Messed!Up

Toughened up after a decade at the top: Harry McVeigh of White Lies interviewed

J.N. April 23, 2019

I was about to do my first Reading Festival in 2008 after an eleven-year long hiatus since I visited the festival the last time. Reading Festival back then had the rumor of being that festival you just had to visit if you wanted to discover the new stars on the indie rock scene years before anyone else ever heard of the band, and I was hoping to find something new to take with me back home to Sweden.

Just before I left for the festival in 2008 a friend of mine sent me a MySpace link (yes, that’s where you found music!) to a band called White Lies and their two songs “”Death”, yet to be released, and “Unfinished Business” that had been released as a 7” single, and after the first listen I ordered it directly.

These three young, somewhat shy lads made a great Reading Festival debut gig that late summer day in August 2008, and half a year later they were about to release a chart-topping debut album that would take them to sudden stardom and build an enormous following of dedicated fans across the world.

After a decade of existence and with a new home at PIAS Recordings, we sat down with frontman and guitarist Harry McVeigh and talked about their first decade as a band, their latest and eighties-influenced album “FIVE” and lessons learned from a decade of work in the music industry.

Eighties influences on “FIVE”

I remember Reading Festival 2008 where someone told me to pass by the Republic Stage and “check out White Lies because they’re gonna get big”. How was it to play that festival? You weren’t that old then.
That’s cool (laugh)! We were probably nineteen then, and I remember that festival well because it was the first time we played Reading. It was a huge moment for us because that was the one we used to go to as teenagers.

Now ten years and five full-length albums later I read a hilarious fun tweet addressing Hugh Jackman [the Australian actor] to help you selling a few hundred copies of “FIVE” just to push you up alongside him at the UK chart. How did that work out in the end? Did he respond?
Actually, I don’t know so much about the Hugh Jackman thing (laughs). I really don’t go out on Twitter because I’m really not at all in that world of social media and I’ve never have been; I never had Facebook or Twitter or anything.

But at that time we were hoping for a top ten album in the UK and it wasn’t quite there, the margin is so slim. These days people don’t buy records in the same number that they used to. If you sell an extra two hundred copies of your record you can jump three or four chart positions, which is crazy. So we were just asking everyone to buy on the last day to see if we could get ourselves up back to the top ten but we didn’t make it. And we didn’t get any response [from Hugh Jackman] either (laughs).

At that point we had already started touring and were focusing more on that. Not having social media, the first response I get for the album is when we play the songs live. And touring has been great so far, people have responded well to the new music.

Let’s talk “FIVE” a bit, after all that’s why you’re on tour. When I listen to the album and especially “Tokyo” I can’t get out of my head how much eighties influences it’s on there. You take a new musical turn with “FIVE” with more dominant retrospective kind of synth lines on it. What about this change?
I think that in the run-up to writing the album we listened a lot to our third record “Big TV”, and in those songs we felt that we struck the balance right between the keyboards and the guitars. It’s strange actually when you listen back to the first album how little of that there is, we always remembered it as it was more of that in there.

On the first album we were much more of a three-piece band, augmented with a few synthesizer parts but nothing really huge, it was kind of sparse, like a lot of string synths and melody sounds but that was it. But I don’t know where that embrace of the synths came from, maybe from our second album.

When we were writing our second album we listened a lot to Nine Inch Nails and bands like that, and we just loved how they could make synths sound in a way that they could become part of rock music as opposed to synth rock or synth based music, and that was something we were really keen to incorporate on our second album, and that was the only thing we got right on the second album. I think we fucked up a lot actually and did some stupid things (laughs).

But on the third album we struck that balance well, and we tried to go back to that a little bit on this album. Fans may think we went too far the other way, that there’s too much keyboards on the album and not enough rocking guitars.

With eighties music it was all about excess. It was the first time people said “I’m going to earn a lot of money and I’m not going to be ashamed of that. I want to be really rich”. I think the bands were kind of the same; they just pushed all of this money into making the most perfect pop record and buying a lot of expensive gear, expensive keyboards, and tried to incorporate it in the rock tradition, and that’s something we always have admired, that kind of bombastic sound.

With “FIVE” you’re also back for the fourth time working with Ed Buller. It seems to be a fruitful partnership. How important is Ed for you?
Huge amount! We worked with him on every album apart from the second one. He is like a father figure to the band, really.

