White Rabbits: Hare Rock

By: Chris Pacifico

White Rabbits
Having hoisted themselves from Columbia, Missouri to Brooklyn in June of 2005, White Rabbits have delved into the process of “rebuilding and reinventing” their sound. But, the six-piece band didn’t emigrate from the Show Me State because of any hometown lameness. As a matter of fact, they cite Columbia as a thriving, fantastic scene that’s more of a community than New York. In fact, local college radio station KCOU was credited for helping reunite power pop heroes Big Star in the early ’90s. But, singer-guitarist Greg Roberts calls Columbia a “transient town,” where people finish school and then leave. So, the band’s migration was just part of that natural process.

Something about White Rabbits makes them stand out from your average run-of-the-mill buzz band, thanks in part to their innovative, restless style. This is a lavish combo that tosses in the kitchen sink and still keeps things frugal on their maiden album, Fort Nightly (released in mid-2007 by Say Hey). Think Man Man meets The Walkmen with a dash of Cold War Kids and then imagine some more. With splashes of spunky calypso and ashy pop, Fort Nightly is a heebiejeebie dancing jaunt with shuffling percussion, grumbling piano and an overall sneaky tone – a little Americana here, some airy country there and omnipresent maracas and tambourines. It’s puzzling how a band can play so jittery while keeping so cool.

“We try to pull from both ends of the spectrum,” says Roberts. “We really like minimal bands like Spoon, and at the same time we like a lot of Phil Spector stuff [with] strings and timpani drums and grand stuff like that. I think we just try to marry those things and find a happy medium.” Pianist-singer Steve Patterson adds, “We have a nice dark element to it that shows an aloofness in the songs.”

White Rabbits inspiration goes back to the days when a couple members worked at record stores in Columbia and acquired a taste for zydeco, bossa nova and Afro-Cuban music. Roberts tips his hat to drummer Jamie Levinson, who for many years worked at Dusty Groove in Chicago, a record store primarily stocked with international recordings and global soul music, which he introduced to his bandmates.

White Rabbits by Gabriel Levinson
Fort Nightly‘s track listing suggests an underlying story but that wasn’t the band’s aim. “Some people have called it sort of a conceptual record and it was never meant to be that way,” comments Patterson. “A lot of times we write songs and we’re just like, ‘We wrote this song, let’s write a song that’s different.’ It’s all based on what we just did, but it was never some grandiose plan.”

Maybe not a grandiose plan, but so catchy and so vibrant is their music that White Rabbits were signed by the Say Hey label in January 2006 immediately after their first show. The band decided to ink with Say Hey because they were impressed by the small label’s dedication to their bands. The press buzz developed fast after the White Rabbits played four shows at South by Southwest last year. However, Roberts says that while they had fun, the band didn’t leave with more than “a handful of business cards and a couple of handshakes.”

Fort Nightly was released in late spring to almost universally glowing reviews, praising the caffeinated percussion on the jerky “Kid On My Shoulders,” the thin dub of “Navy Wives,” and “I Used to Complain But Now I Don’t,” probably the first song by an indie rock act perfect for conga lines.

White Rabbits
Since their debut came out, the band has toured with a number of artists including Richard Swift. “It was amazing just to be able to play and then walk right to the front of the stage and just sit there and watch him do what he does. I think he’s an extremely underrated songwriter,” says Roberts. They’ve also landed spots at major festivals like Glastonbury, Bonnaroo and Coachella. Talking about Glastonbury, Roberts giggles, “We were caked in mud the entire time.”

While most critics and fans have fallen in love with White Rabbits, the band endured some of their toughest, most unflattering critiques yet when a pack of musically picky eighth graders took them to task. Marianne Doyle, Patterson’s aunt, teaches middle school in the Chicago suburbs and decided to play a few tracks from Fort Nightly for her students. The kids’ reviews were then placed in the press section of the band’s website. One student wrote that it had a “good rythm” (kid spelling), another wrote that they sounded “like something my Mom would listen to,” and one budding hipster declared they’d “definitely heard this song before.” Well, everyone’s a critic these days.

White Rabbits tour dates available here.

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