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The word ‘brat’ has followed Nathan Williams around for almost a decade, but at the age of 30, with a fully-fledged business to his name, as well as the ongoing success of band Wavves, his rebellious streak has proven not just purposeful but pretty damn inspiring. The San Diego native knows how to play the system, so when the major labels came knocking a few years ago looking to turn Wavves into the next so-called saviours of radio rock’n’roll, Williams and bassist Stephen Pope made sure they used it to their advantage.
“We were just trying to go to eat at nice places in LA,” he laughs. “There were a few people from majors who would not stop reaching out to us. They were obsessed. They thought we had heat and they needed an edgy big rock band like they used to have in the ‘90s. Me and Stephen were in our shitty apartments, Googling ‘nicest restaurants in LA’. We went to eight or nine dinners. At the end we’d say, ‘not interested’.”
When Warners came along and offered them a cash advance too good to refuse, they accepted while being shrewdly aware of what they were getting themselves into. “We still owned all of our shit, which was the most important part for us. For them it was a shot in the dark.” The day to day of being signed to a major, however, was unpredictable and beyond their wildest nightmares. “I figured it would run the same as [prior label] Fat Possum, just with more people. I was wrong.” By the time they were readying to release their second Warners album – 2015’s ‘V’ – shots were fired. Williams released single ‘Way Too Much’ on Soundcloud before the label had approved it, the label forgot to sign off on the artwork and, in the end, Wavves felt swept under the rug. Ultimately it felt like a career step backwards.
“I’d never come in contact with such a poorly run company in my life,” says Williams. “It was anarchy. Nobody knew what they were doing. Turnover rate was like an American Apparel. It was really all cons – unless you’re a cash cow. For everyone else, major labels can’t help you. Maybe at one time they could, but that time is dead.” The birds-eye view on Warners’ inner mess wound up pushing Williams to legitimize his own business – Ghostramp. “I figured if these idiots could get by, we could do it a hundred times better.”
With that fighting spirit, Williams took back control and realized his own teenage dreams. Today, during a Monday lunchtime hour, he’s making time between meetings to talk about forthcoming sixth Wavves record ‘You’re Welcome’ in the stock room at Ghostramp’s Chinatown-based LA skate shop. Opening in October 2016, Ghostramp is the physical embodiment of a vision that harks back to before Williams made the first Wavves’ albums in his parents’ garage. It’s a merchandise store, it’s a label, it’s a tangible community in a time when the digital age has taken the confidence out of physical product. And – what’s more – it’s working. ‘You’re Welcome’ is the soundtrack to this new lease of freedom. It’s Williams’ tongue-in-cheek rebirth as a self-released, self-actualized, self-promoting punk kingpin, and despite putting his money where his uncensored mouth is, he’s emerged not just unscathed but with the upper hand. “I’m my own boss and that feels great,” he smiles.
In February 2016, months before Ghostramp opened, Williams took himself into producer Dennis Herring’s [‘King Of The Beach’] studio in Downtown LA, and for the first time since the early records worked regular office hours and almost entirely alone. It was the polar opposite experience to making 2013’s ‘Afraid Of Heights’ record, which took Wavves over a year and was “out of control”. “We were so fucked up in the studio – everybody, the producer, the engineer, everyone recording. We’d waste days,” recalls Williams. With this, Williams brought everyone in one at a time, ensuring it was the minimum amount of people possible. That prevented the recording from descending intomidnight oil-burning party sessions.
The album was put together wholly differently from ‘V’, too, which was recorded live as a band album together with guitarist Alex Gates, drummer Brian Hill and Stephen in the studio. ‘You’re Welcome’ is mostly comprised of Williams’ oddball, sample-led brainstorms. He came up with 40 tracks, now whittled down to twelve, fat-free punk zingers. “I’d come up with an idea, fool around with it, have Brian come in and play drums, then figure it out.” A sample nerd, Williams delved into his obsession with 1950s doo-wop and – surprisingly – international folk, including Cambodian pop and ‘70’s psychedelia from South America.
