Nathan Williams has a cold. Or a sinus infection. Earlier this week it was the flu. But there’s no time to rest now. Wavves, the band he founded in his parents’ house in San Diego five years ago, is about to release a new album and head out on a six-week tour beginning at Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW). “I’m dreading it,” he’ll say at breakfast, his sniffles punctuating our interview. He goes anyway.
I meet Williams and bassist Stephen Pope at Williams’ home, a white-walled two-bedroom residence with dark brown trim and a church-sized front window. The living room looks like an indie rock version of Cribs: a row of sneakers rests on one side, a TV and assorted video game systems on the other. Before we go any further, hang on to this information for a minute: The dude from Wavves owns a house.
It’s a bit bleak in Los Angeles today, the Thursday before SXSW. Grey clouds rest over the downtown skyline like sad whipped cream as I drive up the 110. According to my car dashboard, it’s 59 degrees: miserable. But Wavves comes from a long tradition of Southern California frustration: the punk rock of Black Flag, the retaliatory hip-hop of N.W.A. The sun can’t solve every problem. Not even most of them. Definitely not the flu.
Both men are battling the illness, not that they’ve made much effort to stop the contagion. After vetoing a Nyquil omelet, we decide to head out for breakfast. I’ve been in the house five minutes when Williams takes a bong rip for the road. Pope lights up next. “This is how we keep getting sick,” he says, sheepishly offering over the still-smoking glassware.
At Williams’ house, a skateboard, a keyboard, and an empty can of Bud Light litter his doorway. A blue sign in favor of same-sex marriage sits in his neighbor’s yard. From Williams’ porch, a cross-street descends into shrubby suburbia and ends in a green hillside. It might as well be Middle-Earth: it’s barely L.A. Williams lives in Eagle Rock, a sleepy outpost northeast of the trendy Echo Park that’s become the subject of the latter neighborhood’s rent-driven exodus. (Pope, a Memphis native, moved to Echo Park last year.) A friend of mine rents a room a mile or so away from Williams for $300 a month and his backyard is big enough to host a zoo animal.
We drive to a pharmacy in Pope’s grey El Dorado and pick up water bottles and cold medicine. It’s a beautiful car, its interior lined with red leather. We head to one of Williams’ favorite restaurants and order brioche French toast and bacon and eggs. A Wavves fan works in the restaurant—“He tweeted at me,” giving it away, Williams says—but he’s not in today. The band’s not often recognized in the neighborhood, though Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha, also a local, once stopped them to pay his regards.
The food arrives. We talk about video games (Williams is working his way through Assassin’s Creed 3), staying healthy on the road (impossible), and a Tucson steam-punk convention (Wild Wild West II) the band could stop at en route to Austin. Before we dig in, we get to Afraid of Heights. The band’s fourth album is their brightest, cleanest record, a set that should win over hold-outs who still think the group’s constricted to just lo-fi. “Dog” features a celeste—this from the band whose singles used to double as buzz saws. The soapy new sound comes from the production of John Hill and an abundance of time: the album was made over the course of a year, compared to the four months it took to wrap up 2010’s King of the Beach.
“[That album] was way over, it was supposed to take two months,” Williams recalls. “I went back to L.A. at the time and two weeks later went back to Mississippi and finished it.” After albums on Fat Possum and Woodsist, 2011’s Life Sux EP was released independently; for Afraid of Heights, they opted to do it themselves and sell the results later. Not having a release date, or a label rep tapping their shoulders, was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking.
“We just got to try everything that we wanted to do,” Pope says, noting that they ordered unexpected instruments or spent days testing out guitar tones. Settling on sounds that felt right took longer than expected; Hill let them run up a tab.
“We ended up the first few weeks exploring some different territory,” the producer says in a phone call days after breakfast with Wavves. “It didn’t really feel like Wavves. It became what it is just by working on it.”
Hill, whose pop-heavy resume includes work with Rihanna and Santigold, also brought a critical ear to the lengthy, alcohol-aided sessions.
“Sometimes you need a voice of reason to be like, ‘You suck right now, get out of the booth, drink some tea and let’s track something else,’” Williams says.
