White Mystery: Rock ‘n’ Roll Dream Team
Anybody who says rock ‘n’ roll is dead isn’t listening. Not to White Mystery, at least.
The Chicago brother-sister duo is oozing with everything that makes the genre so cool and cathartic: intensity, grit and know-how. They’ve got it all, and they’re prepared to punch you in the face with it.
Frontwoman Miss Alex White is a 25-year-old powerhouse on the guitar who’s been shredding on a Rickenbacker since her early teens. Drummer Francis Scott Key White, 24, pounds the drums so furiously they rattle away from him constantly. And on both self-released White Mystery LPs – the eponymous 2010 debut and this year’s Blood & Venom – that raw energy is more than audible. It’s physical.
Where’s fuel to this fire coming from? It might be in their genes. Their flaming red genes, to be specific. Both of them sport naturally orange-red curls. Onstage, they’re like runaway zoo lions wearing denim, bouncing up and down relentlessly. And though they look like a couple of badasses now, it wasn’t always that way.
“I grew up feeling really ugly,” Alex explains.
“I definitely felt ugly,” Francis adds.
But before it turns into a sob story, Alex shifts the mood. She brings up The Who.
“They all started off with these nerdy mod haircuts. Like Roger Daltrey had this goofy, like, almost what you would call a raver girl hair cut,” she laughs, “with bangs and [it was] short in the back.”
It’s obvious in their live show and fully reaffirmed on the phone that these two aren’t whiners. They’re both easy on eyes regardless of hair color (hey, some folks dig that in itself, anyway), but it seems they wouldn’t have wallowed no matter what came their way. They’re tough, and they can laugh at themselves too.
“My sister is a deadly machine, and no one should stand in her way because she’ll just trample them to the ground,” Francis says matter-of-factly.
As hard as the opening tracks on each album are (“White Widow” on the first and “White Mystery” on the second), they’re a bit campy, too. Each serves as an introduction to the band – they either mention the name or announce themselves blatantly. Tracks like “Kickin’ My Ball” and “Party,” both on Blood & Venom, do the same. They’re churning out the kind of rock ‘n’ roll that can be fun – it doesn’t always take itself too seriously. But if you’re not paying attention, it blindside you, slapping you silly with lines like “Pigs and dogs are laughing at the blockade/ Burying my hatchet in their smiling faces” (“Smoke”).
They’ve extrapolated the core of rock ‘n’ roll and turned wild rage into exactly what none of their counterparts are doing, effortlessly stepping into the ogre-sized shoes of giants like The Who. It’s clear: These two are smart. They know precisely what they’re doing. A conversation about the differences between punk and garage turned into deciphering the meaning of garage rock.
“It’s just underground. You actually have to go into a basement or garage or some weird, shady warehouse,” Francis explains.
Later, Alex says, “Punk is kind of a snotty counterculture, maybe lyrically kind of a genre. I feel like what Odd Future is doing is punk in the sense that what the Sex Pistols did was, like ‘God Save the Queen,’ burn stuff, like anarchy, basically.”
Hip-hop as punk? That’s a strange alignment, but she makes a solid point. Genres are so mashed together in sound, why not go by the message and meaning instead? That hip-hop collective is not only battling expectations, but also anyone that stands in their way – even Steve Harvey. Just watch Tyler, the Creator’s video for “French.” It’s almost frightening, similar to how jarring Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were in the ’70s.
“When people ask what kind of band White Mystery is, I say rock ‘n’ roll,” Alex says.
And somehow, there’s no stereotypical interpersonal feud to be mentioned. The Whites finish each other’s sentences, offer supportive “yeahs” when the other makes a point and miraculously sound like they’re on the exact same page about every topic.
“My sister is pretty business oriented, and I guess I’m more of a grunt when it comes to the band, or an errand boy, maybe,” Francis says.
“Francis is a big part of the band as the driver and the merch dude,” Alex assures. “You need to have a dynamic between two people and designated roles. So we each know our place, just as people who have cooperated our entire lives…as brother and sister. It’s really cool when you can share all the fun and coolness of being in a band with someone like your brother.”
“Hell yeah,” Francis says.
The shows can get wild, though. At a hometown Chicago show when they kicked off the current tour, a couple jumped onstage and started “bumping and grinding” on Alex.
“The woman was like, whispering in my ear, she was like, saying stuff,” she laughs. “And when we were in Canada and that guy ran up to me and made out with me. I was like, whoa!”
Francis says even he doesn’t know what the woman said to Alex. She won’t repeat it. That she’s not the least bit vulgar is a bit of a surprise, but it all works toward that ultimate picture of them. They’re not unnecessarily brash – it’s all in good fun, and they want everyone to have fun with them. They named themselves after their favorite Airheads flavor, but they play dirty, rough rock. It’s a strange brand of rock ‘n’ roll that’s as smart as it is assaulting. Who woulda thought?
“I’m kind of a nerd,” Francis says. “So I take advantage of being up in front of people – let it all out at one time, then I sorta climb back into my shell, I guess.”
“We’re both definitely intense people, but it’s a balance,” Alex says. “You need peace in your life to counteract all the partying and playing punk shows in front of a crowd of enthusiastic people.”
Where Alex finds a relaxing middle-ground, however, is hard to determine. They tour frequently, and both albums are self-released on the White Mystery Band label. Plus, she’s still booking all of the shows. She’s savvy enough to know that the work will only become more arduous as they continue, but she has no plans to hand over any responsibilities.
“It would be cool to franchise the band and get redheaded stunt doubles to go on tour for us,” Francis ponders.
“It would be awesome. No one would know the difference; everyone’s so racist with hair color,” Alex remarks. “Seriously, I mean, I brought a friend with curly hair on tour, and someone was like, ‘You were great tonight!’ And it was a guy.”
She’s likely immune to such ignorant confusion by now. Before playing as White Mystery, Alex fronted another band – Miss Alex White and the Red Orchestra. It’s been kaput for a few years now, though. She chalks up its dismantling to natural progression.
“It’s funny because we were playing…the last Red Orchestra show – it [was] basically not working out anymore. I booked these two bands for their first shows, and it was the Smith Westerns and the Vivian Girls,” Alex says. “It was a passing of the torch, in retrospect.”
That’s kind of her to say, but let’s be honest. White Mystery’s torch is still ablaze. With constant touring, promoting and all the D.I.Y. efforts in general, even a flicker of that flame seems unlikely. Alex says she and Francis will push until they “can’t do it anymore.”
“We have a new music video coming out next week where Francis threw a kick drum through a pane of glass, and that’s the same kick drum he’s going on tour with, Alex says. “We push ourselves really hard until shit breaks and then we replace it. I’ll book until I can’t book no more, then replace that with, maybe, a more competent person. Until then, we’re a little unit.”
Photo by Rob Karlic.