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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Wavves Mature, Slowly

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While they get plenty of hype, people seem to find a lot of reasons to dismiss Wavves—the grungy California garage outfit led by Nathan Williams—portraying them as drunken louts whose rapid rise to notoriety must have been the result of dumb luck or some shady showbiz machinations. But while there’s no denying the public intoxication, the onstage breakdowns or that even Williams appears to treat success as if he stumbled into it, it’s also hard to get around the quality of their output, with all of its noisy hooks, slacker charm and solid pop instincts. Drugged-out behavior and a bad attitude are basically part of the rock star job description, but what matters is that the music continues to mature, even if the band doesn’t, and on that level, the new Afraid of Heights is an impressive success.

The press surrounding the album, the first full-length since their 2010 breakthrough King of the Beach, seems eager to paint it as brooding and hopeless, which in turn lends itself to an easy narrative about Williams finally confronting the harsh realities of adulthood and fame, but those less interested in the state of the singer’s psyche won’t find any more angst than on your average rock record. In fact, while the words may sketch drunken desperation and failed relationships, the tunes are downright upbeat. Even from the band’s perspective, the moodiness attributed to Afraid of Heights is somewhat overstated. “Everybody says it has a darker tone, so I guess it does, but I don’t know” says bassist Stephen Pope with an air of skepticism. “A lot of the songs sound really happy, as far as the music, but I guess lyrically it might be a little more serious than the last few albums, a little more personal.”

Whatever their emotional content, the songs, like the infectious lead-off single “Sail to the Sun,” are the most polished and developed to date, in part due to the freedom of recording the album independently. “We went into it without a label, and if we had a label, they would not have let us spend a year in the studio like we did,” explains Pope. “They’d want us to make radio hits and stuff like that instead of doing it ourselves at our own pace and trying to get a product that we were satisfied with.” Further refining the sound of the album was John Hill, a pop producer more used to working with the likes of Rihanna, Shakira and MIA, who filled out Afraid of Heights with loops and samples that fit surprisingly well with Wavves heretofore lo-fi sensibilities. “He’s really good at finding specific sounds,” says Pope. “It might take some trial and error, but generally he can get any specific sound you want.”

Even with all their shine and depth, you don’t have to be a musicologist to see the influence of ’90s alt-rock looming over the album. Parallels have been drawn to Green Day and even Nirvana, but by far the biggest debt is owed to Weezer, who’s eponymous 1994 “Blue Album” was reportedly listened to more or less daily during the sessions for Afraid of Heights. “I’ve been listening to that album since it came out; it’s my favorite album of all time. In general Weezer has been a big influence on my life, and the same with Nathan too,” says Pope. “I don’t know if we were trying to sound like that on this album, we were just trying to make music that sounded good to us, and if that’s our favorite album then we probably did.” Superfan though he is, even Pope “can’t vouch for the ‘Green Album,’” Weezer’s 2001 release, however.

Pope spoke with me on the phone from SXSW, where a string of appearances gave listeners their first live taste of the new material and also served, collectively, as the kickoff for their current tour. Reviews from the festival have been uniformly positive, and the band has, so far, been enjoying playing live again after so long in the studio, maybe a little too much in fact.

“We’ve been playing a lot of new material and so far the reactions have been good,” says Pope, “but we had three shows yesterday and apparently I got a little too drunk because I guess I really messed up ‘Demon to Lean On’ and we had to restart it like three times. But I don’t remember doing that. In my mind it was great. I was jamming.” Afraid of Heights may show signs of serious musical growth, but evidently that doesn’t mean Wavves will be settling down any time soon.

Wavves plays the Rave on Saturday, March 30, at 7:30 p.m. with openers Fidlar and Cheatahs.