White Light Riot
"Mark and I talked about this before," blurts out Joe Christenson, the lead guitarist for Minneapolis pop band White Light Riot.
Christenson is sitting at a picnic table outside Whiskey Junction, two hours after his band played to a sun-baked and beer-boiled crowd of 300 on the main stage at Finnegan's Summerfest. Christenson has been eagerly interjecting his thoughts throughout my interview with Light White Riot about their upcoming full-length album, Atomism.
He's not rabid (or drunk), but he is excited. He bashes congressional Democrats for their unwillingness to stand up to the Bush administration (this in reference to a comment from drummer Mark Schwandt that the band practices a stringent policy of checks and balances); he throws in an invective against the corporatization of the United States countryside, saying "there's a Subway and McDonald's in every town and it's just fucking sad" (a reaction reference to frontman Mike Schwandt's declaration that the band's aim with the latest album is "to speak to people our age about things that are actually goin' on and about how people are, and about how our culture is").
Now, after a question about where the band is going with it's decidedly Anglo-pop sound, he tears into the state of popular music.
"I think that popular music progressed more between 1963, when the Beatles released 'I Want to Hold Your Hand,' to the end of '66/early '67, when they came out with 'Strawberry Fields,' than it has since then," he says, hovering over the digital audio recorder, his shaggy dark locks casting a shadow on his smooth olive complexion. "You think about it, and you can trace everything back to the '60s at least, except really lame reverbs on drums and way too over-the-top guitar solos. There is a loss of creativity in popular music.... How far have we come? Well, not as far as we should have in 40 years."
His comments do smack of truth, but they also smack of tired generalization. They are, in short, the words of a 20-year-old. And, like any group of friends mixing righteous declarations with testosterone and Jay-Z at 3:00 a.m., his bandmates don't dismiss any of it.
That's because this band, like its guitarist, is at a crossroads. Down one stretch is cynicism, and down the other, hope. Where they're going, they don't know, but they sure know where they've been. And they seem to have an inkling that their future is predicated by more than ability and intent. Mark Schwandt, the younger of the band's brothers, lays the whole situation out, sage-like.
"We try to dip our feet in both areas," says the mop-topped drummer. "I consider us a commercial band because our record is polished. But at the same time, we're huge indie fans and we like so much indie music, you know? So, we try to bring that in as well. And our integrity is very important to us in a lot of ways."
To be fair, White Light Riot are a dyed-in-the-wool pop band. Atomism is a practice in epic pop rock, the type of sound—from the climbing vocal lines of a song like "Grey Divide," to the dirty guitar of "Out of Sight," to the soft-pedaled social consciousness of "Our Formative Capital"—that's aimed more for the arena than the hipster dive bar. Asked to name their influences, the four members topple over each other to put another band on the list. And that list is decidedly radio-friendly.
"A lot of Foo Fighters," says one. "Radiohead," offers another." "...well, the Beatles—" "—of course the Beatles!," "—but at the beginning we were mostly like Sparta." "Queens of the Stone Age," "Coldplay," "The Strokes," "Oh yeah, the Strokes!" "We were really derivative at first...."
The truth is that they are still an incredibly derivative band. While Atomism has been scrubbed clean of a lot of the navel-gazing lyricism that defines the turn-of-the-millennium Brit pop the band openly worships, it is still fenced in by the constraints of the pop music that Christenson so fervently criticizes. Still, these four guys are excellent musicians. Mike Schwandt's vocals are both strong and versatile (able to cover ground between a Julian Casablancas croon and a Richard Hell squawk), the guitar work is crisp and studied, and the rhythm section is tastefully restrained in most spots, but booming when appropriate. To witness all of the above, listen to "Midway Souvenirs," a brilliant piece of melancholy pop that croons and soars its way to being the cornerstone of this band's sound.
Still, there are hints of experimentation that move the band in a more interesting direction—the near-minute of ambient guitar canoodling at the end of the otherwise plodding Stone Temple Pilots cop, "Dive;" the muted monotone vocal track on "Grey Divide" that, among other things, literally announces Christenson's guitar solo.
This, the band members say, is a result of making the album with Brent Sigmeth, a producer who let the band take the reigns in the studio, a marked difference from the group's experience with local music-man-about-town Erik Applewick, who adopted the group after hearing a demo, and produced their debut EP.
"I guess the first band we really looked to in the local scene was the Hopefuls," says Mike Schwandt. "[Erik] Applewick and Darren [Jackson] really helped us understand how to record. How to get the album out there. How to make connections in the scene. They really introduced us to this whole world."
Still, as Christenson states (and his band silently concurs), the training wheels are off—and while Atomism isn't a great departure, it might be the first step in the reinvention of a hopeful bunch of Minneapolis pop scholars.
"We liked it," says Christenson of the band's one-and-a-half-month stint recording Atomism at Pachyderm Studios. "I think it was a relished change, because everything that anybody wrote about us at first was, 'With the helping hand of Erik Applewick, blah, blah, blah,' and we were like, man, we can make such a good record on our own, we think, and we really want to move beyond that and show that we can do it ourselves."