Wavves’ Nathan Williams Finds Some Sunshine
The San Diego surf punk has seen some dark days. But with his fine new album, there just might be light on the other side.
Wavves’ self-immolating wunderkind and indie-rock scourge Nathan Williams may be better known for one onstage disaster than for his hazy surf punk. This is about to change — if he can just stay out of his own way. [Full Story]
Looking at Nathan Williams, it’s easy to think, Here comes trouble. Maybe it’s just the way he’s dressed: white Wayfarer-style shades with a Mickey Mouse decal over each lens — a gift from his girlfriend, Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast — and a T-shirt of Bart Simpson smoking a fatty. And he’s drinking a beer on a Brooklyn street on a Tuesday afternoon, open-container laws be damned. Or maybe his reputation just precedes him.
“I know you want to talk about the meltdown,” says Williams, a.k.a. Wavves. He takes a final swig, stashing the bottle behind a doorstep. “You’d think I melted into a puddle and they squeegeed me up and wrung me out offstage.” He’s referring to Wavves’ performance at 2009’s Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, which got the phrases “public breakdown” and “cocktail of Ecstasy and Valium” added to his Wikipedia entry. Even people who’ve never heard Wavves’ music know Williams as That Guy Who Went Nuts Onstage, and the backlash has been vicious, even by catty comment-board standards. (At South by Southwest last March, Psychedelic Horseshit’s singer wore a homemade WAVVES SUXX T-shirt.)
Williams may be the poster child for the chew-‘em-up/spit-‘em-out blog-era spin cycle. But with his explosive new album, King of the Beach, Williams has crafted the perfect comeback: Filled with fear and self-loathing and alienation and paranoia and monster riffs and sunny choruses, it’s like acid-fried Brian Wilson and Bleach-era Kurt Cobain all rolled up into the skull of one troubled 24-year-old. “My own friends hate my guts,” Williams sings on “Green Eyes.” “Ah, so what? / Who gives a fuck?” Two years ago, Williams was just some kid living with his parents in San Diego. How did he become the most reviled man in indie rock?
Dirty shoes now propped up on a white sofa in a Greenpoint, Brooklyn apartment, Williams tucks his tousled hair inside a Dodgers cap. Self-administered tattoos of aliens and abstract symbols dot his arms. He could be any bored skater plucked from a 7-Eleven parking lot.
On his scrappy Fat Possum debut, Wavvves [sic] (which followed an even scrappier self-titled cassette put out by Woodsist), the multi-instrumentalist sang about nothing so controversial as the beach and girls and skateboarding. Recorded by himself at home on GarageBand, songs like “Weed Demon,” “So Bored,” and “Surf Goth” were both funny ha-ha in their stoner titles, and funny weird in their seasick guitars, woozy harmonies, and lo-fi production.
But there was also a certain desperation. “A lot of disillusioned teenage life is about having no hope, and that was the idea of Wavves at the beginning,” says Williams, whose recording career began after he quit his job at a record store and moved back home, where he spent his days playing video games, watching Seinfeld, blogging about hip-hop, and fending off depression.
Anyone dealing with postcollegiate stress disorder could immediately identify, and by spring 2009, after the economy had collapsed and many unemployed grads moved back in with their parents, the album had become a cult hit. Creation Records founder Alan McGee called Wavves “the Cali sun-drenched child of the Jesus and Mary Chain circa ’83.” Suddenly, Williams was flying between Europe and the U.S. — by the time he arrived in Barcelona in May, he claims that he and drummer Ryan Ulsh had played 70 shows on consecutive days. “It was overwhelming,” he admits, “I needed a break.”
Instead, he tried to power through. “The stagehands were saying, ‘What drug do you want?’?” he recalls. “I didn’t say no to anything: prescription pills, Ecstasy, weed, whatever was there. The Xanax wipes your brain clean, so I don’t remember much.” Among the things he can’t recall: taunting the crowd, dodging bottles, getting beer poured over his head, and drumsticks thrown at him by a fed-up Ulsh. The festival drew an estimated 80,000, and it seemed at least that many had documented and disseminated the carnage.
Among his peers, Williams had committed the ultimate sin: not acting like a brat, but rather taking opportunity for granted. “There’s so many people that would wanna be doing that,” Jared Swilley, bassist-singer for Atlanta garage-rockers Black Lips, said of Williams during a radio interview that June. “And then to just blow it…He shouldn’t play music.”
“Random bands wrote me after Primavera to say they wished I’d overdosed,” he says, his gaze fixed on the floor. Did he fuck up on purpose as a way of slowing things down? “That’s what my mom said,” he says, admitting he spent that night doing coke with Jay Reatard. Eight months later, Reatard was dead of an overdose, and Reatard’s former bassist and drummer, Stephen Pope and Billy Hayes, who’d met Williams at Primavera, joined Wavves.
“People ask why we went from being in one crazy fuck-up’s band to another’s,” says Pope. “But Nathan is unfairly judged. Primavera wasn’t that bad.”
In September 2009, Williams was making more enemies, this time for fighting with Swilley at a bar in Brooklyn. Swilley says that after he called Williams a “faggot,” Wavves’ tour manager hit him in the face with a bottle while six others — Williams claims he wasn’t one of them — kicked him until he blacked out. “I was with Black Lips in Atlanta, and Jared went on a 20-minute rant,” says Hayes. “He was like, ‘He’s so young, he doesn’t deserve it.’ I said, ‘You’re three years older than him. You think you’re W.C. Handy charging your way through the streets, getting beaten by cops for playing the blues?’?”
The mention of Swilley’s name makes Williams stiffen up. “I listen almost exclusively to rap, and rappers are like, ‘Say whatever you want about me, I don’t give a shit.’ But if I say that, I’m an asshole,” he vents. Indie rock, he says, is all about humility. “But I really like my music. [Hip-hop’s] you-can’t-fucking-touch-me invincible attitude makes me think about why I doubt myself.”
Producer Dennis Herring, who helped turn Modest Mouse into an unlikely platinum act, deserves credit for Williams’ confidence boost. Recorded at Herring’s Sweet Tea in Oxford, Mississippi, King of the Beach is a rallying cry for enfant terribles everywhere. But the move from pool house to proper studio got off to a bumpy start — Fat Possum wanted him to replace Pope and Hayes, but he refused. “Nathan was nervous at first,” Herring says. “He had a record company watching him and me judging him. I said, ‘You know, it’s going to be really fun.’ And from then on we were making a record.”
“To take on the world would be something,” Williams sings on one Beach track. That might sound like defensiveness, but it also sounds like ambition — if people have already dismissed Wavves as yesterday’s scandal, King of the Beach will make them listen to the music. Wouldn’t that make him happy? “I don’t think I’ve ever been happy,” he says. “It’s cool to see someone who has it all and they’re a fucking wreck, because that’s how it is. Black Flag, Minor Threat — they should have been on top of the world but they hated everything. When you’re younger, you’re like, ‘Maybe it’s just me, I’m a psycho.’ But then you just realize that everyone is fucked up — my mom, my dad, my best friend, the pope. You all have that doubt like, ‘What am I here for?’?”
So what is he here for? He thinks for a minute. “Some people still root for you,” he says. “And that’s rewarding as fuck.”