White Lung's Mish Barber-Way Talks Elbowing Breasts, Murders, And Trigger Warnings

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It’s 2016 and Vancouver’s White Lung have no qualms about it. Although steeped in punk's history and aesthetic, they prefer to innovate rather than look to the past. While their most obvious influences stem from '80s hardcore and feminist didactics expressed in '90s Riot Grrrl fashion, their newest album, Paradise, points toward something entirely new. Paradise, which came out May 6, maintains the same immediacy and urgency, driven by Anne-Marie Vassiliou's full-tilt drumming and Kenneth William’s heavy guitars, but its songs have a contemporary pop gloss and move in unpredictable directions. Singer Mish Barber-Way’s voice still has a dominant, commanding presence, but it's now more nuanced and tuneful than ever before. Sure, she can still growl and scream, but she can also hit every note in between.

Sonically, Paradise is contemporary in every way. Produced by Lars Stalfors (HEALTH, Cold War Kids), the group maintains a punk attitude, never trading in bombastic blasts or high energy for anything watered down. In truth, White Lung have created spacious and deeply personal pop music. While there’s always room for a purist, retro act, it’s refreshing to hear White Lung, who see no need to repeat history. They're bringing new influences into the fold and following their own direction instead of sitting comfortably in a historically important safe zone.

The band's frontwoman, Mish Barber-Way, is also an acclaimed journalist and an open book when it comes to her opinions on just about anything. New Times talked with her about her band, her writing, and the current social climate of the 2016 election season.

Your newest album, Paradise, is a big leap forward both stylistically and sonically. Can you explain what brought this on? Was it a deliberate change or more of a natural progression?
Personally, I think we've just become better songwriters and tighter as a group. But after starting in punk, hardcore, and in a shitty little garage that has bad sound, the only way go was to challenge ourselves, to go outside of that and do something a little more pop. If Taylor Swift wanted to challenge herself, she'd try to write a Negative Approach album. We want to do the thing we've never done before — to take the something that's still intriguing to us but add this new influence, because we can't keep doing the same thing over and over.

You recently moved from Vancouver to Los Angeles. Do you think that had an influence on the songwriting at all?
Not the songwriting but my general happiness. If I was still in Vancouver, I don't think I'd feel quite as content, and that's the reason I left. We made the record in LA, so there is a sunny disposition to it. But for me, it's just that my life changed a lot when I moved here. It was a huge mile marker, so that makes a big difference, obviously.

You're playing larger venues now than you used to. I know you've previously called out hecklers during your performances. Does this still happen, or is there more of a distance now between you and your audience?
We haven't had a heckler in a while. Wait, that's not true. We played a festival in Vancouver, our home town, a few weeks ago. Everyone was getting really rowdy and someone threw an unopened can of beer which hit me right in the boob. This was just after the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, got in trouble at a big parliament meeting because he stormed across the room and accidentally elbowed a member of the NDP [New Democratic Party] in the boob. Since it's Canada and we're so fucking soft, she talked about it afterwards and said he sexually assaulted her. I mean, who hasn't accidentally elbowed a tit when they're walking around? So I started making Justin Trudeau jokes, which charmed the Canadian crowd. There's usually a little more of a disconnect now, but when the stage is low and there's no barrier then it's all fair game, and it's back to the way we started, which is playing in meat lockers.

It seems like your songs juggle between first person and taking on other perspectives. Can you talk about the impetus behind the song "Sister" and the characters that inspired it?
"Sister" is not about characters. It's me singing from the voice of Karla Homolka, a Canadian woman who in the early '90s, with her husband Paul Bernardo, tortured and murdered three young girls, including Karla's youngest sister. In the media they were referred to as the "Ken and Barbie Killers." If Nancy Grace had talked about it, she would have called them that. I've done a lot of reading about Karla, and the interesting thing is that she not only used her gender to get a lesser sentence, she sold out Paul and struck a plea deal with the Crown for all this information about him. It was called "The Deal with the Devil," and she only had to go to jail for 12 years. They videotaped all their rapes, murders, and tortures, and after the police searched their homes and found that evidence, they realized Karla willingly participated in everything just as much as Paul.

She's out now and married to her lawyer's cousin. She has three children of her own, which is very strange because I think about what's going to happen to those kids when they get older and find out who their mother is. I've always been quite obsessed with her. She changed the game in the early '90s when I was a kid. When you were walking home from school, it was no longer, "watch out for strange men," because women can be evil and horrible, too. Watch out for everyone. She changed the face of fear and sexual crimes. So I wrote the song when I was doing a report for Broadly about women who help facilitate their husbands' quest for murder. A lot of the time that's forced, but with Karla, it was willing. Paul had told Karla he wanted her sister's virginity for his Christmas present. So they stayed up late drinking, drugged her sister Tammy for Christmas in the family home, knocked her out, and did what they wanted to her. But she accidentally died due to all the alcohol she'd combined with the drug they'd given her. So that was their first killing together, Karla's own sister.

I wanted to write a song from the voice of Karla talking to her sister. I imagined her feeling sorry, but maybe not. There's so many interesting things in the psychology behind being able to do something like that.

Are you interested in true crime in general or was that just one particularly interesting case?
Karla is probably the story I come back to the most, but I'm completely obsessed with true crime. I've always been very attracted to stores like that. I was never interested in horror movies as a child, didn't care for gore or zombies. But anything like psychological thrillers, sexual crimes, and stuff that really could happen.

You're a prolific journalist and you mentioned writing for Broadly. One person who you interviewed and have said you admired is Larry Flynt. People obviously have extremely polarizing opinions of him. I was wondering if you could elaborate on meeting and why you admire him?
I like anyone whose main goal is to get people to think about why they are offended by something or why something bothers them. I like people who break down rules of politeness and appropriateness. He's the king of free speech. I think that gets lost in this country. I mean, he's a total pervert. But he's charming and I really respect him coming from absolutely nothing and creating this giant industry. I'm also very interested in his wife, Althea, and the later parts of her life when she was getting into punk. When she was dying, he was trying to help her start a magazine about punk rock. He was still sharp when I met him. He made so many disgusting jokes but then when talking about love he had some very insightful things to say. I think he's an interesting person, such a character of America.

In regard to free speech and questioning what offends or bothers us, how do you feel about the idea that the things we talk about and experience need come with trigger warnings? Additionally, how do you feel about the current idea of safe spaces? Do you think it has the danger of dulling art?
I think when intersectional feminism was originally developed people wanted these spaces away from the academy, away from the bourgeois, so they could talk about what feminism means to them. It was the same thing that women did when they started feminism; they wanted to be able to talk about the things they weren't able to talk about. So it wasn't about what it is now, which has become this fainting-couch feminism. When a band at a punk show says, "If you feel uncomfortable you can call this number," what does that do? I don't understand. I think we're creating a nation of tattletales and a nation of emotional hemophiliacs. Life is never going to be comfortable or perfect for any human being no matter what your race is, orientation, gender, or whatever. Life is not supposed to be comfortable. You just have to learn to deal with things. I respect the idea and what people are trying to do, but I think we're helicopter parenting, we're policing each other, and it's a whiny baby nation. I think its counterproductive, regressive, and I think it creates more separation between people. "Oh that was mean, he looked at me wrong." Who cares? Walk away or tell them to fuck off. Why are we retorting back to a Victorian age where we're all so fucking precious? It's ridiculous. 

White Lung is scheduled at Valley Bar on Sunday, July 10, at 8 p.m.

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