Industry showcases are an odd thing. Some record company gathers together label people, media types and maybe some radio people together in a venue, and gets their artist to play their latest stuff live. Hopefully, you’ll buzz about it. I once had a job where it was all but mandated I attend these things, and I’ve seen some talented folks give their all to rooms full of people who just wanted to network and treat the open bar as a challenge. If I named names, you would get downright upset. It gets dispiriting.
So it was a very encouraging sign that there was no shortage of crowd surfing when White Reaper did their recent secret showcase, on a June day right when summer was just starting to get sticky. It helps that the band’s managers made an effort to get real fans in the building, and they chose Coney Island Baby, an East Village bar in the former location of revered New York rock dives Brownies and Hi-Fi. When the Kentucky band dropped its purring new single “Might Be Right” or fan-favorite cuts like “The Stack,” I worried some kid who was probably too young to be in the room might kick me in the head. That’s a fear that makes my heart ache — a wistful, sweetly reckless joy that you can touch no other way.
Toward the end of their set, White Reaper nailed a cover of the Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket,” and after talking with them a few hours earlier, it seemed like a skeleton key to their whole deal: charming in its cockiness, but ultimately kinda bashful about its power. Then, right before closing their set with a rousing “Judy French,” they threw in a verse of Bryan Adams’ “Summer Of 69.” It’s not as cool as a selection as anything Chrissie Hynde has graced the world with, yet it made its own kind of sense.
As a million #Actually guys have pointed out before, “Summer Of 69″ is kinda bullshit. Adams was 10 years old in 1969, too young for any of the end-of-the-’60s, end-of-the-innocence stuff he goes on about. And yet, the yearning of the song disarms you nonetheless, even if you think you’re too cool for it. White Reaper are kinda like that as well. These Kentucky boys are too young to have any real nostalgia for the bands and aesthetics they draw upon. They’re all 25 or 26, born too late for all of it. But they just want it all so bad, and do such a good job of bringing burnout abandon and arena strobe lights into the modern era that eventually you just give in and want to swaddle them all in a jean jacket blanket and read them excerpts from David Lee Roth’s memoir Crazy From The Heat until they fall asleep.
White Reaper started off as a quartet comprising the perpetually head-shaved singer-guitarist Tony Esposito, the brothers Sam and Nick Wilkerson — on bass and drums, respectively — and the wildly maned and talkative keyboardist Ryan Hater. The band released its self-titled EP in 2014 and followed it up in 2015 with a full-length: the cheekily titled White Reaper Does It Again, a double-blast of shot-and-a-beer garage rock. They added guitarist Hunter Thompson and doubled down on cheeky titles and reckless riffing, embracing arena grandeur on a DIY budget with 2017’s The World’s Best American Band. The album turned quite a few heads and earned some critical raves, nearly all of which mentioned either Dazed And Confused, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Van Halen, or KISS. And Camaros. Lots and lots of Camaro references. Backstage at Baby, a few hours before their show, the members of White Reaper admit they’ve gotten practiced at living this stuff down.
“It’s so funny, because we already learned our lesson. We named our band White Reaper and by the time we were a band for a little while, we were kind of sick of skulls and all that type of stuff,” says Sam. “And then we went and named our record The World’s Best American Band and now everyone’s like ‘Fireworks! America! Muscle Cars!’ We did it to ourselves.”
“We’re not car guys at all,” says Hater. We’re, like, the furthest thing from it. Tony drives a tour van, I drive a ’94 Mercury Grand Marquis.”
“I drive a 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee,” says Nick. “It’s blue.”
Adds Hater: “I think it’s really just people trying to articulate the ‘windows down, with your friends, listening to the same songs over and over again’ feeling. Which I like — because that’s how we all became friends, and we still do that to this day — but it’s just funny that people compare our music to cars.”
With The World’s Best American Band, White Reaper started off the album and title track with fake crowd noise, and then proceeded to make 32 minutes of the sort of giant riffs, lighters-up choruses, and scream-along slogans (“If you make the girls dance/ the boys will dance with them”) that once propelled guitar bands into sporting venues for the evening. Coming from a band on the respected but relatively small label Polyvinyl, in a time when rock bands don’t pack ‘em in like they used to, this struck some onlookers as a bit funny. Did these guys really think they could be rock stars? In this economy?
“That’s like telling a dude in college basketball, like, ‘This dude plays like he wants to be in the NBA. What an idiot,'” Hater responds, genially.
“It always makes me laugh,” adds Esposito. “I’ve been reading a lot of those comments, like, ‘This band sounds like they want to be an arena band.’ Well, duh.”
And now, White Reaper are doing something that most youngish guitar bands with DIY roots did fairly regularly not too long ago, but don’t bother to do much anymore. They’ve signed with a major label, and have made an album that just might get them into arenas one day. After White Reaper’s deal with Polyvinyl ended, they met with a number of record labels. And the punk producer Will Yip — who has an imprint through Atlantic Records — introduced the band to the Atlantic subsidiary Elektra Records, a label once home to the Cars, the Cure, Metallica, and Queen. This proved to be catnip for a bunch of classic-rock heads.
