2009 WAS A YEAR OF EXTREME HIGHS AND LOWS FOR NATHAN WILLIAMS, AS HE DANCED BETWEEN DIY GARAGE HERO AND SPOILED, UNGRATEFUL WASTER. HIS NEW ALBUM CONFIRMS HIM TO BE THE FORMER
An hour before we meet Wavves for the second time, Nathan Williams updates his Facebook status to read, ‘I hate everyone and everything… No exceptions!’. This is bad for two reasons – 1.) We most definitely fall into the ‘everyone and everything’ category, and 2.) The last time we met Williams, we hardly hit it off.
Back then (in March ’09), Wavves were a duo whilst on the road, completed by drummer Ryan Ulsh. Neither of them were the sharing type. Slouched backstage before a London show, they mumbled their way through our line of questioning, managing a shrug every now and then to let us know they weren’t paralysed from the neck down. ‘Sulky’, you could have called them; ‘unimpressed’ was perhaps even made for that precise moment in time. The truth is that hardly anyone ‘hit it off’ with Wavves back then, but last year was a very strange time for the San Diego boy who picked up a guitar to save himself from working the till at American Apparel.
Williams is a dude in the truest sense of the word. A 23-year-old Californian with a love for weed, skateboarding and Nintendo, his slack garage pop completes the package of stoner kid into all things rad. And stoner kids that play bedroom-produced lo-fi garage, as we all know, are the darlings of buzz-blogs and hip media. The baby-faced Williams went as far as being dubbed ‘this century’s Kurt Cobain’ – the saviour of US indie. Only he didn’t deliver ‘Bleach’, he gave us ‘Wavves’ – a woozy, half-effort of a debut album, dipped in heavy reverb to cover the fact that Williams wasn’t all that superior to others reviving hazy, hissy beach music. Furthermore, the ‘new Kurt’ began behaving more and more petulantly, not just I-dunno-ing his way through interviews but clanking his way through shows with little visible effort.
He and Ulsh parted ways following what is now considered Wavves’ most infamous stand, at Primavera Sound 2009. Fed up with his singer’s insults to the crowd, and reluctance to play more than a handful of improvised chord patterns, Ulsh poured a pint of beer on Williams and left the stage. The following day, Nathan admitted he was addicted to alcohol, and that his drugs of choice that evening had been Ecstasy, Valium and Xanax. Wavves had gone from anonymous dropout to Pitchfork poster-boy to villain of the year in the space of seven months, and many would-be-fans had washed their hands of him. We certainly had, not so much for Primavera or the moody, teenage veneer, but for the disappointing album, which had seemed so promising when we first heard ‘So Bored’. But if 2009 needed to happen to give us Wavves’ third album (his second was a virtual carbon copy of his first, called ‘Wavvves’), then so be it, because ‘King Of The Beach’ is one hell of a U-turn.
With Nathan William’s new Facebook status sixty minutes old, we find him, new bassist Stephen Pope and drummer Billy Hayes backstage at Cargo, Shoreditch. They’ve driven here from France and have slept for two hours. All three of them are sat surprisingly upright (no slouching here) along the same wall of their dressing room, because the small, hot, closet-like space pretty much demands it. They’ve one beer left in their ice bucket and they’ve run out of weed for the first time in as long as any of them can remember. Despite all this, the new incarnation of Wavves appear relaxed, happy and willing to chat. Very willing. They babble on, easily distracted by each other and making up comically recurring untruths, like what year it is and Nathan’s actual age (it fluctuates over the next hour but ends up being approximately twelve). It’s like playing ADHD Chat Roulette with real people – as soon as we start talking about Men In Black II, we’re done; we’ve clicked ‘next’.
“Can you believe that the douche from Muse’s dad is in The Tornados?” is one sudden, off-point train of thought from Billy. “The Saturdays!? WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?!” goes an outburst from Nathan. Our discussion therefore plays out: question; relevant answer neatly given over the next thirty seconds or less; five minutes of reign-free, lawless chatter; laughter to end. If nothing else, it’s a lot more fun than a huff and a shrug.
