Interview: White Reaper. Rising.
It’s been a big year for Louisville punk-rock quartet White Reaper who are made up of singer and guitarist Tony Esposito, Ryan Hater on keyboard, and twin brothers Sam Wilkerson on bass and Nick Wilkerson on drums. Barely out of their teenage years they signed to Illinois based Polyvinyl Records in 2014 after ‘auditioning’ at Polyvinyl HQ. A year on, they have a knockout self-titled EP under their belts, and a slot at SXSW to be proud of which has left them firmly cemented on promising new act lists across the U.S.
However, their biggest achievement to date came two months ago, with the release of their first full-length studio album, White Reaper Does It Again. The 12-song medley of punk chaos engages the audience from start to finish. Starting out with stand-out track Make Me Wanna Die, the tracks continue on with an unapologetic catchiness combining singer and songwriter Eposito’s raspy vocals with guitar onslaught and psychedelic keyboard synth most prevalent on tracks Pills and Sheila. All talents combined, the result is a bouncy fuzz of fun tracks guaranteed to please any live crowd.
Their first time in the UK, the Kentucky quartet are here to support label-mates Alvvays on their headline tour, playing at top venues across the country including Òran Mór in Glasgow, Manchester Academy, and London’s iconic Shepherds Bush Empire (SBE). The band round off their trip with a headline gig of their own, playing trendy Dalston’s Victoria.
Surprisingly fresh faced after a racy night spent at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club the night before, Lauren Patel met up with the Louisville four-piece at their YHA digs by the River Thames in Rotherhithe for ice creams and to chat with them about life on the road, their debut album, and about how they are molding their rock and roll image.
You all hail from Louisville, Kentucky. Tell us what it is like to grow up there and what is the city famous for?
Ryan: At first I guess we should tell you a little bit about it. It’s known for Bourbon and horses. We’ve got the Kentucky Derby race which is probably the most famous horse race in the world. Louisville is about an eighth of the size of London, but it is a city. It has lots of bourbon, and the Slugger baseball bat factory. Oh, and Muhammad Ali is from there. Hunter S. Thompson is also from there. That has nothing to do with us, but seeing as you don’t know anything about it I thought we’d tell you a bit about the place.
Tony: What else can we say about Louisville, well pretty much everyone has a car. You can’t really get around anywhere on public transport and we all live out in the suburbs. But from anywhere in the city you can pretty much get to anywhere else in the city in like, 20 minutes.
Is Louisville a good-looking City?
Ryan: It’s on the Ohio River so it’s pretty cool.
Tony: It’s nice, but everyone there is pretty weird. It breeds weirdos! But when you start to get out of the city, there’s lots of fields and its real pretty.
Ryan: Kentucky is real pretty. There’s like rolling hills and horse farms and stuff like that.
Does Louisville have a good music scene?
All: It does, definitely. It’s getting there. It’s getting really good.
Sam: There was like an idle zone a few years back, when there was not a lot going on but then people realised that and started doing stuff. And lots of people, they are starting bands.
Ryan: Sometimes the venues have trouble getting people to come out because it is a small town, and there’s not going to be like a show every night. But a lot of kids love music there.
Sam and Nick, you are brothers?
Sam & Nick: Yep, we are twins actually.
Lauren: Well you do look very alike, are you identical twins?
Sam & Nick: Yes we are, but with slightly different hair. Nick actually just got a haircut believe it or not!
Sam: He did have really long hair but he cut it. It was like down to his shoulders. Well, it still kinda is.
Tony, did you used to have long hair as well. When I saw you at the gig at SBE on Friday night I was quite surprised as you look quite different?
Tony: Yeah, I shaved my head.
Sam: Didn’t know you were at the gig, awesome!
We were there! So, how was Friday, did you enjoy playing at SBE?
Tony: Yeah we did, it was great fun. It was pretty bright on stage though.
Ryan: It is a very fun stage to run around at that venue!