White Reaper worked with Jay Joyce, a producer best known for bringing AC/DC riffage to Eric Church’s records but who has also worked with FIDLAR and Cage The Elephant. They’re still putting final touches on the album, which they hope to have out this fall. They’ve already released the twisty new-wave single “Might Be Right,” and I’ve heard a few of the other new songs, which range from the Judas Priest-like riffage of “Ring” to the shiny, harmony-rich power-pop of “1F” to the cocksure strut of “Real Long Time” — the latter of which we’re premiering here today, in fact. Here, see the video (directed by Lance Bangs) for yourself:
The main difference this time was that, unlike World’s Best, which was written in the studio in 32 days (“We literally went in with nothing,” Sam says), they wrote the album ahead of time and had more breathing room in the studio. And that’s it. That’s the only difference this time around. They assured me. Repeatedly.
“All of our records are super different, and I think that’s on purpose because we’re just always evolving and we don’t want to do the same thing twice,” Sam says. “But all the songwriting on this one was all us. People might have the idea in their head that once you go major label, they have all the control. But in this case, that was not true.”
Hater interjects, “If you hate the new record, then you hate us. The major label didn’t do anything. You should at least know that all the blame is on our shoulders.”
“People on the internet are going to say whatever they want,” Sam continues, “but we changed our sound pretty dramatically from the first full-length to the second and people blamed Hunter for it. And Hunter wasn’t even on that record.” (Thompson, an Austin, Texas native they met on tour, joined up later.)
The group starts laughing, and Esposito speaks up for a second, already looking a bit frustrated, already sick of a question he knows he’ll be answering for a while. “They’re going to say whatever they want, it’s a little more polished, but if you don’t like it….” He begins trailing off.
Saying that rock is dead is not only inaccurate, but it implies one needs commercial dominance and social-media buzz for an art form to have relevance, which — at the risk of getting all Dirtbag Left about it — is a ghoulishly late-capitalist mindset to have. It is true, though, that from Mitski to Car Seat Headrest to Japandroids to, well, name your fave, most of this decade’s most exciting rock artists have been content to stick to smaller labels and focus on pleasing their fanbases, and the idea of leveling up means signing to a mega indie like Matador or Epitaph. The idea that a major label deal is the death of your cred is one of those silly notions we left behind with rockism and OK Soda. But the idea that a major label would want a rock band, or that a rock band would even need a major label to take them to the next level is, if not unheard of in the year 2019, then at least increasingly rare. But White Reaper are true believers in at least trying their best to rock the nation. And they insist they are not alone in this regard.
“Breaking a rock band is just completely different now,” Hater says. “It’s building from the ground floor, which is wild because it was top floor in just like 2009, like 10 years ago, not even that long ago.”
“Because of streaming, there’s been a resurgence into these labels. They’ve learned how to work within this new system, and I think right now they are willing to take more chances on things that they like,” Sam says, adding that a friend of his at the label told him that during the lean recession years of “2010-2011, when things were tilting on their axis, it was like, ‘how can we find the safe song, the Flo Rida song, the Akon song that is guaranteed to be an easy success for us because we just need the money?’ Right now, I think that they’ve learned the streaming industry, and they’ve got a little bit more free resources to experiment with groups like us. Which we’re glad to utilize.”
“They don’t need us necessarily to make a big Song Of The Summer, it’s a passion thing,” Hater says. “It’s because they want rock bands to be a thing again.”
That said, Hater continues, “whether they can make us the biggest band in the world…”
“That’s up to us,” says Nick.
The members of White Reaper first met in middle school “as the freak kids,” Nick says, initially bonding over Green Day then maturing into the types of lads that obsessed over underground deities like the Germs and sought out the hallowed punk and metal documentaries The Decline Of Western Civilization (“What’s his name in the pool with the vodka? And his mom is there and he’s just talking about how he wants to be dead, that made me want to be a musician,” says Hater, referring to an infamous scene involving the troubled W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes.)
“I don’t identify with a lot of the modern music that’s coming out now,” Esposito says. “Not to say that it’s bad, because I love a lot of that stuff, but as a performer, I wouldn’t feel right.” They’ve always been young old heads, but they’re not stuck in the past. They avoid any sound they think is just too throwback (“it’s too Speedwagon, it’s too the Cars,” Sam says), as well as any worldview they find too 20th century.
White Reaper’s hometown of Louisville had a DIY venue called Skull Alley that they attended every week. It was there that they learned how a punk band operates. They learned a lot of other things as well.
“All the people we hung out with were super PC, super safe-space-oriented, and we were instilled with that stuff like very young,” Hater says. “We knew it was wrong to say stuff, and why, and that you should tell other people that. That was just how people were. And if people were bad at shows or were just shitty people, they’d get kicked out and told they couldn’t come back until they got their shit straight.”
