ABOVE: WAVVES’ NATHAN WILLIAMS (LEFT) AND STEPHEN POPE
Wavves’ founder and frontman Nathan Williams has had a tumultuous relationship with music journalists. After releasing two home-recorded, critically-acclaimed albums in the late 2000s, Williams upped his production quality and embraced a new washed-out sound with King of the Beach, only to be critiqued and lambasted for going the “poppy” route.
This was also around the time his relationship with the equally lambasted lead singer of Best Coast, Bethany Cosentino, came to light. The indie power couple were labeled all sorts of things—most aggressively, by Hipster Runoff, a pair of “fuzzy buzzy” indie bands fit to be pitied. To all this, Williams responded with vitriol and spirit on 2011’s Life Sux EP, which Rolling Stone called “the best (and loudest) of the indie surf-pop brigade… the melodies are pure sunshine.”
Often lazily labeled a slacker rocker, Williams is anything but. For his fourth LP (he’s 26), Williams and longtime cohort Stephen Pope (formerly a guitarist for indie hero Jay Reatard) spent an entire year in the studio. The result is a more melodic, sometimes even upbeat album, which clings tight to the twisted positivity Williams has preached from the beginning. There’s a silver lining, sure, but it’s masked by a much darker outlook: “I can finally sleep, but I can’t dream,” Williams offers in one song’s refrain. On another catchy hook, he yells, “Woke up and found Jesus, I think I must be drunk.” Afraid of Heights highlights a new sonic approach for Williams, but the tone remains consistent.
As Pope and Williams were gearing up to head to SXSW, we spoke to them about their recent work ethic, the Occupy movement, and taking money from Wal-Mart.
DAN BUYANOVSKY: Nathan, you’re really young to be on your fourth record. How do you feel going into it?
NATHAN WILLIAMS: I don’t feel young. Um… I feel like this record is a tiny bit more mature, maybe, in certain places. But it stays true to what Wavves has built, or something.
BUYANOVSKY: Why don’t you feel young?
STEPHEN POPE: I don’t feel young either. We’ve both just been doing this for a while.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I was at South By Southwest in 2008 for my first one.
BUYANOVSKY: So you’re a veteran, at this point.
WILLIAMS: There are people that have been doing it a whole lot longer than I have. I don’t know how that’s possible. But yeah, I definitely know what I’m doing a lot better than I did. And I’d say that live, we’re a thousand times better than I was in 2008. So that’s good, it’s progress.
BUYANOVSKY: What’s your work ethic been like this last year?
POPE: We have a good work ethic. We worked on this record for a year, and neither of us have spent that long working on a project.
WILLIAMS: Definitely not. And it was basically 15-hour days. The longest I’ve ever worked.
BUYANOVSKY: You guys used to seem like you didn’t care much about being respected or appreciated as musicians, but you seem like you’ve been taking yourself and the music more seriously. What changed?
WILLIAMS: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want people to respect the fact that we made this and that we put a lot of effort into it. But not everybody’s going to agree with you, so to get caught up in other people’s opinions would just be counterproductive. That’s the only reason I say I don’t care what other people think.
POPE: It’d be nice if people stopped calling us “slacker losers.” I think just “losers” would be fine.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I’ll take “losers.” But they’re going to have to stop calling me a slacker eventually. I don’t think that’s fair.
BUYANOVSKY: A lot of high-school kids connect with your music. Who were some bands you listened to in high school that you had that kind of connection with?
WILLIAMS: Definitely Dinosaur Jr., and Oasis and REM, and Nirvana. Weezer.
POPE: I was a hardcore kid, so I listened to, like, Filth, and I loved Converge.
WILLIAMS: Oh yeah, I still love Converge. I saw Converge and American Nightmare in San Diego a couple times. It was like 150 people crammed into a tiny little room—those shows were the first times I realized I wanted to play music.
POPE: When you’re a high-school kid, I feel like that’s when you actually really like music. It’s still fresh.
BUYANOVSKY: It seems like the older you get, the more jaded and opinionated you become, and in high school you’re just happy to listen to music and go to shows.
WILLIAMS: It’s because old people are cranky.
BUYANOVSKY: You get a lot of flack from guys in bands who I think secretly would love to be in the position you’re in. Is that frustrating? Do you wish they’d just shut up and like you sometimes?
WILLIAMS: No. I don’t want anybody who doesn’t like me to just one day wake up and be like, “You know what? I think I like that guy!” [laughs] I don’t mind. At one point in my career, it probably would sidetrack me for a few days and I’d be bummed about it, but at this point I don’t worry about it. It doesn’t bother me at all.
BUYANOVSKY: Really? At all?
