Kentucky Band On The Rise: White Reaper

 In Culture, Feature

You have to listen to White Reaper’s album, “The World’s Greatest American Band,” twice. The first time around, you’ll be squinting and nodding, straining to decipher the lyrics under lead singer Tony Esposito’s sneering vocals and wall-to-wall arena-rock riffs.

The distance-read on White Reaper’s new album is anthemic, poppy and pumped full of classic-rock radio homage, but it becomes something different up close. There’s a whole other lyrical landscape, filled with chipped teeth and electricity and pretty midnight Fords with the heat cranked on high, guns and disco balls and pool chairs overhanded into the deep end. The precise America White Reaper creates on “The World’s Greatest American Band” is a 1970s Southern gothic backyard party, but it’s been blasted onto a Jumbotron, shouted loud enough into microphones that you might just miss it.

I spoke with lead singer Tony Esposito about White Reaper’s America, being young and how to build a time machine in just 10 songs.

You’re frequently being asked if you’re really the best band out there, and we’ll get to that. But I want to ask you about another part of the album’s title: why world’s best American band?
Well, we were all born and raised in America. And I guess we like to participate in the freedoms that living in a country like America allows. Unlike certain people, we like all Americans. We think it’s for everybody, and everybody should get to have fun. In White Reaper’s America, there are no bad vibes.

That reminds me a little of the song “Tell Me.” You refer to this mystery man in that song: “He likes to roll / in a brand-new stretch-type limo / and soak up the gold / from all the tickets and the tees that he’s sold / and we like to watch / and fight over everything that he drops / And the lines? They stay chopped / oh yeah, cause the show can never stop.”
I think in the very back of my mind it was a commentary on how America was run by people who don’t live the same way that average Americans live, that they get to pick how things work for our country. That’s not exactly fair.

So you got a little more political on this record.
[Laughs] Maybe.

Your lyrics have changed a lot on this album compared to your first, “White Reaper Does It Again.” There’s more imagery that most people would stereotype as Southern: cars, guns and belt buckles, things like that. Are those part of your influences, lyrically?

My influences lyrically … it’s hard to say, and I don’t think it’s just about where we grew up. I mean, every single song that you hear, whether you know it or not, will alter your brain, even if it’s the thirtieth time you’ve heard it or the first time you heard it. Every split second of music, or movie, or even an audiobook—there are just words, everywhere. While I was writing the lyrics for this last record, a lot of times I was flipping through these old mystery novels from the ’40s and ’50s, just because I liked a lot of the character’s slang and dialogue. I thought it would fit pretty well on top of a rock-and-roll record.

white reaper vinyl

I definitely hear that vernacular here. So, we’ve covered why “American.” Why the greatest? I read that you liked the way Muhammad Ali called himself the greatest of all time way before he’d won any titles; that him being from Louisville, too, was inspiring to you.
The main reason we called our record “The World’s Greatest American Band” was because we wanted people to read it and think “Wait, what? Really?” and pick up it up and look at it. Just so they’d pay attention. But it also came from a really confident place of ours. We worked really hard on the record for a really long time, and we think it’s really, really good, so we wanted a title that reflected that.

It seems like you’re really interested in making people do a double-take. Your first record title did that too—it’s pretty ballsy to call your very first record “White Reaper Does it Again.”
[laughs] Definitely.

Another way White Reaper almost forces a double-take is your music’s resistance to rock-and-roll subgenres. You’ve said before that you hate the term “garage rock,” which is what most people call you. The new album’s getting compared more with “arena rock” of the ’70s and ’80s. Are you more comfortable being called arena rock, if you’re going to be classed based on where you physically play music?
I suppose so. But we’ve never played in a garage or an arena.

Where do you like to play?
We’re just, like, a rock-and roll-band. A lot of people think that’s vague, but I think our records are pretty all-encompassing in terms of rock and roll, so it’s better just to call us that.

Tell me about your side project, The Tommy’s. You’ve said you started that band so you could continue to play house shows.
There are a lot fewer rules that you have to follow when you play house shows. It can be more fun in some aspects. You don’t have to worry so much about sounding good because it’s just gonna be loud and that’s it. People are just there to get rowdy and not have an opinion of what the music is like. It’s all about fun.

Is that how White Reaper started, with house shows like that?
We just started a bunch of bands together in high school. We’ve definitely played our fair share of basements. I can’t imagine getting started any other way.

You have to tell me some of those high-school band names.
We had one called The New Mexico. Yeah … [laughs]. We had one called Vegasus, and one called Sloux, and it had to be spelled that way.

Very Southwestern. Which is definitely unexpected in a band from Kentucky.
Yeah, I have no idea.

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The new album has a lot of call-backs to those high-school days; the first song on the album ends with a ringing class bell, Saved-By-the-Bell style, and the first video for your first single off the new album, “Judy French,” is just a set of hands taking a test, folding fortune tellers, and doing very glitter-intensive art-class projects. Do you think being a band that started really young is an important part of who you are?
I think right now it is, yeah. I think the reason we made the “Judy French” video that way was because it just sounded really ’80s and we were thinking Cameron Crowe, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and it sounded like a school, so we thought a video for it would be school themed. Even though we’ve all been out of school for a long time.

How did you all get into bands from the ’70s and ’80s?
Just from the radio. When I was really little, my parents would just drive around and keep the radio on. I listened to a ton of radio growing up. I got Queen, The Who and those kinds of bands from a very young age.

If you could just build a time machine and be a band from the ’70s or ’80s, rather than paying that time homage from today, would you do it?
If I could live my entire life 30 years earlier, I think that would be great. I don’t really like social media and how everybody can see and comment on everything. I had a cell phone when I was fourteen. Wherever I was, someone could always call me. In the ’70s or ’80s, if you left your house, you were just gone. I guess you could say I’m jealous of that.

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