I’m sure you have noticed that in late capitalism much of mainstream culture, including music, is the tarted up results of market forces and the commodification of all things, it cannot help but be bereft of meaning and over arching purpose, it has nothing much to say and no idea where it is going; it operates as a social anaesthetic. In contrast White Hills are a band with purpose, vitality and a desire to communicate their concerns on political and social issues.
Formed in 2005 by Dave W. and Ego Sensation White Hills’ music is variously described as Space Rock and /or neo-psychedelic and like Hawkwind during Bob Calvert’s phase their music includes social-political comment. Their 2011 album ‘H-p1’ was the first part of a trilogy looking at structures of control and power with ‘So You Are…So You’ll Be’ (2013) exploring the individual’s agency within those structures (1). While the new album ‘Walks For Motorists’ (2015) does not complete the trilogy it does continue the vein of social comment so when White Hills kindly agreed to an interview rather than ask about musical styles and production it seemed like a good opportunity to explore these other facets of their music.
Picasso wrote about art washing away the dust of everyday life from the soul (2). Is that something you would aim for with your music, that it would wake people up?
EGO: I think, in general, music and art allow us to transcend the drudgery of everyday existence and move towards a higher consciousness.
DW: I agree with Ego. Art has always been a way for me to dive within myself and ponder issues big and small, whether personal or societal. It has always been a vehicle of enlightenment for me in some form or another.
That said, everyone exists within their own reality. All is internalized differently from one person to the next. How I feel is how I feel. I don’t write for others, I write for myself. Creating is a cathartic process that does wash away the dust of everyday life from my soul. I don’t feel that my purpose on this earth is to wake other people up. I can only be responsible for myself. I think the majority of our fans are people who are looking for something more than the insipid bland music of the day. They are thinkers. A thinking mind is a questioning mind. A questioning mind is an active mind. An active mind leads to action. Action leads to change.
We live in a physical and social world that is shaped by and for the elite-is your music a comment on that, an alerting of people to it or an act of resistance against it?
DW: I am merely a viewer, listener and thinker. What I internalize comes out in the form of my art. When such topics are approached within our music it tends to be very abstract. It’s not pointed or dictatorial. It is the listener whom decides what they see within it and what they take away from it.
EGO: Our existence as a band, and as the people that we are, is a peaceful yet assertive act of resistance. We write music we believe in that comes from our hearts. It’s not manufactured after testing public opinion, staying up to date on the newest trend of the hour with the intention of selling as many units of it as possible. My point is that when anyone acts from their gut- according to their conscience and true desires, they immediately become revolutionary in a society that values false appearances, catch phrase headlines, insipid internet popularity contests and E! Entertainment News.
Do you think making the hidden ‘visible’ is an important aspect of art?
DW: Yes, I do think that is an important aspect of art. In my opinion, people who create true art are making the hidden visible. Whether the artist chooses to be direct or abstract with getting their message across that doesn’t matter. Art should make you think. The rest is just bland drivel to numb your mind.
I was fascinated to read that ‘H-p1’ was in part ,at least, a response to the capture of the US Government by corporate power and the one dimensional top down narrative that blocks space for discussion (3). What aspects of that situation were you confronting on ‘H-p1’? Is that a situation you see improving in the US or do you think the corporate state is now established? If so, how do you see the situation being rectified?
EGO: H-p1 explores the rabid consumerism that corporations have infected society with by creating cheaply-made, quickly out-dated, disposable products and the imbalance it creates within the world. To my knowledge the situation is only getting worse in the United States. Corporations seem to have free reign to violate all kinds of laws without ever suffering repercussions. They can even freely and legally hire lobbyists to persuade politicians to rewrite laws in their favour. Money is the only thing that seems to talk in this country though we all have to listen to a load of hypocritical bullshit from the politicians.
I think the system can only be rectified by people turning to a more community based way of doing business- in smaller groups. Corporations initially sold themselves to people by offering them better deals. For instance, Walmart had a technique of opening 2 of their stores on either side of town and then after crushing their local competition, they’d close one of the stores. In New York City, a huge string of corporate pharmacies have opened over the past 10 years. They used to offer discounted prices over local competitors, though now that a lot of the competition has disappeared and people have made a habit of shopping at these stores they can raise their prices without losing the business. People believe they’re getting a better deal- either because of force of habit, misleading advertising, tricky marketing techniques or just mistaken beliefs/myths about a big corporation being able to offer you a better deal. We need to stop supporting businesses we don’t believe in. We need to buy less and buy right: shop somewhere local and pay a bit more for better quality. We also need to think less about buying stuff and more about connecting with our communities in a way that benefits everyone- for example creating community gardens, forming a childcare share group or a local business owner’s association to help encourage everyone’s success.
DW: If you take profit away from the corporate structure, it will not have the power it does now. We as individuals have the power to choose where and how we spend our money. If each and everyone of us thought about that and what we are supporting when we purchase something I think people’s buying habits would change. If we get the money out of the corporate hand(s) and support local small businesses the paradigm of power will change.
