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London-based shoegaze duo WHITELANDS talk mental health, self-recording and pop-punk influences

Whitelands band photo - Underground England blog

Combining the dreamy yet melancholic genre of shoegaze, with rock-inspired guitar riffs, the sound of Whitelands is a compelling symbiosis which ranges from punk infused dream-pop to ambient indie. Hailing from the London borough of Hillingdon, the band consists of Etienne and Jagun who met before Etienne released the self-titled album, with all previous releases being both recorded and mixed solely by Etienne, surrounded by the four walls of his bedroom. 

Under the layered soundscapes of each track, Etienne’s haunting vocalism conveys a sense of vulnerability, with lyricism that shares the same home-grown intimacy of the composition itself.  With coverage of topics including mental health, heartbreak, and love, with themes of self-discovery, loneliness, and guilt to name a few, Whitelands’ sound creates an ethereal atmosphere for the ears. With their last release being over two years ago, we chatted to Whitelands about lyrical inspiration, growing up in London, and what’s next for the band. 

Whitelands band photo - Underground England blog

Growing up in Hayes, in west London, what can you tell us about the music culture from the area, was this culture something that helped inspire your attraction towards creating music?

Weirdly enough, with the exception of our friends The Tuts (a super cool band), there is not a music culture here that I’ve seen. The only exposure I’ve had to music was at mass in the local church I went to as a kid. You’d expect with most musicians there’d be some kind of creative family backgrounds but unfortunately, I’m the only one in my family that’s so much as looked at a keyboard. I guess with Hayes being a small town, the closest thing to music here was the Beatles printing some records one time. There’s zilch.

You briefly mentioned that mental health is overlooked in ethnic communities, has your community been one that has doubted your path of expression in the form of music?

Not to gripe about the lovely lady, but my mum hasn’t been the most encouraging with music. With everyone down to my great granddad being either a doctor, lawyer or engineer it looks less than stellar when your son wants to be a musician and study music engineering in university.

I’m kind of stubborn when it comes to something like aspirations and I’m sure a lot of equally stubborn people in the Bipoc community got those overdramatic expressions of heartbreak from their families when they even brought up being a creative. It does get to me sometimes, I do occasionally lay in bed thinking about seeing classmates of mine whipping up in a Benz or some import at 26, and all I got is some sick tunes I made and university debt.

Don’t give me started on all the “hush-hush, shut the fuck up” that a lot of people in my community would face, from talking to friends of mine it seems the community think saving face to relatives matters more than their kids.

You either get the option to pray it away with the holy ghost fire of Jesus or ignore it completely. If the NHS stopped getting cuts imposed upon them this conversation could be a lot different. As I’m writing this, I got given a chocolate bar with scripture on it by my mother. “What should I render unto the lord for all his benefits towards me”. No comment.

You have said before that Whitelands started with you writing music during your sixth form lunch breaks, was this a form of escapism from your day-to-day school life?

Oh definitely, escapism was a nice benefit. I wasn’t that good at many things at 17-ish years old. Definitely not studying. Finding something that I could actually be good at was really nice. I forgot to eat a lot of the time I was recording ‘Empire, Empire’ but that was mainly due to the end of first hypomanic cycle that started around early September. It was entering the sadder parts of its course so I was surviving on oxygen and maj7 chords. I was stuck inside my own head a lot of the time so getting it all out was liberating in a way.

This progressed into you writing and recording in your bedroom. What has it been like self-recording and mixing your own music – do you appreciate it more knowing that working on each song has been entirely your vision with no interference?

Quite frankly I’m shit at mixing. I muster up the courage to listen to my old EP and self-titled from time to time and cringe thinking how people listened to it from start to finish. It’s not like I don’t like the songs, I just don’t really see how people managed to sit through it for long periods to time. From ‘Paradise Is a Person’s release (that got mixed by Ian Flynn of Werkhouse) I decided to let go of the tight grip I had around music. I like the songwriting to be in my control because I’m stubborn and don’t enjoy people tinkering with my vision too much, but with mixing? That’s out of my depth and too much more work for me. So rather than appreciating the lack of interference It’s more-so learning that there’s things I just can’t do. Killing my ego was, still is and will be a very humbling feeling.

I do appreciate the recording stage a lot more now. I’ve blitzed through almost every soundonsound article to do with recording guitars and vocals, knowing that it’ll be exactly how I wanted it to sound. Learning about pedals to buy and setting up an amp really lets you be creative in the writing process because you can hear it almost come to life and change it on the fly. That’s something I’d like to be a lot more collaborative on with the right person, if Will Yip, Eric Valentine or Butch Vig wanted to record my songs I wouldn’t have the gall to touch a dial.

Recording is gatekept and hidden with smoke and mirrors. No, you don’t need a treated room and expensive mic if you can’t afford it. Just learn how to record it from some YouTube videos, input record, gain stage and double track and you’re there.

Whitelands band photo - Underground England blog

Whitelands started as just you (Etienne) until you met Jagun – can you describe how you two met, and the bond that you two share which compelled you to start working on music together?

