Man Vs Indie
At a time when he was still playing guitar, Wesley Gonzalez walked into a guitar shop on Denmark Street in Central London, pointed at a Fender Jaguar and asked to buy it. The thing was, he didn’t want to try it first, and that really pissed off the guy making the sale. This 18-year-old kid walks in, asks after the Jaguar and doesn’t want to check the tone?! It’s funny what upsets the people who work in specialist shops, but in 2009 Wesley Gonzalez might as well have spat in the guy’s beard.
“I fucking hate guitar shops,” he says today. “I never felt like I fitted in at school, and there was a guitar shop near where I grew up, so I thought, ah, maybe that’s the kind of place where I could fit in, but I felt even more out of place there. They’re so fucking rude!” He tells me this as we stand in a guitar shop on Denmark Street. I should probably be confused, but I’ve followed Wesley’s unapologetic career since 2005 and the beginning of his DIY band Let’s Wrestle. To do that is to be aware of his straight honesty and an incorrigible mischievousness that, in his younger days, he’ll admit was plain snotty.
Still only 26, Wesley is preparing for the release of his debut solo album, and today he’s had an idea. He’s called the record ‘Excellent Musician’, so let’s go and play it to some excellent musicians who work at the guitar shops of London. Confirmation at last, as to whether Wesley Gonzalez is as good as he thinks he is. Never mind that ‘Excellent Musician’ doesn’t feature any guitars – in fact, that’s even better: a bonus kick from an extra layer of absurdity, like posing for photographs in front of a wall of instruments that you’ve come to loathe, in sunglasses.
It doesn’t take us long to get nowhere with this plan. Wesley is convinced that everyone we play new single ‘Telescope’ to will be appalled by his efforts. He almost wants them to hate it and he welcomes the criticism and the awkward moment when it’s delivered. But while guitar shops aren’t short of forthright dudes presumptuous of your talents and budget, there are some nice guys around too. These are the ones that entertain our folly – the others tell us in no uncertain terms to fuck off and stop wasting their time. Even with every store we go in being completely empty, they do have a point.
The feedback we glean from this exercise, then, comes from people like Tom, who concentrates intently, tells us that he doesn’t listen to any music made post-1980, and that he’s mostly a fan of prog-rock. Still, he compliments ‘Telescope’’s production and Wesley’s singing, who points out to him that his band’s debut album was called ‘In the Court of Wrestling Let’s’ in homage to Crimson King. Ramires across the street is more begrudging as he confirms, “Yeah, it’s fine. I mean, I don’t hate it,” while a young man who asked to not be named in print picked up on the track’s Korg synthesiser, compared it to Mystery Jets (inaccurately) and then complimented Erol Alkan. While Wesley waited outside the final store we tried, the friendly guy behind the counter said to me: “Oh, I know Wesley Gonzalez. Not personally, but I know his music because my friend Euan plays in his band, so I’ve heard it a lot from Facebook and stuff. Yeah, you definitely shouldn’t play that in here – it would make everyone feel super awkward.” Wesley howls when I tell him that, happy that they knew who he was.
His three albums with Let’s Wrestle would have stood a far better chance on Denmark Street – the sound of three childhood friends finding their way around 1980s US college rock for the first time: the charming, rudimental chug and clunk of Pixies and Dinosaur Jr, together with rougher British cult bands like Swell Maps and Wire. Wesley could have told the guys around here how his band recorded their second album with Steve Albini.
Two years after disbanding Let’s Wrestle, ‘Excellent Musician’ is a man distancing himself from the indie world he at first wanted to conquer and came to despise. “It’s called ‘Excellent Musician’ as a joke on being a rockstar and all this stupid bullshit,” he says. “That’s the main thing I’m fighting against – this concept of rock.” So he taught himself the piano by learning Stevie Wonder, Al Green and his beloved Beatles (Wesley has always been a vocally proud fan), and composed his entire album on an analogue synthesiser that gives it a skewed mania. Full of dark humour and diary-page lyrics, it’s both completely accessible and hard to pin down. At times it sounds like Todd Rundgren sound-tracking the waltzer on Blackpool pier. “Small grandeur,” is how Wesley puts it. He says he’s always just wanted to make pop music, “but people don’t use that word… and then people start calling it indie-pop, which I FUCKING hate. Indie pop is my least favourite genre. I can’t stand it.”
Wesley might be one of the best swearers I’ve met. An angry young man, he speaks almost in continual tirades that are heartfelt and impassioned but don’t seem spiteful or overly heavy, even when he’s talking about depression or drug abuse. Maybe it’s because he laughs a lot, too, or perhaps it’s because he appears to reserve the same exasperated fury for people who namedrop the Velvet Underground as he does the sociopolitical horrors of our times. He’ll rant and then end on an incensed what-are-you-gonna-do exhale, which isn’t a million miles away from Ricky Gervais; an opinion I keep to myself.
