This weekend, Austin-based but Dallas-raised White Denim headlined the inaugural Gorilla vs. Bear Festival at the Granada Theater in Dallas. In an ad for the festival, the verbiage refers to the band as “Austin’s Best Kept Secret.” This is, of course, the same White Denim who will spend most of August playing venues such as the Reading and Leeds festivals (approximate daily attendance: 80,000) and similar festivals such as Way Out West in Sweden and Pukkelpop in Belgium, along with headlining gigs at the likes of London’s Electric Ballroom and Paris’ Nouveau Casino.
What the well-intentioned ad implied wasn’t so much inaccurate as geographically misplaced: Like Austin acts before them from Dale Watson to Explosions In The Sky, White Denim’s music is rather out of lockstep with trends, and it found large-scale UK and Continental European audiences long before gaining momentum on the group’s home turf.
But after years of self-releasing records and touring without label support, the band’s US fortunes seem to be changing. The May release of fourth album D on Downtown Records (also home to M.I.A., Gnarls Barkley and Justice) has catapulted White Denim into a new realm, one where Rolling Stone reviews their records and their striking [and wildly creative] videos are finding a wider audience.
It’s worth noting that the positive press on D may be more visible due to major label PR, but that’s not the primary cause for the accolades. The new LP is the most polished and immediately accessible of the group’s releases, due in large part to a bigger studio budget and a focus on precision throughout that dragged the recording on for eight months and actually wore through the band’s patience in 2010 (to ease their frustration, they actually cut a different record, last day of summer, for a simple musical and mental release.)
London’s music writer love isn’t shocking; [White Denim] frontman James Petralli has opined in interviews that playing London can feel more like a hometown gig than Austin.
The British press fawned this spring; The Independent gave D a 5-star review and marveled, “Is there nothing they can’t do?”, while Q, Mojo and The Guardian each awarded the record four stars and described the album as both “thrillingly off kilter” and “fiercely experimental, playful and talented.” London’s music writer love isn’t shocking; frontman James Petralli has opined in interviews that playing London can feel more like a hometown gig than Austin. But the tides are turning, as evidenced by Rolling Stone’s inclusion of the group not just in their reviews (which likened the group to peak-era Grateful Dead) but also on a recent “Hot List” alongside Bjork, Wilco and Nas.
In a notable plot twist, the tipping point for White Denim’s U.S. visibility may actually accidentally end up coming from their strong sense of visual collaboration rather than their musical chops. Rolling Stone’s “Hot List” mention was for the video for “Street Joy,” which drops the group into the role of high school prom band circa 1988, complete with bright and shiny tuxedos and grainy VHS-style camerawork. The video has logged nearly 30,000 views in its first month online. Austin film collective Birds On Fire produced the video.
All told, the fortunes of any band regardless of genre are quite different in 2011 than they were a decade ago: bands now make a living largely through touring and merchandise, not by selling records, and the positive word-of-mouth White Denim have earned through several years in a van seem poised to move them from ‘large cult band’ to something, well, bigger over the coming year.
In the meantime, it would be wise to take advantage of their once-a-month or so Antone’s gigs to catch them right this second – because White Denim are likely to outgrow that room far sooner than you think.