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White Lung 4735 Photo Credit Piper Ferguson Lo Res

White Lung's Mish Way: "When you put yourself out there, you have to have thick skin"

20 June 2014, 11:00

Whether it’s writing for Vice, The Talkhouse or Noisey, confronting sex and substance abuse in her lyrics or being an interviewee, White Lung‘s brilliant singer Mish Way is always frank, witty and completely honest. That’s part of what makes her band such a thrilling prospect: you know she means every word she sings, so you can invest everything in her band and know that you’re not going to be let down or double crossed.

White Lung came to real prominence with 2012’s Sorry, their second album which was nineteen minutes of no-nonsense punk rock, that dealt with subjects close to Way’s heart but that also carried a wider resonance with women and men alike. With the release of new album Deep Fantasy she’s delving deeper into sex and sexual dynamics, addiction, internal battles and body issues with as much fire and honesty, while her band of Kenneth William, Anne-Marie Vassiliou and Hether Fortune have retained all their power, but developed a tough rock edge to go with their furious brand of punk rock. When the chance arose for this writer to speak to Way about Deep Fantasy I couldn’t say yes quickly enough. I hoped for honesty and laughs, and I wasn’t let down when I called Mish following the culmination of some UK dates.

It’s the end of a short UK tour for Mish and the band, so as well as asking how the tour has gone I’m interested in the kind of audience White Lung attracts…“Oh that depends on where we are,” says Mish. “In America it’s pretty much the same [wherever you go] but in Europe you’re going country to country, and the show etiquette is so different place to place. In Vienna we played a completely sold out show but people were all just standing there - you could tell they were liking it but they just don’t move! But then in London people were going crazy, throwing things everywhere.” And so what does Mish prefer? “I dunno, I prefer the militant standing and staring, like ‘I’m the boss, you pay attention [to the music] and then you leave’.”

Deep Fantasy finds White Lung signed to a major-ish label, yet still indie, for their third album; there’s two things about this that piques curiosity. First of all, why leave behind the band’s DIY releasing of the past? “We were always releasing with this record label called Deranged, a hardcore label in Canada,” says Way, ” and Gordon [Dufresne] who ran it was always like ‘cool, we’ll put out your records. I’ll give you money if you need it and you can pay me back’. It was really, really great - and nice! So we did pretty much everything ourselves and we were totally fine to keep doing that…” And then Domino stepped in? “Yeah, Susan from Domino saw us playing SXSW because, y’know, everyone forces you to go down and do SXSW at least once, for these reasons because it’s just an industry sampling platter….bleurgh.” Way can barely hide her disgust at the industry shindig, but she continues: “We finally met her at Fort Knox; we really like and respect the bands on the label and the label itself - that it’s basically an independent label who’s worked its way up to what it is now. I also liked that there weren’t any other bands like us on the label, we wouldn’t just be lumped in with other things or people in our peer group. I’m never gonna play a show with Blood Orange but I love that band and Dev is an amazing musician - but the variety of music on the label was interesting to me.”

There’s been a certain progression from Sorry to Deep Fantasy in the way that White Lung sounds, to an extent. The guitars of Kenneth William still drip with feedback, Anne-Marie Vassiliou’s drums still rattle and batter like nothing on earth and new bassist Hether Fortune adds some hefty weight…but Way’s voice seems to have got stronger and stronger. She can still roar and scream with the best but what you might not have noticed in the past is that she can really sing. And that kind of fits with Way’s description that the album sounds like a “rock” record. So was that her initial vision? “I don’t know if I necessarily wanted it to [sound like a rock record] but I think in my head what I was going for was I wanted to have a record that was still all the components of our band which will always be there.” And what are those? “Oh, very anxiety-ridden, intense guitar parts, very fast drums, very clear vocal delivery…but I wanted to make it a much more accessible record musically, without leaving behind too much of what makes it ourselves and I wanted to expand what we could do, y’know? I can’t really speak for Kenny or Ann-Marie but for me I wanted it to be accessible without ruining what makes our band what our band is.”

