Inside the Mind of White Lies’ Charles Cave

If you ever assumed that British trio White Lies had in the past been adopted by the Dutch as a band intended to soundtrack your average indie fan, then it’s unlikely that many people would try to defy you. However, Harry McVeigh obviously haven’t been adopted by the Dutch; rather, they’re just absolutely massive on Dutch shores, something which is a testament to their near-workaholic live schedule and powerful recorded output. We caught up with bassist Charles Cave to discuss the band’s affinity with Holland, as well as new album Friends and where they could potentially go next.

Frontman Harry McVeigh, live in Utrecht. (c) Jack Parker
Frontman Harry McVeigh, live in Utrecht. (c) Jack Parker

Hey Charles! How are you?
I’m very good thanks!

You’re back in Holland yet again, and you’re spending the whole week here.
Yeah, we are! It’s great. I’m surprised in a way, because for so many years anyone from England who moved to mainland Europe generally went to Berlin. I mean, they certainly go to Germany. Maybe even places like Milan, but I love The Netherlands. I would probably choose to come here if I was ever to move out of London.

We’ll touch more upon that later. I just want to start on the timeline between Big TV and Friends, can you tell me more about how that all panned out?
I keep scolding Harry about this to be honest. He does this thing onstage where he talks about how there was a three year gap between the records, which there was, but he was half-suggesting that we didn’t do anything in that time. He says we disappeared for three years, but we didn’t disappear at all! We toured Big TV extensively and went everywhere multiple times, and we wound things down a bit after one particular summer of festivals. After that we had a couple of months off, and then at the end of 2015 we did a couple of one-off shows in South Africa and England. That was in November, and then we took Christmas off and around the 20th of January we started writing another album. In my mind it wasn’t really time off, you know? We were doing bits and bobs and had some time at home, more so than when we’d constantly been on tour cycles. We basically spent a year writing and recording an album, and then we spent the whole of 2016 setting up, rehearsing and eventually touring again. To outsiders it might look as though there was a big gap, but as far as I was concerned we worked constantly for nine years.

Cave, live in Utrecht. (c) Jack Parker
Cave, live in Utrecht. (c) Jack Parker

Right. In that time, you also signed to Infectious. How did that come about?
To be blunt, our contract with Fiction Records was up. I don’t think we’d have wanted to renew the contract there, because it just wasn’t right. It wouldn’t have looked right on their accounts and we wouldn’t really want to either. We pretty much just shopped ourselves, which is quite a nice position to be in. We had a kudos to our name, but that still doesn’t stop the need for us to basically woo record labels. We weren’t gonna get signed on some sort trust basis; we had to demo an entire record and play it to a few labels. Infectious were really into it, and there’s also a link between them and their publishing company. It all made sense, as it was about keeping things in the family. They’ve been absolutely brilliant, and we’ve been absolutely pleased insofar as we’re able to be pleased. As a musician I try to not get too involved in that kind of stuff, and whilst I really like the people at Infectious I feel as though a label is more of a ‘muchness’. Every label has a roster with very successful acts alongside a bunch of failures, and I largely believe that it’s more to do with the acts than it is to do with the record label itself. It’s worked out really well!

There must have been quite some list of potential record labels then?
I don’t remember to be honest! I don’t think there was a long list. I reckon that we were quite keen to get out of the major label system. I’m not really sure about the ins and outs of all labels, but I do recall that Infectious is part of BMG. It’s an independent label, though. Our time with Fiction and thus Polydor and Universal ended very sourly. Not any fault of Fiction per se, but we kind of got screwed for quite a lot of money that we really didn’t think was fair. They didn’t sign a new contract for us, and they also stopped bothering with pushing Big TV at a certain point. They still invoiced us for eight months’ worth of touring commission. We were basically an independent band trying to keep afloat and pay the bills by constantly touring, and then all of a sudden they piped up and told us we contractually owed them 15-20% of all our touring income whilst we’d been unsigned. Technically, by the contract, they should have been pushing our album though. We had in the contract that they were meant to make three music videos with us, but they only made one. It was all those kinds of things, and unfortunately they weren’t planning on backing down. That ended badly, but I don’t think we’d ever have anything like that an upfront label like Infectious. They don’t play with silly money. There’s no advance; rather, they have a gentleman’s agreement in which they tell us that they’ll put out our record and do their best to make it a success. At the same time we have to pull all our own weight to pay the bills, which we felt was fine.

You produced the album mostly by yourself, however Richard Wilkinson also worked on a couple of tracks, right?
Yeah! We all take the idea of production with a pinch of salt to be honest, you know? Bands that write on the back of their album, “Produced by…” and then their own name make me go, “yeah, obviously!” That’s unless you’re an absolute moron that happens to be able to write fantastic music on an acoustic guitar, but needs someone higher to translate that into a full band, though. In this modern day and age, bands need to be able to do everything. Even if you’re just a one-man band, you should be able to have a hand at mixing and mastering your own stuff. You should be able to do your own artwork and make your own videos. Hell, you can pretty much take your own press photos these days if you have a good tripod and camera. The difference between Friends and our other albums is that we created music to a point where we’re really happy with it, whereas we’d usually be working with someone who becomes an extra member of the band in a sense. They’re not like a fatherly figure; instead, they’re there to veto certain things which we’d have done had we been left to our devices. There are a lot of points on Friends that I know Ed, who did our first and third albums, would have bluntly said no to and not let us go ahead with. He would make us change certain sounds on the record. When you hire someone as a producer you hire them to go with their opinion, but that didn’t happen on this one. It’s very much the sound of us being left to our own devices.

