The Handshake Interview with White Mystery
by Dave O’Connor / Photography by Diane White and Rob Karlic
White Mystery is a pair of Chicago darlings who’ve created what they call a “garage-punk, self-made organism.” This creature, designed by Miss Alex White and Francis Scott Key White, has made an art of sopping up every bit of hometown culture, energy and ambition and churning it out in quick spurts of nostalgic, in-your-face thrashings. The Whites’ musical enterprise has been catching ears across Chicago for years, and is steadily spreading nationwide.
I was lucky enough to catch White Mystery at Ultra Lounge—a new underground venue in the shadow of the Congress Theater—just before the duo began their whirlwind late summer cross-country tour in a white hatchback. The bar wasn’t crowded when they arrived, but even if it had been, their trademark curly red party hair was unmistakable. Miss Alex White presented a firm
handshake, then told me they had to set up before I’d get a few minutes with them in the basement backstage. When it was time, Sister White guided me downstairs with the curl of a finger and a friendly “We’re ready.” I introduced myself again and mentioned that I was helping the Hideout with publicity for their annual Block Party, which happened back on September 24th. The Whites were heartened by that connection, and I’d soon find out why. I’d also find out how hard they’ve been working, how far they’ve come—and gone—and what it means to be an artist of, in, and for Chicago. –Dave O’Connor
The Handshake: You guys have been through school, different jobs, and different bands. What made you realize it’s got to be just the two of you, playing together?
Alex White: It all started when I was about fourteen years old, and I realized I wanted to play guitar. I immediately started playing. Shortly after that, Francis started playing drums. Fortunately, we chose instruments that complimented one another. For a number of years, I went on to play in several bands. Miss Alex White and the Red Orchestra had members from Detroit. We’d go on tour and record and that would be it. We toured Europe, put out a bunch of records. Hot Machines was another Chicago band. I played in all these different recording projects as well, and it was when I finally moved out of the family home that I really missed my brother! That’s when we started playing together, basically.
HS: I have a sister who’s two years older than me—actually, she has big, curly red hair like yours—and we’ve talked on and off about starting a business together. Would we tear each other’s hair out? Is there a special chemistry with a sibling or a close nuclear family member that you can’t possibly get with a friend or a session player?
Francis White: I’d say there is a special chemistry between us. But it always depends. The MC5 became brothers for a short time when they were together. They were just like-minded people. My sister and I have always been different people but like-minded, and we bond and get closer.
AW: I think that’s a good way to put it. We definitely shared the same womb at some point, and there’s a lot to do with those threads that connect us biologically. But it’s true, we are different people. We look really similar! But I’d like to think that those differences compliment each other a majority of the time. It’s…it’s something. (laughs)
HS: It seems like with a sibling you start with a connection and you have to almost force yourself to break that connection, whereas if you’re friends, you have to grow that connection—maybe through music. So you guys got lucky; you started with it. Are there certain songs you play, or have you guys had moments playing together where you’re like, “This is for you, (fill in the blank)!” Moments where it’s like, “This is because we’re brother and sister and this is because we love each other,” either coming from a place of sibling rage or a really caring, loving place?
AW: Songs that are directed towards one another within the sibling-ship?
AW: Well “We Are White Mystery” is about how we’re…
FW: …different and similar. And connected.
AW: Well, it’s like: “I like my coffee with black ice / You want your whiskey with a cigarette / We couldn’t be any more different. We are White Mystery.” Those are like the first four lines of the song. “Smell of flowers in the spring time / Autumn leaves in the fall / We meet together in the twilight.” It’s like even though we come from these different parts—[pointing to Francis] day person, [and herself] night person—we meet in that dusk that connects those two times of day.
FW: And at the same time, our two personalities shift. Sometimes we take different roles.
FW: I feel like a lot of the songs we write are about people we both know and situations we both get into together, as opposed to isolating each other.
AW: Totally. “Take a Walk” is about our shared experience of growing up in Chicago. It’s from our first record. “We Are White Mystery” is the first song on our most recent record, Blood and Venom. But “Take a Walk” is like: “Grew up on the Northside / didn’t have anywhere to go / went strollin’ down by the lakefront / where the waves are covered with snow.” So it’s about our experience growing up on the Northside, where the waves get frozen on the lake when you’re driving down Lakeshore Drive during winter and you just see these…
HS: …moments, that are stuck in time…
AW: Yeah! So it’s true what Francis is saying that most of our songs are about our shared views and experiences, but “We Are White Mystery” I think is a good example of the dichotomy between the two of us.
HS: So if you’re ever not getting along, do you find yourselves venting on one another by playing more aggressively, or to put it another way, play at one another as opposed to with each other?
AW: I don’t know. Even though we get agitated with each other and slam doors, for instance (laughs), by the time we play it’s always for each other. Because our parents—we were never allowed to go to sleep angry. You know, it wasn’t like we would wake up in the morning and be really mad at each other.
FW: By the end of the day, everything’s okay.
HS: I think that comes out in your sound. You’re playing loud, you’re playing fast, it’s gritty, but there’s a tenor to your music that’s like, “This is good; this is positive.”
AW: Yeah, I mean I’ve never really thought about the questions you’re asking right now in terms of Francis and I being two opposing forces. Most people are like “You’re brother and sister! You guys are great!” We’re two years apart and—this is kind of a geeky story and I’ll embarrass my brother a little bit—but when our parents first brought him home from the hospital, he’d cry every night. Then our parents dragged his crib into my room, and he started smiling! We ended up sharing a room for most of our childhood. We were taught to cooperate and compromise.
FW: We walked to school together.
AW: Yeah, holding hands. Like nerds. He still escorts me across the street like a gentleman. You know, I think it’s way more of a union than anything. We do have a third sibling, though, but that’s a different story. (laughs)
HS: You happen to have stayed in Chicago. Do you guys have a sense of belonging to the city as much as you belong to your family? Is there a larger city-family that you feel connected to?