Lit Rock

White Rabbits conquer the underground rock scene, one thick novel at a time

Despite not having much formal education, White Rabbits' bassist Adam Russell has long led a literary lifestyle. He dropped out of high school at 16—years before his band played Late Night with David Letterman and signed to Radiohead's record label—because he was frustrated with teachers who regularly kicked him out of class for reading stuff like Moby-Dick, physics texts, and Nietzsche when he was supposed to be paying attention.

Over coffee and cigarettes in midtown Manhattan, Russell, who is now 23 and lives in Brooklyn, says he felt less freakish once he struck up a friendship with classmate Alex Even. "I just realized that he read books, too," Russell recalls of the boy who became the Rabbits' guitarist.

Growing up in Missouri's remote capital, Jefferson City, the pair regularly made the trip to Columbia, a hip college town 40 minutes away, to shop for CDs at a record store called Streetside. One of the store's clerks, Greg Roberts (now a guitarist in the band as well), offered Russell the chance to crash in the furniture-less boiler room of his house. Not too long afterward, Russell left Jefferson City and moved in, and the three guys joined a punk rock band with a name so ridiculously punny Russell is reluctant to say it: Texas Chainsaw Mass Choir.

White Rabbits, comtemplating their favorite literary figures at Walden Pond
Diana Yee
White Rabbits, comtemplating their favorite literary figures at Walden Pond

Deciding that punk wasn't their bag, the trio recruited another Streetside employee, Steve Patterson, and Roberts's friend from St. Louis, Matt Clark; thus the White Rabbits were born in 2004. Melding jagged rock songs with bits of calypso, ska, and reggae, the group quickly found a following in Columbia. At times employing three drummers simultaneously, they began selling out small shows and opening for out-of-town touring acts such as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings at bigger venues.

Before long the band was dreaming of fame on the East Coast. "Every time a band would pop off, it seemed like they were from New York," says Russell, who today wears his hair closely shaved, a black pea coat, and a pair of Ray-Ban shades. Inspired by the success of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio, they packed up and moved into a bed-bug-infested, railroad-style loft in Brooklyn. After University of Missouri graduate Jamie Levinson was invited to join the group, all six members shared the apartment, without so much as their own bedrooms.

During his first years in the city, Russell supplemented his meager live show earnings by working at the Strand bookstore, which suited him well. "They made me take a test when I first got there, questions like, 'Who wrote The Age of Innocence?' and 'Who wrote The Catcher in the Rye?'" Russell notes. For someone whose wide-ranging literary taste runs from Greek and Latin classics like Aeschylus to current fiction like Stefan Merrill Block's The Story of Forgetting, such questions weren't much of a challenge.

As for the White Rabbits, they saw success immediately when the president of small label Say Hey Records approached—and later signed—them after their first show in town. Over the next two years the band played packed New York shows, toured with acts like the National, Say Hi to Your Mom, and Peter, Bjorn and John, and released their debut album, Fort Nightly.

All six members contributed to the songwriting on the CD, which—from whimsical lead-off track "Kid on My Shoulders" to twinkling closer "Tourist Trap"—embraces a frenzied, spontaneous and, yes, literary feel. Songs like "The Plot" evoke images and metaphors reminiscent of Tennessee Williams or F. Scott Fitzgerald. "Go out and you sleep, you're hiding in the sheets," sings lead singer Patterson. "But I work hard, so we can have nice things/You're not even dressed/The house is such a mess."

The band played the song on the July Letterman gig, which came about due to persistence from their manager, Aaron Romanello. The album began to pick up steam as well, leading to favorable write-ups in publications like New York Magazine and The Onion's AV Club. Excitement surrounding the band grew even more frenzied after their March signing to TBD Records, a division of Dave Matthews's ATO Records, the current home of Radiohead. Though courted by quite a few imprints, Russell says it helped that TDB's A&R guy, Phil Costello, hails from Columbia.

The one-album deal allows the group members to afford new luxuries, like their own rooms.

"We all have our own places now!" Russell imparts jubilantly, adding that he has quit the Strand as well. "I make the joke that this is my job, that this is what I do," he goes on, rattling off a list of recent band obligations including a tour with Spoon and the filming of their first proper video, for Fort Nightly track "While We Go Dancing."

The Rabbits are also crafting their album for TBD, which should see the light of day in early 2009. Russell says that while their recording budget is slightly bigger than last time, the group is maintaining their collaborative songwriting approach, and attempting to capture the focus and intensity of their popular live show on record.

Though it is still in the early stages, one suspects that the CD will maintain copious amounts of literary influence and gilded age shine, just like its predecessor. "These guys are like if J.D. Salinger had a band," says the group's manager Romanello, a statement Russell and the rest of the Rabbits would surely agree with.

WHITE RABBITS perform with MILES BENJAMIN ANTHONY ROBINSON and HUMANBOY on WEDNESDAY, MAY 21, at the 400 BAR; 612.332.2903

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