By Rachel Perry
It’s weird what a person can find herself stumbling into. In the summer of 2003 I returned to Chicago, a city I’m very proud to call home, after nine months of seclusion in college. I don’t remember how I started hearing about them; I really didn’t know the first thing about local music, but all of a sudden these bands seemed to be showing up everywhere: the Ponys, the Tyrades, the Ms, and the Hot Machines, to name a few, as well as a young woman who went by the name of Miss Alex White. Alex, who I soon discovered pulled double duty as a guitarist in the Hot Machines, played with a drummer called Chris Playboy. The idea that rock n’ roll fit to out-do any and all other rock n’ roll in the world was being made right under my nose left me basically awestruck. It’s a hyperbolic statement, I know, but the music in Chicago was and is impressive, exciting, and dangerous to the unassuming. It’ll blindside you. I downloaded three songs from Alex White’s website and listened to them over and over, throwing “Pop/Stall” in particular onto nearly every mix tape or CD I made for people last year. I was especially impressed with Alex’s voice: raw and throaty, utterly belying of her nineteen years; I couldn’t believe that a girl my age from the North Side could sing like she’d been raised on dirt and rubbing alcohol. I still can’t.
In January 2004 Miss Alex White & Chris Playboy released a four-song 7″ called the Young Monsters EP, as the first release on Missile X Records, a label they started together. The single arrived not three days after I ordered it with a very cordial note: “Hi Rachel! Thanks for buying our first single, we really appreciate it! “Alex and Chris.” The single is, well, something of a force. Alex’s vocals sound like she’s trying to cough up a switchblade, and the songs, which go from a fast, pissed off pace to plaintively slow(er), all point to music we’ve heard before, but the influences aren’t immediate. It’s punk-y, it’s got soul, maybe it’s blues, but maybe it’s not. The roots are familiar, but it’s ambiguous enough to be interesting. I hung on to that note they sent me; absently tucked it in a drawer because I thought it was nice of ‘em. When Chris was hit by a car and killed crossing the street outside the Empty Bottle a week later, it made me shudder to look at it. I never met Chris; by all accounts he was a truly wonderful person, and hearing about his death was awful.
It took about a year, but I finally got to see Alex play in June of 2004 at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago. Unfortunately, I’m into a lot of music that my friends aren’t familiar with (or just hate), so more often than not, going to a show means spending some quality time enjoying music by myself in a room full of strangers. Gets real old, real fast, so I wheedled a couple of my friends who are far more likely to listen to Belle and Sebastian than the Baseball Furies into joining me. Alex and Matt Williams, who has been playing drums for Miss Alex White recently, were great that night. Of course, I had been looking forward to seeing them for so goddamn long that they could’ve gone up there in kimonos and yodeled for thirty minutes and I would have declared it a rock n’ roll epiphany. Instead, they played a strong set of two-, maybe three-chord grime-coated songs that were furious, sad, desperate, but, as really good songs can be, weirdly inspiring. Awesome. Danceable as well. I was so intrigued by their set that it was only after they left the stage that I turned around and realized that one of my friends had not only fled the room, but the entire building. The entire block, actually. The other buddy who had the guts to stick it out I later found at a Dunkin’ Donuts, complaining of a headache. “It was just too fucking loud, ” she explained.
This is an e-mail interview I did with Alex — the first interview of any kind that I have ever done — and fortunately, she was very obliging. Take a look at what she has to say about her short-but-action-packed history, Missile X, the Hot Machines, and the records we have to look forward to.
How long have you been playing music and writing songs?
You know, time has been a blur since early pubescence… I had to call my mom to figure out that I actually picked up a guitar at thirteen. As far as writing songs, I suppose I’ve been doing that since the beginning, primarily because I never learned how to play other people’s songs! I never had much of a mind for playing by ear, so I learned a couple dumb chords and started noodling around by myself. Sometimes a pinkie or index finger would slip, and before I knew it, I figured out a new chord, and soon thereafter, a song would follow.
When did you start playing shows? How did the Miss Alex White band begin?
