Wallows On Taking Risks, Their Debut LP & “Pictures Of Girls” Theories: Interview
After 10 years of jamming and multiple name changes, Wallows burst to life in 2017 with a string of viral hits including “Pleaser” and “Uncomfortable.” Their breezy, Cali approach and hazy, ’90s-influences immediately stood out and they further refined their sound on debut EP, Spring — a collection of wispy, guitar-led anthems that make unexpected turns into post-punk and mellow surf-rock. Comprised of Braeden Lemasters, Cole Preston and Dylan Minnette, the band is currently chipping away at their debut album in a home studio tucked away on a quiet street in Los Angeles.
I recently caught up with the guys after a recording session and dug a little deeper into their history and influences. The childhood friends, who are living the SoCal dream by juggling music with acting gigs, spoke about discovering their sound under the guidance of legendary producer John Congleton. They shared their own, very different, theories about the meaning of breakout hit, “Pictures Of Girls,” and promised to further beef up their live shows. Get to know the rising alt-rock band in our Q&A below.
Tell me the Wallows origin story.
Cole: We’ve been playing together for 10 years and it’s always been low-key. We’ve gone through a couple different band names.
What was the best one?
Cole: My favorite has to be the classic, The Feaver. With an “a”!
That’s pretty good.
Braeden: So, the origin story basically is we got some super powers one day.
You were all bitten by spiders?
Dylan: Exactly, we were all bitten by spiders.
Cole: We’ve been in this band for awhile now. Nine years.
Cole: Well, ten years actually. We were very passionate from a young age about writing songs. In our minds, it was always like, “Let’s try to make this the best we can make it.” And then one day it just happened to be a thing people heard, which is so much different from how we’ve been doing it, because no one ever heard us.
Dylan: There wasn’t a moment when we decided to take it to the next level. Beause when we were recording our first four singles, we were recording with our friend Stefan Mac, who’s a super-talented, awesome guy, out in Lake Forest Studio.
So, songs like “Pleaser” and “Uncomfortable?”
Cole: And “Pulling Leaves” and “Sun Tan.” Those were recorded at a time when we didn’t even have our new band name. We just knew we were gonna change our band name at some point. We wanted to put the songs out but we were just recording to record. Just to have some material to put out eventually.
When we decided to put out “Pleaser,” it just happened to catch on and happened to be the right place, right time. It just picked up more than it ever had for us at that point. It wasn’t an active decision, we just kinda did it and were lucky I guess. That’s not to say work wasn’t put into it either but since we’ve been playing together for so long.
There’s such a retro sound to those singles. It’s all shoe-gazey and grungy. Do you have a particular passion for the ’90s?
Dylan: I’d say it’s a coincidence. What’s funny is those songs, all four of those songs, were written at different times, so they weren’t in the same bunch, and also they were inspired by totally different things, so whatever vibe it ended up with probably had a lot to do with our producer. It’s his production. If we would have recorded them to our own specific vision, they probably would have been completely different.
Not in a way that I don’t like them, because I think they’re cool, but when you record with someone that person is going to leave their fingerprints on it. I feel that “Pleaser” being a ’90s grunge thing is probably not how we originally saw it, but then when it started going in that direction with him, we were like, “Okay, this is cool.”
Braeden: Even though we wrote all those songs at different times, they were recorded in one batch, so they’re all gonna have a similar vibe. You forge that as you go in the studio. I mean, at the time, we hadn’t really done that much professional recording and we were sort of winging it.
Dylan: Which is cool. And I’m happy that they turned out.
What were you listening to when you wrote those songs?
Cole: One Direction.
Dylan: One Direction, strictly.
Cole: No, at the time, I remember I was inspired by Car Seat Headrest. Actually, we were initially going to record those songs on a tape machine that we bought.
Dylan: It was a Tascam TSR eight-track with half-inch tape. Literally, it was broken, we bought it on Craigslist and then took it to a shop and fixed it, and it still didn’t work. It was a whole ordeal. Cole was producing. It was gonna sound sick, but it was gonna be a lot of work. And then we were like, “We have this guy that we know that really knows what he’s doing and we could go just get the sound really quickly in the studio.”
We were gonna try and do it on tape and make it sound really raw, but then it probably ended up sounding even more polished than we were initially intending for it to. Not polished, but more than it was even gonna be.
Braeden: Yeah, it was gonna sound like it was made in a living room.
