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Leave it to a beach-punk band like Wavves to turn a high-end sound space like Hollywood’s Sonos Studio into a dive bar, complete with nearly empty bottle of Jameson in-hand and indie rock star girlfriend in the front row.
Such was the scene on Thursday night as fans and music industry types gathered for a sneak preview of the snotty rock troupe’s new album, Afraid of Heights (out March 26 on Mom & Pop Records). It’s the band’s most dynamic yet, pairing glockenspiels and diverse instrumentation alongside the grungy surf that Wavves has been serving up since singer/guitarist Nathan Williams founded the band in 2008 while living in his mother’s basement in San Diego.
After stumbling onto Sonos’ small stage, Williams knocked his microphone from the stand as the band fumbled with their amplifiers and then launched into songs from their new album. “This is the first time we’ve ever performed these songs,” Williams told the audience before ripping into the electrifying “Demon to Lean On,” which alternates from simple guitar strums to loud distorted choruses in the loud-quiet-loud combination perfected by 1990s bands such as the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. and Mudhoney grunge icons.
Ditto for the subject matter of boredom, angst, and ennui encapsulated in Williams’ snarky but honest lyrics. “Holding a gun to my head / So send me an angel / Or bury me deeply instead / With demons to lean on,” he sang, conjuring the sort of suburban torment that fueled Kurt Cobain and ultimately led to his tragic end.
Williams wears his struggles with depression openly, onstage he even donned a hat emblazoned with the word “Death” across it. In 2009, the singer infamously broke down onstage during Barcelona’s Primavera festival after mixing a drug cocktail of valium and ecstacy. But those rough days seem to be behind him.
Indeed, Afraid of Heights bounds with energy and forward-lunging beats, which candy-coats the serious subject matter. Like Weezer, Nirvana and the Ramones before them, Wavves takes traditional 1950s and 1960s pop structures and warps them with snarked-out lyrics and fuzzy distorted guitars. But what keeps them from being full-on punk is Williams’ voice — he never really shouts or yells, rather he sings with power and emotion, no matter how disaffected he may appear to be.
To wit: the song “Paranoid,” whose chugging, downstroke power chords dress up his sing-songy chorus, which often has a bratty, schoolyard feel. Appropriately, Williams noticed an audience member in the front row with a bleeding nose. “He says his antidepressants give him nosebleeds,” Williams reassured the crowd, which included Bethany Cosentino, Williams’ girlfriend and frontwoman for breezy California rock act Best Coast.
The night ended with a Q&A, conducted by Vice Magazine writer Noisey, but it was cut short when Metallica started blasting from Sonos’ top-of-the-line audio gear. In due haste, the band exited the stage, leaving the audience with unanswered questions. A fitting finish to a band that takes pride in being a punkish enigma.
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