If it wasn’t for the fans, Walter Etc. may have stayed strictly acoustic.
That’s how the Orange County-born band started out — a folksy bedroom project known as Walter Mitty and His Makeshift Orchestra, complete with a drum set built from a cooler, wood block, tambourine and snare. There were chirpy shakers and kazoos, which founder and frontman Dustin Hayes heard as a kind of “distortion pedal for your voice.”
But somewhere between moves up and down the West Coast, they soon found that their soft, jangly sound was no longer translating at live shows. They couldn’t hear themselves over the sound of people singing along. Plus, fans started bringing their own kazoos to shows — to the point that Walter Etc.’s longtime label, Lauren Records, ended up manufacturing a run of personalized ones.
“One day you have your album on Bandcamp — I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of bands — and then you play some shows and then suddenly people are just bringing kazoos to shows up and down the West Coast,” Hayes says. “We thought it was kind of funny, kind of gimmicky, kind of cool, kind of embarrassing, you know? That’s pretty much how everything about our band is. Suddenly before we even knew it, we were like, the kazoo band. Not our initial intention, but it’s cool. We’ll take it.”
This year, they abbreviated the name and made the move to electric, both live and in the studio. Their latest record, Gloom Cruise, was recorded electrically, sans kazoos, yet Walter Etc.’s whimsical spirit lives on through references to cold brew, defunct punk houses and early-20s existentialism. Hayes’ initial expectations for his high school band have been exceeded by a fan base keen on his ability to shrink suburban Southern California down to fit inside his songs.
When faced with the decision of naming the project back in 2009, a teenage Hayes originally went with the “Walter Mitty” moniker, invoking a world of literary allusions in the process. The name references “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a 1939 short story by James Thurber in which the title protagonist is a daydreamer in the first degree, with narration swinging from his mundane reality to ever-changing fantasies.
The Mittys of the world want nothing more than to be your hero. Despite taking on that title role (also played by Ben Stiller in a film of the same, which has little relation to Thurber's story), Hayes has never fit the archetype. Hearing his own quotable lyrics about McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches or aimless coastal drives flung back at him from a crowd can leave Hayes feeling shy.
“There are so many nights where we finish our set and even if it was great, I just want to go crawl into a hole immediately,” he says. “There’s totally that disconnect between making the music for myself therapeutically and then taking it out to the world and singing it and hearing people sing back these lyrics. It’s an honor that people are screaming them back to you, but at the same time, sometimes they’re from a long time ago and maybe — it’s just very vulnerable.”
Despite the changes catalyzed by their growing fandom and compacted name, Walter Etc. has kept a few constants in check. Original members Russell Park and Kris Schobert still fill out the lineup, with Brennan Facchino being the only recently added member. Hayes’ aspirations for the band remain as levelheaded and wholesome as they were in high school, despite waving goodbye to their original name and one of their favorite spots to perform: Pomona’s late VLHS. The warehouse space closed in June after almost a decade of shows, ushering in this new era of Walter Etc. with an air of uncertainty.
“We played [at VLHS] a lot,” Hayes says. “Maybe over the course of a few years, we played there 10 to 15 times. It was such this bubble for us because every time we would go, it would just be an amazing show. It became a staple. And now that it is no longer, it’s been this big sink-or-swim feeling where it’s like, ‘OK, are people still gonna come to the show if it’s not at VLHS?’”
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Hayes' concerns echo the feelings of many artists and musicians in the wake of last year’s fatal fire at Ghost Ship, after which many DIY spaces like VLHS have shut down. A sense of community is what makes artist-run spaces feel safe and special. When such spaces disappear, their communities must attempt to reproduce those feelings elsewhere.
Walter Etc. fans seem intent on doing so. In June, the band sold out a headlining show at the Echo with fellow Lauren Records acts Diners and Peach Kelli Pop. Not bad for a band who, according to Hayes, has felt “out of step with the scenes going on” since their Newport Beach days.
Knowing Walter Etc. can still draw a crowd in its new iteration has given Hayes a confidence boost, as well as an indication that names may not hold as much influence as he grants them. In addition to Walter, he’s created other personas to release creative work ranging from poetry and visual art to fake sociology studies conducted at parties. Another musical alias lives somewhere in the depths of Bandcamp, private and unpublicized. For Hayes, a fake name represents another entry point to expression. Stepping away from his real-life identity and becoming Walter coaxes his most honest self out — in a way his namesake fictional character could only dream of.
Walter Etc. performs at the Hi Hat on Thursday, Oct. 5 with Toys That Kill and Mom Jeans. Tickets and more info.