FEATURE: Wavves Interview

Photographer Justin Maxon
January 11, 2011

Earlier this year, Nathan Williams went to Oxford, Mississippi, the site of Ole Miss and numerous Faulkner tragedies, to record King of the Beach, his third LP in two years as Wavves. Oxford is distinctly different from his hometown San Diego, where Williams recorded every note of the first two albums in his parents' pool house‚ alone, stoned and bored out of his mind. What came out of those distorted and scuzzy solo sessions was a ton of attention and a seemingly endless world tour, which resulted in a fair share of infamy. Oxford was a chance for Williams to slow down and get his bearings. He was there to make a new record with Billy Hayes and Stephen Pope, who had recently been kicked out of the band of nihilistic garage rocker Jay Reatard. Williams spent one week in Mississippi before Reatard died of a drug overdose.

Reatard and Williams had been portrayed similarly in the press, stoner punk rebels whose personal lives were covered as much as their music. The two weren't especially close, but there was a sort of kinship, and Reatard's death put an uncomfortable cap on the blur of mistakes that Williams was attempting to escape. Far from any ocean and any of his friends, he recorded King of the Beach over the next two months with his new band and seasoned producer Dennis Herring at Sweet Tea Studios. Stuffed with self-loathing bummer jams, Beach is unmistakably a Wavves album, but with radio rock riffs and startlingly clear vocals, it's also a clean break from anything he's done before.

The first records, Wavves and Wavvves, were surprise hits, repurposing Williams' teenage wasteland into something of a utopia. "So Bored," his anthemic pinnacle, offered the idea that apathy wasn't a lazy state of mind so much as it was an active way of life, with skateboards, Christian Death and ripped jeans being the emblems of success. In lesser hands, Williams' slacker focus could have seemed trivial, but what propelled and continues to carry Wavves was a natural gift for catchy riffs and quick songs‚ the fun, punch-drunk descendants of early West Coast punk. His way of singing about relieving boredom as a way of relieving boredom is casually expert, defining the numbness of post-teenage life where infinite opportunity and no opportunity mean the same thing. After two years of giving likeminded listeners a good show, King of the Beach marks Williams return to music, though not necessarily a departure from smoking weed out of a soda can.

wavves fader issue 68 justin maxon

Do you have time to talk right now?
I have nothing but time. I'm just sitting here looking up weed dispensaries online. Not too much going on over here.

So you've just been hanging out at home lately?
Yeah, basically. I got back from recording in Mississippi maybe like a week and a half ago and my girlfriend was leaving for Europe, so we hung out for a week, but she left. I really don't do anything. I sit around and play PSP Live. I cut up this Garfield storybook that I have and I'm going to get some tape and put it up. Real exciting stuff.

Garfield is amazing.
I liked Garfield growing up, and in my 20s I realized that Garfield was basically me as a cat. He's just this kind of stupid, lazy cat that would, regardless of what's going on, rather be sleeping or eating and I just feel like that's really relatable for me.

Are you at your parents' house in San Diego?
No, I live in LA now.

Do you like LA?
I love LA. I was born in LA, but I lived in Malibu when I was younger. I live in Eagle Rock now. I like this place a lot. It's the best.

Have you ever thought about leaving California?
Well, I did when I was younger. When I was 19, I was like, Fuck San Diego, fuck California. I'm going to Portland, man. Then I was like, Holy shit, this place is not any better. I stayed there for six months with a fake ID and then came back to San Diego. Then I started Wavves and touring a lot. I figured I'd just move back out to LA to see if I liked it and sure enough I do.

My life has changed from the same beer at the same bar to the same beer at a different bar every night.

What were you doing in Portland?
I worked at American Apparel. So that was a nightmare. I only worked there for three months and quit because it was awful. I got a job doing eBay for this lady at a thrift store who constantly thought I was stealing from her. She was super paranoid and two weeks into the job, she accused me of stealing from her and I was like, Dude, I'm not going to take size 46 FUBU jeans, like cargo jeans. That doesn't make any sense. But she didn't believe me, so she fired me and I moved back to California.

Probably for the best.
Just kidding, I did steal those FUBU jeans.

So now that you're always busy, is it difficult to maintain the whole boredom thing?
No, not really. My life has changed from the same beer at the same bar to the same beer at a different bar every night. You realize going through it, even in a different sense, life is always the same thing. Monotony to me is not just waking up and drinking the same Budweiser everyday, it's just waking up everyday and having that same pit in your stomach, regardless of where you are or what you're doing. Those things don't change no matter how much money you make or where you go. Sometimes you just feel like shit and that's just kind of how it is.

Do you think people enjoy it when you feel like shit?
I don't even care, but I get that vibe. That's another reason why recording this record is a little scary‚ I know that people want me to fuck up. I've always been a competitive person. It's not like I look at music as a sport, but I want to do the best I can. And it's not like I'm working at Dairy Queen and I want to get employee of the month. This is something I love doing. I wanted to put my all into it. The record has to be so on point, so even if people don't like me, they really can't say shit about it.

wavves fader issue 68 justin maxon

A lot of your lyrics are about losing friends. Has the success of Wavves alienated you in some ways?
There are times in your life where it seems like every couple of years, your friends change and start doing different things or you change and when that cycle ends, then it's onto the next one. Nothing lasts for more than five years. You can have a best friend and it hits that marathon point and then it's over. I guess I have had a lot of complicated relationships, which is why I come off ungrateful. Touring as much as I do, it's hard to keep relationships, it's hard to keep friends. When you come back, you see your friends and they say what's up, and you say, Well, I've been in Europe this past month and people think you're bragging. But it's just—what else am I going to talk about? For the last month I was sitting in a van, driving around. I was in Hamburg, Germany, and it was zero degrees and my balls shrunk into my body. It was great. That's the only thing I can talk about because it was the only thing I was experiencing.

