Wild Cub Front Man Keegan DeWitt Takes Us Inside New Album ‘Closer’
As a composer of scores for various indie films, Keegan DeWitt is no stranger when it comes to finding common ground in human emotions. It’s his job to use music as a hand, reaching out to audiences and becoming a critical median between the writer and those eyes watching. So it’s no surprise that when crafting music for his L.A.-based indie-rock outfit Wild Cub that the term “connection” pops up again and again. The band’s previous album, 2014’s “Youth,” spawned a huge success with “Thunder Clatter.” Once Sirius XM’s indie station picked it up, and after the late-night hosts invited them to perform, “Thunder Clatter” shot into the hearts and minds of receptive fans around the world who felt an undeniable empathy with DeWitt and his songwriting. With Wild Cub’s newest album “Closer” out Sept. 8, DeWitt and company have decided to stick with the formula that got them where they are today: raw, home studio production and an eagerness to simply connect with fans in a meaningful way.
Before the band heads off on their supporting tour, and ahead of their set at Los Angeles’ Sunstock Solar Music & Arts Festival on Sept. 9, DeWitt spoke with Entertainment Voice about the new album and the details from which he pulls his lyrical inspiration.
You’ve said your music is all about those common connections we all have throughout our lives, be it romance, doubt, passion, pain, etc. In what ways have you continued this trend with your new album “Closer?”
I think that this record is a natural calibration of a couple things. With the last record we toured on it non-stop for two-and-a-half years, so it’s a development sonically in terms of it being like the last record (which) was more mid-tempo. I think there were things that we wanted to do on this record, sonically, that were bigger, more arresting, even more sort of chaotic in a cool, emotionally way with the musical language. I think in terms of lyrics…I’m not a super topical songwriter, in terms of like telling a story from a – z. The first record was a lot more of these scattered little details that when pieced together as a whole, you could sort of take something away, or get your own narrative out of it. And there’s a couple different moments on this record where I’m trying to be just a little bit, not too literal, because that’s not something that fascinates me, but maybe just go a little bit more detailed. Songs that have already been released, “Speak” is a good example where it’s a lot more, not literal, but a little bit more specific lyrically than anything we have done before.
Sonically, what did you learn from your debut album “Youth” that helped shape “Closer?”
I think it’s important to remember that “Youth” is something that we sort of created in a vacuum of our own in that studio that we built in our house, before we really had conceptualized that we would even be a band. So there’s an awesome innocence to that. The record had fifteen songs and they all went different places in terms of tone and types of songs and things like that. But I think also, playing those songs out, we realized what currency it was to have bigger and louder songs that were so satisfying for us to communicate. You know, the first record has more mid-tempo stuff, but then “Thunder Clatter” or “Colour,” some of these more driving songs, we were like ‘Wow, that’s really something we can drive,’ in terms of being able to communicate what we want to do live. So I think that this record has a lot more of that stuff because, the road sort of teaches you how you want to be able to connect with audiences.
It’s said that you initially decided on a mainstream studio and producer for “Closer” only to change paths partway through, settling back into your roots of home studio production. What is it about producing an album at home that you prefer?
Well it’s interesting in that, it sounds a little silly, but I remember when I was in high school I had this really important mentor at the time. He kept harping on this fact that the thing that was probably most unique about you and your artistic voice is something you might be embarrassed by, or something that’s actually a shortcoming of your artistic ability. Back to what I was saying about “Youth,” it’s kind of this thing where we recorded that at our place and the next thing you know it was on the radio and we’re getting to go around the world and stuff. I think there was definitely a six-month period where, at least me personally, I was like ‘Oh man, we recorded this in our house. I don’t know if this sounds good.’ And now in retrospect, I go back to look, because we essentially went into the big expensive studio and were like ‘Gosh, something just doesn’t feel right. It just doesn’t feel like exactly us.’ And when we started soul-searching in that moment, I remember going back and looking at our first record and realizing that so much of what we were doing in terms of telling stories was relaying on the fact that we had our fingers in the mix of it throughout the entire process, and that there was this homemade quality to it. That was a really distinct part of the voice, and that we should just maybe try and embrace the fact that us creating music that way is part of the process that can’t be eliminated.
Concerning the album’s cover work, you enlisted the help of nineteen-year-old filmmaker and artist Milly Cope. The result are two very different portraits. The male with green hair and arms open looking out onto the world, the female’s arms are at her side while she faces a blank wall. What was it about these photos that struck you?