Dis he pushed you in a different direction this time?
Not really. Sometimes in small ways but his greatest strength is that he understands what a White Lies song is and how it should sound like. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world who understands our music as he does.

On this album he really didn’t do any recording with us but he helps with the arrangements and the composition of the songs and tries to make sure that we’re ready to go when we go into the studio so we know what we’re going to do.

Having said all that, he can be very frustrating to work with as well because he’s kind of an eccentric character (laughs) and he has very particular methods. I don’t think his greatest strength is to make things sound good but he’s very good at understanding what’s required from a song and from an arrangement to be recorded well, and to make sense. Once you get that right it makes everything easier. When you get into the studio you just know what you’re doing and when you’re going to do it, and when you start playing live, his arrangements come together because they’re natural and fit with what we’re trying to do.

As I understand it you made a lot more on your own on this album because you didn’t have a label when you started on the album and funded it all by yourself?
Yes we did. We had our publisher and had an advance from them which was a good amount of money actually, and we just put all of that into making the album.

It was a risk for sure, but I think that ten years into our career we just knew that our fans are going to be there. And the album doesn’t really need to be a success as long as our fans like it and it pushes tickets for the shows and we can go out on tour like we do now, then we’ll be alright.

Nowadays, talking technically about the music industry, bands view the entire business a lot more as one thing, as one whole business, whereas in the past people would viewed the publishing and the record sales as separate from their touring and the merchandise and everything else.

That’s just a certain amount of money that we’ll invest in our business to be able to carry on in the future.

“We’re definitely a lot tougher now”

The music landscape has drastically changed over the past decade, contemporaries have come and gone, records sales is reaching an all-time low; consumption of records shrunk by more than half since the introduction of numerous legal streaming services and subscription sites during the period 2008 to 2010, that offered digital consumers both convenience and affordable pricing.

A band as White Lies that have experienced the second revolution in the music industry, the streaming services revolution, know what that means in terms of selling records and this change drastically has put a limit to the potential of earning anything from album sales.

I’ve always been fascinated of bands that survive ten years and still make it together. Touring life and just hanging out together in longer periods very often ends up in lots of unresolved tensions that you at some point have to deal with. We just recently met Steven Ansell of Blood Red Shoes who told us they nearly split up after their fourth album for instance. But you just seem to keep going. How have you kept it together?
It always sounds like we release a lot of music and we’ve done five albums in ten years, that’s roughly an album every two years. But I never felt we’re that busy once we finished touring, and we often take a lot of time off, a few months some times, and just to nothing.

I would like to say we don’t really see each other but we do actually, we hang out with each other all the time because we’re best friends first and foremost. But hanging out with each other outside of the context than being on tour and being in a band is probably quite important. But we have always been able to resolve those tensions by talking to each other and communicate the problems we might have, and we try to find a solution that makes everyone happy, or at least happy enough.

I think the reason that bands a lot of the times struggle is because you lose the creative spark, and that can happen with us very easily, and if it did it would probably take a long time before we do it again, if we felt it would become too frustrating to do it. First of all I think it should be enjoyable to be in a band and you should have fun doing it.

It sounds like you learned a lot about being in a band and dealing with the music industry during these first ten years. We’ve had discussions with a few bands that have been around as long as you and they say that they’ve had to toughen up a bit, and often you learn that the hard way. What’s your experience of your first decade as musicians, ten years later and a bit wiser today I guess?
I think we’re definitely a lot tougher now than we were as young. It would have been much harder like a band as us to start now to try to get the business off the ground and going, especially if you want to have any success not only in the rest of Europe but the rest of the world. We’ve actually been very lucky.

We had so much excitement around us when we first signed our record deal, so much interest in the band. Exactly like you were saying, seeing us playing in 2008; that’s before our album even came out and people were already interested to see what was going on.

When we signed with a major label we had so much money coming into our business and we were able to travel the world of the back of that, and they put us in all of these territories really early on before the album came out.

The first trip we did away from home was to Japan and to America, and that was so wild and would never happen now. It was just a lot of hype and it was great because when that happens as a band and you are the new thing and everyone is interested in what you’re doing, as long as you keep your head together you can build on that. That’s kind of what we did.

