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Band Notes: White Rabbits

The Brooklyn-based indie band’s Alex Even talks to Washingtonian ahead of their show at Black Cat on Wednesday.

Photograph by Derrick Santini.

With six members, including two percussionists, the Brooklyn-based band White Rabbits have gained a reputation for delivering a whole lot of bang on their melodic, layered tracks. Their third full-length album, Milk Famous, is loaded with drum-heavy beats bubbling under intricate arrangements. Lulling, rhythmic songs like “Back for More” and the creaky first single, “Heavy Metal,” offer contained chaos as they build up but never actually erupt, while more frenetic tunes like “Temporary” and “I’m Not Me” recall the band’s throbbing 2009 single “Percussion Gun.”

Milk Famous comes out March 6, and White Rabbits is celebrating by hitting the road for a lengthy tour that’ll feature opening acts by husband-and-wife duoTennis. Having shared stages with Interpol, Spoon, and the Walkmen, the guys are seasoned live performers—something Washingtonians will get to see firsthand at the Black Cat this Wednesday, March 7. Guitarist and vocalist Alex Even made some time amid nonstop rehearsals to chat with us about the tour, the new album, his can’t-miss Washington food fixes, and why this week’s concert will be way better than one of their last local shows.

White Rabbits has two lead drummers, and some of your other band members are former drummers. You play guitar and also do some vocals with frontmen Stephen Patterson and Greg Roberts. With such a multitalented group, how did you arrange parts on Milk Famous?

When we’re writing material, we don’t even really think about a live band arrangement or how we’re gonna do it. With the personnel we have, we try to come at each song thinking about what sounds the songs will demand. Thankfully, we’re a band where everybody is a multi-instrumentalist, so there’s never really a lack of things for us to do. We don’t go into our songs thinking, “What are our two drummers gonna do?” It’s more what kind of, “What songs do we want to write and how do we want them to sound?” Those are our guiding principles as far as arrangements.

Your last album, It’s Frightening, was produced by Britt Daniel, the lead singer and guitarist of Spoon. Milk Famous was produced by Mike McCarthy, who’s produced albums by Spoon as well as And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. How did the change in producers shift the sounds on the two albums?

The two experiences were vastly different for a number of reasons. One, when we were working with Britt, it was one of his first experiences producing, so it was new for both of us. In that sense, [ It’s Frightening] was very fun and exploratory and kind of flew by the seat of its pants. We also recorded that album in, like, four weeks, so it was very, very fast and there was not a lot of time to think about things or edit or change. For this record, we decided to go the complete opposite way and spend a lot of time on it. We lived in Austin for three months and worked with Mike, and I think it yielded more nuances. I feel like this is definitely a deliberate record. Everything that’s on there is meant to be on there and meant to be heard in the way it’s happening.

Was any of it written in Austin?

We wrote it in New York, but we recorded it in Austin. There was definitely still some composing going on while we were in Austin—you’re on the ground and circumstances change, and you have to write things on the fly.

This is the third record now. If you had to look at all three albums, how would you describe the trajectory of the band’s sound?

That’s hard for me, because I’m in it and I don’t have a lot of perspective. I write songs I think are cool, and the rest of the dudes do the same thing. But I feel like the first record was very big-sounding. We had all these people who could play, and everyone played at the same time. The reaction against that on the second record was, “Let’s see how restrained we can be and still make compelling music.” And I feel like this record is maybe more of a combination of the two—exercising restraint as a musician but also knowing when to push things over the edge and go big the way only we can because we have so many people.

Why the album title, Milk Famous?

(Laughs) I think phonetically it sounds nice—“milk famous.” The tone of that has decent qualities. Beyond that, I think you’d get different answers from everybody in the band. It appealed to me because I found the irony of what it suggests intriguing—to be known for being missing, the mug shot of a kid on the side of a milk carton that catapults into some infamous sort of celebrity . . . being known, but it’s for this terrible reason. I felt that had some emotional resonance with some of the lyrical content on the record.

Which tracks are you particularly proud of?

The first track, “Heavy Metal,” is my favorite song, I think, but it’s also a song I hate because it was a lot of work and it was very difficult. Right up to the end of recording, it was a struggle to make it how we heard it in our heads. But I think for that reason it’s also satisfying to me personally, because it turned out how I wanted. I feel like it was a creative leap for us into waters that we’re not too familiar with.

The video for “Heavy Metal” just came out, and it’s kind of hypnotic and eerie, but also visually stunning. How did the concept for that come about?

My friend Andrew Palermo developed the idea for it and directed it. It started off as a very simple idea: There are a lot of looping things in the song, a lot of backward and forward. There’s a repetitive, drone-y quality to it, and Andrew was interested in visually replicating that. The idea started with, “Well, we should use animated gifs and just make a video composed of these animated gifs, but the subject material will be sort of banal and mundane.” And the idea grew from there.

You’re playing on The Late Show With David Letterman soon. Your first performance there was named one of the 12 best late-night performances of 2009 by Stereogum. How are you feeling about this upcoming performance?

[Laughs] That was very nice of them to say that. I’m extremely nervous every single time, and I’m still going to be nervous this time. But we’ll do our best and hopefully won’t mess up.

You’re now based in Brooklyn, which is a hotbed for new music. Are there any bands in that neighborhood that you see frequently and enjoy or are particularly excited about?

I feel like we’re not totally hooked into the Brooklyn scene. Mostly when we’re not on the road, we’re in our rehearsal space writing, so there’s not a lot of opportunity to be totally social. But the few bands that I know and am friends with are amazing—this band Caveman is really good, the band Glass Ghost is awesome. Also, I don’t know her personally, but I really like Sharon Van Etten. She’s really good.

Are you guys excited to come to Washington?

I’m so excited. DC’s always really fun. I have family who lived there for a long time. I’m familiar with the city. My brother and his wife used to live sort of close to the Black Cat. He moved to New York last year, but before then we’d stay with him when we played in DC. He lived within walking distance of Ben’s Chili Bowl. That’s always one of our stops.

While we’re on the subject of staying in Washington, your bandmate Stephen told LAist about one show you played here a couple of years ago that got kind of crazy . . .

Oh yeah? What did he say?

I think he said the band had gone out the night before, and it ended up being one of the worst shows he can remember. Does that ring any bells?

[Laughs] Oh, I do remember one show in DC at the Rock & Roll Hotel, and it was the last show of a six-week tour, or something really grueling. And because it was the last show, we decided to celebrate probably a little too soon. And by the time we were onstage, it was a disaster. Yeah . . . it was a spectacle. I hope people enjoyed it for that. [Laughs] I hope people come out to the next show.

I don’t want you to give too much away, but you’re known for putting a twist on a lot of your songs and mixing in some covers. Can you reveal anything Washingtonians should look forward to at your upcoming show?

We’re gonna have stage dancers and . . . [laughs] No, I don’t know. I feel like at least for this first tour, we’re pretty interested in seeing how close we can stay to the actual record for the newer songs. But generally, we kind of get bored of that by the third weekend and start to change things. I think we may have ADD collectively. But we’ll be playing some old stuff we haven’t played in a while that we sort of re-created in a way that we think is cool now, and we’ll be playing pretty much all the new songs. We’ve been rehearsing for the past month getting ready. I’m really excited; I think it’ll be great. This is the fun part coming up—getting to share things with people in an immediate way.

White Rabbits play the Black Cat this Wednesday, March 7. Tickets ($18) are available through the Black Cat’s website.