Brooklyn-based Alternative Rock band Whitehall hail originally from Charleston, South Carolina, and build a big sound for a multitude of influences. They very recently released their album Maizy via Enci Records and have also completed a rather massive slate of touring with Arlie and The Sewing Club, with more to come this year, including a recently announced Fall tour. Their previous ‘Garden Song’ EP arrived in 2022. Whitehall features vocals and guitars from Paddy Mckiernan, guitar from Avery Greeson, bass from Brennan Clark, and drums from Davis Rowe.
While there’s always been a lot of atmosphere to Whitehall’s music, their plan to hide out in the mountains of North Carolina for a couple weeks to write these new songs seems to have amplified that effect with lots of dream-like soundscapes that occasionally pull you close to the details and surfaces of life but also suggest a certain distance and maintain their own moderated pace. There was also a specific plan of attack for recording, which took them out to LA to strategically lay down tracks with Kevin Ratterman (My Morning Jacket, White Reaper), watched over by a beloved dog, Maizy, for whom the album was named.
Recording took the form of concentrated effort, preserving first takes where possible, and taking in the California vibe which you’ll find in the videos, single art, and cover art for the album. I spoke with Whitehall about their touring, writing, and recording, except for Davis Rowe who was instead represented by Drummer Cat Davis in his absence.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Do you require a fair amount of live set-up for your songs? There are a lot of layers on these new songs. Or do you develop modified versions?
Paddy Mckiernan: I think if we were better with technology, we’d run tracks live, but since none of us really know how to use computers, we rearrange most of them for two guitars, bass, and drums, which is maybe a little more work.
Avery Greeson: We end up with some kind of fun alternate versions of songs for that reason, because of the restrictions. It’s kind of fun to keep it that way since I can’t follow a click to save my life.
HMS: What was the recording process like for this album? Did you record in batches, or all at once?
Paddy: They were all recorded in about a three week period out in Los Angeles with Kevin Ratterman, who is awesome. We had written all the songs previously when we went up to the mountains of North Carolina and took two weeks to write them all. We did a speed run on recording them, capturing the first thought as the best thought, and we were really happy with them. It was fun working with somebody new and getting to explore again.
HMS: What sort of effect does it have for you to go somewhere that’s not home to you to record? Was it interesting being in LA and focusing just on that for one period of time?
Brennan Clark: I’m one of those people who if I’m at home and I have work to do, I won’t do it. Going to a place that’s specifically designed for work is good for my brain, and that’s what that place was. It was a Candyland of cool old instruments and Kevin is so knowledgeable. He just knows when something is right and when something is not right. We based the imagery around the album on our time there, actually. The title of the album is even firmly connected to that whole experience. It definitely affected things.
HMS: I was wondering about the artwork for some of the singles and thought that it felt a little beachy or desert-like. What is the significance of the title “Maizy” for the collection?
Brennan: Kevin had a pet dog and her name was Maizy. She was just there for every part of the recording session, bringing her very specific knowing dog vibes. You look at this dog and think, “She knows what’s going on.” She was just very comforting. We thought about using her picture on the album cover, but didn’t. We also thought the word “Maizy” is a very nothing name that doesn’t mean anything, that you can attach meaning to. It was kind of a cute name for the album since it checked all the boxes.
HMS: It’s true that it’s a mysterious word. This has nothing to do with things, but there’s a book by Henry James, What Maisy Knew. He had a lot of psychology in his work, and the book is unusual because Maisy is a little girl whose parents are going through a bad divorce. No one had ever told that kind of story before. I think her name in the title of the book has a similar effect.
Paddy: That’s great! We’re start telling people that’s why we did it. We’ll sound way more cultured if we do. [Laughter]
Avery: We’ll read the Cliff Notes this week.
HMS: Your next album will be a concept album based on Henry James. You’ve got to go read his 50 novels. Tell me more about going to North Carolina to do your writing, since I’m actually from the mountains of North Carolina myself.
Paddy: We went to Lansing, which is just north of Boone. We found some people renting an Airbnb shack up there and we got to make really loud noise at the top of a mountain for like two weeks. It was the perfect situation.
HMS: That is perfect, because I didn’t even think about it, but you all live in Brooklyn, so noise has got to be a thing, depending on the neighbors.
Brennan: We’ve got some thin walls up here. We get the downstairs neighbors knocking on the ceiling all the time. Our usual practices back when we were still living in South Carolina would be in one of our bedrooms or in the living room, now, usually, we have to go somewhere. Which is cool in some ways because, as we said, sometimes when you go somewhere else, you actually get work done.
HMS: By the way, I saw an Etch-a-Sketch portrait of the band on Instagram and I have to know about it. How does that even work? It seems like it would be incredibly difficult.
Avery: The singer from the band Arlie did that for us one night at a bar. We were at the bar with the singer of the band we were touring with.
Brennan: It was like 2AM and we were at this late vegan place that was really hopping. There were way too many people.
Avery: I forget what city we were in. But he was very talented.
