Punknews contributing editor Andy Waterfield sat down with guitarist/co-vocalist Witt Wisebram earlier this year, to discuss losing friends, channeling grief into art, and the experience of working on the most personal material of The Wild's career with Laura Jane Grace.
First off, I believe congratulations are in order, as I understand Dianna and yourself recently got engaged.
Yeah, man! It's really exciting, and I've always felt really grateful that I get to not only be with such an awesome girl, but we get to travel and play music together too. It seemed like the time was right, and we just wanted to take that step. I feel pretty happy about it.
That's fantastic. Your forthcoming album, Dreams are Maps, is your second to be released physically through Asian Man Records. At this point, they're something of a punk institution; how has it been to work with them?
Asian Man Records is something totally unique, in the punk world, and also in the music world in general. You have this guy, Mike Park, who's really one of the most caring and supportive guys I've ever met. The further we get along as a band, and start to interact with music industry people, the more that we appreciate and respect Mike, because he's just a really down to earth guy; he's like the kind of guy that will return your phone call immediately.
I can't imagine a better record label, especially with the kind of band that we are; a little more 'DIY.' Mike definitely lets his bands do what they want, and do what they think feels right, and he'll support them. Even when bands leave Asian Man Records, Mike is really supportive. You don't find that a lot in the music world.
Dreams are Maps is an optimistic phrase in and of itself. As a title, it suggests a forward-looking record. Do you feel that's what you've created?
I definitely think that this record is a bit different than Set Ourselves Free. I think Set Ourselves Free was a really, really optimistic record, and I think that in some respects we are an optimistic band.
This album is a couple of things, and the main thing that it is, is it's a monument that we tried to build for a friend that we lost last year; a really close friend of ours named Anthony Poynter, who had a small, punk record label called Sidejar Records out of Kentucky. He was the first person that ever really believed in us as a band, and we became really close friends. We lost him to cancer last year, so this album is really, y'know, the way that we tried to process that loss, and memorialize and respect the kind of values in life that he lived.
I think there's a duality at work on this record. It's not just the straight-up optimism that was there on Set Ourselves Free, but there's an exploration of loss, how we move on from that, and how we continue to live the life that the people that we lost would have wanted us to live.
I think Dreams are Maps is a phrase that means it's alright for us as human beings to follow our intuition, and follow the things that we feel are right. There's all this pressure from our jobs, and from society, that makes us stressed and anxious, and it makes it hard to believe in the things that you want, and the things that you think are right. The idea with a phrase like Dreams are Maps is that you follow your heart, that you allow yourself to trust in your intuition.
That answer may have rendered my next question redundant, but we'll see... The opening track, "There's a Darkness (but There's also a Light)," is a particularly introspective song, which seems to be examining feelings of loss, hopelessness, and fear. If you're comfortable discussing it, could you talk about where that song comes from? Like I say, it may or may not be redundant now.
It gets at some of the same ideas, but we can definitely go a little deeper. That song was the first song that we wrote for the album. Writing our second full-length album was really different from writing the first. When a band decides to put out their first album, they have all of these songs, that they've been writing since they formed as a band, so it's kind of easy. It's like 'Here's all these songs, let's put 'em on the album!'
This album, I found myself writing almost narratively, and in sequence, where I'd write a song and I'd think 'That continues the story that we're trying to tell on this album.' "There's a Darkness..." was the first song that came to me, and it's kind of an introduction to a lot of the concepts and ideas that we wanted to talk about on the album.
The title itself refers to that duality I was talking about before, where even in loss and the hard times that we face in our lives, we have to realise that there's a reason, that's there's also a light. One can't exist without the other, and embracing both is really important.
That song in particular was, flat out, my emotional process in dealing with losing my best friend, y'know? Kind of the point of the whole album is trying to build something beautiful for someone we miss, and also trying to figure out how to process that in a healthy way.
It's my understanding that "New Bedford" is about a raid on migrant workers in 2007. Could you talk a little about the song, and your position on the topic of immigration?
I wrote that song before The Wild was even a band. I went to university near Boston, in Western Massachusetts, and I remember one day I went to Boston to visit some friends. I was early to meet them, so I went to the coffee shop and picked up a newspaper, and that was the front page story.
It was a little suburb of Boston called New Bedford, and I was immediately hit by the story; it really had a profound impact on me. Not only the details of the story, and the narrative of the story, but even the way the newspaper wrote about the story; referring to human beings as 'illegal aliens' or something other than just humans trying to make better lives for themselves.
