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From Airheads to The Grammys, DIY Duo White Mystery is ‘Outta Control’

Music Interview, New MusicWeston PaganoComment

Rare are the bands blessed with the full package of a naturally iconic appearance, instantly classic backstory, and genuine DIY earnestness all at once, yet that’s exactly what Chicago-based brother-sister duo White Mystery have always had in spades. 

The radiance of Miss Alex and Francis Scott Key White’s shocks of ginger hair somehow personify their fuzzy rock riffs better than you would’ve imagined possible, and backed by their appropriately Orange brand amps even a cursory glance tips you off to something special. But below the Iron Maiden t-shirts, denim, and lo-fi jams is a frontwoman who can shred with the best of them – when she’s not singlehandedly filling the roles of the band’s record label, PR, booking, management, and merch production all at once.

On top of being a completely self-sufficient music industry microcosm, White Mystery manages to churn out a full new album (or, in the case of last year, an entire feature-length film) like clockwork on the 4/20 date of each and every year, while Alex also daylights as the Vice President of The Grammy’s Chicago Chapter, leading one to wonder just how many different hats she can wear over her fiery locks.

To announce their forthcoming LP Outta Control, the raucous redheads took over Last Call with Carson Daly last night to debut singles "Sweet Relief" and "Best Friend," the latter a sunny, Jefferson Airplane-esque track that tells the tale of camaraderie and is stop-motion animated as an adorable canine dive bar to raise awareness of adoptable rescue dogs in a music video released today.

Transverso spoke with Miss Alex White about White Mystery's origins, Airheads, and how their next release is on a mission to make pop music good again.

How was performing on Last Call with Carson Daly?

[It went] really well! White Mystery flew out to LA and played this legendary club called The Troubadour in Hollywood where Janis Joplin, The Doors, Guns ‘n’ Roses, even Cheech & Chong got discovered, and we played a full concert, and Carson Daly’s current NBC late night show recorded us and it air[ed yesterday.]  We’ve been on TV and we’ve been in movies, but this is our first time on network late night television.

You mentioned Cheech & Chong, are they an influence of yours?

[Laughs] Well Cheech & Chong definitely inspired the White Mystery movie That Was Awesome, which is a stoner film that came out last year on 4/20, and Cheech & Chong reviewed our album and helped premiere the trailer when it came out last year, so yeah, it was cool. Of course I love Guns ‘n’ Roses and Janis Joplin and all that stuff too.

What’s it like having an annual release date of 4/20 that coincides with the stoner holiday and is usually near Record Store Day as well? How much of that was planned?

That’s a great question. When we first started the band Record Store Day did not exist yet. So we really lucked out when two years later or so the record holiday came about and happened to always be within three to four days of our annual record release. So it really benefits our CDs and albums going into record stores around the world, and we do release it early to record stores depending on when the record store day is, so if it’s on the 15th the new White Mystery release will be in stores already.

What originally inspired setting that date?

Well it’s funny because Francis and I – my brother that’s the drummer – we had both been in a lot of different bands separately but also together with other band members. I traveled the world with my old band Miss Alex White and the Red Orchestra, [and it’d] be like, “Okay, bye Francis, see you later!” and [I] kind of left him at home and would be on my merry way with my bandmates, and when I graduated college and moved out of my childhood home here in Rogers Park in Chicago we started missing each other. We almost started hanging out more when I moved out then when I lived at home, and we started jamming and developing new songs. Myspace was available and Garage Band had become a program that allowed musicians for the first time to record a song and put it up on the internet immediately, and that really changed the environment for musicians, so here we were experimenting with Garage Band and that kind of thing, and we were like, “Wow, let’s start a band!” and we did. And we looked back at our Myspace and were like, “Oh, we started it on 4/20, I guess that’s our band anniversary!” and you know, ever since then we’ve used that date as an annual, cyclical milestone that makes sure we stay on track and are always producing new music and pushing boundaries for creativity in the music industry.

What can you tell us about this year's 4/20 release that will happen later this month?

It’s one of those things where everyone knows we put a new album out every year and have been since we started as a band, but it still surprises them somehow. It’s our best work yet, and we want to drop it like a big bomb. So basically the new White Mystery album - which is to be released on April 20th and the single [today] along with the stop motion animation music video - is called Outta Control which is inspired by White Mystery Airheads, which we had based the name of our band on back maybe 20 years ago when we got an Airhead taffy candy that said "White Mystery Outta Control" on the wrapper. [That candy’s wrapper] no longer [says that today], but that’s what inspired the name of our band [and] album. It’s really important to us to stick to our original vision. So anyway, it’s our 5th album; it is our pop masterpiece that we spent a lot of brain hours on developing it into the best possible album ever, where in previous years we did not have the luxury of time that we did for Outta Control. For instance, our third album Telepathic we recorded in two days while we were on tour in Oakland, [and] we recorded Dubble Dragon our double album at a live show in one take at a studio, so for this album we were like, “Okay, let’s take some time and really dial this album into a masterpiece.” It covers a lot of mood, but it definitely has the kind of dark witching vibes of a lot of White Mystery albums, but it has a lot of really great upbeat pop songs.

Outta Control  cover art

Outta Control cover art

As someone with a DIY rock background what is the ideal pop song vibe to you?

