When it comes to timing, no other album thus far in 2017 can beat The World’s Best American Band by feisty Louisville trad-rockers White Reaper. Set for release this Friday, April 7, The World’s Best American Band arrives just as spring comes into full bloom in most areas of the country. If White Reaper’s third album had arrived a month or two ago, it wouldn’t have quite the same impact. But people are now just starting to roll down their car windows, and seek out music to blast into the fresh April air. And The World’s Best American Band will likely rank among the year’s very best car-stereo rock records. It demands to be played at a high volume, preferably while driving slightly too fast down an open road.
Formed by four boyhood friends in 2014, White Reaper established itself as a solid garage-rock outfit on records like 2014’s White Reaper and 2015’s White Reaper Does It Again. But The World’s Best American Band represents a significant step forward in every conceivable way — the songwriting is sharper and catchier, the production is bigger and slicker, and the attitude has been kicked up several notches. While the band was previously lumped in with the Ty Segalls of the world, White Reaper now openly apes the glory days of ‘7os and ’80s arena rock, with each deliriously riff-y track aimed squarely for the same pleasure centers that respond to all-night keggers and monster-truck rallies.
But White Reaper aren’t mere revivalist knuckle-draggers. Even if every song on The World’s Best American Band sounds like an attempt to out-par-tay Van Halen’s “Panama” — White Reaper doesn’t quite get there, but comes shockingly close on many occasions — the level of craft on display is undeniable. “Judy French,” in particular, is one of the year’s best rock songs, synthesizing seemingly incongruous elements of rock history — it sounds like .38 Special covering the Smiths, except amazing — in a way that belies the youth of the band members. (Everyone hovers around the age of 23.)
And then there’s the deadpan cheekiness of that album title. When I reached White Reaper’s frontman and principal songwriter Tony Esposito by phone in Louisville a few weeks ago, he didn’t back off one iota from the bravado of his band’s latest LP.
Let’s begin with the album title. Is it a joke or a sincere boast?
Well, I think that we think we’re the best band in the country right now. And maybe we are throwing down the gauntlet a little bit, I don’t know.
I’m happy to hear you say that because most bands aren’t willing to be so bold. What gives you the confidence to say, ‘We’re the best?’
It would be boring otherwise.
What bands are you inspired by? I’m guessing they have a similar attitude.
Kiss. Also, not a band but just a person: Muhammad Ali. Who else is there? I like Joe Walsh a lot. Bob Seger. Just a bunch of classic rock radio stuff.
It’s interesting that you mention Kiss because the opening of your record reminds me of Alive! You hear crowd noise, and then there’s this incredible arena-rock stomp. By the time you start slamming power chords, it’s hard not to be all in on this record.
Was that a deliberate reference on your part?
Well, we came up with something that maybe has been done before but hasn’t been done for a long time. I came into the studio one day and Kevin [Ratterman], he was the one who produced [the record], was like, ‘Hey, check this out. I don’t know how you’re going to feel about this but I think it’s fucking awesome.’ He played me the crowd noise in the beginning and I was super into it, and all the guys thought it was great, too. We just figured that it would go hand in hand with the title.
Did you write the title track before the other songs? It seems like a mission statement.
We had the album title before, I think, we had any song titles.
Was the idea, ‘Okay, we better write a great record to live up to this title?’
Yeah, kind of. I mean, we really showed up to the studio with basically nothing. We had one song and the second song called “Judy French,” kind of. We had all of that one but not really. That and I had, like, two voice memos on my phone and that was it. That was all we had. We just kind of fucked around in there for a month and it ended up just sounding really big and really cool. We came up with the title and then song names came after that and we just decided to name our first track after the record.
I enjoyed your 2015 record, White Reaper Does It Again. Back then, you were usually classified as garage rock. This album clearly is more in a classic arena-rock vein. Do you feel like you made a shift toward a bigger sound, or was that “garage” tag always a misnomer?
We have always hated the word “garage,” as well as the word “punk.” It just doesn’t mean anything. I think we’re just a rock and roll band. I think we’ve always been a rock and roll band. so we’re making rock and roll songs and rock and roll records.
What do you think ‘rock and roll’ means in 2017? I have this conversation with people all the time. It seems like no one really knows what rock and roll is. They think they know what it’s not, but it’s hard for people to wrap their arms around rock and roll and have it mean something specific. What does it mean to you, to make like a rock and roll record, right now?
It means that you play dope riffs, and just bang real hard, and just hammer that out and jam with your buds. It’s pretty easy. It’s just rock and roll.
Do you handle the songwriting or is that something that the band does together?
It’s mostly me, but I filter. It’s like if I were a writer, they would be my editors.
The members of White Reaper have been friends since grade school. Did you bond early over music?
We were so young at that age — we were bonding over things like Spider-Man at that point. By the time we got to high school, we played in bands together. It’s crazy to think that was 10 years ago. We were just starting bands because it was fun to start bands. We had so many bands and I guess we just decided to take one of them kind of seriously.
Why you were already into Kiss back then?
The first band we started sounded like Minor Threat. But also, like, pretty weird. We made some interesting choices as far as songwriting goes, I’ll say that. Just weird chord progressions and bass chords and weird drum stuff. Because we were like, ‘Oh man, we can play instruments with each other! And it’s cool.’ It felt very free.
We had this other band called … I can’t even remember what the f*ck we named it. It was some stupid name, like UFOs. Me and Sam were just screaming and we recorded it to a cassette tape. It was almost like every day we would come home and start a band and just do something stupid.
How did you end up going from ‘weird Minor Threat’ to White Reaper?
I suppose I started writing songs. And I would send demos to the other guys and I’d say, ‘Hey, do you guys want to play this music?’ It was the Fourth of July, I think — I’m not sure what year but it was probably four years ago. And it was just Ryan and I at my house and we wrote this song together that ended up being the first ever White Reaper song. It was called “Cool.” We were just making songs. We would sit down with each other and be like, ‘I think it would be cool if it sounded like the Beach Boys,’ or whatever.
Getting back to the ‘what is rock and roll?’ question — White Reaper is a young band. Rock isn’t always considered young person’s music. Do you ever think about rock’s place in contemporary culture, and where that puts a band like White Reaper?
I’m not really worried about whether rock is alive or not because I know that we’re going to keep making it. So as long as we’re a band, there is going to be rock, I can guarantee you that much.
The World’s Best American Band is out 4/7 via Polyvinyl Records. Get it here.