White Light Riot
The Dark Is Light Enough
Without even trying, White Light Riot have kicked my ass at one of my specialties. "Hi, sorry we're late," Mike Schwandt says as he, bassist Dan Larsen, and guitarist Joe Christenson bound up to the table in front of the Nicollet Mall Caribou Coffee where I've been waiting like a fool for nearly three minutes. "No problem," I say, sinking into my chair a bit. "I'm just pissed at myself. I'm never on time. I pride myself on it. It was an accident, I swear."
What's most embarrassing is that I've been bested by whippersnappers: Schwandt is 23, Larsen 20, and Christenson 19. But I'm not about to drop any sort of "I was being late before you guys were born" proclamation, not in front of obvious playas. The band flaunts its precociousness even more flagrantly on The Dark Is Light Enough. Released in November of last year—just in time to win a place on City Pages' "Best Local Music of 2005" list—the six-track disc finds the band deftly marrying indie rock tropes with melody-intensive sensibilities straight out of Albion.
"We get compared to British bands pretty often," says Schwandt. "Coldplay, Franz Ferdinand. I can see why. I love a lot of UK bands—everything from Radiohead and Muse to Maximo Park to the Beatles and the Stones. But what interests us most is melody."
"We're pretty obsessive about it," Christenson adds. "Until recently, it wasn't unusual for us to write 20 or 30 alternate melodies for a song, then agonize over which was best. Then [producer/ubiquitous Twin Cities musician] Erik Appelwick told us that the first melody you come up with is usually the best—the most natural, the most compelling—which made perfect sense to us."
"Lately, we've been writing a lot of songs starting with the melody," says Schwandt.
Drummer Mark Schwandt ambles up to the table and takes a seat, smiling. "Sorry I'm late," he says, lighting a cigarette. Blond like his brother, the 20-year-old sports one of the band's two beards (the other belongs to Larsen) and an air of restless earnestness that does little to conceal his go-getting nature. After playing in different bands for ages, he and his sib decided to join forces a couple of years ago. While Mike was studying abroad in England, Mark took care of human resources, first recruiting Larsen.
"I was a junior in high school at the time," Christenson recalls. "Mark asked if I wanted to come over and work on jazz adaptations of popular favorites. When I got to his house, he invited me to join the band."
"Actually, the first time I saw Joe," says Mark, "I went up to him and said, 'You're gonna play lead guitar in my band.'"
Tallish, with mid-length dark hair and an easygoing self-assurance that belies his tender years, Christenson bears more than a casual resemblance to ex-Minneapolitan producer Brian Paulson circa 1986, back when the latter played guitar in local punk rock mainstay Man-Sized Action. Like Paulson—who sometimes wielded a nominally un-punk 12-string-with-capo combo—multi-instrumentalist Christenson is into tonal color. So is Mike, whose discrete dollop of glockenspiel adds greatly to The Dark is Light Enough opener, "Bitter Beginning."
"Getting the right tones, the right combination of tones, is very important to us," says Christenson. "We're always tweaking songs, even older ones."
"We lucked out," says Mike. "We had this chemistry right away, where we were all vibing out on each other, loving what everybody else was doing."
"This band has a lot of checks and balances," adds Larsen. "We've always been good at keeping our egos out of the way and concentrating on music."
But not to the exclusion of everything else. After watching a performance video last year, the band took two months off from playing shows to work on stage presence. "Until we saw the video, we had no idea of how boring we were to watch," says Mike, whose personal showman quotient skyrocketed in June, during the Alarmists' CD-release show at the Varsity Theater.
"We were playing our third song," he recalls, leaning back in his chair. "There's this part where we all kind of go crazy. I accidentally smacked myself in the head with my guitar. It felt kinda weird, so when the song was over, I turned to Dan and asked him if I was bleeding. He was like, 'Nah, you're fine.' When I turned around, I saw this girl in the audience's face go white. Still, I had no idea of how bad it was. Had I known, I'd have probably have wanted to sit down. But it worked out for the best. I got a bunch of extra adrenaline out of the deal, went to the hospital after the show, and still got to go party with the Alarmists after I got my stitches—seven."
"We tried to put a photo of Mike onstage on our Myspace page," laughs Larsen, "and they made us take it down on the grounds that it might upset people. That's how bad it was: a White Light Riot photo banned from Myspace for graphic violence."