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. Thats 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 AFIs Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes; Popes was Weezers debut.
Oasis’ Whats 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. [1996s Bringing Down the Horse.] I didnt like that very much.
High school and Williams didnt quite work out. At a private Christian school, bible classes didnt mesh well with his skating and drinking. Private Christian school is where I got weird, he says. My parents were fucking poor, too. They didnt have money to send me to that place. Williams doesnt believe in God, though he doesnt 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 dudes 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 Popes friendship begins to come into focus. Popes 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 choicesparticularly the Pacific Northwests abundance of methless inviting. He moved back home after six months and managed a record shop before starting Wavves, leaving Sleater-Kinneys footsteps untraced.
I was working retail up there and just wasnt happy, he says. I think I was just mad at myself that I hadnt seriously pursued music yet.
Its unlikely Portland audiences wouldve 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 wasnt cool, Pope says of the genre in his Memphis days. I kind of liked all the pop-punk stuff but its definitely a SoCal thing.
The early Wavves catalog is murky, but Williams considers his debut album the self-titled Wavvesthe one with two Vs, not threea 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 hadnt 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 Pitchforks official message board, believe it or not.
One way or another, listeners arrived, drawn to the albums 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 boomor 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: Its all for you, ooh-woo-ooh-ooh, Williams sings in falsetto. I know I am a loser, he continues in the tracks 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 albumWavvvesand 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 bands 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 festivals Pitchfork stage, and site founder Ryan Schreiber documented the breakdown. Days later, Pitchfork ran an interview with Williams comparable to an hour on Oprahs couch. Its 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 Reatards 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 cats 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. Theyre 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 its like. Its harder than people think.
Three weeks later, hell post an Instagram of himself holding two babies. Hes looking down at them, smiling.
Afraid of Heights, like Cobains iconic Married/buried, lyric, plays love both ways: Ill always be on my own, he sings on the title track, but in Thats On Me, he counters: Whats yours is mine, were married. Cosentinos name doesnt come up at breakfast. They havent tweeted at each other publicly in weeks.
Shes 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. (Its almost time to remember that Williams owns a house. Stay with me.) The EPs lead track is I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl, a song that at last embraces his mainstream roots in both sound and subject. He hasnt met Grohl yet, but hes made up for it in hip-hop icons.
Since King of the Beach, Williams has been grinding his way into the rap world: hes played guitar on tour with Wu-Tang Clans GZA and contributed a track to Big Bois latest album. Hes released a pair of free instrumental albums as Sweet Valley, an electronic project with his brother, a producer. Theyre 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 hed pay his rent by being my engineer. We hadnt started recording our record yet. We werent touring, we werent 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. Hes 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.
Theres 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 weve 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 MTVs 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.
Ive 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 housesit was just like, Id 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 theyd 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, Im going to do it.
He says the house is up $80,000 since. Its not comparable to 50 Cents 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 didnt get picked up.
You wont find his name in the Push and Shove liner notes. But its 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. Theres more Sweet Valley on the way. And maybe GZA will call again. The options seem limitless.
Im just trying to think about touring on this record and thats kind of it, Williams says. Maybe I should make a five-year plan. When I get home Im going to write up a five-year. Ill send it to you.
He wont. 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 dont see myself being alive, 22 [albums] from now, Pope says. Williams laughs, but theyre half-joking. The gloom that settles on Afraid of Heights rolls into the restaurant.
There will definitely be a point where I dont know. I mean Im open to the idea of touring on this record and doing whatever, I just dont know how long any of us really want to I dont know, he says.
He says those last three words a dozen times during our meal. Maybe its 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 tourthe bands purposefully playing small venues, trying to gauge how many fans still careand Williams tells me more than half the shows are sold out. He can probably name every date. He knows what hes 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, hes 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 hes going for. He could be Tyler, the Creators 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. Its most animated hes been all day. I manage some tight passing and finish the game without a total disaster. Its a surprisingly nuanced game. You can see exactly what you did wrong, Williams tells me, and try to fix it. Thats why you can play it for hours.