There were two sort of distinct things. One was when I was finishing lyrics and working on the words, trying to come up with a visual for the record, which is such a distinctive, specific thing, it’s such a big part of the record for me at least, I found Milly. I felt like the entire time that I was writing, I was writing for something really specific. I’m channeling something here which is like this recklessness, this emotional, raw, chaotic feeling of like these early moments. I just didn’t know what it was. Like you were saying earlier, the (idea of) wrestling with the self-doubt and your identity and stuff, which you think would go away when you’re my age, you’re 35. I think I found her stuff and I found bits of that short film we just released and I was like ‘This is it.” It felt interesting because it’s someone who lives thousands of miles from me, is ten years younger than me, the opposite sex of me. It was just so interesting. There’s almost a link in how totally alien we are to each other in terms of where we our in our lives and our life experiences, but the feelings we were having were almost exactly the same. Also, I think that for the cover, it’s kind of a continuation of this that so much of Wild Cub is built on which is understanding the emotional moments that shape you as a person. How you can go through from adolescence, all the way to adulthood, and you are shaped by moments of vulnerability. It’s this constant battle of how you maintain just enough rawness to still be this authentic, open, emotionally vibrant person, while still going through the slings and arrows of what it is to come into existence from adolescence into adulthood.
Two of the singles that have been released ahead of the album are equally as danceable and emotional. What are some insights into the creation, meaning or sound of both of the following songs that you could speak about?
I’m really excited by that song because it was the first song where we finished and I was like ‘This sounds like a Wild Cub song, but something new. Something that was almost like a continuation, without skipping any steps.’ It just felt exciting, like a step forward but in a way that you would find familiar and exciting still. For me, I was always interested in the idea of messing around with this lower register in my voice in the verses. I felt like the horns and the choruses were an interesting thing that could have been pulled from the 70s, 80s, 90s. To me it just had an interesting timelessness about it. It had this feeling of so many different bands I enjoy, like it’s a very distinctive song within the cannon of what their work is. To me, it was like the first song that had a personhood. You’re building all these demos and they all sit in a giant folder and they all range from, like they literally could be just two words from a song, to this is a fully formed song, to this song is going to be a huge touchstone. And this song, very early on, it was like this was a pathway (we) should keep going down.
We had battled having enough up-tempo, high-energy songs when we had the first record because (it) was a little bit more groovy, a little bit mid-tempo. I think for “Speak” it was like, how do we have a song that could just command people’s attention from the very first second, that’s sonically. And I think lyrically, for me, it was like how can I try and tell a more specific story. Not tip totally into the world of ‘Here’s a story about two people. I’m going to tell you their names and where they were born and where they died.’ But more like, ‘How do I take these things that where, on the first record were just these abstract words and word associations and little flickers in the dark, to being like these are a bunch of different, specific memories threaded together.’
You mentioned before that the hit single “Thunder Clatter” from your last record spawned numerous emails and messages from fans claiming the meaningful impact that song had on them personally. That being said, what are you hoping fans can take away from “Closer?”
First of all, it was an important thing for us to not place any expectation on beating or exceeding the sort of fan interaction we had from “Thunder Clatter.” I feel like you’re lucky to have one of those songs. It’s just a song that was successful and goes places, but it’s one that has real emotional resonance to people’s lives. There’s plenty of people who don’t have a single one of those songs, so we were immensely lucky. That was really important for me to just lop that expectation off immediately, and just be like ‘How can I try to do something that feels like I’m authentically communicating with whomever as I write this stuff,’ and make that the first priority. I was really trying to write every single song as if it was a person sitting in their bedroom by themselves. By putting on a song, they felt like I was sitting there with them being like, ‘I’m feeling what you’re feeling.’ I don’t mean that in like a universal, heal-the-world kind of way. I mean it the way of, for me, music always served that purpose at all stages of my life. You put on music almost for company, to have a mirror to look into, or like, ‘I’m driving and I feel awesome,’ and you put on this song and you know that that’s the song. When you play it, you feel lost in something, (which) makes you feel a little less lost. I feel most every song, both musically and lyrically… I was really trying to create this thing where it was like we all have constant self-doubt and questioning stuff, and that’s okay. That’s the currency, of how these moments of what Wild Cub is all about, are made.