The results make for one of the most diverse and intricate Wavves records yet. ‘Come To The Valley’ contains a Phil Spector meets Beach Boys ‘60s High School dance vibe, whereas title track ‘You’re Welcome’ riffs on sound effects that could almost originate from Bizarro World, never mind Cambodia. Some of his ideas ran away with themselves a little too much, as Williams reveals one track was a little too close to Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’ for comfort. ‘Million Enemies’ is right in his comfort zone though. Inspired by New York Dolls, Bowie and Gary Glitter, he calls it “the anthem song.” “It’s a song for the haters,” he says. The lyrics “I got enemies, a million enemies, living in the streetstonight” are a call-to-arms for anyone whose detractors are out to get them. “I don’t have a million enemies,” jokes Williams. “But probably 500,000.”
The biggest shift of all, and the ultimate laying down of the gauntlet to Williams’ doubters, is the subject matter. Where ‘V’ was a “buzzkill” record, all hangovers, lovers’ tiffs and depression, ‘You’re Welcome’ is less navel-gazing. It’s dealing with matters outside of Williams’ own headspace. “I’m tired of writing about myself,” says Williams. “It got boring. On this record I tell more stories, talk about parts of my life from other people’s perspective.” ‘Stupid In Love’ for instance is about a female junkie who lived near him back in San Diego. ‘Animal’ is his anti-corporate, anti-establishment track. “The whole world covered in gasoline and burning alive/I feel taken advantage of and empty inside” go the lyrics.
On their last tour, Wavves banned members of the audience, including homophobes, anti-abortionists, racists, and Trump supporters. Ghostramp’s website is currently donating to the likes of ACLU, Planned Parenthood and National Immigration Law Center. On ‘You’re Welcome’ too, it seems Williams has decided to get political, particularly on the song ‘Exercise’, with its lyrics “dancing while the world is burning down… I can’t believe the shit they feed to us/They’re lying to our face.”
“I never thought I’d write a song like that,” says Williams. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m older or because shit got so fucked up and crazy but at this point now you shouldn’t be worried to say something. I wanna make it very clear what side I’m on. If you’re quiet about it because you don’t wanna upset some of your fanbase, then that’s part of your fanbase you need to weed out.”
There’s also – finally – a love song, called ‘I Love You’ that lays Williams’ emotions bare unashamedly for the first time. Perhaps too, a sign of maturity. “It’s just a love song,” he says. “I’d always skirt around feelings and find different ways of saying things unless I was literally saying, ‘I’m depressed.’”
Offering a tour around Ghostramp’s store, Williams explains that they’re already looking to expand and move into a bigger space next door this year. Back in 2013, he put out Wavves’ ‘Life Sux’ EP by himself. It was too much of a headache and he realized he needed to build a team of capable friends. Now that team runs this daily operation, proving that DIY and business savvy can be bedfellows. It’s still hilarious to Williams that even in the early days, people would chastise him for “selling out”. “Did people think that when I’m 45 I’d still be recording records in my mom’s basement? Being an entrepreneur, having a hold over your own business, being able to employ your friends and create not just a place for fans but for other people to share their ideas too is so cool.”
Via Ghostramp, Williams isn’t just putting out Wavves’ new record, he’s signing other local garage bands, funding his tours, schooling DIY artists in how to create and distribute merchandise in a way that supports your career and provides future security where nobody else can. As for Warners, that cash advance helped pay for this store. The rest came from the money Wavves made off merch during 2016’s Summer Is Forever II Tour with Best Coast and Cherry Glazerr. “I thought Ghostramp would be a hobby, doing 7-inches here and there. But now it’s a legitimate business,” says Williams. “The thing is I’m not just interested in making music for Wavves. I’m too ADD. Being an entrepreneur, being hands-on isn’t just smart, it’s necessary. Your art is everything you do, every choice you make. I was able to build my own thing, own it and control it all 100%. If I want to do something now I don’t ask anyone. I just fucking do it – that’s priceless.”
Nathan Williams never went away, but now he’s made sure he’s here to stay far longer. And for that, girls and boys, you’re welcome.
For a band that resists repeating itself, picking up lessons from a decade prior is the strange route Cloud Nothings took to create their most fully-realized album. Their new record, The Shadow I Remember, marks eleven years of touring, a return to early songwriting practices, and revisiting the studio where they first recorded together. In a way not previously captured, this album expertly combines the group’s pummeling, aggressive approach with singer-songwriter Dylan Baldi’s extraordinary talent for perfect pop. To document this newly realized maturity, the group returned to producer Steve Albini and his Electrical Audio studios in Chicago, where the band famously destroyed its initial reputation as a bedroom solo project with the release of 2012 album Attack on Memory.
