White Reaper are the last of the great rock bands — or maybe just the first of the great new ones — fast, loud, amped-up and nervy, tracing their musical lineage from the same well of inspiration that gave us the no-nonsense sonic blasts of Van Halen and the heads-down power punk of the Ramones, with more than a dash of the adventurous pop-rock of Cheap Trick. Above all else, White Reaper is resolutely making the kind of music that wants you to turn up your car radio and drive too fast.
Described best by Vice as “an arena rock band trapped in the body of a garage band,” the quintet is unapologetically committed to rock — with two lead guitarists — at a time where detractors insist rock is dead.
“It’s a question people ask us all the time, like we’re some sort of authority on the subject. I don’t know if rock is dead. I kind of don’t care,” says frontman Tony Esposito. “I feel our band is a rock band. I wouldn’t know how else to describe it, and I’m not ashamed of being a rock band and if rock’s dead, then whatever …” he trails off. “When you ask about our music, I feel the word poppy comes to mind. I mean, you couldn’t say we’re heavy … ”
White Reaper are pop in the way the early Who and “Bad Reputation”-era Joan Jett were. All that compressed rage and early-20s uncertainty forged into tight songs with a lot of bang and just the right pinch of pop.
Friends since grade school (except for newest member Hunter Thompson, whom they met when they stayed at his house in Austin for SXSW in 2016), singer-guitarist Tony Esposito, drummer Nick Wilkerson and his twin brother, bassist Sam, formed a punk outfit in high school they called New Mexico,
Inspired by the punk roar of the Misfits, Minor Threat, the Ramones and, oddly, the Beach Boys. “Well, the Ramones essentially are the Beach Boys,” quips Esposito, astutely enough.
Their early tracks attracted the attention of Polyvinyl Records, and soon they were signed to the indie label. By June of 2014, they were in a studio recording their self-titled EP: a 16-minute dash through six songs, bristling with suburban boredom and longing.
By the time they were finished in the studio, they realized they had written keyboard parts but didn’t have a keyboardist, so they recruited another school friend, Lynyrd Skynyrd enthusiast Ryan Hater, to fill out their sound, adding his own classic-rock fillip to their speed-demon aesthetic.
White Reaper became a formidable live act, from Hater’s wild head-banging to playing his keyboard with his teeth and head, from Esposito’s stiff-legged rock-action stance and unhinged delivery to the intuitive rhythm interplay between the Wilkerson brothers, as much blood connection as ESP. Thompson’s cool-as-an-oyster lead guitar playing takes the band to a new level of performance and aplomb, the twin guitar leads reminiscent of the legendary Thin Lizzy.
While hailing from Louisville, White Reaper isn’t part of any musical scene, although there is certainly a thriving one. The band has more in common with Louisville’s most famous export, three-time heavyweight world champion Muhammad Ali. His “I am the greatest” rants and his pugnacious dedication to proving he was were the inspiration behind White Reaper’s first two album titles: the reckless charm of their splashy debut, White Reaper Does It Again, followed by the cocky assertion of rock prowess on the 2017 follow-up, The World’s Best American Band.
But for the third album something changed. Newly signed to Elektra Records, for this third record, White Reaper didn’t feel the need to announce its arrival with a bold title. The music did that for them.
“We are goofballs — and we always will be — but we were over the jokes,” says Esposito. “We wanted to name our record something that wasn’t a joke. So we called it You Deserve Love.”
The name came from one of Sam’s notes in his phone,” continues Esposito. “He had written things he thought might be good album titles, and we were all sitting around at a bar in Nashville after we had just finished recording, vexing about what we were going to call the album.”
“I started reading them aloud at the bar, and everyone stopped me at You Deserve Love,” Sam Wilkerson adds. “I think it’s cool, because it’s true for everybody. I think it’s what everybody needs to hear.”
“But even more, the title is ultimately true. Everybody deserves love. At least most people do,” continues Esposito. “We just wanted it to be something nice, because we figured the Internet these days is flooded with a lot of negative energy and hateful things. When our record came out we didn’t feel like 2019 was the best time to be the World’s Best American Band. Instead we thought it would be a better time to for everyone to chill out, just relax and do what they like.”