I know I talked about ego in the last answer but honestly Jagun’s the only one I trust to not fuck up my songs. He can drum, really well, it’s always loud but consistently loud. We met through an exes of mines snap story, he was playing this gig and I was like cool maybe I’ll pop up and see if he wanted to join. Luckily, he seemed to be down and is a really interesting and kind guy.

We tried to record some songs with a cousin of mine, who seemed to think he was a recording engineer, but here is where my clutch on the recording process comes from. He didn’t know how to record, if you spend 4 hours in a studio and record nothing, no one’s coming out happy. So, I’m pretty happy with just a Focusrite solo and a rode m3 it’s all I’m using for guitars and vocals at the moment. Jagun’s really easy to work with and that’s quite difficult for me to say about people.

Shoegaze is often characterised by its melancholic lyrics paired with a wall of soundscapes – what attracted you to the world of shoegaze?

I was thinking about this recently whilst listening to ‘LSD and the Search For God’. I think the bits I really like about it were how quiet the vocals are, a lot of 90s emo bands (much like me) weren’t fantastic singers, they wanted to express a raw emotion and they didn’t care how it sounded.

That transferred into shoegaze, people weren’t afraid to show their emotions at all, their guitars were every bit as emotional as their songs. That swirling haze and loud claustrophobic walls of sound can be something that you can really get lost in, to me it doesn’t feel like you’re listening to someone perform, it feels more like you’re a part of the song itself. Locked inside someone’s emotions that are often just like yours. Also helped that everyone was sad all the time, fit me quite well.

With your sound being a fusion of shoegaze with dreamy and beachy sounds, and some underlying punk tones, it is clear that there is vast experimentation in your music, who are your inspirations?

I used to listen to a lot of Modern Baseball, Jake Ewald was my favourite songwriter of the two. He had a way that even though [he knew how] the genre felt [he lent] a little out of pop punk, but it still felt like him. I really made sure to try to learn that skill. Local Natives and Bon Iver were big influences around the time of recording the ‘Old News’ EP. Both artists have this way with vocals and harmonies that make it sound massive, like a choir. I read an article about how Justin recorded the whole ‘For Emma’ with just an SM57 and I went damn, I could totally do that, and I did!

Lately it’s been Slowdive of course, all my friends are probably sick to death of Spotify sessions with me, but hearing stuff like that and knowing it was made by ordinary people is crazy to me. ‘Don’t know Why’ on the self-titled is one of those songs that make you hold your breath the entire way through.

Lots of bands like Hibou, Wild Nothing, Real Estate, Diiv and not exactly dream pop but the french house band Paradis. I failed French GCSE so I don’t understand a lick of French, but I can appreciate how it sounds. Turnover, Men I Trust, Airiel, and Gleemer. I could go on forever.

Whitelands band photo - Underground England blog

The self-titled album is an amalgamation of emotions, from upbeat indie rock to sombre and hazy dreamscapes – would you mind giving us an insight into the subject matter and themes that informed this album?

I was entering a depression around that time lost some longtime friends and got put on anti-depressants, and as a person with a form of bipolar (unbeknownst to me at the time) is a big no-no. So I entered something called a mixed state. I had the manic energy to work on songs and the depression at the same time to get the material from. It felt great having the work rate to churn out songs. I wrote all of the songs and recorded it in a week but listening back, that album was built on fear, insecurities and a lot of loneliness.

When talking about Fluoxetine, you’ve described music as your saviour; the song is a heavily personal track inspired by your battle with depression and mental health, has this been a large factor in both your life and musical career?

Unfortunately, it was but thankfully no longer is. I still had a few more cycles till I started taking a mood stabiliser in February 2020, I was watching a Diiv gig at the time for their deceiver tour. There was something reassuring about starting my journey to recovery the same night whilst watching Cole, the front man of Diiv who completed his journey already, he was addicted to heroin but was now a married man touring the world with his band.

Your mental health can be an absolute hell fire that consumes you and everything around you, but finding out there’s help somewhere, someone like you, and a way out is pretty neat.

With rumblings that you are working on a new album, is there a particular direction that the band is headed towards, whether lyrically or stylistically?

I try not to talk too much about my mental health in recent songs on the album. Thinking about those feelings again doesn’t want to be something I do. I wanted this new album to be about healing and self-discovery.

Lyrically I read some books and tried to be as explicit whilst keeping it honest and descriptive.

There are themes on the album that are hard to describe in words till you gain that experience.

It’s like trying to describe the color purple to someone’s that’s only seen red. I’m sure that there’s a lot of people that’ve seen the color purple that can relate when they listen to it, and I hope the people that’ve only seen the color red understand.

With your latest single ‘Paradise is a Person’ being released over two years ago, what’s next for Whitelands?

A very big album!

Underground Soundwave presents an ongoing series of reports on emerging and established bands with close-up Q&As, new release reviews and gig reports with a special emphasis on supporting diversity in music, women in music, independent labels and venues and the local music scene.

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