The song just came out of reading that. It's the kind of music that I really like, that I don't hear a lot of in punk; a old-school, narrative song. There's really no chorus, it's just the story. It's really intriguing, and I hope people will find metaphor in it for making decisions about their values, and how they feel about other people trying to come to the United States, to make better lives for themselves and their families.
I have very little context for immigration law in the United States, but it seems kind of ironic, from an outsider's perspective, that the immigration law is so strict, given that you're primarily a nation of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants.
Yeah, our whole country is based on immigration, y'know? I think it has something to do with the inherent racism that's found it's way into American society, that white immigrants mean a different thing than Latin immigrants, African American immigrants, or other immigrants that aren't white. I think it's a double standard.
One really interesting thing about that song is that, a couple of years after it was written, two states in the US passed really, really harsh immigration laws, one of which was Arizona, and the other was Georgia, where I'm from. That's actually why Sean Bonnette from Andrew Jackson Jihad sings a couple verses on "New Bedford," because he's from Arizona, and we wanted to make that connection; both of us being from states that have passed really racist and backwards laws. We wanted to get together on the track and make a statement about what we feel our home states are doing.
I think the immigration thing is something that we'll look back on as a society, in 30 years, and think to ourselves 'How could we have been at such a narrow place in our thought?' Kind of like looking back at civil rights, or looking back at women's rights. For some of us it's really frustrating, and it seems ridiculous that any human being in the United States wouldn't have equal freedom and equal rights.
Last time we spoke, you were highly critical of the Obama administration. A couple of years on from that interview, what are your views on the expectation of the administration, and the reality?
I still feel the same way, or even worse about the Obama administration. I think it's ridiculous that a guy that is currently involved in at least two wars, not to mention the war on drugs, that's talking about getting involved in Syria and North Korea, would win the Nobel Peace Prize.
I think he won that for not being George Bush.
I think that was the rationalisation that a lot of us had, as progressives in the United States when Obama was first elected, but I think when you look at the facts, and look at his record, he really isn't that different from George Bush. He continues to perpetuate institutionalised racism and homophobia. I think what it probably shows it that our government, and probably most governments at this point, are just puppets of corporate America, of the banks, and of people that are driving for the economic interests of the one percent.
Moving back down a level for a moment, if you could pinpoint internal issues within the punk and DIY scene that need to be worked on, what would those be and why?
I think a lot of the things that we fight against, as the punk and DIY community, also exists within our own community. I know that you know that, because you did some really amazing work with it.
I think it's harder when you're involved in a community to be objective about what's actually going on in that community, and so I think it's really important when people make their voices heard about the shortcomings of their own community.
I still see crowds that are segregated along gender lines, which is something that's always bothered me; when you see a lot of guys up front, pushing and going crazy, and it creates an uncomfortable environment for people that don't want to mosh or push. I'm not saying that we don't enjoy that, but I would love to see it be a more egalitarian thing.
I think there's a lot of external political issues that the punk and DIY community takes on, and it's really important to me; that's why I feel at home within that community. But I think what people are coming to realise now is that there are all these societal problems that we want to work on, but it's really just putting bandaids on the real, radical, root issues that affect us.
A lot of it has to do with our own consciousness, and our own willingness to assess our own value systems, and take inventory of who we are as human beings. That's really hard to do; it's really hard to be objective about yourself. It's hard to face yourself and say, "Hey, I might have a problem. I might be doing something wrong." I hope that, when people hear our album, it creates an introspective space, where they can reevaluate those things in their own lives. I think that's where we need to be, as a community, to really move forward.
Moving back out to the macro political level, what kind of world would you like to be living in, years from now, and how might we, as a species, go about getting there?
Man, that's a tough question! There's certain things that make me really scared about our society, on a really broad level. Over the course of the last few hundred years, we've moved away from a kind of partnership society, where a lot of our cultures were more in line with feminine values, where people lived in partnership, not just with each other, but also with their environment.
They understood that we grow, as a species, alongside the plants and animals that are evolving with us. It's a symbiotic relationship, but we've switched into this sort of dominator society, where everything is governed by patriarchal values, and this masculine energy that allows us to rationalise the destruction of our environment, and of other species.
I would love for us to get to a place where we respect each other as human beings, and live in an egalitarian world, as partners in something that we're trying to foster; to be shepherds of our environment, as opposed to mining and destroying our environment to create the resources we need to drive consumerism.
