Interview

“Your Woman” Is One Of Chris Baio’s Favorite Songs So We Sent Him To Visit White Town

This summer Chris Baio stopped by Stereogum’s NYC office to play a stripped-down session for Facebook Live. His set ended with a cover of “Your Woman,” the 1997 alternative hit from White Town (the project of Marxist bedroom-pop artist Jyoti Prakash Mishra). Following his performance Baio told us that he’d recently come to the realization that “Your Woman” is one of his favorite songs: “Its production aesthetic, lyrical perspective, and sound feel mind-blowingly fresh 21 years since its initial release,” he explained. “The way in which it was made, by a bedroom producer, was unprecedented in terms of the hits of its time. It was a big influence on my last record.”

We had the bright idea to track down Mishra and send the Vampire Weekend bassist to his home in Derby, England for a chat. In the Q&A below, the man behind White Town tells us how “Your Woman” came about, what it was like becoming a one-hit-wonder, and what he’s up to these days. Baio also got to hear a bunch of White Town’s new album, which should be coming out soon, and says it sounded great.

Check out the musicians’ conversation below…

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CHRIS BAIO: This time last year I was waiting to meet a friend at a pub and “Your Woman” came on, and it was a song that I always loved, but in that moment I was really struck by how fresh it sounded. It sounded like something that could’ve come out that week. It sounded to me almost like it could be a Caribou song in a way, and at that moment I started working on my new record, and I used “Your Woman” as this kind of holy grail for what I was going for with my tracks.

JYOTI MISHRA: Wow!

BAIO: Especially on this first single “PHILOSOPHY!” and not just in terms of sound, but the kind of perspective it’s written from as well. So I first just want to say thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

MISHRA: Well thank you for having me.

BAIO: So White Town started as kind of a Pixies-influenced guitar band, but then sort of transitioned into a bedroom recording project. How did you kind of first get into sampling and production?

MISHRA: I’ve been recording myself since 1982, originally just with two cassette recorders, and [the sound] goes wrong in between, you have all the hiss and everything. Then I started doing four-track recording around ‘85 and that was all electronic stuff. And then the guitar stuff happened in the late ‘80s, so ‘88, ‘round then is when I saw the Pixies and formed White Town, and again that was another weird thing because I saw this gig and thought, “no more keyboards, I’ll play guitar now,” but I couldn’t actually play guitar. So October of ‘88 or so, I booked a gig at a local venue for February of ‘89. I didn’t have a band so I had to lie to the places and say like, “yeah I’ve got a band it’s called this and this it’ll be amazing.”I had from basically October until February to learn the guitar, form a band, and get a set full of songs ready.

BAIO: Oh my god.

MISHRA: ‘Cause I always think if you have a target then you’ll meet it…

BAIO: Of course.

MISHRA: I basically learned an E-shape and had to move it up and down the guitar, and then wrote a set full of songs around that and a D-shape up and down, and that was it. So that was the first incarnation of White Town. I come from the electronic solo home recording thing, become this guitar thing, and that went really well and we got a lot of nice fanzine attention and people putting out records. Parasol [Records] got in touch around that time. But at the same time the band fell apart because it was only really me that was that was interested in it, and there was the classic musical differences of people liking the Stone Roses too much and that kind of thing. So it was back to just being me. For a while I tried to make it me, a drum machine, and a guitarist or bassist, but they just kept coming and going. It’s a good thing that I’m an egomaniac because I’ve never found anybody else who really likes my songs as much as I do.

BAIO: [Laughs] Yeah, right.

MISHRA: So when I was watching Vampire Weekend videos, it always makes me envious, because I was watching the band, and I’ve never had that band experience. I work with friends now ‘cause they’ve got their own bands and they’ll be a musical soldier for my band, but it’s not like a real band. When you joined [Vampire Weekend] … why did they like you? Why did they pick you for bass?

BAIO: Uh, because I could play fast I guess? I had a bass…

MISHRA: Your character, and what you’re into, and the stuff you do. Like, you did DJing, so they liked your musical knowledge…

BAIO: We were all friends as well, and that was a big part of it.

MISHRA: See, we were that to start and after every gig we would go and have like a kebab and it was like a proper band. It just fell apart.

BAIO: So as a result you sort of retreated to the bedroom. How long did it take for you to write “Your Woman”? What was the process of making that?

