Thomas Himes and Danielle Sullivan have been making music together since 2005.
Their band Wild Ones, with Clayton Knapp, Nick Vicario, Seve Sheldon, and road warrior Max Stein, is upbeat and danceable, yet capable of profound depth and intimacy. Formed in 2010, the band made an almost immediate splash in Portland, but 2014 has seen them popping up all over the national radar. They’ve signed with new management, moved to indie darling Top Shelf Records, scored a mention in Time Magazine, and shared stages with the likes of The Flaming Lips and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. I talked with Danielle and Thomas about their upcoming album, their craziest year yet, and what they’ve learned after a decade in the business.
N&C: So, how’s the new album going?
Danielle: It’s going great.
Thomas: Terrible. What new album? (laughs) No, it’s going great. I’d say we’re three quarters of the way done. We’ve done a lot of writing. At this point we’re in a good groove so we’re just going to keep writing and let the cream rise to the top. But now we’re having a lot of fun.
N&C: Could you tell me about your songwriting process?
T: Pretty much, Nick and I will have a song that we like — sometimes Nick will have one of his own and I’ll contribute to that or I’ll have my own song and he’ll contribute to that — and we kind of just write a bare bones vibe to the song, like, “Here’s a verse, and here’s a chorus, maybe a bridge,” but whatever it is, as long as it has a strong vibe we usually just send it to Danielle, kind of just trading it back and forth. If she can write something to it, then we’ll take it back, rearrange it, restructure, and work from there.
D: It works really well for us, I think. It makes it take a lot longer than if one person were writing all parts. I usually get a simple, structured song, and upon first listening to it, just make my first melody. Whatever my gut tells me, that’s usually what it’s going to be. Then, I fit the words into that space.
N&C: Is the process of making this record similar to how you made the last record?
T: The process is the same, but we’re way better at it now. We learned everything we shouldn’t do on the last record. Very thoroughly.
T: We’re still learning a lot.
N&C: What sort of things are you learning?
T: Really just sticking with your gut, not overworking something, and being able to throw things away. On the last record, there’s a lot of layering, a lot of smatterings of recordings. And this one’s like… one song only has three instruments, and some songs are the same chord progression the entire time, whereas before I was like, “We need different time signatures and tempo changes.” Not that those aren’t great things, but we’re getting more finite and simple.
D: Yeah. I think we’re simplifying things — not feeling like we have to fit ten ideas into one song to make it interesting. Just one idea can be interesting if you take it to the right place.
T: It’s like any great cover song you learn. It’s like, “Oh, they do this the whole time?”
N&C: Is there a certain sound you’re aiming for?
T: We keep saying “darker” — whatever that means.
D: We said that on our last record, too.
T: More evocative. I’d say less is more on this record. We’re trying to simplify things, and just be more direct, and specific, and confident.
D: Whenever I think about defining the sound of this record, I think about and am inspired by bands that create a very distinct world for the record. Like when you listen to an M83 record or you listen to a Chromatics record or an Interpol record. You don’t want to make a record where every song sounds the same, but you want to make a record where, when someone chooses to listen to it, they’re choosing to step inside this world that is of its own space, and it’s very distinct and it has its own stamp. I feel like probably most bands are trying to do something like that, but that’s been very much at the forefront of my mind when I’m picking the songs.
N&C: Who are some artists or bands that you relate to?
D: I think that for this record, like I mentioned before, we’ve been very inspired by the Chromatics’ sound, as well as their aesthetic. Also, we just toured with Radiation City. We’ve been watching them since their inception, and just admiring so much the alluring quality of their music. It has a dark sexiness to it that, no matter what they do — no matter if the make kind of a folkier song — it’s always infused into their music and especially in their performances. And so I think especially touring with them and seeing that come to life every night, and just trying to learn from that a little bit, and to make a darker, more alluring record that has a little bit of mystery to it — that’s something I’ve been trying to do more.
N&C: Do you feel close to the Portland music scene?
T: We feel more a part of it than ever. Just because of all our friends and actually watching bands grow. And going back to influences, it really is your peers. Because you see these other bands and you’re like, “Wow, I love that band! I love that record!” When you see your friends doing something that you can appreciate on an artistic level, and you see that they’re doing it alongside you, it gives you more inspiration to do it.
