Photo: Allister Ann

Backtrack to Center: An Interview with Wild Cub’s Keegan DeWitt

"We made the first [album] as a bunch of kids in a house, so we're just really happy that we've gone through this process to make this big, emotionally and artistically dense record."
Wild Cub
Mom + Pop

It’s been too long, and Wild Cub’s Keegan DeWitt has almost had it with the music industry.

Playing in a band since his early 20s had only been seen as a side gig through his eyes; his main career evident in the ever-growing trail of indie-movie-festival darlings and TV shows he’s helped fill with sound. Wild Cub, the band he’s currently the frontman of, was never supposed to be big, but the unexpected fame of “Thunder Clatter”, the lead single from their debut album Youth, propelled them into the indie pop spotlight.

Now, more than three years after Youth was released, comes Closer, an album that sounds more expansive, varied, yet seems to retain the same innocence and vitality of Youth. As DeWitt tells PopMatters, the more than three-year-long silence since their debut was not due to wavering interest in making music, and it certainly wasn’t due to writer’s block. The success of “Thunder Clatter” brought not only adoring fan mail, but it also caught the attention of music industry heavyweights, which, as DeWitt puts it, was more a curse than a blessing.

After teetering on the edge of never being released for what feels like forever and after a few rewrites, the exuberant new album full of pop tunes is finally out, and DeWitt couldn’t be more proud of it.

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What have you guys been up to since you finished touring with Youth?

We all relocated to Los Angeles for the most part: we’re half in Los Angeles, half in New York right now.

Is this a sort of a resting period before the new album comes out?

It all took way longer than we thought because of a whole bunch of different factors. We started in Nashville and then dispersed, but now we’ve come back to do all these shows and all the touring to support this record. We had completed most of the record together in one place, but it took a long time from when it all began to when it finally shook out.

Did you ever feel tension inside when writing new material while at the same time constantly performing old songs people expect from you? Was it ever hard to distance yourself from that to come up with new material?

Honestly, after Youth, we went non-stop for like two and a half years, and then we sort of stopped altogether to write and record the next record. I mean we were touring and sleeping in airports, we were totally burnt out by the time it was all set and done. So it was important that we kind of chill out first to write. By the time we wrote everything, recorded and then delivered the record to the label, we had to go through a bunch of drama to get it actually released.

What happened?

Essentially we went in with a big record producer, and as soon as we got in there we were like “What are we doing? This isn’t us; this isn’t how we want to make records.” We had made the first record in our house that we converted into a studio — and suddenly we were sitting there with a Grammy-award-winning producer, who himself was amazing, but it just wasn’t how we made music. I mean so much of how we made music on the first record was almost like a collage. We would take sounds and cut them up and lay things on top of each other, then totally rearrange them and re-record half of it, you know? We were writing songs as we were recording them.

So we were sitting there on the first day in the studio with this producer, and he essentially wanted us to play like a rock band. You know, like he would say “What are the songs?” and we’d go “Well this is sort of a song,” and he’d go “Great, lets hit it! One, two, three,” wanting us to record it like a rock band. We could have done it that way, but we were really excited to continue making music how we had. And I think we all grew up loving Brian Wilson or even like Chemical Brothers, different artists for whom the art of recording is an equivalent part of the songwriting process, unlike recording is for some big loud rock bands.

So they were trying to force you into this traditional recording framework, and you guys wanted to do it your way.

Yeah, and after we went and finished the record on our own, after we finally went and completed it on our own and said “Here it is, it’s done,” it was just silence for two years.

Sounds intense.

Yeah, it was a very intense time. It was hard too because we spent so much time making the music and bringing this record into existence and then all we got was silence. So that’s why there was this two-year lull: it wasn’t that it took us two years to finish the music itself, it was more that it had to go through all this bureaucracy to actually be released.

In a nice way it ended up being similar to the first record because we wrote the first record when we didn’t really know anything — we just got lucky it got discovered. That record was created from an innocent place when “Thunder Clatter” took off it was such a great thing because we didn’t make it thinking that we wanted it to be this gigantic song. After we had tried to get this second record done and delivered we couldn’t get anybody at the label to care about it, so we sat around for six months feeling confused. By the time we sat back down to finish it, we were all like “We’re gonna deliver the record the way we want to.” It was nice; we were doing the same thing we were doing with the first record — like who knows if our fans will still be there, who knows what will happen when we say “This is the record, take it or leave it.”

We were making music from a pure place again; we were doing it purely to satisfy that creative standard that we had for ourselves instead of making a record that would be the biggest thing possible. Instead of trying to make something even bigger than “Thunder Clatter” we just wanted to make a record that we would be truly happy with. No one was satisfied with the commercial viability of what we were giving them so we were free to make whatever record we were happy with, even if that meant that we might never get to make another record again.

