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Stoked On WAVVES: From A Fun City/Illadelph P.O.V., SD-Centrically

Friday, April 17th, 2009
Photo by Alex Miranda

Photo by Alex Miranda

Since WAVVES left San Diego to tour the world early this year, a raging brushfire of giddy acclaim and some reactionary disdain has swept across the blogosphere, scorching up more traditional media as well. No artist from the 619 (area code) has ever garnered anything quite like it.

The flames were considerably fanned when, on February’s first full weekend, WAVVES debuted in New York City with three shows — blog-touted, well-attended and later rave-reviewed in the New York Times — before a month of sold-out dates in Europe, then a dozen shows in four days at Austin’s South By Southwest music confab, and subsequent gigging across North America.

Yet the buzz began late last year, when Nathan Williams, under the name WAVVES, began offering his home-recorded solo guit-noise-pop tunes for posting on various blogs, including his Ghost Ramp (where, notably, a recurring feature has been his strikingly erudite musings on hip-hop, embedding memorable YouTube clips and giving historical context — in effect, likely producing SD’s best classic rap blog). NY label Woodsist soon put out his self-titled debut album. Accolades ensued and anticipation swelled for the second full-length, Wavvves (yep, extra “v”), released on March 17 by much larger indie label Fat Possum. (Advance copies had been flying around the internet for weeks). Reviews of both albums were mostly positive, many invoking Los Angeles duo No Age for their similar vox/guitar/drums-making-gnarly-pop orientation:

“WAVVES is The Beatles to No Age’s lo-fi Rolling Stones,” proposed Canada’s major music webzine CHARTattack. “… [B]oisterous lo-fi rock, all feedback and fray, suggests No Age with cawing singsong or Jan and Dean with exponentially more reverb,” posited the Village Voice. “Don’t bother, this is like No Age minus anything remotely resembling good melody or harmony,” opined a (curiously clueless) hater in the comments below a music-blog posting of the sophomore disc. “With sun-kissed melodies drenched in clanging four-track bedroom-stoner noise-pop … could be the Beach Boys reimagined by a supergroup of No Age, Black Lips and Times New Viking,” assessed the supremely influential Pitchfork (which gave Wavvves a hearty 8.1 in review last month).

Things were often put in geographically essentialist terms (amusing, perhaps, given which side yr on, coast-wise): “The entire West Coast is accordioned … creating a union between the citrus harmonies of Ocean Beach and the ripped denim blues of Puget Sound,” delineated Fader Magazine. “Not every band from California feels the surf in their veins … but somehow, they all have that sun-streaked, ineffable glint that brands them as Golden State. Nathan Williams, a/k/a WAVVES, doesn’t hide his San Diego bearings …” summarized New York’s Voice.

Almost nobody cited (or, likely, knew of) Williams’ previous SD band, Fantastic Magic (which disbanded this past fall). In truth, although they opened some high-profile gigs at (local hotspot) the Casbah and played around town, not too many in San Diego had known what to make of the completely different FM; their unique, spectral neo-hippie-Krishna mix of voice, flute, harmonium, mandolin, organ and what-not somehow earned them a Best Electronic nomination at last year’s SD Music Awards. Still, 619 insiders put them on the short-list of genuinely interesting local bands, and their debut mini-LP, Witch Choir — which does feature a touch of Williams’ backing falsetto oohs-and-aahs that sweeten WAVVES’ tracks — got some nice notice in parts beyond (as well as a glowing November ‘07 hometown nod on BlogSanDiego.com).

“Fantastic Magic are quintessentially Southern California,” explained Oklahoma-based webzine Foxy Digitalis last July. “Their sunkissed melodies and zoned-out harmonies are totally enchanting and hypnotic …” (Okay, at least with WAVVES, the perceived solar-culture SoCal-ism is more manifest: on two albums, three song titles have “Beach” in them; two have “California”; two have “Sun”; one has “Surf” and there’s a cover shot of a skateboarding kid on each. And band-name, natch. Then again, “Demon” is in three song titles and “Goth” in eight — with no correlating sounds. And though some surfy skate-punk is afoot, the simple jams are more classic guitar-driven rock-pop friskiness; some Sonic Youth and Wire riffs, yes, but so too an uncanny, irresistible melodicism somewhat recalling the Ramones, certainly [and admirably] the Wipers, early JAMC, cooing Pixies/Breeders, and — by golly Polly, in that rare legitimate and positive citing — a bit o’ Nirvana. Yes.)