Over a lunch of burritos I ask Wesley what have people got wrong about him in the past. He stops to think. “The main thing that really fucks me off is when people think it’s a joke of some sort. I’ve had it a couple of times doing shows for this new record. I remember this guy came up to me afterwards and said, I really liked the show, you reminded me of Har Mar Superstar, and I called him a cunt to his face. ‘I’m a bit fat so I’m a bit like Har Mar Superstar, am I, you jebend!’ I hate that, because it’s not a joke, and I think it’s people’s own fear of something, where they’ll decide that it’s a comedy routine, and it’s not at all. I realise that I can be funny and take things as a joke, because I don’t want to take things seriously, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no emotion in it – I find that hurtful.
“People always find it funny when a fat guy’s dancing, but I just want to get on with it. It’s fun to get revved up for something, and I never did that in Let’s Wrestle, so I want to do that now.
“If someone tells me I’m like Har Mar Superstar again I’ll fucking deck them. I’m not a bald egg!”
Wesley started writing ‘Excellent Musician’ whilst managing a pub and taking too many drugs. The band that had been his life since he was 15 had finally fallen apart after the release of their third album. For a time he did nothing but work, drink heavily and take too much cocaine. He was no longer interested in playing guitar and his confidence in songwriting was beaten. He’d get hammered and tell people how he was done with music, but on the side he’d been teaching himself piano as an escape from rockist clichés; a new avenue of working. “Making the record started with me taking a lot of cocaine,” he says, “and then by the end of it, it was me going, ‘I can’t take anymore cocaine.’” He attributes the saxophone on the album – a starring role – to him wanting to make “a real coke record – over the top, moneyed, ’80s, jacket sleeves rolled up, living in Malibu,” although he admits that the end result doesn’t really sound like that.
“I don’t think I ever got to the point where I was addicted [to coke],” he says. “I’m too much of a neurotic person to be fully gone. I was very aware of it, and I’ve been around a lot of addiction. That’s what made it interesting, writing about it while being so self-aware of it. You’re in a dingy room taking a lot of drugs with people who’ve also been up for days taking drugs, but I always saw it for what it was, even when I was like, urrggggghhh [he grunts and mimes ferociously shoveling gak up his nose].”
The experience produced two of ‘Excellent Musician’’s high points – ‘Don’t Try and Take Me Down’, a sober ballad about paranoia and bad friends that features Wesley’s greatest vocal take, and ‘Not That Kind Of Guy’, which marks the moment when he decided that hard drugs weren’t for him, and neither were the people he was taking them with. “I had a few people who I was mates with who had this bully mentality, and part of me making this record was me going, fuck that – I can be odd and eccentric in myself and not feel put down. It’s a freeing thing, but it’s also me being quite angry and getting a lot of that stuff off my chest.” Other songs like ‘Snake In The Grass’ and ‘Just The Same’ (‘A song to sing / A song to be blunt / When did you start living life as a cunt?’) are about “one particular nasty bloke who shall remain nameless.”
These days Wesley makes rent by working at a record shop in Soho. He lives in Brixton with his girlfriend and feels the most settled he ever has. He’ll candidly speak about all aspects of his life, including his mental health issues, telling me that he started going to therapy halfway through making ‘Excellent Musician’, which helped him learn to not be scared about what he likes. “Because I’m not cool,” he says. “I can’t put on an act for that long, because I grow tired of it, quickly. And I have had periods of time when I’ve thought, yeah, I’m a cool Dalston guy, going out to these places that T4 presenters go to. But it’s shit, and it’s not in me. I’m too honest a person to pretend that I can keep up with that stuff.”
While noting that a number of songs on his new record are about meeting his girlfriend (most notably the sweet ‘Telescope’ and the XTC-ish ‘Exhibiton Song’), he calls it “a melee of depression” with another wide laugh. “I’m always up and down,” he says, “although the last few months I’ve felt pretty stable, I think because of how unstable the world is. It’s so nihilistic I’m finding it hard to care. Things are so fucked up it’s almost freeing.”
He enjoys working at Sister Ray Records – a job that satisfies his curiosity for all the types of music he enjoys, from African highlife and reggae to jazz, soul and funk, and a newer obsession with Omar S and house music. And then there’s the indie rock – the music he wants gone.
He says it’s funny working in a record shop and seeing the clientele for rock music in general – “it’s so unappealing; so oppressively white male that it doesn’t really speak to me that much anymore.”