On a really broad level, I would really like to see a more conscious, understanding, feminine-driven world.
I find it difficult, in an mp3 driven world, to remember track titles, where I didn't before, in large part because I was always referring back to a CD cover or album sleeve. Could you talk a little about albums as a format, and how working to that format impacts on your process?
I'm the same way, man, ever since I started using iTunes when I was in college. It's kind of changed the way that people listen to music. When you can just skip around, or put a playlist together with certain songs off of certain albums, it changes the way we listen to the albums, and I think it's changed the way people have been making albums. They're more inclined to make albums with songs that stand out, as opposed to looking at the album as one cohesive project.
What I like to think, is that we put a lot into the thought process of how it flows as one coherent work. I think Set Ourselves Free was like that, where we knew it was going to be on vinyl, so we put a lot of thought into having an A-side that was coherent, and also a B-side that was coherent, that continued a narrative from the first song to the last song.
Dreams Are Maps is the same way; there was a lot of thought put into the order of the songs. There are a couple of songs that back up to each other in a very specific way; like "There's a Darkness…" goes right into "New Houses" which is basically the same chord progression, and it kind of flows right into it.
We want people to listen to the album as a whole piece, and I think that, while each song has it's own themes; whether it's traveling, or loss, or political in nature; that if you listen to the album all the way through, it is telling one story.
'whoa-o-oa' kind of thing; and we realised those could also go at the end of the last song, "Come Home," and just tie it up real neatly.
That was part of the process for us. There are definite themes, and definite characters, like Anthony makes an appearance in a lot of different songs, whether he's referred to as 'Tony', or just 'my friend; in "Riverside" he's I saw a man that sailed on the seas of change; he's there.
We wanted the album to be something complete, something cohesive, and something narrative.
What was it like to put an album together with Laura from Against Me!?
It was just a really insane, beautiful, synchronistic experience. Against Me! is a band that is really influential on the stuff I write, and is a band that I've listened to for years. We were really lucky, and got asked to open a New Year's Eve show for them in Atlanta, and made the connection from doing that.
We had the idea that maybe Laura would be into recording this album, so Mike from Asian Man sent her an email, and we got an immediate response that was like 'Yeah, I would love to do it!' We were all freaking out.
I was really shocked at how involved she wanted to be in the process of putting the album together. Even months before we went to record, we were emailing demoes, and she was giving us a lot of feedback. I think it really helped us.
We really like to record, as much as possible, live; all of us, in the same room, playing together. Sometimes, you get a little less perfect of a product, but when you record like that, you're recording for the take, for the energy. You might do five takes of the same song, and none of them are perfect, but you do that fifth one, and there's something about it.
Having those months of feedback from Laura, we were really able to dial in the songs before we ever went to the studio. She was really helpful in getting us at home, and comfortable, down in St. Augustine, Florida. We actually ended up renting a condo on the beach, and we would go every day out to her studio, which is an old post office she converted into Against Me!'s rehearsal space, and their studio.
Just being around all of Against Me!'s equipment, and being able to use their guitars - I was definitely freaking out.
It was a really profound experience for me, because I got to see someone that had a family, and a child, and was able to live a life outside the prescribed domestic life that one is pressured into when they decide to get married or have a kid. It was really eye-opening for me, and really inspiring. I think a lot of that energy came across in the album.
Laura is such a down-to-earth person. When we went down there it was only a couple of months after she'd announced that she was going to transition from male-to-female, so I think there was a lot of good energy; from her, from us, and that we were going to say what we wanted to say about losing our friend, and we were all kind of there, in a state of flux, to create an album.
I think it all just came together. Laura's wife Heather, and their child Evelyn, would bring food to the studio every night. We'd sit around, have a family meal, and then get back to recording. It was a really beautiful experience, and it was really cool to get to have a week to just sit there and record. We were used to not being able to afford studio time, so having time to really dial in sounds, perfect things, and experiment a little bit, was a really cool experience.
Just to go back a few questions, I think it really is our life experiences that influence the songs that we're writing. For us, getting out there, traveling, meeting new people, and all the adventures that Dianna and I go on together - it's all tied in, our personal life, and our band life. I don't think there's any way to write anything heartfelt or authentic unless you're actually experiencing life.
The Wild will be at Fest, and are set to headline Boca Fiesta/Palomino on the Thursday night (Halloween!). At time of writing, they're due on stage at twenty after midnight.