White Reaper present themselves as good-time party boys, here for a riff and a laugh. And they are that. But we’re all more than one thing. In person, they come off as a group of sweet kids that want to tap into the power and ecstasy of a previous era while, at their best, leaving the machismo behind. “You Might Be Right” is a sneaky ode to defeat and accepting that you don’t have a chance with a girl and giving up, while “Judy French” is a classic “please call me back” plea in the tradition of the Replacements’ “Answering Machine.” When I ask Esposito how much of his swagger is wishful thinking, he demurs. “I’m a very shy person,” he says, “and writing lyrics is very hard for me.”
Kentucky is a blood-red state that gave the world the Draconian Turtle Mitch McConnell, but everyone in White Reaper swears that Louisville is very liberal, very rad, and you should come visit. They were all certain Hilary Clinton was going to win in 2016, and when that didn’t happen, it was too late to change their album title.
“That’s why The World’s Best American Band kind of went off in a weird way because I think, to all of us, it was a funny name,” Sam says. “It wasn’t political at all, it was a total joke. Then Trump got elected and everyone assumes…”
He winces. No one ever asked or accused the members of White Reaper directly if they are conservative or jingoistic or anything of that nature, but they’ve worried if that’s what some people perceive. They don’t consider themselves a political band, but at their show they had a pink White Reaper T-shirt for sale, with proceeds of merchandise sales going to Planned Parenthood and RAINN.
“Obviously, these things are important to us, but I feel like, as a band, it’s more important for us to give people an escape from that rather than smacking them across the face with it every time,” Esposito says. “We’ll do what we can, but we’re not going to be outwardly public about it.”
“This time in America is very weird and volatile, and the presidency is something we’re all disappointed to have happened to our nation. I don’t think we’re all intelligent enough to be relaying deep political messages,” Sam adds. “But we know what we believe in and what’s right, and that’s people being equal and being loved and feeling safe and having an opportunity to make their own decisions for themselves.”
White Reaper know what times they live in, and they’re doing what they feel comfortable doing. But perhaps they just weren’t made for these times. Maybe trying to be a big rock band in a fractious, easily distracted era is a quixotic undertaking. And Nick says he’d be fine if the arena thing falls through, but the 300-400-person club tours work out. (He’d really at least like for that to happen.) But the band says the age spectrums that come to their shows surprises even them. “I’m saying it’s like 14-50,” says Hater. Maybe there still just might be a big audience for this stuff after all. Hater certainly thinks so.
“I’ve seen it live and in concert. They want it,” Hater says. “And we are beyond grateful to anyone that gives a shit at all.”
08/04 – Richmond, VA @ Richmond Music Hall
08/05 – Bethlehem, PA @ Musikfest $
08/06 – Pittsburgh, PA @ The Smiling Moose
08/09 – Sedalia, MO @ Missouri State Fair ()
08/18 – Philadelphia, PA @ Xfinity Live! Radio 104.5 Free Summer Block Party
08/23 – Leeds, UK @ Leeds Music Festival
08/25 – Reading, UK @ Reading Music Festival
08/27 – London, UK @ The Camden Assembly Pub
08/29 – Glasgow, UK @ Indian Summer Festival
08/30-09/01 – Stradbally, Ireland @ Electric Picnic Music and Arts Festival
09/13-15 – Chicago, IL @ Riot Fest
09/22 – Louisville, KY @ Bourbon & Beyond Festival
09/27 – Dana Point, CA @ Ohana Music Festival
09/29 – Louisville, KY V Louder than Life Festival
10/03 – St. Louis, MO @ The Firebird ! *
10/04 – Des Moines, IA @ Vaudeville Mews ! *
10/05 – St. Paul, MN @ Amsterdam Bar & Grill ! *
10/07 – Denver, CO @ Larimer Lounge ! *
10/08 – Billings, MT @ Yellowstone Valley Brewery ! ^
10/10 – Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile ! ^
10/11 – Vancouver, BC @ The Biltmore Ballroom ! ^
10/13 – Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge ! ^
10/15 – Sacramento, CA @ Holy Diver ! ^
10/16 – Berkeley, CA @ Cornerstone Berkeley ! ^
10/17 – Felton, CA @ Felton Music Hall ! ^
10/19 – Los, Angeles, CA @ Teragram Ballroom ! ^
10/20 – Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar ^
10/22 – Austin, TX @ Barracuda ^
10/23 – Dallas, TX @ Deep Ellum Art Co ^
10/24 – Memphis, TN @ Hi-Tone # :)
10/26 – Gainesville, FL @ High Dive & #
10/27 – Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade (Hell) & #
10/28 – Charlotte, NC @ Amo’s Southend & #
10/29 – Chattanooga, TN @ Songbirds South & #
10/31 – Washington, DC @ U Street &#
11/02 – Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair & #
11/03 – Hamden, CT @ The Space & #
11/05 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom & #
11/07 – Albany, NY @ The Hollow #
11/08 – Toronto, ON @ Horseshoe Tavern & #
11/09 – Detroit, MI @ El Club & #
11/10 – Columbus, OH @ A&R Music Bar & #
$ – Weezer
() – The Struts
! – The Dirty Nil
& – The Nude Party
* – The Paranoyds
^ – Criminal Hygiene
# – Wombo
:) – Charles Irwin