St. John White of The Desert
The Desert Fathers sounds like it would be a pretty good band name, but the phrase actually refers to Christianity’s first hermits, ascetics and monks, who, in the third century, retreated to the outskirts of the Scetes Desert in Egypt. Men like Abba Antonius, Pachiomus of Thebes, and St. Paul the First Hermit eschewed the civilized world, believing they could each tailor for themselves a unique, sometimes esoteric, manner in worshiping their god. The harsh climate didn’t exactly make for an abundance of food and water, and the years — sometimes decades — of solitude led to psychological breakdown and psychotic hallucinations. Paul the First Hermit lived solely on the fruit of a lone palm tree near his cave for almost a hundred years. Abba Antonius was reportedly assailed by demons and phantom beasts, tormented and beaten unconscious on a semi-regular basis during the entirety of his wasteland sojourn. But from this extremism came some of the most important texts in Coptic Christianity, detailing the intricate philosophies of men who chose to risk insanity and death in the desert for the things nearest and dearest to their hearts.
Centuries later, the desert is still harsh, but in the age of industrial-strength irrigation and central air, she’s grown a little more docile. Still, there’s something about such a clime which calls to people of certain temperaments, something about the blistering heat and the bleak panoramas that appear as a pair of open arms to a select few. A place like Reno, Nevada is not exactly uninhabitable, but if reruns of Comedy Central mock-reality shows and the novels of Willy Vlautin are to be believed, it is a land of broken drunks and desperate whores. A wildness remains unabated within its city limits. John White, singer, songwriter and frontman of his eponymous band The John Whites will tell you first that his dad lives in Reno, and so it was easier to focus on music there, where he could worry less about making the rent. But get him to elaborate, and he’ll reveal that something drove him westward aside from the idea of lounging on Pop’s couch, acoustic guitar in hand, “Star Wars” in the DVD player.
“I went to the Biggest Little City in the World, with the Biggest Little Dreams,” laughs White of his move. “Seriously, though, I had felt that I knew the extent of my narrative in Utah. So, I wanted to change it up, move beyond Utah’s influence, and find a new narrative.” He points out to me the fact that whereas Provo has the lowest number of drinkers of any American city, Reno has the most. “That seems like a trite example,” he admits, “but it’s just an example of how starkly different the two places are.
White cut his musical teeth in Utah Valley, where in 2005 he recorded and released his first effort, “The Complete First Season.” Though recorded in his basement, “The Complete First Season” was more than a mere subterranean demo, featuring a maturity in composition and arrangement rarely seen in an initial effort and a sense of lyricism which combines down-home colloquial simplicity with the conceptual exclusivity of a wandering madman muttering to himself. The next year saw the formation of a full band and the release of the raw and sprawling “The John Whites Play Their Songs,” White’s first release with a full band. While John White wasn’t anything close to a household name, local music aficionados in the Utah area were definitely beginning to take note.
In 2007, White and his cohorts went into the studio to recorded “A Sphere Needs a Square,” a record loosely based around Edwin Abbot’s multi-dimensional romance “Flatland,” and John White’s interpretations thereof. “I found a lot of religious sentiment in the book,” says White. “In the novel, the characters are flat squares, and they worship a sphere. But the transition from the third dimension to the fourth is not really all that significant. So, why should the squares worship the sphere? And, moreover, if the squares are just worshiping the being from the next dimension up, then does the sphere worship the being from the dimension up from him? What does the sphere worship?”
Although this was supposed to be an endeavor of a couple of months, internal band strife and schedule conflicts led to the album being put on hiatus multiple times. In the interim, White released “Mean Ol’ Mister Moonlight,” an album of “love, loss, and lust,” and “A Light Will Be Thrown,” which was inspired by the writings of Charles Darwin and Joseph Campbell. Around the two-year mark, John suddenly split for Reno.
While some speculated that “A Sphere Needs a Square” would never see completion and release, White felt that the new surroundings were beneficial, providing the freedom to explore songwriting outside of that aforementioned narrative. “I could rethink lyrics, rethink arrangements. I don’t think I really labored over the earlier albums like I did over this one.”
The time spent in Reno allowed John to approach “A Sphere Needs a Square” afresh. “I didn’t really hang out with anyone in Reno. I didn’t really go anywhere. I just worked.” He loosely echoes the sentiments of those early Coptic hermits. “If you’re an artist, you might have to become a monk for a little while, spend some time honing your craft. I looked at Reno as sort of a monastery, I guess.”
The new album was finally released last November. It is arguably White’s most developed effort as a songwriter yet — melancholy to the point of vicarious sadness on the part of the listener at some points, foaming at the mouth at others, with still space for a bright, jangly hope to be found in some isolated pockets. Following the release, The John Whites reunited for a series of shows back in Utah, and this is where White and company really shine. White stands front and center, shuffling his feet and holding his arm up occasionally, in a seemingly unconscious imitation of the recently deceased King of Pop. His voice, reedy and vibrating, soars through the PA, bearing on its wings a full emotive import, be it the quiet sadness of a song like “The Ice Storm” or a howling rendition of Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.” His hair, previously flowing down to his shoulders, is cropped short. He’s gotten almost scrawny. It really does look like he’s been fasting and praying in the desert, tormented by demons and djins, now triumphantly returned to deliver some message, however esoteric that message may be.
“It’s definitely nice to be playing shows back here in Utah,” he says. “It’s nice to have the album out finally. I mean, there is the monastic aspect of isolating myself at my dad’s place and really focusing on music. But it’s music. It should be recorded and released. It should be performed.” He grins. “I mean, if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around, does it make a sound? I don’t really give a f***.”