Interview: Stephen Pope

Stephen Pope plays bass guitar for Wavves, a noise pop / sunshine punk band whose profile has been on the rise over the past few years with their awesome 2010 album King of the Beach, 2011’s Life Sux EP featuring the song “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl”, and now their new album Afraid of Heights. Before Wavves, Pope played with the late Jay Reatard, including on his last album Watch Me Fall.

It must be mentioned that Wavves has also made headlines for frontman Nathan William’s chemical-induced onstage breakdown at the 2009 Barcelona Primavera Sound Festival, and for Pope getting kicked out of the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards for pot possession.

The following interview was done by phone on 2/20/13 for a preview article for the Wavves concert on 3/23/13 at Velvet Jones in Santa Barbara.

Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at the show in Santa Barbara?

Stephen Pope: Jeez [laughs]. Well, we’ve actually been practicing. You know, we usually practice a couple times before tour, but for some reason we decided that we might actually start practicing like a month before, so we’re actually good. Hopefully people can expect some at least somewhat competent playing of our material, instead of just total shit show.

I haven’t seen Cheatahs live before, but Cheatahs are the opening band, and they’re pretty awesome. They’re on Wichita Records. And then Fidlar, they’re always fun live.

JM: Yeah, I saw them once before.

SP: I feel like it should be a pretty solid show.

JM: You guys played in Santa Barbara back in August 2010, which I thought was a great show. I don’t know if you remember the show or not, but did you get a good vibe from your previous visit to town?

SP: What was the venue?

JM: It was called SOhO.

SP: Oh yeah!

JM: What I remember about it, there was a point where your bass came unplugged and you jumped into the mosh pit. Probably that happens every night for you. And some drunk guy grabbed the microphone and sang a little bit.

SP: Yeah, that happens pretty often. And I usually just pretend like my bass comes unplugged when I forget how to play the song. But yeah, I remember that show.

JM: I understand that you have a new album coming out. Can you tell me a little bit about the new album?

SP: It’s called Afraid of Heights. We spent the entire last year recording it. We actually spent a little over a year in the studio. We recorded with this guy named John Hill, who usually does, like, pop stuff. He produced a few Rihanna songs, and he works with Santigold. But Nathan was writing songs with him, just writing songs for other people a few years ago. And they kind of fell in love with each other.

I don’t know, I think John was kind of looking to record a rock album, and he was willing to take Wavves on. Not record us for free, but we didn’t have a label in the beginning, and we wanted to stay without a label until we finished recording. So John, even though he’s like an expensive producer, was willing to take an entire year and record us, like pro bono, so we could get the album like we actually wanted. And then we started shopping it around to labels, and then he got paid. But it was cool for him to go in there without the security of knowing that you’re going to make money.

JM: John seems like a curious choice. Did he pull you guys more in the pop direction, or did you pull him more into noise pop, or, I don’t know what you call Wavves, sunshine punk?

SP: I feel like we actually were headed more in the pop direction than John wanted to be. I think maybe John wanted to stray away from pop. I don’t know… it worked out. We wanted to work with John just because he is the best I’ve ever seen at getting sounds that he wants. Like if he hears something on the radio or just from an old record, he can reproduce that sound pretty well. That’s why we spend so long in the studio, trying to get a specific sound that we wanted for each song.

We ended up just buying like twenty random different instruments on eBay, and then tweaking that. But we got some cool stuff. John got this one instrument called a celesta. It sounds kind of like a vibraphone, I guess. It’s a really small piano, like a twelve key piano, and it hits these little mini pipes with metal hammers. It sounds very girl-group-y. Real full and rich. And it cost like a thousand dollars to buy. So that was cool. That’s in John’s possession unfortunately, though. I wanted to steal it.

JM: The new album doesn’t sound like Rihanna, I hope.

SP: No, no. There’s a few songs that we built on loops and samples, and put some 808’s [Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer] in, but, I mean, we’ve done that before in the past. Like on King of the Beach we had “Mickey Mouse” and “Baseball Cards” – those were both built on samples, and had some electronics thrown in there.

