White Denim's Steve Terebecki Talks Texas Beer and Making Music in IsolationApril 01, 2020
The severity of COVID-19’s impact on the music industry has been overwhelming. Publicists, record stores, labels, and venue owners continue to share the ripple effects in real time. Faced with potentially life-altering circumstances, self-employed touring musicians are scrambling to generate revenue in what now looks more like a “no-gig” economy.
Austin psych-blues rippers White Denim have been on the road for well over a decade. Following the cancellation of SXSW and multiple headline tours, the group found themselves with a sudden increase in one resource: time. Anticipating a shorter lifespan for the coronavirus pandemic, the group set the goal of writing and recording World as a Waiting Room, a new studio LP to be pressed to wax and ready to deliver in 30 days. Over a (virtual) beer ten days into isolation, bassist Steve Terebecki talked us through the ambitious project, how social distancing works in a studio setting, brewing beer with Goose Island, and how Austin’s music community is handing together.
Where are you, how are you holding up, and what are you drinking?
I’ve got a Victoria in hand. I’m at home. I was at the studio most of the day today. We’re hacking away at our project. It’s going well. We’re done with basic tracking. It’s pretty freaky overall. We get the majority of our income from touring. Everyone is a bit freaked out, but we’ll be applying for everything that we can over the next couple of days to help offset that.
How many dates did the band cancel? What are the immediate effects of being off the road?
Everything broke out right before SXSW. We had eight SXSW shows that got wiped out. Our April tour with Chris Forsyth got wiped out, which was 15 or 16 shows around the West Coast. That’s just so far. They are canceling stuff a month or a month and a half out. We have dates booked all through the summer and fall but the way it’s looking, they probably will be canceled too.
We’ve been grinding as a band since 2007 solely. At this point we are looking at ourselves like a small business. We’ll be applying for anything that can help us stay afloat. There are several grants and loans that have come through that hopefully will be able to help.
What’s the longest you’d gone without playing a show up until now?
When my daughter was born, there was a perfect time when we were in between records and band members, so maybe three or four months, which felt like an eternity. Normally it's not much longer than a month.
Did it come as a surprise that SXSW was canceled?
As the days went on, every single band canceled. We were set to have a party at our studio with ten bands. A few bands dropped off. We had actually rescheduled new bands because it still seemed like it was going to happen. Then even those bands dropped off. There was a point where we said, “Yeah, it would be really irresponsible if we had the show.”
A lot is being said about this being a hard time to be creative, that artists shouldn’t put pressure on themselves to be productive. Your 30-day project counters that narrative. How’d the idea come together?
We’ve always worked fast. Sometimes we’ll be working on two or three records at the same time and we have our own recording studio. As soon as our tour got canceled we said, “What else are we gonna do? We have all this time that was just given to us. We were going to be on the road for a month.”
We said, “Let’s see if we can bust out a record in that time and bring in a bunch of people that we have collaborated with over the years to track at their house remotely. It was out of necessity. We briefly talked about doing a livestream show from the studio. We were going to turn our SXSW party into that for the bands that did make it down, but eventually everyone dropped off. It’s funny because at the time we were like, “This can’t last longer than 30 days!” So it’s funny we put that time limit on it because it’s going to last a lot longer. The clock started on Wednesday, March 18, so this is day 10.
You’re recording it at your own studio, Radio Milk. When did that space open and how does COVID-19 impact that side of the business for you?
We’ve always been gear collectors and hoarders. We’ve jumped around from studio to studio over the years. We finally got our own space and because of that, got even more gear. We’ve had it for almost three years now. Since we got it, we’ve tried to record as much as possible when we are home. The last couple of White Denim records were done there plus a live record. We have a stage in the back so we can run lines and record some of the best-sounding live recordings out there.
How Is this process different from how you’d normally make a record? How does social distancing work in a studio setting?
Normally all of us would be in the room and we’d work a song over the course of a day. Right now we have a WhatsApp thread going with our contributors. There are 15 of us. We just send demos through from home. A lot of it is recorded with an iPhone, just to get a general idea.
Who’s actually at the studio?