I started playing shows at fourteen, with my first band, the Psychotic Sensations– the first and only band in which there was a bassist. This guy, Winston “Todd” Burdick the III, was a fucking badass bassist, and I’ve never found another man who could add up to him. Whatever the case, within the last five years, Todd sort of disappeared– became a circus clown and started riding the boxcars. The drummer, Kevin Johnson, is a playwright in New York now. We used to play basement shows at my house, in my garage, at other garages, all over Chicago. I still have a couple tapes of this crazy shit we played, but nothing was ever released. Then I started a two-piece band with my friend Alisa called the Red Lights, when I was sixteen or so. We were playing a show at a communist bookstore, I was wearing hot pants and my face was covered in blood, and incidentally, a couple guys from the magazine Horizontal Action showed up. Immediately, they booked us for “real” shows, opening for bands like the Clone Defects (whom I was obsessed with at the time). Alisa eventually became disenchanted with playing in a band, and so my best friend Chris Playboy filled in on drums. We didn’t know what to call ourselves when we were playing our first show, so Phillip from the Afflictions listed me as “The Young Miss Alex White.” From there, we became Miss Alex White & Chris Playboy. Pretty distinctive, right? And at the first Miss Alex White & Chris Playboy show at Cal’s Liquors in downtown Chicago, Jered from the Ponys and Matt from the Baseball Furies approached me, asking to start a band, which would later become known as Hot Machines.
You’ve played around Chicago, as well as in Milwaukee and recently New York City. Are there plans to do an extended tour?
When the live In The Red record and proper In The Red record come out, I assume that we will be extensively touring the United States and southern regions of Canada. I guess around fall and winter. I look forward to it… I like traveling, driving, looking out the window and drinking, so touring should prospectively be ideal.
Your voice is an essential part of your songs– it really stands out. Have you always been able to sing like you do? Is that grated tone something you work towards or something that came naturally?
Hmm. Well, I’ve always been a “belter”. I have two younger brothers, so screaming was an essential component of my childhood. Musically though, I remember Alisa and I were playing the song “Stranger” and this weird yelp escaped me… we both stopped and looked at one another, and with this ghostly face she asked me, “What the FUCK was that?” I kinda grabbed my throat, and was like, “Did I just die for a second?” So yeah, my voice just happens the way it does. And given this opportunity, I would like to personally thank booze and cigarettes for lowering my voice an octave lower than it should naturally occur. Unfortunately though, I do lose my voice pretty often– but what’s weird is that I can still sing– I just can’t talk. This leads me to believe that my singing comes from some nether-region that is in no way related to my speaking voice.
You write songs for both Miss Alex White and the Hot Machines — the two bands have different set-ups and sounds. When you’re writing, do you keep in mind which band you’re writing for? Do you have specific people, bands, or influences in mind when you’re writing, or is a song just a song?
The Miss Alex White band is normally a two-piece, as opposed to the Hot Machines, two guitar/two vocals and drums set up; I write for both bands. However, I’m not the type of person who sits at home with a quill pen and a piece of parchment, pouring my soul out over scales and measures. I simply convene with my band mates, we turn the PA on, and I just start playing two or three compatible chords. From there, a second part will naturally develop, and so on. In this respect, there is no difference in the songwriting between the two bands– the songs are fluid and unforced. I make up the words as we go along, which is why many of them are strange and incoherent. The dichotomy lies in the fact that I have Jered to bounce ideas off of in the Hot Machines. We trade off singing, and it’s texturally more complex. Other than that, I develop songs very similarly in both bands. And no, to answer your other question, I don’t think of any one else when making a song– unless it’s an asshole boyfriend or some other jerk, or someone I love. Instances influence me.
It’s strange that often musicians are asked about their influences, and they’re able to spit out two or three bands they think they draw from. How is that possible? Are you conscious of specific musical influences on songs as you are writing? And, well then, who are your influences?
You know, that’s actually an interesting observation– that people can readily answer “Definitely Guns’n'Roses, Heart, and I’ve always liked Fleetwood Mac.” It’s almost as if some one can condense a lifetime of music listening into three dumb bands (like the aforementioned, who I fucking hate). I know that when asked this question, I usually feel like I’m on the spot, so I blurt out the Modern Lovers, because that’s one band that I love unconditionally. However, I feel that I’m more so influenced by particular songs, as opposed to entire bands or records. For instance, I’ll listen to “1969″ for a week. Then I’ll listen to “I Can’t Sleep at Night” (Deadly Snakes) for two weeks. Then I’ll listen to the Remotes song “Transylvanian Dutch” for a couple days, then Viva L’American Deathray’s “Zipgun Blues” for hours. I become extremely addicted to songs. For instance, it would almost be unfair for me to claim that I “absolutely” love the Rolling Stones, because I think most of their songs are awful, and I’m a Brian Jones kinda gal. However, I can confidently say that I specifically love the songs “Fade Away” and even “Shattered, ” ya know? But Forty Licks? Common.