Was it hard to keep the band together during this time, or was everyone on board?

It wasn’t that it was hard to keep the band together, it was just hard to keep the candles burning for everybody because it was so much waiting around. When you’re creating things it’s always hard to not let stuff feel cursed, it’s got to have its own natural momentum, at least I feel that way. When you suddenly begin to tear it all apart and micromanage it, by the time it’s done it’s hard to feel passionate because then it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from an organic place. So we were always really protective, we were always trying to let the songs still have some magic to them. That’s why when we went in there with this big producer we immediately pivoted out, took a step back and were like “How can we do this again?”

So then three or four months later, when we finally realized that we couldn’t continue this, we couldn’t beat this thing into the ground, we just went and we rented a house, we found this amazing new producer Daniel James who’s in a band called Cannon Blue, we connected to him through a really passionate supporter at our publishing company at Sony who was like “What the fuck is going on with this record? I’ve heard the songs, and they’re great, why can’t you get anyone to get behind this?” He told us we should meet Dan, and Dan rescued us in a lot of ways — we met Dan, and I just said “You know what? We can’t walk back into our old studio where we’d already delivered this record, we should make it feel brand new.” So we rented this house in Palm Springs for two weeks, turned it into a studio, went in and turned all the songs inside out, rearranged stuff, rerecorded stuff, and that’s what ended up being the final record.

How confident have you become as a songwriter through this whole process?

Well, I don’t feel like it’s about comfort levels, it’s just what’s exciting to me at that time, telling stories, things that I find interesting. For me, between my work as a film composer and the band, just the volume of music that I create is so large at this point, I’m just constantly writing. I think it’s important to keep that volume, because then you don’t overjudge anything, if it’s truthful, if it’s compelling to me then it’s great, then it works. And with this record, since we didn’t know if the record label would even respond to our email when we completed it, I think that’s why it came from a pure place.

It’s also helpful that, with “Thunder Clatter” and with the last record, it really came at a time we didn’t expect it, it was a surprise, and we got to travel all around the world, we go to play Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon — we got to do all this stuff and we did it behind a song that I had written for my wife when I had met her, a song that we recorded ourselves, in our house when no one gave a shit about us, a song that I wrote from the most honest, true, loving place you could write a song from. And with this record, we were giving it to people who were essentially like “How do we make this be the next ‘Thunder Clatter’ on steroids?”

What was your favorite story a fan has told you about how they related to “Thunder Clatter”?

I mean it’s more like the volume of it. Still, every two or three weeks I get an email from someone who’s like “I met my wife, and we fell in love to ‘Thunder Clatter’, now we’re getting married!” Like that has been just the most incredible thing to me, to every once in a while get these reminders that “Thunder Clatter” is to some people what it was to me. To still get those emails three years after the song came out is awesome.

Has any other song sparked a similar avalanche of fan-mail as “Thunder Clatter”?

Well “Thunder Clatter” was essentially a huge part of what we did. We essentially traveled with “Thunder Clatter”, and the whole record, for two years, but that song just wouldn’t go away. Even if people like some other song, it’s still going to be less than the song they met the person they were going to get married to. And that’s totally understandable; I think early on we sort of gave ourselves a pass that that song was going to be held to an unbeatable standard because it’s essentially a song about the most pivotal moment in your life. To expect every song we release to have that same iconic feeling to people I think is not only unrealistic, but I think it’s doing a discredit to the value of all the other types songs.

I like to think that Youth and especially this new record are filled with songs that serve all sorts of different purposes. And songs, at least for me, are like medicine. If I’m feeling one way today, I want to know what I can listen to that can reflect back a little bit of that. And I want to make a record that has 10 to 12 different songs that all speak to a different type of mood that you may need to listen to.

You’ve talked about how the unifying theme of Youth was this transitional period a person goes through between age 17 and 27, and I was wondering if this new record had something similar behind it.

I think that lyrically this record goes through some of the more intense growth moments of my life. I mean life is like seasons, you have friends you’re so close to for an entire summer, you’re inseparable, and then you suddenly drift apart, and you don’t even know how it happened, it’s just one minute they’re there, and the next minute they’re gone. And that happens in both romantic relationships and friendships; it’s just interesting to go back and piece through some of those things.

So a good half of the songs on that record were that, they were me going back over these big moments, you know, failed relationships and other things that I’ve experienced in my life and understanding them now that I’m a bit separated from them. And then I think the other half of those songs more directly deal with the conflict that we were involved with in delivering the record and having to fight to have it exist. So there are certain songs on the record that deal with writers’ block, and there’re other songs that deal with the miserable slog of trying to convince people to play your song on the radio.

