From first wail, the scene that Canadian nu-punk act White Lung evokes is unmistakable: Fists hammer recklessly into the body of a sweaty stranger. There is blood soaking the beer and steam rising from the writhing of an over-packed audience. Screams pierce it, devil screams cutting over raised fingers and battle cries of the rabble below. Imperceptible as they are, these people know the words, and under the glare of hot lights that skim duct tape on instruments, the tattered jacket of punk rock is stitched anew.
While this scene may be an embellishment, singer Mish Way, drummer Anne Marie Vassiliou, bassist Grady MacIntosh, and guitarist Kenny McCorkell bare a psychic link to this type of imagery. Between their band’s stinging guitar and vocal pricks, they manage to evoke the melodic anarchy of X while maintaining Sleater Kinney’s empowered outlook. As Way says, “We do better in tight quarters. Not to sound so granola, but the energy and crowd is kind of everything.”
That energy is about to be put to the test. This distinct set of influences recently piqued the interest of indie automatons Pitchfork, earning the group a slot on the site’s yearly Chicago festival of essential artists. You could be there too, by snapping a pic of yourself donning RayBan’s new Aluminum Clubmaster shades (available only at Sunglass Hut). In anticipation of the festival, White Lung’s barb-tongued singer Mish Way spoke with Flavorwire about the band’s ever-shifting audience, the thrill of the underground, and what its like to kill all of your idols.
Do the raw wiles of punk-infused anthems translate in front of an indie audience? Given this year’s unofficial focus on grunge and off-kilter hardcore, it certainly seems like the fest’s organizers are betting on it. White Lung will play alongside sludgy howler Pissed Jeans, post-No Wave noisemaker Swans, second-generation grunger Metz, and former pop punker (now a fiery acoustic act) Waxahatchee.
The band’s sophomore album, Sorry, has received accolades from mainstream outlets like Spin and Rolling Stone alongside the endorsements of more underground institutions like Razor Cake, Magnet, and Pitchfork. It was released on Deranged Records, a label which has played host to similar hardcore-indie shapeshifters like the Men and Fucked Up.
This kind of across-the-board acclaim is a tricky feat to pull, but the band has managed to straddle both ends without receiving the “sell out!” cries that often accompany mainstream interest in punk-affiliated acts. It seems the band has a pretty clear idea of what it’s after. “There’s no level that would change our intent,” says Way. “We just want to make intelligent records, have people affected by them, and play shows.”
Back to basics. White Lung owes a great deal of its inspiration to the titans of punk rock, hardcore and riot grrrl. But do they feel a necessary devotion to those genres’ underlying ethos? “It can become a hindrance in the sense that the music as a political form is always personal, and people have certain expectations of you that you can’t possibly meet,” says Way. “Today it’s hard to make good music. It’s overloaded. So smart bands are the ones who both pay homage to their genre while also challenging the structure of that musical type. It’s not easy to do.”
And yet, the band manages to meet these expectations and often exceed them with a wry wit that is devilishly appealing. Perhaps it’s because its members don’t feel a need to justify success to that kind of brackish mob. “Things might change. We will adapt. That’s life,” says Way.
With their sophomore release, change seems just around the corner. As Pitchfork proclaimed: “[D]espite White Lung’s threatening devotion to the more venomous corners of rapid-fire punk, Sorry is compulsively listenable due in no small part to singer Mish Way’s successful pinning of a sweet spot between snarled yells, curled syllables, and melodic but equally intimidating, tobacco-tattered verse.”
Yet another divide emerges with this sort of analysis: accessibility that also manages to attack. It is no doubt this combination, alongside a dogged tour schedule, that accounts for the band’s ever-widening audience.
But who exactly is in that audience? Given the preponderance of slick-shined emo and pop-punk acts in the last decade, it’s fascinating to see a band with similar influences (if not aesthetics) skirt that track and instead make its way under the auspices of indie. After all, their first big break came in the form of a cover story by punk’s long-running arbiter of taste, Maximum Rock n’ Roll, a staunch champion of all things un-indie.
Posed the question of how the band ended up on the Pitchfork bill as opposed to, say, the Warped Tour, Way says only, “There is no accounting for taste.”
Easy for her to say: hers is a band that appeals to everyone.