What’s the story behind your record label, Missile X? I know that you have a few singles in the works– do you want to do more than that (i.e. release LPs) or keep it small?
Chris Playboy and I started the label last summer, to put out our own debut single. We figured that it sounded easy enough to start a label, so why the hell not? And so we saved a couple hundred dollars from show funds, had pieces of plastic transformed into music-playing discs, and thus began Missile X Records, “Dirty but Danceable since 2003.” I’m putting out the Dirges within the next month, which is Ross from the Brides and A-Ron from the Baseball Furies, I’m putting out a Spits single on Halloween that will have a little toy in it, and then there’s a couple other fantastic surprises planned for the next year. I’d like to be able to put out LPs one day, but I’m in no rush. A band would really have to deeply strike me to do that.
Speaking of which, what has the reaction been to the Miss Alex White single? Has it sold well? Have you received orders from exotic locales?
The Miss Alex White & Chris Playboy single has sold amazingly well. We pressed five hundred copies, sent out fifty or so for promotional purposes, and I currently have about seventy-five left in a box under my bed. That means that I have sold roughly three-hundred seventy-five copies since late January 2004, when it came out. So technically, I’ve sold at least 62.5 singles every month over the course of six months, without ever playing out of town– almost strictly through mail order and playing four shows. To me, that’s an overwhelming success for a 7″ debut on a completely unknown label by two unknown friends who play music. The reviews I have read have been very positive, ranging from Maximum Rock’n'Roll, Horizontal Action, Venus Magazine, etc., and the feedback has been quite good. They’ve sold everywhere from the Philippines, to Australia, to New Zealand, to Newark, New Jersey. I’m very pleased, and I know that Chris Playboy would have been very pleased as well.
Word has it that Larry Hardy is going to release a live Miss Alex White & Chris Playboy record on In The Red. How did you get connected with Larry, and do you know if there will be more Miss Alex White records in the future?
Todd from Horizontal Action sent my single all over the place, and Larry Hardy got a hold of it. He sent me a very flattering e-mail, and I happened to be going to LA that weekend to visit my boyfriend at the time. So to make a long story short, Larry and I met up, went record shopping at Amoeba, and discussed uniting forces over Cuban coffee next door to the Silverlake Lounge. Larry Hardy is releasing the last show Chris Playboy and I ever played, which will be “Miss Alex White & Chris Playboy Live at the Double Door.” That will be released on In The Red Records as a tribute to Chris Playboy, my best friend, who was killed while crossing the street by a drunk gang banger only a month after our single came out. We never had an opportunity to record an album, so this live record is an attempt to capture the songs we made together. Then Larry suggested a proper Miss Alex White studio record with all new songs as a prompt follow up. [We] have a new line up: Wes Kerstens from the Clone Defects on guitar, and Eddie Altesleben on drums.
As for the Hot Machines, you guys are on hiatus right now, correct? There’s apparently a single coming out anytime now– are there any plans to do a full-length, possibly with In The Red?
The Hot Machines are currently taking a break as the Ponys continue to support their In The Red record[s], “Laced with Romance” [and 2005's "Celebration Castle"]. As far as releases go, there is a two-song single out on Cass Records. There are two songs on the “Maybe Chicago” compilation. There is also a previously unreleased track on the Foundation skateboarding video, “That’s Life” [it's during Gareth Stehr's part]. There is indeed talk of a Hot Machines In The Red record, because there’s a crazy demand for it, and it must be recorded for historical purposes. I get at least a hundred e-mails a week asking if we have a CD, to which I reply, “Buh, duh, like, no.”
And last, but not least…
Who are some of your favorite bands to play shows with?
Black Lips, Clone Defects, Tears, Hunches.
Who was the first band that you listened to as a kid that had a big impact? In other words, who was your first favorite band?
I distinctly remember picking up “Who’s Next” when I was eleven and nearly shitting my pants. I was in my living room, and I didn’t know how to dance, so I just kept spinning around.
Favorite show you’ve seen?
There are a few: the Real Kids at the Double Door last year [for memorability]. The Ponys’ first show with Ian at the Fireside last year [monumental]. The Hunches at the Cactus Club [fucking CRAZY]. The Coachwhips at the Fireside [they played on the floor]. The Intelligence at Subterranean [lost my shit].
Best thing(s) about living in Chicago?
Ten dollar thirty packs of Old Style. Not LA, not New York. Backyards, beaches, alleys, and tall buildings. Cheap handjobs. The Horizontal Action Blackout.
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