Another throwback was Baldi’s return to constant songwriting à la the early solo days, which led to the nearly 30 demos that became the 11 songs on The Shadow I Remember. Instead of sticking to a tried-but-true formula, his songwriting stretched out while digging deeper into his melodic talents. “I felt like I was locked in a character,” Baldi says of becoming a reliable supplier of heavy, hook-filled rock songs. “I felt like I was playing a role and not myself. I really didn’t like that role.” More frequent writing led to the freedom in form heard on The Shadow I Remember. What he can’t do alone is get loud and play noisily, which is exactly what happened when the entire band— bassist TJ Duke, guitarist Chris Brown, and drummer Jayson Gerycz—convened.
The band had more fun in the studio than they’ve had in years, playing in their signature, pulverizing way, while also trying new things. The absurdly catchy “Nothing Without You” includes a first for the band: Macie Stewart of Ohmme contributes guest vocals. Elsewhere, celebrated electronic composer Brett Naucke adds subtle synthesizer parts.
The songs are kept trim, mostly around the three-minute mark, while being gleefully overstuffed. Almost every musical part turns into at least two parts, with guitar and drums opening up and the bass switching gears. “That’s the goal—I want the three-minute song to be an epic,” Baldi says. “That’s the short version of the long-ass jam.”
Lyrically, Baldi delivers an aching exploration of tortured existence, punishing self-doubt, and the familiar pangs of oppressive mystery. “Am I something?” Baldi screams on the song of the same name. “Does anybody living out there really need me?” It’s a heartbreaking admission of existential confusion, delivered hoarsely, with an instantly relatable melody.
“Is this the end/ of the life I’ve known?” he asks on album opener “Oslo.” “Am I older now/ or am I just another age?” Despite the questioning lyrics, the band plays with more assurance and joy than ever before. The Shadow I Remember announces Cloud Nothings’ second decade and it sounds like a new beginning.
When singer-songwriter Dylan Baldi began recording hyper-catchy and often deliriously distorted guitar-pop songs on a computer in his parents’ Cleveland basement, he was doing it alone—juggling every instrument and singing undefinable lyrics that used obtuse abstractions as much as they did teenage diary. The young, once-tuxedoed concert saxophonist started releasing a flurry of lo-fi earworms across 7” singles, cassette splits, benefit compilations, and one album, Turning On. Released by Carpark in 2010, the album will be reissued on vinyl in 2020 for its 10-year anniversary.
With the 2000s coming to a close, blog circuit hype was enough to book the then-18-year-old as the opener at a Brooklyn show with members of the next class of Internet-acclaimed “indie rock” bands. Baldi quickly formed a group with friends from the Cleveland music scene and drove to New York. Amidst a year of touring, Baldi recorded a self-titled album alone, this time in a studio, with a producer, and the backing of Carpark Records.
But forming that initial live band proved to be the key component to the project’s success. Together, as a unit, they shattered blog expectations with the 2012 release of Attack on Memory: an angry, often-in-the-red album composed of vocal-shredding jams about malaise, as well as tightly-wound pop songs about violence and confusion. What followed were brutal albums of hook-filled harshness (2014’s Here and Nowhere Else and 2018’s Last Building Burning) and stunning melodic clarity (2017’s Life Without Sound and 2020’s The Black Hole Understands), each distinctly different.
Cloud Nothings has brought their cathartic live show to stages around the globe, including festivals like Coachella, Primavera Sound, Bonnaroo, and Pitchfork. Home audiences have seen them on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Last Call with Carson Daly, A.V. Club’s Undercover series (notoriously reimagining Coldplay’s “Clocks”), multiple KEXP sessions, and much more.
Before recording new album The Shadow I Remember, Baldi began writing one song a day, much like he did when he first started the project. Only a few months into 2020, Baldi had amassed a significant new library of songs. Ten of those songs became the surprise album The Black Hole Understands, which Baldi and drummer Jayson Gerycz collaborated on via e-mail while quarantining separately.
