There’s an argument that rock ’n’ roll could not be deader as this decade comes to a close, with anyone under the age of 30 singularly obsessed with everything falling under the umbrella of urban music.
That makes Calpurnia something of an oddity. To talk to the Vancouver band’s four members (who are still years away from being able to order a drink legally in these parts) is to listen as they reel off a laundry list of acts that are stubbornly sticking to the guitar as their main musical weapon of choice: Tame Impala, Pup, Mac DeMarco, Twin Peaks, Ariel Pink, and Grizzly Bear. Ask them to dig into the vaults for older inspirations, and they’ll cite the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, and some Seattle band called Nirvana as essential influences. Local fixations include the Evaporators, fronted by no less than Nardwuar the Human Serviette, who might at this point know more about Vancouver’s fabled first-wave punk scene than those who were there.
That the kids of Calpurnia—singer-guitarist Finn Wolfhard, guitarist Ayla Tesler-Mabe, bassist Jack Anderson, and drummer Malcolm Craig—come off as older than their years on their debut EP, Scout, isn’t by accident. The band’s exposure to a time it never knew comes partly from encounters with local legends.
“This is kind of crazy, but I just realized this right now and it kind of blew my mind,” says Tesler-Mabe, on a conference call with her bandmates from London, England, where they’ve just wrapped a BBC session. “Bill Napier-Hemy, who played in the Pointed Sticks, was actually one of my first teachers at rock camp.”
Not only that, but the guitarist also jammed with the kids of Napier-Hemy and his wife, Jade Blade—the latter’s musical past included fronting seminal all-female first-wave punkers the Dishrags.
This causes Wolfhard to chime in with “I love all these kind of little ins that we’ve learned about and made in the Vancouver music scene.”
A considerable amount of the exposure and hype that’s surrounded Calpurnia has been tied in to the fact that Wolfhard is one of the stars of the smash Netflix series Stranger Things. But a couple of initial singles, followed by the wonderfully accomplished Scout, immediately made it clear the band is anything but the third coming of Keanu Reeves’s Dogstar.
The EP’s alt-countrified kickoff track, “Louie”, finds the sweet spot between Greenwich Village–years Bob Dylan and the Exile on Main Street–era Glimmer Twins. “Greyhound” plants one foot in the paisley underground and the other in the fabled college-rock mecca of Athens, Georgia, and “City Boy” sounds like it was made for a mix-tape slot right between the Flaming Lips and the Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Calpurnia started with Wolfhard jamming with Craig after the two met on the set of a video for Toronto agitators Pup—where they played younger versions of the band’s members. Tesler-Mabe eventually entered their circle at a program called Before They Were Famous Rock Camp.
“I went there not knowing anyone at all,” the guitarist says. “I’d done the program many times so was just happy to show up and meet people who loved music. Luckily for me, both Finn and Malcolm were there and I met them. I remember thinking they were both really, really funny, and genuine down-to-earth guys who loved music.”
Craig adds: “We bonded over a lot of Nirvana, classic rock, and grungy stuff.”
Tesler-Mabe, who got hooked on guitar playing Rock Band on PlayStation 3, eventually brought her friend Anderson into the fold when a bassist proved the missing piece of the puzzle.
“We thought, ‘Okay, if this first show goes okay we should become a band, because we all really like each other and this is all working really well,’ ” Wolfhard says. “And it did, so we were like, ‘Let’s keep this going.’ It was kind of terrifying going on-stage for that first time, but it was also the best feeling in the world.”
Much of what has been written about Calpurnia since then has followed the narrative that the band’s members are singularly fascinated with the decade when John Hughes was king, and shoes were pointy and black. That’s anything but accurate.
“I think it’s cool that we’re not trying to sound like a ’70s rock band, or an ’80s rock band,” Craig offers. “We’re more into touching on all the different influences that we collectively have, and then bring those influences to our own music.”
It’s more accurate to say that he and his bandmates are in love with rock in general, a big part of the appeal being the quick learning curve. Forget spending weeks on YouTube learning how to make beats that sound like something from the Migos crew; it only takes a couple of days to be able to stumble through “Louie Louie”. Calpurnia has already taken things far beyond the garage, the group proving there’s plenty of life left in rock ’n’ roll.
“What makes rock so cool is that it’s so accessible,” Anderson says. “You can take three chords and any crappy acoustic guitar and be ready to rip. All of us can say that we wanted to play guitar or drums right from when we were little. It was the case where it was ‘Oh, there’s a guitar lying around the house—I think I’ll pick it up and try it.’ There was a spark in all of us right from the beginning where this is what we wanted to do.”
Calpurnia plays the Vogue Theatre next Friday and Saturday (December 21 and 22).