Rare Bird: An Interview with James Harvey of White Birds

Banging, clanging, crashing, Drink Up Buttercup ripped up the stage with their trash can percussions (literal aluminum trashcans) and gritty, grimy organ grinder-like melodies. They seamlessly and shamelessly turned every show they played into a raucous circus of musical debauchery. Sadly, Drink Up Buttercup is no more. That is the bad news. The good news, however, is far better. White Birds is the phoenix that has risen high from the ashes of Drink Up Buttercup. Sobered up, for the most part, and easier to digest, White Birds comes crashing out of the gate evolved and calculated, with shimmering harmonies and lo-fi goodness.

THE BOMBER JACKET sat down with White Birds mastermind James Harvey over a few beers at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia, Pa., and talked about what White Birds was all about and how the band has progressed from its rowdy predecessor.

TBJ: The first time I saw Drink Up Buttercup you completely upstaged the headliner. You certainly knew how to put on a hell of a show.

James Harvey: That actually happened quite a lot. It doesn’t mean anything–it’s not that we were better. It did happen that way though. Originally, we were so passionate. We would get stoned and hang out in this barn and play music. We were so genuinely passionate about it. When we would play live it would look just like that when we practiced. It’s not like we just put it on. Our practices would be us flailing around and smashing shit. We were playing the same songs for a long time, and it took us a while to get a record deal (and obviously they wanted us to record the same songs that we had been playing), so we were playing the same material over and over again for three years. We knew that people wanted to see this crazy show, so we did have to start putting it on a little bit, and that’s why that band kind of disintegrated. We were so passionate. We shouldn’t have played
after the passion started to fade, but we kept going anyway. It was a very genuine thing that turned into everybody wanting to see us bang on trashcans…it got boring after a while.

I’m sure.

With the new material, I just like playing the songs and I don’t have to do anything extra for anyone else in order for them to also be interested in it. That’s why I changed directions and started to make something that I could just put on at home.

Do you miss the theatrics?

A tiny bit. I feel like it got a little disheartening for me because people were always writing about what we were doing on stage rather than the music that we were playing. That’s why I wanted to move in more of a listening direction than a visual one. It was fun. I had fun. Now I don’t have to get wasted when I play to spark some unnatural energy. There were definitely points at the beginning of Drink Up Buttercup that will be hard to reach again, but I like this now. It’s stable.

Sometimes it felt like you had to keep up. It was great singalong music and always a spectacle. I’m not sure what your trashcan budget was, but it must have been high.

It was ridiculous. When we were on tour we were constantly looking for Home Depots and stuff because we’d have to get a new one every two or three shows, sometimes one show if it was crazy enough.

You played CMJ in fall 2010 and received a lot of positive attention, and then not too soon after Drink Up Buttercup was no more. Was that your last hoorah?

We went to CMJ, played a show, and at the same time we were recording a few tracks that ended up turning into White Birds songs. That was one of the other reasons why we decided to change things up, because we were recording them and trying to make them sound like Drink Up songs, but they just weren’t, and so there were disagreements there. We played that CMJ show and then kind of all just had a meeting and said, “Yo, let’s not do this anymore.” Then we got offered a show with Ra Ra Riot, in December right before Christmas. So my brother Farzad, Mike, and me worked our asses off to put together a whole set, which ended up being most of the White Birds album, solely to do that opening slot for Ra Ra Riot. We put the whole thing together in about two weeks, and after that we recorded for close to six months.

That happened fast.

Yeah, it was stuff that I wanted to do, but it just didn’t fit.

Did you have any of these songs stashed away when you were still with Drink Up?

Yeah, I was just kind of writing in my head. I had a lot of musical ideas, and then I had this crazy breakup and that’s when everything fell right into place, because my emotions had been all stirred up.

Breakups do it to you, for sure.

I was dating this other girl for the past year, and we broke up in February, and I almost have half a new album just from that. We’re back together now, so it’s all good.

You released the first White Birds full-length, When Women Played Drums,online this past February. Have you had much success by going digital?

When we were in Drink Up Buttercup we received an advance when we signed with Yep Roc, which paid for our tour van. With White Birds, and simply releasing our album through Bandcamp, we’ve already made more money than we had when we were signed with a label.

Whoa! That’s incredible.

