“I feel like I sweat more onstage than when I work out,” White Lung frontwoman Mish Barber-Way says with a laugh. “It’s really insane, but it’s good. It’s good to sweat.”
It’s fitting then that the singer and her bandmates, who made their name by playing frenetic post-punk with confrontational and political lyrics, are gigging across North America during the most perspiration-heavy time of year. White Lung’s current trek – which is in support of their recent Paradise LP (one of Rolling Stone’s 45 Best Albums of the Year So Far) – sees them staging their typically dynamic and intense performances from the East Coast westward with support from the similarly anxious-sounding punk group Greys and stops at both the Chicago and Denver installments of Riot Fest.
One thing that will be different from the band’s past tours, however, is the sort of venue they’re playing. Although they’ve spent the past decade or so slugging it out in gritty punk dives, they’ve found themselves playing bigger, nicer spots ever since they put out 2014’s Deep Fantasy, a buzzed-about LP that turned heads with Barber-Way’s cutting lyrics about body image, addiction and depression and guitarist Kenneth William’s tense, kaleidoscopic miasmas of noise. The better-quality venues are an upgrade that the quartet is still getting used to.
“The great thing about growing up in a punk band and doing everything your own way is that we can adapt,” Barber-Way says. “We were so used to playing in shitty environments that when we started doing big festivals and venues with clear sound, we were all, ‘Why does this sound so weird?’ Having good sound was challenging for us at the beginning, so to go back to when it’s all sounding not so great, that’s easy-peasy. We just revert back to what we knew when we were a greener band, and it’s not that hard.”
One thing that has changed this time is the subject matter of the songs. Where Barber-Way once sang harrowing tales that could be about herself, she’s now writing more story-centric songs. One of her muses on Paradise is the sort of thing people watch nightly on Investigation Discovery: women who kill. She wrote the intense, uptempo “Demented” about Fred and Rosemary West, a married couple that abducted, tortured and killed at least a dozen women from the Sixties through the Seventies. And she sings the track that follows it, the loopy and sinewy “Sister,” from the perspective of Karla Homolka, who, with her husband Paul Bernardo, did the same to three women, including Homolka’s sister. Although she does still sing about her own life (the driving title track “Paradise” is about her and her husband, and she says she feels happy when she sings it), she enjoys singing dark-hued tunes from the perspective of others.
“That freedom of fiction allowed me to take on new characters,” she says, “so when I’m singing those songs it’s like I’m putting on a new character. It makes those feelings easier to summon.”
As for White Lung’s past repertoire – like Deep Fantasy’s throbbing “Drown With the Monster,” a song about battling drug addiction – Barber-Way says she has lost any personal connection with the lyrics. “I feel like I’ve moved past that time in my life, but to sing it is this weird cathartic thing where I feel powerful that I’ve gotten past that point in my life,” she says. “It’s nice to sing that song and go back since I’m coming back in it from a different place. I’m not going, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m still stuck in this zone.’ That song is so fun to play and everyone just goes wild.”
Moreover, she doesn’t fret about losing that connection with her songs. “The meaning will get lost after playing it again and again and again,” she says, “and some songs that we’ve recorded years ago that we still perform have taken on a new meaning when I’m onstage. I conjure up a new kind of anger.”
Summoning that fury, however, leads to Barber-Way’s other problem on tour. “Anne-Marie [Vassiliou, drums] and I always have the conversation who sweats more, her or me,” Barber-Way says with a laugh. “We all have hair powder that we have to dump into our hair after a show to make our hair dry because it’s absolutely drenched.”