"There Are No Rules": An Interview With Wilderado's Max Rainer
Tulsa, Oklahoma's Wilderado continue their steady climb toward a first album. Lead singer Max Rainer talks about deciding to return to the heartland and the power of opening for Judah & the Lion.
Wilderado formed in California in 2015. With songs such as "Morning Light" and "Rubble to Rubble", forming the backbone of their pop and folk-inflected sound, the group soon found themselves sharing stages with Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, Mt. Joy, and Rainbow Kitten Surprise as well as Judah & the Lion.
The quartet, featuring lead vocalist/guitarist Max Rainer, guitarist/vocalist Tyler Wimpee, bassist/vocalist Colton Dearing, and drummer Justin Kila, eventually headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma, finding it a more agreeable place to base their operations. With EPs such as Favors and Latigo continuing to gain the group traction, the unit set about preparing its first full-length album, due for release in 2020.
Leading the charge to that LP is the single "Surefire", which ushers in a subtle new era in the group's growth: No less tuneful than its predecessors, it carries a slightly harder edge, reminiscent of Blind Pilot, Dawes and, at times, Ivan and Alyosha. It bodes well for the group's future and suggests that Wilderado might, at last, find a place on AAA/college radio.
Rainer recently spoke with PopMatters about the challenges that his band faced during its early years in California, as well as what it hopes will be the best debut album the group can make.
You have traditionally released EPs but I wondered if the single "Surefire" was leading up to something longer.
We're working on our first full-length, probably for release in 2020, but we have some more recording to do, so I think this will be the first single off the album.
What made this the right time to make a full-length?
We just enjoyed making the EPs. That allowed us to tour a bunch, and then with limited time and resources, it just allowed us to have something to release "next". Over time we piled up more songs, and we became more and more romantic about actually having a full-length. When we started the band, we wanted to do that. The first thing we did was to write 12 songs, then record them. We ended up putting that music out as two EPs.
Do you think about whether people still listen to long-form releases?
I think the answer to that is "no". But I don't think that's a fair blanket statement for everyone. We still listen to albums, and at the end of the day, what we're doing is just what we want to do. We want to be artists and put out records. I think there's a way to make it work. It's lame to think, "Nobody else is doing this, so we shouldn't." There are no rules. But you only get one shot at your first album. I think this is really the first time where we thought we could really make a great record.
What do you see as the evolution of the band to this point? Because I think I detect a harder edge but catchier hooks.
It's not really that thought-out. We've just been writing so much, and the most thinking we've done has been, "What would fit best in our live set?" That's kind of what we are: A live band. We've just been hankering for some more upbeat tunes, to tell you the truth. It'd be fun to have more of those.
Do you try out new material live or is it more off-limits?
It's more off-limits. We did a little bit more of that when we were solely doing support slots, and no one knew who we were. But now that we're headlining, we've found that it's a bummer to play new songs to people just because they're so excited to hear the ones they know and like. It's a bad listening environment and puts some negative information in your head: "Maybe this isn't working." But that probably isn't even true.
The band started in Los Angeles. Is it easy to find your place in that music scene today or do you have to go out of town to even start getting some footing?
We had a whole laundry list of things to do in terms of starting a band, the gigs we played, and becoming affiliated with some of the radio stations there, that sort of thing, but it wasn't like there was ever a big buzz about us in Los Angeles. It just seemed to me that we were never going to become the talk of the town. There were bands, during that three-and-a-half-year period, that became the talk of the town in the indie scene. But we were always going out on the road, doing support spots. I think we just took better in different places.
Was it the Midwest where things started to take off?
I had a baby, then another baby and my family were in Tulsa, our drummer's family was as well. We used to drive 1500 miles to get to our first date. Being in Tulsa, we're not doing anything near that. Plus, everything is more financially feasible out here.
Talk to me about your relationship with radio: There are still college stations, but most mainstream stations have tight playlists. For a band at your level, is it now about streaming and touring?
We don't have anything happening at radio. But streaming is cool, other than the minuscule amount of money that you get. It's hands-on, and everyone who comes to see us says they've heard us on Spotify.
Who do you see as your audience? Are you mostly doing 21-and-over shows or do you do a lot of festivals that draw upon a broad demographic?
Most of our shows have been all-ages. We did a big tour with Judah & the Lion. Those fans seemed to be in their teens and female. We connected with them. But I think that it's mostly 18-35.
I would think that opening for Judah & the Lion would be dangerous territory, that their fanbase would say, "Nope. We want them. Nothing else."
That audience is just there to have fun, so you play for them, and they open their hearts. They're kind of perfect fans. They want to spend money; they leave wanting to share their experience. I think young people take such great ownership of bands. If someone can feel part of our band, it's invaluable. They go on to tell everyone they meet about the band. I think you stand a higher chance of that with a younger person.
It's cool to see tours like that because so often these days it's two veteran acts going out.
It's such an honor because you realize that it's nothing other than the band allowing you to come.
You mentioned having a family, and it seems like you do an awful lot of touring. Do you try to stagger your dates so that you're not gone for long stretches at a time?
There are seasons that require us to be gone longer. But our agent knows where our heads are at. They're smart about that. They care about us as people. I think they understand that we have to be home enough to stay fulfilled. Our wives understand. They've only known us like this, and it's cool.