Sabal Cow T-ShirtOctober 22, 2021
Hand screen-printed on Comfort Colors blanks in Brooklyn, NY.
A few years ago, Bob Weir was telling a writer about his process, and how the notion of constantly becoming—of life being lived in a state of flux—doesn’t just apply to the ever-changing self, but to the things the self creates. Speaking of the song “Saint of Circumstance,” which he’d been playing live for 40 years, Weir said, “I’m just starting to scratch the surface of what I can do with that.” This idea of a song as a living, breathing thing, a liquid portrait that sloshes to the borders of whatever frame is fixed upon it, is at the center of Edwin and Andy White’s work as Tonstartssbandht. Through constant touring, the brothers’ songs both take shape and change shape, becoming something a little different every night as they explore the possibilities inherent within them. With time, attention, and intention, these songs—long, languid, full of open musical questions and temporary answers—become distinct objects, and the process begins again. On Petunia, the brothers’ 18th album and second for Mexican Summer, they bring us to the earliest moments of this process, showing off a barn full of hatchlings already decked with splendid plumage.
Where most Tonstartssbandht albums come together slowly over years, recorded on the fly whenever the Whites have a few spare moments on the road, Petunia was largely written and recorded in their home city of Orlando in 2020. Many of the tracks had been played live, but in extremely rough form (“skeletons of songs,” as Andy puts it), and hadn’t yet developed into any kind of mature stage. With plenty of time on their hands thanks to the lockdown, and no shows to play, Andy and Edwin decided to pack some flesh onto those skeletons and bring them to life on their own. Petunia is the first Tonstartssbandht album to be created in a sustained manner and in a consistent environment, written and recorded in a single place over a focused period of time.
As a result, Petunia feels like a unified aesthetic statement. Using little more than a 12-string guitar and a drum kit, Andy and Edwin weave together the gentle headiness of Laurel Canyon and the sweaty pacing of Cologne; like a gyroscope, its constant motion produces the illusion of stillness—and that stillness gives it a sense of intimacy and introspection, something that’s further illuminated by the new emphasis placed on the brothers’ vocals. Taking cues from The Zombies and the falsetto-feathered singing of ’70s funk and reggae, Andy and Edwin stitch their voices together so easily, and with such generosity, it’s virtually impossible to see the seams. And it allows the quiet wisdom of the lyrics—what Andy self-deprecatingly calls “generic broad platitudes that I still think resonate when I say them”—to slip in almost unnoticed, delivering their emotional truths while preparing a feather bed for you to collapse into. “All roads will lead to the heart of town, when you’ve been running too long,” he sings in the album’s opening moments. “Being at peace only slows you down, but you’ve been running so long now.” In “Smilehenge,” he packs his bags, sweeps up the apartment, and says goodbye to an old life and an old love. “How will it feel when you turn out the light?” he wonders.
That same sense—of waiting in liminal spaces, of wondering what exists on the other side of uncertainty, shimmers through single “What Has Happened.” With an arrangement lightly influenced by Talk Talk and a shaky guitar sounding like a sonar, Andy and Edwin perch at the edge of the self and stare out. “Honestly,” Andy sings, his voice breaking, “What has happened to me?” Opener “Pass Away” expands upwards on the back of Edwin’s maracas and tapped percussion, and once they’re firmly in the air, they fly freely, Andy’s guitar asking the questions while Edwin’s drumming keeps them moving forward.
If Petunia feels like a journey in the direction of peace, that, too, is a reflection of how it was made. The stability of the sessions, and the brothers’ easy communication, allowed them to sit with these songs and their performances. “It was very helpful and relieving knowing every day that even if I start to feel frustrated for a second, we had the option to say, ‘I’m working with one other person, he’s my oldest friend, and it’s no big deal to be like, “Let’s clock out today,”’” Andy says. “Sometimes we go in and you can tell it’s not going to work that day, and that’s fine,” Edwin adds. “We didn’t have a tight crunch for time. There was no rush. It’s like feeding cows grass—probably makes tastier meat.”
The album’s clarity is also a result of Andy and Edwin bringing in perspectives from outside of the White family. “It’s the first time we’ve ever brought someone else into the mixing stage,” Andy notes. While the album was recorded at the brothers’ home studio in Orlando between April and August of 2020, it was mixed by Joseph Santarpia and Roberto Pagano at The Idiot Room in San Francisco—“our old Florida buddies who have great ears,” as Andy puts it. With those ears attuned to the recordings, Petunia is brighter, punchier, and more direct than its predecessor, the direct result of Santarpia and Pagano’s confidence in the performances the album captures. “They were just there to help paint in the mixing,” Andy says, but “they’re so good at bringing up levels, leveling everything really well.”
Levels: Andy means the volume of the tracks and their balance, yes, but there’s that sense of stability again, of building on level ground, and what can happen when the artistic environment is stable, even while the world’s environment is anything but. As the Whites have long known, a song—like a person—is a constantly evolving thing, and a record is a photograph, a way to pause that motion, to examine an object at a single moment in its evolution. It’s a way of suggesting stability where it doesn’t actually exist. Petunia is not Tonstartssbandht’s definitive statement on these songs, because how could it be? But it is a portrait of Andy and Edwin White at home in Florida, an artfully staged landscape rich in detail, its winding passages and airy environment waiting to be explored.