Jack White works fast. So
does his label, Third Man Records. Founded in 2001, when White was still best
known for leading the garage rock revival with his band The White Stripes,
Third Man moved into its modern era with the 2009 opening in Nashville of a
one-stop rock n' roll shop that houses a record store (selling only Third Man
and Jack White-related merchandise), the label, a live venue, a recording
studio, a photo studio and darkroom, a production office and a distribution
center. It's all about vertical integration at Third Man: "With our unique
set-up we can have an artist recorded and photographed in one day and have
records for sale in our store within weeks," reads a mission statement posted
to thirdmanrecords.com. "In this way we are bringing a spontaneous and
immediate aesthetic back into the record business."
We Are Hex, they work pretty
fast too, having released two full-lengths and a passel of EPs and cassettes
during their four years of life. But the local rock four-piece hadn't worked
with an outside producer before Jack White called them up in December 2010,
impressed by online concert footage he saw of performances at the Melody Inn
and Radio Radio. He asked if they might make a trip down to Third Man in the
near future to record a track or two with him. The band, naturally, accepted.
White recorded two songs by We Are Hex during one afternoon in mid-January; the
next day, the band posed for a photo shoot and White played them the rough
This week, a little more than
three months since White first contacted the band, Third Man will put out a
seven-inch by We Are Hex on its Blue Series of 45s. The label will sell it on
the streets of Austin during the SXSW music festival, where much of the Third
Man's catalog will be available for purchase from their Rolling Record Shop, a
sort of musical bookmobile. We Are Hex will also make the trip to Austin,
playing at least eight showcases during their first year at the festival, as
well as a DJ set from the Rolling Record Shop. The local album release show,
scheduled for March 25 at Luna Music, will await We Are Hex's return from
Are Hex's seven-inch will become one of the loudest records ever released by
Third Man, whose records tend to have a little twang (see Wanda Jackson,
Drakkar Sauna, even Conan O'Brien's rockabilly effort) or to at least stick
towards the pre-punk side of garage rock, like most of Jack White's bands. The
A-side, "Twist the Witch's Titty," is a heavy, oppressive dirge, weighted down
by Trevor Wathen's swampy, thudding bass, lifted by Matt Hagan's sharp, echoing
guitar riffs played a la The Cure, complicated by drummer Brandon Beaver's
muted fills, made even more demonic by singer Jill Weiss's mannered screams. If
that track exemplifies We Are Hex's goth-rock side, the flip-side, "Through the
Doldrums to the Dum Dums," gestures more towards White's garage-rock
background, a few off-key "doo-doo-doos" opening a distorted, frantic, upbeat
song that's closer to pop than noise. Weiss, who can take on several
personalities during the course of a record, opts for a hands-on-hip, flippant
tone on the B-side, asking "Who do you think you know here? Who do you think
With representatives from
Third Man unavailable for comment while preparing for a trip to SXSW, it's up
to the members of We Are Hex to talk about their new seven-inch and their
relationship with the label. The story starts in the key of awe, with Weiss
calling Third Man "its own Willy Wonka world" where "you can tell that Jack has
his hands in everything because it's immaculately designed."
Beaver, seated beside Weiss
on a slow weekday night at near-Northside bar The Red Key, adds: "That whole
place is put together on rock and roll; that's the only reason it exists.
You're not going to find that in Indianapolis. To me, it was so foreign." Weiss: "We would have to
build it. Our studio is the closest thing and it's just our house."
Once romantically aligned,
now best friends and roommates, Weiss and Beaver finish each other's thoughts
and sentences, comfortable with each other to the point to which, as Weiss jokes,"He could tell me to eat shit and die,
and it might hurt right then, but tomorrow I'd be like, "Hey, want to get some
coffee." Both have their quirks: Beaver is aloof in conversation, tending to
stare at a fixed point ninety degrees to the left of his questioner while
talking, only occasionally punctuating his points with eye contact; Weiss jokes
that she only leaves the house for work and when loved ones absolutely demand
her presence at a social occasion, although her cheerful, engaging presence tonight
doesn't necessarily jive with her image of herself as a homebody, not to
mention her aggressively outgoing stage persona.
Weiss and Beaver stress that,
above all, their music is sincere, and they tend to be honest, open and excited
when they talk about their band as well, only restraining themselves in order
to preserve another's privacy, for instance by refraining from chatting too
much about hanging out with Jack White or by revealing the name of the band's
behind-the-scenes manager, who e-mailed Third Man the videos that would inspire
White to work with the band. Even their tattoos and fashion accessories are
honest: Beaver's knuckles spell out "SELF MADE"; Weiss wears a button that
reads, "OCD AOK."