Recording this album actually was more relaxing for White Reaper. For the earlier World’s Best American Band, the band didn’t go into the studio prepared: no demos, no songs written, not even an idea of the direction they wanted to go in.
“With the last album we just went in and laid it down,” notes Hater. “There wasn’t time to second-guess anything, which gave it a certain raw element, but also its blemishes.”
“I wasn’t superstitious about not doing it the same way on this record,” says bassist Sam Wilkerson. “I think being able to have songs in the pocket is more valuable [than the spontaneity of the last record].”
Which might have a lot to do with going into the studio with Nashville producer Jay Joyce who has worked with everyone from Cage The Elephant and FIDLAR to Brandi Carlile and Eric Church.
“We didn’t say sh*t when we went into the studio with Jay,” says Esposito. “We didn’t tell him, ‘It needs to sound like 1977’ or anything like that. We thought of our songs as our songs and about trying to make them sound good — less about making them sound like other things in the past, more of letting them stand on their own and making each song sound different.”
Which they do. These are smart, sharply-written songs of doubt, dislocation, and elusive and often complicated love. Despite the big guitars, furious rhythms and fast-paced, catchy melodies, there’s a darker cast to the songs, reflecting the hard-won wisdom of a band that’s seen and felt more of life than you’d suspect, given their collective ages. Or maybe they just watched a lot of Richard Linklater movies — like Linklater’s best work, their songs capture outcasts at crucial turning points in their life, experiencing “a-ha” moments when they see things clearly, realizing that things aren’t going to go the way they want them to but rather the way they’re meant to.
“I feel a lot of our songs are relationship-breakup-leaning songs, and not especially happy” admits Esposito. “Growing up, that’s the kind of songs I was listening to. When I was learning how to write songs and how to write lyrics, I’d say to myself, ‘It’s okay to write about heartbreak, right?’ Because that’s what every song I’ve ever heard is about, so that’s what I thought should write too. I think it’s something that naturally came out of me.”
Esposito is White Reaper’s main songwriter, but it would be wrong to call him a pessimist about love. “I think I see things more as they are, good or bad.” It’s an outlook you see play out over many of the album’s tracks: the indecision and ultimately doomed ambivalence of “Real Long Time,” the pangs of spotting an ex who has moved on in “Ring,” and the breezy, escapist romance with a beautiful widow and a fast car on “1F,” named after a freeway exit in Cincinnati.
It’s not an album only about dashed romance and bad breakups, however. At times it feels like notes lifted from Esposito’s iPhone, at others diary pages he hides under his mattress, honest and revelatory. And then there are songs that are just fun, like “Eggplant,” written after Esposito had Chinese take-out, and “Saturday,” with its big Zeppelin opening giving way to a languid dub beat and lazy guitars while ruminating about how drinking in clubs has lost its luster. Other songs feel like excerpts from a how-to book—a series of “notes to self” Esposito gleaned from navigating life in these anxious times. “Headwind” is a tellingly accurate depiction of what White Reaper went through to get to this point in its career, and its searingly honest companion song, “Hard Luck,” is more revelatory about what the view from the bottom can look like, but ends on a note of hope, as most of the songs do. (One notable exception: stand-out track “Might Be Right,” about waking up and having the sinking sensation that something bad happened the night before.)
Perhaps the most fully realized track is the title song, written to convince new guitarist Hunter Thompson to join the band when he was wavering. Between the swirling guitars, prowling bass, anxious organ and hard-charging drums, the ploy worked after getting his degree, the Texas guitarist agreed to sign on full time. “I kinda knew [the song was about me],” he says. “I do think the lyrics have to do with a time that came after my first couple of years in the band, where I felt very conflicted between White Reaper and finishing school in Austin. My parents really wanted me to finish, and I had put a lot of work, effort and money into doing well in school. Not very rock and roll, I know.”
But that’s perhaps the only thing about White Reaper that isn’t.
This record has lifted the band from its early, ragged, single-mindedly punk phase, expanding its songcraft far beyond the simple structures of albums past. You Deserve Love pushes them further to the ideal, and closer to the sound they collectively have been hearing in their heads.
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