A pop vibe is sort of ironic because while the album is called Outta Control it’s probably our most controlled work yet, which is how you create pop music. For instance, a lot of times when we made albums the drumming and guitars are just everywhere, you know, it’s like exploring over here and exploring over there and just like wailing and shredding and pounding, but in order to create pop music like every single stroke and note needs to be very methodical, and once you listen back if it’s not something that sounds absolutely perfect you have to actually revisit it until it is. So that’s what we did with the new album, we tried to make it [a] perfect masterpiece and that was a very fun challenge for me, you know? I love The Monkees, I love The Rolling Stones, I love Patti Smith, and I listened to a lot of their seminal records and it also really inspired me to try to make the cleanest album possible. When you listen to record like modern garage records I like Ty Segall, for instance. A lot of times the producer will put a lot of fuzz or a lot of reverb on the record to give it this kind of lo-fi sound, but we actually wanted this record to be more of a hi-fi sound that, for instance, could be on the radio and perhaps expand our audience more so.

You seem very connected to your DIY Chicago identity and have a sort of a cult fan group. When you say you’re looking to expand what are the boundaries or lack thereof you’re looking to transcend? 

Well we’ve traveled worldwide to Hiroshima in Japan and Karlsruhe, Germany or Queenland, Ohio, you know, we’ve played a lot of pretty obscure cities on Planet Earth, and there will always be an audience of people who have seen White Mystery, and in some cases multiple times. We’ve been a band for 8 years and we’re extremely grateful for our fans because they are the backbone of what we’ve been able to achieve all these years, and what we’d like to do is make mainstream music better. So right now when you go to the Grammy’s or watch the Grammy’s it’s honestly a lot of very contrived sort of tame pop music, and a lot of times I kind of envy my parent’s generation when bands like The Who and The Rolling Stones and Deep Purple were actually popular and on the radio, and I think that the White Mystery mission would be to try to make pop music good again with this new album.

You're also the Vice President of the Grammy’s Chicago Chapter, do you often feel like you’re one of the craziest, rawest, indie-est people in that circle? How do you reconcile those two worlds, are you trying to change the system from the inside out?

Well I’m not sure how much I can actually really comment about it but I would say that the Chicago Chapter is full of amazing working class professional musicians who are on a mission to basically help musicians make a living in a world or industry that has changed a lot in the last 20 years. You know we’re in the streaming age now and people used to make money off of album sales. It’s a diverse group of people and I wouldn’t really consider myself… they’re all unique individuals and we’re all working towards shared goals of advancing music in the Midwest.

To go back to your origin story, you have a photo of you at an Airheads factory. How did that come about?

Yeeeahhh! So basically - and that was years ago too - we received an email from the marketing department of [Perfetti Van Minelle] - which makes Airheads and Mentos - that said, “We’ve been watching you for a long time and we saw that you’re playing Cincinnati which is just right over the river from our factory where we make Airheads in Erlanger, Kentucky. We would be honored to have you visit our factory and we will make sure that we are producing White Mystery [Airheads] that day.” So we went and we put on our little Laverne and Shirley cloak and toured the factory and they gave us tons of free candy and it was one of the best days of my life.

If you order vinyl from Polyvinyl they include Airheads in with the package; have you ever considered including White Mystery Airheads in with yours?

Yeah we have done [that], and we’ve passed them out at shows, and you’ll see there’s even a picture of us in a giant bathtub full of Airheads and we passed those out at Halloween. I like Polyvinyl and they’re in Champaign, Illinois which is kind of funny, but I think that the thing they and we have in common is that Airheads are kind of the unofficial candy of record stores. When I was a teenager and I worked at Laurie’s Planet of Sound in Lincoln Square, [Chicago] Airheads [were] the only candy we sold ‘cause it’s not like chocolate where it goes bad or melts or gets gross, it’s taffy so it just sits there and it’s kind of, you know, like a Twinkie where you could eat it today or in five years and it’s gonna taste the same. So a lot of record stores would sell these Airheads and that’s partly why we really love them and why Polyvinyl love them too; they don’t go bad, they’re flat and they ship without getting smooshed or broken, and if you ship a Snickers bar it’s gonna be, like, melty or fall apart or get smashed, where an Airhead is [a] flat sugar, non-expiration kind of candy. And they’re cheap, they were like 20 cents when I was a teenager, so it’s like you could literally have 50 cents and still get change back after you got candy, you know, so I think that [since] they’re so inexpensive and made in the USA they have the feel. Made in America, baby! And I think that that’s partly why we love ‘em so much too, that’s the secret. [Editor's Note: I had to eat an Airhead while transcribing this, and though I didn't have White Mystery on hand, the cherry red flavor I did have was probably the next most appropriate option.]

It seems throughout your career you tend to end up in duos: The Red Lights, Miss Alex White & Chris Playboy, and White Mystery. What is it about this dynamic you like best in music? Do you not like the idea of too many cooks?

Well I guess a lot of the time I would want to start a band with whoever was my best friend at the time, and, you know, it was just easy. So if there was someone else out there who’s your best buddy, who you hang out with all the time, then you start a band together; one of you plays drums and the other one plays guitar. So it just kinda worked out that way. And with The Red Lights, Elisa was my really good friend in high school and she had passed away at a really young age, and then Chris Playboy who replaced her also passed away, and Eddie [Altesleben] who was the drummer of The Red Orchestra who was a four piece band, he passed away as well, so it’s like even when you’re super heartbroken from the passing of your friends when your passion is music it helps you get through rough patches. So I like playing in two pieces ‘cause there’s just a really special dynamic that happens between two people and it allows you to be creative and collaborative, and then you never need to buy a van, you can always tour in a car.

Will White Mystery ever be solved?

[Laughs] Well back on 4/20/2008 Francis and I agreed we would do the band for exactly 10 years, so technically the riddle will be solved 4/20/2018.

You can preorder a physical copy of Outta Control here or a digital copy here.