When Rick White steps onto a stage, the first thing you notice is his guitar. It's a well-worn acoustic with a cosmic scene adorning its body---acrylic paint swirls from the sound hole, spreading brilliantly outward. As White and his guitar settle into a chair at the main tent before his suppertime set at this year's SappyFest in Sackville, New Brunswick, two boys begin to murmur. "That's trippy as shit," one says.
Like the guitar, the music is pretty and heavy and strange. White plays quick and hard, his voice a near-whisper. He leans into the mic and strands of his long straight hair keep sticking to his lips. He launches into a cover of "One" and behind him Julie Doiron props her sandalled feet on a riser and smiles a little bit to herself. And all the while people stand quietly, listening.
"When you go to a Rick White show, there's a particular attention that people pay," says Simone Schmidt a few days earlier. "The room gets a particular vibe. People don't talk." About a year ago, White invited Schmidt's band One Hundred Dollars to record its album Forest of Tears at the converted schoolhouse that serves as White's home-slash-studio in Elder, Ontario. Generally he only records albums for friends (he's worked with The Sadies, Joel Plaskett and Doiron). One Hundred Dollars was one exception to this rule.
One Hundred Dollars, live at Elder Schoolhouse.
Dog Day was another. The Halifax group went out there this past winter to record a seven-inch (due out this fall, it includes a song White wrote specifically for the band. He also shot a 3D anaglyph video for their song "You Won't See Me On Sunday"). Bassist Nancy Urich remembers driving deep "into the middle of nowhere."
"We drove down this dirt road for ages," she says. "We saw fields of dairy cows. Then suddenly the GPS was like, 'You have arrived!' and there it was. A classy place you'd like to live in, with a giant backyard, and a big wood stove in the center of the living room. Neat paintings everywhere. Racks and racks and racks of music."
Dog Day’s 3D anaglyph video for “You Won’t See Me on Sunday, shot by Rick White.
The day after his performance at Sappy, White and I walk to the park across from the main tent. As the sounds of Shotgun Jimmie echo around us, we find a spot in the shade. White is wearing the exact same outfit he wore in Eric's Trip's video for "ViewFinder" more than 10 years ago---a green t-shirt, jeans and black Chuck Taylors. He chain-smokes Matinees and sometimes he yanks blades of grass from the earth. By the end of the conversation, we are surrounded by little green piles.
"I always feel like a bigger brother to some people in bands I make friends with," he says. "It seems so long ago that I did what they're in the middle of right now---not just musically, but emotionally. I try to [record] them the way they sound to me."
"We know what we're like to work with---we can be picky," Dog Day's Urich says. "But with Rick, it was not stressful at all. We'd record a song, and then he would be like, 'Let's make a video.' We'd do the video, and then he'd say, 'Let's go for a walk.' He trusted it would get done. And it did."
"He's not hard or critical," Schmidt says. "But he makes you want to be the best that you can."
White refuses to view his interest in producing bands as a business gesture. He doesn't charge for his services. For him, it's just another hobby. He has a similar philosophy when it comes to songwriting.
"I try not to think about it too much," he says. "If you think about it and analyze it before you write it, it's not the truth anymore. It's what you want the truth to be."
White wrote with painful candor about his love life during the tempestuous days of Eric's Trip. Later, with Elevator and his solo albums, he retreated deeper into his psyche. He admits that drugs helped.
"I've always been a dope smoker, but when I did a lot of acid for years, it was not in a party way," he says. "I felt like I was experimenting with it intelligently. I hate coming across as a drug abuser. When you say someone's 'on drugs' I think of heroin, or crack. Mushrooms and LSD are these little fun psychedelic drugs. They can fuck you up, sure, but it was really good for my creativity."
There aren't many artists who can expose their internal meanderings into worlds of despair, longing and druggy introspection as nakedly as White and escape ridicule. Yet, somehow, he has. It could be that people revere White so much that he can now do whatever he likes. It could also be that he has little to lose living deep in the Ontario woods.
"Being able to make a living off of what I do is surreal," he says. "I just don't have to do it now. I take care of a house and cats and stuff. I don't worry about bills. Any money I make, I give to Brian."
Rick White’s video for “Over the Loneliest World," recorded “live in the yard.”
Brian Taylor runs Blue Fog, the label that releases White's albums. He owns Elder Schoolhouse and lives with White there. He is an imposing man with a soot-coloured beard who used to front the early '80s hardcore band Youth Youth Youth. White says he's always had a knack for befriending the tough guys; to avoid getting beaten up in high school, he used to talk Moncton bullies into letting him stencil Iron Maiden logos on their jackets.
"I always had a survival instinct like that," he says with a laugh. "I kind of like having a big bulldog with me if I ever need any protection."
One wonders what Rick White could possibly need protecting from. Then again, there is something fragile about him. He sleeps at strange hours and rarely goes out. He wonders what it will do to his health, but the nocturnal life seems to suit him.
"Every day is different," he says. "The weird ones are when you sleep at three in the afternoon and wake up at midnight. I find it's a really long wait for the sun, and you see the day in a whole new way. It's inspirational."
Before I leave for Sappy, Schmidt shows me a photo she's editing to use on the sleeve of One Hundred Dollars' forthcoming seven-inch. It is a black-and-white photo of her band at Elder Schoolhouse, spread out in that straight line that bands always pose in, some people smiling, some not. In the corner, barely visible, is White, so blurred that he almost looks spectral. Perhaps it's an accurate metaphor for how White affects those around him. He gives the best parts of himself, to be absorbed, and somehow in a tiny, weird, ineffable way, you are changed.
"He doesn't have a typical warmth," Schmidt says. "Some people are conventional. He's different. You never met anyone like Rick."
More Rick White-related vids
Julie Doiron, live at Elder Schoolhouse.
Elevator, live in Toronto, 2002.
Eric’s Trip, “Viewmaster”