MISHRA: Oh god a long time. That was a difficult song to do. When people said like, “Oh I wrote ‘Here Comes The Sun’ in 35 seconds,” I’m like “really?” Because that took ages, I had to work and work on that. First of all because the only thing I had to start with is that trumpet riff, the Al Bowlly riff, and I knew that was catchy. I knew that needed, like, a jewel setting in the correct surrounding to make it shine, otherwise I would ruin it. Or maybe that’s the wrong analogy, maybe it’s like a rough diamond you have to cut correctly or it just goes to crap. But I knew that I couldn’t waste that sample. So I was like, this is so catchy I need to step up everything around it to do it justice. Also because the original song was so horrible and misogynistic. I was like, this is gonna be my answer song. Because I love when you have like, “No Scrubs” and you have “No Pigeons,” I love the to-and-fro, so I was like, I could do an answer song 70 years after the original, this is gonna be cool.

BAIO: What was the Al Bowlly song about?

MISHRA: The original song was “My Woman” and it was just about about how this woman was lying and a cheat and doesn’t do anything she says, and of course it was a personal relationship thing, but it’s kind of like “isn’t that what women are like?” So I wanted to write the opposite of that. I was at uni then doing a lot about non-Western narratives and multilinear perspectives and multilinear narratives, so I was thinking what I should do is try and write it so it isn’t any one thing. I thought, “oh god, this is gonna be difficult, I have to check everything, this makes no sense,” and then, “do I put in lines that are only interpretable,” if that’s a word, in one way? Do I leave them? If I make it too nebulous, there’s nothing for anyone to grab hold onto at all. There’s nothing there. If I make it too obvious, it’s only one perspective. So I went through so many drafts of lyrics to try and find the right degree of ambiguity versus explicitness. And also, if you’ve listened to my stuff, which I know you have, you know that I’m not a poet. I’m very much a bold lyric writer. I don’t write anything that’s like poetry. I write just about things — and everything I write is true — that happen to me personally, which is 95 percent of the stuff, or happened to a friend of mine, and I’ll make their life stories and put them into a song. But all of it is true, and all of it has to be embarrassing. I don’t think unless I’m slightly embarrassed and I’m singing songs to people, I’m kind of doing my job. [Laughs]

BAIO: That’s really interesting. When you were working on it and when it was done, did it feel any different from stuff you had made beforehand, or was it just the track you were working on at that time? Did it feel special in a way?

MISHRA: It felt poppier, but in the context of the EP it was gonna come out on, which was the Abort, Retry, Fail EP. It kind of fit because it was next to a track called “Give Me Some Pain” and there was an instrumental track that was based on the Heaven 17 drum loop, which I think was “Theme For A Mid-Afternoon Game Show.” I don’t know, there’s a huge long cover of an ambient dark electro track as well, which is like seven minutes long. So in the context of that EP, especially since the EP was about my PC crashing and wiping out loads of work, and me just thinking like “why am I even … does anyone listen to what I’m doing? Does anyone care what I’m doing? Should I be bothered to even release records anymore?” I knew that I could always release records on Parasol or other indies and always sell 500-1000, 2000, but, is that it?

BAIO: Did “Your Woman” feel different then? Or did it feel, within the context of the EP…

MISHRA: It felt like I was getting closer to what I was listening to then, which was mostly hip-hop. I felt slightly more at home in hip-hop, because indie pop is a very white genre and always has been. That’s always been an issue for me and I always feel a little bit errr … whereas, you go to hip-hop shows and you’re not the only person that’s not white. It’s a different feeling. So I listened to “Your Woman” and I thought, this is more honest to where I am now. It was far less the twee, indie, jangly guitar pop, and far more synths and electronics. I’d sampled a Funkadelic thing [on “Give Me Some Pain”] and it was that kind of beat that obsessed me at the time.

BAIO: It has a swagger.

MISHRA: And also it’s got a slight swing to it.

BAIO: Absolutely.

MISHRA: It was the opposite of like, 4/4 rock.

BAIO: How much time passed between the release of the Abort, Retry, Fail EP and “Your Woman” becoming a #1 single in UK?

