Track by Track is a new music feature that tasks artists with revealing the stories behind every track on their latest effort.
There’s no shortage of actors taking up the axe, with Keanu Reeves, Russell Crowe, and Johnny Depp, among them. None, however, did so at the young age of Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard, who, after starring in videos for PUP and recording some covers in his bedroom, formed indie rock outfit Calpurnia with three of his friends in his native Vancouver. Today marks the release of the band’s first EP, Scout, which harkens back to those halcyon days when big, raunchy guitar solos were all the rage.
Truly a product of the members’ favorite indie rockers of the last few years (Finn will be the first to admit his obsession with Mac DeMarco) Calpurnia managed to snag Twin Peaks’ Cadien Lake James as a producer on the EP. Recording with James in Chicago’s Tree House Studios last November, Calpurnia emerged with the six-song EP in just ten days. Though their lyrics certainly sound as if the authors are, in fact, still in high school – “Greyhound” has the line, “I missed school for this,” while “Blame” references prom staple, the corsage – their instrumentals are frequently complex, with lead guitarist Ayla Tesler-Mabe’s jazz-influenced breakdowns and bluesy solos elevating singles like “City Boy”, “Louie”, and “Wasting Time”.
Stream the entirety of Scout below via Apple Music or Spotify.
We sat down with Wolfhard, Tesler-Mabe, bassist Jack Anderson, and drummer Malcolm Craig to break down the origins of each song on Scout Track By Track. Check out what they had to say below.
Finn Wolfhard: That was the hardest song to record I think because we wanted to record it live. So we kind of recorded that acoustically, but it was the hardest to get because the other songs were recorded in pieces, but this one we had to get as a solid take – which is fine, but we had to get it perfect. I don’t know how many times we did it – but it ended up being a happy accident. It sounded great.
Ayla Tesler-Mabe: The song originally was a more laid-back Lou Reed-ish sort of vibe – which is why it’s called “Louie”. But then I added some slide guitar and then all of a sudden we were like, “Ah! This could be something pretty groovy.” Once we got to the studio, Cadien had some cool ideas for ways to spice up the ending and it ended up getting pretty Rolling Stones-ish at the end as well. I’d never played in that style before and I thought I’d give it a try and it was really fun to do that.
FW: We were talking about how to end it and he was just like, “What if we went full Rolling Stones and have Malcolm come in on the drums?” – he was on bongos before that. The people singing backup, it’s Colin [Croom of Twin Peaks] and Cadien singing the high stuff.
Jack Anderson: It’s cool because originally, we were going to have Macolm come in with the drums and the last verse and chorus were going to be a little more upbeat and then all of a sudden Cadien was like, “Gang vocals!” Then three minutes later, it was on the track. It was pretty cool because it happened so fast. Then grand piano got added over the solo and slowly it started as two guitars and it builds and builds and builds. It’s cool to see how it evolves from the ground up.
FW: We were listening to The Stones on the way to the studio. We were listening to Some Girls a lot. I listened to the song “Lies” on Some Girls – it’s my favorite Rolling Stones song. Subconsciously, we were going through that energy. I don’t think we were like, “We need to sound like The Rolling Stones,” but we were listening to The Rolling Stones a lot during the recording.
ATM: [“Louie”] starts really laid back and live-feeling and you’re thrust into this world that we’re in the studio just playing. It’s just essentially us playing the way we always do, but they were actually recording it. The ending definitely, I hope, takes people by surprise and hypes them up. I think it’s a really fun way to start the EP.
JA: It slingshots you into the rest of it with that ending there.
JA: We had a long, long, long rehearsal session from like 11 in the morning to midnight and right as we were leaving, I was driving Finn home and Finn started playing those chords and the progression of it and we recorded it as a voice memo and it kind of went from there, that little last minute idea as we were leaving.
ATM: He was playing some cool chords and I’m like, “Wait, do that again!” Originally, it was pretty surfy sounding, lots of reverb, really nice.
JA: The funniest thing was that the demo we made for “Wasting Time,” we sent it to the label…
FW: We forgot that we put ASMR at the end!
JA: Whispering and crunching in the microphone.
ATM: I remember I sent it to the group chat after I finished mixing it a little bit. Next thing we know, Finn’s like, “I sent it to the label.” “Wait, you did?!”
FW: As a joke, we were like, “Oh, let’s put funny ASMR at the end.” We were just chewing gum, being like, [whispers] “Thanks for listening.”
ATM: I know we talked a little bit about Lou Reed and it wasn’t intentional, but what’s cool about this song was in the studio, at least the guitar tone to me, sounds like “Waiting for the Man” off of The Velvet Underground & Nico because you’re got that really grungy, distorted guitar.
FW: I think the sound, out of all of the albums, how it sounds, pleasing to the ears, that’s my favorite one that sounds good. It’s not my favorite song off the EP, but it’s my favorite one that nestles in the ear.
ATM: I think the whole idea was just to make the whole record sound like we sat down and played. I think all of the guitar tracks for me were just one continuous take. There’s a few human errors here and there were the pick hit the strings and stuff. I’m such a perfectionist where usually that would bother me a lot, but I kept it in there. I wanted it to just be one take. The whole idea is to create something human and live and just us.
JA: Definitely for that “Greyhound” lyric, I was inspired by an experience I had when I went to go watch Joe Jackson, who’s my favorite musician ever. He started the new tour for a new album and all of his stuff was in the ’80s, so for him to come out with a new album in 2016, was like, “Whoa!” He wasn’t playing in Vancouver where we live, so I skipped school – “I missed school for this” – went to the Neptune – “Neptune” – he was my favorite – “They were your favorite.” Drawing on past experiences there.
FW: We are playing the Neptune. Isn’t that insane? We’re going to play that song in the Neptune!