The two say they're satisfied
with the 7-inch, noting that White didn't meddle with anything essential to We
Are Hex's sound. "He definitely knows what he wants, and couldn't respect more
the songs as they were," Weiss explains. "He just dived right in with ideas, as
if he had been listening to them for months. There were a few things he
surprised us with — even things we weren't sure we would like — but
he was right on. We figured, we'll trust him because he's Jack White."
Weiss says that about "15
minutes of awkwardness" went by before the band felt comfortable being around
White, before "it was like we had always known him." She elaborates on those
few ideas that surprised the band: White suggested that Weiss's vocals be
recorded at half-speed for part of one song, to give them a high-pitched, Chipmunks
effect when played back at normal speed; he pulled out an African drum for
another passage. The songs were recorded in two or three takes; the band showed
up at noon and was done by 5 p.m. White works with vintage equipment — an
analog console, two-inch reel-to-reel tape — and all music was tracked
live, and even some of the vocals.
"We kept a lot of happy
mistakes," Weiss continues. "Matt was like, 'Oh, I forgot to kick off my
distortion on this part,' and Jack said, 'Let's rock and roll. Sounds great;
that's a take.'"
Beaver is careful to maintain
some autonomy during this conversation: "I hope this doesn't come off sounding
like we're easy to work with, when we're really, really not. We were totally
prepared to say, 'That snare sounds terrible.'" "But he's who he is for a
reason; he's got a great ear for tone, and that's one of the most important
thing to us," Weiss adds.
And White is also who he is
partly because he's a restless collaborator who has reached out to both
high-profile acts (including Loretta Lynn, Beck and Alicia Keys) and
less-established bands - like We Are Hex - such as The Greenhornes, Soledad Brothers, Pujol and The
Black Belles. He gets plenty of recognition for his work, being ranked number
17 on Rolling Stone's list of the
greatest guitarists of all time, being featured as an equal alongside The Edge
and Jimmy Page in the guitar geek documentary It Might Get Loud. White is undeniably a huge figure in the rock world, and if the
band isn't inclined to allow White to be their Svengali, they are aware of the
significance of their relationship with him.
"We're not marketable," Weiss
says. "Our songs aren't going to sell Subarus. We've been doing this for a long
time and we're really grateful for the fan base that we have, but it's very
small. So it was nice for somebody you look up to to give us the nod: 'Yes, you
are on the right track.' For us, it was like if you made your dream movie and
you won an Oscar for it. It was the movie we were going to make anyway, so it's
like frosting on the cake. We would have made those songs. They wouldn't have
sounded that good, but they would exist."
Weiss and Beaver have played
in three bands together, collaborating almost continuously since they met in
Muncie in the mid-'00 while both were in their early 20s. She moved to the city
from northwest Indiana, where she bounced around Hammond, Highland and Munster
during her youth; he arrived from Peru, Ind., where his family moved shortly
after his birth on the outskirts of Orlando, Fla. Both were in bands during
high school, but Beaver was the more precocious of the two.
"In high school, he was
already playing out," Weiss says of Beaver. "His high school band, especially
compared to my high school band, was pretty fucking impressive. He got into the
things that make a DIY band really early — designing your own T-shirts,
making your record, booking your own show — really young."
Beaver started playing
drums when he was 14, and graduated high school midway through his senior year to
play a tour with Brazil, a post-hardcore band then signed to prominent indie
label Fearless Records. He made his way to Muncie by 2004, where Weiss was
already studying art at Ball State and putting on shows in her basement.
The two disagree on the story
of how they met. Beaver says it was a casual encounter: "I met Jill, she met
me; we were hanging out. It went like, 'Oh, you drum? I need a drummer.'
But Weiss objects, lighting
hitting the table with her palms for emphasis:"No, that's not how it happened at all, actually! I saw him
drum and I said, 'That's my new drummer.' My best friend at the time was my
drummer, and I was like, 'Dude, this drummer is so fucking good.' And I didn't
want to play with another drummer."
Beaver relents, maybe
allowing this piece of We Are Hex apocrypha to go by unchallenged: "That was a
long time ago. I don't remember all the details." Weiss: "He's modest."