MISHRA: It came out on Parasol in July of ‘96. So seven months because it was #1 in January. What happened is it came out in Parasol, they obviously were selling it in America and I got my lot to sell and keep here. I packaged up a few copies and then Mark Radcliffe on a nighttime BBC 1 show started playing it. He got loads of requests for it, and then fortunately he had to cover breakfast daytime radio, and then it went from a nighttime listenership of 3, 4, 5 million, to a breakfast listenership of … I think back then it would’ve been like 17 million or 18 million, a huge jump. Then Radio 1 got me in there to be on the show; I think it was the Simon Mayo show. I was going, “oh, thanks so much for having me,” and he was like, “we got you in because we’re getting more requests for you than for Oasis.” He’s like, “what’s your management, and I’m like, “I haven’t got a manager.” He’s like, “what about your label?” “There is no label.”

BAIO: When in the process was this, I guess from July? When was the first play? The first morning show play, I mean.

MISHRA: That would’ve been November, maybe? November of ‘96, and then I got signed in December. I think we finished a week before Christmas.

BAIO: How many people got in touch with you between the first play and the record deal?

MISHRA: Different labels? Sony, Warner, EMI, Beggars Banquet … I think another couple I can’t remember, but yeah, it went quite mad.

BAIO: And what were you feeling in that moment at that time, was it all kind of too hectic to take stock of?

MISHRA: I had to have a friend at my house, literally, to answer the phone so I could go for a piss. I was not married then, but I was with my girlfriend and we were just excited for Radio 1 at nighttime, because before then I got played on John Peel in ‘92, so we thought the same thing like, “hey, nighttime’s playing it, a little bump in sales” and that’s it.

BAIO: I’m curious because, like I said before, it’s a bedroom-produced track, and you probably didn’t have a live show of any sort.

MISHRA: Oh, god no.

BAIO: Were you getting offers to perform and things like that? Were there places that wanted you to play around the release of the single?

MISHRA: Well once I was on EMI, then the promo machine got going. “We want you to do this, we want you to do that,” and I turned pretty much 90 percent of stuff down. A rumor got going at the time that the EMI were ashamed of me, or afraid to show what I looked like because he’s fat or this or that; the truth was they wanted me to do everything, and I didn’t wanna do anything. So they were saying, “you know it’s in your fucking contract to do promo, you better do this promo or you’ll cost us sales.” I had this thing EMI Italy wanted me to do: this show where there’s stripping housewives behind you or something. Seriously.

BAIO: That’s crazy.

MISHRA: I was like, “Yeah, I’m a Marxist. I’m not gonna do that. Why are you asking me to do this weird bullshit?” Um, so that’s maybe why there was a bit of bad blood with me and EMI. [Laughs] Because I turned down doing Loaded, the magazine, which was at that time one of the biggest magazines going. I always hated Loaded. I hated lad culture, I hated Britpop, I hated all of that stuff. It was like, “oh, we got an offer from Loaded. They’ll give you a central spread, and this and that, and you can talk about the girls you most fancy.” [Laughs] And I was like, “yeah, I’m not doing that.”

BAIO: It’s now way more common for a solo producer or a laptop producer to have a hit, or tour, or have some kind of live show. If this were happening to you now, would you be saying yes to a lot of those things?

MISHRA: Yeah, definitely.

BAIO: Just because there was no conception of it, and it didn’t exist when you had your hit?

MISHRA: Live electronic music then was the Prodigy. How am I gonna fucking beat the Prodigy? That is like a rock ‘n’ roll show. You know, that was around the same time as “Firestarter” and stuff like that. I’d love to do that now, I’d love to go out and have like a show, if I had the money, where it was all Skrillex-y and things revolving, you know, helicopters and shit. But, like, now you can sync all that shit via midi, you can sync all that via Ableton. You couldn’t do that back then, you had just DMX back then and that wouldn’t do any kind of control. You could maybe get some lights to swivel on you. [Laughs]

BAIO: When was the first time you performed “Your Woman” live? How many years after it went to #1?

MISHRA: I must’ve done it on the Radio 1 session that I did for Mark Radcliffe, so that was in ‘97, but that’s not really a gig. An actual proper gig would’ve been probably 2005…

BAIO: Were you nervous about playing it live for the first time eight years later?