Tony: It’s difficult though, it’s kinda like you have to set the mood being the first on stage out of three bands. You have to give the best impression possible and it was harder to do that especially on a line-up with two folky indie bands.
Lauren: You are quite different to the other bands you are touring with?
Ryan: But there’s a lot of fun in that really, cos you are there to like make a good impression, and its more challenging when its playing to people that may or may not even know your music.
Lauren: well I think you get everyone going?
Tony: Well, we tried.
Lauren (to Ryan): What was it you were doing with the keyboard on the final song, I could not quite make out what part of your face you were using to play it?
Ryan: Yeah I was playing with my head and my teeth!
Tony: My Head and My Teeth, memoir by Ryan Hater!
So how did you all meet?
Tony: We’ve known each other for years we met in school.
Ryan: We all grew up together.
Have you been making music together then since a young age?
Ryan: Yes, pretty much yeah. In different incarnations, different bands and stuff.
Tony: Yeah, we’ve been through like tons of bands but, we’ve been playing together for like 7 or 8 years.
So you signed for Polyvinyl in 2014. What did you have to do to get there and was it a difficult journey to get signed?
Sam: It was far easier than I expected!
Ryan: It was nerve wracking.
Tony: It was like, we played a show and like basically auditioned.
Sam: We had recordings that were given to Polyvinyl and they were like yeah come along and audition and we did. There were no keys live or anything like that but basically the entire polyvinyl office was there. And they were really nice. The head of Polyvinyl, Matt Lunsford is now a friend of ours. We were like really freaked out by him at first and we were like the most nervous I’ve probably ever been.
Tony: But they’re all like, the best people so it turned out. We should never have been scared of them because they are genuinely nice.
Sam: But also like one time, we were talking to Seth, who is the other label manager. There’s two label managers, Matt and Seth. Matt is in Champagne, Illinois and Seth is in Berkeley, California. We were there and we were like soooo nervous when we auditioned, and he (Seth) was like “Auditioned. Is that what you think?”
Tony: I guess we thought it was an audition, but you know, maybe it wasn’t I don’t know. It was more of a meet and greet I guess.
So what were you doing before you were signed, what kind of gigs were you playing then?
Tony: Shitty, stupid ones! Just local ones.
Ryan: We hadn’t ever been on a tour at that point.
Tony: Yeah yeah, we hadn’t really ever toured.
Ryan: These two started out [Nick and Tony] like together.
Nick: It was a two piece for a while and we’d just play shows sometimes that like no-one would go to.
Tony: Yeah, we tried to go to college for a little bit, and we went pretty close to Nashville. Cos we were like, we’ll be close to Nashville and we’ll start our band and it’ll work for us. But we didn’t have a car. We just had Nick’s drum set, my guitar amp and our dorm room. And we just sat there basically.
Sam: I just remember calling Nick while they were in college, and like Nick had nothing to say. And I was like yeah, they hate this. I can tell. They were like really bored.
Tony: Yeah, it sucked. So we wrapped it up, and came home.
What were you studying?
Tony: Audio engineering.
Nick: We were only there for one semester so only went to each class maybe 7 times and then we were like, I’m not going to go to class anymore. We were basically studying sleeping and eating pretty much!
Since signing to Polyvinyl, you’ve enjoyed success with the release of your self-titled EP and now your first full-length studio album, White Reaper Does It Again, have you enjoyed the last year?
Sam: Yeah, we’ve met some of the most amazing people ever.
Lauren: Who have you met?
Sam: The people that we work with and the people we go on tour with have been amazing.
Nick: We’ve also made friends with other bands.
Tony: Like have you guys heard of the band, Twin Peaks. They’re our best buddies ever.
How are you finding life on the road? Are you enjoying being away on tour?
Tony: It’s incredible! It’s 12 times better than being at home.
Ryan: It’s my favourite thing ever.
Lauren: What’s the best bit?