“The new album sounds about five hundred pounds heavier than the previous two,” says Stephen, who, along with Billy, had his fair share of garage infamy when Jay Reatard sacked the pair of them shortly before his premature death in January of this year.
“Oh, more than that!” challenges Nathan. “Six hundred?”
“I weigh two forty,” says Billy.
Stephen: “Well, I don’t weigh three hundred! C’mon man!”
Billy: “Okay. I weigh five, these are a slim hundred each.”
“I know that you’re, like, four twenty,” says Nathan to his drummer “and Stephen, you’re like six sixty. I’m an even twelve pounds.”
Stephen: “You’re twelve years of age.”
“I just fattened up the drums,” finishes off Billy in time for a bout of laughter. “Nathan played with his little scrawny wrists and I’ve got these fat tomahawks.”
There’s a valid point in amongst all the weight deliberation. ‘King Of The Beach’ is a far less puney record than anything Nathan came up with in his mum’s garage. Even the Phil Spector-ish, sleigh bell-rattling ‘When Will You Come’ sounds like it’s been on the protein shakes, and it’s probably Wavves’ most mellow track yet. Billy is clearly a more powerful drummer and Stephen increases the number of instruments heard by a third. Nathan appears to have fallen for an extra beastly distortion pedal that he uses as sparingly as Kurt Cobain, stomping from clean and jangling to loud and grungy on most songs.
“Before we went into the studio I said I wanted to make my ‘Nevermind’,” says Nathan “but the only reason I said that was because instead of a thin, trashcan sounding record like the first two, I wanted to make something full and big and studio sounding, like ‘Nevermind’ is. Y’know, when you’ve got a million dollar studio in front of you, you’d be stupid not to use it. I can make another record at my mum’s house anytime. She’s not going to turn me away.”
“We had no time to figure out what we wanted it to sound like,” adds Billy “so we were like, ‘Nathan, what do you want it to sound like?’ and the quickest, easiest way to be like, ‘I want it to sound big’ was to say, ‘I want it to sound like Nirvana!’. It’s easy for retards, older guys like us. I’m forty four! I don’t know who Take On The Radio is, or The Fly Boys, or The Run By Sandies. I don’t know these guys! I like Iron Butterfly! I like Jethro Tull!”
“The Run By Sandies is not one of your favourites,” interrupts Nathan.
“I learnt that from this guy,” says Billy, pointing back at his singer.
Nathan: “But you mean the Drive By Truckers.”
Billy and Stephen are the kind of stoner double act you usually find goofing their way through a Kevin Smith movie, constantly talking about pot and getting high. They’ve played together for years and are funny, sarcastic and self-deprecating, sometimes in the space of a single sentence. They joke that they’re using Nathan to make money on more than one occasion but are unshakably loyal in reality, defending him when the prickly subject of Primavera eventually crops up, or any other topic that could be seen as a criticism.
“Nathan’s our meal ticket, to say the least,” says Billy. “We’re taking this guy for a joyride to the bank, my friend. He’s a cruel boss and a cool friend.”
“For some reason most adoption agencies won’t let Billy and me adopt Nathan,” adds Stephen “because they won’t let gay couples adopt kids.”
Billy: “And apparently we’re not gay, they said, we’re just two guys who want to make money off this kid.”
Stephen: “Yeah, it’s been really hard for us to exploit him.”
But Wavves is a three-piece now, right?
“I dunno,” says Billy. “I mean, what if Nathan hires a bunch more guys because he wants to do some other thing? I dunno. He’s already threatened to replace us with hunks and body builders. He said, ‘you and Stephen are fatties, I want a couple of hot, muscular beasts up there’. And we said, ‘that’s fine, that’s fine’.”
“Well, I gave them an option,” says Nathan. “I said, either you guys slim down or I’m gonna get hunks.”
“It’s not about the slimness,” protests Stephen “it’s about the strength and power, man!”
Nathan: “But I do want oily hunks, who are Puerto Rican. You’re not Puerto Rican.”
‘King Of The Beach’ was recorded in very different surroundings to that of ‘Wavves’ and ‘Wavvves’, ironically marking the first time Nathan had made a record nowhere near the beach, but rather in Oxford, Mississippi. It was “horribly cold,” says the singer, but a chance to record in Sweet Tea Studio (last used by Animal Collective to make ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’) was too good to pass up.