For most of the world, then, the 22-year-old Williams seemingly came out of nowhere, emerging from his SD bedroom as WAVVES a few months ago, a fully-formed phenom — duly enlisting his transplanted Virginia soccer buddy Ryan Ulsh on drums and hitting the road. After his last triumphant set in New York back in February — his voice hoarse but jubilant fans having obliged his entreaties to help him sing the high wordless parts at the Sunday afternoon benefit for Barnard College’s student radio station WBAR (held at Morningside Heights’ packed Underground Lounge, effecting a de facto killer showcase for the Woodsist label with NYC’s enthralling Woods and — just before hopping a jet home — San Francisco’s NODOZZZ [their “In the City Contact High” a fitting feel-good stand-out]) — this semi-informed reporter got some back-story from Williams: “It’s true, my parents were in Summer Wind in San Diego, this cheesy ‘80s pop band, all just, like, vocal melodies — actually, really cool, mega-catchy … Disney wanted to sign them but they were like ‘Nah …’ My mom teaches music, my dad’s a teacher as well. I dropped out of high school — for a year I went to Point Loma, I didn’t like it; I was kind of a problem child …”

At age 16, he moved out, off to Virginia, then Portland, playing in some bands (Ikebana? me neither), and then back to San Diego where he formed Fantastic Magic. Williams said that wound down as the other members seemed more involved with girlfriends and weren’t enthusiastic about his growing stockpile of fresh guitar-pop songs, leading him to forge ahead alone. In discussing other SD bands FM had played with, Bunky came up. “Yeah, I know Emily [Joyce, Bunky’s singing drummer, a mutual friend -- her birthday that day, coincidentally]. She works at the Casbah; I don’t think I’m allowed to go back there …” Williams then explained an incident in the wake of the band break-up: “I had too much to drink, I started kicking over barstools … if you talk to Emily, say I’m sorry — and Happy Birthday!” Joyce later said she’d long since forgiven him. And, with WAVVES making their Casbah debut this Friday, obviously any venue ban has been lifted.

A month and a half later, after all the hullaballoo of the intervening weeks, WAVVES played another sub-street-level sold-out show at a smallish space, this one at Philadelphia record/music equipment store The Marvelous. It was ten days after Wavvves had dropped and everybody had the vocal melodies down, savoring and singing along to “Beach Demon,” “So Bored” and all the other “mega-catchy” tunes (“Wavves” –the song — et al.) in their typically brief set. Williams was in fine voice, alternating his falsetto and full-on punkoid whine while shredding on guitar with abandon. Ulsh pounded and, when pausing, the crowd took over a clap, clap-clap, clap beat. Dumbstruck smiles and dancing abounded; what the ascendance of WAVVES was most importantly about was obvious: the viral transmission of joyful sounds over wires and miles, memes of infectious melody zipping effortlessly about the globe. At brushing-arms proximity with the crowd, the short, friendly frontman operated with disarming charm from a stage-less corner, sometimes bantering between songs. If you got close enough, you could see Williams’ subtly SD-repping shirt, a goofy tee, arguably perceivable as perfectly congruous with his pure, unaffected grin: “Who-o-o’s Afraid of the Dark? Night Owls — San Diego Wild Animal Park.” Rad.

David R. Stampone writes about music and such for pleasure and profit -- often at the same time. (Angle it right and it ain’t so hard.) He resides in Philly (a.k.a. “The Illadelph”) but lived for many years in San Diego, paying close attention ... thus, he’s a Bunky fan. And he thinks you should tip Emily appropriately wherever you find her tending bar.