“As long as people can do their jobs, it’s not like I’m like you can’t drink at the studio or something,” Hill adds over the phone. “Not that they would’ve listened to me anyway.”
The work took roughly a year—the band finished tracking in December and mixed in January. They did an interview last July saying the album was done: the Wavves calendar can be a little hazy. “Yeah, I’m a liar,” Williams says, laughing. Not that the sessions were exactly relaxed.
“We basically shut ourselves off from the world because we were working 13 or 14-hour days,” Williams says. “Once we were nearing the year mark, we were like, ‘Fuck. Let’s finish this.’ It was already there. It was finished. It was just obsessing over detail at that point.”
Hill’s picture sounds less like slave labor (“For a while I was working on sessions during the day and they’d come in at night and then we’d work till four or five in the morning,” he recalls), but it’s clear Afraid of Heights is the product of a dedicated band—and one ready for a more ambitious, less abrasive sound.
The influences are as evident as Williams’ weed habit. Single “Demon to Lean On” opens with an acoustic riff not far from Weezer’s “El Scorcho” before the flanger-warped guitar tones of Nirvana—and the lyrical themes of Kurt Cobain—enter. “We’re probably just dumb,” Williams sings, before ripping into the heavy part: “The truth is that it hurts.”
“I always liked music but the first time I heard Nirvana I remember being like, ‘O.K., this is the music that’s for me,” Williams says. “I still am deeply attached to it.”
Weezer’s 1994 self-titled debut and Nirvana’s Incesticide were Williams’ soundtracks during the recordings; when they wanted to dial in a vintage guitar tone, Hill—who describes himself as “not really a rock producer”—went down a rabbit hole until they’d captured it.
“My friend Rich Costey, who works with Weezer, I was hitting him up all the time,” Hill says. “How did this guitar tone happen, looking on the Internet.”
Some songs — for example, “Beat Me Up” and “Cop” — were finished in days as the band wrapped up the album sessions, while others, including the title track, were tweaked and prodded for months. The results range from straightforward alt-rock to surreal material such as “Everything is My Fault”, a tuneful, acoustic-driven psych-pop ballad built from sampling Williams’ original demo. Finding a home for the album was a far less complicated process.
“We met with a bunch of people. Mom + Pop was just the coolest, I thought. It was the best deal, too,” Williams says of the New York label, also home to tour partners FIDLAR and indie mainstays Metric and Andrew Bird. “We had to pay for it at that point.”
Its upbeat musicianship aside, Afraid of Heights is a dark album, a look into the abyss. It’s full of references to guns and knives and death, angels just out of reach. Lyrical nods to Cobain or Cuomo are abound: “Woke up and found Jesus,” Williams sings in the title track, a line that can’t help but evoke Weezer’s “You cleaned up, found Jesus.” But it’s Williams’ narrative that makes the songs his own.
“It wasn’t the brightest year for either of us,” Williams says of the recording process, which saw lyrics coming last.
“Lots of friends dying,” Pope adds.
“I think that lyrically this record is just a lot further away from King of the Beach or anything before it,” Williams continues. “And I don’t really know why that is. I just tried to not think about it too much and write whatever came to mind.”
It’d be easy to take that on face value from the writer of “So Bored”, but Williams is deeper than that. The persona that emerges across the music of Wavves—bored, belligerent, and stoned; stand-ins for self-hatred—is a sliver of the musician sitting at breakfast, who says “It’s about to get so real” when his French toast arrives. In person, Williams is lucid and funny, less dark than self-deprecating.
He takes pains to avoid controversy: “I don’t think anybody’s better than anybody,” he says during a conversation about working with rappers vs. rockers, but there’s no reason for him not to mean it. Afraid of Heights is his most sober record and in some ways his most honest, one that documents a grown-up who’s able to admit in song, “That’s on me.” The epiphanies that come with front-and-center, sugar-rush melodies makes it the kind of album that made his heroes famous. At least, some of his heroes.
As Wavves, Williams has been many things: rising bedroom noise-rocker, indie celebrity/weed aficionado, and his latest incarnation as a budding hip-hop guru. That’s the blog headline version. The real story gets more complicated. It always does.