D: I feel like there’s a really awesome generation of music that we’re a part of — Typhoon, Rad City, Aan, Genders, Pure Bathing Culture — and they all sound pretty distinct from each other, and definitely have different things going on. It’s not like this Portland stamp. But I definitely feel a sense of community, and being inspired by how so many of these bands are just giving up everything else and going for it — like quitting your day job and saying, “Well, here it goes.” It’s very inspiring when you feel like you want to give up. You feel like it’s not just you.
N&C: How have you developed as musicians?
T: I’m definitely more of a producer now. Before I just wrote keyboard parts and recorded, and said, “I don’t know… does that sound good?” Now, actually having all this equipment and writing a record, doing real demos, and tracking other people — it’s a totally different skill set. I almost don’t even feel like a keyboard player anymore.
D: After going on so many tours and having to be the most vulnerable standing on a stage in front of people that may or may not like what you’re doing, I feel like I’ve gotten way more confident. Even just from Keep It Safe, the ideas that I have that I’m singing about, I listen to it now, and I see that I was being so indirect. I used to think that was because I wanted to sing about these ideas and concept and have it be like dream-pop, where it can apply to a lot of different things. And I think that’s partially true, but I think it was because I was afraid to be so clear, because that leaves you open for people to criticize so much more. It’s like, “Oh, you’re talking about that? That’s shitty, or mundane, or not smart.” And now I feel like I just have a little bit more of the guts to be like, “Well, fuck it. I’m gonna tell you exactly what I’m writing about. And it’s a love story about a dude and a girl, and if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it.” That feels a lot better. I feel like that’s the most important change that I’ve gone through.
N&C: Have you ever thought about quitting?
T: Totally. Because when you’re in college, you play in bands, you go on tour in the summer, and that’s fun. But once you’re out of college and you’re like, “Okay, we got a booking company. Are we going to tour six times this year? Okay. And every time I get home, I have to make x amount of dollars to pay bills and rent. Oh, we’re not getting paid for this tour? Okay.” And the last year was like that. There were definitely points where I was like, “Can we keep doing this?” But everyone is down for it now. It’s kind of astonishing. We’ve gotten little breaks here and there with really generous opportunities and really generous people. I’d say Dane, our manager, is one of those people. I really started thinking about like a small business. Not to make it such a monetary thing, but it has to function if it’s your career. We’ve been slowly building a foundation, and I feel like it actually starting to pay off.
D: I feel like it really did make a big difference when people outside the band started sticking their neck out for us. Like having a manager, having a booking agent, or having friends that offer to release a record — people who are not making money off us, yet are supporting us and believing that we will eventually get where we’re going. That’s really inspiring.
N&C: Do you ever get jaded? Are you as excited now as you were when you were starting out?
D: I think about that all the time. Because I feel like that would just break my heart when I realize at one point, “Holy shit. We’re headlining this venue I’ve always dreamt about, and I don’t have that butterfly feeling anymore.” Because that’s fifty percent of why you are poor all the time trying to do this, or getting humiliated playing a bad show — it’s because you have that feeling sometimes, and it’ so good. I feel like every time you get to a new level or a new tier — like, “Oh, we’re playing this kind of venue now,” or “Now we can headline our own tour” — you have to keep getting excited about the next thing. I’ve gotten really excited about a few things this year. There were a few landmark things, like playing at Music Fest Northwest. And when Dane called me on the phone to tell me I was going to sing with Weezer, I literally fell onto the ground and screamed out loud into the phone for like three minutes.
N&C: How did that happen?
D: it was the most random shit ever. Weezer‘s manager emailed us and was like, “Hi, we want you to sing this duet.” It was bonkers.
N&C: And what were some other highlights from 2014?
T: The Crystal Ballroom show was pretty awesome. That just kind of reminded me of the potential energy in a room that size with lighting like that and a sound system like that. I want to play rooms like that all the time.
D: One of my favorite moments this past tour was actually playing a small room, in Spokane at the Bartlett.
T: We have fans there!
D: Yeah, I feel like we’re getting to this level where we’re going to a place that isn’t Portland and it’s not LA or Seattle, it’s like this small town that you wouldn’t really assume would have a scene, and so many people there already had our record and knew the words to the songs that are on the record we haven’t released yet. That’s just the best feeling in the world. That’s the next level that makes me feel like all the shitty parts are fine.
N&C: What are you looking forward to in the future?
D: I can’t wait to release this record. I feel like before this, we hadn’t put too much thought into the cohesive quality of a record and also having all the art, design, performance, and live aesthetic all be of one fabric. We’ve never been so dedicated to doing that, so being able to release this record and make this world that I was talking about — I think that’s what I’m most excited about.
Written by Devin Gallagher