Q&A With A Wild Cub

Wild Cub’s Keegan DeWitt spent half an hour chatting with Pollstar about a range of topics, from Miles Davis’ use of silence to how becoming a dad has helped the frontman balance his time with the band and composing film scores.  

Formed in Nashville, Wild Cub self-released its debut, Youth, in 2012 after recording the album in multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Bullock’s home. The deluxe version of the LP was re-released in January via Mom+Pop Music.      

Although some reviews point to the indie rock band’s ‘80s synth pop influences, DeWitt explains that while he loves a “vast amount of music,” it’s poetry, film and photography that’s inspired him to tell stories through Wild Cub tunes.

When he’s not giving everything he’s got on stage – thanks to a combination of vocals, guitar and percussion – DeWitt stays busy with his film composing career. Recent credits include “Land Ho!” and “Listen Up Philip,” which were featured at 2014’s Sundance Film Festival. He also was involved with “Inocente,” which received the 2013 Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject.   

Pollstar called DeWitt in between the band’s performance on “Conan” and an appearance at Hangout Beach, Music & Arts Festival.

Photo: Merrick Ales Photography

Wild Cub performed on “Conan” last night. How did that go?

It was great. I mean for us it’s nice to have it be the second time [on late night]. “Fallon” was certainly a little bit more stressful. (laughs) … It’s tough to get used to doing that type of scenario. The second time you kind of get how it goes and you can relax a little bit more and enjoy the moment.

But overall it’s really cool for us because we recorded the album by ourselves in a house that we turned into a recording studio in Nashville. So anytime we’re in a situation like that I try to remind myself that when we first started doing this, the very real concern at that point was hoping people hear this music. Now to have the opportunity to go, “OK, we’re about to play in front of a million people” is pretty cool.

You guys performed your single “Thunder Clatter,” which is a great song by the way, and I noticed you were playing a bit of percussion, in addition to vocals and guitar. That’s pretty impressive.

I mean, honestly, all the drumming and everything is something that we developed over the past year. We recorded the record and then the band kind of came into existence. … We took it from there and started going out into the world and figuring out what Wild Cub even was as a band.

You’re just touring non-stop and every single night you’re pulling into a different town and … there’re always so many different variables. So we tried to build the show in a way where we just have something very physical to do throughout the show. … No matter if there’re two people in the room or if there’re 2,500, we’re doing the same amount of work. It keeps you in check and at least for me – having the drums, and when Eric, Dabney and I are all drumming at the same time – it just makes it so the stakes are always there for you. … I always want people to know from the very beginning that we’re there to work and earn their attention. We realize that people are taking time out of their lives to listen to our music and choose us amongst a large group of people.

Before forming Wild Cub you put out a few solo records and Paste Magazine named you as one of the 10 best new solo artists of 2010. Why did you decide to form Wild Cub rather than continue on as a solo artist?  

As soon as you move to Nashville you realize the world doesn’t need any more white guys with acoustic guitars, probably. (laughs) There’s a surplus of that. I was excited about telling stories in a slightly less straightforward way. … The things that always got me excited to write music were poetry and film and photographs. They’re a lot less literal and I’ve always wanted with music to try and recreate that kind of intangible emotional connection that you can feel with something like a photograph or a poem. I feel like a band allowed me to do that a lot better because I can do that with rhythm. … Most importantly, I can take my stupid face off the front of the record. That was an exciting prospect because it’s a weird thing – you’re releasing this music and then the cover of the record is your giant face and then it says your name in big block letters.

I can see how that would be strange.

People’s perceptions of music and their own past relationships and their own personal interpretation of the music is so much more interesting. With Wild Cub, I could say, “OK, we’re going to choose a name that means absolutely nothing, not put our names on the record at all and we’re just going to [feature] one iconic photograph and have it all be this thing, which is like a 50/50 bargain with us and the people who listen to the record.”

The lyrics are these little fragments and the songs are emotional in rhythm, but they’re also emotional in imagery. … Essentially what you’re saying is you’re trying to spark people to bring their own lives to the music. And I’d much rather have it be a little bit more fragmentary and allow people to bring in their own imagination and have the Wild Cub album be entirely their own. … I always felt like, as a kid, when you listen to music, you hear it and it clicks for you and then you kind of own it. You’re like, “I own this song now. This is my thing. This is the song I listened to when I drove back from meeting that person at 2 a.m. and it was just me, alone in the car, and I heard that song. That’s my song, I own it now.”

From then on you’re going to connect that song to that memory.

Totally! That’s why it’s so cool to listen to your favorite song from 10 years ago and you’re like, “Whoa! This is totally different now.”

Photo: Alysse Gafkjen
Harry West, Keegan DeWitt, Jeremy Bullock, Eric Wilson, Dabney Morris

The music videos definitely have a certain feeling to them. They seem to feature scenes and stories that are up for interpretation. Did you have a hand in creating the videos?

