White Lung is on stage under the dull red lights at The Atlantic in Gainesville. I push my way to the front and stand by the speaker. The set starts abruptly, before I can swallow the first sip of my whiskey ginger. The guitarist, and only male in the band, Kenneth William starts off by shredding fast and heavy. The horror-movie-sounding riffs pulsate through the small, dark venue and are isolated for a few seconds in the beginning. Then Anne-Marie Vassiliou joins in, beating the drums in a primal way. Her glasses don’t fall off of her face even though she moves her head up and down. The bass player Hether Fortune thickens the sound. Together the instruments are violent and dramatic. The tall androgynous frontwoman, Mish Way moves her body to the intro. She’s in her natural element, letting loose her inner turmoil and pushing it out to the crowd. She takes a deep breath and screams: “high and lying, mine is a bore, ride with the monster, run from my score.” Her voice comes from her stomach and is powerful.
The opening song is “Drown With The Monster,” the first track off their critically acclaimed album Deep Fantasy, which came out earlier this year.
Way’s lyrics are centered on body dysmorphia, drug addiction, sex and being a feminist. Throughout the set, the energy of the songs is enhanced by Way’s fluid movements, her hands carrying the feeling of her voice. On stage she is a character who emulates rock chic — a pale silhouette letting her bleach blond hair cover her face. She doesn’t try to look pretty, but her devil-may-care attitude exudes sexiness, kind of like the modern day Courtney Love (but not as tragically messed up). She dons a long leopard jacket, which she throws off as she gets into the meat of the show. I watch the crowd below manifest her onstage energy. They begin to play “Down It Goes” and a mosh pit breaks out. One determined male fan jumps on stage in pursuit of Way, but is taken down by another fan. She is unfazed. Each song is just a little over two minutes.
They end with “Take The Mirror” from their 2012 LP Sorry, the song that brought them more exposure. Way crouches down and people in the front touch her hand. The band blows through the set at a fast-pace, but it’s enough time to let the rawness sink in.
White Lung is a Canadian punk band that formed in 2006 in Vancouver, BC. The 29-year-old frontwoman shows her true vulnerabilities — both on stage and behind a computer screen, where she writes for Vice, BUST, Talkhouse and Hearty among other publications.
When they finish, I go outside to join other smokers. Most of the crowd is about my age, early to mid-20s and dressed in dark clothing. It’s not long before Way texts me to say she’s ready to do the interview we had planned earlier that day. I feel a bit intimidated as I walk inside and go up to her. Maybe she just feels bad for me and that’s why she’s being nice, although her demeanor is comforting. The headlining band Merchandise is supposed to go on soon, but we decide to do our interview anyway. We walk back outside as she towers over me, down the street away from her crowd of admirers.
A block down we find a wooden bench under a window of a store and sit next to each other. I light an American Spirit and offer her one. She doesn’t take the cigarette and says she feels sick. She’s not used to the Florida humidity even though her leopard jacket seems to be taking in most of the heat. I think she can tell I’m nervous but wants to talk anyway. Admittedly, I tell her she’s been somewhat of a role model to me. She looks at me and asks if I’ve been writing. I tell her “yes” but that I’m still having a lot of trouble finding my voice. She’s eager to give me advice. She takes a drag of my cigarette and we ease into conversation.
I begin by asking her how she found her voice as a writer. Way crosses her arms and replies, “You’re always changing as a person, your voice is always going to change. I would write on my blog and wrote the same way I wrote in my journals which was like, no one is going to see this. I would sit there and re-read a post again and again and hesitate if I should put it up or not–” We get interrupted. “You were great!” yells a drunken wide-eyed girl. She walks up and introduces herself to Way. “Thank you for being in the front. I saw you. It’s always nice to see girls up front,” Way replies. Then the girl reveals that she’s the one who bought the band tequila shots and she’s also the one who pushed that boy down who tried to grab her during the set. “They always get excited. That’s fine, but when they get a little close to you it’s…” Way comments to her fan. “There’s this thing called personal space and we all have to kind of enjoy it.”
After ten minutes of small talk, the fan finally leaves and we continue talking about Way’s writing. “Anyway, what I was saying was that the pieces where I would be more hesitant about because they were more revealing got the best responses. Also all of the writers, musicians and lyricists I listened to the most growing up were people that had a lot of confidence but also a lot of vulnerability.”