JM: Speaking of the samples, do you guys get permission for the samples you use?

SP: The first sample that’s on the “Sale to the Sun” video, the preacher, I don’t think that’s gonna be on the record. That’s from a commercial in Memphis. I grew up in Memphis, and just like every single day on I think it was UPN, it would come on, like when I was watching Fresh Prince, this local commercial for a church would come on with a black preacher who was just like sweating profusely and really intense, preaching about not doing drugs. And that stuck with me forever. That’s a commercial I remember to this day. I think we tried to get permission to put that on the album, but maybe they weren’t having it.

The other sample, the little kids, are actually from John’s friend’s mom or something, a teacher I think in Philadelphia city schools in the early 90’s. So they’re just recordings of kids on the playground goofing around and talking shit on California. We thought it was funny. I don’t think we need permission to use those.

JM: I have to ask, did you guys ever get to meet Dave Grohl?

SP: No [laughs]. I guess we never will.

JM: Did you at least see his new movie Sound City? It’s pretty cool.

SP: I haven’t seen it yet.

JM: Before Wavves, I know that you played with Jay Reatard. What was he like? What was that experience like for you?

SP: Playing with Jay, it was a very, very different experience from playing with Nathan. I can tell you that. I mean, I learned pretty much everything I know about music from Jay, right now, so in that light it was really positive. Like, he taught me how to play bass. I don’t know, he was a good friend of mine, so I always appreciated playing with him, but sometimes it just got a little intense, I guess you could say, on the road.

Toward the end, it was kind of like having a girlfriend that’s your best friend. Like, if you spend too much time with her you end up hating her, but you don’t know why. You just break up and say, “Let’s just be friends.” It was kind of like that.

A really intense guy. He was the most talented person I ever knew, I think. Really intense. And hard to spend every single day with someone like that.

JM: Do you have any crazy tour stories, either from Jay or Wavves that you’re willing to share?

SP: Nah.

JM: Protect the innocent, right?

SP: I don’t know. It’s hard to find a safe story. They’re all pretty bad.

I guess one time, when I was with Jay and we first found out we got signed with Matador… I mean, it’s not like we were ever a known band, but we went from an extremely unknown band to being signed to Matador, which we just never expected. And so we went out and celebrated, and we went to a spa. We got the the “couples treatment” at this spa for the entire day. We brought drugs into the spa, and had a good relaxing time in the spa. We got a two-hour long massage in the room together, we got to strip down naked in front of each other for the massage, and then they put us in this room that was covered with rose petals and had a giant hot tub, like two bottles of champagne. So we had some private time in there and we took a hot tub together, and then we got a manicure and ate a very relaxing lunch, and probably had about ten bottles of champagne that day.

And then we went suit shopping at Men’s Wearhouse, and we both bought purple suits [laughs].

JM: I didn’t even know Men’s Wearhouse even had purple suits [laughs].

SP: Yeah.

JM: Cool. And was this all on the dime of Matador Records?

SP: Pretty much, pretty much, yeah. Jay got a pretty good advance from Matador, so he treated me that day.

JM: What are your sober reflections on the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards?

SP: I mean, I was drunk, but I wasn’t like blacked out drunk. So I remember what happened. Nathan and I were both invited to the awards because we were doing the soundtrack for a show that was on there called “I Just Want My Pants Back”. I think it got canceled after a few episodes. But, yeah, we got invited, and we had never done anything like that before. So we weren’t sure if there were going to be drinks there, or what we should do. So we decided to try to sneak in champagne, and lots of weed, too, because we wanted to be able to smoke weed during the breaks.

And, I guess, there were two stages of security. There was LAPD security first, and then there was MTV security. We got in there right at the beginning, but before the show started we decided to come back out to smoke a blunt. When I tried to get back in I guess they noticed the three bottles of champagne I had sticking out of my pocket, so the LAPD started searching me. And I had like an ounce of weed on me, and I didn’t have my medical card at the time, and I also had all the champagne, and I was drunk, and I guess, I think, a little belligerent.