Corporate capitalism’s most brazen trick is to try and pass itself off as natural, attempting to convince us that no other world is possible. The Situationists wrote about this in 1950s/60s referring to it as ‘the spectacle’ (4) — Society and culture dominated by a seamless representation of a capitalist version of the world via the media, state and corporations, the oppressed internalising those values and any dissent marginalised or co-opted. ‘So You Are…So You’ll Be’ considered the individual’s response to this situation-what conclusions did you reach?
DW: ‘So You Are…So You’ll Be’ is a meditation for one to think about how they personally fit into this paradigm. As I mentioned before I’m not here to tell people how to think, I merely ask questions and let all who are willing to listen make their own decisions.
There is an underlying theme to “So You Are…” and that theme is change. What is different now from years past? Have we as human kind really changed over the time we have existed? I’m not talking about technological change I’m talking about a higher consciousness. We believe ourselves to be at the top of the animal chain, but we are the only animal on the planet that does not live within harmony with it, so are we really as intelligent as we think we are?
The conclusion I came to is that things really don’t change. Technology may advance, but we as the human race keep on running around the same circle. There is always an elite that manipulates the masses and keeps them down. When the masses feel empowered they simply take down the elite power structure and the process starts all over again. So You Are…So You’ll Be. I do think that humans have a greater capacity for change, however there needs to be a massive shift in the collective conscious for that change to encompass a new way of existing where we live within harmony with all and we finally see us as an integral part of the universe, not the ‘end all’ being stuck with in it.
You mentioned that the new album, ‘Walks For Motorists’, contains social comment and context, could you expand on that?
EGO: The title itself is a comment on how people come to define and pigeon hole themselves. It came from a Welsh visitor guide of the same name that was produced in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s when it was popular to be a “motorist”. Obviously we all have a variety of roles in our lives that we can define- we’re pedestrians when walk down the street, we’re consumers when we go grocery shopping, we’re fans when we attend a concert. No big deal- it’s the tedious specificity of our language. The problem comes in when people use words with agendas to define themselves and as a matter of pride or psychological cohesion refuse to consider the complexities of issues. For example, voting for a politician simply because they belong to the party we belong to rather than really examining the person and their views. The danger in the US is there is always some politician blabbering about “family values” to push through some piece of legislation that doesn’t have anything to do with so called “family values”. But for a huge group of people in the country, the term “family values” is very powerful- so often they look no further than the catch phrase.
The song “£sd or USB” offers an open ended question to people. What will you choose to use to tune into the world or completely drop out? Lately when I walk around New York, especially Brooklyn, there’s a lot of iPhone zombies roaming the streets. They stare at their screens while blocking sidewalks or cluelessly walking out in front of traffic. It’s as if they can’t be away from the screen for a moment- they might miss a text, lose their way on the map, miss out on someone liking their photo. It’s worse than crystal meth! But the phone isn’t the problem, just in the same way that drugs aren’t the problem. People are the problem! So many of us seem to be missing out on the desire and willpower to evolve. Technology is growing so fast and creating so many amazing possibilities for improving our lives and our consciousness- but why is it that so many people use it to just check out mentally, bully others, obsess on old lovers, and consume? We all have the capacity to do much better.
We live in societies that encourage us to derive our self identity from consumption, which I think you addressed on ‘H-p1’ (1) -how do you counter that? John Holloway argues that our sense of self should be sourced in our collective efforts to improve situations, in acts of collective creativity and community (5).
EGO: The sense of having purpose is lost on many people and contributes to a society of psychologically twisted, confused and/or medicated people that have forgotten how to be useful members of the community. People are so concerned with making money- because it is necessary! Not once has my landlord excepted my musical ability or goodwill in exchange for rent. But from my personal point of view, the optimum goal in life is to spend your time creating something of value to yourself and others and to be able to survive (eat well, have a roof over your head) doing so. I think the problem starts when we go beyond providing for ourselves and just get greedy- valuing money over all else. That’s why in the music business it’s hard to find a supportive record label. The current model is to sign up a band that has some buzz and then if they don’t deliver profit almost immediately to drop them. It’s like day trading and it doesn’t allow for an artist’s growth or anything interesting that’s not instantly “trending”. It banks on people’s lack of focus fostered by looking at too many fucking links on the internet under the guise of becoming “better informed”. Many neurologists have done studies that show that focusing on too many items at once weakens the power of the frontal cortex. I think all of us that have a computer and/or smartphone know this from experience. We might turn on the computer to work on an interview, then remember we need to send an email, then while opening up the browser remember to search the internet for an answer to a technical question and suddenly hours have passed by with seemingly no real positive action.
The first real way I learned to counter lack of focus and resist the urge to over consume was through practicing Bikram yoga. It’s a very disciplined practice done in a hot room 40º C (104º F) for 90 minutes and it involves focusing on your breath and learning to find comfort and stillness regardless of the heat. You learn to go from maximum effort to complete stillness from pose to pose and you learn to resist the urge to wipe away sweat, drink water or let your mind wander. The practice really helped me identify how consumption is usually a psychological pacifier: I feel sad or inadequate so I’ll buy some new clothes or a second cup of coffee. I’ve learned to think about my purchases in a different way and better understand the difference between NEED and WANT. Ultimately all suffering comes from WANT, of which materialism encourages an endless supply: a newer this, a faster that, bigger, prettier, etc. You have to learn to find contentment now and always- on the day you lose your job, on your wedding day, in the sweltering heat, in the blistering cold and on a perfect sunny cool day. Nothing from the outside can bring you that contentment if you don’t cultivate it within yourself.
