Over three weeks and three thousands miles away from his home in Portland, Ore., Chris Uehlein is abruptly stripped of his slumber by the sneer of his bandmate.
“Bitch, you drank too much whiskey.”
The darkened figure of Erik Gage leers in the doorframe of the bedroom. Uehlein, wearing a scrunchy, winces into the hall light stemming from beyond Gage’s shoulder. A spindle of drool and debris from a lousy trip to the commode separates from his chin as he lifts his head. It’s time to go, time to get back in the van. Time to leave the comfort of someone else’s pillow, in someone else’s room, in someone else’s apartment, in someone else’s city. Cold hard facts and cold hard love on the road. White Fang came over.
In the midst of their annual tour across the Lower 48, the foursome known as White Fang finds a day off in Brooklyn. They had planned to play a show in a different city everyday during the tour, but plans fall through. Gigs don’t happen. Playing it aloof doesn’t always behoove the audacious itinerary. New York’s not a bad place to get sidetracked, though.
In lieu of Coney Island, in lieu of a sexy trip to Ft. Tilden, in lieu of a culturally enlightening visit to one of the various museums in and around the borough, these particular gentlemen decide on a day of whiskey laced conversation and a couple two-tree bowls at Schaefer St. and Central Ave. in Bushwick, BK. The front half of the group–comprised of Erik Gage, 23, vocalist; Kyle Handley, 25, guitarist; and Chris Uehlein, 24, bassist–look like under-conditioned linebackers of a junior college football team fresh out of an L.A. thrift store, well over six foot a piece. Uehlein’s rocking a scrunchy to hold up his new hairdo, Gage is wearing a gaudy silk long-sleeve only buttoned at the top and Handley looks like he’s the ten year aftermath of an early ‘90s Capri Sun commercial. The other two–Jimmy Leslie, 23, drummer; and Donnie Blossoms, 18 (I hope), roadie–are considerably shorter, waist bands not as well fed. Photographer Eric Luc and I welcome them into our second floor walk up assuring them we phoned the bike courier earlier. There’s an unopened bottle of Jim Beam on the coffee table. Gage hones in, picks it up, unscrews the top and proceeds to lift it to his lips. “Uh, we do have glassware,” I divulge. Our “Fine China” as Luc puts it. White Fang has been in my apartment less than a minute. There’s no time to waste when you got all day.
They are no rookies to the road. White Fang express a certain savvy with connecting out of town. Whether they’ve actually met someone in person or just corresponded virtually, it’s never hard for them to find warm bodies with some green and brown to share outside of whatever venue they may be playing on any given day.
“It’s changed the whole game,” says Leslie about connecting online. “It helps touring the most. It helps spread the tape knowledge around, knowing the bands. We’ve got these virtual relationships with people because of it.”
“It’s bizarre forming stronger relationships with [virtual identities] than acquaintances you see everyday,” Uehlein adds.
“It’s how we’ve met the coolest people we know,” expresses Handley.
Gage jumps in, “When we get into a town and we’re like, ‘What do we do?’ It’s like, ‘Okay. Let’s find some weed. Let’s find some food, some whiskey. So who do we know online that we haven’t met in person? Let’s go to their place.”
While a cool buzz and gas in the van aren’t bad things, there’s more to just showing up and getting “wrecked” on the docket for a group that totes themselves on the packaging of their latest record High Expectations as “the stupidest band on the planet.” A humorous jest by an enterprising sort, dedicated not only to the music they create but to the label they run: Gnar Tapes & Shit.
“I think Gnar Tapes is its own band that isn’t really a band,” says Gage, founder of the label. “Gnar Tapes has become this umbrella for everything that we do. Even though White Fang started before Gnar Tapes, it’s under the Gnar Tapes umbrella.”
An 18-year-old Gage started Gnar Tapes & Shit in Portland, Ore. back in ‘07 as a “vehicle to trade and give away very small runs of tapes by Dust Collector, Super Destroy, White Rainbow, and other friends of [Gage’s] crew.”
“It happened at the same time I personally grew up a little bit,” he says. “[Gnar Tapes] came in in the same period when tapes were just starting to become a thing again. Night-People had been around, but I wasn’t really aware of them. When I started, I didn’t know who was who or what was what. I didn’t know anything about wholesale or distribution or anything.”
