White Mystery: DIY music heroes

Miss Alex White and Francis Scott Key White are the unofficial fairy godparents of Chicago’s local music scene.

June 24, 2013

Brother-sister duo White Mystery first came to mass attention in 2011 with their critically acclaimed, MTV-touted sophomore album Blood and Venom, and their brand of red hot rock'n'roll has been on fire ever since. In the tradition of releasing new music each year on their band anniversary of 4/20, Chicago natives Miss Alex White and Francis Scott Key White dropped their third full-length album—the ferocious Telepathic— on April 20, 2013. 
 
Now, White Mystery is home after a sweeping world tour and set to play several shows in Chicago over the next few months, including Riot Fest in September. I sat down with the redheaded siblings at Township last week to discuss the band's undeniable influence on Chicago's local music scene, and how the entrepreneurial duo managed to garner a worldwide following by staying true to their roots:
 
I've spoken to many young bands in Chicago who look up to you as mentors. Do you feel a responsibility to help out others who have been in your shoes? 
 
Alex White: The whole rock'n'roll, punk and beyond music community that is underground and DIY thrives because of these kinds of relationships. White Mystery wouldn't be where it is now without the help of people who have mentored me and encouraged me to pursue music as a young person, like "Why aren't you doing this professionally?" and I'm thinking to myself "Do you really think that I can do that?" It was their encouragement that really helped me down that path.
 
When you were starting out as a band, who helped you the most?
 
AW: There is a person that comes to mind immediately. His name is Paul Natkin [iconic photographer for Creem and Rolling Stone]. He's also a native Chicagoaon: we grew up in the same North Side neighborhood, he went to the same high school as Francis and he was friends with our mom in the '70s [Diane Alexander White, also a photographer].
 
A few years ago, the city was cutting down on live music by putting more restrictions on permits required to host shows. Paul was the champion for live music during this time. He's introduced me to a lot of amazing people; he's a connector. There's a great book by Malcolm Gladwell called The Tipping Point that talks about the different types of people in the world, and the connectors are the people who can just look around the room and know who to bring together.
 
Paul connected us to Nathan Christ, a videographer who went on to produce our first music video [for the Blood and Venom single "Birthday]. He did it for free. That's a super DIY video— we shot it a novelty golf place near our house, a cemetery near our house—but it made it's way on to the top five videos on MTV. 
 
Are you often asked how you manage to do everything yourselves and be so successful? 
 
AW: White Mystery is a totally independent entity. We don't have a record label. We do our own booking and licensing; we own everything and release everything ourselves. So, bands often ask us "How do you do that? How does that work?" Both of our parents are self-employed, so we grew up knowing how to be self-sufficient and not relying on a fixed paycheck—and being willing to take risks. 
 
What advice would you give to other bands building connections in the DIY community?
 
AW: Following up is the key to success. Also, you don't have to be old to be a mentor. You can be a peer to someone and still offer questions. The Socrates method of mentorship is not telling someone what to do, but allowing them to follow their own path. A band could make the exact same decisions we did and still be somewhere else. I think it's important to take a questions approach to guiding someone, because then they're making their own decisions and taking accountability for whether or not they become successful.
 
Francis Scott Key White: We also like to set examples with our actions. The smart people catch on, and the others just do their own thing. If you see someone do something, it becomes possible. 
 
AW: There is a lot of power in willing things to happen. If you can visualize it, then that's half the battle—you're almost there. And when you accumulate these successes, write them down; so that when you get really upset or hit rock bottom, you can review the goals that you have achieved and keep going.
 
Have you observed any misconceptions about being an independent artist that you want to clear up for those who are hesitant to break into the scene?
 
AW: There's a stigma that musicians and artists lead a starving lifestyle, and I think that's a very unfair stereotype that discourages a lot of creative people. It's important for us to communicate that as a creative person you can succeed, pursue your goals and have a comfortable lifestyle. 
 
The thing about Chicago—and maybe I'm biased because I'm a native—is that it's such a hardworking city, and bands emerge here because they are willing to bust their way to the top and work hard to succeed. 
 
In the spirit of leading by example, what were some of your defining moments as musicians that you can share to inspire others?
 
FW: I always wanted to play the Metro in Chicago; it's a great venue, and all the big punk bands that I looked up to played there. I always told myself if I played there one time then I'd know that I made it, and we've played there about four times now. 
 
AW: The moment for me was jamming with Robert Plant [of Led Zeppelin] in Austin. He was playing drums and I was playing guitar. That was exhilarating — getting to meet the golden god of '70s rock, which I adore—I really felt like I could die after that. 
 
Note: On September 20, Alex White will be speaking at the first-ever Chicago Music Summit. This daylong, free event at the Chicago Cultural Center will include several panel discussions about the music industry, including a panel led by White on how to take your band to a global market. 
 
Leah Pickett writes about popular culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr.