As lead singer of White Denim, James Petralli has produced six albums of psychedelic, experimental sun frazzled progressive rock in just five years. But he hasn’t just settled for that: he’s also been quietly putting together a solo album behind the scenes for years.
And thank the lord that he seems to be a workaholic, because, under the name Bop English (a nickname he was given by an enigmatic sounding room-mate who dictated his novel to Petralli) he’s created an album of beautiful, blissful melodies, one which shifts from shimmying salsa rhythms to venomous guitars. Sure, it’s an album jam-packed with ideas and intricate production but the magic is in the fact that it still manages to sound effortlessly joyful.
We caught up with him to chat about having to cut himself from the world to make sure the record got finished (“My bills on this recording started to get unreasonable”), what it’s like performing without the rest of White Denim besides him.
What was the spark that started you making what would become ‘Constant Bop’?
I’ve always had tons of songs in the works but never enough time or resources to properly see them through to completion. Id say the spark happened when I met up with a guy called Ryan Joseph in early 2010. He is a studio owner and gear collector here in Austin. White Denim has nearly exclusively recorded in his spaces since then. He was really kind to essentially let me move into his private studio in between band sessions and tours to build these tunes out.
How did you choose this huge list of musicians who got involved on the record?
Most of the musicians are people that I have known for years from working in Austin. Adrian Quesada who arranged horns and played some slide guitar for me is a local producer and guitar player for at least 3 beloved Austin bands. Kevin Schneider and I have had an imaginary band together since 06. We drink beer together. He’s my buddy. The Denims all got involved for a day or two. We have spent most of our adult lives together. The other people that appear are either recommendations from friends, people whose gigs I’ve admired, or Craigslist finds.
How did you decide what was a White Denim song idea and what was Bop?
All the Bop songs were pitched in some way or another as potential WD songs with the exception of two or three later additions to the record. White Denim has always needed to tweak and streamline its process from record to record. This left me with an abundance of material and time in the studio. I try not to draw lines between the ideas too much. For me it is all the same process.
Which song means the most to you on the album?
‘Long Distance Runner’ is song about a painful period that my wife and I went through together. I don’t think it is the best song or track on the record, but to me it is the most open verse and chorus I’ve recorded and released.
The production seems to be one of the key elements – was that something you really wanted to get right and how did you achieve it?
Yes. I am obsessed with texture in audio recordings. I am really interested in how sounds can be manipulated in order to achieve or intensify emotional responses. The band that made this record never played together in the same room so the greatest hurdle my partners and I had to get over was to make all of the performances work together in a way that felt natural. This involved loads of both creative and mechanical work from the engineers and a ton of nodding, head shaking, and sentences that started with ‘What if you…’ from me while sitting on the couch.
It seems like a meticulous way to make music – creating all these layers – how do you know when the song is ‘done’?
You don’t. I had to eventually cut myself off. My bills on this recording started to get unreasonable. I also fully trusted Jim Vollentine who finished the record with me over six weeks. When he kicked his feet up onto the console I knew the mix had to be getting really good.
But the record still feels effortless – how do you create that feeling when you’re working with it so intently?
I want to tell you that it’s because I’m a laid back and groovy sort of dude but it is really down to the people that helped me with this record. Matt Oliver and Adrian Quesada each took early versions of the record and added tons of interesting parts and sounds. In between handing the tracks off to different people I would modify arrangements and build different environments of my own. The songs went through so many different sounds and phases even though the basic elements remained constant throughout. I hope that feeling is just inherent to some of the material as well!
What’s it like playing these songs live? Is it weird not having the band next to you?
Yes it is really weird, but also exciting. I’m listening really closely. It is also forcing me out of some questionable habits I developed in my role with WD. I feel like I am learning tons right now. I got a little complacent inside of WD before and right after Corsicana Lemonade. It was a really happy time for me in most ways but I stopped pushing myself so hard. Things got more formulaic and ways of operating had seemingly been cemented. This was likely my doing ultimately. I regret not trying some of the things the new Bop band is doing in rehearsals with WD but there is always tomorrow! This group of people that I have with me now is fantastic and I look forward to seeing how this current work informs the next White Denim project.
‘Constant Bop’ is out now on Blood and Biscuits.