It’s a blustery afternoon in London Fields, where Ragged Words aims to meet Wavves’ Nathan Williams and Ryan Ulsh for a chat ahead of their show at London’s the Old Blue Last tomorrow night. The Californians are relaxing in a cranny of Hackney’s the Dove pub, feasting on the crumbling flesh of gargantuan veggie burgers. In fact, I’ve caught Wavves cold, amidst the death throes of another interview:
“Who’s my number one enemy?” ponders Nathan Williams, repeating the question asked of him. “It’d have to be anyone who has anything negative to say.”
The early signs, before even meeting Nathan, are that the creative individual behind Wavves and the newly released Wavvves isn’t allowing the whirlwind of online hype to taint his real world mannerisms – the ones that count – at least here in London. And when our conversation is in full swing, it’s a frank discussion between both Ryan and Nathan about the issue of music downloading, touring, and just how quickly all this has come about for Wavves, a music project that Nathan started in a garage in San Diego.
Wavves have only hours earlier flown in from the States, and whilst wishing the prior interviewer well as she leaves, Ryan chews on chunky chips, a pair of tortoiseshell specs jigging on the bridge of his nose, as Nathan intermittently doffs his Chicago Bulls cap, running his hand through the bristles of his dark hair.
“Dandruff?” Ryan asks.
“Not a good look," chuckles Nathan.
Flaky scalps aside, Wavves are proving massively popular in the US and the UK. This is the final few days of their pre-release window in Europe, before the broadsheets and mainstream journalists crack-on to either endorse the record or scythe it down. Though an earlier, sort of debut – Wavves (notice only two v’s) – has been around for a while. Wavves is available on Woodsist, a label beloved to Nathan, and for whom he’ll put out 7”s in the future. “There’s no clause in my contract [with Bella Union or Fat Possum] that says I can’t do that,” he affirms. But Wavves have been gaining most ground online, where fans and enthusiasts have posted the first record on their crude but doting blogspot pages since the autumn, generally ‘for preview purposes only, please support the bands and buy their music’. What do Wavves think?
“I’m all for it, I don’t give a fuck,” Nathan says, somewhat resigned. |I don’t care if people download my stuff. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t stop people from downloading it.”
“Apart my from my records and tapes, everything I have on my computer has been…yoinked,” says Ryan, pausing briefly to think of the right phrase, as if this had just dawned on him.
But how does that make Bella Union and Fat Possum feel? After all, the labels are the ones who put the money into the project and promote the band, the very people who need to make money from fans buying records. But that’s not to say that Wavves don’t buy records, of course they do. Does Nathan ever disguise his opinion around the labels?
“I put my stuff up for free on my blog all the time. I mean, they tell me not to, and that makes sense, they’re trying to make money as well. I don’t make any money off record sales, though.”
Surely if more people can hear this music it’ll open up the chance for more people to get behind the music and attend the show. The fact is that if people like it most will buy it, but they’ll be even more willing to attend shows and mix with other fans.
Nathan goes further: “You’re not going to be able to stop people from listening to it, and, in the first place, if someone wants it so badly that they’re going to take it then I wouldn’t stop them from taking it. I mean, if they’re interested in music, then…even if I didn’t like it, what the fuck – you know? It’s a fight that you can’t win.”
People really are interested in this music. Wavves’ first New York shows all sold out, and these are Ryan and Nathan’s first performances. They’d only recently got together to practice the Wavves material. It’s the same for the London shows with Women – originally billed to support Deerhunter before Bradford Cox fell ill – and Crystal Stilts, not to mention English pals, Pens. They all sold out, too. In New York it got popular enough for the New York Times to send down Michael Carmichael, the chap Ryan calls an ‘older guy reporting on newer bands, kind of like the hip guy’.
The interest in Wavves isn’t limited to aging music critics however. Ryan and Nathan have friends in Vivian Girls, another youthful, scuzzy guitar act to have released an enriching debut in the past twelve months. Vivian Girls covered Wavves’ ‘So Bored’ at the SXSW festival in Texas after Ryan explained how simple it was to play. I put it to Wavves that ‘So Bored’ and ‘No Hope Kids’ are two songs that not only Vivian Girls will gravitate to. It’s a remark Nathan receives with a level of surprise, if not somewhat embarrassed. But those songs will prove popular, both utterly addictive little tunes that carry a lot of weight in their point, but a sense of joyful release in their chorus.
“That song [So Bored] is just about me being bored in high school,” Nathan says. “Those two songs are my favourite from the record, that and ‘To the Dregs’”.
Ryan and Nathan’s work isn’t done for the day as they’re wanted at Rough Trade East for an in-store, one they didn’t expect to be playing. But it’s no disappointment to them and willingly (though sluggishly from their jetlag) they move along. The camaraderie with the Bella Union folk is clear and particularly with label aid Mark, whom Ryan rumours Nathan to have fallen for.
"We spoke on the phone for like an hour-and-a-half, it was a little gay," recalls Nathan.
It’s a day later and the streets of London are emptied as the locals stay indoors to watch the Champions’ League Final between Manchester United and Barcelona. But, yet again, Upset the Rhythm have sold all the tickets for a Wavves show, this time at the Old Blue Last in Old Street. The little room upstairs in the venue is packed, but at this stage of Wavves career – they’re not even teething yet – the ticket holders are curious, some of whom look to be here just for rumour value.
The duo’s live set-up is simple – Nathan on guitar and vocals, Ryan on drums – and it works. Ryan’s drumming is outstanding, feverish almost, his complexion a volcanic red as he powers through the set list. Beforehand he’s a different person, socialising with pint in hand, a modest navy jacket on his back. When on stage he dons a large and luminous baseball cap worn backwards. He finishes the show with a stage-dive, executed much more professionally than tonight’s resident antagonist, who lands on his head when the crowd part.
It’s a funny atmosphere at times, and there’s banter for Nathan to deal with. The failed stage-diver at the front tries to goad Nathan a little. “I don’t know what that means, man,” Nathan responds, drawing a measure of laughter from the rest of the audience. But the songs are electrifying here, with ‘To the Dregs’ a highlight, and ‘Beach Demon’, also. This sober crowd even find themselves devising a pit of sorts at the front of the stage, a pre-cursor to that antagonist’s skull-dive.
This is meant to be Wavves’ first date on their European tour in support of Wavvves, but at time of going to press, Nathan and Ryan have postponed the tour after a peculiar incident in Barcelona, the night after this Old Blue Last date. Anyone who reads Pitchfork won’t need to hear the details of Nathan’s trouble on stage at Primavera Sound. Besides reported behavioural trouble on Nathan’s part, it’s best to keep in mind that these young Californians are only performing in Europe because there’s a demand. There’s no denying Wavves feel grateful for the chance they’ve been given by fans of their music, particularly Bella Union and Fat Possum. When Ragged Words sat down to speak with the band in Hackney, Nathan was musing over the prospect of playing at a festival including Neil Young and Sonic Youth, joking about thanking Crazy Horse for all their support. It was unthinkable to him, an unfathomable circumstance.
The point is that fame, however brief or mild, is a perilous game. And during this process people will want things from Nathan Williams. In this case, Pitchfork didn’t get a performance from the band, but that doesn’t mean that Nathan needs to be strung up in public (or online, in daily indie headlines). Wavves and Williams will be around for years to come, and, I don’t know about American audiences, but here in London and the UK, we’re happy to have had the chance to see this duo in the flesh. But, more importantly, we’re grateful that Ryan and Nathan are willing to travel so far to put on a show for us, however exhausted they may be.