At the time, Weiss played in
a band with Hagan, We Are Hex's current guitarist, called Days and Nights in the
Skeleton Crew. Weiss and Beaver jointly describe it as Wire meets Thrill Kill
Kult with a tinge of industrial keyboards. Beaver joined the band for its final
four or five months as a going concern, booking its first major tour.
The group was at the center of
a blossoming Muncie music scene that rivaled any Indiana city for talent.
Beaver points to the now Indianapolis-based Everything, Now! (an "unstoppable"
live band) and The Lou Reeds (the most "influential" group) as key acts; he
adds that members of the once major-label act Margot & the Nuclear So and
So's "were all there taking notes," and that that band's producer and bassist,
Tyler Watkins, recorded "every one of those Muncie bands in this terrible shit,
shit basement." Weiss interjects: "That shit basement I lived in, behind the
After Skeleton Crew broke up,
its members (Weiss, Beaver and Hagan) gradually came to form another band,
Ari.Ari., adding to the lineup Mark Tester, We Are Hex's first bassist and
current frontman for the Oakland-based garage rock band Burnt Ones, on guitar.
The group was still a going concern when Beaver and Weiss moved to Indianapolis
in 2006. Weiss says they made the move because she was fed up with being "poor
as fuck" in Muncie, where she lived in a condemned building, paying $200 in
rent. She held a poorly-affixed mattress to the car roof during much of the
drive to the big city.
Ari.Ari. made it another year
until a West coast tour precipitated its breakup. Beaver: "The band kind of
fizzled out, everyone was frustrated..." Weiss, again correcting an under-statement:
"Nuh-uh, it didn't fizzle out. We quit the band in L.A., and drove all the way
back in silence."
Two months passed between
Ari.Ari.'s breakup and the formation of We Are Hex, two long months, according
to Beaver and Weiss, who say it was the longest time they weren't members of a
band since high school.
The first version of We Are
Hex, formed in 2007, was a three-piece comprised of three former Ari.Ari.
members — Beaver on drums, Tester on bass, Weiss on synths and vocals. That
lineup's sound was bass-heavy and a little turgid. Guitar was conspicuously
absent, and even though Tester tried to fill in chords on the synths, there was
a curious lack of energy to that lineup's work. "We're a rock and roll band, so
it's kind of hard to conceive of a rock and roll band without a guitar," Beaver
told me in 2009. "We admitted that as well." Still, that trio completed a
full-length, Loomers vs. Lurkers,
two songs from which made their way to the band's first proper full-length,
2009's Gloom Bloom.
When Tester left the group in
2008, he was replaced by Trevor Wathen (formerly of the group Extra Blue Kind), with Matt Hagan also joining the group on guitar. Wathen was living alone in a
house on the near-Southside, surrounded by instruments, recording equipment and
poverty. Even before he joined the band, he was hanging out with the members of
the trio incarnation of We Are Hex, inviting them to record and practice in his
space. Soon after he became a member of We Are Hex, the rest of the band moved into his home, soon to be dubbed the "Hex Haus."
For two years, all four
members of the current lineup lived and recorded together in the space, working
up two full-length albums, 2009's Gloom Bloom and 2010's Hail the Goer. Beaver refers to the documentary Stones in Exile when he describes the atmosphere of the house —
"They were constantly together," he says of the Rolling Stones during the time
they recorded Exile on Main Street.
"It was just about who was in the right place at the right time." Weiss picks
up on the reference: "Who could do it at the same time. Who ended up bailing,
who was late to practice; who was too drunk or too high." "That's exactly
what's happen to us," Beaver continues. "We've written records around who was
at the house at that time. And we just keep on putting out LPs and B-sides in
between the records. I'd say we have a hundred songs. We could stop right now
and just put out B-side cassette tapes for the next five years. But we promise
not to do something so pretentious."
Weiss ended up writing about
the Haus almost unconsciously, particularly on Hail the Goer: "I definitely didn't leave the house the whole time
that we wrote that, so it was very much about the house and the people that were
in it, which happened to just be us four." Case in point: the first song Hail
the Goer, "Birthplace of the
Mystics," on which Weiss howls that "We ain't got no fireflies on this side of
town / we ain't got no streetlights to guide our way home," before explaining
that "We're all living in a haunted house." Like Moose of Jookabox on his last
album Dead Zone Boys, Weiss often
sings of a spooky, post-industrial wasteland that rings downtown Indianapolis.
And We Are Hex's fascination with the dark side of the city isn't affected,
according to Weiss: "We're not trying to be creepy. I'd just say that we're
dark because we're poor, tired, overworked, depressed and working-class."