You sing about how you hate yourself in "Take on the World," and in plenty of other songs. Do you really feel like that?
If I wasn't honest about how I felt throughout this record or any of the records I'd made prior to this, I feel like it would show. A lot of the things I say‚ feeling stupid or lonely or whatever are just regular human emotions. Its not like I feel that way all the time, but there are definitely times that I feel like, Oh fuck, why did I do that? That was stupid. Or I feel like my writing is all the same sometimes. It would be so stupid to sing some song where I talk about how great I am all the time because that's just not how I always feel. More times than not I feel like I hate myself.

For the last month I was sitting in a van, driving around. I was in Hamburg, Germany and it was zero degrees and my balls shrunk into my body. It was great.

Have your parents heard the new album yet?
They have.

What do they think about it?
My mom almost cried. They're really excited. My mom and dad have always both been really supportive. They met because they were in a band together. My mom used to follow what I did on the internet a lot until these shenanigans started happening. Then I think she kind of figured she'd leave it alone. But she calls me on the daily to tell me how much she thinks I've evolved and grown up as a musician. She's the sweetest. I really love that lady.

But lyrically, are they like, Whoa, dude, are you ok?
Kind of. My mom teaches music, as well, and she gets it. The things I talk about are just things that are happening in my life and at least I'm honest about it. I'm sure she's not proud of some of the things that I do, but I think she's proud that I'm honest about it and that, you know, I stuck through and still try to do my thing regardless.

Is that why you wrote "Convertible Balloon" or "Baseball Cards," songs that are such huge departures from everything you've done before?
Who's to say what a Wavves song can sound like or will sound like? "Baseball Cards" was a song I had written almost a year ago or maybe six months ago, but I hadn't really gotten a chance to sit down and record through it. I didn't go into it thinking I wanted to do an electronic song because it's different. But you know, the past year or two I've really only listened to electronic music or pop music. For me, it seems really natural for this to be my next step, but for people it will probably seem like a shocker. I don't really give a fuck.

Are you happier now than your life before Wavves?
Miles and miles happier. Before, all I could think about was how I wanted to do this and why hadn't I done it yet? A lot of me being bummed out was because I always thought it was something I could do, but I was either too fucking lazy or too unwilling to quit the job I had and put all of my effort into it.

What changed?
I think when I went to Portland and I started playing in a fun punk band with the people that I lived with. It wasn't anything really serious, but I had just quit my job at American Apparel, and I was just thinking to myself, Fuck, I cannot do this. I cannot do retail. I cannot do this to myself. I will blow my brains all over the stockroom wall. And I think that was the point where I was like, it doesn't even matter. Once I started Wavves, I was lucky it took off so quickly. It just kind of all came together and it was surprising that it happened so quickly. I realized pretty soon into that what I wanted the whole time, I might not have been so ready for.

Because it happened so quickly?
There's such a learning curve, and I was writing these songs all by myself and there were parts for three different instruments and there was only a drummer that came with me. Getting the live show to where it was supposed to be took until, I think, me, Billy and Stephen started playing together. I don't think my show was what it should have been. That year of a learning curve is what most bands get to do, practicing and playing local shows, but it kind of happened so quick for me that, you know, I, in that sense, wasn't ready for it. I really wasn't ready for it mentally, either. Obviously.

It's not like I look at music as a sport, but I want to do the best I can and it's not like I'm working at Dairy Queen and I want to get employee of the month. This is something I love doing.

What was it like for you guys when Jay Reatard passed away?
Prior to Jay dying, he'd always been a super nice and supportive guy. I hung out with him the night after Primavera and talked to him in his room—we talked about doing a split [record]. I got to Oxford for the first time to go to the studio and when I'm down there, shit really hits the fan. A week into us recording, we got a call saying that Jay had died and we were like, This whole thing is falling apart. Everything that could have happened did. It was a really weird time to start recording what seemed like the future for you and be excited about something when somebody that Stephen and Billy had spent so much time with and I looked up to had just died. It felt really fucked up. The whole thing was really fucked up.

Are Billy and Stephen permanent members of Wavves after recording the album?
I don't know what the future holds, but I can tell you that I wouldn't have been able to make this record without them. Billy and Stephen, after talking and touring with them for a while, seemed like they came from the same place I did and they had similar goals or ideas for what we wanted to do. When we were in Europe, we talked about how I wanted to make my Nevermind. I didn't just want to go for making a solid record. I figured most of my friends are in bands that I really like and write some of the best songs that I know, and little to none of them get the recognition I feel like they should. A lot of that is the recording quality or stupid things like that. I wondered why no one had stepped up and recorded something that could be played to a wider variety of people. I wanted to just go for it. They were on board and around for it and supportive and really awesome to work with. This, definitely, is a Wavves record as a band and not just myself.

You mentioned Nevermind, which seems like a huge influence.
I feel like a lot of bands get that, and Jay Reatard, they used to say Jay is the next Kurt Cobain, and they said that about me too. And of course it's a huge compliment, though I feel like they're setting you up to fall. But that was the common goal between us. We wanted to make that big sort of next-level record, take the next step and do it.

FEATURE: Wavves Interview