For the past eight years, Dirty Streets have been carving out a niche as one of the most reliable rock bands in Memphis. Once again working with Alive Naturalsound records and Matt Qualls (the Memphis engineer who worked at Ardent in addition to running Brass Tacks Audio), Dirty Streets have honed their James Gang-meet-Blue Cheer sound into their most cohesive album yet with White Horse, and rock critics from all around the country are taking notice. Singer and guitarist Justin Toland sat down with me the week before the White Horse record release show at the Hi-Tone to tell me more about working with Alive records, his thoughts on being a Memphis band, and what exactly the White Horse means to him.
The Memphis Flyer: How long have you guys been working with Alive records now? So many bands approach working with indie labels on a record-to-record basis. What's made you want to stick with them?
Justin Toland: This is our second album for Alive. The first two were released independently. Alive normally does record-to-record deals, which is honestly why we like working with them. You can basically negotiate your contract every time a new album comes out, and Patrick [Boissel], the guy that runs the label, is super laid-back about stuff. We had some friends in other bands that recommended working with Alive, and that meant a lot to us. If we wanted to leave the label, we could. He lets the bands have control over everything, which is another reason why we like working with them.
Let's talk about the album name White Horse. I'm pretty sure you guys aren't riffing on the Taylor Swift song of the same name. What's the inspiration there?
The idea of the white horse is this mythical thing that you're trying to find. It represents a creative inspiration that you feel when you're writing music. I started researching the white horse, and it shows up in so many different traditions, from Native American traditions to Greek mythology. It just seemed fitting. We went over a bunch of titles, and everyone liked White Horse the most.
What's the feedback for White Horse been like?
So far it's been great. It's also been the fastest response that we've ever had. The reviews have all been positive, and there's been some good press. I definitely feel like this is our best album, mostly because we worked so hard on it. Every record we've done, we've gone in and worked harder than before. It's been two years since we've had a record, and before this one we were trying to bang them out every year.
Part of the reason I think this album is so strong is because we went into the writing process trying to make everything come out naturally. There was no fear of criticism or wondering what people might think about it, we were just trying to write an album that we would like and want to listen to.
You guys have been a band for eight years, and other than moving from a four-piece to a three-piece at the very beginning, there haven't been any lineup changes. Being so comfortable with each other must make the writing process easier.
Definitely. Our bass player, Thomas [Storz], is really good at arranging stuff, but I think in the beginning he was less inclined to jump in and tweak a song. I'd write a song, and he'd be like, "that's cool." But now, he's not afraid to jump in and suggest that we move parts around. There will be times when I hit a brick wall with writing or I'll show him a demo that I don't even really like, and he will come up with parts that make me like it. That's a new thing that never used to happen.
Matt Qualls has been your main man in the studio for a long time now, but he recently moved to Northern California. Does this mean you'll be looking for a new producer moving forward?
He helped work on the last record, and we did a single with him a year ago, and both of those just sounded so good that we got him to do everything for White Horse. I mean, we are really trying to work with him on the next record.
I guess that means Alive records will just have to fly you to California.
I think we might. We are definitely going to cut a single out there the next time when we are on tour. Even if all we do is stop in for a few hours and lay something down, it's something we all want to happen.
You guys don't play Memphis that often. Is that a conscious decision? You and I have talked before about the difference between being a locally loved Memphis band and being a Memphis band that's trying to tour.
We got to a point where we were playing all the time here, and it was awesome. Things were really good for us in Memphis about four or five years ago, but so many people told me, "don't worry about playing in Memphis. Don't worry about winning awards here, because regardless of how great it is here for you, you don't want to be the band that's always there." Now it's just a thing where we have more stuff going on out of town. We just have more opportunities happening out of town than we used to. I have to book the shows here on my own, but other people book us out of town. The shows we play here at this point are more about introducing out-of-town bands that I like to a Memphis audience.