Gnar Tapes wouldn’t become a functioning label until Chris Uehlein was recruited–convinced to drop out of the University of Oregon in ‘09–to develop a website capable of marketing and distributing these dubbed materials. Since, the label has allocated over one hundred limited cassette releases from a number of artists not only located in the Portland area, but around the country. Gnar Tapes hasn’t spawned the prominence of any breakout artists in its nascent existence, but it has provided the adept tape and internet tune connoisseur with a bevy of alt bronze including cassettes by lauded acts Y∆CHT (Disco Worship Mixtape) and R. Stevie Moore (Grease). The most coveted of which is their own, White Fang.
To, more or less, pre-game for the interview, we all cram into the quaint balcony outside the living room overlooking Schaefer St. The Fang gang settles in. Some get chairs, some get concrete. More conducive to the conversation than the comfort. Whiskey helps. In no time we begin to squawk about tunes and their origins as a band while they catch up on their daily routine of perusing the internet for any recent press. Gage, with his head buried into the web browser on his phone, tells me I should be listening to Guided By Voices. I tell him he should be listening to Brightblack Morning Light. The whole of the crew and I find a commonality in Television Personalities. We’re all winners. The sun begins to dip below the horizon of townhouses and apartment buildings. Through a cloud of North Carolina class As, Gage takes his eyes off his phone to preface the history of White Fang.
“Everything we’re saying right now is hearsay, even to us. We don’t remember half this shit. This is way before we decided to take a whole bunch of mushrooms. We partied so hard between then and now, that [our history as a band], for me, seems like a blur.”
All four of them knew each other, loosely, from high school in Portland. The real start to the band and subsequent label stems from Gage’s and Leslie’s adolescent fascination with cassettes. They would first meet over an after school sermon called Skate Church before they say they realized, “There is no God.”
“We were always inspired by a medium we could touch. [Cassettes are] super basic, simple,” relays Leslie. “It was easier for a 14 or 15-year-old kid to work with cassettes than to open a program where you don’t know where you are when you open it.”
Gage says his punk friends at the time didn’t care too much about recording and were more concerned with fashion: patches and t-shirts. With Leslie, he “wanted to record, and think about recording.” Meanwhile, the older Handley and Uehlein were in a band called Fat Jack. Handley’s little brother, Jeff, who was in band with Gage and Leslie called Skin Tight Pants would ultimately connect what would become White Fang for the first time. Absent of a name, the guys would record at Handley’s house which led them to become interested in and start hanging around labels like Marriage and K.
“We had been jammin’ for a year or so before we realized we were a band,” says Handley.
Once Uehlein dropped academia for Gnar life, he, Gage, Handley and Leslie moved into a house in the city. “Where we’re from in Portland is like No-where-ville. We moved to this house in [central Portland]. As soon as we moved there it became this crazy party house. We would hold shows where two hundred people would be coming through the windows, people on Ecstasy falling over each other…we ended up getting sued by our landlord because he had all these blog postings and pictures of the shit. That was the first house that [represented] White Fang as a force in town. Then we moved to a house a couple blocks down the road called the Meat Factory with these college kids who were a little bit younger than us and thought we were cool. Then we started getting this reputation as a bunch of crazy guys who smoked a bunch of weed, had house parties and traveled all the time…and were actually from Portland–because nobody else is actually from Portland,” proclaims Gage. “We were really known in town for being this young group of kids who everyone was afraid to have play shows. We’d break their stage or we’d break their PA–not on purpose–because we had so many people on stage. There’s a liquor law in Oregon where you can’t be in a bar [underage] unless you’re a performer, and so we’d get all of our friends to play in the band to get them into the show. And so there would be like 16 people on stage as White Fang…”
The conversation is briefly halted as Gage stumbles onto the the MTV-affiliated Guy Code Blog post White Fang: The Lo-Fi Version of Odd Future? which compares Odd Future’s controversial subject matter and splintered projects in addition to their self-produced music, videos, and album art with Fang’s. Despite being compared to a group that includes raping and having “Virginia Tech swag (shoot up your school and laugh)” as part of their extracurricular personas, the Fang gang seems, oddly, baited by the attention while laughing about the egregious contrasts made in the post. They won’t scrub the posting because it’s giving White Fang and their side projects attention.