One component missing from Way’s list is her lyrics and subject matter; never afraid to tackle big subjects, Way’s words fully encapsulate the phrase “the personal is political”. I say that I don’t want to call her attitude confrontational….“But it is!” interrupts Way. “It is confrontational; the way I sing is very confrontational and straightforward and that in contrast to the way Kenny plays guitar - all over the place, speedy, fast, tetchy and anxiety-ridden - that’s an interesting contrast in the band.” Is it fair to say you’re a band of opposites alongside the internal conflicts Way has? “We could not be more opposite in that way,” she agrees. Is it the case as well that lyrically it’s not pre-planned, more that it forms as she goes from one song to the next? “It’s one of those things too where it’s like…well, maybe part of me subconsciously is saying ‘well I’m gonna try to do this’ but actually as you’re doing it and writing, all you’re doing is that. You maybe have the intention in your brain but the songs happen organically and when you sit back you’re like ‘okay did I do what I sort of thought I wanted to do? YES.’ But then it’s hard; more and more people tell you ‘I think it’s like this, or I think it’s like this’ and then your story gets all scrambled. But I’m really happy with the record.”

Okay, well let’s talk about the lyrics and themes then…there’s sex, sexual politics, addiction and body issues - “My LIFE, you mean?! [puts on a hilarious Californian drawl] You mean songs about my life?” Well, yes - exactly that! “Lyrically, I had an agenda,” admits Way. “I’m always going to be someone who writes from - I dunno if you’ve ever read anything I’ve written - even if I’m talking about…I dunno…whatever…oh, the difference in trying to get laid on tour between a woman in a band versus being a man! I’m gonna tell the story and break it down through my own personal experiences. That’s just how I know how to explain my theories on things, is through my own experiences. So that’s kind of the same thing I do with songs, and songs are different because they’re a way to work through things I’m still currently dealing with and trying to work through myself.” Is it the case, then, that it’s just her singing from a personal point of view and it’s a coincidence that it’s also subject matter that’s extremely current? “As much as it is from a personal perspective, I’m talking about issues that maybe a lot of people identify with and understand…and I was trying to be a lot more careful, just saying EXACTLY what I wanted to say and not being vague.” How did that manifest itself? “Y’know, going back in after listening to a song, and saying ‘you know, that one word..I’m gonna change it because that should be better’”. I would never have done that in the past because I’d be like ‘oh I’m too cool, I don’t care’, which is a lame attitude.”

Way mentioned in passing her writing, her excellent writing for Noisey and Vice that puts this writer to shame, so I want to know if her writing informs her lyrics, or vice versa: “No, because my lyrics are the way I’ve always wrote privately from being a young child keeping journals,” she explains, “and the way I wrote in those journals was because I was really paranoid someone might read them. So I wrote in a way where I would always use the word ‘you’, even if I was talking to myself. It could have been one person or a group, I never used names for anything specific because I was always so paranoid about people figuring it out. So I kind of wrote in this secret little way to myself, and that’s the way I feel I write lyrics as well. But the only thing that maybe gets a bit hard is that last year I wrote a lot, and I wrote about my personal life and a lot of this stuff I wrote articles about ends up being repeated in things I use for songs….but it’s attacked in a different way, y’know? You’re looking at it through a song or prose.”

One such subject is the body dysmorphia that Way sings about on the positive and anthemic “Snake Jaw”; given that body image issues seem more prevalent than ever, did she feel like it was something she had to write about - not just as a woman but as a human being who cares? “I didn’t think it was something I had to address,” she says. “It’s something that’s always affected me and I know it’s affected women, and probably men too, but unfortunately I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a penis so I can’t write from that perspective, I wish I could…not trying to alienate anyone from my conversations ever! That’s really limiting and not my idea of feminism or being progressive at all, but my struggle with the body image stuff is not so much in itself like I feel it’s anyone’s fault, it’s just the way the world is but the fact is: I know better. I know that it’s stupid, I know it’s ridiculous, I know that I shouldn’t worry about these things.” So it’s not just the pressure from the outside, but the internal struggles too? “So my problem is that I sometimes let myself care too much,” she agrees. “The vanity of it and the ridiculousness of that and knowing there’s so many better things to worry about. With that stuff, it’s this weird thing where the pressure of that doesn’t come so much from, y’know, if you’re straight, a man who you’re trying to have sex with…that pressure comes from within female peer groups, and I dunno - that’s interesting to me. It’s just something I had thought about and struggled with, and had been an internal conversation in my head - and will always be because of my gender, and because I let it be sometimes - so I wanted to address that. But the song is positive, you know?”

