By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
The early chapters of White Light Riot's story read like an indie-rock fairytale. The group was formed by melodic brothers-in-arms/life Mike (vocals/guitars) and Mark (drums) Schwandt, and most of the members were still in their teens when they quickly became one of the most highly buzzed-about bands on the Twin Cities scene in late 2005 on the strength of their debut EP, The Dark Is Light Enough. Recorded with ace assistance from Twin Cities luminary Erik Appelwick (Vicious Vicious, Tapes 'n Tapes), the six-song set sounded more like the work of mid-career Brit-rock pros hitting their stride than Land of 10,000 Lakes lads. The EP's massive hooks and sleek keyboard fills found the group hitting the sweet spot between Oasis's brash rock and Coldplay's swoon-inducing anthems.
Packed-to-the-gills local club dates were swiftly followed by the inking of an increasingly hard-to-find substantial label deal with 50 Records, a newly formed Minnesota label with deep-pocketed backers and national distribution channels. Then, just when it appeared the band would take off into the mainstream stratosphere, the wheels fell off in the wake of promoting their debut full-length, Atomism, with group members increasingly finding themselves at odds with the style and strategy of the label to which they had signed away their creative control. By early 2008, White Light Riot were in a torturous limbo, engaged in lengthy legal wrangling to get out from under their contract, and gigging sparingly.
"The fact that the label would still own anything that we recorded was a problem," explains Mike Schwandt over drinks with his bandmates. "We had to make sure we were totally legally separate before we could finally record anything that they technically wouldn't own. And once lawyers get into things it takes a long time. We didn't know how long it was going to take, but we always tried to stay positive."
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Once the band did finally break free, after losing original guitarist Joe Christenson and adding new members Randy Tomes and Zach Carrol, they were determined to learn from past mistakes. Atomism was clearly the sound of a band swinging for the fences and hoping to land on commercial FM rock radio. In the album's more aggro moments—which were overly plentiful—the band appeared to be emulating the likes of Stone Temple Pilots and Foo Fighters, while sacrificing their own original spark. The band members today are blunt in their assessment of Atomism's strengths and weaknesses—particularly since they now have a follow-up ready in the wings.
"We learned a lot from recording Atomism where we just jammed so much onto every song because we could," admits longtime bassist Dan Larsen.
"This was a totally different experience," concurs drummer Mark Schwandt. "We recorded over the period of a year and a half, and in a lot of different rooms, whereas Atomism was recorded very quickly in the same room, which, granted, was a good-sounding room, but it was just sort of one experience and then using a lot of computer effects to make it perfect and sound 'right.' There's no big editing going on in this album."
While still clearly the work of young men in thrall to classic-rock archetypes—White Light Riot are the first local band I've ever heard reference Led Zeppelin when referring to the drum sound they were shooting for—the band's self-titled sophomore record also finds the group exercising newfound restraint, to delightful results. Songs like the excellent "In the Details" hit all the harder by balancing relatively spare and atmospheric verses with go-for-broke choruses, and Mike Schwandt has evolved into a truly compelling frontman by learning when to hang back and let his smooth croon unfold effortlessly and when to let loose a full-bore bellow.
"By the time we got around to making this record, we had written so many songs that the challenge was really finding that right balance and trying to create a cohesive album with its own peaks and valleys," recalls an audibly excited Mike Schwandt.
White Light Riot appear to have survived their first record-industry scrap intact without losing their passion. Their eyes are still on the prize, but they've clearly redefined the rules of engagement.
"It took a while but I think our naiveté has finally dissipated," jokes Mike Schwandt of his band's bumpy recent past. "We were really excited by the prospects of what we thought was on the immediate horizon back when we started, and sort of followed a certain path pretty blindly, which I don't blame anyone for but ourselves. We're in a much better place now. I'm making music for the enjoyment of doing something interesting and collaborative with my best friends. "
WHITE LIGHT RIOT play their CD-release show with Wishbook, Communist Daughter, and Rogue Valley on SATURDAY, APRIL 30, at THE VARSITY THEATER; 612.604.0222