A recent White Reaper publicity photo with Hunter Thompson in the top right.
On a small stage at the ACL Fest 2017, White Reaper brought something that none of the other 100 or so performers at the festival possessed: punk energy. Tearing up an hour-long set, in which keyboardist Ryan Hater went on a rampage with infectious enthusiasm, the Kentucky quintet sparked rare moshing from Zilker Park.
A refreshing dose of fast and lively rock and roll.
Four years and three ACLs later, they’re among less than a dozen acts in all of the lineup that might even qualify as rock bands. Now on Elektra Records and playing on big stages, they continue to bring vitality to this populist genre. After a sold-out concert in late September at Music Hall in Williamsburg, White Reaper guitarist and co-songwriter Hunter Thompson called the the Chronicle before an ACL performance which, for him, doubles as a homecoming.
Austin Chronicle: White Reaper is a band from Kentucky, but you’re from Austin. How did you find yourself in the group?
Hunter Thompson: My freshman year of college, 2012, I started playing in bands immediately – just a bunch of incestuous friends playing in each other’s bands. Through this scene, we were on a local label and one of the guys running it was from Louisville and knew the White Reaper guys. Maybe before they even released their first EP it was sent to me and I was just in it from the jump. Whenever they came to town, they stayed in a group that I was in. I actually didn’t live in the house, but all the other guys did, and they crashed there.
So I was just hanging out with them and I went to see them because I was in their EP and I saw them at Maggie Mae’s. No one was there and I was just blown away, like ‘Oh man they’re so much better than any band I’m in and so much tighter!’ So I was into music and, also, I just hit it off with the guys. We all have the same sense of humor and similar backgrounds. So they became friends and they were playing co-op shows with my bands and the next year at South by Southwest they needed a place to stay, so I let them crash into my house and walk with them. at all the concerts that they played and we had a great time. In my living room there were acoustic guitars lying around and [White Reaper singer/guitarist] Tony [Esposito] I would take one and take one and we would just play together. We all knew the same fucking Third Eye Blind or Weezer songs that we played, but we really recorded together and played in the same style. As they were leaving they asked me if I wanted to join and throw away everything else and see what was what.
So yeah, that was an SXSW thing.
THAT: And really a lesson that you should always let a band stay in your house, which sounds crazy, but it’s so appreciated.
HT: It really is. Well… I’ve had experiences on both sides. I joined large groups and also pissed off my carpet. So you never know.
Hunter Thompson, right, in Austin Dryspell’s group with (LtoR) Hugh Vu, Chad Doriocourt (now Dorio) and Sam Jacobson. Thompson also publishes solo music under the name Hunter Thompsin. (Photo by John Anderson)
THAT: I have heard so many evolutions in White Reaper. When the first album came out I thought it sounded like Jay Reatard, which I liked, but the band has grown into such a more dynamic presence since then. What were your observations in this regard as a fan and then a member of the band?
HT: It’s definitely progressive. When you do, you’re not making a concerted effort to be a certain way – at least we don’t. It’s a natural progression. i think for tony [Esposito], who’s the lead songwriter, those early tracks were a bit of that kind of fast punk kind of stuff and the garage scene was really happening, so it was kind of contemporary to it all. Geez Jay Reatard was a big influence, bands like that and all the punk stuff that they’d listened to and played in their underage concerts in their hometown… that kind of culture.
And the first album, I think, is an extension of that EP, where it’s really fast Ramones type songs. Then The best American band in the world The record was written entirely in the studio with no premeditated songs, they just spent 30 days in the studio and pissed off those songs, which I think is great. It was such a stressful thing because there was nothing at first and you were racking your brains for something to come out. Then the last album was the major label thing, we had some money to play, so I think there was a more deliberate effort to write the songs in advance. I think that was still a pretty new concept: being prepared, and I think there was mainly a lot of pressure on Tony. We were in the process of making the transition from labels to management and I had returned to finish my studies so I was going back to Louisville to write. It was just more deliberate and I think it came. The songs are a bit brighter for this reason.
Then this record, which we finished writing and will be recording soon, has been written a lot about COVID. We wrote so many demos because we had so much time. We worked on them in different ways: meeting each other in quarantine and working on Zoom – writing virtually. In that sense, each record was made in a very different way. There has not been the same formula every time.
THAT: During your forties, you made a YouTube video showing guitarists how to play the riff of “Judy French” by White Reaper. I learn to play songs on YouTube all the time, but I’ve rarely seen it done by someone who is in The group.
He’s the whole guitar nerd. It’s really all I am at the end of the day. – Hunter Thompson
HT: Well there are so many kids asking for tabs on Instagram and there are a lot of covers and I never saw anyone play properly… plus we just needed something to do. I was at my parents’ house and our manager asked me if I wanted to do a tutorial and it looked like fun. Honestly, I want to do more because that would be awesome and it’s fun for people to care about learning and send us videos of them playing the song.
THAT: How much of your DNA is guitar nerd?
HT: He’s the whole guitar nerd. It’s really all I am at the end of the day. I love music, I love songwriting, I love everything, but if there’s anything I’m going to do is play guitar and practice techniques and scales and arpeggios and target notes of chord projections. It’s a never-ending quest that I’ve been doing since fifth grade. He just clicks with me and I like him. Getting better is a slow process, but it is endlessly fun.
Being at home for the past two years I’ve been able to play more guitar than usual and love it. When we’re on the road, I play the same 20 songs all the time, so having all that time has been great for that. I have a Kemper, which is an amazing sounding amp profiler and I have a bunch of new guitars and had so much time to dig into it. So I feel like I’m probably on my best game right now.
THAT: On “Real Long Time” there are these Thin Lizzy style guitar harmonies. Is there a classic appreciation of rock among the members of White Reaper?
HT: More than anything, this is what we all grew up playing and enjoying. We all had that in common – especially Tony, he’s a real human jukebox and I think he grew up listening to what his dad played, which was a lot of Bruce Springsteen, a lot of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath. stuff – Thin Lizzy too. So that’s just his style. I am definitely a chameleon guitarist. I love post punk stuff – the really angular guitar playing is my favorite, but I also love classic rock: Joe Walsh, the Lynyrd Skynyrd type playing. I spent so much time learning these solos because they are ultimately the funniest thing to play. When you become a blossoming young guitarist, at some point you make the transition to wanting to learn solos and you’re going to turn to rock classics because they’re the fucking best!
THAT: What were the sacred moments, for you personally, playing big gigs with White Reaper?
HT: We were all in fourth or fifth year when the Killers Hot bustle the album came out and didn’t really have a context for the influences they drew on like Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode. This record, which is a masterpiece in my opinion, was our introduction to this sound and we were in love with them when we were children. So opening up to them made no sense. Weezer’s opening was also awesome and weird. We’re going on tour with Pearl Jam this summer, next year. It’s going to be crazy – it’s all about the arenas in Europe. It sounds very surreal. Then, too, you become numb to that as well, like it’s totally normal, but it’s not at all and if my fifth year self knew that I had done that, it would be very excited.
Appearances at White Reaper ACL Fest:
Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Honda stage [Weekend 1]
Saturday, 3:20 p.m., Miller Lite stage [Weekend 2]