“I’m kind of a jerk. Like, I like all cats, but I always treat fluffy cats better,” Derek White admitted to me over Zoom a few weeks ago. He had seen Cleo—my cat, who is indeed fluffy—nose her way onto my lap while the two of us were chatting, and had cut himself off in the middle of a thought to inquire about her. White, his visage obscured by Zoom’s black “camera off” screen, spoke with a low-key, unassuming cadence sprinkled with likes and ums, not necessarily what you would expect from an artist whose musical alter ego, Mystic Seers, trades in expansive, experimental rock odysseys that would sound right at home alongside classics like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Beatles’ White Album, works that White regards as lodestars. Mystic Seers’ self-titled debut, full of chiming guitar tendrils, crisp drums, and sighing vocal harmonies, is only now being released on streaming services, nearly two years after it initially materialized in physical form (“The PR for this album is just being dragged out”), and White and I marked the occasion by discussing himself and his work.
In the mid-90s, when White was a teenager in Penn Hills, his dad brought home a drum set, and that was it. Imitating the controlled demolition styles of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl, he joined a punk band called Substandard, and then Tel Star, a heavy emo group. Around the turn of the century, after being exposed to the softer sounds of artists like Elliot Smith and rediscovering his love of The Beatles, White worked on a few solo projects before falling in with The Takeover UK (a swaggering pop-rock band) and New Shouts (a British Invasion/Motown revival act). After a hiatus and period of contemplation, White decided that it was time for a magnum opus: “I just knew I had it in me; I had some great statement I wanted to make.” He elaborated, “A lot of my music prior was a little unfocused, a little tongue in cheek and silly, and I wanted to do something more serious with some more meaning.” It took six or seven years of obsessive recording and tweaking, with White playing most instruments and handling production duties, but finally, in 2020, Mystic Seers was born.
It makes sense that White would view his predilection for fluffy cats as evidence of some moral failing; the Mystic Seers project came about as a musical outgrowth of White’s internal turmoil, and he’s not exactly lenient with himself. When I asked him about his influences for Mystic Seers, he said, “A lot of it’s self-reflection and growth, dealing with depression or anxiety, finding redemption if you’re a sinner. I’ve been quite indulgent in the past.” In fact, the Mystic Seers name itself comes from a William Shatner-led Twilight Zone episode in which a young couple in a rural Ohio diner becomes transfixed by a devilish tabletop fortune telling machine—the Mystic Seer. White described the episode: “It just got really creepy, and it all started to become real for him, a lot of his fears and paranoia. It was around a bad time when I started writing a lot of these songs. I was in the midst of a mini crisis with relationships and spirituality, so I resonated with a lot of that paranoia, and I just thought the name was fitting.” White sprinkles the album with admissions—the twinkling “Path of a Fool,” the wooly, psychedelic “I Don’t Want To Change,” the swaggering “You Caught Me Lyin’”—as if the little figure from the Twilight Zone were perched on his shoulder, silent in its judgment.
Mystic Seers was influenced by the judgment of another figure: White’s friend and co-producer, Adam Fischman, who, in White’s words, “Was very instrumental in pushing me to make sure there was no filler and nonsense, like cut all the fat out.” Fischman was arguably even stricter with White than White was with himself; “I would show him what I was working on, and he would critique it[…]’It’s totally wrong,’ or ‘You need to change that lyric’[…]I would sit with his critique and get angry at him and think, ‘Is this fucker right or is he wrong?’ And eventually I’d say, ‘I think he’s right.’ I love honest criticism. ” The duo’s perfectionism yielded impressive results; despite Mystic Seers’ extensive runtime and formidable song lengths (seven of its fifteen tracks clock in at over five minutes), the record maintains momentum throughout, borne along by swaying ballads and rainbow-hued rockers that incorporate influences from jazz, electronic, classic rock, and prog. White’s musings on the album’s laborious inception tie back to the theme of music-as-atonement; as he put it to me, “I still think it’s weird that I obsessed so much over this batch of songs. Maybe it’s because it’s the first time in my life that I ever strived to make an album that I wouldn’t want to change around later on[…]When I listen to old projects and old recordings I’ve done, there’s always so much regret.”
White strikes me as an artist who prefers to let his music stand on its own, unmoored from persona, place, or time. When we spoke, my camera was turned on, while his remained off; I could walk past him on the street tomorrow and not know it. He ventured some personal details—grew up in Penn Hills and Verona, lives in Dormont now, spent years as a flower deliveryman “just cruising to the landscapes of the city,” remembers the days when Lawrenceville was filled with drunks and chain-smoking old women as opposed to yuppies and foodies—but talk remained focused on Mystic Seers. White is private even in a musical context, favoring the studio’s insularity over the stage’s bombast. He told me that, although he recognizes the importance of live performance, “I find that I’m happier when I’m just at home creating art, making records.” He welcomes other artists’ contributions (“Don’t be afraid to reach out to me if you’re interested in collaborating[…]It adds so much more vibe to get other people and other minds involved”), but emphasizes that Mystic Seers is not a band. During our conversation, White acknowledged the air of anonymity that surrounds his work, conceding, “I’m just hiding behind the name Mystic Seers and seeing what happens.” The music may be a mask, but it reveals as much about the artist as it obscures.