White Lies are one of those crucial, definitive bands that have impacted my life, and of course many others, to a significant degree. So with the release of the London group’s fourth full-length record ‘Friends’, and a spate of one-off appearances around the UK to co-inside with its release, it was a must that we begged, pleaded and scored that all-too-precious interview time with the band. And we succeeded.
Speaking with lead singer and guitarist Harry McVeigh, at Manchester’s inaugural Neighbourhood Festival, he was both revealing and inherently candid about the recording process, the maturity of the new material, and the band’s internal dynamics. We talked at length about the demoing process, White Lies’ songwriter Charles Cave and his brilliant ways of procuring song inspiration, as well as grazing over the upcoming tenth anniversary of the band’s formation.
In some ways ‘Friends’ feels like the most natural reflection of White Lies yet. Like it’s the album you’ve been working towards since you released your debut, combining the bubbly pop aspirations of ‘Big TV’ with the gloomier lyrical signature of ‘To Lose My Life’ and the brazen creative sensibility of ‘Ritual’. Do you feel that you’ve accomplished everything you wanted to with the new record?
Harry McVeigh: “Gosh, I don’t know that’s a very hard question to answer. No I don’t think you’re ever satisfied with anything really. I think as soon as you finish something, you always hear things that you’d liked to have changed or you might hear bits in songs that you were thinking about recording that you wish you had. So no, I don’t think you’re ever happy with a body of work really. I would say this much, I think it’s probably our best, our most accomplished [record]. I still think there’s more in White Lies as well, I think we can probably make a better record in the future. There’s a lot of it that I’m very happy with, definitely.”
The synth elements on ‘Friends’ definitely seem like the record’s beating heart, taking a step away from your usual focus on guitars and the building dynamics of the band. Would you say having unlimited access to Roxy Music’s old synths when recording in Bryan Ferry’s studio played a part in this development?
“It definitely played a part in the keyboards sounds, the synth sounds on the record, but no I think for when we were first demoing the tracks that’s something we were aware of that we liked. It’s quite difficult to record big guitars in your house, and that’s where we write and record the album’s. So this time there was a lot we were able to do with the keyboard sounds that we had on the demo’s, [sounds] that we really wanted to keep, so we just took it from there.
We did get a lot of great sounds in the studio though, and I think having access to those keyboards and also working with Ed [Buller] who knew how to use them really well, I think that did play a big part on the sound of the record.”
In terms of actually recording the album, what were the studio sessions like? I know you delved into production on this album…
“Honestly, I think a lot of bands would say there’s quite a lot in the studio that’s really boring actually – you have to listen to bits of songs over and over again, you have to repeat things ‘til you get them right and there’s certain things that take a really long time, like getting the drums right. I mean the drums are probably the most complicated thing to record but you’ve got to mic up each thing individually and get it all working together, and that takes time. So you have to really be able to stick that out but asides from that, there are really intense moments in the studio that are wonderful. You just have those moments where everything gels, and it works – and you really feel like you’ve stumbled across something and it’s great. So it’s a big mixture of emotions [working] in the studio.”
Was it with ‘Come On’ that the vocal was taken from a demo?
“Uhh, no…which vocal did we take from a demo? We have done that in the past, we did that with a track called ‘Streetlights’ on ‘Ritual’ because we couldn’t get a vocal that was as good.”
I read an interview with Jack recently that said something about taking parts for the final recording from a demo (it was a guitar solo in the end)…
“What would we have taken from the demo? ‘Come On’, we recorded separately actually. It does sound different, I think, on the record because we recorded it in a completely different studio, we had finished the sessions for the album and we realised we had that song, and I’m actually really glad that we recorded it because it’s going down really well [at the live shows]. So I’m really glad we recorded it and took the time to do it. I know that there’s quite a few of the vocals, like harmonies and little bits I recorded at home and some of those might have been taken from the demo’s. But y’know we work a lot from the demo’s, we try and get the demo’s to as higher standard as we can before we go into the studio, well at least we do now. So there is a lot on the finished album that we recorded in my house in West London.”
I’ve always been fascinated by your writing process and Charles’ unusual ways of stumbling on inspiration, like the process that drew him to pen the lyric “I didn’t go far” in ‘Big TV’ and then more recently his fascination with a man that was commenting on a friend’s instagram account in an unexpected way, which ended up being the conduit that eventually led to ‘Take It Out On Me’ forming. How do you know when to focus in on an idea and take it further? Surely not every creative spark makes the cut?
“I think Charles always writes, I think he writes a lot. He’s always working on these little ideas, his little motifs, like maybe it will be a couple of lines and a chorus or a few words that he likes, and it’s usually quite obvious when we’re working together, what’s going to work and if there’s something he really likes he’ll bring it up a few times across a few different tracks and we’ll try and make it work. It’s an evolving process. I think he does find lines and little snippets of things that he likes, I guess it’s just about writing about your experiences and writing about your life. If you do that enough, you see what sticks out, what interests you and what might sound good in the context of a song or a melody, or whatever else.”
I know I love a good lyric, and White Lies are particularly great at crafting memorable moments through phrasing and unique viewpoints. I want to know, what are your favourite lyrical moments from the new record and also one from the back catalogue?
