White Williams is No Average Joe
Growing up in the Cleveland area, Joe Williams had the usual complaints about the city's music scene: There's no place for electro-pop fans to hear ass-shaking tunes, and no place for electro-pop nerds to play their ass-shaking tunes. Clevelanders like meat-and-potatoes rock and roll, dammit, and you're outta luck if you don't.
"It was much easier for me when I played in a band," sighs the 24-year-old Williams, who records nerdy electro-pop music as White Williams. "There just wasn't a community for electronic music. I had the same energy [as any band], but people just didn't care."
On his debut album, Smoke, Williams makes an electro-pop racket, fiddling with knobs, tweaking sounds, and playing, recording and producing the entire CD himself. Smoke is quite an achievement, packed with retro-trendy sounds, dripping with hipster cool and netting tons of national press since its November release on San Francisco-based label Tigerbeat6.
It's also an occasionally strange experience, as Williams takes listeners on one hazy, dazed-and-confused trip after another. Smoke's cover art, which depicts N.Y.C. pseudo-celeb Sophia Lamar toking on a hookah while gazing wistfully upward, fittingly reflects the music inside.
"I heard this story about a girl who was crying while simultaneously smoking weed," recalls Williams. "She was really sad about something. She was bawling, but she still took time out to smoke this bong. I did some free association, and the idea for the album came from that.
"I've read that the album is all about smoking [weed]," he laughs. "But there's no concept to it. I didn't set out to make a record like that. I had a bunch of songs that just happened to fit onto the same album. But I like that the record can be interpreted in so many ways."
Williams was raised in the west Cleveland suburb of Rocky River. In high school, the multi-instrumentalist — who handles guitars, synths and drums, among other things, on Smoke — played drums with a number of local noise bands, including Machete and Oblongata. He also co-founded So Red with pal Gregg Gillis (now known as mash-up maestro Girl Talk). Before he graduated, Williams had opened for indie-rock faves like Black Dice and the Rapture.
"I wasn't a very good kid," he says. "I saw a lot of shows and people freaking out and acting weird. I was exposed to a lot of experimental music early. I grew up in the suburbs, not wanting to do anything anyone else wanted me to do. I had to reach out to have the life I have now. My parents had traditional expectations for me. I think being disobedient influenced my life."
After high school, Williams left Cleveland to pursue a degree in graphic design. He spent time in Cincinnati, San Francisco and New York City; Smoke was recorded in bits and pieces in each city. Williams set up his laptop wherever he called home, recorded instruments, mixed them up, looped them and ran everything through a groovy 1970s filter.
"It was hard, especially the way my life was organized — I'd work for three months, then go to school for three months," he says. "There were times where I could bring only a certain number of things with me. So I would change from guitar to synthesizer. At one point, I had studio equipment in every city [I lived in], from New York to San Francisco."
Smoke spans rock's mid-'70s-to-early-'80s rainbow, from T. Rex-style glam-rock ("In the Club") to Eno-esque art-pop ("Headlines"). It's all very danceable and incredibly moody. "I have all these songs that didn't make it on the record," says Williams. "I have tons of partially made songs. Some of them are just learning experiences."
Plunked in the middle of it all is a cover of "I Want Candy," a song first made famous by forgotten '60s garage-rockers the Strangeloves. But like most kids his age, Williams was more familiar with Bow Wow Wow's 1982 New Wave remake, a heavily rotated video during MTV's nascent years. Williams says it wasn't his idea to include "Candy" on Smoke, which otherwise contains his own compositions.
"It was the label's decision," he says. "I recorded the song for fun, but they thought it would complete the record."
The international edition of Smoke, scheduled for a March release on a different label, will omit "I Want Candy." But Williams is a little unsure how foreign listeners will react to his music, which actually sounds like something Bowie-worshiping Europeans would devour. Stateside audiences, for their part, dig it, especially onstage.
"They were a lot like college," says Williams about his and Girl Talk's buzz-generating tours over the past couple of years. "Moving all the time, sleeping in random situations, and getting used to places you really don't need to get used to."
Now on tour with his own group, which includes a pair of Ohioans on bass and drums, Williams is pretty much living the way he was two years ago, when he first began working on Smoke. He doesn't really have a home; he sublets an apartment in New York, but he's never there.
"I haven't really lived anywhere for longer than three months for the past four years," he says.
Williams records whenever he gets a chance to turn on his laptop. And he's pulling together abstruse ideas for songs that split the difference between artsy-fartsy and super-funky. "I have stuff all over the place," he says. "I have equipment in Cleveland, I have equipment in Cincinnati...
"It's a strange thing, trying to find a new job and apartment every three months," he concludes. "I had no ties to any social connection when I made the record. The music came out of that solitary environment."
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