True story: White Lung's latest grunge-flavored single, "Below," is such a transformative piece of rock & roll that the first time I heard it, I literally had to pull off the side of the road while driving to collect myself, turn up the radio -- and most importantly, find out just what the hell was coming out of my car stereo speakers. A short stint on Shazam later, and I was one more member of the band's fervent faithful.
"That's very flattering, thank you," says White Lung's frontwoman, Mish Barber-Way, when I sheepishly recounted that story for her during our recent phone conversation. "That's a very, very cool thing. I can remember the last time that happened to me -- it wasn’t a new band, but I had never heard this song from this particular band before. We were on tour with this hardcore band called Pollution years ago in 2009; I was half asleep in the back of the van, and my friend Shawn had put on a song called 'Rock In the Sea' by Shocking Blue. I woke up and I was like, 'Who is this? What is this song? This is so good?' He’s like, 'It’s a Shocking Blue song' and I was like, 'Are you f---ing kidding me? I’ve never heard that song!'"
Turns out, Mish and I are kindred spirits when it comes to our rather, uh, aggressive listening habits when we hear something we like.
"Oh, I get really obsessive too," she admits. "If I find something I like, I listen to something for like a month straight or two months straight -- it gets to the point where my husband’s like, 'Please don’t put this on again.' I'll exhaust myself on it. But then I’ll let it go, and come back to it a year later.”
White Lung (also comprised of guitarist Kenneth Williams and drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou) got their start a few years back in Vancouver, Canada (Way's since moved to the Los Angeles area). After a punk-infused debut (2010’s “It’s Evil”), 2012's full-length "Sorry" sent critics' heads swiveling, which escalated with their excellent 2014 album “Deep Fantasy." This year’s Domino Records release, “Paradise” -- a smoldering heap of distorted melodies, Way’s acidic vocals and towering anthems -- has only upped the ante, and their visibility. The record's already garnered a steady list of Best of 2016 mentions, and it’s only July.
More specifically, people also seem to love Mish. It’s not difficult to understand why: She’s one of the most unapologetically fearless figures in music (and beyond). You can hear it in her lyrics (ex: “A pound of flesh lays between my legs and eyes / Secure the sutures, he’ll grow beneath the ties / This dead weight / This dead weight” in “Dead Weight”); you can read it in her always-fascinating writing (her Westender Sex With Mish Way column offers titles like "Ask Mish: Should Friends Let Friends Date Douchebags" and "Update Your Bestiality Laws, Canada!"); and you get a healthy dose of it in her candid, curse-word-laced interviews (and at shows if you’re a misbehaving jerk).
For example, when speaking about the never-ending album/touring cycle that most bands tend to dismissively sidestep in interviews as “loads of fun" etc., Barber-Way’s rasp-voiced response is refreshingly honest -- even if it is steeped in bittersweet sentiment.
“I feel like when I’m on tour, I’m in ‘Arrested Development.’ You get treated like a child. It’s like those family vacations when you can’t leave the group unless you tell the whole group where you’re going. It feels like an adult family vacation. I like going on tour but I’m older now and also love my house. I like being home, I wanna see my husband every day and make him dinner and make his sandwich for him before he goes to work. Those things are just as enjoyable to me. Touring’s a young man’s game, you know? I still do love doing it but I hate being away from my home and my husband, and that makes me really sad.”
Surprisingly, if there’s one thing I take away from our conversation, it’s that Mish is a proud homebody. She adores her new(ish) residence in Arcadia, California -- which is just far enough outside of LA that she doesn’t have to deal with oft-shady types that roam its streets with their glistening spray-on tans, or all the impossible hipster posturing.
“I like it ‘cause I live in the suburbs and never go into the city,” she says. “I don’t live in f---ing West Hollywood or any of the totally gross, disgusting Silverlake garbage places where you have to bump into some idiot every two seconds. I live outside in a neighborhood of families and big-box stores.”
As much as she enjoys staying at home, Barber-Way also knows touring’s kind of a necessary evil. While it’s not really all glam and glory, the shows tend to serve as a wake-up call for "new" songs that, while just-released for audiences, are already stale to the band playing them.
“These songs have been in our heads for so long before anyone in the public ever hears them,” she explains. “For me, by the time [a new album] rolls around to come out, I’ve been talking about the stupid thing for a year. That’s why when we start touring and playing the songs live after the record comes out, you get this rejuvenation ‘cause you’re kind of sick of it at that point -- well, not sick of it, but you’re like, ‘What else is new?’ The live component really helps you get excited about the songs and remember that they are still fresh and still new.”
It helps, too, when people are into it -- even if they’re clamoring for songs the band’s played hundreds of times over.
“There’s that thing where you’re feeding off the energy of the crowd’s excitement; that’s what makes it survivable," Barber-Way tells me. "Playing a crowd-pleasing song is like a hit of dopamine. Anyone pouting up onstage -- I don’t believe them. That’s garbage. Go play in your room then. No one’s putting a gun to your head and making you go onstage. That’s not how the music industry works anymore. No one’s plucked out of obscurity and put into stardom unless you’re doing pop. If you’re doing indie music, punk music, or rock music -- it doesn’t happen that way so stop your whining. You can’t pretend you don’t want to be there. We know you do. It’s bulls---. It makes me irritated.”
Perhaps Mish's outlook on music, its pitfalls, and occasional glory has been cultivated by the band’s years spent on the road and the people she’s met along the way, but her work outside the medium has also invariably kept her perspective uniquely fresh. The singer/songwriter/guitarist has been writing professionally since before White Lung ever took off but it now affords her a much-needed break from the musical side of things in her life.
“They are completely different,” Barber-Way says. “So, so different. Mainly, right now, I’m working for Hustler. I’m working for Vice. I do my Westender column. I’m working with a few British publications that I really enjoy writing for, along with i-D, which is a fashion magazine bought by Vice. But most of my stuff is with Hustler. I don’t really write about music anymore. I write about sex, psychology, and I’ve been very immersed in the porn field for a long time so it’s like apples and oranges -- or like apples and dildos.” [laughs]
It’s been a hot minute since a musician has thrown an always-appreciated dick joke into an interview, and I couldn’t have been more giddy. Swiftly and on-topic, I turn our conversation toward this year's presidential election and mention relocating to Vancouver if Donald Drumpf's actually elected. Turns out it's not a good idea -- and I am playfully chastised.
"What you bonehead Americans don’t realize is that there’s, like, three cities you can actually work in and do well in in Canada, unless you want to be living in minus-40 [degree weather] in the winter!" Way says. "And you can’t even live in Quebec unless you speak French. I think it’s funny that everyone’s seriously thinking about that."
With my tail firmly between my legs, and my big move to Vancouver suddenly put on hold for the foreseeable future, it looks like I'll be in town for a while. Silver lining? I get to see White Lung at the Casbah on Saturday. To be honest, it's a trade I'm more than willing to make -- impending apocalypse be damned.
Dustin Lothspeich books The Merrow; plays in Diamond Lakes and Boy King; and runs the music-equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.