HMS: It’s like magic. I can’t comprehend it. But then you have to be really careful not to shake it. It has to be preserved for all time.
Avery: We hid it behind a plant at that bar, so no one will ever find it.
HMS: Next time you’re there on tour, you’ll have to go back and see if it’s there.
Brennan: Once we figure out what city that was!
HMS: But that’s a good point, since you were just on a very extensive tour. Was that the biggest tour you’ve ever done? You were all over the place.
Paddy: It was the longest one by at least a week.
Avery: It was like a speed run of the US.
Brennan: We’d never been past New Mexico before. We went all the way to Southern California. We finally got coast to coast.
HMS: That sounds really validating. Did you drive your own van?
Paddy: We had a van, and then Arlie had a van, and the other band had a van, but they were all the same van. They were all silver and I couldn’t tell the difference sometimes. It was funny seeing them pulled up to the venue in a row at the same time.
HMS: It could be a comedy situation, getting in the wrong van.
Avery: It happened!
HMS: What advice do you have from the road for your past selves?
Brennan: You leave a little bit of yourself everywhere you go and come back a little less of a person, a little more road dog.
Paddy: Have a friend who has a hook up at hotels, who can get it a little cheaper for you so you don’t have to sleep on floors. Honestly, being able to sleep in a real bed every night is killer and is a huge difference from when we were first starting out. Our standards and position have come up just enough to help our sleep schedule.
HMS: To do the shows the way you want to do them, you’ve got to get a decent night’s sleep.
Avery: Adrenaline only carries you so far.
Brennan: We find out the limits every time. The limits are wild.
HMS: I’m sure that fear goes a long way. Do you have one more piece of advice?
Avery: My piece of advice is that water is not windshield wiper fluid. Those are different things. We were driving through Denver to Salt Lake, and is was -5 degrees, and our water froze in the car.
Paddy: We had to get out every 14 seconds to scrape the windows, but it was on the highway, with giant trucks going by. We weren’t alone. It was happening to the other groups, too. That’s a Southern thing, putting water in the windshield wiper fluid.
HMS: That is actually a very solid piece of advice! That really is what you need to know when you’re getting in a van. I know about your previous EP, Garden Songs. How do you think your recent collections fit together musically?
Brennan: On Garden Songs, those were the B-sides from our second record, plus one newish song at the time.
HMS: When you were writing in North Carolina, did you have conversations about what directions you wanted to take on the new album, or was it more, “Let’s just see what happens naturally?”
Paddy: It seems to be usually unspoken. Every time we finish with a project, it’s like, “Oh, that’s what it sounds like!” I think we all feel that way. It is very natural. Everyone writes and brings stuff together. We’re all pretty aware, at this point, about what doesn’t work, and so it’s easier than it used to be.
Brennan: With everything we do, there’s a conversation. We might say, “This is a little too much like this Let’s think about it.” We may think about what we missed out on last time.
Avery: We might think about things we’ve been learning.
HMS: Was there anything that you worked on last time that gave you a thought about something you’d like to do? A lot of people find that some of the extraneous material from previous albums ends up being the way forward.
Avery: I feel like every time we finish an album, there’s one little song left over that wasn’t ready or didn’t make it, that does help guide and shape the next project. That’s something we’re excited about. We’ve got two or three songs right now, maybe four, that were ideas before Maizy and are inspiring us with a whole new train of ideas. It never stops!
HMS: That’s cool because silence might be scary.
Paddy: It’s a relief that it’s still there! It keeps us going.
HMS: The most recent song, “Pull”, has the California-themed cover art, which is in total contrast to the song, in some ways. It’s not particularly calm, and is a little woozy.
Paddy: It’s one of the more fun songs we’ve ever put out because it’s a big experiment. For people who might be familiar only with our first record, it has a totally different vibe.
HMS: Is “Pull” supposed to be dream-like? Another song on the album also reminded me of dreams, “Dogfights”.
Avery: That’s funny because me and Paddy were writing blurbs about “Dogfights” and “Pull” and realized that we both wrote the songs based on dreams. I wrote the lyrics for “Pull” and hadn’t considered how dream-like it was. It was like we wrote the dream section of the album.
Brennan: There’s a lot of dreamy, psychedelic imagery on the album that wasn’t really planned. It just kind of ended up that way.
HMS: I think this album is Rock music, but it’s gentler than Psych Rock usually is. It’s not trippy, it’s dreamy.
Brennan: That’s somewhere we like to live.
Avery: I remember when we were doing the demo for “Pull”, Paddy was like, “This melody is trancey but it’s almost like a lullaby.” That was all true.
HMS: Even a song like “Rose” is a little psychedelic because there’s that stop-start feeling to the way the vocals are moving. The bassline is really intense.
Avery: That’s a bass hook if I’ve ever heard one!
Brennan: Thanks, everybody.
HMS: The bassline is a big part of the atmosphere of these songs and it’s very affecting.
Brennan: “Atmosphere” is a good word. I think that’s something we’re trying to get at all of the time.