We worked our asses off and played everywhere that anyone ever asked us to play, we would travel there and do it, and we won some people over doing that, especially around Europe. That’s why we’re able to keep doing that now and if we hadn’t had that we wouldn’t have the business we have now.

When you see record sales dropping off rapidly on every album we have released, we sold less just like everyone has, to a ridiculous level you understand that things have changed. First week in the UK, on the first album, we sold over 30 000 records, and that was actually low to the years before, and we made number one. If you sold 30 000 records now you’d be outselling number one by three or four times.

That has definitely changed and I guess it’s just less money flying around and people would take less risks, and deals that bands sign now reflect that. They’re often free after one or two albums whereas when we signed on we did it for six albums, and if things didn’t go that well on the first album labels would take more risks, and they would go for the second, maybe the third, to see if it can work. These days you just get one chance really, and you can reach a certain level on your first album, and that’s most likely where you stay.

I guess that many things changed, especially how people’s listening behavior have affected record deals. Streaming wasn’t really an option when you released your first album. Has the way people listen to music today had any impact on how you discuss how to release music?
Yeah, singles doesn’t really exist anymore, they are really pointless in the world of streaming. You don’t release them physically, and people are not interested in b-sides anymore.

Nowadays in the campaign you just put out songs bit by bit up until the album, it doesn’t really matter if there’s singles or not. The first song people heard from “FIVE” was “Time To Give” which is a really strange piece of music; it’s seven and a half minute long and it has no chance of getting played on the radio but it did quite well for us and people seemed to enjoy it. You can do that these days and put out these weird songs of albums.

The other big change is that the album campaign today is finished when the album comes out. That’s it, it’s done and everyone has all the songs, you don’t have to pay for them and you can listen to them wherever you like. So all the excitement is building to that moment, that’s like the crescendo, and after that it’s about exposing the record as much as you can on tour. That’s kind of different.

When our first album came out it was just the start of building our career and it just kept growing from there, and that doesn’t really happen these days. You have to do a lot of building first.

But what’s also changed is that you need to tour much more than when you started, isn’t it like that?
Yeah, but we’ve always done that and we have always enjoyed doing that, so it’s easy for us to do that. That’s our business for sure because we don’t earn any money doing anything else, that’s like going to the office.

Special celebration of “To Lose My Life…”

It’s ten years since the release of your debut album this year. Do you plan anything special to celebrate it?
I think so, we’ll put something together. We haven’t really figured it out yet but we’re thinking about doing some shows and we’re trying to figure out a way getting the album out there again because people seem to really want it. It’s actually quite rare, on vinyl especially, that’s one of the things that has changed funny enough. In the music industry vinyl is more popular now than it was ten years ago and it’s growing more and more for every year, and all the old factories for printing vinyl open up again.

But we’ll do something and something really good. And it will be good for us as well, to acknowledge how important that album is to us and for the people who come to our shows. We’re going to try to do it justice.

Isn’t that kind of hype surrounding you interesting? Already from “To Lose My Life…” you’ve had a dedicated fan base, that kind of fan base that follow you across the world and to whom you are more than a band making music. You said in another interview that you’re fans feel they’re in “some sort of club”. How do you experience the loyalty of your fans?
They’re great! I’m always very grateful that people are still there and sticking with us. I think it’s something about the music, perhaps more about the lyrics than the songs and they’re very personal to a lot of people or they help people to deal with difficult parts of their lives, which I find incredible and really beautiful.

To me that’s like the best thing about music in general. It can either help you re-evaluate something in your life, look at something from a different perspective, or literally help you through it in an emotional sense.

I think that our music has a lot of that and it becomes very personal for a lot of people, and that’s why they stick with it. Charles is our lyricist actually, and he gets that often from fans.

Our songs are never about wider global problems or political systems or anything like that, and it’s not trying to change the world that way. Charles write about things on a very personal level, how people interact and about personal problems that can’t be resolved, situations that just get worse and worse and there’s no way out of it. Everyone at some point in their life goes through something like that and some people form a bond with our music because of that.

And you can promise us and your dedicated fans that you will write another ten year-long chapter in the book of White Lies, and when we meet you again in 2029 that you’ve just released the album “TEN”?
(laughs) I really don’t know what will happen but I feel secure in the job now. The only thing that would stop us from doing it is whether we want to do it or not, and at the moment we love doing it.


Photographer: ©Julia Schwendner
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About The Author

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.

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