White Williams: A Band From Brooklyn But Not A ‘Brooklyn Band,’ By John Norris

Don't call them a synth-pop band either ...

BROOKLYN, New York — Two-thirds of the synth-pop outfit White Williams may currently be living in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn; the band may practice there and be based there; and they may have shared bills with Dirty Projectors, A Place to Bury Strangers, MGMT and other bands profiled in our recent piece on the new Brooklyn scene. But please don’t call White Williams a “Brooklyn band.”

“Not at all! I’m really just living here to live near my friends,” said Joe Williams, the 23-year old computer-music savant who effectively is White Williams. “I have no associations to Brooklyn as a musician or anything. I mean, we didn’t come out of any ‘scene.’ I made this all in my bedroom. There is no city to attribute the music to. My music’s not from any scene — except just nowhere. It’s a bedroom scene.”

A series of bedrooms, actually — in Cincinnati, San Francisco and New York — where over more than 18 months Williams, a Cleveland-born graphic-design student, sequestered himself to fashion a collection of 11 arch, ironic and infectious pop songs into an album called Smoke. True to the cliché, where there was Smoke, there was also fire. The album landed Joe a release by indie Tigerbeat6 (and more recently, an international deal with the Arctic Monkeys’ home, Domino) and a slew of performing offers, including opening slots on tours by Battles and Girl Talk, a.k.a. Williams’ friend Gregg Gillis. That meant that Williams had less than a month to turn his bedroom recording project into a touring band (he recruited guitarist Hayes Shanesy and bassist Tyler Drosdeck in August).

(Check out video of the band rehearsing right here.)

“I made the record completely in isolation,” Joe told me at the Brooklyn rehearsal space where the guys were putting the final touches on their set for their first-ever headlining tour, which kicked off over the weekend in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “All I had was song files of 30 or 40 tracks of different stuff, so thinking about how I could try and translate that to a live show was pretty impossible — and I didn’t really want to think about it either. But then the Girl Talk/ Dan Deacon tour came up and suddenly it was like, ‘You’ve got to be a performer now.’ ”

Girl Talk and Deacon are both famous for their unhinged live shows, which feature rabid audience participation. Suffice it to say that White Williams are a bit more restrained in their live shows — and the contrast between opener and headliners on that tour earned Joe something of a rep for being aloof, though he attributes his initial onstage reserve to “trying to get everything right.” Since then, the trio say they have loosened up, expanded their set list and were eager to head out on a nationwide tour on which they’ll will be supported by indie bands Ecstatic Sunshine and Health.

And while Joe Williams may be a relative newcomer to the press game, he has no problem critiquing rock reporters, particularly over their fondness for telling the story of his teenage years with a noise-rock outfit called Oblongata (“That was a long time ago, we were really young, and I think there’s a tendency of journalists to try and tie everything together”) and the frequent mention of his vocal resemblance T. Rex’s Marc Bolan (“It’s like what Thom Yorke says in that Wired interview with David Byrne, that the first thing that is written about you dictates what everyone else writes about you. So all of a sudden, White Williams sounds like Marc Bolan.”).

And one more thing — Joe insists he’s not just an ’80s revivalist. Yes, much of Smoke sounds like a modern take on the new wave of 25 years ago, and yes, it includes a cover of “I Want Candy” (Williams’ experiment with remaking a song using a MIDI file), but to attach his music to one decade is, in his words, “reductive.” “I mean, yes, it has a lot of the same ingredients that music had in the ’80s,” he said. “The fact that there’s synthesizers … I guess if you turn on your rock or ‘alternative’ stations these days you’ll hear very little synthesizers or quantized rhythms. That’s more something you’ll hear on rap stations — samples and synths and drum machines — but that’s the type of pop music I prefer. Right now, I’d rather listen to rap than any rock music that’s on the radio. It’s all garbage.”

Ouch! White Williams will be playing a Domino Records showcase at March’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas; but over the next few weeks, keep an eye out for them as their tour traverses the continent before winding up on February 10 in — where else? — Brooklyn.