“Bars close at 10 o’clock in Oxford,” Billy tells us “so there really is no partying. It’s like, ‘oh, it’s zero degrees outside and there’s nowhere to go? Okay, we’re gonna stay here and work on this.’ We could go to the movies but the movie theatre closes at 4pm!”
Sweet Tea also came with producer Dennis Herring [Modest Mouse/The Hives] who insisted that Nathan’s vocals were not to be swamped in woozy reverb this time around.
“I argued with Dennis a lot about that,” says Nathan. “That was a big one. I was a little bit nervous at first and wanted to bury my vocals like before. And Dennis was like, ‘no, I don’t think I’m gonna do that. I’m gonna put my foot down right now’,” says Nathan in a stereotypical southern twang. “But after the second song I kinda got used to it. I was a little insecure, that was my deal, but I’d never want to say that because it makes me sound like a pussy.”
Billy: “I heard the dude from The Strange Boys, the first time he heard his voice without reverb at Jay Reatard’s house, he cried. And other guys in the band said it’s true.”
On Herring’s part, it was a masterstroke that’s given ‘King Of The Beach’ its most notable departure in sound. Before, we were uncertain what Nathan was singing about, or if he could actually ‘sing’ at all; now, there’s no question that he can, and his new songs are full of youthful exhilaration, love, defiance and a sizeable whack of self-loathing. He sings “I hate myself, man, but who’s to blame / I guess I’m just fucked up, or too insane” on ‘Take on The World’, “I bet you laugh right behind my back!” on ‘Idiot’, and “My own friends hate my guts / So what? Who gives a fuck?” on ‘Green Eyes’. A lot of the time these sentiments of doubt ride a wave of melodic, upbeat, pop grunge, but Nathan Williams is clearly a little hard on himself.
“Sometimes,” he says “but I also talk about how awesome I am too, like on ‘King Of The Beach’. Everybody always talks about, in interviews now, ‘do you hate yourself?’. Well, yeah, I do. I have to hang out with these jokers all day. You’d hate yourself too!”
“Imagine squeezing blood from a stone,” proposes Billy “one you know, who’s like 12 years old. Imagine how I feel. I’m depressed. I want more money in cash. I mean, we’re getting paid just fine, but I want him to make more money for us to take it from him. We’ve got this account set up…”
“I don’t know anything about this,” says Nathan “but they do talk about it in front of me, freely.”
“It would make it awkward if Nathan acknowledged it,” says Billy “and by the time you leave here he would have forgotten. We’ve got those Men In Black, head-clearing devices.”
There’s a dangerous sounding pause.
“But, errr… Men In Black II is great,” says Nathan. “If we could soundtrack any movie it’d be MIB II.”
Not the original?
“No,” says Nathan. “Two is the alien birth scene, where the alien pukes on Will Smith.”
“And I like a pre-existing relationship between the two agents,” adds Billy in a pseudo-Newsnight Review tone. “Like with Batman, you don’t want to know the back-story of how he met Robin and Alfred, like how Alfred killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. We’re actually like Nathan’s Alfred. We killed his parents and now we control his bank account.”
I’m not sure that’s right.
“Yeah, it is,” insists Billy. “Alfred killed the parents to get to the money.”
“But anyway,” says Nathan “I don’t hate myself or anything. You just feel differently on different days when you write songs.”
By that premise, Nathan must have been feeling pretty good when he wrote the album’s title track – a song with a defiant hook of “You’re never gonna stop me!”. It sounds very much like a message to those who wrote Wavves off towards the end of last year.
“Not necessarily,” says Nathan. “It’s just a general statement. Sometimes that’s how you feel, and we all like the motivational aspects of pop rap and southern rap in general. Like, ‘Fuck you! I am the king!’. It’s a very positive message. It’s easy for people to get down and feel defeated and I think it’s good for people to know that it doesn’t matter what people think. Just do your own thing.”
“My usual frame of mind is everything is going to stop me,” laughs Billy “so when I hear that, I think…aahhh.”