Our engineer is Ian Salazar for this project. Our sound guy, Chad, has also been there because he was in town for SXSW anyway. He is the in-house studio security. He’s been documenting everything on a notepad and with video. That’s what people who have pre-ordered are seeing every Friday. Greg, the drummer, and I will go to the studio and lay down just the bass and drums. That’s what we did for five or six tunes with James as well. A couple of songs were recorded to click remotely and we are all overdubbing to those.
A one-week vinyl turn around is unheard of. How’s that happening?
Gold Rush Vinyl are the first people we talked to. Classic vinyl turnaround is six to eight weeks. That would not make this possible. We talked to them about the rush and the project. They said, “Honestly, the thing that takes the longest is the art. If you can turn the art into us first and give us a master on this day, we can have all the vinyl five days later.” As far as master-to-wax it’s five days, but obviously there are a ton of other things that go into that. They are relatively new. Not longer than two years. Every single band in Austin is pressing their vinyl with them because they are saving tons of money on shipping costs. It’s substantial. We pressed our Last Day of Summer reissue with them and have already done a re-up. It’s amazing to have someone right down the street who are on it.
Everyone is staying active and creative. The amount of livestreams I’m seeing on Instagram is insane. It seems like people are hunkering down and wanting to put stuff out.”
The pace at which White Denim have released music has ramped up over the past couple of years. Even despite COVID-19, is there already more pressure on bands to turn records around quickly
That’s an interesting one. It’s different for everyone but for us, no matter how much we put into a project, it has a shelf life. It informs our touring schedule as well. Part of it is the way the record industry has gone. People are buying records directly from bands at the same rate they are from record labels. There is no pressure to do a 24-month cycle anymore. You can sell the same amount of records off your website and release as much as you want. More or less that is what we are finding. Obviously there are certain labels that have really badass marketing budgets, but that’s what it comes down to.
Are there other benefits from artists not having to be as calculating about what they’re putting out?
With us, we put in the hours. Even though it’s one record a year or one every eight months, we are in the studio no less than if it’s broken up by two or three years. Especially with GarageBand being on your phone, people are just putting that stuff out. I think it’s cool and it seems like there are no rules anymore. It’s up to the individual or the band and their standards. We still like making records to put on vinyl. That’s our approach.
In 2019 White Denim collaborated with Goose Island on the Shanalalager. How involved were you in the process?
Over the years we’ve put it out there that I really like beer, ha. It just came up. I think it was the Visions Festival. Goose Island was a sponsor and they said, “Hey, all you have to do is take a train from Manchester to London and you can hang out and help them brew this beer.” I said yes, but I had zero other information. At first it was like, “Am I going to be coming up with this shit? What’s going down here?” I was super overprepared. I had all of these ideas, but then I got there and the guy had it all mapped out. It was an India Pale Lager. He wanted it to be a little lighter. It was summer in London, so something a bit more poundable. That was his terminology. I named it, but didn’t wind up doing anything with the recipe. He had it all decided. I was ready to go in there and do a kölsch or something.
Have you done any homebrewing of your own?
I haven’t. I have friends that are into it. There is a homebrew place two miles up the road and I am always looking at it. There are so many breweries in Austin. It’s insane.
The craft beer scene is getting hit hard right now. What are some of your favorites?
Everyone is jumping on the curbside pickup thing. A lot of spots are delivering alcohol which is pretty amazing. Austin Beer Works, everything they put out is super good. Jester King, which is just an amazing destination out in the Hill Country. I could go on. Hops & Grain, 4th Tap, Zilker. They all have amazing stuff.
What’s giving you hope right now? How has the Austin music community already banded together
Everyone is staying active and creative. The amount of livestreams I’m seeing on Instagram is insane. It seems like people are hunkering down and wanting to put stuff out. I think we will see the result of this time way more in the next few months. We’ll get an influx of COVID songs, which we are currently contributing to as well. It’s crazy because I’m only seeing what’s on social media. I don’t see anyone anymore. It doesn’t feel normal to even say, “Hey, let’s have this band come in and record.” If anything we can get some tracks from people and do remixes. There are so many unknowns and everyone is still so freaked out. We are all just waiting for more info.