Smaller Moments: An Interview with Wild Cub
Composer and Wild Cub frontman Keegan DeWitt talks the differences between pop songcraft and film scoring, what it means to grow up, and how life's smaller moments always last longer than the big ones.
Wild Cub, it's safe to say, has had a good year.
The band, led by Keegan DeWitt and Jeremy Bullock, has seen its debut record, Youth, transform from a self-released experiment to a full-fledged hit, sending the band to sold-out shows nationwide and to the stage of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for its first performance on network television. Though he has released his own solo material, DeWitt was previously better known for his work as a composer on critically-lauded films like Aaron Katz's Dance Party USA (2005) and Quiet City (2007), as well as the Academy Award-nominated short documentary, Inocente (2013). And now, in the midst of that career highpoint with his film work, he's become something of a rock star. To hear him tell the story, this was almost an accident.
DeWitt seems to throw himself into his projects with complete abandon, and he speaks with the quick fluidity of someone accustomed to boiling over with ideas. Reaching back several years to the first stages of the songwriting sessions that would become Youth, DeWitt still seems surprised at how far the album has come.
"We recorded the record on a dare," he says, "as a way of, 'Could we do this? We don't want to be bigger songwriters, but we want to be in a band and figure out how to make music in different ways than how we've been doing it.'" For DeWitt, pop songwriting proved both challenging and uniquely rewarding when compared to his work with film scoring. "Film scoring is amazing because you can use minimalism," he explains, "where one piano note can have a huge consequence, whereas a band gives you this opportunity to use as many elements as possible to represent the emotional complexities of certain moments in your life."
That sense of emotional expansiveness, the intermingling of several complex feelings all at once, served as DeWitt's foundational principle in his conception of the album. He wanted to focus on the smaller moments in one's life, and he believes these are the moments that end up comprising one's memories of a certain period in life and -- in the end -- one's identity itself. (His references for artists who do this well, Antonioni and Godard, make sense for someone steeped in film.)
As he puts it, reflecting on the moments that shape one's life: "The larger moments end up being too big to really wrap your mind around. The moment when your dad died? No -- it's the moment three days later when you're sitting quietly next to your brother, and he says something funny and you laugh together. In that moment resonates all of the gravity of the bigger moment." And, in another filmic connection, DeWitt seems particularly aware of the way pop music soundtracks so many of these moments in its listeners' lives.
His favorite interactions with his audience come from people who approach him after a show with a story to tell about how Wild Cub's music reminds him or her about a specific instance in his or her life. In that way, DeWitt says, he relinquishes control of his own music -- and it's immensely satisfying. "People's own attachments and emotional ownership -- people listen to a song and have an emotional moment with it, and then they own it," he says. "That's so much more nuanced and interesting and compelling than anything we could actually give them."
Along those lines, DeWitt worries he may have burdened Youth with extra symbolic weight by giving it that title. "I didn't intend it to have any tinge of nostalgia at all," he says, "which is counter to how a lot of people perceive it." DeWitt explains that, to him, Youth is more about the way your teenage years and their relative lack of responsibility allow you to more freely focus on the smaller moments mentioned above. And, pushing even further, he relates Youth to the point where the promise of being young -- all those options and choices of what to do, who to be -- slowly calcifies into the reality of your lived experience.
"I remember my mentor in high school said you become grown when you're 27," he recalls. "At 17, you can do anything. So, in between those years, life is about the things you desire being withheld from you. As you get older, you wonder, 'How do I hold onto this romanticism while also knowing what pieces of it to let go? Which of these romantic ideals do I let get pulled away with the tide, and which do I hold onto, because they help define me as a person?' And you look around as you get older and realize too many people made the wrong bet. And they end up in a position not where they intended to be."
DeWitt seems happy with his position. The record's breakout single, "Thunder Clatter", he says, is about how he feared that the complacency that comes with getting older, the "rounding off of all my edges," would make him blind to real love when it came along -- and how, in the end, it didn't. "I was afraid that I'd be so closed off to the person who'd arrive to me," he explains, "that I'd be closed to it, and I'd miss it. And 'Thunder Clatter' is about that -- I didn't miss it." DeWitt's sense of gratitude to his wife and the key figures in his life becomes palpable even over the phone, and as he talks about Wild Cub's path to recording and touring on a label, rather than self-releasing material, he releases a torrent of praise for Mom & Pop, the venerable indie label who signed the band.
The band purposefully wanted to sign with an indie over a major label, he says, even though it meant "everyday would be like a boxing match" trying to get radio and other outlets to pay attention to Wild Cub's music. Mom & Pop offered artistic integrity and a deep belief in the band. "They want us to have, you know, three great records, not just a song that's successful," he says. "We had major label meetings we went to where they were like, 'Don't you want to be the biggest fucking band in the world now, man?' Which is not a thing." He laughs. "I think it's like, you walk onto a used car lot, and they show you the convertible, and they're like, 'Don't you want to look like a bad ass in that thing, man?' Yeah, but what are the payments like?"
Ultimately, he says, "There are so many bands and so much music out there that people are just looking for a reason not to take you seriously." That sort of cynicism bothers DeWitt, and he mentions it more than once in our interview. But it also motivated him to put everything he had into Youth, he says, to go all-in as a reaction to that attitude. In the end, that earnestness is paying off.