White Reaper Does It Again (Again)

Here is what I know, for certain, about Asking For A Ride, the new album from the Louisville, Kentucky garage rock quintet White Reaper: it’s really good.

It could be White Reaper’s best album. It’s entirely possible that the album is flat-out-great, maybe even a classic of its form. It certainly has all the material: hard riffs, lighters-up choruses, sneaky great hooks, and production that makes the songs sound big without sacrificing the raw energy that this sort of thing needs.

The only real issue at hand is that I’ve been listening to this album on a stream sent by White Reaper’s label Elektra. And that’s fine and all, as listening to albums on your laptop is kind of the de facto way many of us take in music these days.

But when it comes to the sort of unadorned, bash-and-pop rock music that White Reaper specialize in, there’s two ideal ways to experience it: live and in a car, and I won’t have the opportunity to do either of those for months, as the album is not out until January 27th, and I won’t be able to visit my parents and commandeer their SUV for further critical evaluation purposes until the spring.

Ok, here’s one other thing I know, for certain, about Asking For A Ride: it wasn’t easy to make.

White Reaper (guitarist-frontman Tony Esposito, drummer Nick Wilkerson, bassist Sam Wilkerson, and keyboard player Ryan Hater) are a boyish band of classic rock aficionados that formed in high school, and began playing at Louisville’s DIY venue Skull Alley, learning how to become a band and how to ride the energy of a crowd, while also learning all about safe spaces, being an ally (and not being an asshole) and all the other things a young band needs to be well-versed in these days.

After releasing their snotty 2015 debut White Reaper Does It Again and the arena-dream 2017 follow-up The World’s Best American Band via Polyvinyl (the first album to also feature guitarist Hunter Thompson, they signed with the WMG affiliate Elektra and released the more polished You Deserve Love in 2019. It earned a number one Billboard Alternative single with “Might Be Right,” but in retrospect, the album as a whole doesn’t entirely sit well with them.

White Reaper were determined to recapture the feeling of their live shows, and even scrapped the first version of Asking For A Ride, which was recorded with a big-shot producer that Esposito declines to name. They started over, recorded and largely self-produced in Nashville with the help of band friend and engineer Jeremy Ferguson. The result finds Esposito largely coming into his own as a singer and lyricist, projecting a new-found confidence that fits the strength of the new songs, which at various points resemble Weezer, Cheap Trick, The Replacements, Nirvana, and The Strokes, but all delivered with a panache that now feels singularly them. Again, I can’t wait to hear this in a car with the windows rolled down.

A week before Christmas, I jumped on the phone with Esposito to talk about scrapping a finished record, what he learned from his first major label album, and the bewildering feeling of scoring a hit single.

So, this album sounds a lot different than the last one. It seems a little bit less ready for radio, and a lot more like it’s ready to tear up a nightclub.

Honestly, making it was very crazy. It just felt like there was a new problem every step of the way. We started writing in October 2020, and it’s gonna come out in January 2023, so it took a long time.

I think COVID definitely played a part in that. I think it was hard to feel creative or inspired at the very beginning of the pandemic, ’cause we were just sitting around. And I really learned that being in transit and touring and constantly seeing things and constantly being stimulated is a big help for writing. But yeah, it really slowed things down when that was out of the equation.

I can imagine how frustrating it must have been, because 2019, you’re having a couple of hits on the radio, you’re having a lot of momentum, some big tours with Weezer and Pearl Jam, and then all of a sudden everything stops.

Yeah, that was pretty crazy. I think at that point, though, we were pretty worn down from touring, so we were pretty excited to get a break. We just didn’t realize it was gonna be as long as it was.

Was the thought that you’d come back and like me, do some more touring for You Deserve Love, and ride the success of “Might Be Right?” Or at what point were you like, no, we should just get to work on the next one?

Around October 2020, I think, is when we kind of were like, “that’s over, let’s get started.” We all met at this bizarre Airbnb in the middle of nowhere in Arkansas. It was the first time we’d seen each other since that last tour. We just tried to write.

Now, what was that moment like when you guys finally reunited in the same room?

It was really hard to be productive because I think we were just really excited to see each other and there was a lot of fooling around and joking around and things of that nature. It was very hard to stay on track.

The trip was about like maybe a little less than 10 days. We spent a good two or three days just messing around, maybe even more.

So this time around, you decided to self-produce. What was the thinking there?

So that’s another kind of cursed aspect of this album is that we chewed through a couple producers on the way to the end result. We had one producer and we went into the studio last November, November ’21, and it just wasn’t the right fit. And we just left there knowing that it wasn’t done and that we didn’t feel good about it. So, at that point, we were like, “let’s just go in with an engineer and just do the rest ourselves.”

What do you think was off about the album, at that point?

I’m trying to like diplomatically say that […] Like just the people we were in the studio with, I just don’t think were right for us creatively. And it was hard to get really anything done that we felt great about. And it was just this weird kind of a labored process that was just super uncomfortable.

I can tell you’re being very polite and diplomatic and I appreciate that, but definitely anyone reading this or any fans of yours is going to say, “okay, so they got paired with some pop producer, someone who doesn’t understand what White Reaper is, and they’re forced to make a pop record that didn’t work for them.” Am I within the vicinity of things?

Oh yeah, that’s pretty close. [chuckle] That’s pretty close.