Weiss, Beaver and Hagan have
since moved out of the Hex Haus, leaving Wathen to once again guard the band's
equipment. (Beaver joked in 2008 that, "It's a gamble every day when we get
home from work to see if there's a window broken out and everything has been
stolen.") During the two years the band lived together there, Beaver and Wathen
built up the studio to the point where the Haus might now be considered,
according to Beaver, "basically just a studio with a bedroom in the back."
Beaver recently started a record label, Bitchin' Sounds, to release recordings
made at the house, including a cassette split featuring We Are Hex and the
Cleveland garage band Hot Cha Cha and a cassette EP by Bloomington noise rock
duo Learner Dancer. Wathen has recorded local band The Kemps at the Haus and is
currently mixing down tracks by another local indie rock band, Pravada.
I ask Weiss and Beaver if
they still think it was a good idea to live and work together. Beaver replies:
"Can I give advice and say, 'Yeah bands, move in together! Move into a house
and start writing music; it's probably going to come out really sweet.'" Weiss
chimes in: "Yeah, if you're not an asshole."
Beaver continues: "It's
really tough, and I think it helped that we can walk past each other in a house
and not even look at each other, and you don't really get sick of that person
after a while. I feel like if we were able to afford a house twice the size, we
would all do it together again." Weiss: "And you get to know who everyone is
having sex with. You don't even talk about it; you're just like, (sassily)
So is We Are Hex really such
a "spooky" band, I ask Beaver while Weiss heads to an ATM. Or is it maybe is it
just that some passages are noisy or in a minor key, and that it's hard to hear
music in a minor key and not think of gloom and doom, sturm and drang?
Beaver likes that reading: "The
only reason anyone would call us spooky or dark is because Matt plays in minor.
We all agree that we're really into Bauhaus and Joy Division, but we're
basically in charge of having to tell people what we sound like."
And sometimes people get too
cute with their definitions. If the band is certainly inspired by the first
wave of goth rock, they avoid the pretensions that genre has picked up like
barnacles along the way — both fashion- (mascara) and music-wise
(crooning, delicate vocals; endless drones; drum machines; layered synths).
Beaver: "When people are like, I can really hear the Bauhaus influence, I'm
like, you're crazy, there's no Bauhaus in there."
And so sometimes they tell
people they sound like The Cure, other times Murder City Devils. As Weiss sits
back down, I put the same question to her, and she lights up: "God, I hope
we're spooky. I think that's the only thing we'd agree on." Beaver replies:
"See, I didn't agree with that at all. I just think it's the minor notes."
Weiss, who favors nurture
over nature, makes her case: "I just think we're dark because we live in a
bleak environment. Nine months out of the year it's gray, black and brown. The
bands that unite us, the bands that I get most excited about — Joy
Division, Bauhaus and The Cure — those are bands that are classified as
goth. Clearly there's a problem; I don't fucking leave the house."
Well, except for shows. Weiss
is an energetic, unrestrained performer, writhing on the floor at one minute,
leaping atop the bar the next. Maybe her lyrics are informed by the gothic side
of life, but she doesn't present herself as gloomy or mopey on stage — or
during an interview, for that matter. She finds it discouraging to see local
bands that do mope about, discouraged by obstacles to success, some of them
universal, some of them specific to Indianapolis.
coast-biased. All you have to say to discredit yourself sometimes is that
you're from Indiana...And when you think about Detroit...What's Indianapolis? It's
Detroit. Where we live in Indianapolis, it's industrial fucking wasteland.
There's so much potential here, which is why it kind of hurts that people
aren't pushing themselves. Yeah, it's hard to tour, but spend $800 on a band
and take a chance. And it's good for your music — the more that you get
out there, the more bands that you see, the more experiences you have, it's
going to push your music."
It comes down to one thing
for Weiss: "As much as we can doubt everything— 'Can I pay the rent? Is the band going to make it?'
— we've never ever doubted the music. There's no doubt in our minds that,
love it or hate it, it's super-fucking sincere, and in a sea of trendy
forgettable bands, we mean what we write." And while good work doesn't always
find a receptive audience, it would seem that We Are Hex's sincere approach is
Thursday, March 24 at Radio
Radio (1119 E. Prospect St.) with The Greenhornes and Hacienda; 9 p.m., $10,
Friday, March 25, vinyl release
in-store at Luna Music Midtown (5202 N. College Ave.); 6 p.m., free, all-ages