“People talk to the Radio like the Mafia”: An Interview with Wet

Cory Lomberg interviews Wet's Kelly, Marty, and Joe about tour life, their influences, and what it would be like to hear their song on the radio.
By    November 4, 2015

Wet-Outside-Diptych-Print credit Milan Zrnic

Wet is redefining the sounds of a breakup, one refrain at a time. Vocalist Kelly Zutrau starts with a phrase or two on her autoharp. Her lyrics sport few frills, but it’s no sacrifice to her complexity. She finds romantic truths to be concise by nature. The lines are direct and discomforting, channeling the kind of courage that seems to dissipate toward the end of a relationship. She knows the words you meant to say, the ones you rehearsed, but in the moment, forgot.

Marty Sulkow and Joe Valle fill in the blanks with guitar and percussion. They pay close mind to space — the situation of silence and synth around vocal loops. Wet’s style alludes categorization, thanks to a diverse set of influences: Zutrau cites Mariah Carey in her ’90s prime, Sulkow mentions a couple classical composers, Valle is feeling the new Bieber singles. The resulting sound is vaguely reminiscent of Little Dragon, but slowed down and smoothed out to a dream pop drawl. Soft, polished songs about characteristically messy states present a contradiction of sorts. It’s working.

Since releasing their debut EP on indie-pop springboard Neon Gold in 2013, the band relocated to Massachusetts and stepped up from a boutique label to a deal with Columbia. Their major-label debut, Don’t You, is slated for a January 29 release. The trio seems slightly stunned by the prospect of popularity. Either that, or they’re just sleep deprived. I caught up with them at the tail end of a two-month tour with Tobias Jesso Jr. — Cory Lomberg

So this is the last show of the tour. How are you feeling about it ending?

Marty: We’ve all been on the road for a really long time at this point.

Joe: But I’m also sad that it’s ending too because I really like Tobias [Jesso Jr.] and all of the boys we’ve been touring with.

Kelly: It’s been a fun tour. It’s reminded me of high school a lot. Or college. Just a time when you traveled in bigger groups and are in a pack all the time. I just don’t have that in my life at all, so I liked that about it. I will miss having friends.

Did you know Tobias before? Did he reach out to you about supporting him?

Kelly: We had met him before, and we really wanted to go on a support tour this fall because we originally thought our album was gonna come out earlier than it did. It’s been a interesting pair. Musically, much more different than any of the other tours. The Chvrches and the Sohn, the London Grammar — it’s so clear why were were on those tours. The music sounds similar in a lot of ways. This one was more about the songwriting. There’s love songs and they are similar in character, so that was more of the connection we made.

Has that changed your live performance at all?

Kelly: It’s changed what I’ve been thinking about. His show’s really loose and our’s feels very tight in comparison, and it’s made me want to loosen up our show a little bit.

Joe: And he plays with a big band, and I think that allows for a lot more spontaneity on stage. That seems really fun. It’s something that I think we could do with our music, but we haven’t been able to try yet. I would love to see how that feels to play our songs in a less electronic way.

Kelly: Every other act we’ve toured with has been explicitly electronic. Then Tobias is so not electronic.

Joe: Yeah, we’ve usually been the band that has the one acoustic instrument onstage, being the guitar. Usually it’s just keyboards and drum machines and computers. But he has no computers.

Kelly: He makes fun of us. He’s always like, ‘Why do you guys even need to practice? You just press the spacebar and the whole thing goes, right?’ [laughs]. Which is not true.

When are you getting back on tour for the new album?

Joe: Right around the release. It’s our first headlining tour and the first tour where we don’t have to think about fitting into another band’s stage footprint. We can think about production and performance — doing it any way we want to.

Kelly: We’ll have lights, and a live drummer coming with us. It’s gonna be really different.

Joe: It’s gonna be really exciting. I think touring always inspires ideas about how it can improve the next time around, so I’m glad we’re doing it quickly. We have time off to work on it and then can quickly shop it out again and play live because I feel like it’s the only way you find out what works and what doesn’t. Doing it in front of other people. Rehearsing doesn’t prevent you from making mistakes live. They just happen.

Marty: Every time we go on tour it’s trial by fire. You figure out which things you’re doing wrong really quickly, and it’s hard to do those things on the road. You just have to go back after the fact and rethink everything.

When did you all move back to Massachusetts?

Kelly: We moved like a year ago.

And you were all in different spots before that?

Kelly: No, we were all in New York before that.

Marty: There was a period when we were all living in different parts of the country, before we were really in the band.

Kelly: As we were just starting, sending each other demos and stuff. That was from three different locations.

To go from sending each other things and then being in pretty much one spot — what was that transition like?

Kelly: It was definitely necessary. The only reason it changed from being this private project just for fun to performing live and releasing songs was because we were in the same place and were able to work on a song almost every day. But at the same time, the process hasn’t changed very much from those first demos, where we emailed back and forth. We still all prefer to work alone and flesh out ideas on our own and then send them around. Then eventually we get together and work through things.

Do your songs usually start with the lyrics and then grow from there?