Dylan: Living room-y. In a cool way, lo-fi.
And then you had the amazing John Congleton produce your EP. Is he doing the whole album with you?
Dylan: Yes, that is right. That’s what we’re doing right now. New album.
How did you connect with him? He’s such a badass.
Dylan: He is badass.
Cole: We knew we wanted to make an EP, and ideally an album, with the same producer. That was always gonna be the ideal plan and we were making dream lists of producers, looking up people that would be great and who we thought would really fit what we wanted to do. It’s funny, I never made the connection of the projects that John had worked on, because he is sort of like a chameleon producer.
Dylan: He’s gonna love that.
Cole: But you know what I mean. There are some producers, who have their sound and they will impose that sound onto a band or artist. That’s great, that’s totally cool. John’s the kind of producer that will work with an artist and he’ll just take exactly what that artist’s sound is, and elevate it. He doesn’t try to put in anything that is strictly his. He’ll just work around what the artist should sound like for themselves.
Honestly, there are elements of St. Vincent that we want in our music, and there are elements of Alvvays and Angel Olsen. We were inspired by all of them. So, the ideal, dream producer for us would be John Congleton. So we put him at the top of the list. We talked to him on the phone and he was down. Lucky for us.
Dylan: The timing was just perfect somehow.
Were you nervous on the first day in the studio with him?
Braeden: The first day of this session, the album session, I was so weird and nervous for no reason. Because we already know him and love him, you know what I mean. But the first time meeting John, I wasn’t nervous at all. I was like “John, what’s up? Let’s do it.” It was maybe a little intimidating because he knows his shit so well. But he’s such a nice guy. Before we even recorded, we met him at a little shop.
Dylan: [Laughs] A little shop? Just some guys in the pillow section.
Braeden: No, we met with him at a restaurant. He was so nice and cool that when we went to do the EP, it was just all fun and games.
Cole: That was why we wanted to do the EP, to get that experience of working with a producer. I felt less pressure because I knew what the point of it was. Not that we didn’t take the EP seriously, because we obviously did. It was more of an experiment to gain some knowledge before we actually made the record.
Dylan: Because going into the EP, we made all these demos on Logic on Cole’s computer and honestly, the way the recordings turned out on the EP are just way better versions of the Logic demos we made. Which is cool in a sense. We’re totally happy with the EP, but we knew that going into this next session that we wanted to have way less planned. Just to go in and find these songs when we’re in there. And it’s actually already opening up a lot of doors. There are a lot of cool sounds we’re doing that definitely weren’t on the EP.
How are you guys pushing it forward? I just heard some synth weird sounds coming from the window…
Cole: Yeah, new sounds. Different song structures.
Dylan: I feel just being more open to taking risks and doing things that are less conventional. Not trying to be arty or something, but just doing things that we usually aren’t comfortable doing. What’s the right way to put that? We’re being way more thoughtful with our choices right now. And I feel better because we have more time and the studio environment now is more conducive to trying things out. We’re spitballing the whole time.
Cole: Obviously, there’s a time and place because there are other songs that just need to be what they are, but certain songs we want to maybe take somewhere else just for fun. With someone like John, we’re gonna try to do that. I guess that’s what we’re trying to say.
Dylan: I think we definitely want to surprise some people with the next stuff we’re doing, but I think that’s what we want to do with everything we do, even after whatever our first album is. Also with the EP, we definitely wanted the it to feel like spring and be really easy to listen to, whereas there’s not really a preconceived notion going into this. Some of this may be difficult to listen to in a good way. Some stuff could be more abrasive, some stuff could be more jarring.
Speaking of the EP, what is “Pictures Of Girls” about? Some fans interpret it as being about fame because of the line “you should be down in Hollywood.” I even read a theory that it was a LGBT anthem because of the lyric “pictures of girls are not for me.”
Dylan: I like that there are theories! If people can connect to it, whatever way they want, that’s great.
Braeden: That’s always the vibe.
Dylan: I love that about music. If you find a way to connect with it, just stay with that. But for me, it’s about the fear of moving into adulthood. It’s about the fear of losing innocence and leaving your youth behind. In that song, it’s reflected in a metaphor with the city versus the suburbs. Moving into the city, leaving your youth behind in the suburbs, just not wanting to do that. More specifically, being into someone who has already moved on into their adulthood or moved to the city, whereas you don’t want to leave your home in the suburbs.
