Lo-fi pop quartet White Birds is a young band, but it’s also kind of old. Before White Birds, three of the members used to play together in a group called Drink Up Buttercup, a band whose sound and tone were much different than White Birds’. After Drink Up Buttercup disbanded, James Harvey, Farzad Houshiarnejad and Mike Cammarata formed White Birds. Some supporting tour dates and a four-song EP released on a cassette tape soon followed.
White Birds released its debut full-length, When Women Played Drums, on the group’s Bandcamp page on Valentine’s Day. The 10-track LP is a series of ethereal, reverb songs steeped in sun-drenched nostalgia. CMJ called vocalist James Harvey up for an interview as he was about to go on a walk, a stroll that was disappointingly canceled because of rain.
Three of you guys used to be in a band before this. How did White Birds form out of that?
James Harvey: We just kind of made that band. The four of us got together and got stoned, and we sang some songs, and then we started playing them out, and everybody was kind of into how wild everything was. We got kind of sick of it not too far in, but then people kept wanting to see us play, so we kept playing. Every time we had a show to recreate the spectacle, which was a really natural thing in the beginning for us; it wasn’t contrived at all. But we took that and for the most part, the three of us that are in White Birds it seems like more chilled-out, pretty stuff, so we just kind of wanted to make what we like and what we would like to listen to instead of something that was born out of four dudes getting stoned in a barn.
When describing the band, there’s always the Brian Wilson comparison. But in an interview you said the Beach Boys wasn’t as direct an influence as people think. Who or what then are some of your primary influences?
I’m more of a song guy than anything else. I’m not really into specific bands as much—you know, like an entire catalog as I am a random song. But as far as the lo-fi recording influence goes, I always loved current stuff, like I really love Dirty Beaches and the sound of his recordings. We recorded various versions of the songs, and we ended up liking the lo-fi original recordings more. So yeah, hearing a band like Dirty Beaches or something and the fact that they’re putting out lo-fi stuff, or like Wavves and stuff like that—not that their newer album was like that—it just made me feel secure and relief that I felt was the right way to hear the songs. I felt like they had more honesty and heart to them. A lot more initial gut feeling let into the recording than when you try to redo and perfect something, so just hearing bands like Dirty Beaches, Wavves, stuff like that, their releasing the lo-fi type stuff kind of gave me some sense of confidence that there was an audience out there for that type of thing.
What was the recording process like for When Women Played Drums?
A few of the songs on the album we had coming together over the course of early 2011, and then I had a really, at the time, a really terrible breakup. And all of a sudden I just started writing songs like crazy. I would just record them as the feelings came to me, and like I said, that’s why we ended up sticking with the original versions because I felt they were much more heartfelt. So every time some big emotional thing would happen during the course of this breakup, a new song would come out of it. The album’s not necessarily in any order sequentially with what happened during the breakup, but yeah, it’s all just these little different stories of all the emotions I was feeling during that period of time in my life.
So would you say that’s the overarching story and theme of the album then?
Yeah, you know, I was with somebody over three years, like we were practically married, living together, whatever. And then one day it came crashing down, but then it dragged on forever like those things tend to do. So making this album really helped me get over that. And [I made] it with the other guys in the band who are my best friends, so having them there and doing something like creating an album about the end of a relationship like that really has some great healing power.
You guys seem to have a strong online presence, what with your Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook. How important has that been for the band?
Basically we’ve had this album finished since last summer, and we didn’t have a label or anything like that, so the only thing we had to get the music out to people was Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr, so obviously that’s something we didn’t want to go to waste. We definitely try to strongly use those sites to their full potential. And you know, you figure out new things every day, but I think we keep people who are interested updated with every little piece of new content we can.
The band has a record label now, though, right? Grizzly?
There’s been so much confusion with that. It’s actually really funny. I see the little Google Alerts every day pop up, and they’re like, “Oh yeah, the album on Grizzly Records.” But actually what happened was Chris, who plays guitar, bass and keyboards in the band, went to college with this guy named EJ who runs Grizzly, and he sent him some of the tracks, and he was like, “Yeah I’d love to put out a tape.” So we put out like a little album teaser, four-track tape in September when we were on tour with Asobi Seksu. And after a while we got kind of tired of waiting around to put the rest of the stuff out, so when the tape sold out, we decided to put out the entire record online. And you know, we might end up doing some kind of physical release for the full-length, but for right now we just have the four songs off the album that were released on Grizzly on a cassette tape and then the rest of the album. The only place you can get it is on our Bandcamp.
What was the inspiration behind releasing the four-song preview on a cassette tape?
Well honestly I think it’s the most affordable way to put out something physical. Vinyl costs a lot of money, and CDs just seem kind of, maybe it’s just me, but I feel like they don’t really have any value to them. You just burn them, throw them in a stack, whatever. I feel like people don’t really treat them with care, so that was an inspiration behind doing it on cassette instead of doing it on CD so to speak. So you know, more of an item that somebody can hold in their hand, and it’s not just a shiny thing that ends up in a pile of CD-Rs basically.
How involved were you guys with the music video for “Hondora?” It seems to share the same lo-fi aesthetic as your music.
I have some friends in a band called Mammal Of Paradise. And the woman who made the “Hondora” video, her name is Ashley Connor. She made a video for Mammal Of Paradise, and I saw it, and I was like, “OK, she is definitely on the same page as us as far as, you know, that kind of hazy visual look that our sound evokes.” And I hit her up, and I shared the same tune with her, and she was instantly all about it. We didn’t tell her what to do. We just said, “We like what you do already, so just do that.” And she did, so that was awesome.
What are the group’s plans for the rest of 2012?
Right now we’re not really focusing on touring as much as we are. We’ve just been recording more new material, a little bit higher quality stuff. We’re really excited about that.
Will those be entirely new releases or reworked versions of the songs on When Women Played Drums?
I believe they’re going to be new releases. We’ll probably end up putting a new EP or album together sometime before the end of the year. For us, we had a band that we toured with, and we saw what happens in the beginning when you’re just touring and you don’t have that much exposure yet, and it’s just kind of a fruitless venture. So we’re just going to do things right this time and keep putting out songs hopefully that people like, and then when enough people like them, we’ll go out on the road and play them for them live.