For any band, playing a headline show at London Wembley Arena is an amazing way to finish up touring an album. In December 2011, coming to the end of a year spent touring their second album ‘Ritual’, that moment came for White Lies. And it was as special for them and for their fans as they could ever have hoped. But given that it also represented the end of four years of non-stop working – they had gone straight in from the end of the dates in support of their UK Number One debut album into making the follow up – it also represented a full stop, and time for a break. Save for a few European shows here and there, 2012 was to be kept clear. Time to think. To re-think. To reflect on the great things that had been achieved already, and to think about what the next things to achieve could possibly be.
“Finishing up the touring cycle on that album, we definitely felt we’d learnt a lot, and learnt a lot about… what we didn’t want to do on this album,” says singer and guitarist Harry McVeigh. “The first thing was that we wanted to make everything about this album much more simple.”
In many ways, it’s a classic path for a band: put out hugely successful debut full of concise, punchy, direct songs that cannot fail to connect with an audience. Then decide that, now you have the world’s ear, it is time to experiment, and to innovate, to take risks, sonically. Then realise that you can distil all of what you’ve learnt from said adventures into something that retains the essence of who you are.
“We know our strengths now,” concurs bassist and lyricist Charles Cave. “And if we’re playing live, hearing how songs like ‘Death’ or ‘Bigger Than Us’ go down so well every night without fail, I think that for us on this record it was more like, ‘Right, now that we’ve identified that those are the kind of songs that people just attach themselves to emotionally, and are invested in emotionally, how can we do more of those, but also, better?’ And actually dissect what’s going on and be considered about it.”
Harry continues: “Our mind-set going in to the second album was that we wanted to make a sonically technical record in terms of production, and perhaps we favoured that over traditional song writing. I imagine it’s the way a band like Nine Inch Nails would approach making an album. But after doing that and after touring it, we realised that we didn’t want to do it again. On this album, we wanted to focus on the song writing more than the recording process. We realised that you can progress in that way, but the progression can be distilling what makes up White Lies. Literally chipping away at what we are to try and get to the pure heart of it.”
There was also what Harry describes as “an epiphany moment” for the band, when they collectively realised that what they were shooting for was much more elemental and pure than any notions of credibility or kudos. Or as he simply puts it: “We gave up on the idea of being cool.” Charles cites their first performance at Glastonbury as another point at which they got a sense of what it was that they really wanted to do. Having played their own set, which went down very well, they wandered around for the rest of the day taking in such alternative delights as The Horrors and Animal Collective, which they enjoyed. But it was the gigantic communal church of Bruce Springsteen, the climax on the main stage, that most connected with them. “And we’re not massive Springsteen fans,” he says “but it’s just a few experiences like that, that we’ve had over the years, seeing things connect like that, that make you realise what it’s all about.”
“Rather than new indie stuff,” he notes, “we still listen mostly to bands that made some significant imprint somewhere in time, and that’s still our aim. We shrugged off all desire to be in line with any kind of zeitgeist. We really don’t care about that. We’re aiming for purer things in our eyes. We’re trying to write at least one song that will, say, be on karaoke in 20-30 years. That’s the kind of ambition we have, as opposed to be in Wire magazine or something.”
With this new mind-set, and well rested and reconnected with normal life after the longest break they’d had in a while, Charles and Harry sat down to begin writing new songs. This time, though, in contrast to the sessions for the last album, there were to be self-imposed limitations. “When we were writing ‘Ritual’”, says Harry, “it was like, ‘Let’s throw loads of sounds into this and just have fun with it’. This time we needed to write in a really restrained way. So we wrote with one shitty synth sound, and a drum machine, and that’s it.”
The resulting bare bones demos – the sort of demos that, Charles smiles, “terrify the record label” – thus consisted of songs that had to be good enough to have an impact unbuoyed by even the simplest production frills. And they came quickly and organically. “‘First Time Caller’ was one of the first tracks, and that was a significant song. And then we got ‘Mother Tongue’, ‘There Goes Our Love Again’ and one other in about a month,” says Charles. “So we basically had four tracks in demo form, three of which are going to be singles – a lot different to the last record, where the more commercial stuff came later on, towards the end. And it’s very productive to do it that way round, because you’re then in a position where you’re looking for ballads and things, to space things out between, rather than being under pressure to come up with more commercial stuff. Songs like ‘Change’ and ‘Heaven Wait’ were written later in the studio. ‘Heaven Wait’ is essentially the chords of ‘Mother Tongue’ and the riff of ‘First Time Caller’, twisted into something else. But you can’t do that kind of thing unless you’ve nailed the bigger songs earlier on.”
Another key component in the creation of the third White Lies album and a pointer to what it would all be about came with the choice of producer. Ed Buller had produced ‘To Lose My Life’, but not worked on the band’s follow up. As Charles notes, “labels always want you to work with someone different”, but White Lies were so sure of what they wanted to achieve, that they knew who was needed. Just three months into the process, he was brought in. “We treat him like another member of the band,” says Charles. “His word isn’t golden by any means, but it’s a welcome opinion. It’s so great to have him come in on a song.” Harry: “We worked for about three months in his family home in north London, and about two months of that were just finessing the songs. We went in with five songs we thought were ready to go, and he stopped us in our tracks and made us do more work on them. Almost start over, in some cases. ‘Getting Even’, we worked through so many versions of that song with him. His work on the arrangement with that was amazing: it was definitely the one we toiled the most over.”
Bang in the middle of the writing process, too, came a song that would “sum up the record, both musically and lyrically”. For that reason, ‘Big TV’ is both the opening song and the title track of the third White Lies album. “It’s just thinking about ‘success’ and ‘making it’ and what success means in modern life,” Charles says. “Just that image of a big TV has come to be a representation of what this record, thematically, is about: in that it’s sort of shallow, and vacuous. And the album is now the story of a girl who leaves a small provincial town in Europe and goes to a big American city and ‘Big TV’ sets the scene. She’s in this apartment building, probably a shithole, and she’s spent all the money she has on a small bed and a big TV, and that’s all she’s got…”
The lyrics on that opening song are, no question about it, striking. But if all this sounds bleak, Charles, always the sole lyricist in the band, is keen to stress that it’s the opposite. He found that his band’s time off had afforded him time to “reconnect with old friends, and to make new friends.” Given that the lyrics had to be crafted to fit into the uplifting melodies, they largely ended up being more positive and direct and good-simple. ‘Tricky To Love’, the band note, is the White Lies song with the least actual words ever.
As Charles puts it: “The slightly more nick cave-y thing from the last two records has been phased out a bit, because I don’t see life like that any more. ‘Mother Tongue’ for example is a love song about language. So that’s more interesting to me than writing about death or whatever now. I’m 25, not 18.”
That’s exactly what ‘BIG TV’ is. The sound of young adults, confident in who they are, happy with their story thus far, striding purposefully forward, shooting for great things.