Williams grew up in L.A. and Virginia before his family moved to San Diego, where his parents still live. Art runs in the family: his mother’s a music teacher, his father teaches theater, and they both met in a band. Williams got his first guitar at 11. His first CD was AFI’s Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes; Pope’s was Weezer’s debut.
“Oasis’ What’s the Story, Morning Glory, that was my first tape,” Williams says. “I asked for Nirvana and the other one that they got me was The Wallflowers. The one with the stars on it, that was like black and gold. [1996’s Bringing Down the Horse.] I didn’t like that very much.”
High school and Williams didn’t quite work out. At a private Christian school, bible classes didn’t mesh well with his skating and drinking. “Private Christian school is where I got weird,” he says. “My parents were fucking poor, too. They didn’t have money to send me to that place.” Williams doesn’t believe in God, though he doesn’t blame his parents for “trying to do what they thought was the right thing.” In 10th grade, he left, finished his degree with a homeschool program, and moved out of his parents’ house.
“I lived on this crusty dude’s couch for a while, my friend DJ who was in this band called Drats,” he says. “I tried a bunch of drugs and then moved to Portland.”
Williams and Pope’s friendship begins to come into focus. Pope’s also a Christian school alumni, who turned to music and drugs to lash out.
“We were trying to be GG Allin in my first band,” he says. “I was like 16, I would get naked and roll around in glass and smash TVs. Drugs get you to the right place for those performances.”
Williams eventually found those choices—particularly the Pacific Northwest’s abundance of meth—less inviting. He moved back home after six months and managed a record shop before starting Wavves, leaving Sleater-Kinney’s footsteps untraced.
“I was working retail up there and just wasn’t happy,” he says. “I think I was just mad at myself that I hadn’t seriously pursued music yet.”
It’s unlikely Portland audiences would’ve understood him. Beyond Nirvana, L.A. punk, circa the era of Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords, and bands such as NOFX, had become another inspiration for Williams. In Southern California in the late ‘90s, pop-punk bands might as well have been Greek gods and Williams’ mortal sound stole some of that divine fire. “It wasn’t cool,” Pope says of the genre in his Memphis days. “I kind of liked all the pop-punk stuff but it’s definitely a SoCal thing.”
The early Wavves catalog is murky, but Williams considers his debut album the self-titled Wavves—the one with two V’s, not three—a 2008 set that was originally released on cassette by the Fuck It Tapes label, a companion to the influential Woodsist label. Twitter was in its infancy and blogs hadn’t completely taken over the conversation yet. Instead, the release first drew attention from places such as Hipinion, an obsessively hip (and painfully self-aware) online community that served as a bellwether for about-to-buzz new music. It used to be Pitchfork’s official message board, believe it or not.
One way or another, listeners arrived, drawn to the album’s messy sound and crackling tracks. Lo-fi and garage rock was fast becoming, if not a scene, then a trend as groups from Vivian Girls to Times New Viking revived the ‘90s four-track boom—or like No Age, threatened to blow up their rigs entirely. From the beginning, Wavves was as fully formed and speaker-shattering as any of them: Wavves’ “Loser Year” divides vocals and acid-hot guitars with surgical precision, until they collide in a forest-fire chorus: “It’s all for you, ooh-woo-ooh-ooh,” Williams sings in falsetto. “I know I am a loser,” he continues in the track’s most intelligible portion, a self-aware strain that still dominates his work.
It helped that the press began well before the album landed in fall 2008. That May, the NME dubbed the project “DOO-WAVE,” a genre tag that immediately jumped off a bridge, never to be seen again. On January 6th, 2009, Pitchfork improved on the description in its first news item about the band, calling them a “four-track noise-pop entity”; on January 24th, the group, then just Williams and drummer Ryan Ulsh, played their second show ever, joining Wild Light and the then-buzzy Tapes ‘n’ Tapes at the El Rey, a mid-size L.A. theater generally host to the mid-career indie middle class or hot young acts too big for the eastside bars.