Yeah. I try and make sure that we curate as much of everything that we release as possible. … There’s this great Southern novelist named Walker Percy and in his novel “The Moviegoer” he talks about something called “the sad little happiness.” I just thought that was always such an evocative, artistic thought for me. It’s like when you’re on your way to something [and] you haven’t arrived yet, but you’re also leaving something behind you. It’s what so palpable when you’re between [the ages of] 16 to 26. There are so many [things] you have a desire for, which are just out of your reach. It’s such a complex time and … you’re trying to figure out how to manage all that.

There’s a quote on the inside of the record by Jonathan Lethem where he talks about how teenage life and maybe even adult life, too, is about the things you desire and are withheld from you in your life – and then the things you have and you misuse. And for me, that was so interesting. Because when you’re a teenager oftentimes you’re in these relationships and the people you’re closest with are the people you treat the worst. And you have these things that are just on the horizon, that you think are so maximum in importance, and finally you realize they weren’t important at all. Somewhere in all that is a formation of you eventually growing up and becoming an adult. Which is like, how do you navigate all that stuff and not become some weird, sour old person who is closed off to everybody?

I was looking up the iTunes review of the album and it mentioned that there’s an ‘80s reference on almost every track. Who are some of your favorite ‘80s acts?

It’s weird, this sounds like I’m being cheeky or I’m being dishonest but I never aimed to make anything definitively ‘80s. It was just like sonic pallets of things that I enjoy. Like … I really love like old Prince and Herbie Hancock records that had this drum machine. And I really love all these other things that had these different sounds.

I’ve never been specifically inspired by other music. It’s more like I just love a vast amount of music and then I get inspired by something, whether it be like a poem or a photograph, and I end up pulling different sonic things. …

It’s kind of the sad shortcomings of music criticism. … Instead of just downloading [music] and wanting to hear it [people] will want to know exactly what it sounds like and have a pre-formulated idea. I always appreciated when people go and see the movie without [watching] the movie trailer. For me, [as far as the ‘80s influences], I’m kind of like, “Well, you could say that. But the record is also 15 songs long and I know for certain that there are plenty of songs on there that could be derogatorily referred to with a key phrase as well.” And so … it’s all a matter of perception of how you want to look at it. But I also think you’re depriving yourself of a lot of excitement to just let it be its own thing that exists.

The funny thing is that [when] people ask me [what] ‘80s music I really enjoy, it wouldn’t be anything that they probably assume informs the record.

Photo: Merrick Ales Photography

Did the whole band contribute to the songwriting process for Youth?

I had a bunch of demos and [Jeremy] had a good amount of demos that I sang over and stuff. … As much as the band is a big collaboration, the initial beginnings of Youth began [with the] sketches that Jeremy and I had personally [and] we then started to build out. I would also say that our band – from the moment that we recorded the record to the band now that you see when you watch “Conan” – is so fundamentally different because of how it’s been informed [by] having those other guys and transforming the songs live.

How does your live show compare to the album?

They don’t have to be the same thing. That’s the excitement for me. I’m sure every time when we play on late night TV people are like, “Oh, it’s so much better live!” or “Oh, it’s so much better on the record.” I’m like, “Well, that’s because the record is its own thing and that’s exciting.”

You’ve got a record, which is an intimate thing that you can listen to in your car. And then there’s another thing, which is us executing it live, in a club, in front of you, with lights … It’s an entirely different way of consuming an art form. It’s like saying, “God, the audiobook of the BBC’s version of ‘Hamlet’ is so much crappier than the version I saw on Broadway.” And you’re like, “Yeah! Because they’re fucking different.” (laughs) … There’re certain songs where we just can’t play live because they don’t translate in the same kind of intimate, authentic way that they do on the record. And vice versa, there’re songs that we play live that are totally different and totally transformative to the live set and are fundamental to it, that are on the record just [as] great middle tracks. But the cool thing about the live show is it allows us to bring a whole different level of emotional stakes to it.

I feel like the record itself is more like you found a book of photographs and you’re [browsing] through it … trying to piece together who these people [are] and how [they’re] related to each other. Where the live show is like the call to action. It’s us being there [and] making everything more literal.

You’ve also been busy composing music. How do you balance your time with the band and composing for films?

It coincided really nicely with me having a baby, which means that every moment of my life is now totally scheduled out. (laughs) You know, it’s like I wake up at this time, I do that, then I do this thing, then I do that. It helps me be even more productive and be a little bit more thoughtful with the work that I do. I mean, it’s a little intense … it’s like any job you have, even if you enjoy it, when you do it all the time, you get burnt out on it and you wanna just go, “Fuck it, I quit. I just wanna go backpack the world or whatever.” … It’s really nice if I get burnt out on Wild Cub’s world, if I’m doing that nonstop, that I can just go into the hotel room, put my headphones on and work on a film score. And vice versa, if it’s like right before Sundance and I just had to do two movies and I feel like there’s no creative juice in my brain, I can go out and play a show with Wild Cub and have a totally different musical experience, which is really cool.  

