Rock, on the down-low
Reclining on a sofa outside the modest structure that sits behind his parents’ San Diego home, Nathan Williams, the 22-year-old musician who records under the name Wavves, is halfway through a six-pack of late-afternoon beers. Popular indie music scene lore has held that he lives and works out of a pool house, but truth be told, there’s no pool.
“It’s a shack in the back,” he concedes.
Williams has been making music as Wavves for only a little more than a year, recording inside that cramped shack. But he’s managed to generate plenty of interest -- partially by posting his songs for free on his Ghost Ramp blog, which he started as an avenue to talk about rap music after quitting his job at a record store.
Among the revitalized lo-fi rock community, Wavves has emerged as a standout for his raw, jittery sound, comprised of guitar, drums and heavy distortion that often masks Williams’ vocals, rendering them unintelligible.
His new full-length collection, “Wavvves,” debuted on iTunes four weeks ago, with the physical album hitting stores this week. The staggered release wasn’t planned -- the songs were making the rounds online to such a great extent that label Fat Possum felt pressure to amend its rollout schedule.
Williams was in the middle of a week at home after 32 dates in Europe and before a month of shows around the U.S. (He was booked for an impressive nine performances over four days during the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.) But neither the online appetite for his songs nor the spate of concert bookings necessarily speaks to the commercial potential of Wavves’ decidedly crude music.
Williams used the GarageBand program that comes standard on Macintosh computers to record both “Wavvves” and last year’s self-titled debut. Asked how he learned the finer points of GarageBand, Williams jokingly replied, “I didn’t.”
That brash, homemade quality is precisely what attracted Fat Possum President Matthew Johnson to Williams. His first response to hearing the music? “This sounds like snot, it’s totally disposable, it’s just a mess, it’s totally on drugs and drunk. I have to sign it.”
Inside Williams’ sonic mess lurk references to the vocals of girl groups and dreamy SoCal pop from the 1960s, though, on tracks like “So Bored,” Wavves skips the sun-drenched optimism in favor of angst-y despair.
“He’s got a very refined sense of melody and a knack for hooks, and that shines through all the noise,” Chris Cantalini of Gorilla vs. Bear, the popular indie music blog that was one of the first sites to feature Wavves, wrote in an e-mail.
Wavves’ lo-fi sound might have been an economic necessity, but Williams also thinks it has its aesthetic advantages. “If I had recorded ‘So Bored’ in a studio, it would sound like an almost guilty-sounding pop song. You could put it next to some Matchbox Twenty and feel real embarrassed by it,” he said. “The fuzz makes it so you have to pick out the melody and you have to think about it a little bit more.”
Williams is a prolific writer of songs, but he is not a prolific recorder of them. Everything on his two albums was done during a one-month period, and he has released everything he’s put down, aside from one temporarily scrapped song that he still vows to revisit.
“A lot of the [new] songs I’ve written are acoustic. They’re total downer songs about killing yourself,” he says. “I don’t think people are necessarily going to be stoked about those ones either.”
He does intend to record in a proper studio at some point, although he’ll most likely tour through the rest of the year. Williams will return to Southern California in mid-April with a hometown San Diego show set for April 17. That will be the third time in his career that he’s performed as Wavves in San Diego, a place about which he has mixed feelings.
He was 14 when his family moved here from Virginia after his professor father got teaching jobs at UC San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University, but he finds the night-life scene -- which Williams describes as being more oriented toward “three-tacos-for-five-dollars specials and two-for-one drink deals” -- alienating.
Los Angeles is more his style. Williams is friends with some of the regulars at the Smell, L.A.'s all-ages punk club, and will probably move up to the city when he’s done touring. “Generally speaking, there’s a lot more stuff in L.A. that’s worth doing. There are a lot more people in L.A. that are supportive and are there to see your art, rather than try to hook up with someone else and get hammered,” he said.