I like how John Holloway refers to “cracks in the rule of money”. These are the things that a thinking person sees in the world that give a burst of hope. It can be music you hear that touches you in a way you can’t really explain, a group of people that gather together to protest, or walking through a forest and noticing the beauty of the trees. Sometimes we’re get so stressed out about money that we forget it is truly meaningless. I seriously doubt anyone on their deathbed regrets not making more money.
Nic Endo has on her Twitter page that “There is purity in noise, which can serve as a very direct way of communicating emotion…” (6). Is White Hills music sometimes a transposing of emotion into sound or more conceptual? Would you see it as the musical equivalent of abstract art, the transposing of ideas and concepts, experiences and emotions into another form?
EGO: White Hills’ music is always a transposing of emotion even when we consciously decide to create something conceptual. Much of our work has started from a simple riff line that has grown organically through playing it live, allowing the separate instruments to take root or bloom as inspiration takes them. I think music and dance are the purest and most powerful languages we have on earth. They allow for a more universal expression of real truths about existence that we can all relate to. Words often confuse meaning more than clarifying it.
Some artists find their work is more complete live-in the interaction of band and audience-does the live setting bring an extra dimension to your work?
EGO: Playing the music live in front of an audience creates the potential for magic and spontaneity. Dave’s guitar work on much of the material changes from show to show and I think he often feeds off the energy of the audience so that no two shows are ever the same. There’s also something powerful about the artist actually showing the audience the music. It becomes a more active experience for everyone. The audience is never really passive in the way that someone listening to music at home or on headphones is. Your eyes dart around the stage checking out the drummer, the bassist, the guitarist, the singer. You notice new things: the melody that you thought was a guitar is actually played on the bass, the bass player is a chick! who knew?, the guitarist uses a combination of effects pedals to create crazy sounds you might have thought were synthesizers. There’s a whole new layer of information that embellishes and enriches the experience of listening. As a player, you can watch the audience and literally see when your music is moving people.
In March this year you released ‘I Remain In’ on a ‘God Unknown’ split with Mugstar, how did that come about?
DW: We’ve been friends with Mugstar for quite some time now. Jason and I have been speaking about doing some kind of split together since both our bands appeared on the Trensmat singles collection celebrating the music of Hawkwind. When Jason approached me about starting up God Unknown, he asked if I would be interested in having WHITE HILLS be one of the releases with Mugstar. I didn’t have to think about it at all, I agreed right away.
How about your own evolution! Over the period you have been writing lyrics and music has the subject matter changed as well as your own understandings? What cultural resources (writers/thinkers/musicians/etc) have you drawn on, and been influenced by, as people and musicians?
EGO: Here’s a small list of some of the people that have in some way inspired, influenced or moved me: Gilda Radner, Bob Fosse, Jim Henson, Nick Cave, Siouxsie Sioux, Albert Camus, John Waters, Jimmy Page, Pedro Almodovar, Amy Sedaris, Lucas Samaras, Dostoevsky, Fritz Lang, Exene Cervenka, Spaulding Gray, Peter Sellars, Wayne Coyne, Albert Einstein, Freddie Mercury, Iggy Pop, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Wilson, Salvador Dali, Werner Herzog and a million others I’ll remember tomorrow and wish I listed.
DW: Buckminster Fuller has been a big influence on me. What a different world we’d live in if the powers that be of his time put into actions his ideas and inventions. Writers; Hunter S. Thompson, Aldous Huxley, Voltaire, Jospeh Campbell, Italo Calvino, Albert Camus are so many others . Musically I’ve always been drawn to artists/groups that push the boundaries of what is normal at the time. People like John Cage, Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis to bands like PiL, Einstuzende Neubauten and Throbbing Gristle. To be honest there are so many bands, artists, writers and philosophers I could name here it’s numbing.
As for my own art, I’ve always been one that explores what some might see as heavy issues. It’s what draws me to create and what keeps me sane. In my early stages of writing, I was more pointed, forceful and opinionated within the subject matter. Now I find my work to be more conceptual and abstract. Why I’m not sure. It’s just how I see the way my process, and it’s end results, has developed.
Massive thanks to Dave and Ego for their time, insights and wisdom.
Pic: Chris Carlone
(1) Terich, J. (2013) ‘w: White Hills’ http://www.treblezine.com/interview-white-hills/
(3) Hewitt, B. ‘BBC Review’ of ‘H-p1’ at http://www.amazon.co.uk/H-P1-White-Hills/dp/B004XKBCMS/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1431020800&sr=1-1&keywords=h-p1
(4) Debord, G. (1968) ‘The Society of the Spectacle’. Black and Red, USA.
(5) Holloway, J. (2005) ‘Change the World Without Taking Power’, Pluto Press, London and New York.