White Reaper
[Photo by Jimmy Fontaine]

With Asking for a Ride, White Reaper are excited to get the boys and girls dancing again

When White Reaper were still a young band coming up in the Louisville, Kentucky scene in the early 2010s, they played a show at their beloved hometown venue Skull Alley where the crowd started dancing and moshing before they had even started playing.

“I remember we were setting our amp up and people were already stage diving and jumping on each other before we had even played a note,” singer/guitarist Tony Esposito says. “To me, that was like, ‘Wow, we’ve really made it!'”

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The nostalgic five-piece rock band are just that good. Well, more or less: The excitement surrounding their live show is very real. For many fans, it’s hard to talk about the ‘Reap without thinking, “Fuck, that riff would sound so sick in a packed room,” or recounting favorite times seeing them play. After all, on their 2017 breakout album The World’s Best American Band that captivated young punks, they sang, “If you make the girls dance/The boys will dance with them,” like it was a declaration to themselves.

For their third album, Asking for a Ride (which is out today on Elektra), the group found themselves reflecting on how they’ve curated a live experience, complete with boyish charm and bountiful shredding, that means the world to them — inherently making a record where that energy fueled both the recording process and comes through on every track. In many ways, even as the band featuring Esposito, guitarist Hunter Thompson, drummer Nick Wilkerson, bassist Sam Wilkerson, and Ryan Hater on keys looks forward, the new release harks back to their early days when they came together as several Kentuckian teens hyped up by Cheap Trick and their local scene.

“It was a return to the old-school way of banging everything out in a room together, and I feel like it worked really well,” Esposito says of its creation. “We auditioned each song in a way where we had to play it live, have it feel good, and have it sound good in our practice space. There were a handful of songs that we liked, but when we tried to play them together all at once, there was something off about it, so we made the cut of those ones that just weren’t there.”

They found themselves wanting to be reinvigorated by the live experience they’re known for after feeling somewhat burnt out by extensive touring and because some of the songs on their last record, 2019’s You Deserve Love, didn’t turn out to be as high-energy live as they had hoped. So, rather than getting swept up in small details while recording, they relied on simplicity. “We gave ourselves the prompt of, ‘Let’s just dumb it down for this writing process and try to be ourselves’ — like, when we were younger and I only knew how to play power chords on guitar, and we would make the song out of that,” Esposito says.

He feels as though their plan to simplify “worked to a degree” — and it definitely does. The songs on Asking For a Ride are fast, unadulterated, and nasty in the best way, with wild guitars and themes of youthfulness, whether that be in the form of defiance (“Getting Into Trouble W/ The Boss,” “Funny Farm”) or refusing to grow up (“Pink Slip”). The vigilance of the punk-rock record can’t help but call to mind the band’s early days when they were just five teenagers, thrilled about rock records from yesterday and throwing themselves headfirst into the scene at their disposal, which was largely centered around the now-defunct, all-ages venue Skull Alley.

Esposito describes that time in which the band went to and played their first-ever shows at Skull Alley with other young acts as a “really exciting, encouraging time.” He says, “It sparked the idea, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ At that time, we had no idea about what it would be like to tour or what it would be like to record full-length records because we were just writing minute-long punk songs, and when we had four of them, we would have one of our friends record it and then burn little CDs and sell them at the Skull Alley shows. To us, that was everything.”

While they’ve since accomplished things they might not have fathomed at the time — like open for Led Zeppelin and up the ante from homemade mixes to now their third LP — Esposito explains that holding onto a sense of youthfulness is important to the band. It’s what comes through in their sound and what fuels each of their gigs (even if Esposito says he can feel like a “cartoon character” sometimes because of it).

Another thing that feels integral to White Reaper — which has become somewhat of a joke among the group — is how much they’re considered “driving music.” “Everyone does put us in the car category! And it’s always funny: Everybody always wants to talk about Camaros. Every time it’s a Camaro! There’s other cool cars, but I appreciate it,” Esposito jokes. Asking for a Ride certainly feels like a play on that theme, although it actually came out of him asking guitarist Hunter Thompson, who had a car when they were recording out of an Airbnb in Arkansas, for a ride to get Juul pods the day they were working on what became the title track.

That’s funny in and of itself, but it also couldn’t be more fitting. The record feels like it could squeeze perfectly into a driving playlist among other tracks Esposito considers good driving music, or what he listened to and from high school every day for years, including Black Flag, Minor Threat, the Germs, and eventually Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne. (“To me, quintessential car music is just ripping guitar solos and crazy rock vocals, like Ozzy,” he says.)

Just as you can imagine Esposito jamming out to hard rock on meandering Kentucky backroads about a decade ago, you can imagine how thrilling it must have been for the vocalist and his friends to come together as bandmates. Them as a unit, forever boyish and a bit rebellious, is what makes White Reaper so damn fun. (When they recorded at the Earthship-style home they did in Arkansas, for instance, Esposito notes it was hard to be productive at first because they were so excited to hang out together for the first time since lockdown.)

Their dreams remain the same as those early days, too. On one hand, Esposito says it’s been incredible opening for legacy acts in stadiums and hopes to play as many of their own massive shows as possible, but on the other, he says, “At a certain point, I would rather play like a 400-cap bar to our fans.” That’s where the White Reaper magic, dating back to those humble Skull Alley days, certainly does feel most alive — the kind of shows where you can count on them to get the crowd dancing before they even plug in their amps.