I was at the show. “Unprepared” is a kind way of describing it. The cauterizing fuzz of the album was absent. Mostly, Williams drank a beer and strummed until it was time to leave. But ready or not, Wavves released a sophomore album—Wavvves—and started touring in earnest that spring. Wavves has played hundreds of shows since, good ones, loud ones, drunk ones, but the 2009 Primavera Sound Festival in Spain still occupies a place of permanent shame on the band’s Wikipedia page. Like the image of Jennifer Aniston eating ice cream and forever pining for Brad Pitt, it’s his own personal inescapable Us Weekly cover. He’s aware: “My wiki page is so good rn,” he tweeted in March. Williams reads his own reviews, or at least tweets links to them.
By all accounts, Williams took too many drugs, freaked out, and fought with Ulsh. It was, in other words, a punk rock show. The performance happened on the festival’s Pitchfork stage, and site founder Ryan Schreiber documented the breakdown. Days later, Pitchfork ran an interview with Williams comparable to an hour on Oprah’s couch. It’s not a fun read. But it was an opportunity to change.
Having survived a head-on collision with international touring, public shame, and micro-fame, Wavves switched gears. Williams moved to L.A. and Pope (alongside drummer Billy Hayes, both former members of the late Jay Reatard’s band) joined the band, and with that, the Wavves chronicle headed toward redemption: the live shows turned professional and powerful. A third album, King of the Beach, won strong reviews from just about everybody: Paste, SPIN, the Alternative Press and Pitchfork, representatives of four distinct rock niches, found common ground in their high marks.
The cover art is adorned with palm trees and a cat smoking a joint. The cat’s real-life inspiration, a tabby named Snacks, belongs to Bethany Cosentino, an avant-garde expat gone noise-pop with Best Coast, a duo then experiencing its own controversial ascent. After dating as teenagers, Cosentino and Williams picked things up again. To date, they share their relationship on Twitter and in magazine cover stories; in the past, they’ve embarked on a joint tour and performed on a one-off track together for Target. They’re also not shy about a prodigious, borderline-Snoop Dogg love of pot.
He owns a house now. Has Williams thought about settling down, having kids? He waits a beat.
“No. Not right now. I can barely take care of myself,” he says, steering the conversation toward humor. “I watch Teen Mom, I know what it’s like. It’s harder than people think.”
Three weeks later, he’ll post an Instagram of himself holding two babies. He’s looking down at them, smiling.
Afraid of Heights, like Cobain’s iconic “Married/buried,” lyric, plays love both ways: “I’ll always be on my own,” he sings on the title track, but in “That’s On Me”, he counters: “What’s yours is mine, we’re married.” Cosentino’s name doesn’t come up at breakfast. They haven’t tweeted at each other publicly in weeks.
She’s featured on the Life Sux EP, released in 2010 and the start of the third, current era of Wavves: Williams as the hustler, the hit-maker, the budding mogul. (It’s almost time to remember that Williams owns a house. Stay with me.) The EP’s lead track is “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl”, a song that at last embraces his mainstream roots in both sound and subject. He hasn’t met Grohl yet, but he’s made up for it in hip-hop icons.
Since King of the Beach, Williams has been grinding his way into the rap world: he’s played guitar on tour with Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA and contributed a track to Big Boi’s latest album. He’s released a pair of free instrumental albums as Sweet Valley, an electronic project with his brother, a producer. They’re as creative and engaging as any Clams Casino beat tape.
“He wanted to move to L.A.,” Williams said of his sibling. “So I basically told him he could live at my house rent-free as long as he’d pay his rent by being my engineer. We hadn’t started recording our record yet. We weren’t touring, we weren’t doing anything, so yeah, I think I was a little stir-crazy.”
From the outside looking in, this is the chapter of the story that initially makes the least sense. How does a gritty punk rocker make his way into the rap game? Connections help: the Big Boi track came thanks to Williams’ songwriting session with Hill. He met GZA though his publicist. “We played [FUEL TV show] The Daily Habit with him on his 40th birthday,” Williams remembers. “He asked me to play guitar with him on this tour that he was doing for Liquid Swords. He’s one of my favorite pop artists of all time, so of course I said yes.”