I’ve been realizing a lot of things lately; White Birds is starting to become more of a recording project. When we were writing and recording the songs that we released so far, I was very aware of being able to pull off the songs live. I think that held some of the songs back a little bit, because I’m really into doing crazy, multi-part harmonies. I want to start recording things and not give a fuck if I can pull it off live or not. I just want to make the recording as best as it can be. It’s going to be very limited as far as live shows go.

So, if you would tour it would be quite minimal then.

I don’t feel like being a workhorse band touring around, it worked for Drink Up Buttercup because we were doing something very unique on stage. You’re going to reach so many more people having your music online than playing at a bar or a club that people hopefully show up to. It would really have to be something that people catch on to in a big way for me to be inspired to tour again. I mean I love playing live, I’d love to still go out and do that sort of thing, but I’m not going to break my back. I get so much more out of recording a big, multi-part harmony alone in my bedroom.

I feel like Drink Up had to be exhausting.

[Laughs] It wore me out!

You put out a four-track cassette a handful of months ago. It’s weird how CDs are pretty much worthless nowadays and things like vinyl have taken off. When I was in high school I’d drop all of my paychecks on buying CDs and now I have boxes full of them and they pretty much have no point. Was that sort of the reason why you threw it on cassette?

Sure. That’s why I ended up doing the tape thing instead of the CD. I just feel like a stack of CDs or CD-R’s looks like garbage. At least a cassette has some novelty you can hold on to. When I first started playing, people thought you were awesome if you had a CD, but not so much anymore.

Right. Now I feel like this dumb hipster kid because I’m buying vinyl.

No, but it’s cool. There’s presentation and value to it.

Do you have plans on putting out a physical, full-length record any time soon?

We still haven’t done a physical release for the album, we did the cassette, which was only an EP. We put out four songs to sort of “tease” the album, and that’s what the cassette was. We got so impatient that we sort of just put it out right away, without much of a plan or anything, which is a little silly. There was talk between us and a few record labels that were really into it, but nothing materialized, and so we said, “Fuck it. Let’s just put it out!” Even if I just funded it myself, I’d like to find a way to put out the record – something physical.

There is quite a bit of depth to White Birds. The recordings have a lot of layers to them. What’s your writing process like?

I write in a really weird way. I don’t sit with a guitar and write songs. Actually I either smoke or drink and go to sleep, and while I’m falling asleep I try to envision the entire song in my head, then I’ll sing all of the parts into my phone–bass, keys, drums, vocals.

I thought I was the only one who did that. I do that too.

Yeah? I think it’s so much easier. I’m not a very skilled guitar player, so it’s easier for me to try and imagine it and to try and create it, as opposed to fiddling around and trying to create something.

Does the rest of the band come up with material too and you all sort of collaborate together or is it mostly just you?

Usually what will happen is I’ll lay out how a song will go and someone will say, “Well maybe we should do it like this instead,” and then we refine things together. I’ll bring the bulk of the idea, whatever I had been envisioning in my head, lay it down on the table and then we all refine things together.

In the transition between Drink Up Buttercup and White Birds, you lost bassist Ben Money. Was there a disagreement that got in the way or did he want to pursue something else?

The original Drink Up Buttercup demos sound a lot like White Birds material. I love to make really noisy, lo-fi music with a lot of reverb, whereas he didn’t want reverb on anything. Besides me, he was the most passionate and had the strongest opinions in the band. When we got together with the other guys and I said, “Well we’d like to make this kind of music,” he didn’t want to have a part in it. But, you know, we had fun, we made an album, we toured the country. It’s sad, but it is what it is.

That’s unfortunate, but it happens I guess.

Yeah.

You also picked up a new member, Chris Radwanski.  How did you meet Chris?

He was friends with Ben Money. When we were still playing in Drink Up Buttercup, he sort of signed up as our manager and went out on the road with us and then we became really good friends. He’s hands down one of my best friends. We finished recording the album and we realized we couldn’t play all of these songs with just three people. Chris was there and we loved Chris, and he was always on the road with us anyway, so why not just have him play the parts if he’s a good musician? He’s actually the most knowledgeable musician out of all of us. So basically, we had him as a manager, and then he became a friend, so why would we want to audition some goofball if we don’t how they’re going to act and what they’d be like out on the road, or if they’d wear deodorant, which could be very painful if you’re in a van with somebody for twenty days at a time.                

