White Hassle – Bigger than a burger
White Hassle is what some folks call White Castle, the northern cousin of the southern Krystal — both home of the miniature square oniony burgers favored by those too young for heartburn after a night of drinking and spending all but the pocket change needed to buy such a sandwich. White Hassle is also a band that, despite its name, won’t leave you reaching for the Tums or looting the car ashtray for quarters.
White Hassle is Marcellus Hall and Dave Varenka, both of whom also play in Matador Records band Railroad Jerk. National Chain, White Hassle’s recent debut disc (also on Matador), is full of intimate, sexy, playful, rootsy urban folk, featuring nine Hall originals as well as takes on George Jones’ “Out of Control”, the Everly Brothers’ “Oh, What a Feeling”, Ray Charles’ “Leave My Woman Alone” and the Hank Williams standard “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. As on Yo La Tengo’s superlative Fakebook , the covers are so well-chosen and belovedly tweaked that White Hassle makes them their own, while the originals beg to be reinterpreted.
“The originals we try to make sound like covers,” singer-songwriter-guitarist Hall admits. “We actually play Bachman Turner Overdrive’s ‘Taking Care of Business’ in our live set; we do the Stooges’ ‘Loose’, and we even do P.J. Harvey’s song ‘Dry’….This album doesn’t reflect that side of us, and we hope maybe to record those songs in the future, but we really have a wide reach when we pick cover songs, especially in our live set.”
White Hassle developed out of a desire “to keep things stripped down and not to keep them dependent on volume or flash,” Hall explains. “I would have my guitar at home and would write down cover songs that I liked and transcribe all the words and figure them out on guitar, and I’d play them into my tape recorder. And I loved the way they sounded so raw and so simple, and even back then I was taping up my guitar strings. I would use metal for percussion and record that and put it on the four track, making these songs and I thought they were beautiful….Some of these songs never made it into the Railroad Jerk format; they just were in the backwaters or were rejected even. There’s a certain appreciation and love that I have for the simple folk song, and Railroad Jerk never set out to be that type of band. For me it’s a release in this other direction.”
This other direction relies heavily on percussive and rhythmic elements not only to lay a foundation but to uphold and form the structure of the songs, using Hall’s earthy voice and guitar along with Dave Varenka’s smart pastiche of metal objects. In effect, the sounds are traditional old-time musical, rather than drum-and-bass-driven rock.
Like Mother Maybelle Carter’s thwacking thumb-picked guitar, Hall cuts down on the sustain with another trick. “I take a dollar bill and weave it inbetween the strings down by the bridge by my right hand, and it just mutes all the strings so when you strum the guitar, it doesn’t go ‘jhzing,’ it just goes ‘clump.’ In a sense, the guitar is another percussive instrument that has notes to it. If I were to just play guitar and sing these songs, there’d be a certain something missing, and that’s where Dave fills in with those brilliant ‘drum fills.’ There are very few real drums; it’s mostly just pots and pans.”
Which suits Varenka just fine. “There’s really only two instruments, so my input is pretty heavy since it’s 50 percent of the music and it leaves me room,” he says.
“So far, all the shows we’ve played, we’ve been asked to play,” Varenka adds. “We’re not consciously saying, ‘Oh, we have a record coming out, we have to tour and promote it,’ because this is for fun, too.”