FW: That’s the one song where we all collaborated. Everyone.
ATM: Everyone just sitting in my basement throwing ideas around. The lyrics definitely are a little dark too.
FW: I’d never experienced it, but I’d always thought about – I have friends that had friends who have had cancer or a crippling sickness. So when I was writing that song, that’s what I was thinking about – I was like, “Oh man, I shouldn’t take advantage of my friends because I could have a friend who gets sick or whatever because it can happen.” That’s what I was thinking of when I was writing the first lyrics. I wrote them when I was 12 and they were very sadboy, edgy, starting puberty.
ATM: I think the lyrics definitely touch on that but also, specifically we had in mind is someone losing someone to a drug overdose. There’s all of this sadness and anger. Even though we haven’t experienced that specific scenario in our lives, definitely we’ve all experienced certain things that we touch on in our lyrics. The emotion can be similar I think… I think the original ending, we sort of built up on an E chord and just ended and let it rang out.
ATM: The song shouldn’t have ended when the vocals ended. It felt like there should be something that people could hang onto as a sendoff. We changed that in the studio. The first day we got into the studio, we listened to all of the demos with Cadien and we were just talking about what we wanted to keep and change and the first thing he said was, “That ending… no. We’re going to do something cool with that.” I think it turned out way better than we possibly could have anticipated. It’s a really beautiful ending.
FW: From the beginning, we all thought it was the best first single. It shows everyone’s thing, it’s the most marketable, and it’s the catchiest.
ATM: The energy is very youthful and fun. It’s just a fun and upbeat song, that’s really all it is.
FW: [The lyric video] is literally us needing a music video and Josie, who’s the bassist from Whitney, came in and shot all videos and stills for us. That’s just us recording in the studio. We didn’t know we were shooting a video.
Malcolm Craig: Josiah Marshall, number one best-smelling man. Smells very good.
ATM: We thought someone was recording footage just to look back. I can imagine years from now looking back on that video really fondly because it pretty much sums up our experience – we were just having a good time recording music.
We were in my basement when we were first running what we had initially in terms of the arrangement. “We need to ramp this up a little bit!” Actually, there wasn’t initially going to be a solo, but once we recorded everything, Cadien’s like, “What if you lay down a few licks?” When I sit down to improvise, it’s usually quite bluesy, jazzy, kind of suave stuff, but he was like, “Make this dirty and rock ‘n’ roll.” I raised the action super high on my guitar, like slide guitar high. It hurt!
JA: [Will Miller from Whitney is] playing flugelhorn, not trumpet, which is pretty cool.
ATM: I remember we were recording and I was sitting in the booth and he recorded a few takes. He was like “Ah, I feel this is too wispy sounding.” “No! We want it wispy sounding! We want Stan gets wispy, walking down the streets of New York.”
FW: From the beginning, Cadien was like, “We should have horns on this intro.” “Who could we get?” “Oh, I’ll just call Will.” Chicago has a super tight-knit music scene – in my opinion, it has the best music scene in the world right now. They’re all best friends – all of those Chicago bands, The Orwells, Twin Peaks, Whitney. All of those guys are very close-knit and stuff and they all know each other very well.
JA: He just showed up at 8:54 and our session ended at 9:00. He recorded it in six minutes. I think creative limitations and pressure is super important. If you’re going to the nicest studio with all of the equipment for a year on end, you’re just going to make another Chinese Democracy. As Jack White says, “If you’re not putting any pressure on yourself, it’s going to sound really bad.” I think definitely the pressure of, “Hey let’s get this moving,” was a bit of a motivator.
ATM: I’m such a perfectionist and I could go and play like ten takes and they’d be like, “Oh, that’s fine” and I’d be like, “Nope, that’s not right.” When I realize that everyone else needs to record and we have a limited amount of time, I’m like, “OK, just do it.”
FW: Most tracks in total took a day and a half. [“Blame”] took the longest.
ATM: I think it was laying down the initial groundwork that took the most time because obviously there are some tempo changes and groove changes. You have to build a really solid foundation. Every sound engineer’s nightmare.
ATM: I think for me, the music I love a lot is the music that just… makes you feel something. We had the first four chords and, “Ah! What if we tried these nice chords, do they make you feel something? Yes! OK!” We sort of had an arrangement there and we left some empty space in that part where the song builds. “What if we have it build like it does in ‘Apocalypse Dreams’ by Tame Impala and hit a chord, let it ring out, and go back into the song?'”
FW: When we were recording that song, we were thinking of Tame Impala, Grizzly Bear, and bands like that. We weren’t thinking of copying them, we were just thinking of the vibe of it.
ATM: Obviously, I love playing all of the songs and I love hearing Finn’s voice – he has an amazing voice – and I’m excited to hear anyone else in the band who wants to sing, but I definitely love singing. I’ve been singing longer than I’ve been playing guitar and anytime I get to sing a song, especially a song that I’ve written, it’s an amazing experience. I do love the way that the song definitely draws on some convention, but in many ways, I think it’s quite unconventional. We definitely wanted something psychedelic and laid back and something that’s transportive in a way.
FW: The only thing I play in that whole song is the Fender Rhodes. That’s it.
JA: There was a giant box of percussion instruments from the upstairs fancy studio. They brought it down and there’s this whirligig-looking thing where it’s a big black rubber disk tied to two strings and you spin it and pull the strings out and it goes [whistles]. It’s used as a dog call. We were just mucking around with it in the studio and unbeknownst to any of us, Colin recorded it. We thought he was mucking around, but he did it and he put it on the track without telling anyone and he played it back and it was like, “Oh that’s kind of sick.”
ATM: “Yeah, we might use this, I don’t know,” but we listened back to the track he recorded and were like, “This needs to stay for sure.”