When two-thirds of Wallows—drummer Cole Preston and singer-guitarist Dylan Minnette—dial the Georgia Straight on a conference call, Coachella is the main concern of the day. Along with singer-guitarist Braeden Lemasters (who’s under the weather and resting up), the long-time friends and bandmates are getting ready to play what’s arguably the most prestigious music festival on the planet.
What makes this hard to believe for Wallows is that they never saw it coming. Preston, Lemasters, and Minnette are proof that there’s usually no quick path to stardom when you’ve chosen music as your favoured medium. As for tens of thousands of artists before them—from Kurt Cobain to Jack White to James Murphy—there were years of wondering if anyone would ever care.
“We played countless shows to nobody in L.A. when we were, like, 15,” Preston says. “Literally, it happened so many times that we became totally desensitized to the negativity. And that’s because we just love playing at the end of the day.”
The three bandmates are in their early 20s now, and after some dark and directionless years, they’re watching their debut full-length, Nothing Happens, catch fire with fans who are convinced that guitar-based rock isn’t nearly as dead as it sometimes seems these days.
Those who remember the ’00s rawk boom that brought us the Strokes and Arctic Monkeys will be able to draw a through-line between early Wallows singles and Nothing Happens tracks like the overdriven “Treacherous Doctor” and “Scrawny”.
What might be most impressive about Nothing Happens is that Wallows obviously aspires to more than the sound that made Brooklyn famous two decades ago. “Ice Cold Pool” swerves into retro R&B territory, “Only Friend” channels the synth-shrouded postpunk ’80s, and “What You Like” suggests someone might have a passing affection for the Beatles.
The album’s greatest moment might just be the mesmerizingly mournful “Do Not Wait”, which—thanks to lyrics like “And it gets worse before it gets better/That’s one thing that I have come to know”—should be mandatory listening for anyone going through a tough time.
Not to overdramatize things, but the members of Wallows know what it’s like to wonder if everything’s going to work out.
The journey that’s taken them to Coachella started when they were kids. Both Lemasters and Minnette found themselves in Los Angeles for acting at a young age, that gamble paying off with regular work today. (Minnette is a regular on the Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why; Lemasters’s credits include Betrayal and Men of a Certain Age.) Looking to build a support network for both their kids and themselves, their moms connected via an online group for new-to-L.A. stage parents. That led them to enroll their kids in a music program called Join the Band, where, right off the bat, Lemasters and Minnette met Preston.
The three became inseparable, initially playing under the name the Feavor. After they rebranded themselves as the Narwhals, the band gained a brief bit of traction with a song placement on the soundtrack to the Steve Carell/Jennifer Garner comedy Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
Then came some serious soul-searching, along with another name change, to Wallows. While acting was working out for Lemasters and Minnette, music remained a somewhat less successful endeavour.
“The last time we toured we were playing these small rooms, some of them not even having anyone there,” Minnette says. “It was like they might as well have left the houselights on.”
“We definitely had some moments where we were like, ‘Man, what are we doing here?’” Preston says. “I don’t think it ever became super negative to where we got really down on the band though. For us, we try and spin things to be super positive, so we’d be like, ‘Next tour we’re going to step it up, put out more songs, and do all this extra stuff.’ We tried to make the tough times as much of a motivator as possible—to sort of discuss ‘How can we make it so that, hopefully, this sort of stuff doesn’t happen again?’”
All the challenges and hurdles would indeed provide fuel for keeping at it. A series of singles in 2017 and 2018, as well as a debut EP called Spring, showcased Wallows as a band working hard to find its own sound, with reviews usually mentioning the Strokes in the first or second sentence. That only made the band more determined to double down.
“What was going on with us back then sort of feeds into our new album title, Nothing Happens,” Minnette opines. “We’d been together for 10 years, and sometimes we had unrealistic expectations, and sometimes we had totally real expectations depending on our age. It would be like, ‘Man, we’re doing all this work and Nothing Happens.’ That was something we’d always say, to the point where it dawned on us one day that that had to be our debut album title.”
The invitation to Coachella is proof that sometimes it pays not only to have a dream, but also to devote every bit of your energy to making that dream come true. But perhaps even more admirably, Nothing Happens is strong enough that it doesn’t sound like a bunch of guys moonlighting from their successful day jobs. It may have taken Wallows a while to get where it is today, but the band wouldn’t change that.
“If anything would have happened with Wallows when we were younger, that would have been super bad,” Preston says with a laugh. “Imagine a bunch of 14-year-olds trying to cope with some kind of success. So we’re all pretty happy with the results right now.”
Wallows plays Venue on Tuesday (April 23).