Tony: Just seeing different places really. And ultimately just playing.
Sam: Just being in constant motion from one place to another is really satisfying.
Ryan: It’s also cool to like roll into a city and you don’t know anyone, and then you leave and like you have some friends. Sometime you don’t, sometimes you leave and you don’t know anybody but most of the time you leave with a couple of new pals.
Tony: Like when we played Manchester, that show was incredible.
Sam: The younger people in Manchester really went off. It was really fun. We loved Manchester and the Academy was amazing. I fucking fell off the stage though. I busted my ass.
Tony: Check out his elbow, it’s all fucked up.
Sam: Yeah, it’s like really bruised.
Lauren Oh no, how did you manage that?
Sam: You guys saw me the other day. I like to explore the stage, explore the space you know. But like the stage was 5 feet tall and I was stepping up past the monitor and I guess I missed a step or something. But I like had my fucking bass and so I fell on my side. And like, this is pretty bruised now. I could have broken an arm but like the show was amazing. It may have been our best show ever!
Ryan: I really liked Brighton too, Brighton was amazing. And Glasgow, we played in a really old church.
What’ the hardest part of being on the road?
Tony: Trying to eat something that’s not going to fuck you over!
Sam: Yeah we have this problem with making poor meal decisions.
Tony: Healthier food can sometimes be expensive.
Lauren: That’s not a very rock and roll comment to make. Sure. You like salads!
Ryan: Honestly we do! When we first started touring we were just like [makes sick noise] burger king burger king every day, for three meals a day.
Nick: We also got sponsored by Taco Bell for like a year. We got like $500 worth of free Taco Bell.
Sam: And we went through that pretty quickly!
Nick: Now it’s gone, we ate it all.
Ryan: It was gone after like one tour.
Nick: And honestly, so has my love of Taco Bell. I hate Taco Bell now.
What’s the most rock and roll thing you have ever done?
Tony: Sam punched and broke a TV once. He also fell off stage.
Ryan: We lit a Portapotty on fire one time, or they did [points to others]. They had a big stick and they hit it over and over again and then they lit it up.
Tony: We didn’t have a stick! I tipped it up and then just held up a cigarette lighter and thought that’s not going to work. So I went inside to get some paper and some triple sec and we were going to come back outside and light it properly. But then, I was like there’s a flame just from the cigarette lighter so we put the paper and alcohol on top of it and it really went up in flames. We had to leave cos we didn’t want to get in trouble. The flames got so high that we had to leave!
Ryan: The fire truck came. Lighting stuff on fire is like big in our part of the country.
Nick: Lighting couches on fire is normal. There are parties where people bring couches and set fire to them just for fun.
You played an acclaimed set at SXSW earlier this year and are now appearing on lots of promising new acts lists in the media. How was playing your first major festival?
Ryan: It was pretty cool, but it’s not like a festival its weird.
Sam: It’s more of a music conference.
Tony: It’s like an industry kind of thing. Like a lot of record labels and PR people and booking agents and stuff will go there to like scout out basically.
Ryan: Music fans don’t really go to SXSW.
Sam: I would say its like half music fans go to it and the other half is just people like industry people.
Nick: SXSW is like half the reason we are on NPR and half the reason we’ve met a lot of amazing people.
Tony: It’s incredible for networking. And it’s a lot of fun. It’s really fun.
Ryan: Having said all that, there is still a ton of great bands that play there in like one week. Looking forward to the next one!
It seems your genre is being branded ‘garage punk rock’. Do you agree with this?
Sam: Those words don’t really mean anything to me. When I’m asked that I’m like, well what do you think?
Tony: When people ask us, when we meet a stranger, and they say “what are you doing here?” and I say “we’re in a band” and they say “oh, what kind of music is it?” I just don’t know what to say.
Ryan: I’m never really going to stop anyone in their tracks and say “like we’re a garage band” or “we’re a rock band” or anything like that. It’s totally up to them.
