By Roy Kasten
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Few debut albums sound as fully formed as the White Rabbits' Fort Nightly. The sextet plays smart, collegiate indie-rock that while not strictly danceable incorporates Latin-tinged rhythms and bouncy, syncopated piano lines. And while the band of Midwestern kids has defected to New York to join the indie-rock rabbit chase, White Rabbits has roots in St. Louis and more specifically, at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Singer and guitarist Greg Roberts is reached by phone as the band arrives in Ithaca, New York, a few hours before White Rabbits is scheduled to open for another Brooklyn-by-way-of-the-Midwest band, The National. Roberts, along with drummer Matt Clark and percussionist Jamie Levinson, grew up in Webster Groves. At 29, he's also the second-oldest member of the band, and recalls hanging out at the now-defunct Bastille's and playing in a few unremarkable high school bands as he says, "the same garage bands everybody plays in."
The members of White Rabbits met in Columbia while at college, which is where some of them, Roberts included, played in the aggressive punk outfit the Texas Chainsaw Mass Choir. That band enjoyed some regional success, though Roberts claims that it wasn't a band built to last.
"That was just something that we did for fun in college and it was a lot fun," he says. "And then we kinda lost interest in that. You get a little older and decide to stop screaming at the top of your lungs."
The move away from the loud, in-your-face sound of their old band led Roberts and company to start White Rabbits about three years ago. From the start, the band set out to be a pop band that told stories and one that highlighted melody and harmonies over noise and volume. The singer says that while pop music may be more accessible, it leaves the musicians a bit more exposed.
"Everybody deep down likes pop music," Roberts says. "For whatever reason, maybe 'cause it's kind of cathartic, people like to play loud and fast stuff. [But] it's nice to try pop music, which is scarier you can't hide behind a wall of noise."
The songs on Fort Nightlybegan to take shape in the year leading up to its recording. According to Roberts, the first batch of songs were inspired by a few sonic touchstones (second-wave ska, girl groups and British pop). As the songwriting process progressed, the band began to reference themselves, writing songs that fit, sonically and lyrically, with their earlier compositions.
"I feel like we started out that way we had certain reference points, but the later songs were based on the other songs we had written," Roberts explains. "We started using our songs as a reference point." The circular nature of the songwriting process yielded a surprisingly cohesive debut record, one that introduces a series of scenarios and characters amid infectious pop music.
The opening track, "Kid On My Shoulders," bounces along to a series of low-end piano runs, as slightly jagged guitars throw bursts of static over the calypso-flecked rhythm. By the time the band launches into the coda, it's clear that there's some serious pop-smithery at work here Roberts leads the band in repetition of the couplet "We held our tongues throughout it/Someday we'll laugh about it." The album's penultimate track, "Reprise," picks up this coda and places it in a new context: that of a 3 a.m. band rehearsal where a ragtime piano and ragged drum set guide a punch-drunk gaggle of singers through the lyrics.
Certainly the lyrical unity of songs such as "Kid on My Shoulders" and "Reprise" stick out on first listen, but the band reaches for an overarching unity in its lyrics, one that harkens to some of pop's most idiosyncratic songwriters. In fact, the White Rabbits recorded a hazy but inspired version of Randy Newman's "The Beehive State" for its live session on Daytrotter.com a choice that not only shows a deep knowledge of pop music, but reminds listeners that the sextet contains some of the finest stylists to emerge in this year's crop of new bands.
"Lyrically, Steve [Patterson, pianist and co-singer] and I looked to Randy Newman and Shane MacGowan of the Pogues as reference points for little vignettes, these kind of fictional first-person narrative songs," Roberts says. He appreciates the narrative distance that this type of songwriting allows, where it's less about the singer and more about the characters in the song. "I guess it's kind of easier to do that. You can be a little more tongue-in-cheek and a little more detached [like] Squeeze songs like 'Up the Junction' and these little kitchen-sink dramas that [Squeeze songwriters Chris] Difford and [Glenn] Tilbrook would write."
In listening to Fort Nightly,it's easy to see why the band gravitated to these songwriters, whose egoless lyrics keep the listener entranced in the world of the song. But Roberts also notes a few other key influences who the band looked to in the writing and recording process, such as Phil Spector, the Band and the Specials. The latter, the famed two-tone ska band from Coventry, England, left its mark on "March of the Camels," with syncopated guitar upstrokes and skittering hi-hats leading into a demented chorus of "ya-ya-ya's" in an obvious nod to the Specials' epic single "Ghost Town."
Still, whatever the combination of old and new styles the band employs, it seems to be catching on. Later this month White Rabbits will open for the Kaiser Chiefs, the British quintet that mines a similar strip of classic pop with big hooks and unstoppable choruses. Then there was the little matter of the band's first national television appearance, which took place earlier this summer on Late Night with David Letterman. For a new band with a just-released album on a tiny indie label (Say Hey Records), the appearance was nothing short of a coup. A month after the taping, Roberts still sounds like he doesn't fully believe that it happened.
"We were told a couple months before we were on it of course we called our families and friends and let them know," he says. "And then we didn't hear anything for a few weeks, so it was a little nerve-wracking." Sure enough, the band performed in late July, playing the lead single "The Plot" while bedecked in khaki and tweed.
The band's show at Off Broadway will be one of its first in St. Louis, and while it would be a stretch to call the show a homecoming, Roberts looks forward to the show as a brief respite from a series of tours, both at home and abroad. "We're looking forward to coming back through. Hopefully the families and high school friends will drop in and say hey."