“Who’d have thought that a 14 year old would be able to teach two 44 year olds so much cool stuff?” says Nathan.
The following day Wavves are not sat along the same wall in a weed-less, hot, sleep-deprived state. They’re smoking an apple bong (that’s an apple packed with weed) in an east London photography studio before playing The1234Shoreditch festival. They’re even more relaxed than the previous evening (apple bongs have that effect) and patiently wait to be shot by our photographer, Gabriel, one at a time.
“People just hate us,” says Billy, matter-of-factly and passing the apple to his right. “They’ll give us a four out of five but not say anything positive, just how fat and lazy we are. Like, how do they know how lazy we are?” he asks. “And how can we be lazy if we are always on the road?”
The knives are still out for Wavves because modern media has a collective memory like that of a learned elephant. Forgetting Nathan’s rocky 2009 is going to either take a long wait of many more days and nights, someone else fucking up even more spectacularly (the smart money’s on Gaga), or for ‘King Of The Beach’ to be followed by at least two more albums that perfectly combine the summer melodies of The Beach Boys with the adolescent aggression of 90s grunge.
“A lot of the things I did wrong are why we are where we are,” says Nathan, optimistically.
“You didn’t do anything wrong, dude,” insists Stephen.
Nathan: “I know, but there’s a right way of doing these things, or a professional way, and that just wasn’t the way I did things.”
“When Drake cancelled his European tour, I’m sure it was because his mum was having surgery, but even if it wasn’t, he would have come up with a fake reason,” says Billy. “He didn’t just say, ‘I don’t wanna do it!’.”
“I just didn’t know any better,” says Nathan. “Nobody had told me any of this stuff. People asked me questions and I just answered them, but I need to stop talking about drugs in interviews too, man. For my mum.”
By the time we come round to discussing Primavera (‘the most epic onstage meltdown a band of their small size could conjure’, as Pitchfork.com dramatically put it) the subject seems as irrelevant as it no doubt is. But that doesn’t stop the jolly atmosphere from frosting up a little.
Nathan inflates his cheeks, exhales and slumps sideways. Just as he’s about to answer whether he remembers the show or not, Billy offers, “I wasn’t even that fucked up and I don’t remember it, just because it was so long ago. I’ve played, like, 300 shows since then.”
Stephen gives a simple explanation of, “It’s not significant at all”, which is followed by an awkward kind of silence.
What we want to know, though, is if that episode, which was preceded by all of that expectation, excitement and criticism, was a turning point in the story of Wavves? The morning after it the band was back to being just one man, a European tour was cancelled and Nathan spent the rest of the year figuring out a new album, moving to LA and plotting a return that deserves to be the biggest comeback since John Travolta said “Royale with cheese”. It must have had some affect on Nathan.
“Yeah,” he says “but, like, again, I didn’t record this album because some guy who writes a blog that thirteen people read said, [Nathan adopts a typical nerdy voice] ‘Wavves played a bad show’.”
“I’m sure the people that wrote that really negative stuff about that show have really, really good sex lives,” jokes Billy “but beyond that, I’m sure they’ve never been in a band and played a bad show. If they were ever in a band, I’m sure all of their performances were top notch.”
“I still say it wasn’t a bad show,” says Stephen.
Billy: “Well, who hasn’t played a really embarrassing show before?”
Stephen: “Are we talking about last night’s show, because Primavera doesn’t exist.”
It’s hard to tell who’s more fed up of the Primavera question – Nathan or his band of ten months who weren’t involved in it. Over time it’ll no doubt morph into another rock’n’roll myth, like Alice Cooper killing chickens on stage and Marilyn Manson mugging a puppy. Hell, take a look at the YouTube clip of it now and you’ll see that – while a little cringy – the tale has already been blown out of proportion somewhat. But, once again, if Nathan Williams needed a scare like Primavera to create ‘King Of The Beach’ then so be it. He says himself that Wavves are where they are now because of everything he did last year. All we know is that at the end of 2009, in our ‘Yearly Review Issue’, ‘Wavves’ was our disappointment of the past twelve months. Now, Nathan Williams is on the cover.
By Stuart Stubbs
Originally published in issue 20 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. August 2010