Tony: We usually just say rock band, that’s the way I see it.
Ryan: Garage has become one of those words that people use to describe what they don’t know how to describe I think. We’ve never played in a garage.
You mentioned at the gig on Friday this was your first time in the UK. How are you finding it over here?
Tony: It’s been great.
Sam: Nick and I have family over here. So my dad, he was born here and my grandma’s from here. From Hereford, and my Dad lived in Rugby and Birmingham too.
Lauren: So will you be doing any sightseeing this weekend?
Sam: We just saw what you would expect us to see as tourists basically. We saw Big Ben, The Eye, and we drove past Buckingham Palace.
Ryan: We were like, who lives there?! We’re pretty obnoxious, so you don’t really want to take us anywhere.
Do you ever crowd surf at your gigs?
All: Oh yeah!
Sam: It’s been a little harder over here cos there’s like barriers and stuff but when we tour in America it’s pretty easy, pretty fun.
What’s your favourite song to play live?
Sam: I really like B.T.K.. I also like Half Bad [from the self-titled EP]. Half Bad that’s my favourite song. On the new album, Pills is my favourite.
Tony: Those are my favourites too. The first and last songs.
Ryan: I like Sheila and Pills cos I have good parts on them.
The video for Pills is quite fun. You must have enjoyed making that?
Sam: Tony got sick!
Tony: It was fun. Looking back it was fun but it was three very long days to record it. It got kinda hard towards the end.
Nick: The people that made the video took it like so seriously.
Tony: I got really sick. Oh man, I’m not sure what it was from.
Ryan: It was from him lying in the hole!
Tony: Oh yeah, I was just like in a muddy dirty hole for maybe like an hour.
Lauren: That was the grave?
Ryan: Yeah, we made our own graveyard. It wasn’t a real one.
Tony: There was also like a poison scare. There were some shots in a field that they’d sprayed with some kind of pesticide like an hour before. We were all rolling around in it, picking flowers. And I took a bite out of one of them! But it was fun, it was a good experience.
Who writes the songs?
Nick: I record demos of songs and then we all learn it and record the real version together.
A fair number of the tracks focus on emotional negativity in the lyrics. Does this represent your state of mind?
Tony: Yes! I guess every kid that went to high school was probably sad about something. Draw from there. We get sad sometimes.
Sam: I don’t know. I think some of my favourite lyrics are sad lyrics. It’s really easy to empathise with sad songs.
Tony: It’s true, it’s easier for people to be like “fuck my girlfriend yeah” songs rather than “it’s really nice outside” songs.
Despite this, the punchy pace of your songs and particularly the keyboard synth backing make the tracks upbeat and energetic?
Sam: We really like that dynamic. We like to keep it keep it pop. We like pop music. We are sad boys.
Tony: We’re also happy because we get to live our dream. But that wouldn’t really make a great song “I’m living the dream dude”, “I’m having so much fun right now”, or…..’I’m having so much fun today’.
Lauren: Very Blink 182!
Ryan: Ha ha! We do this thing where we make fake Blink 182 songs, just in the van. We just like sing funny stuff in Blink 182 form. We should start an App. You speak into the App and then it just turns it into a Blink 182 song.
What era would you say your music is most influenced by?
Ryan: Probably all times.
Tony: I think we all just like to listen to music that we think is good. I don’t think there’s like a time period that defines that.
Ryan: There’s no time or genre that we most relate to. We like everything from crazy metal to like stupid metal, to pop charts and rap.
Sam: We all grew up listening to a lot of punk and I think that rubbed off on us. We all started out in punk bands. But what we listen to now is mainly a lot of metal, and a lot of rock, and pop. Not new stuff, usually older stuff.
Punk is a very British phenomena. Do you have any British influences?
Tony: I really really like Ozzy Osborne. He’s basically the coolest person of all time.
Sam: My dad is a huge The Who fan and he showed us a lot of stuff. I also like The Jam and Dr Feelgood.
