As the main man in Texan fusion rockers White Denim, James Petralli carries quite a lot of pressure on his denim-clad shoulders. Main songwriter, front man and generally the stitching on the garment, Petralli’s naturally affable nature shines through; even in the face of ostensibly relentless obstacles. It very clearly hasn’t always been easy, nor has he always managed to keep his ducks in a row, but when State sat down with him before their Dublin appearance this month we couldn’t help but be won over and encouraged by his focus and determination to keep this highly regarded show on the road. With their seventh album gaining all manner of praise for its depth and richness, State tried to understand what has been the driving force behind one of the years best releases.
So there have been a few changes since we saw you last… and even then there were a few changes happening.
Yeah, there have been some alterations. The band has existed in one form or another since 2005 but we’ve had a few line-up changes. We’ve generally had the same core band though. And not always as a four piece either, I think we put out our first single in 2006 as a trio and we stayed that way for about five years before finally becoming a quartet.
Besides the obvious, how have things changed? And where have you been since 2013?
Well it’s still rock and roll music, but we approach it in a more traditional way than a lot of contemporary bands do. By that I mean our influences are kind of obvious. On this record you can hear Thin Lizzy, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix and a whole lot of jazz. Specifically the Post Cool era Coltraine, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus… uh, yeah we’re total fuckin’ musos. But this record is more R&B than the rest, there are definitely some shuffles on there. It’s definitely a goal of ours to have our influences come through clearly on the record though, it gives music a timeless kind of feel to just have a band in a room playing together – think of it this way, how better to acknowledge your influences than to record the way they did, do it the old way.
The time between Corsicana Lemonade and Stiff was due to a few factors.. I released a solo album [under the name Bop English] and myself and Steve toured it for a while… and we kind of focused on that but the other band members had discovered this gospel, soul guy called Leon Bridges and had started playing with him. I think over time they just wanted to move in different directions and eventually joined his band full-time.
That must have gone down well…
I wasn’t thrilled about it but I completely understand; the kid [Bridges] definitely has something and the guys felt that this was where they wanted to be. I think, well for me anyway, I like being at this point as a musician. Those guys are music-school guys and they studied and developed skill sets that I don’t posses so they saw this opportunity and it was great for them; plus as a business opportunity it made sense too. With their backgrounds it was a natural step for them but, for Steve and I, this band was what we wanted to do. But there is so much in the blues, I mean you could study for years and only scrape the surface. There are genre studies within the blues so to be able to understand it on that level and then to play it and inspire people is incredible, these guys can do it so I wish them well. So… the two guys we brought in are no longer playing with us either so we kind of have a rotating cast right now, ha!
We’ve actually had three different drummers in the last two months… but we have a really young drummer called Jeffrey Olson now and this guy is fresh out of music college but you should hear him play, he is a fully formed musician on every level. And our guitarist is playing what is only his third show with us tonight, there have been a lot of rehearsals! I was lucky to have Josh [Block] for 10 years though. With drummers I always encourage them to play rather than just drum. I’ll put them front and center if they want because they are musicians first and foremost. To me though all the energy of a concert or a composition comes from the drummer, leading from the back so to speak. I would love to be able to play drums myself actually. I have a couple of kits at home but I am nowhere near the level I’d like to be at. I have the utmost respect for drummers who can play well.
How much of an impact did all of that upheaval have on you creatively? Did it direct your focus away from writing for White Denim?
Not a whole lot, really. The first few years I just had this goal of reaching 100 published songs, right the way up to the Bop English record I was writing all the time but after that I got wrapped up in the production side of things that I kind of eased up on the writing. That was a double-album and it was 20 songs, it was a slog I won’t lie. I mean, by the end of it I had been so engulfed with the production and the studio work that the last thing I wanted to do was write. I kind of took a break from it and this record was kind of like, oh shit – I have to write this. I didn’t feel pressured or anything like that, but we booked studio time and booked a producer but I was like, I have no songs dude, ha ha. But that said, the writing process is great for me. I just sit in my garage for six hours straight for something like two or three weeks and it was so intense. But the result was this record that we’re touring now. I really just wanted to make a good-time record though – a record that people could put on and have fun with. Everything from the grooves to the lyrics are not so serious. I mean, there are serious songs but this is rock and roll. It’s supposed to be real and fun. But think about it, when you see a band or hear a record and something jumps out, something a drummer does or a bass player or whatever, if you crack a smile that’s music doing its job.
What was it like working with Ethan Johns?
He has a very specific way of working, let’s just say his way is the right way…ha ha! But hey, with his track record who are we to argue. We went in with whatever songs we had and hooked up to equipment that was all older than we were, literally nothing made after the 70s. Just four guys looking at each other in a room. The old band, before this tour, we had been playing for so long together that it was almost telepathic. Even when were improvising we could almost guess where things are going. Now there is a bit more concentration and we do tend to look at each other more.
A lot of bands are terrified of line up changes but some actually welcome the dynamic shift.
I’ll tell you, there have been some really surprising moments that came from being almost a new band. On the last tour we used to play some back-catalogue stuff; songs that were so familiar for us but they were all from around the Workout Holiday time and there was nothing really new happening. But over the course of the tour, because the drummer we had at the time was so incredible, they all became favourites of ours all over again just because of what he brought to them. Even the audience felt it. People who had seen us six or seven times were telling us about how different it was. I think that’s the benefit of a good drummer. Complacency can sneak in though; even if you know you are committed and working your hardest it can still happen. That’s music for you; you have to be engaged – it’s like a conversation. Although I always maintain that there is no substitute for a well rehearsed band, that first jam with somebody, when you’re playing and something hits, that’s the feeling.
White Denim photographed for State by Olga Kuzmenko.