crowd. A few days later I did an interview with keyboardist and singer Stephen Patterson. Has all the sudden attention gotten to their rabbiting heads? Hardly, and I’m betting more success is just around the corner for this terrific band.
The Tech: Tell me how you guys met up.
Stephen Patterson: We all grew up in the same area. A couple of us — Alex [Even] and I — grew up in Jefferson City, which is the capital of Missouri. We all sort of convened in Columbia, which is a college town, sort of an oasis in a big awful state. That’s where we all met up and started playing shows and learning how to play our instruments and stuff like that.
Greg [Roberts] and Alex and Adam [Russell] were in a band together, and I worked with Greg in a record store called Streetside Records. It got bought out by a corporation a few years ago, but it was hip back then, I promise. So we worked there for probably a year or two or so and always flirted with the idea of being in a band together. Then the band that those three were in lost their drummer. Well, I went to school for percussion; I studied jazz composition and things like that, and so we started playing together, doing some songs that they had written. Then I started helping them write stuff, and then Matt [Clark] joined in, played organ.
TT: How’d you wind up in New York?
SP: We moved to New York probably about a year after [Matt] joined. Then we started making the record. We ended up putting a lot of drums on the album, which necessitated adding a second drummer and that’s where Jamie [Levinson] comes in. He was moving to New York anyway and he was an old friend of Greg’s — they went to kindergarten together, lived on the same street growing up — so it seemed like a natural choice for him to join the band. And that’s how the six of us all came together.
TT: What were the first shows you guys started off playing? I’ve heard you played Crashin’ In …
SP: We played Crashin’ In at Galapagos and we haven’t been invited back — I think it’s because we did some damage to the dressing room. But the first show we ever played was in the lower East Side at a place called Fat Baby. That’s where we met up with Aaron Romanello, who’s our manager and label owner, and he hooked us up with Chris Zane, who produced the album. We were very fortunate to have met them so early on, and they helped us get some gigs. Thankfully, we didn’t have to go at it on our own for very long.
TT: What was it like going from places like Fat Baby to playing Letterman?
SP: Yeah, I think we have the title of being the smallest band ever on Letterman. Ever.
TT: I saw on Letterman that Adam plays a Squier [a kind of bass guitar]. Is that the first one ever on network TV?
SP: He used to have a habit of trashing his bass whenever he was in a punk band in high school, but he also for some reason was always able to get a new one the day after — for free. Someone would always pop up and be like, “Hey, man, I saw you trashed your bass — want mine?” So this one is actually a pretty nice bass, but when he had to take it in for repairs, they put a Squier neck on it. We give him shit for it.
TT: Tell me about the recording of Fort Nightly.
SP: We did it at Gigantic Studios, which is in Chinatown, and at a couple of other studios in Brooklyn. We also travelled upstate to our engineer’s cabin and recorded vocals in the mountains, which was a thrill. But the majority was done at Gigantic.
TT: Do you guys split up songwriting?
SP: Yeah, it’s pretty democratic. The whole band is involved in the writing. And generally Greg and I split up the lyrics and vocal parts because we’re the ones singing.
TT: I can guess you like The Specials, just based on the album —
TT: — so are there any other influences I might be surprised to hear you love?
SP: Lyrically, me and Greg look to Randy Newman. We’re big fans of The Pogues. we also listen to a lot of calypso records which I think comes across on a few tracks. Personally, I’m a big Steve Naive fan — he was the pianist for The Attractions. We also like the Everly Brothers, and we look to them for harmonies. I don’t think any of those are really too shocking, though.
TT: Speaking of harmonies, I’ve noticed you guys have an incredible sense of pitch. You’re dead on in concert, which is pretty rare.
SP: That’s autotune — just kidding. None of us have any training vocally, really. Pretty much I just sang along to records when I was a kid, just sort of figured it out. Early on we started harmonizing. Practice helps.
TT: How did you hook up with John Natchez [from Beirut]?
SP: John played with some ska band in the Midwest who I think did some shows with Jaime and Greg’s high school band. But also Chris Zane used John for horn parts on the Harlem Shakes record, which he also produced. So I guess it was more through him [Zane] that we were hooked up with John, but there’s still a Midwest connection. He’s a fantastic guy, we’re recording some new stuff and he came in the studio the other day to work on it.
TT: What are the new songs like?
SP: No big departure from the first record. We’re doing a couple of the songs we play live: “Cotillion Blues,” that’s the one John plays on. It’s sort of a New Orleans street band tune. We wrote it up in Columbia and put it away for a year, so it’s been around for a while, but we brought it back out once I was on piano. Now we’re taking it in more of a ragtime-y direction. That’ll be the A-side to a single we’re putting out through Gigantic Records, which will come out in a few months, and the B-side will be a cover of Randy Newman’s “The Beehive State,” which we play on occasion. Then the third one is the newest song we’ve written since the record, which has a dark feeling to it. But we’re really excited. We feel a lot more confident as players since we’ve been on tour. It’ll be good.
White Rabbits continue to tour with Kaiser Chiefs through September. Catch them at the Beacon Theatre on Sept. 29 when they return to New York City.