“That’s what I used to like,” he admits, “and I still like The Beatles and Bowie and all that stuff, but I think it’s a case of catching up. I did Let’s Wrestle for such a long time and was focusing so much on that side of music. There was always dance stuff I really liked – Squarepusher and Luke Vibert – but recently I’ve got into house music because it’s so alien to the music I’ve been making… I just want to be excited about music, and it’s hard sometimes.”
For those who’ve been paying attention, what we’ve seen is Wesley Gonzalez grow up and discover music like the rest of us have. On the B-side of Let’s Wrestle’s very first single, on a track called ‘I Wish I Was In Hüsker Dü’, he denounced indie music for the first time with droll lines that would become his calling card – ‘I’ve spent too many years listening to Lambchop’; ‘I wish that I could play like Thurston Moore’; ‘Damn that M Ward / I like his new record way too much’. Come the chorus, a 16-year-old Wesley spoke-sang: ‘This is the death of an indie-pop fan / I wish that I was in Hüsker Dü’. It laid out Let’s Wrestle’s adolescent plans, and some would say they got pretty close pursuing their new interest in tougher guitar music from the US. Few 26-year-olds listen exclusively to the same records they did when they were 16, though, and Wesley Gonzalez has moved on.
It leads to the obvious question of who he imagines buying ‘Excellent Musician’ when it’s released at the end of June via the Moshi Moshi label.
“Oh, indie fans,” he nods. “I mean, I’m really into saying that [about indie music] but I thought that last Whitney album was fucking brilliant, and there’s always good stuff that comes out of that genre – I just think a majority of it is… I saw this thing the other day that FACT put up about Slowdive. It said, ‘Slowdive share tour playlist featuring Can, Kraftwerk and The Velvet Underground.’ And I commented underneath saying, ‘The music world is shocked that shoegaze band like krautrock and the Velvet Underground’. I felt so smug about it. I just hate stating the fucking obvious – of course you like the Velvet Underground; who the fuck doesn’t like the Velvet Underground?! I’m so sick of hearing about the fucking Velvet Underground, and it makes me HATE them.” His rage gets going. “If someone talks to me about the Velvet Underground I’m most likely to say, ‘I fucking HATE the Velvet Underground,’ which is absolute bollocks, but I’d say that just to prove a point, because I don’t want to talk about it. It’s like going to a party and people always asking what you do – I just start making shit up, or I say, ‘I’m sick of talking about that. How about this – what’s your most irrational fear?’ And that’s my problem with indie music – a lot of it is fine, but it’s so deep set in those core influences that it’s just dull.
“And living with indie boys,” he vents, “you put on a dub reggae record and they’re like, ‘eerrrrrr, I don’t know if I like this.’ And you can tell that a lot of the time there’s a very slight racism there as well, of, I don’t like black music. So I don’t hate indie music, but it’s the core values that it represents in my mind that I don’t like.” He pauses for brief second.
“I hate the idea of not looking forward. There are no indie records about iPhones and that pisses me off, because everyone’s got an iPhone!”
I note that he has one on his album sleeve (which depicts three kids taking a selfie with a waxwork version of himself).
“Yeah, I’ve got a selfie stick on the cover. I don’t want to be going around with a selfie stick, but it’s modern culture. Some people want to be living in the ’60s, and it makes me feel sick.”
It’s always more unusual than it should be to meet someone who’s lived in London their whole life, and Wesley’s been here forever. He grew up in Camden in the 1990s, where crust punks would smash in the windows of his family home with bins. Sick of it, his mum – a working class single parent – moved the pair of them further north to the leafy, posher suburb of Muswell Hill, where Wesley would attend “a weird state school” alongside the kids of Paul Weller. He found the change a bit of a shock. “Going to bed and not hearing police sirens, I didn’t like it.”
When I ask him if he was a shy or confident kid he pauses before quietly saying, “a mixture of the two.” He had a half brother and half sister, “but I didn’t have a very nice time growing up. I don’t think about it much.” It’s the only time in the day that Wesley isn’t forthcoming with animated conversation, and it’s clearly something he’d rather not discuss.
He describes Muswell Hill life as an outsider who never felt like he fitted in; a feeling he’s carried through life ever since and a recurring point in the stories he tells, like when he surmises ‘Excellent Musician’ as “a record about not being sure of yourself,” or when he says, “I’ve never felt any age, I’ve just felt uncomfortable.”
As a boy he was always swearing and considered a bad influence on the other children. “I remember being referred to as the poor kid, once,” he says, although he never considered himself working class either.
When another kid at school said he was a bigger Beatles fan than him, Wesley was fuming. The next day he brought in a quiz to test the audacious little squirt. “I was like, ‘you don’t know jack shit!’” he remembers. “I’d do things like that and be really cocky, and I’d think that that would make me friends, and of course it wouldn’t. My slightly autistic brain would remember all these facts, and I thought it would impress people, and of course no one is impressed with that – you’re a wanker at a school telling everyone you’re smarter than them.”
