Wednesday on Rat Saw God and the importance of keeping your feet on the ground
The North Carolina alt-rockers on incorporating pedal-steel outside of a country environment, abandoning restraint and er, building fences.
Xandy Chelmis is building a fence. When Wednesday’s steel player logs into our Zoom call his curls are framed by shocking blue sky and spring greenery, with thick wooden posts freshly driven into the ground behind him and sweat blooming through his heather grey tee.
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His bandmates – songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Karly Hartzman and guitarist Jake ‘MJ’ Lenderman – break into smiles as he gets settled. This feels like the sort of detail that Hartzman might later decide to stitch into a song. “The fact that Xandy is doing what he’s doing right now is a really good indicator of how music is our passion, and this thing we love to do, but we also have lives outside of that,” she says. “I want to make sure that’s represented.”
Wednesday’s new record Rat Saw God – the follow up to 2021’s Twin Plagues and last year’s covers LP Mowing the Leaves Instead of Piling ’em Up – is a dizzying marriage of Hartzman’s granular writing style and genre flourishes that surge from wistful alt-country to scabrous shoegaze. On songs such as the barrelling eight-minute epic Bull Believer the band, out of Asheville, North Carolina, do it all at the same time.
Still, Chelmis and Lenderman are eager to play down how hard it is to make this concoction palatable. “Take the notes we’d be using in the country song, throw a delay on and distortion and then you got shoegaze,” Lenderman says. Hartzman, sitting on a deck with headphones clamped tight, isn’t having it. “Y’all are being very humble about it, but to an outsider it’s a magic thing y’all do,” she says.
And it really is. Rat Saw God is a stunning record. It has good bones – Hartzman’s songs are daring, funny, sad, and melodically satisfying – and is performed by players who are seeing every pass way, way before they need to pull the trigger. The single Chosen to Deserve is perhaps the ideal entry point. Its riff, hopped up on the dudes rock swagger that underpinned Lenderman’s superb solo outing Boat Songs last year, is answered by a flurry of countermelodies from Chelmis before Hartzman slips in the back with a mission statement of sorts. “We always started by telling all our best stories first,” she sings. “So now that it’s been awhile I’ll get around to telling you all my worst.”
There is candour here to rock you back on your heels, and Hartzman expertly utilises it to add further colour to stark events cribbed from her family history, roadside stops on tour, and teenage misadventures. In Chosen to Deserve alone she covers Benadryl overdoses, chasing Sunday school with car sex, and pissing in the street. “Just so you know what you signed up for, what you’re dealing with,” she sings, addressing Lenderman, her boyfriend. It is vivid, alive and terribly romantic, a bruised country song set to shitkicking barroom rock anthemics.
“I feel like any good storyteller that I’ve read and enjoyed writes that way,” she admits. “I’m trying to learn from them and emulate that. No one wants to hear a story where nothing happens and you can’t relate in any way. My favourite compliment is when, even though it’s a very specific story of mine, it reminds someone of their own past. I don’t get the point of telling a story if you’re not willing to get into the nitty gritty of it. Otherwise you’re just painting over a memory in this broad way when you could really be pinpointing what made it special.”
An Open Dialogue
Rat Saw God – recorded by a line up featuring drummer Alan Miller and recently departed bassist Margo Shultz – came together quickly near to home in Asheville at Drop of Sun Studios with producer Alex Farrar. Hartzman kept things as close to her live set up as possible, with her Italia Modulo and a baritone Danelectro in play alongside a RAT. “I feel like I do a clean guitar and then I do a distorted guitar and that’s pretty much it,” she says. Lenderman, meanwhile, added an SG to his Jazzmaster and, for the notes jutting out of the feedback on TV in the Gas Pump, a plastic-encased Hagström 1. His board is pretty simple – distortion, wah, delay – but here he threw an OKKO FX Red Dominator on everything for added crunch.
Chelmis’s lap steel – an old eight-string Guyatone model running through a Fender ’65 Twin Custom 15, a RAT and a Way Huge Swollen Pickle for when things get gnarly – is a melodic wildcard, often cutting through unexpectedly before retreating into the middle distance. “The pedal feels like a newer element in the mix, it’s something that makes sense on a country song,” he says. “On the heavier songs I almost always only use the lap steel. It’s definitely like a lead. It’s not an afterthought. It feels really organic, the way it’s just grown into the music. I barely knew lap steel at all when we started playing together. So it’s partly my learning how to play the instrument.”
Often, Chelmis is in dialogue with Hartzman’s vocal hooks. There is a lot of reaction and counter-reaction, with the space gradually being filled by elements that want to keep the conversation coming with a fresh twist. The obvious worry would be that it becomes an overwhelming rush of information, which is sidestepped by allowing pauses and moments of air to take hold before everything rolls on. It’s like remembering a killer story halfway through telling a different story. “I feel like that’s just what having taste is, being a tasteful musician,” Hartzman says. “Xandy and Jake have good taste on when to show up. Xandy writes his own licks a lot, but sometimes he’ll pick strategic places to echo a melody. I feel like that decision making alone does a lot for creating space.”
“I took piano lessons when I was young from this great guy, and something Jake and I have talked about that he taught me, in one of the first times that I was thinking about music compositionally, was to listen to the silences,” Chelmis adds. “Create gaps, and then answer those gaps. It’s knowing when not to play, which is a pretty classic tenet of music. That’s definitely something I carry with me into the songwriting process.”
“There’s not a whole lot of restraint in our music, it feels like half the time we’re just letting loose, but the pauses can be really tiny, and really critical,” he continues. “That has to do with growing together musically, too, because it gets more and more subtle.”
See What Sticks
Lenderman observes that in the studio they threw a whole lot of paint at the wall before picking away certain layers. “Part of the process was getting rid of stuff,” he says. It’s an approach that, indirectly, might trace its roots back to Hartzman’s early drafts. There, she collects images into piles and, eventually, whittles them down. “I love people-watching, but I haven’t gotten as much from that because I feel like I still have a lot of self-centred shit to write about,” she says. “But I have adopted this thing that Jake does, that he adopted from David Berman, where you just sit down and write 20 lines. I think he did it daily, but I just do it whenever I feel like it. After a period of time, you just take all the good shit and put it together.
“I try not to go against the flow with writing. When I feel inspired, I do it. It’s become a muscle that I can just tap into whenever. There are a lot of different things that start that process for me, whether it’s something I’m reading, or there’s one song that I wrote through a phone notes app that I kept over a month-long tour. There are a million ways these songs get written and I think that’s a good way to keep it fresh and not get bored or feel like I’m forcing myself to write when I don’t want to. Sometimes I’ll go months without writing, other times I’ll write three songs in a day.”
Rat Saw God is one of those records that, in its best moments, feels like something you can take a walk around in. During Bull Believer, Hartzman has a nosebleed at a party while someone’s playing Mortal Kombat. Lenderman gets all Sonic Youth with the strings behind the bridge as she howls, “Finish him!” You are right there, leaning on the bannister as it all plays out.
“In the, I guess, internet age, it feels good to talk about something really grounding in my hometown,” Hartzman says. “I’m really freaked out about all this stuff online. As much as I love all of the good press, and blah, blah, blah, the things that I’m feeling the most gratitude for are outside of music. Music is just one thing that ties it all together, because I get to celebrate life and everything that goes with that with my friends.”
Wednesday’s Rat Saw God is out now through Dead Oceans.
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