She pauses for a bit and I ask who her main influences are. She tells me she listened to old female vocalists like Dinah Washington, Bessie Smith and Etta James. “And those women, you know, even though they were living in a time that was misogynistic, would sing these badass songs. [The type of songs] where they would talk about your boyfriend cheating on you so you went and murdered him… and now you have to get the electric chair but it was worth it because he f—-d you over,” she continues.
“You know, these real hardass women.” Way talks with her hands. Her nails are manicured, painted black. “I was always drawn more to women singers because I think I knew I wanted to sing. So it was a leading-by-example kind of thing. Listening to Courtney Love or Kelly Johnson singing in Girlschool was different. They were singing about how it was to be a woman… and I could do that.” Another fan approaches us. This time it’s a guy wearing black, walking a bike. He’s obviously inebriated and comments, “Awesome show.” Way looks at him and yells, “Walk your bike or go real fast! Fast and hard, dude!” She grins at her provocative comment. She looks back at me and continues, “Those women always sang with this aggressive, strong confidence. Yet they were also feeling vulnerable. There was this vulnerability I think is so important. That was how I learned how to write and when I finally got the stones to do it. It felt freeing.”
I then move on to the subject of her music. She reveals that she first got into punk music in high school. “You listen to punk music and you’re like… I can yell and people aren’t going to tell me to shut up. You see this woman on stage and she’s kind of messy and f—-d up, but she’s doing it and it’s exciting. That’s the great thing about punk too, the imperfections. You’re not trying to do everything too exact so you find your own way to do it.” Way now uncrosses her arms. Her demeanor changes — she begins to open up. “The best advice that I’ve ever got was ‘To be successful by the age of 25, you have to live like you don’t have parents,’ which to me means you have to be completely honest in your work, to write and talk about things. Talk about reality and sex.”
I ask her how she feels about exposing herself in her work. She begins: “I have to do this reading at this festival we’re playing at the end of our tour in upstate New York and I wrote this very personal piece. Meredith from Perfect Pussy is reading it. We were texting today and she was freaking out about it. I was like, ‘Me too!’ I wrote this intensely personal piece and it’s really revealing. I’ve always been afraid to share it because it admits a lot of things. There are some things I’m not fully ready to admit.” A scruffy looking man walks up to us and asks for money. I quickly respond that I don’t have any. Way yells over to him, “I don’t have any money on me, man. I got some earplugs in my pocket, that’s it. Not so fun for you.”
I remember a question I had in mind while watching the show. She dedicated the song “Blow It South” to Carson Cox, lead singer of Merchandise. I ask her what that was about. She laughs. “I was like, I’m going to bang that Carson kid. This was before I met him. I thought he was hot or something.” Cox and Way had gone on tour together last year and played at this same venue. “He’s a tough egg to crack. By that time I wasn’t really attracted to him anymore.” She explains how while at a house of a mutual friend, they had a drunken sexual encounter in the shower. “And I’ll never forget it. He was like, ‘I’m going to get a condom’ and I’m standing there in the bathroom and he drags his whole suitcase in,” she says. The next morning White Lung guitarist Kenneth Williams had discovered that someone clogged the drain with condoms as he took a shower. Way admits to her bandmate that she had been the culprit. “I was like, ‘Oh that was me…oops,” she laughs. Thus explaining the meaning of the onstage joke. The song was written about her sexual exploits with Cox.
I ask her why she’s so candid about her sexual experiences. She explains, “I think the biggest problem in our society is that we’re so obsessed with sex. We use it in all of these different ways but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty and the awkwardness, we’re afraid to share that. That’s what connects us as humans.” After talking for thirty minutes or so, Way wants to catch the end of Merchandise’s set so we decide to head back to the venue.
When we arrive, there is nobody under the red lights of The Atlantic anymore. We missed Merchandise. Way gives me a genuine hug, promising to stay in touch.
I head outside to join the rest of the kids who seem exhausted and drunk. I take a drag of the cigarette she smoked with me and feel liberated. I walk back to my car more satisfied than when I entered the venue. As I drive back to Jacksonville, the clear night sky seems open with possibilities.
Email Michaela Gugliotta at [email protected]