After moving in together all four developed solo projects and roles within the label. Gage curates the cassette releases, helps with artwork, writes press releases and also performs and records under the name Free Weed. Uehlein develops the website and also performs and records as Unkle Funkle. Handley and Leslie help out with dubbing and mailing releases and record and perform as Fuzz Puddle and Jerry Rogers. Gage and Handley also play in The Memories. Leslie and Blossoms have a collaborative project too, Timmy the Terror. When on tour, there’s always a Gnar kit in the van or at the merch table with the label’s latest releases. “Gnar Tapes is like the gang, the cult,” prides Gage. I ask them if they feel like a mobile PR squad at all times on tour. Unanimously the guys ring out, “Absolutely!” “It’s essentially like wearing the flag,” adds Leslie. “We tour for a month out of the year and then the rest of the time we’re a tape label/band.”
We move the conversation inside. The whiskey is long gone at this point. Conveniently, Nicholas Ray, of Speculator and Cool Angels, and Bryan Howe, of Punks on Mars, show up supplementing the remainder of the conversation with a pile of Budweiser pounders. They take a seat on the floor next to Luc. We crack tabs and continue the conversation.
“Nobody in Portland is like us. Everyone is either a garage pizza band or a folk band with an owl,” opines Gage. “We care more about the Eagles, Bad Company, and Cheap Trick than we care about anything remotely indie-rock. We care about Led Zeppelin more than the Velvet Underground.”
Since ‘08 White Fang has released a handful of albums. The early few are for the diehards. Those represent a time where they were recording with “somebody’s beer-logged Macbook’s open mic.” The place to start is 11’s Grateful to Shred–which was picked up by Marriage Records for a vinyl issue–where Erik Gage finally “learned how to sing” and the boys began to record solely with a 4-track Tascam MKIII 424 Portastudio. Handley, White Fang’s main producer, half jokes, “I really don’t know how to use it.” It’s an evolution, a process. One that would ultimately be realized on their second album of 2011, Positive Feedback. The album was posted initially on Bandcamp with no expectation of a physical release. Since, the material has been issued on both cassette and vinyl–through Gnar Tapes and Marriage respectively. For good reason. It’s 18 tracks of lo-pop gold. A hard hippy album. Perplexing and experimental, yet simple and honest. Too brash and gritty for the mainstream and the mellow but not edgy enough for those who are too wound up not to punch each other while dancing. Their “best album” according to Leslie. White Fang cites “If I Had a Van” written and composed by Handley as the transformation of White Fang out of the party rock trip. “With Positive Feedback we were approaching it as a post Americana vibe…like everyone in the band should be able to sing. Positive Feedback ushered in the unit–everybody sings and has their own songs. Before, Erik was the only vocalist,” says Leslie. If Mike Watt’s heard this album, I’m sure he loves the shit out of it.
The transformation has continued with their latest, High Expectations, out on Burger Records and Hong Kong's Metal Postcard Records. The fidelity and licks are tighter. They’ve set the bar a little higher with the Tascam recordings while sticking to their irreverent fuck-you-and-your-hangups lyrics. Although, Steve Miller might enjoy this one a little more so than our old friends the Minutemen.
At this point, we’re loaded. Uehlein wiggles up out of his seat in an attempt at another trip the bathroom. I ask, “Do you feel like High Expectations is a title response to the favorable attention of Grateful to Shred and Positive Feedback?” On a dime he deals, “High Expectations is the expansion pack to Positive Feedback.” Fair enough.
While maturing might not be the preferred status of a band like White Fang, they are certainly growing. As a band, as a label, as a creative force. With little to no help, White Fang and Gnar Tapes are, in themselves, exemplary talents in the new underground. Connected digitally, enacted physically, represented. They’re not a Portland band so much as they're an American band residing in a beautifully fucked up era where most anything digital can be communicated and accessed for free. Where a niche market yields enough to put out the next tape and buy the next bag. Nothing special, nothing marble. Just enough to keep it going until the next tour, the next round of new email addresses and faces. The next stop to surface from the bog of the digital underground.
“We’re a bunch of waster dudes,” Gage avers. “But, only when we want to be. Everybody knows we make our videos, we put out our tapes. If we’re not partying hard, we’re working so hard that we put everyone else in the dust. Nobody will sit there and fucking package, go to Kinko’s and dub a hundred tapes in one day…and we’re gonna be drinking fuckin’ two fifths of whiskey and smoking an eighth of weed and still do the damn thing. And still go out and tour. And still have to defend ourselves to our mothers.”