“White Mystery is a pure Chicago force, from the glorious noise, right down to the two-flat,” Chicago Tribune
Posted Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019 at 4:20 pm
White Mystery is a pure Chicago force, from the glorious noise, right down to the two-flat
On Christmas Day, Miss Alex White of the roaring Chicago garage-punk duo White Mystery posted an early Instagram photo from the band archives. It shows her as a 5-year-old, surrounded by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Masters of the Universe presents, a Little Golden Book with puppies on the cover and her 3-year-old brother, Francis Scott Key White. Their matching hair is so bright-red that it threatens to burn out the photo.
“It’s just a very typical North Side Chicago picture,” Alex says, by phone from the West Rogers Park two-flat where the siblings have lived their entire lives. “You’ve got Francis wearing his little Chicago Bears sweatshirt — which, now, 31 years old, and he’s still wearing a Chicago Bears sweatshirt. Not very much has changed.”
Not everything was happy about the Whites’ family Christmases. “We would get all these gifts, and my mom would make me return all the ones that required batteries,” Alex White continues. “I got a Pottery Wheel and it was the coolest thing ever — and my mom made me return it! We were raised simply. We loved Legos and we loved our instruments.”
Now that they’ve exceeded 100 songs, 1,000 concerts, 200,000 miles on the road and 10 years as a band, Francis and 33-year-old Alex are starting to contemplate the next phase of White Mystery. The first one began when they were kids — they banged around with a Fisher-Price piano and a saxophone and created a song called “Baby Blues,” then took piano lessons together at Warren Park, listening to their parents’ Rolling Stones and Who records all the while.
When she was 11, Alex ventured to ska shows at Metro, then took guitar lessons a couple of years later. Francis switched to drums. They played together frequently, sometimes in actual bands. Alex was in the Red Lights, the Hot Machines and Miss Alex White and the Red Orchestra — the latter of which was a side project while she earned her business-management degree at DePaul University. The “eureka” moment, as she called it, came when she looked down at the sidewalk and saw a silver Airheads candy wrapper labeled “White Mystery, ‘Out of Control.'”
“We decided to start our band based off that,” recalls Francis, who had regularly purchased Airheads at a shop near his bus transfer while attending Lane Tech College Prep High School.
Flailing their distinctive long hair, approximating the White Stripes-Black Keys vocals-guitar-drums template, the Whites developed a melodic, upbeat rock ‘n’ roll style in which Alex shouts to be heard over her power chords and Francis’ rumbling drums. Then she sings even louder than that. Their first few albums were fast and tight, barely more than 2 minutes per song, but they stretched out and experimented over time — 2014’s “Follow Me, Jack Rabbit” might as well be on Led Zeppelin’s “IV.” For last year’s “Hellion Blender,” they went back to simplicity.
“We talked about how this would be a return to our punk albums,” Alex says.
The album’s best song is “Two Flats,” which Francis White wrote on his phone while driving through an especially cold stretch of Chicago winter — it’s rambling and non-linear but covers an impressive stretch of local culture and history, from John Wayne Gacy to John Dillinger, from the Red Line to the Lady in Red. “Snowflakes in the dark start looking really eerie,” he says. “I started working from there, and every thought I had about Chicago came pouring out, I guess.”
“Hellion Blender” ends on two spoken-word tracks, “Disco Ball” and “Part Deux,” in which Francis recites dark lyrics about crucifying witches, snake bites and panicked crowds. They were inspired, in part, by the band’s 2008 New Year’s Eve Empty Bottle show opening for Jay Reatard. The singer-songwriter, who died a few weeks later, memorably tore down a giant disco ball during his set. “I think I wrote both of those while I was trying to fall asleep next to my girlfriend, who I’d recently started dating,” Francis says. “And trying to come to terms with my experiences on the road and return to normalcy and not being alone and seeking out companionship, and dealing with all the thoughts and feelings and resentments growing inside me.”
By phone, the Whites are reflective, comparing their early days of relentless touring in a Pontiac Vibe with almost no money to their 2014 Levi’s print-and-billboard campaign and their recent opening slot for Austin rock hero Roky Erickson. For their Cubby Bear show this weekend, they’ll play a 90-minute career retrospective, from 2010’s “White Mystery” to “Hellion Blender.” After that, the indie band will retrench and work on a book that recalls what Francis calls “a decade of rock ‘n’ roll experience and entrepreneurship and telling stories of triumph and defeat.” Alex is on a Jan. 29 DePaul panel at Merchandise Mart titled Entrepreneurship in the Creative Arts.
Beyond that, they haven’t contemplated their future as a band. “Like the rest of the world, we’re transitioning, and trying to figure things out,” Francis White says. “One thing I know is, I love playing music with my sister, so I don’t think I’m ever going to stop.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Cubby Bear, 1059 Addison
Tickets: $8; 773-327-1662 or www.cubbybear.com
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