Getting a band together, he decided, was his quickest route back to the thick of the city.
Let’s Wrestle lasted ten bumpy years of fighting each other and practically everyone else. For all their bratty fury (they were kicked off of their first tour at their petulant best; in a more serious mix of tour fatigue and wasted abandon Wesley once attempted to push bassist Mike Lightning off a roof), they got the job done, releasing three albums while burning across Europe and America. They seemed to be out there on their own, too.
London was a city awash with DIY bands around 2009/2010, all with a shared love of early Sub Pop grunge, Dischord Records, 1980s US punk and hardcore, and lo-fi, tape-hissing indie. Let’s Wrestle’s influences certainly fitted in with a community all reading from Our Band Could Be Your Life, but as much as they were close friends with groups like Male Bonding, they were never really considered part of the same close scene. You didn’t have to look far to find a knockout bill that featured a rotating cast of Fair Ohs, Mazes, Veronica Falls, Teen Sheikhs and Graffiti Island, to name only a few, but Let’s Wrestle rarely seemed to be in the picture.
“I always felt very welcome,” says Wesley, “but I don’t think I was cool enough. We were never cool, and I was too opinionated. It’s not a new thing; me saying, ‘oh that’s shit, it’s awful, I hate it,’ and I think they’d be like, ‘ok, he’s banging on again.’ I can see that I’m doing it, but I can’t turn it off.”
Yet of all the groups in London it was Let’s Wrestle who managed to record an album with Steve Albini – 2011’s ‘Nursing Home’. Wesley’s biggest regret.
“I’ve never felt part of a scene,” he says, “and I think at one point I desperately wanted to. I think that us doing the second album with Steve Albini was us trying to be a bit cooler. And I think that’s the biggest mistake I ever made, because I fucking hate that record. We were all falling out, in Chicago with grumpy old Steve Albini – oh my god, he’s very grumpy – and now I can’t listen to it. It’s so Americanised. The idea of listening to a lot of that US indie stuff now fills me with despair, but at the time that was the thing that I was into. I guess it served its purpose – it was something I wanted to do as a kid, and I got to do it.
“It was one decision that was motivated by wanting to be cool. It’s the only time I did that and I really hate that I did it, and I feel really ashamed of it. But it’s all a learning curve. You go, ‘ok, I did that because I wanted to be in a scene, and I’m never going to be – I’m not part of anything.’ But that’s better, and it’s more interesting to not be part of anything.”
Let’s Wrestle’s farewell show at the 100 Club in July 2015 was characteristic of the band’s life – a boozy display of self-assured punk that ended in a fight, between Wesley and a kid in the front row. “That’s my one big regret from the show,” he says. “It was just before the last song and I had drunk a lot and this kid went like that to me [he waves his hand towards himself in a beckoning motion], and I went, ‘yeah, what?’ And he was like, ‘you remind me of the kid from About A Boy.’ And I over reacted, because I was off my tits and I was full of adrenaline, and I just went, ‘GET THIS CUNT OUT OF THE FUCKING VENUE,’” he screams in a whisper. “And I feel so regretful of it. There’s video footage. I’ve seen it and it was horrible. And I feel horrible for that kid. If I met him and it was him, I’d really apologise.
“It’s the worst thing you can do – to quietly go up to someone and say something quietly that fucks with them. He fucked with me. But also, in a way, that kid [Nicholas Hoult] is now a very famous actor and is quite handsome. But I just lost it.”
We finished our food a long time ago, but one thing always comes to mind when I think of Wesley Gonzalez – his age. I’m never not impressed by the amount he’s already achieved and – more than that – the dogged, independent fashion in which he’s achieved it. In part, at least, it must come down to his combative/hilarious balance of humour, anger, self-awareness and self-belief, a point illustrated when I ask him if he ever allows himself to look back and enjoy his accomplishments from 15 to 26. “I’m very restless,” he says, “and I think it’s unjust that I’m not more popular. I really should be – I’m a great laugh.”
If ‘Excellent Musician’ was half the record it is, I probably wouldn’t bet against it. Not in taking down indie music by itself, but in proving Wesley Gonzalez to be an artist of his own volition, able to flourish in a small area of pop music he’s created for himself.
“I prefer it when people tell me what they really think,” he says of the guys working on Denmark Street. “It doesn’t knock my confidence – I just think they’re wrong. I’m incredibly confident and cocky. I think it’s a very classic musician thing – you want to kill yourself, you hate yourself, you think you’re a piece of shit, but then of course when you think about it, it’s like, I’m fucking brilliant! And the album name is ironic in inverted comas, because I really do think I’m an excellent musician.”