WILLIAMS: Except when they call Stephen fat. That’s not tight. And someone said I had a football head the other day. Someone was like, “Shut up, football head!” And I looked up, like, “What the fuck does that mean?” Yeah, my head is shaped like a football, but Hey Arnold!‘s was sideways, mine is the other way.
BUYANOVSKY: Do you see yourself becoming the old guy in the “Sail to the Sun” video?
POPE: No. I don’t think I’m going to be a preacher.
BUYANOVSKY: Right, but to me it’s more about having an identity crisis and wanting to go all out, then at the end of it thinking to yourself, “What did I just do?”
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I wake up feeling like that almost every day.
POPE: You have to be true to yourself, and live with loads of regret.
BUYANOVSKY: I watched the video on your Tumblr of all these clips from Cops, of police officers beating up suspects. When you watch that, do you think it’s funny or sad, or both?
WILLIAMS: I think it’s sad. What’s also sad is that Cops just got cancelled. It started to look shitty, though; they started filming everything in HD, and that kind of ruined the vibe.
POPE: But there are some newer episodes where a cop comes in and, like, tries to fight a snake, and you’re just like, “What is this guy fucking doing?” This one guy maced a snake. That’s police protocol in Florida—if you come across a snake, you mace it. [laughs]
BUYANOVSKY: [laughs] That’s incredible. I think when cops are on that show, they feel invincible.
WILLIAMS: Even when cops aren’t on that show, they feel invincible.
BUYANOVSKY: Did you go to any of the Occupy events when that was happening?
POPE: No. I saw people doing it, though.
WILLIAMS: I occupied my couch.
BUYANOVSKY: [laughs] How did that go?
WILLIAMS: It was good. I also occupied my Netflix, and that went well too.
BUYANOVSKY: Did you bring about any social change, through that?
WILLIAMS: [laughs] Well they did take Season 4 of Twilight Zone off of Netflix, so I might’ve had something to do with that.
BUYANOVSKY: You get attacked a lot for selling out. What’s selling out, to you?
WILLIAMS: If you’re changing musically, and making something that you’re not proud of, I guess that’s selling out. But I don’t know—in this day and age, I’m not entirely sure what selling out means.
POPE: Nowadays, every band is selling out. If you play a festival, every festival is brought to you by like, Clear Channel, so every band is making money from a huge corporation.
BUYANOVSKY: Do you think the definition of selling out has changed?
POPE: I think so, because people are starting to understand that it’s really hard to make money in music. So if you don’t preach about being DIY, then you can’t really sell out. Maybe you can, I don’t know…
WILLIAMS: People were up in arms about Kurt Vile being in a Bank of America commercial, but I would’ve taken that thing too.
POPE: Yeah, if Wal-Mart wants to give you a hundred thousand dollars for a song, it’s pretty cool to take a hundred thousand dollars out of Wal-Mart’s pocket.
WILLIAMS: Realistically, why wouldn’t you take that money? I mean, if it’s not your vibe and it’s like a personal thing, I get it. But we’ve put ourselves in the position that Wal-Mart isn’t going to reach out to Wavves for a commercial. I don’t see that happening.
POPE: Whenever someone gets that idea, they google Wavves and they’re like, “Oh, never mind!”
BUYANOVSKY: Nathan, you’ve always been pretty vocal about your love of hip-hop, and you’ve recently been producing hip-hop instrumentals with your brother. Where do you see yourself, in relation to the hip-hop world?
WILLIAMS: Well, I wrote a song for Big Boi, and I toured with GZA. And you know, I’m doing a record for a rapper from the Bay Area, named DaVinci. But I don’t know, I haven’t thought about where I am in the hip-hop world. I know a couple of rappers. [laughs]
POPE: [laughs] You’re lost in the hip-hop world.
BUYANOVSKY: If you were on house arrest for a month and couldn’t drink, smoke, play music, or watch TV, what would you do?
WILLIAMS: I guess I’d just start banging again.
POPE: And bodybuilding. [laughs]
WILLIAMS: I have this Space Jam 2-in-1 Michael Jordan set, I’d probably take that out of the package and play with it a little bit.
POPE: And eat a ton of shit.
BUYANOVSKY: [laughs] Just get really fat and really built.
POPE: Yeah, and I’d strangle myself to get high.
WILLIAMS: I’d get really involved in auto-erotic asphyxiation. And gamble.
POPE: And masturbate.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, gamble, masturbate. We could do a whole lot of stuff.
WAVVES’ FOURTH ALBUM, AFRAID OF HEIGHTS, IS OUT NOW VIA MOM + POP MUSIC. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT ITS WEBSITE.