“My stupid CD came out today. Whatever.”
That's Nathan Williams, 24, Eagle Rock resident and frontman for Wavves. This is his record-release show. He's talking to the crowd. We're at 949 Sum Moon Way in Chinatown, an address that before 1985 belonged to the historic restaurant and punk/new-wave venue Madame Wong's. Of late, the young tenants have been throwing word-of-mouth concerts in the space using the hallowed name, but that will end in a few days when the new owners move in.
“This is the most boring song on our stupid new record.”
Wavves — grown to include bassist Stephen Pope and drummer Billy Hayes — launches into a surfy, skronky punk jammer that's anything but sleepy. In fact, someone thought it interesting enough to use its title for that new record, King of the Beach. It's the third Wavves LP in as many years, but the first to feature other players — those aforementioned neolithic-looking bearded bruisers who used to thud their instruments for the late, great Jay Reatard.
Williams belches into the microphone. The rhythm brutes clang about.
As sloshy and full of feedback accidents as this set is, even Wavves' sludge-caked 2008 breakout, “So Bored,” sounds reborn through the threesome's unlikely chemistry. But the new songs have an extra advantage. They were recorded and produced by Dennis Herring (Animal Collective, Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello) at his famed Sweet Tea studios in Oxford, Mississippi. All previous Wavves tracks were recorded to a laptop in Williams' parents' San Diego pool house. All things considered, it's a momentous occasion. A good time to say a few words, which Williams does. Only they're not the right words. He pushes his floppy, sweat-soaked, dark brown hair out of his face, jerks back when he bumps his mouth into the mic, pauses to consider something, and then earnestly asks, “Have you guys been watching Jersey Shore?”
Abe Lincoln once wrote something very Zen: “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it and the tree is the real thing.” But what he failed to consider is that at high noon, the tree and the shadow are one and the same. High noon also happens to be the best time to break from work, take a siesta or, if you're a rock musician, roll out of bed. The point is, in Williams' world it's always high noon — in more ways than one.
“I guess I just thought I'd work at a record store the rest of my life,” he says to me in the dingy apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Best Coast singer and songwriter Bethany Cosentino. It's midday. “I don't know. I don't think I ever thought about it. I always wanted to play music, but I never thought it would actually work out. I had no direction.”
Their place has character — thrift-shop cat paintings on the walls, turquoise drum kit in the corner, coffee table crowded with quarter-full Bud Light cans — but no real reputation. Williams has reputation — slacker, goon, fuck-up, punk — but his actual character is a question mark. He fields my questions from a deep dent in the dirty beige sofa, all the while keeping his eyes locked on the television, which cycles through an episode of Maury and half of The Tyra Show.
I keep looking for a wink — some sort of sign that this is all an elaborately staged audition for a live-action Beavis and Butt-head — but that wink never comes. It'd be hard to tell if it did anyway, since Williams is wearing sunglasses indoors. He's neither the genius puppeteer I'd hoped for, nor the total asshole who, during a drug binge at Barcelona's Primavera Sound Festival last year, berated a crowd of fans and inspired his former drummer to dump a beer on his head.
Instead, Williams is King Skinny Shitster, champion of the Culture of Duh. He is kind and half-present (also, stoned) and humble to the point of obliterating his own ego.
Asked about his first two albums, Wavves and Wavvves, being feted as part of a modern lo-fi revival: “I just didn't have any other way of recording. As long as it sounds cool, that's all that matters.”
On retracting the mea culpa he posted to his blog after the Spain blowout: “I could've made better decisions, but people are gonna think what they want. Why apologize for who you are?”
And on whether new song “Green Eyes,” a love song, is about Cosentino: “I dunno. When I write this stuff, I just sing whatever's in my head. Unless it's really stupid, and then I change it.”
“I think he speaks for the loser in us all,” says Dennis Herring, over the phone from his studio. “I really got off on recording that. He's speaking naturally, but he really is representing something. Something that's in all of us to some degree.”
Befitting Williams' stance are his lyrics, and befitting those lyrics is the sound of the songs. King of the Beach is a surprising album for both its audio quality and its songwriting ambitions — for noise purists, it'd be like Dylan going electric — but it's an exceptional album because it loses nothing of the Wavves' identity in the process of going so much bigger.
On “Idiot,” Williams sings, “I'm not supposed to be a kid/But I'm an idiot/I'd say I'm sorry/But it wouldn't mean shit.” Meanwhile, the music is unapologetically tight, weaving beachy oohs and aahs through an orchestrated tangle of Sonic Youth fuzz and snarly Green Day punk-pop. For the misery-celebrating single “Post Acid,” he mimics Blink-182's Tom DeLonge for most of the song, then breaks into a Kurt Cobain groan once the high-octane guitars of the chorus drop out.
His voice is up front. The songs show serious craftsmanship. There are hooks and bridges and dozens of other signs that the maker really, truly cared about what he was doing. But it still sounds gloriously hopeless, like a celebration of having no confidence. How is that possible?
“I get this one all the time,” Williams says from the couch. “This is the new question, the new Primavera meltdown. 'Do you hate yourself? Do you want to die?' ”
He hasn't answered though, so I ask again, “Do you have a self-esteem problem, Nathan?”
From another room, Cosentino, who hadn't made her presence known until now, shouts, “Yes!” Her new album, Crazy for You, came out a week before King of the Beach, and the titular track could really only be about her current beau: “You drive me crazy but I love you/You make me lazy but I love you/Want to hate you but then I kiss you/Want to kill you but then I'd miss you.”
So is there no separation between the character of the man and his reputation? Williams is a high school dropout (he got his certificate), a college dropout and a former aspiring record-store clerk who's finally left home for good, trading in unfettered pool access for hours of couch surfing during the downtime. But when he's on, according to Herring, Williams is really on.
“He is a video-game-playing stoner, but at the same time, he's really motivated and passionate when it comes to music. In the studio, he'd push himself harder than I'd push him.” He pauses. “Down in there somewhere, there's someone who's going places.”
If Williams' character seems to be lacking, it could be that it's only just beginning to take shape. The song “Take On the World” offers a mountain of self-deprecation, but for one lyric where Williams dares to dream, if only for a moment: “To take on the world would be something.”
Wavves will be performing on Saturday, Sept. 4, at FYF Fest at Los Angeles State Historic Park, 1245 N. Spring St., L.A. See Music Picks and also fyffest.com.