The line “you should be down in Hollywood”… it sounds like such a catchy thing to say, but really in a lyrical sense, it means that, “I’m gonna be here, but you should be down in Hollywood. You should go to the city, you belong there.”
Braeden: What’s cool is that that’s Dylan’s interpretation of it, because that line, to me, does mean, “You should be down in Hollywood.” It’s funny because it shows that there are different ways to interpret the song. Because I wrote that line, I sung that line. I just thought it was something cool to say. There was no meaning behind it whatsoever. I just randomly started singing that.
I love the juxtaposition of their theories and your theories.
Braeden: That’s what’s funny about it, when Dylan started taking over the lyrical theme, because he sings the melody, I was like, “Oh, dude, that’s sick.”
What’s your theory, Cole?
Cole: Dylan’s theory is, you’re staying in the burbs but the other person should be down in Hollywood. If you twist that a little bit, you are the one telling yourself that you should be down in Hollywood. You’re longing to be there.
Braeden: That’s dope.
Cole: It’s like go for your dreams. There are many ways to look at it, I think.
There should be a college course in “Pictures of Girls.” What was your first tour like?
Cole: I thought it was really cool. I enjoyed going to all these different places and meeting all the different people and seeing how the crowds reacted in different areas. One of my favorite parts about being in a band is playing live, because it’s just so much fun and it’s cool to see people get involved. I’d say going on tour was exactly what I thought it was gonna be, in the best way of what I thought it was gonna be. You know what I mean?
Dylan: It was interesting because our EP wasn’t even out when we toured. So we were playing the EP songs. We played literally every EP song at every show pretty much.
That must have been tough with such limited material.
Dylan: Totally. It was cool, because we have really amazing fans who were really engaged the whole time and excited about new songs. And we had a couple of covers to get people through the set, but it was weird to have songs that we know are coming out and the majority of them, people don’t know. So we could really gauge reactions about how certain stuff went, which was good. It informed the set order and all that jazz.
You’re all actors as well. Is there an element of performance art when you’re on stage, or do you just get lost in the music?
Cole: I’m just myself on stage really.
Braeden: Yeah, that’s definitely the purest form of performing.
Dylan: It’s just like alright, I’m gonna go perform. I don’t want to say that we’ll be more thoughtful going forward because then it’s a gimmick. We don’t want to be gimmicky ever.
So there are no matching outfits on the horizon?
Dylan: We don’t want to be gimmicky but I feel like we could definitely find a creative way to incorporate the next level of production. Like finding whatever way to do that, where it’s still honest and still us.
Pyrotechnics and stuff?
Dylan: Dude, pyro would be so sweet.
Cole: I love a really good, really solid live cohesive set. When we have more material, have music that warrants it and also have more money, maybe at some point, we’ll definitely probably try to make it a little more grand for sure. We’ll still be ourselves, but there probably will be matching outfits one day, honestly.
Braeden: If we have money to afford some dank suits.
You guys all act and do other things. How do you juggle that with music?
Dylan: It really forces us to be no bullshit and just really be as creative as we possibly can in the limited amounts of time that we have. We know we have a limited window right now, so we’re here every day, recording, doing what we can to just make the music we want to make and put it out as fast as we possibly can. If there’s ever delays on things, that’s why. If it were up to us, we’d be putting out stuff every day.
Braeden: A song a day.
Dylan: A song a day. 365 songs a year. That would be horrible.
Braeden: It would be sick.
Dylan: If you had good songs. But, honestly, what it takes is a good team to work with, to sort it all out. If it were all up to us, I don’t know if we’d make it.
Braeden: We got lucky with all the people that are in our circle.
Will music be your main focus moving forward?
Braeden: I don’t know. It’s always gonna be a main focus, no matter what’s happening. It’s almost like, if you can do other things, you shouldn’t limit yourself. I think it’s gonna be a main focus no matter what, but if we do other things, we do other things.
Dylan: For sure, and this is nothing against the show that I’m on, but if there are more seasons of that show, then I’m locked in. I can’t, even if I was like, “I hate this show. I don’t want to do it,” I’d still have to. So this is the main focus for me even if I can’t completely focus on it at all times. When I’m completely free from anything else and the door is wide open, I think this will absolutely be the thing that I choose to focus on for a while, because if we don’t focus on it and put all the work into it that we can, it’s not gonna do what we want it to.
Cole: Maybe we’ll balance things out a little bit over time, but I think this is definitely something that we really, really care about for sure.