I mention the recent EMA record, The Future’s Void, and the way Erika Anderson sings of the image of the female blonde being one of the most manipulated and taken advantage of images, especially with the ever-increasing popularity of the internet, and how that must factor into issues of body image. Even just being a woman online, expressing opinions and the sadly inevitable responses that often take the form of things like “slut” or “whore”, it must be hard to remain positive…yet Deep Fantasy is an overwhelmingly positive record…Way agrees: “The thing I always have to remind myself of is when you put yourself out there, you just have to have thick skin. You’re making the choice to put yourself out there, people are gonna be critical and they have just as much of a right to speak out about you as you do about them; or to shove your “art” in their face - and I hate referring to it as art, it’s so lame - so sometimes conversations can be really great, and other times it’s just….I’ve written stuff in the past that’s a little more radical than I actually think about the subject - just to get people angry enough to start having a discussion. I did that with this Katy Perry thing for Noisey and I remember my friend Nick was like ‘I don’t agree blah-blah-blah’ but I said why do you think I did that? To get you like that! Come on, let’s have a conversation!”

While Sorry dealt with addiction through songs about a friend of Way’s, a track like “Drown with the Monster” sounds like she’s addressing her own internal battles with addiction…is that fair? “Yes and no,” says Way, tentatively. “There’s a lot of personal experience with drug use, yes, and then I’ve written about it publicly in articles many times…but that’s always what I say with that stuff. I don’t have a problem talking about it because it keeps myself in check in a weird way. It’s a reality, I don’t think you should hide it but it also reminds me of another struggle I have: there’s a Mish that wants to be irresponsible and just wants to go and do pills all the time but I can’t do that because that’s ridiculous, that’s no way to live your life! Maybe when I’m 85 and I’m about to die, then I can go do that again…but now I can’t and I can’t see people around me get fucked with because of it.”

As Mish has mentioned her writing on a few occasions, and I know she’s studied feminist philosophy in the past, I’m interested to know if there are any writers or critics that influence her own work. I say that her work seems to be influenced by the likes of Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous (“oh yes, I know those two”) before Way explains her education: “I did creative writing for a year, but then I took a feminist philosophy course and decided I wanted to pursue gender studies because at that time it was just so intriguing to me…so I have a degree in gender studies and communications and I’m really glad that I did that. I have every single book still from school, and every package that they’d photocopy for me…but since moving out of LA I don’t have any of my books or records, they’re all in storage so I don’t have my library of stuff with me.” That must be difficult, though? To not have those references when you’re writing an article… “It’s kinda sad,” agrees Mish, “because I use books all the time when I’m writing and I’m pulling out reference books…I felt like, being in school and having conversations with those same fifteen women every day was really productive and I miss school a lot. It’s hard! I sometimes feel myself getting closed off…I miss talking like that every day, I feel really lucky.”

But we’re getting sidetracked here, as I initially wanted to know what she’s reading at the moment, and if that influences her lyrics and songs: “Right now….we went to Dachau. I was collecting Nazi stuff the whole time and I got this tiny little book in old German, a Hitler propaganda book that they gave out to nurses, and then we went to Dachau and I got this book this Czech guy wrote…he’s a historian but he was in that camp as well [I think Mish is referring to Arnost Lustig, survivor of three concentration camps and the author of Night and Hope among other novels] as two other camps. It’s not written as a history text, just from his personal perspective and I’m at the end of that book and I just got one written by an SS guy who was at Auschwitz and I’m obsessing over that.” I ask if this is purely out of historical or literary interest, or is there a personal aspect to her curiosity? “I did all that stuff at school but it doesn’t have the same meaning once you go and you see something and you’re ‘oh!’. That’s where my brain is right now - and I’m reading Mein Kampf again even though I read it at university because it’s so interesting! My family is Polish and when I was reading all the stuff in that book about the way…the stuff the Nazis did, is mind blowing. But the Nazi aesthetic was SO GOOD. I’m talking strictly fashion here [thank goodness] - they killed it! I was looking at all these old SS rings on the internet and I was like ‘man, you can’t wear this because it caused so much pain, but man it looks good!’ But this book the Czech guy wrote is so complete, so perfect.”

Before we disappear down an historical rabbit hole, I say that we should end on talking about Deep Fantasy. So, are there any last words Mish would like to add about the album, or White Lung? “Well…no. I feel like people should just listen to it, and come and watch us perform it. It’s really hard to talk about; it’s like writing a story then everyone asking you to talk about that story. I did it! Read, or listen to it and make a decision on your own. That’s fine, that’s what it’s there for!”

Deep Fantasy is out now on Domino.

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