White Williams came of age in the same Cleveland scene as Girl Talk’s Greg Gillis, so it’s no wonder that, like Gillis, he prefers doings things himself. While he uses a live backup band at his shows, White (whose real name is Joe) mixed and recorded his debut album, Smoke
, all by his lonesome, and in various sublets in Ohio, New York, and San Francisco. “I never live longer than three months in any place,” he confesses. “It’s been going on three years now.” And, though it took him a full two of those three years to cut and polish the album, we get the sense that Williams isn’t ready to settle down quite yet. Wanderlust seems to be good for his chops: Williams—who grew up on a steady diet of Iggy Pop (the Bowie-produced stuff), and Krautrock like Kraftwerk, Neu!, and La Düsseldorf—is now getting a new musical education wherever he goes. “I don’t have any records with me ever,” he says, “so I’m always listening to other people’s music.”
The result of all this cross-pollination is Smoke
. It’s an album at once fresh and fatigued, with laid-back, folksy guitar refrains dropped over an insistent synth backbeat that jerks along like a marionette on tangled strings. Ironically, in an age of obsessively overproduced electronic music, such disarming disjointedness seems almost Zen-like. Smoke
’s wündertrack is “In the Club,” which sounds more like a bass-slapped, beer-breathèd ballad than anything you’d hear behind a velvet rope. True to form, Williams’s recording style is also refreshingly laid-back. “It’s kind of a game,” he says, “like, how can I ‘solve’ this song? There’s no way to really perfect the song; at some point I just feel satisfied with how it sounds.”
DIY aside, Williams knows when he needs a helping hand. His co-pilot is his computer, which he occasionally allows to randomize certain elements of his music, like percussion sequences. “I do that so the computer isn’t giving me a completely predictable response. It’s more fun to be in the room—you have a partnership with the computer. It’s not just a blank, you know…screen.” For Smoke
, Williams also enlisted the help of visual artist Andrew Strasser, with whom he conceptualized the album art: a double-image of model Sophia Lamar smoking a hookah and crying rainbow tears. “It was a story about this girl who was crying when she was smoking weed,” Williams remembers. “It’s a real story. We were kind of associating things freely; we started with a theme, and we kept associating different things with it. By the end it didn’t really resemble what we initially had planned, but it’s a catalyst for creating the art.
“Obviously,” he adds, “we had no intention for the record to have anything to do with marijuana.” Obviously.