For over a decade, Tonstartssbandht have been adding to their canon of DIY noise-rock, with each release taking their fanbase deeper into a the opaque world of the White brothers.
Having forged a steadfast following with their formula of fuzzy, opaque vocals and reverb-heavy production, new album, Petunia, sees the duo creeping away from the peripheries of DIY noise rock, and into a more polished, retrospective type of psychedelia.
Where previous albums – such as 2009’s An When – had an almost cavernous sense of walled-in echo, Petunia breaks free from the tunnel and opens the band’s sound right up. Edwin’s drumming holds its gravitational pull throughout the album’s seven tracks, allowing spiralling guitar riffs the freedom to float carelessly wherever the wind takes them.
Substituting compressed vocal layers for cleaner, crisper harmonies, much of this album brings to mind early 70s Beach Boys (where everyone got a bit down in the dumps and spaced-out, whilst holding onto those bittersweet vocal synchronisations).
Despite the menacing, ghostly energy of ‘What Has Happened’ (one of 2021’s best tracks), Petunia represents a much lighter side to the White brothers’ portfolio. This album shakes off the ragtag, demo quality that Tonstartssbandht are known for, opens those curtains wide and let some sunshine into their sound.
We caught up with Andy to understand more about the White brothers’ process.
Petunia sees you move further away from the ‘wall of sound’ aesthetic of your earlier albums, and towards a more crafted, sharp sound. Was there a decisive moment where this direction was verbalised between the two of you?
Our practice space at home Orlando had become a bit of a hoarding room over the years, kind of unusable. I spent a while in 2019 cleaning it out and organising it for proper recording again. With the space prepared for focused work, we planned on taking some time off from work and personal commitments to focus on sitting down and recording the new record at some point in late 2020.. So I think as far back as 2019 we knew that the new album would be a bit more carefully crafted. When the pandemic hit and our schedules completely cleared up for 2020, we just moved up the timeline and got to work.
As your sound has sharpened, your tracks have retained this long, adventurous quality. When you fleetingly capture a really strong choral hook or turn of phrase, do you suppress a temptation to exploit it into a more conventional verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure?
I’ve spent a long time mostly avoiding the most traditional verse/chorus/repeat structures in our pop music because I never liked how it sounded *when I did it*. This might have something to do with the strength of my songwriting craft or just my different preferences, but I learned a while ago that I tend to prefer that our music follows a more medley-based structure. Something about too many structural repeats takes the wind out of my pop sails.
What audible consequences can you identify as a result of Petunia being created in such a controlled, consistent environment, in comparison to its predecessors?
Cleaner, more intelligible vocals! We rigged up a vocal booth by draping packing blankets off of some wooden boards propped up over a bookshelf, sort of like a little phonebooth-sized, four-sided shower curtain. Also a few more microphones on Edwin’s drum kit, so y’all can appreciate his wonderful drumming.
Has putting an album together without performing and building tracks in the live setting along the way felt like a wildly differently discipline for Tonstartssbandht?
Kind of! We weren’t touring nearly as much in the lead-up to recording Petunia as we were leading up to Sorcerer (2017) or previous albums. So even though the songs had been tried out onstage before, they didn’t feel fully fleshed out until we got down to business in the studio, which consisted of a concerted process of arranging, demoing, and finalising them all at home over a few weeks. The most apparent difference is now that the album is coming out more than a year after we finished it, and we haven’t played a gig since 2019, we are re-learning what we recorded during rehearsals for shows. That’s a new one for us.
Petunia sees you outsourcing album mixing duties for the first time; was it difficult to give up that part of the process, considering you have consistently held such a tight control of the full process?
When we first discussed the idea of getting someone else to mix it, I was a bit nervous, certainly feeling uneasy about the “what if?” Mostly, “what if I hate it?”. I was talking with Joe Santarpia and Roberto Pagano leading up to the end of the recording process, asking for tips and advice on carefully mixing this carefully recorded record. They offered to do a test-pass of one song (“Magic Pig”) and what they sent back sounded so much better to our ears than our initial mix. From that point, it was obvious that mixing with them would be a great idea. And it was! I love and trust those two guys immensely. Working with them at their Idiot Room studio in San Francisco was an absolute pleasure.
Each of the tracks on the new album is an ever-evolving lifeform in itself: how similar are your current versions to the versions that we hear on the album? and how far can they evolve before we see them played in Europe?
We are right in the middle of rehearsals before our first tour in a couple weeks. Right now the songs sound pretty much like the record but, of course, live. Ask us again at the end of the fall tour, or just come see us in Europe in 2022.
Petunia is available from 22nd October through Mexican Summer
photo credit: Andy White