Do you think this is the way forward for White Lies, or would you ever revert back to a producer in the hotseat?
I can definitely imagine us reverting back to a producer at some point in the future, but it really just depends on each situation. It was definitely the right thing to do on this album by not going with a producer, for example financially. In terms of the gap between the two records it was quite important for us to come back with an album which we were extremely sure about and that we could wholeheartedly believe in without being tampered with. Tampered is a mean word, but I think you know what I mean. We’re very aware of our own limitations and abilities as artists, as everybody should be. If artists are writing certain songs which make Harry and I want to reference it on our own stuff, we’ll eventually realize that we can’t do it without the help of someone else in the room. That’s when we’d hire someone, but it just depends on what we get up to next time. I think we can do it on our own if we want to, as well.

I just want to focus on your personal role as a bassist. Where do your own influences and/or inspirations lie?
You know what? I have a strange relationship with bass in that it’s the instrument I’m best at and have played the longest, but when I’m not on tour I really don’t think about bass very much. I’m not someone who’s always picking out on the bass in the music that I’m listening to, and I predominantly do see myself as a writer. Whether that be lyrics or whole songs. When I do start playing gigs and once I’m a couple of weeks into a tour, I really get back into playing bass and I have a lot of fun playing it. I’m fortunate to have reached a stage in my ability where it is just really fun. That’s not to say that there aren’t any tricky bits which I have to make sure I get right, but there’s a real kind of ease that comes with anything in life when you get to a certain point. It’s just that point where you’re no longer having to rework something in your head; it just comes out naturally. I sort of got to that point with bass a few years ago where I felt like I was the master of it whenever I held it. I feel like I’m the one in control now, and I think a lot of musicians could relate to that really nice feeling. I really admire a lot of bass players! When I was growing up I was big into heavy metal, so I was big on Rex Brown from Pantera and Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath, stuff like that. Then I got really into jazz and fusion styles, and I’m a big Weather Report fan. I also really like the original bass player in that band, although his name has slipped my mind. I’m awful with names, but I know that the Crowded House bassist is really fantastic as well. There’s a few bass players that I really admire, but I think I admire them because they write great, tasteful basslines within fantastic songs. If you listen to stuff like Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House, which is a great ballad in itself, you’ll hear that it’s actually made by a really interesting bassline. They could have easily made that song with a simple set of root notes, and the song probably wouldn’t have suffered from it. However, because it’s there it almost becomes elevated above the track itself.

Since White Lies started out circa 2007, you haven’t deviated from the line-up you all still find yourselves in now. What do you think contributes to this?
I’m sure a lot of bands would say this until it happens, but I really can’t imagine White Lies with any other line-up. Like, it’s just because we were predominantly friends first. Jack and I grew up together. We weren’t always close, but we did live nearby. Before White Lies we were all in a band called Fear of Flying, which was the same line-up but minus our session keyboard player, Tommy. Even then we were making music together for like five years, so we’ve always been together to be honest. We wouldn’t still be here if we didn’t like each other and each other’s company, and we’ve all really grown into ourselves. I won’t say that we’ve matured; rather, we’ve settled into ourselves. That has changed some dynamics between us, but we still really enjoy being around one another. Sometimes being in a band really can be a chore, although not many bands would be willing to say that. It’s true, though. Being together is never a chore, because in any of those moments where something like a flight delay hits you, it would just be absolutely horrible to be around people you didn’t actually like. The same goes for if you were a session musician in that kind of situation, because you’d tolerate the people you’re around with but it would still be grim and lonely. For us, that thing happens and we’d spend six hours in an airport winding each other up and being idiots. That’s what’s important.

(c) Jack Parker
(c) Jack Parker

Like we discussed earlier, you’re massive in the Benelux region. What do you think it is about these audiences that attracts them to you so much, and vice versa?
To be entirely honest with you: the countries that we do best in are the countries where our label reps really gave a shit back in the early days. From day one, there were girls called Laura, Miranda and Ellie who worked at Universal in the Netherlands, and they just absolutely smashed it. They knew so many people who got them to do favours for them, and we would constantly be going over to Holland for various different promo days. This was just before the first album was released, which is around the time that we also did Eurosonic twice. They just really, really cared about us and worked hard. The same things happened in Belgium and Denmark, and they’re the countries that we continue to do well in. Believe it or not, that hard work really just pays off! I’m not slagging anyone off, but we don’t do that well in France and this is probably because we didn’t do all too much promo. We really liked the people working for our label, but there was a very different mentality there. They told us they would have to follow the crowd, and that journalists would come to them instead of it being the other way round. In Holland they called up everyone and we even did interviews for magazines like Elle. Someone pulled in a favour and got them to interview us and have our picture in the magazine, at least that’s what I imagine. I’d love to tell you that it’s some sort of wonderful, nuanced thing to do with the music or the social and cultural connection. I’m sure there is a hint of that, but it really is down to hard work. I think we’ve actually played more in Holland than we have in England in a way. I mean, probably as much. We’ve spent a lot of time here, and we absolutely love it too. Just before Christmas we did sold out shows in Amsterdam, Nijmegen and some other city, and now we’re here for four and in the summer we’re here for Pinkpop, Vestrock and another headline show in Alkmaar. It’s really, really brilliant. I’m not just saying that because I’m sitting here talking to you as a journalist. Between you and me, I think we would all choose touring around the Netherlands over touring around the UK, haha!

Well thanks for your time, and good luck!
No problem, thanks!

Friends is out now.