So you threw the album out, and then did you start from scratch, or were there any songs you thought were good that just got the wrong treatment?

So we kept some, four of the songs on the album were ones that we did record from that session. And then the other six were songs that we either redid from that session or wrote totally fresh to finish the album with.

Now, when did you feel the album was coming together in a way that was up to your standards, and you were really starting to nail it?

Honestly, as soon as we got into the studio with Jeremy in the first couple days there, I think we felt really good. And we had a week of preparation in Louisville before we went to Nashville, and I think at that point, we were just excited again. And it was kind of dark times between then and leaving the last studio. We were in this kind of state of uncertainty about what was gonna happen to us. But as soon as we got together again, we kinda slapped ourselves out of it, and it started to feel really good and exciting.

Once you finally turned the album in, was the label supportive or were they mad that you didn’t go with the more pop direction?

They’ve always been very supportive, weirdly. We were nervous ’cause we basically had to record it twice, so we were like, “oh, they’re probably so pissed off.” But they’ve been very, very supportive and very helpful.

Speaking of major labels, looking back on it, how do you feel about how You Deserve Love came out, now you’ve had time to sit with it.

I feel like recording that record was really fun, because it was the first time we did a big producer thing with Jay Joyce, and he was very into live takes of the band and running through things a bunch. And I think we really liked that. And I will say, though, I don’t know if it’s our favorite album to play live. That is kind of where I sit with it now. There are only a couple songs off that record that we’re stoked to throw into our set. And then a lot of them feel like these pretty polished, poppy things that would feel weird with the rest of our set. But outside of that, I look back on it fondly. It just feels like an awkward sort of puzzle piece sometimes at our live shows.

But at the same time, the album did seem to get you guys onto rock radio. “Might Be Right” was the number one hit, and you had some other popular songs on the radio as well from that album. What was it like to reach a different audience, play to bigger crowds, play festivals, and that sort of thing?

It was pretty crazy. The shows definitely got bigger and it’s pretty funny. We always joked about how the phones come out, on “Might Be Right.” But it was cool to see the growth there, but it was also a little funny.

So tell me how “Fog Machine” came about, because that song is one of the highlights of the album. It’s an absolute ripper, really catchy, but also really raw.

So it was this riff that I had come up with that we had had in our little batch of demos for this new album. But we never could figure out how to get out of that main riff and into a verse or something. It just felt like this riff was looping on the demo we had. We tried it a bunch of different times. And it just stumped us for the longest time. And then finally, like literally the week before we went to Nashville to record, it just clicked at literally the last second. And we threw it in there. It was a buzzer-beater.

I remember when I talked to you a couple of years ago, you said you’re nervous as a lyricist. This one both lyrically and just your voice in general is a lot more forward, a lot clearer in the mix. Do you feel like you’ve grown more confident in yourself as a frontman and as a songwriter?

I’m definitely confident as a singer, but I think lyrics are always tricky ’cause you worry about enunciation or that sort of thing, because for the longest time with our band specifically, they’re like, “I don’t know what he’s saying, but it sounds cool.” I think the lyrics are always gonna be troublesome, because you’re always looking for something better. And it was with “Fog Machine,” the last line of the chorus is “left me hanging in the first place.” We were banging our heads against the wall trying to find something better than that, ’cause like none of us absolutely loved it. But eventually we’re just like,” oh, whatever, that’s what it is and that’s what it’ll be.” But yeah, that’s always gonna be there with every song, wondering if the lyrics are as good as they can be or as good as they should be. And I think that’s just another thing that we do as a band, like when I was talking about seriously self-editing. But yeah, we just think really hard all the time.

Going back to the creation of the album, a lot of the lyrics here seem to have a theme of blowing off authority and realizing you know what’s best for yourself. I’m thinking about “Getting In Trouble With The Boss” or Bozo, just sort of like this real affirmation of yourself. Was that on your mind?

Oh, definitely. And whether it was on our minds consciously or not, I think it was what we were literally dealing with throughout the making of this record. So yeah, that feels like a pretty strong theme, I think, just for us in general. So yeah, I’m glad that you got that out of it.

I know when I talked to you a couple of years ago, you said you guys get a real mix of people, both older people that kind of miss hearing rock on the radio and like younger people who maybe you’re their first band. Does that kind of continue to be the case?

Oh, yeah, it seems like it. I mean, there are definitely a lot of younger kids and it’s weird, it’s either super young or pretty old and it feels like there’s not a lot in between. I would say like from 24 and 18 to 45 and beyond.

It seems like for a lot of kids you might be their first rock band that they got into. How does that feel to be like the introductory group?

If that’s the case, then it’s super, super flattering. And I hope that they can listen to our music and be like, “oh, this is cool, like guitars and drums” and then really find what our favorite records are from us. But if that is the case, that’s super, super flattering to be somebody’s intro.

What do you think you learned about yourself and the band going through this entire process of making the album?

That we just have to persevere. That was the main thing, because there were definitely lots of times when I was like, “what’s the point of even doing this?” Like as soon as we make a decision, we’re going to get some email that’s going to blow everything up and push it back another month. And that just happened time and time again. Like I said, it was dark times there for a minute, but I’m glad that we stuck it out and finished, because it feels great now.

Asking For A Ride is out 1/27 via Elektra.

White Reaper is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.