Cover Story
A SIT-DOWN, LONG-FORM INTERVIEW WITH THE HOTTEST ACT AROUND
on April 01, 2013, 12:00am
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oasis Wavves: Picking Up the SlackAs 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.”

ggallin Wavves: Picking Up the Slack

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.

stoned Wavves: Picking Up the Slack

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.”

Slacker

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.

22albumsv2 Wavves: Picking Up the Slack

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.

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