The band is currently comprised of Baldi on guitar, vocals, and songwriting duties; bassist TJ Duke; guitarist Chris Brown; and drummer Gerycz. Each is an accomplished musician with a slew of other musical endeavors to their name. Some of these projects exist in the same guitar-pop realm as their main band, while other projects veer into avant, grotesque, and otherworldly zones fit for only the most fried and open ears. Through consistent touring and a steadfast dedication to growing as friends and collaborators, the four-piece has perfected a heavy, aural-assault style and merged it with Baldi’s ridiculous pop genius. This amalgamation is beautifully evident on The Shadow I Remember.
For their fifth studio full-length as a band (and ninth album under the project name), they reconvened with legendary producer and engineer Steve Albini, who helmed the sessions for the breakthrough Attack on Memory. “He has a gift,” Baldi says. “He naturally makes it sound right. Albini’s work is a presentation of the band as they are. No affectation.” On The Shadow I Remember, the producer captures the band at its strongest. Though the lyrics concern the debilitating despair of everyday life, the band can be heard joyously playing unabashed, volume-driven, ear-drum-crushers that masterfully highlight Baldi’s astonishing songcraft.
Looking back on more than a decade of music-making as Cloud Nothings, the group has plenty of reasons to be proud. Though no one expects the beings who gave us the song “No Future / No Past” to pause for nostalgia or pride. “So many bands can fizzle out and fade into sameness, but it’s never been like that for them,” Brown, who joined in 2016, says of his bandmates. With The Shadow I Remember seeing the band mature and cohere like never before, it feels as if the group is only just getting started. “We’ve been mad at each other. We’ve had life-changing times together. We’ve been through so much,” Gerycz says. “At the end of the day, we’re still very close friends and we care a lot about each other. How could it ever end?”
One of the most fascinating things a music lover can do is witness the growth of a young artist. It starts as an inkling or a glimmer of natural talent and expands into something vast and formidable.
Jakob Armstrong—youngest son of Green Day frontman Billie Joe—began playing guitar at seven years old and honed his craft privately until about sixteen, then playing in bands in and around Oakland after meeting friends with like-minded tastes in music. Soon enough, with the memories of Ultraman action figures fighting in his head, he and a group of friends he cultivated from those years playing around and pouring over records, formed Ultra Q. Its name is inspired by an Ultraman prequel series; a deep cut for import action series lovers.
Fusing together the skyward lift of Interpol, the clever guitar interplay of the Strokes, the maudlin romanticism of the Cure, and the often impressionistic narrative gifts of Arctic Monkeys, Ultra Q’s growth since their 2019 EP We’re Starting to Get Along (and its 2020 follow-up In a Cave in a Video Game) has been exponential. A traditional alternative rock sound was baked by the California heat, shards of broken glass gleaming in the sunlight, spanning the distance from Berkeley to Rodeo Drive. Over blaring guitars and thunderous drums, Armstrong’s voice is carried by a very familiar lilt, self-recorded by Armstrong on a whim while quarantined, could easily be slotted between the blown-out, lo-fi tones of early Wavves and the works of intentionally harsh-sounding Columbus band Psychedelic Horseshit.
Ultra Q’s earlier work marked the synthesis of a songwriter’s vision and his band’s ability, forged through an invisible existential threat and an ever-changing world, eager to show what they’ve found while we were all inside. But new album My Guardian Angel soars to heights unimaginable for us lowly, earthbound beings.
Produced by Chris Coady, who has helmed classics by the likes of TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Beach House, My Guardian Angel offers a deep sonic palette to match Armstrong’s artistic ambition. Wildly vacillating between widescreen pop-punk (“Klepto,” the impeccably titled “VR Sex”), romantic new-wave (“Rocket,” “I Wanna Lose”), and shimmering synth-pop (“I Watched Them Go”), the album displays Armstrong’s songwriting talents—along with the musicianship of Kevin Judd and brothers Chris and Enzo Malaspina—conceived and recorded for maximum impact.
Emotional growing pains, sleepless nights, the ethereal allure of romance, and the notion of sound being so closely attached to memory are all wrapped up in clever guitar interplay reminiscent of the band’s formative influences, but delivered in an identity all their own. The words are attached to feelings we think are going to slip away from us in the fading and tarnished pallor of adulthood; truth be told, those feelings emerge just as freshly the older we get.
And that is the gift of My Guardian Angel, the implicit understanding that growth is merely a tool we use to better process the past slipping away from us. — Martin Douglas