“I love the chorus line in ‘Morning in LA’ because I moved to California about five months ago and that really resonates with me, that line about trying to figure out where your friends are in the world, and whether they’re going to be awake or not. Whether you can give them a call and have a chat with them, and I find that a lot with these guys and my wife back home, now. Yeah I love that line; I think it’s really clever. I really love it when songs evoke a place as well. In the back catalogue, there’s lot of lines that I really like. I’m a big fan of the lyrics of ‘First Time Caller’ actually, and I think the second verse of that especially is really wonderful, I love the way the words flow in there. I think the idea behind the story of that song is really wonderful as well, a woman trying to reconnect with her long lost father and she finds out he’s on the radio, I think that’s really nice. But there are loads of Charles’ lyrics that I love, he’s a really amazing lyricist. I think he’s getting better and better as well, you can see how much he’s evolved over the albums.”
I love “True, it’s a beautiful view / But you know they’re gonna set it on fire / When they feel like something new” from ‘Big TV’.
“Yeah that’s great, and I like that whole song. Yeah that’s a great one actually. I like the chorus line as well. And I really like talking about ‘Big TV’, I think it’s something that so many people aspire to and it doesn’t really mean anything.”
You’ve said in the past that getting to a point where you have ten finished songs to record for an album, sometimes only comes together when you’re in the studio, so when it came to getting the song’s together for ‘Friends’ was it an easier process – did you have lots of material to pick and choose from in the end?
“Yeah it was. Definitely. We must have written about 30 tracks, I think in the studio we ended up recording 15 or 16 so we had a bunch of songs to choose those ten tracks from for this album, and it’s so much easier. I think you come out with a better record from it because you can really put the track order together and make it work as a body of work. I think that’s the way we’ll work in the future, and I don’t know what it was before [with the previous albums]. It is hard to push through creatively, it is very easy to peter out a little bit because it’s hard writing songs and it takes a lot of time to get them to a point where you might want to record them, so I think it’s just [about] pushing through that. We learnt that we needed to do that this time, and we had the time to do it [which] makes it a lot easier when you come to put it together.”
When it came time to sharing the new songs with your inner circle, what were their reactions?
“Good, I think. You get an idea quite early on which songs people like more, but it’s quite a varied record, and I think everyone will a different favourite on this album. Some positive, some mixed. It’s good to get your feedback from friends and family, I think it’s important.”
You said recently on John Kennedy’s Radio X show that you’ll never be one of those bands that stop playing the old hits and the fan favourites. So if anything’s possible could we be hearing b-sides like ‘Taxidermy’ and ‘You Still Love Him’ played live in the future?
“I think yeah, that’s definitely a possibility. I think ‘Taxidermy’ for sure. We have that song ready to go, we just need to bash it out in a couple of soundchecks and we’ll be able to play it. I think there’s something quite nice about that, I like the idea of playing b-sides. We’ve also got quite a few bonus tracks on this record but I don’t know if anyone would ever want to hear [them]. There’s some interesting tracks on there [talking about the bonus content on the cassette edition of ‘Friends’], they’re a bit wild but I think there’s a few songs that people might quite like to hear, so that’d be good. But ‘Taxidermy’ is a favourite of ours as well, so who knows…”
Next year will mark White Lies’ tenth anniversary together, with this milestone nearly in touching distance, are you feeling nostalgic or is it more thankful and celebratory? Or has it not even crossed your mind?
“I haven’t given it a great deal of thought. I think there’s going to be a lot of nostalgia…I really enjoyed thinking about what it was like when we made that first record, kind of being introduced to the world and the response to it was amazing, it’s given us our whole career. It’s the reason that we’re here, and I guess we look forward to the future as well. We just don’t know what’s going to happen. I think we’ve definitely got our best songwriting ahead of us. I think we’re getting better and better so we’ll see what happens…”
The album artwork for ‘Friends’, I feel, holds some deeper meaning. The more you deconstruct it, the more it reveals. I was particularly drawn to the three figures that are scattered, if not disconnected by the impenetrable structure. A labyrinth of sorts. What’s your take on the piece?
“The cover, I love. It’s tough, when we choose [artwork] we don’t really think about what it means, we always choose things because we like the image – a feel that really fit with the record and it just looks wonderful, I think. But those figures are intriguing, and I think it harks back to that song – ‘Morning in LA’. Your friends being so far away from you, and that happens when you get to our age, your friends start to grow up and move away, and do different things so maybe there is some meaning in there but we just loved the image. I’m so thrilled with the way the record looks. This one and the last [‘Big TV’] are both killer album covers, I think we’ve done really well with them.”
I also wanted to note how the marketing campaign has brought the artwork to life, through an interactive fan-targeted piece on your website, where fans can essentially hunt down various behind the scenes extras. Although track commentaries and video content isn’t completely new to your marketing strategy, with this new record there does seem to be a particular emphasis on the fans. Do you feel that because you took a little break from White Lies in between ‘Big TV’ and ‘Friends’ that you’ve come back to the band with a new perspective?
“Perhaps. Yeah there’s probably a part of it. I think we’ve just had a great team of people working around this and we’ve always had these ideas, and with this album we’ve been able to deliver them. The new label is wonderful and it’s really working out well for us. We have a really good team and we talk a lot, we email each other a lot, and we hang out a lot. It’s great, we’re happy with that. I think that’s been a big part in what has enabled us to do that [with the marketing of the record].”
White Lies’ new record ‘Friends’ is available now, via BMG.