MISHRA: Actually I stopped playing live in ‘92, ‘93 because it was just me. I was just like, “Oh, I don’t wanna go out just me and a fucking tape deck, this is ridiculous.” So I stopped playing, and then obviously there was more gig offers and things going on, but I was like “No, no, no,” and then I didn’t get any offers because it would just all die out, because if you refuse people stop asking. Then around 2005, I got this email from this Swedish guy saying, “Hey I’m an anarchist, I live in Gothenburg, would you come and play my flat?” And I’m like, “Yep, okay, this sounds like my kind of thing.” They moved it to a different venue because they had too many people interested, but like basically that was the first gig I did where I played “Your Woman.”

BAIO: How does a straight-edge Marxist celebrate having a #1 single?

MISHRA: Well, when it went to #1, I was with my then-girlfriend, I guess we probably had some non-alcoholic, sparkling drink or something like that. [Laughs] There were certain people … you know indie kids, like they’re very purist and unless it’s a record that’s a 7″ they don’t want to know about it. So it’s like, “Oh, you sold out,” but I never said I didn’t want to do a major label, you’ve assumed that because I’ve been with indies. I’ve never been anti-major, so let’s give it a go and see what it’s like and then I could be like, “Oh, I been at a major, it’s terrible, it’s not for me.” For some bands it works really well, but just not for me because I’m too irascible. But I celebrated, I think, because I had one chance to get this song to as many people as possible. Also, I can be okay later, because I asked the owner of Parasol if he would press up the copies. Well, I phoned them and said, “Jeff, this record has gone to Radio 1,” and he’s like, “Okay,” and I was like, “this is blowing up now and Woolworth wants 40,000 copies. Is there anyway that you could take out a big loan and press like one million copies of this record?” He’s like, “Uh, no.” I’m like, “Well, I’ll have to go to somebody else, it’ll just die otherwise,” and he was like “Okay,” because he thought I was crazy, he thought I was kind of imagining it all. And he always says, ever since then every other label boss he talks to is like, “So you’re the dude that let that record go.” [Laughs]

BAIO: If you were to recommend a single other song for people to check out of yours, which one would you pick?

MISHRA: [Sighs … whispers to self] Oh fucking hell… you know what, I’d go with “Fairweather Friend” off the first album.

BAIO: Another quick question: I was asked to cover a song for a Greenpeace compilation, and I usually don’t get to ask the artist in advance if I have their blessing to cover their song, but is it okay if I cover “Your Woman” for the Greenpeace compilation?

MISHRA: Oh, lovely, that would be amazing!

BAIO: What stuff do you do to occupy your time? I can tell you read a lot and you said you research a lot, but what other stuff do you do when you can’t work on music?

MISHRA: I’ve done a lot of female portrait photography. And I do really shit painting, and I do really bad poetry. If it’s only medium-bad, I don’t share it with anybody. If it’s really bad, I’ll put it online share it online to humiliate myself.

BAIO: [Laughs]

MISHRA: I’m not even kidding, it’s really bad poetry. But that’s the point of poetry. Like, if you read it you’d be like “Is this an adept 12 year-old who wrote this?” You’d be like, “oh, they’re a bit angsty, maybe 12, 13.” Like, no I did that last week.

BAIO: How often do you travel and do gigs and play these days?

MISHRA: Not often enough. If somebody is reading this, give me an offer and I’ll be there. I don’t care where it is, I’ll do it for the price of a cup of tea. Packet of biscuits and a cup of tea, I’ll be there. I’m planning to do — my ideal thing I’ve realized since my gig at Indietracks last year where I did an acoustic gig with no mics or anything, just purely, completely unplugged — my ideal would be in people’s sitting rooms. I’d love to do, you know like, old-style, hardcore shows, just coming across characters in people’s basements, I want to do that but with twee indie pop and electronic music.

BAIO: Do you hear “Your Woman” in the wild?

MISHRA: Oh god, I hear it in the supermarkets, I hear it sometimes on the radio, stuff like that. People always message me like, “Hey, it’s been on Jam Radio, it’s been on this and that.” Maybe once every six months I’ll hear it somewhere. I was in, like, this big game somewhere and it came over the things, and i was like, “Oh, it’s my song!” I was in the gym one time and it came on, and I was just like, “Oh, that’s crazy.”

BAIO: Yeah, I mean, I would say I probably hear it more than once every six months.

MISHRA: Well that’s good!

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You can keep up to date about Mishra on Tumblr and Facebook, and if you’re near London 12/15, catch White Town play the Haiku Salut Christmas Lamp Show at St John on Bethnal Green.