It turns out Williams has been a hip-hop head all along. From 2008 to 2011, he ran a music blog called Ghost Ramp that focused heavily on his knowledge of the genre. In his “Classic Cut” series, he posted tracks from Jeru the Damaja and KMD among better-known hits. He shared his own material there, too: a post in October 2008 announcing his debut cassette has one comment, now deleted. Like the rest of the blog, it appears without preamble or pretension. Just the music. Just the hustle.
There’s only one thing that really bothers Wavves these days: the slacker label. No one says that to Snoop.
“The slacker thing gets to me a little bit,” says Williams.
“I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot,” adds Pope. As evidence, they present their upcoming South Korean tour and how they made the album while touring in Australia and Europe. Beyond the marathon recording sessions, Wavves’ recent portfolio also includes music for MTV’s I Just Want My Pants Back, forays into comics (the 2011-announced but seemingly unreleased Negative Dad), and a line of weed grinders. Both Williams and Pope are advocates for legalization; Williams has smoked every day since he was 19, a habit that helped him make perhaps the strongest investment of his career.
“I’ve been looking at houses for a while,” he says. “Real estate was just an interesting thing to me. I had this realtor. And I just got into looking at houses—it was just like, I’d get stoned in the morning and go look at 10, 15 houses and just see what was wrong with them. [I] started being able to tell when they had this furniture they’d just bought to try and flip houses quickly. The house that I bought was the first house I actually looked at. Somebody bid on it and got it. Almost a year exactly later, it went back up in the market… I was just like, fuck it, I’m going to do it.”
He says the house is up $80,000 since. It’s not comparable to 50 Cent’s Vitamin Water money, but this is also indie rock. It’s not his only alternate source of income, either. Before tackling Afraid of Heights, he and Hill did songwriting sessions for more prominent names.
“We did writing sessions for No Doubt,” he says. “We did a couple of other things that didn’t get picked up.”
You won’t find his name in the Push and Shove liner notes. But it’s not hard to imagine Afraid of Heights, an album as in love with the ‘90s grunge glory days as modern rock radio still is, becoming a mainstream breakthrough. Hill wants the band to do more collaborations. There’s more Sweet Valley on the way. And maybe GZA will call again. The options seem limitless.
“I’m just trying to think about touring on this record and that’s kind of it,” Williams says. “Maybe I should make a five-year plan. When I get home I’m going to write up a five-year. I’ll send it to you.”
He won’t. Instead, we finish eating and talk about R. Stevie Moore, the ridiculously prolific lo-fi great whose oddball career has been given a second wind by his foremost apostle, Ariel Pink. Moore has put out dozens of albums, but Williams puts the official count at closer to 26; Wavves is on number 4.
“I don’t see myself being alive, 22 [albums] from now,” Pope says. Williams laughs, but they’re half-joking. The gloom that settles on Afraid of Heights rolls into the restaurant.
“There will definitely be a point where – I don’t know. I mean I’m open to the idea of touring on this record and doing whatever, I just don’t know how long any of us really want to – I don’t know,” he says.
He says those last three words a dozen times during our meal. Maybe it’s the sinus infection talking, or the Nyquil, or the pot, or his uncanny awareness of being interviewed, and how easily quotes spin out of context into an episode of indie-rock Gossip Girl. We talk about the tour—the band’s purposefully playing small venues, trying to gauge how many fans still care—and Williams tells me more than half the shows are sold out. He can probably name every date. He knows what he’s doing.
Williams does not finish his side of eggs and bacon. He asks the waiter to package it up and we walk out the back door to take photos. They muster the energy to play a few minutes of basketball before we take a few shots in front of an American flag mural across the street. Williams pauses to fix his pants cuffs and Pope teases him.
Williams has a hip-hop attentiveness to clothing: today, he’s wearing a Sopranos baseball jacket and a cap that reads, “Death.” He looks like a cross between a grown-up skater and a pre-Kanye MC, which is probably what he’s going for. He could be Tyler, the Creator’s big brother.
Back at the house, the three of us play FIFA Soccer 2013 and digest. Williams crushes me, 3-0. “Fuck!” he says after a missed goal. It’s most animated he’s been all day. I manage some tight passing and finish the game without a total disaster. It’s a surprisingly nuanced game. You can see exactly what you did wrong, Williams tells me, and try to fix it. That’s why you can play it for hours.
