Stephen Pope (Wavves, formerly of The Reatards): Interview
“I get bored easily, so maybe I’m attracted to eccentric personalities. I guess I like having really volatile front men.”

An outside observer would initially conclude that Stephen Pope loves drama. After a much-publicized break from Jay Reatard’s backing band in 2009, Pope and drummer Billy Gibson defected to the ultra-hyped Wavves, with founding member Nathan Williams fresh from his Barcelona breakdown. But that lineup jump appears to have been an isolated circumstance: throughout Wavves’ subsequent tours, records, and gradual reputational facelift, Pope has remained firmly at Williams’ side.

Over time, Wavves have dialed back the amateur hiss and fuzz of early recordings in favor of a more polished sheen. King of the Beach and the Life Sux EP typified this progression, but it has never been more striking than on their latest album, Afraid of Heights. The amount of credit due to Pope for this pop distillation is up for debate, but his role in the band’s songwriting has grown with time. When we talked, the band was on the road, traveling for their extensive North American spring tour. Pope went into detail about the unique circumstances behind Afraid of Heights, his evolving relationship with Williams, and how much members of Wavves like to party.


I understand Afraid of Heights was born out of some unique business arrangement?

Yeah, after King of the Beach, our Fat Possum [Records] contract was over. We did the Life Sux EP ourselves and we did it really fast, but it was really nice doing it without a label. It made us realize that the recording process is much easier to deal with if you don’t have a label breathing down your necks.

Was Fat Possum breathing down your necks during the record of King of the Beach?

There was some stuff. They weren’t all that bad, but they did come in every now and then and listen to the songs. The producer got along with Fat Possum, and they wanted Billy [Gibson] not to play drums on the record. They wanted to get Josh Freese, The Vandals’ drummer who plays drums on, like, every modern rock song now… like all the Weezer stuff. That just seemed like a weird direction to go, and it kinda disrupted the recording process. We came to a standstill, where we were like, all right, we’re not gonna hire studio musicians — we’re gonna do this ourselves.

We didn’t want to deal with any drama — we wanted to get exactly the album that we wanted to get out of it. We met with John Hill, the producer, and he was willing to work on it without getting paid upfront. He helped us out a lot with that, it was really cool. We were able to spend an entire year working on it and getting it to sound exactly how we wanted. When we were finally done and satisfied with the product we started shopping it around to labels.

Yeah, so I understand John Hill has worked with artists like Rhianna, Christina Aguilera, MIA, and Shakira. What was it like working with a producer with that kind of pop experience?

The first couple weeks we worked with him were really strange. We weren’t sure if we’d mesh with him or not. The way Nathan and I recorded in the past, we usually have a demo ready and kinda know what we want to do. We’d just get drum tracks down and build it from that. But John just wanted to go right into experimenting in the studio and writing stuff on the spot. The first couple weeks were just about getting to know each other well, but we kinda drank way too much and didn’t really get anything accomplished. I forgot what song it was, but we finally started working on one song and finally everything clicked. Then we just spend the entire next year working and working.

He’s also really critical. He doesn’t try to change things but he’ll let you know if what you’re doing sucks. He’ll just tell you straight to your face, like, “Hey, you fucking sound terrible right now.”

He’s also really critical. He doesn’t try to change things but he’ll let you know if what you’re doing sucks. He’ll just tell you straight to your face, like, “Hey, you fucking sound terrible right now.”

So once you get used to that approach, was it nice to have such straightforward feedback?

It’s always good to have a critical ear. It’s easy to record a half-assed vocal track and just put some distortion and reverb on it until it sounds alright, but in the end, actually trying to do something well pays off.

You mentioned drinking with John to break the ice. Wavves has a hard-partying reputation. How much of a role do intoxicating substances play into the functioning of the band?

I don’t really feel we party all that much. We probably do drink too much… and we do smoke weed all day. But that’s not partying, it’s like having coffee — it makes you feel normal. We could probably cut back on drinking. It’s nice to get loose, but it’s easier and easier to get too loose. We have to find a comfortable medium.

You’ve been in Wavves for a few years now. What is your role in crafting songs?

Yeah, I wrote a few of the songs on [Afraid of Heights] with Nathan. We definitely worked together more on the songwriting part of this album than ever before. We spent more time sending demos back and forth to each other, just sitting in rooms with acoustic guitars and working things out. I moved to L.A. like a year-and-a-half ago and Nathan’s pretty much the only person I hang out with. We kinda only see each other, so it’s easy to write together.