Well, congratulations on your baby. How old is she?

She’s about to be a year. She travels with us. We were just in the U.K. for two weeks and in Amsterdam she was with us. It’s really fun because she essentially has four really funny uncles who just happen to be in a band. She’s not going to be able to remember sitting backstage at “Conan” or whatever because she’s so young, but still – we’ve got pictures to prove it!

Photo: Alysse Gafkjen

Have you ever been composing for a film and realized that maybe the piece wasn’t working so well but it would be better for a Wild Cub song?  

I don’t know if it’s ever explicitly happened – No. But it’s usually because working on a film for me is so different. I’ve always had a huge admiration for Miles Davis as an artist because I feel like he uses the absence of music stronger that he does the presence of music, which is such an incredible thing. It’s like he creates palpable emotion with the notes he’s not playing. When I watch a movie [and I think], “Holy shit, I have to score this movie!” it’s complicated because my other influence, right alongside that, is “This movie doesn’t need any music because it’s so good.”

I just did this Jason Schwartzman movie that we took to Sundance called “Listen Up Philip.” I remember the first time I watched it I was like, “This doesn’t need music. It’s hilarious. … And it’s just awesome.” So when I’m scoring stuff I’m starting from a point of trying to do almost nothing. LIike, how little can I do to this maximum effect? Versus with Wild Cub, for me … Wild Cub … helps people acknowledge their own emotional inner workings and for me to have a way to address all my own emotional stuff. And the thing about emotions is that they’re so massively complicated. There’s not just happiness, it’s happiness and terror alongside pridefulness and all these other things. You know what I mean?

It’s those moments, like that big moment when you meet the person that you’re like, “This is the person” – it’s not simple, it’s not just like “Oh! Well, great!” It’s so complicated. And that’s the cool [thing] about Wild Cub is that I can try and use … the lyrics, bass, how long the song is, how loud it gets, how we mix it, the music video, how we play it live, all these different things to try and represent 50 different layers of emotion, all put together into one three-and-a-half-minute pop song.

So you guys are performing at Hangout Music Festival this weekend. What’s your favorite thing about playing festivals?

Hangout is especially beautiful just because it’s on the beach, and they’re really good to the artists. Sometimes you play these massive festivals and you feel like the artist is the same as ordering the bulk wristbands or something. They’re like, “Oh, glad you’re here. Go over there.”

But festivals in general, I always feel are an awesome opportunity to just be a total student and nerd about music. For us, I don’t have the same time that I did to go see shows because we’re always out on the road. And when we’re home, of course, the last thing we want to do is go [to a show].

[At festivals] we’ll just look at the setlist and go, “Awesome! Little Dragon. Done.” Whoever it is. And then we get to go and hang [out] on the side of the stage.  … It’s all five of us just sitting there saying, “Did you see what he did?” It’s really exciting because you kinda get to soak it up and see what everybody else is doing and usually that will [inspire you] to do better.

I think that’s fantastic to be excited about continuing to learn and grow.

Well, I think that’s true about everything. … It’s so easy to get jaded about stuff. I would say that so much about the music business. … It’s important to find positivity and curiosity in what you’re doing. Otherwise, it’s just not worth it. Everybody knows we’re not making shitloads of money in the music industry anymore so you have to figure out a way for it to … sustain your excitement and be a source of joy.

Photo: Merrick Ales Photography

Upcoming dates for Wild Cub:

June 22 – Dover, Del., Dover International Speedway (Firefly Music Festival)     
June 23 – Pittsburgh, Pa., Stage AE 
June 25 – Columbus, Ohio, Newport Music Hall     
June 26 – Madison, Wis., University Of Wisconsin 
June 27 – Milwaukee, Wis., Henry Maier Festival Park (Summerfest)        
June 28 – Minneapolis, Minn., Triple Rock Social Club       
July 3 – San Diego, Calif., House Of Blues
July 11 – Cincinnati, Ohio, Sawyer Point (Bunbury Music Festival) 
July 12 – Sterling Heights, Mich., Freedom Hill Amphitheatre (Mo Pop Festival)
July 14 – Kansas City, Mo., Czar Bar          
July 16 – St. Louis, Mo., Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room
July 18 – Atlanta, Ga., Vinyl At Center Stage
July 24 – Dallas, Texas, Belmont Hotel
July 25 – Austin, Texas, The Parish
July 26 – Houston, Texas, Fitzgerald’s – Downstairs
July 28 – Colorado Springs, Colo., Black Sheep
July 29 – Denver, Colo., Larimer Lounge
Aug. 3 – Montreal, Quebec, Parc Jean Drapeau (Osheaga Festival)
Aug. 6 – Los Angeles, Calif., El Rey Theatre
Aug. 7 – San Francisco, Calif., Great American Music Hall

For more information visit WildCubMusic.com.

Click here to purchase Youth and here for the single “Thunder Clatter.”