Ryan: Marc Bolan, and David Bowie. The Clash, Sex Pistols. Nick really likes Pink Floyd!
What current music are you listening to?
All: Broncho. They’re amazing. They’re from Oklahoma I think. Check out Broncho. It’s like Bronco but with an ‘h’. They are pop rock which is cool, that’s what we like.
Nick: Twin Peaks.
Tony: Also like, we really like Charlie XCX. She’s the best, we listen to her non-stop.
Lauren: She played SBE recently.
Tony: Really?! Wow, we’ve shared the same stage.
Sam: Also, I believe Prince played there last year. We once played at the Spa where the movie Purple Rain was filmed in Minnesota.
Tony: That was an amazing venue. It’s called First Avenue.
Nick: There’s also a band from Nashville called Jaws that we like. I think we like them so much because they are just like we were 6 years ago. They’re like 15. They’re a real punk band. They’re so cool.
Tony: Just so fucking loud, and fast, and young. They’re super cool. When we get home on Friday we’re going to play a show in our home town and they’re going play with us so it’ll be cool to see them again.
What is next for White Reaper?
Sam: We’re going to go home, play a show, write and hang out and meditate.
Nick: We’re also doing a number of small festivals around our region and we’re going to record a 7”.
Sam: We’re playing Pygmalion Festival [Champain, Illinois] and Midpoint Festival in Cincinnati.
Tony: Then a US tour in November with a band called Together Pangea. A full US tour so it should be really fun. Especially cos we just got a brand new van. Well not brand new, but it’s new to us. It’ll be fun to take it on a real tour as we’ve only done like one-offs with it so far.
Nick: Tony drives it, he’s the driver.
Tony: It’s fun to drive. That’s what I kinda miss being over here as I haven’t driven for like 2 weeks.
Sam: Last night I had a really scary nightmare that I took our tour manager’s Ford Focus and just like totaled it. I was like “Oh no, what’s he going to say”’.
Tony: Its weird I had like the same dream a couple of weeks ago.
Where else in the world would you like to play?
Ryan: South America, I really want to go to South America. I think I’m kinda bummed that we’re not going to Germany. We wish this was like a full Europe tour.
Sam: I want to go to Japan. Japan’s like my dream. I could be done doing anything else if we toured in Japan.
Tony: It’s always great to go to a place and have a mission. Next time I go on vacation I’m going to be like “what the fuck am I doing here” if I’m not playing.
Sam: Honestly, off days on tour are the worst. Although not today, today’s been alright. I started the day off well with a good breakfast and hanging out.
Tony: in the UK off days are great. But in America it’s like, we’re just going to spend all of our money at this gas station, on chicken or something.
Ryan: London’s an expensive city though. Last night we took a £22 cab ride which is like $35. We tried a night bus but then we were like, fuck that.
What would you consider to be the ultimate career success?
Ryan: When we have our own private jet and we can fly it around like Iron Maiden. That’d be cool.
Tony: No seriously, play to as many people as possible. Just play to huge crowds, they are the most fun shows. When there is just a ton of people there.
Ryan: I’ve always wanted to be on a late night TV show. That’s a dream of mine.
Sam: If we could sell out a show that’s not in our home town that’s be pretty cool.
What would be the best venue to play at?
Sam: Well we knocked out SBE on Friday, that’s pretty important. Insane in fact.
Tony: Honestly, I just want to go back to Manchester.
Lauren: You are not aiming too high then?!
Tony: I’d rather play smaller rooms really.
Nick: Although selling out New York would be pretty cool.
Tony: I don’t really care where it is as long as there’s a ton of people there.
Hater: We’d love to play Glastonbury, that’d be pretty cool.
Interview by Lauren Patel and Portraits by Kalpesh Patel. Kalpesh has his great Flickr stream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/somethingforkate
Sept 15th 2015. Rotherhithe, London.