With Drink Up Buttercup did you ever feel like you weren’t being taken seriously as a musician or as a band?

I don’t see it that way. I felt like maybe I didn’t take it seriously, or maybe not as much as other people did. My problem was that people always referred to what they were seeing instead of what they were hearing so that’s why I preferred to go in more of a listening sort of direction. We’ve gotten a lot of great write-ups and reviews. The thing that has made me happiest, so far in my musical career, was this week. I stumbled across a random Tumblr post about White Birds where someone said, “This is my new make out song,” referring to “Hondora,” and that to me was way more satisfying than someone who writes about music for living. I mean, of course I appreciate that, but seeing something natural like that is just totally satisfying. I got two of those in one week, and who knows how many other people are saying that sort of thing, but it was gratifying to see that someone felt inspired enough to post that.


Just curious, what are you listening to now?
The harmonies really shine on the material you have up, that’s what I first noticed. For me, the big difference between White Birds and Drink Up Buttercup was that there’s definitely more an image of beauty than one of debauchery.

Thank you! That’s what I was going for.

When I first heard that Drink Up broke up I was crushed, but I was so glad to see that the same people, for the most part, were still making music, and it still sounds like the same people, which is great.

We considered keeping Drink Up Buttercup as Drink Up Buttercup, but taking it in this direction as opposed to cutting off the project outright. If you think about it, you listen to like David Bowie or The Beatles and they have so much range, whereas not many bands nowadays try to stick with one thing and roll with it. It definitely would have been weird if we decided to go that way and stick with it.

It seems like it would have been too big of a step.

We actually wanted to come out and not have any connection to Drink Up Buttercup, because we didn’t want people to be like, “Here’s an apple and here’s an orange, and now we’re going to compare them.” Someone asked to do an article on us, and I sort of regret going along with it, because I would have preferred to come out of the gate fresh, but things go how they go.

What are you listening to now?

To be honest, I’m sort of a song guy. I’m not really into bands or albums as much as I am individual songs. To name a few though: Jai Paul, “BTSTU” which is amazing, Azelea Banks, “212,” White Life, “Time is Wasting,” which is one of the best things I’ve heard in a while, Kitty Pryde, “Okay Cupid,” who is this teenage, white-girl rapper, and this old doowop song “Goody Goody” by Frankie Lymon.

I just wanted to clear up some “myths” I guess you could say, about Drink Up Buttercup.

Myths? I didn’t know there were any sort of myths!

Well, for instance, did you actually practice in a barn?

Totally.

Were there live animals in said barn?

No, but there were live animals around the barn.

And you used to tour around in a rug van?

Yes! My stepfather owns a rug store, it’s actually called Bijan Oriental Rugs (named after my younger brother). So, we toured in the Bijan van for a while until we signed with Yep Roc.

Farzad, along with Mike started working on another project together, right?

When I was busy with my own thing, Farzad and Mike started working on all these songs and made an entire album. It’s like ’80s-infused, electronic music. It’s totally interesting and totally fantastic. I feel like a lot of other ’80s-inspired, retro stuff is sort of dark, where this is just straight up fun. I think they have something really good going on. They’re called Night Panther. It’s essentially White Birds without me.

Just recently, Farzad decided to leave White Birds. Does he want to focus more on Night Panther or was there some sort of rift that occurred?

Essentially, he’ll tour with us if the opportunity will arise. He’ll also play with us for the record release show. When it came down to White Birds, Mike and I were the ones who were primarily writing and coming up with the ideas as it was, so White Birds won’t really change so much. It was never so much of his project to begin with. So, as it stands at the moment, Night Panther is his focus and White Birds is my focus, but he’ll be there to help out on the road, and actually he’ll probably be helping us produce and record in the future.

So, there was no bad brotherly blood then.

No, not at all. He just wants to focus on this project right now.

Farzad recorded some material before. It was kind of bizarre. I had found it when I first started to listen to Drink Up.

Captain Dum Dum.

I mean it’s sort of off the wall, borderline insane.

It is. He is super intelligent. At the same time, he’ll write something down on his hand that’s really important, and wash it off without thinking about it, but then he could figure something out that I could never figure out in a million years in ProTools in two seconds.

When you were growing up were you both always playing music together?