And what about the music video for “Speak”, could you talk a little bit about how that came about?

It’s sort of tied to this thing that’s yet to come out, which is this short film that we’re using to announce the record itself, and it’s created by this British photographer named Milly Cope. As I was finishing the lyrics and starting to think about the visuals for the record, I found her, and she was working on this short film that we later turned into the short film that we’re gonna use to announce the record. And it features a lot of what’s in the lyric video, so what you see is footage that she shot.

Working with her was really interesting because Milly is as far away from me as you can be. We’re separated by literal distance: she’s in London, and I live in Los Angeles, but also, she’s a young British woman, and in this short film that we’re going to release she’s talking about what it’s like to have doubts about yourself, about feelings of inadequacy, about failed friendships and failed relationships. And so the short film is essentially just her talking, and that was like 90% of the things I was writing about. It’s sort of like when people hear “Thunder Clatter” and go “Wow, you’re saying exactly what I’m feeling right now,” that was the same way I felt watching Milly’s film and looking at her photography. So the “Speak” video is a sort of preview of this larger short film that’s yet to come.

I was wondering how you balance scoring movies and Wild Cub, was that something you launched yourself headfirst during this period while Closer in limbo?

Well, I’ve been scoring films since I was in my early 20s, so that is my primary career. You know I always played music separate from film composing just ’cause it’s so different. The Wild Cub stuff was something that just happened like I said, we got plucked out of obscurity because this song was playing all the time on the radio. I grew up loving the idea of like the entire record, you know, when I was in my adolescence OK Computer was like the perfect example: 12 songs, it had a beginning, a middle and an end, all these different songs that served different purposes and it’s all a full journey. And I really enjoy that about Wild Cub, the idea that we’re creating this entire narrative, something you can dive in and immerse yourself.

Could you talk a bit about your musical influences?

We’re all big fans of Little Dragon, the way they use rhythm and repetition, and their minimalism to a certain degree. Also, for me, I’m emotionally very informed by this band called The Blue Nile, they’re this really beautiful mid-to-late 1980s English band, their work is incredible and their lead singer, Paul Buchanan also has some solo work that was front-and-center in my mind when I was writing this new record. It’s hard to say outside of that. We’re also big fans of Phoenix; I followed Phoenix from the very beginning, and to me, what was always interesting about them was that they kind of seemed to work in a similar way, where they were using the studio as another instrument.

And also, the way they were able to — within a single record and across multiple records — to do a bunch of different things musically. Sometimes it would be big and loud and sounded like it could be played in the stadium, and other times it was very intimate and small, and more stylized; I’ve always really respected their agility. Also, it’s clear that they’re making music to satisfy themselves.

How does your sense of home and place influence the way you write? Was the move from Nashville to Los Angeles a big transition?

I don’t think it had that much of an influence, I know it seems like it should, but honestly, it wasn’t. We were all in Nashville because it was cheap and the music industry was there, and you could make your primary focus just being creative. I don’t know, I think for us traveling over those two years helped broaden the idea of what we wanted to do musically. Also, when you’re touring that much, when you’re playing all these festivals and sharing stages with all these different bands, that can be very inspiring too. You’re there, and you see the Killers, and you’re like “Wow, I wanna play that kind of music.” And then you see Phoenix, and you’re like “I wanna play that kind of music!” I think a big part of this second record was just imagining playing the music of these other bands live.

Are you looking forward to a few more years of touring with Closer?

I mean we were burnt out last time because of the radio stuff, so often you’re just playing a free show at 3:00 pm in the afternoon and then you’re doing an acoustic show on the air and then you’re playing that night, and then you’re traveling all night to the next thing. So that’s all a little difficult, but I mean I think we’re just really excited to get out with this record to see what happens. You know, the music industry has changed drastically since we were super active two years ago, so it’ll be an open experiment to see what’s coming next.

Are you already thinking about something new or are you just waiting for this all to sink in?

I think we will try and do a new record sooner than later. I mean, this time we’re definitely like “Could we hurry up and have a new record ready so that we don’t have to wait for two years to do the next one?”

Are you confident about the future of Wild Cub?

I don’t know, the thing I don’t feel confident about right now is the way people consume music. I don’t think I’ll ever be excited about the fact that someone will only listen to a song because it’s on the “Indie Shuffle Playlist”, that will never stop bumming me out as an artist, but there’s no way around it because that’s how commerce has demanded music be consumed. But I think that that feeling has just been compounded by the battle we’ve had to go through to get this record out.

And you know, we made the first record as a bunch of kids in a house, so we’re just really happy that we’ve gone through this process to make this big, emotionally and artistically dense record and at a certain point in the creative process you just have to be at peace with what you have made.