Kelly: I’ll have a phrase, usually, and play with it on my autoharp, start working out melodies and it’ll go from there. So it’ll start with that single phrase or a couple phrases, but the music comes as I’m working out the chords for the lyrics. Then I’ll have a demo and I’ll send that to them and they’ll complicate the music. If the chords could be better, they’ll change some of the chords or start writing guitar parts and synth parts and doing the production.

Have you always written on an autoharp?

Kelly: Yeah, sometimes I’ll write on piano but it’s really hard for me because I don’t know how to play piano. But I’ll start a song on piano and get the really basic idea, then I’ll look online and try to figure out what chords I was playing on the piano and then I’ll switch back over to the autoharp because I work more quickly on that.

How did you start with that?

Kelly: I just bought it in college for fun. It was really on a whim, and I think about that all the time. How if I hadn’t bought that, things would be really different. I got it because Cat Power has it on this song “Sea of Love” on her Covers record. It’s an out-of-tune autoharp and I just remember being like, that looks so easy, and it is really easy.

Do you consider your music to be pop?

Joe: For me, it’s between indie and pop. Mostly it’s who you’re talking to, and you just have to know your audience.

Marty: Pop isn’t a word we shy away from. We like it a lot.

Joe: But I also wouldn’t try to force people to try and consider this pop music.

Kelly: I don’t think that’s the worst thing in the world. There are a lot of bands I’ve liked in the past or bands that I think are really interesting but are hard to categorize.

Joe: And I think it’s an issue with contemporary music. How would you describe someone like Grimes? She is even more so writing pop songs, but her image is so strange, that to call it pop would be missing the point.

Kelly: Or there’s a lot of rap that’s hard to describe because it’s doing really new stuff.

Joe: It’s crazy that things like Travis Scott that are so slow and stoned and truly bizarre are on major pop radio stations. And that’s been cool. I feel like the most interesting and new production and songwriting stuff happens in hip-hop and then makes its way into the greater world of pop music.

Do your influences come from all across the board?

Marty: For me, I listen to a lot of classical music too, which has informed the ways that I write and arrange music. Both older stuff like Bach but I also love American, 20th century music like John Adams.

Joe: I go on SoundCloud a lot. If I’m trying to find new music, I’ll just scroll and click around for a while. But for me, the most excited I get when I hear new music is when it comes from the radio. I think the new Justin Bieber is so fun and a good summation of the past two years of what’s been happening in both mainstream music and underground music. It’s the perfect little package of that time period.

Kelly: But at the same time, when I think about influences, I think about what formed my musical taste and directions. And if I had to go to what were the most formative things, it would be ’90s female-fronted R&B, for the most part. Soft stuff on the radio like Mariah Carey and Destiny’s Child and TLC and all that, just because it was the first music I loved and bought and owned and identified with. Then, in high school, more folk female-fronted stuff like Joanna Newsom and Cat Power. Neil Young as well. Those are the ones that I think of when starting a song now.

Where do you see Don’t You fitting in with all of that? On the radio?

Kelly: We have no idea. Radio seems like a stretch but you just never know.

Would you want to be there?

Kelly: Yeah, I think if it happened organically and the song made sense on the radio, that would be incredible. It would be a dream for us to communicate what we’re doing to that many people. But it seems hard to do. It’s very mysterious to us. People talk to the radio like the mafia. I don’t understand how it works and I know there’s a lot of shady things. I just don’t get it in the US. Or the UK. It’s just weird.

Joe: It seems like an illuminati thing.

Marty: Like a cabal.

Kelly: It seems very political, what gets on the radio and what doesn’t.

Joe: But at the same time, put one of the songs from our record on the radio, and I think it wouldn’t sound so out of left field. And every once in a while there is one of those songs that shows up on the radio but doesn’t really sound like it should be there but people still love it. I hope that could happen one day.

What are you going to do before the tour starts?

Marty: Just go back home to hang. We need to go home.

Joe: There will be a lot of things to do so we’ll probably be half at home and half in New York, back and forth. But it’s also the holidays so apparently everything dies down in the music industry over the next two months. So hopefully that will give us a little more time to be at home. But I think I could do, like, another two weeks on the road.

Marty: Really? I’m tired. I am ready to go home.

You played a couple shows in New York earlier this month. Did that feel like the finale?

Kelly: It did feel like the finale. Boston and New York were incredible. And then crowds have been dwindling from there.

Joe: For some reason, our presence on the tour was not very promoted throughout. I don’t know why. We would go to a city and tweet or instagram about being there and people would be like, I had no idea. None of the posters had our name on them, so it was kind of a bummer. But it was still fun, still good shows.

Has there been points where you’re surprised by your popularity?

Kelly: In certain places in the US, we’ve been shocked. Like Houston. For whatever reason, a lot of fans in Houston. Places that really don’t seem like us. I was like, Texas? It’s a republican state where everyone eats meat and I’m a vegetarian. So it’s weird to go to a place you do not identify with and have it be the best crowd of fans that love you. It’s awesome. It’s made me see the country differently.

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