Well no. We weren’t really in the same realm until we started playing together in Drink Up Buttercup. He’s seven years younger than I am. I started singing opera when I was younger and began to play rock music when I was 20. I could tell that it sort of inspired him and that he looked up to me. He ended up getting a drum kit and ProTools and he was about 14 or so. I definitely feel slightly responsible for bringing him into this world. It’s kind of cool knowing that you’ve inspired someone, at least to some degree.

So, let me get this straight, you’ve trained in opera?

Yeah. From when I was 11 until I was 20. I went to college for it. I definitely think if I started doing it later I would have maintained my interest in it, but because I started it so early by the time I was going to school for it I was bored. So, that’s why I started to write my own songs, because I didn’t like that my repertoire was made up of other people’s work.

Not too many have a background in opera.

Right. I definitely don’t use it to its full extent. I use maybe 10% of it. I sort of work backwards with it. I’d like to get to the point where it’s sort of in the middle.

You played with that a little in Drink Up Buttercup, right?

Yeah, in “Seasickness Pills,” for instance. With White Birds I did it with the opening track on When Women Played Drums, “No Sun,” in the last 30 seconds or so. The trick is to find a way to make it make sense without it being overbearing. I don’t know if I should be the one to figure that out or not [laughs].

What do you do in your free time?

Watch “Sopranos” over and over again. Maybe that’s weird. I’m obsessed with that show. I think it’s one of the best things ever created. It did change the tone in the way things were done with television. I don’t like movies very much, but this new era of television is amazing, “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men” for example. “Sopranos” is like a 70-hour movie. “Walking Dead” is awful, but I keep watching it anyway.

I haven’t gotten into that.

Yeah, don’t. It’s bad. It’s like smoking cigarettes: you smoke them and then you die without ever getting anything out of it. That’s “Walking Dead.” [laughs]

That pretty much sounds terrible. I felt the same way about “Lost.”

Totally. It was good in the beginning, but then by the third season you realize that the writers have no idea what’s going on either.

Total scam.

I do like the film “Eyes Wide Shut.” For some reason, I’m totally intrigued with people cheating on each other. It’s a good portrait of that. I’ve been hurt a lot by that, but it makes you realize that is just “people.”

Have you ever written anything on that sort of thing?

Pretty much the entirety of When Women Played Drums.

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Comments

  1. Toni Houshiarnejad says:

    HI, I AM THE MOTHER SHIP OF JAMES, FARZAD, AND (BIJ LINCS OF GROUND UP) ANOTHER SON, ANOTHER STORY. SORRY FOR MY IRRITATING CAPS – I AM NOT SCREAMING I JUST FIND THEM TO BE ORDERLY. NOT MY PERSONALITY AT ALL, VISUALLY I LIKE IT. I READ MOST EVERYTHING THAT MY SONS PARTICIPATE WITH. I ESPECIALLY LIKE THIS INTERVIEW WITH JAMES. HE HAS BEEN AN AMAZING HUMAN BEING ALL OF HIS LIFE. ANY PERSON WHO HAD THE GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO MEET THIS REMARKABLE MAN KNOWS THAT. AS EXPECTED “NOT BECAUSE HE IS MY SON” I AM HONEST WITH MY INTERPRETATION OF HIS LIFE. HE GIVES 1,000% WITH WHATEVER HE IS CHALLENGED WITH – AND HE CHALLENGES HIMSELF A GREAT DEAL ARTISTICALLY AND PERSONALLY. HIS CREATIVITY WILL BE EVERLASTING. I LOOK FORWARD TO ALL THE AVENUES HE ADVENTURES INTO. FOLLOWING HIS LIFE AND HOW HE MAKES IT WORK FOR HIM HAS BEEN REWARDING FOR ME AS A MOTHER. FOR ME – I AM ALL ABOUT THE PASSION, AND HONESTY. OBVIOUSLY I AM A PROUD MOMMA!

  2. Well hello! We cannot articulate how lovely it was to receive such a positive, endearing comment. Inspiring. Thank you for sharing your perspective and story.

  3. THANK YOU FOR ACKNOWLEDGING MY COMMENT. I SPAWN THE BEST! KEEP YOUR EYES AND EARS OPEN FOR 3 EXCEPTIONAL BANDS – – – WHITE BIRDS, NIGHT PANTHER, AND GROUND UP. I HAVE BEEN BLESSED WITH DIVERSITY! LUCKY ME :-)

  4. night panther here, awesome interview!…without jim i wouldnt be me! go jim!

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