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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Wild Cub Opt for Delayed Gratification


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Don’t get Keegan DeWitt wrong. He genuinely loves “Thunder Clatter,” the song that’s brought his band Wild Cub so much attention. Everyone loves it. It’s an ecstatic, tropic cacophony about finding the right person exactly when you need to. DeWitt is grateful for the song, thrilled you are listening to it and hopes you sing along to it. It’s the rare song with Billie Holiday levels of emotional attachment, written through the joy of meeting his wife. 



But “Thunder Clatter” and its aesthetic twin “Colour” are imperfect representations of what Wild Cub is about. The Nashville quintet is less about the pop energy off those two songs—the first two songs written and recorded in the band’s catalogue—and more about patient lo-fi electronica, looping simple, sparse melodies to build to dramatic finishes. Pick a song on the debut album Youth that isn’t “Thunder Clatter” or “Colour,” neither a picture of immediacy, and you’ll get something with far fewer hooks taking far longer to develop. 


So ask DeWitt if he thinks that, in a time when TV audiences have begun to value slow-burning shows like “Mad Men,” they’ll begin to appreciate slow-burning songs like the mass of Youth. 



“You’re asking me at a really cynical time of my life because we’re in the middle of pushing ‘Thunder Clatter’ to the radio,” he says. 



Wild Cub is not “Thunder Clatter.” But the story of Wild Cub is the story of “Thunder Clatter.”



“I had started writing ‘Colour’ and ‘Thunder Clatter’ when I was still soldiering around the world as a singer-songwriter,” DeWitt says. “But I realized they were a great way to signal in what I wanted to do, transition into making songs with a band. We recorded them with the mentality, ‘I wonder what that’s going to be like.’ And then we moved on to ‘Huh, that’s really compelling. What’s next?’”



What’s next turned out to be quieter, filled with intimate moments contrasting with the first two songs’ huge ones. “Thunder Clatter” and “Colour” came so early in the process, the band argued over including them on the album as poppy outliers to Youth’s more challenging bulk. Ultimately they included the two because they were outliers. DeWitt wanted an album of balance and contrast. 



“I don’t think that ‘Streetlights’ would be able to be the special moment that it is at the end of the record—so quiet and sparse—without having a record that begins with these big, bright, chaotic things,” said DeWitt. “I feel like those songs do a lot of the work for you. They earn you the other songs.”



Including two concise, accessible songs would earn an album enough replays to digest the five-minute, hookless “Straight No Turns” and more. 



At least, that’s what Wild Cub believes. For a band that wants to make slow-building music while appealing to a wide audience, accessibility is a matter of proportion. “Thunder Clatter” might be so easily digestible that it was nearly dropped from the album, but it might also be too conventionally difficult to swallow to receive the kind of airplay DeWitt thinks it deserves. Industry insiders regularly tell DeWitt that the only thing holding back reasonable hit “Thunder Clatter” from utter domination is that it takes too long to get to the big payoff in the song’s final lines. Why not just make the conclusion into a chorus, repeat it over and over and make all gratification instant? 



“I’ve had that idea pitched to me by five different record labels and five different radio people,” DeWitt said. “I feel like you fundamentally rob it of what’s important. Things have more value when they’re withheld from you. Miles Davis made a career out of not playing notes and that being what is so incredible about it. LCD Soundsystem perfected it to an art. It creates this transcendent artistic experience because it asks people to wait and believe in the song—to be a part of an experience that’s larger than themselves. 



“I’m sure a cynical listener will listen to ‘Straight No Turns’ and say it sounds like there’s only half an idea,” he continued. “But it asks something different from them. It’s about a mood. It has a couple of little hooks in it, and it’s about the repetition and being along for the ride.”



And are audiences growing to appreciate the virtue of delayed gratification in music the same way they grew to like it on television? DeWitt is cynical…now. But, as he says, songs like “Thunder Clatter” earn the rest of an album a listen. Just wait until they hear the rest of Youth. 



Wild Cub play Summerfest’s U.S. Cellular Connection Stage at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 27.