On a Wednesday night a few days after SXSW, I’m at the Echo to see Wavves play a show in the band’s adopted hometown. Joining them on the bill are Cheetah and FIDLAR, another set of petulant skate-punks who, in the pre-Wavves era, might’ve been stuck playing Orange County all-ages clubs rather than scoring record deals and underground acclaim. For flashy young buzz bands of the Internet variety, the Echo has become the essential Los Angeles debut.
It has competition, especially in the neighborhood: the Satellite, the Bootleg, and the Silverlake Lounge all vie for these acts, but the Echo and its big brother, the Echoplex, typically outgun them. The venue has become the hub for a chain-smoking Sunset Blvd. scene that now includes Sage, an organic vegan restaurant; Masa, a pizza place that requires 45 minutes to bake its deep-dish creations; and El Prado, a craft beer and wine bar that makes the neighborhood’s past PBR love affair feel like an ex you don’t talk about. It still has taco trucks, though.
It’s familiar ground for Wavves. Just after nine, the venue is a steamy hothouse of bros in hip-hop-endorsed snapbacks. A girl with a Blair Waldorf headband sits in the back, texting, but most have their eyes on the stage. At the door, there’s a no-crowd-surfing sign: I’ve never seen that in a hundred shows here, or the baseball caps. The power of Wavves in action. Outside, a handful of smokers take advantage of the patio. For once, the scene is at the actual scene.
“This song’s about rehab and how much it sucks!” FIDLAR’s Zac Carper of FIDLAR says. He’s no Amy Winehouse, but he sings like he’s had a lot of Red Bull. A kid runs on stage and lunges onto the shoulders of the audience, shouting back in Carper’s face. “You guys excited about Wavves?” he asks between songs. They are. A seapunk girl bounces with the mosh pit, her shoulder-length blue hair shaking, while a bespectacled photographer struggles to hold his ground. The band closes with “Wake Bake Skate” as young men storm the stage. It’s sweaty and loud and a little dumb, but alive.
Wavves take the stage and set up gingerly in the wake of FIDLAR’s devastation. Williams, for once, is not wearing a hat. Pop’s hair explodes from under his beanie like curly cotton candy. They’re nearly on time. The set is what people have come to hear: crunchy and heavy, like a Twix battering ram. Williams is too much a craftsman to pogo around the stage, head-banging only when space between vocals allows. The kids already know the new stuff, singing along as the chord changes of “Demon to Lean On” shove forward like blocks of cement. The crowd is less a mosh pit than a collection of synchronized bouncing balls. They love Wavves.
Maybe their crowds aren’t like this everywhere. But most evenings at the Echo involve stepping out back for a smoke break or conversations that can’t wait until after. Not tonight. Perhaps all of Williams’ ambivalence is just savvy marketing: under-promise, over-deliver. Before we left breakfast, I asked him what kind of message he wanted Afraid of Heights to send.
“I just I want anybody that feels similarly about any of the things I talk about, to feel like, O.K., somebody else feels that way,” he said.
The first generation of U.S. punks thought their music was about being different, but they learned it was really about this. About being alone, together. It’s a feeling that’s not easy to harness, but Wavves has.
The show ends and the crowd buzzes, not ready to call it a night. I sit with friends and order apple pie at the Brite Spot, an Echo Park diner under competent but less charming new management. It’s an hour later when I walk back to my car. The band’s in front of the Echo, talking and smiling and, for the moment, visibly pleased to play in a rock band. Pope leans over an open car door, talking to Williams, who sits in the passenger seat as a pretty brunette presses the gas pedal. The car drives down Sunset Blvd., into the darkness. He can go wherever he wants.
David Greenwald (@daverawkblog) is a Los Angeles-based journalist and photographer. Currently, he’s a contributing editor for Billboard and also writes for The Atlantic, GQ, Los Angeles Times, and MTV Buzzworthy. Since 2005, he’s covered music for his own site, Rawkblog, which has grown to include the Rawkblog Presents podcast and Playlist Club, a unique digital music service.
Photography by David Greenwald and Ted Maider; artwork by Steven Fiche and Cap Blackard.