So they flay me up against the wall, took all my weed, and then they threw me in this… it was like an LAPD porta potty. I guess it was the drunk tank. I’m not really quite sure. But they kept me in there for like an hour, and then ripped up my MTV ticket, and then once I sobered up a little bit they made me call a cab and go home. And it was bullshit.

And Nathan… They put this really hot girl as a seat filler. I guess they do that at the awards show. He was sitting in front of Metta World Peace, and I guess he spilled his drink on him and got in a little altercation with Metta World Peace, and so on. So I’m pretty bummed that I missed all that [laughs].

JM: Do you think you’ll be invited back to one of these?

SP: I don’t know. MTV’s been pretty nice to us so far, despite… You know, I got kicked out of their awards show, which might have been a slap in the face. I don’t know [laughs]. I hope so. Those things are fucking weird. Seeing any kind of celebrity is pretty nuts. That’s the best thing about living in L.A. I’ve only lived here a year now, but that’s all I care about.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

SP: Don’t let anything or anybody hold you back. And don’t be a dick, too. Even though being a dick, I guess, can help you. But don’t be a dick [laughs].

And if you want to be a musician at the time, you should go for it right then, and not worry about, like, school and stuff. Because a lot of people’s most creative points in their lives are when they’re in high school, a teenager, and they aren’t jaded by anything yet. So don’t let that thought get in your mind that you have to finish school in order to do what you want. You might lose ambition by then. I’m very glad I dropped out of school. That’s good advice, right? [both laugh]

JM: Well, it’s funny, some people say “Stay in school”, some people say “Drop out”. Everyone’s experience is different, I guess.

SP: You just get into a huge amount of debt if you go to college now. Many don’t have a job. So no point. There’s no point in life, man!

JM: Life Sux, right? I’ve heard that before.

SP: Life Sux.

JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything about yourself, Jay Reatard, Wavves…? Anything floating around that you want to set the record straight on?

SP: Is there anything floating around? Is there anything bad floating around about me?

JM: No, I don’t think so, but maybe there’s something that always bothers you.

SP: I don’t know. Nathan might have some things to say about that. Because he’s had a pretty public past, I think, a few altercations. But, I don’t know, I can’t speak for Nathan on that.

No, I don’t need to set the record straight for anything. Any story that comes out is usually based around truth, but exaggerated a lot. So, take everything you read with a grain of salt.

JM: Where are you speaking to me from? Are you at home in L.A.?

SP: I’m at home, in my apartment in Los Angeles, that I share with the drummer Jacob [Cooper], and I’m in my bed right now, on my floral sheets. Actually soaked in sweat right now, because I did have two horrible nightmares right before you called.

A friend of mine… this gets pretty dark. Here’s the serious part of the interview. A friend of mine just killed herself a few days.

JM: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.

SP: That’s alright. I guess after eating Domino’s pizza and two chocolate lava cakes last night I fell asleep and then I dreamt that I was killing myself. I dreamt that I was bleeding out. And then I started regretting doing it, but I couldn’t stop myself from bleeding. So I was panicking, like knowing I was going to die.

JM: Wow.

SP: And that fucked me up.

JM: Yeah, I think it would!

SP: I’m good now that I’m awake and talking to you. I’m not scared anymore [laughs].

JM: Well, I hope the day picks up for you.

So you brought up the drummer Jacob. I was curious who was going to be playing drums on the tour?

SP: Yeah, Jacob will be playing drums on this tour. Then we actually have a second guitarist now named Alex Gates. I’ve known him since I was like three years old. We grew up in Memphis together, and he was in a bunch of bands with me growing up. I guess most recently he’s been in the Magic Kids, on True Panther. But yeah, we’re trying to convince him to move out here. But we’ll see.

JM: Did these guys play on the album also?

SP: We brought them into the studio for a little bit. We used a few different drummers on the record. Nathan actually played drums on a couple songs. And then Alex came in and helped do some noise stuff. They both have other projects going.


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