I have tons of demos on my computer and my phone and stuff. I’ll usually write a few verses of something and just sit on it for a year. I think Nathan is similar. We both like sitting on songs for a long time because it gives you more time to think about what you want to do with it, or even if you want to use it. We did write a few songs in the studio, though. “Beat Me Up” was written the last week of recording, so I guess [our process is] kinda varied.

What were the circumstances when you originally came into Wavves?

I met Nathan in Barcelona in the summer of 2009…

Was that right after the big “incident?”

Yeah, yeah. I guess that was after his “meltdown.”I was there playing with Jay Reatard. I guess I was melting down a little myself, because I thought Nathan had a great show. I met him backstage, and we smoked weed together and became friends. The next day there was all this stuff about how he had “melted down” and I hadn’t even realized it.

We kept in touch after that. He had wanted to add a bass player to the lineup when Zac Hill was playing drums. He called me in July [2009] and asked if I wanted to do Pitchfork Festival with him, but I was busy touring with Jay at the time. Since then, some stuff happened with Jay and I ended up leaving the band, and Billy, who was Jay’s drummer at the time, did too. Nathan had a European tour coming up and Zac Hill broke his hand the day before. He called me and Billy up and asked us to join. That’s how it happened.

Billy left a couple years ago, and we got Jacob Cooper to play drums.

Was there a particular reason for the change?

He was just sick of touring. He liked being home. And we all like Jacob.

It’s interesting that the albums released since you joined the band have been more and more accessible. Do you feel like you’ve had a part in that?

I don’t know. I’m writing more now but I don’t know if it’s just me. I think both Nathan and I are changing our songwriting as we get older. It’d be cool if I had a part in it. I always thought Matt Sharp, when he was in Weezer for Pinkerton and the Blue Album, was a big part of why those albums were so special.

You’ve played with Jay Reatard’s band and now you’re with Wavves. It seems you’ve had a history with singers who have a reputation for being prolific but intense and maybe even a little unstable.

I don’t know why that is. I get bored easily, so maybe I’m attracted to eccentric personalities. I guess I like having really volatile front men. [Laughs] No, Nathan’s fine. He attracts a lot of negative press, but I don’t know why that is. Any press is good press, though.

[Jokingly] Nathan’s a little brat. He’s just a little shit!

They wanted to get Josh Freese, The Vandals’ drummer who plays drums on, like, every modern rock song now… like all the Weezer stuff. That just seemed like a weird direction to go, and it kinda disrupted the recording process.

Is he sitting right across from you right now?

Yeah, he’s sitting behind me.

His lyrics can be pretty dark, especially on this record. When you were recording Afraid of Heights and you heard all these often depressed, self-loathing lyrics, did you ever have a conversation like, “It’s gonna be OK, buddy!” … or am I over-analyzing?

Yeah, I think that’s over-analyzing. I think everyone who’s in their twenties now deals with some sort of anxiety. And we were locked in a studio for 15 hours a day. Not being out and seeing the sunlight or seeing anyone else, that has an effect on your psyche. It makes it easy to go into the darkness.

I recently saw a write-up on Wavves accompanying and album preview on NPR’s website. When it comes to over-analyzing, sources like NPR probably take it far.

That’s part of the fun of different types of media. People on NPR over-analyze just about anything, but if they get pleasure in doing it there’s not anything wrong with it. I mean, that’s basically what school is. In English class you’re analyzing what these writers were going through, but do you think Tom Sawyer is that deep of a book, or was it just something Mark Twain wanted to write about at the time?

I never even finished Tom Sawyer. I think that’s the right author, isn’t it?

Yeah, you’re right. Mark Twain.

People can do what they want with [our music]. If they want to listen to it and have fun, that’s cool. If they want to deconstruct every lyric and attribute it to an abusive childhood or something that’s fine too.

The instrumentation on this record got complex at times too — I think I heard a cello on “Dogs?”

We had so much time to spend — we didn’t have any limits, so we just went for it. John Hill knew this guy who basically looked like a fat Woody Harrelson from Natural Born Killers, and he would stay up on acid and record cello in his basement for this track. I think it ended up being pretty awesome.

I understand Jenny Lewis also provided some guest vocals. At this point, Wavves has also worked with people like Damian Abraham of Fucked Up, not to mention Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno of Best Coast. Who else would you guys like to collaborate with?

Hmm… Alanis Morissette… Cindy Lauper… Weird Al! If we could do a Wavves and Weird Al collaboration, that would be a dream come true.

I’d listen to that.

I’d listen to nothing but that for the rest of my life, if I made a song with Weird Al.

I have to ask: if you weren’t in Wavves, what do you think you’d be doing right now?

Probably working at a museum in Memphis, and getting way too drunk every night and not having any money and being depressed. I’m doing just about the same thing, but with music instead of a museum.