White Denim Guitarist James Petralli Talks Gear and New Album, 'Stiff'

Austin-based White Denim’s sixth record, Stiff, represents a return to the quartet’s frenetic rock roots. It also happens to be a jubilant thrill ride—not to mention a joyous celebration of the band's past 10 years.

Stiff, which was produced by Ethan Johns (Paul McCartney, Laura Marling), marks the first time White Denim have worked with an outside producer. The disc was recorded completely live to 16-track tape with few overdubs.

The album comes on the heels of the band’s critically acclaimed commercial breakout, Corsicana Lemonade, which landed them bookings on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Austin City Limits as well as headlining slots at some of their biggest venues to date.

White Denim features James Petralli (guitars/vocals), Steve Terebecki (bass/vocals), Jonathan Horne (guitar) and Jeffrey Olson (drums). I recently spoke with Petralli about the new album, his gear and more.

How would you describe Stiff in terms of its sound?

I’s what classic rock and roll should sound like. Every record we’ve made has been trying to do that. I like music from all eras, especially rock from the Fifties and Seventies, and when we record, that’s the kind of stuff that tends to come out.

What was the recording process like?

When we were writing for the album, we really wanted to use a little more straightforward and back-to-basics approach. Ethan Johns [producer] wanted to track live, which was something we hadn’t really done a lot of in the past. We still wanted to have hot tempos and ripping guitars, but we did things a little bit different than some of our old records. We wanted to make it as light and as rocking as we could.

What was it like working with Ethan?

It was awesome. This was the first time we handed over creative control and cut an entire record with an outside guy. Ethan’s a really great musician who can literally play anything you put in front of him. He has a great ear and really knows how to make records. Everyone knows his story; he grew up in a record-making household. He knows how to do it.

How does your songwriting process work?

Sometimes a little nugget like a lyric or a set of chords will inspires something. Now that I’m a little bit older, I tend to wait around less for inspiration and have taken more of a woodshedding and workman like approach. Some writers say they write better when they’re emotional, but I just go for it. It’s an exercise where good things always come out of.

Let’s talk about a few tracks from Stiff. What can you tell me about “Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)”?

That song started with the guitar figure in the chorus and the two different voices of the D major. It’s a shape that’s interesting and fun. Lyrically—instead of sitting with a pen and pad, I sat down and improvised in vocal style, and the “ha ha ha” was actually just a playful thing I added. We never changed it from the initial improv lyric.

"Had 2 Know"?

That one was interesting, as far as production. I remember we had covered Led Zeppelin's “Custard Pie” for a CD a magazine had invited us to do. The riff came out of that same zone, and has an almost Eastern tinge to it. It was interpreting and borrowing form the best.

"Holda You (I'm Psycho)"?

A lot of punk from late Seventies early Eighties had a lot of tight bands—like early Pretenders records, which had such a tight, bottled-up energy. For this song, we wanted to do something like that.

What’s your setup like?

I like to use a lot of low-wattage, old tube amps when I record. My obsession with that actually started with the Silvertones from the mid-late Sixites. On stage, I’ve been using a [Fender] Princeton and Custom Supro Thunderbolt. Guitar wise, I have a Gibson 330 I record a lot with, and my stage guitar is a 135. I also have a Nineties SG I use as a second guitar. I also use a lot of different things for pedals. Lately, I’ve been using the JHS Colour box and Xotic EP Booster to get the amps where I need them to be.

Are there any other projects you’re working on?

I’m writing again right now and am also going through a lot of our back catalog. This being our 10th anniversary, we’ve been listening to tapes and figuring out what we’re going to do. I’m really looking forward to more new material as well as prepping some of the old stuff for release. I love playing live and touring, but my main passion has always been being in that studio space and making some kind of event come out of the speakers!

For more about White Denim, visit whitedenimmusic.com.

James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.

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James Wood

James is a guitarist and freelance writer who's interviewed some of the biggest names in music. He is the author of four books and his writing credits include work for Guitar World, AXS and Yahoo! as well as for his hometown newspaper where he writes on a variety of topics with both passion and humor. As a guitarist, he's performed everywhere from local bars and nightclubs to some of the biggest stages in front of thousands of music fans.