Interview

How Forth Wanderers Made An Indie Rock Record For The Ages

Stream the band's self-titled Sup Pop debut now

Hanging out with Forth Wanderers feels like infiltrating a club house. Ava Trilling, Ben Guterl, Zach Lorelli, Duke Greene, and Noah Schifrin have known one another since they were kids, and when I meet them all for a very late lunch in Midtown Manhattan, inside jokes abound. It can be hard to keep up as they volley commentary back and forth, finishing one another’s sentences.

“It’s not a pairing you would expect,” Schifrin says about the way Trilling’s vocal delivery counteracts the band’s instrumentation. “It’s like brie cheese and a pear. You wouldn’t expect that pairing to work –“

“But it works great!” Lorelli interjects.

Forth Wanderers have been a band for five years now. Trilling, Guterl, Lorelli, Greene, and Schifrin were all raised in Montclair, New Jersey, a town 20 or so miles from New York City known as a kind of a trendy enclave, albeit a suburban one. (“There’s a Lululemon,” Greene points out.) The band grew up going to shows in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and they’re young enough to count stuff like Alex G, Porches, the World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, Mac DeMarco, and Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory (which they unanimously admit to loving) as formative influences.

The Forth Wanderers origin story is well-documented: Guterl had a crush on Trilling, an underclassman at Montclair High School, and wanted to make music with her, so he sent her a demo and she wrote some lyrics to it. The two started collaborating after that, and Trilling became a member of Forth Wanderers in earnest. Her deadpan delivery and off-the-cuff, honest lyricism proved to be the perfect pairing for a band who were still trying to figure out their sound.

Forth Wanderers released their first EP, Mahogany, in 2013, while all of the members were still in high school. They followed it up soon after with the mini-album Tough Love, which garnered some buzz in Northeastern DIY circles. Lorde tweeted about their music in 2014, and a year later, when Trilling was a senior in high school, the band debuted Slop on Father/Daughter Records, which earned them some deserved cred.

That early Lorde cosign is worth mentioning because it says a lot about Forth Wanderers’ aesthetic. This is a band out of suburban Jersey making weirdo guitar pop that’s fun and inviting and counteracts the crushing nihilism of being a teenager. Trilling’s lyrics ricochet between total self-assuredness and crippling self-doubt, and her songs navigate the space between in a way that one can only really describe as “wise.”

In the years since Slop came out, Forth Wanderers have been busy. All five members are enrolled in college full-time — Trilling at the New School, Guterl at Oberlin, Schifrin at Tufts, and Greene and Lorelli at Rutgers — so finding time to make music together hasn’t been easy. In fact, making time for them to do anything together isn’t easy. When we arranged to meet up for lunch, Guterl planned to fly in from Oberlin only to have his flight delayed. Schifrin bussed in from Boston and arrived a few minutes behind schedule. Though Trilling, Lorelli, and Greene all live relatively close, they don’t see one another all that often.

This begs the question: How did Forth Wanderers manage to sign to Sub Pop and record a new album? (Below, you can stream Forth Wanderers for the first time.)

Trilling says it was “difficult” and Greene simply says “tough.”

“Today just goes to show how hard it is to all be in the same place,” Schifrin quips.

Forth Wanderers have always written music as if they were pen pals. Since the first time Guterl emailed Trilling a demo, the band’s been operating as a long-distance experiment. Guterl will noodle around on guitar, eventually coming up with a riff that could eventually spiral out into a full song. He then sends it to Trilling, who writes lyrics and melody, which she does entirely alone.

“I basically sit in my room with my laptop and play [the demo] over and over again and kind of start singing but not saying anything, just like trying to get the melody down that I want to apply to the guitar and then it just happens, I guess, like I start saying things that sound good to me and then sometimes it rhymes –“

“Then there’s a magical connection between the two that spark a flame!” Lorelli interrupts, again, and Trilling laughs.

It usually takes Trilling about three days to write a song. “It’s not, like, premeditated. I don’t know what I’m going to be writing about, but it unfolds and then I look back and I’m like: ‘Oh shit! That’s how I’m feeling. I had no idea.’ And then I call my therapist,” she laughs. “Just kidding.”

This is how Forth Wanderers wrote their forthcoming self-titled album. Via email. When it came time to record, the band decamped to Philadelphia. They worked with Cameron Konner, who also recorded Slop, and made the entire album in five days.

“There were songs that I didn’t even know before I showed up to the actual studio,” Lorelli says and Greene and Schifrin nod in agreement.

When Guterl reflects on the ways his songwriting has changed over the past two years that he’s been at Oberlin, far from his bandmates, he thinks for a minute before speaking. “The songwriting hasn’t really changed that much,” he pauses. “But it’s the … humanity of it, you know, I miss my bros and all that. College is a weird transitional time and we were all like high school friends. I feel like you go through this thing with all of your high school friends whenever you go to college and relationships change.”

“I think also because Forth Wanderers started off in high school and you don’t really have to care in high school, it’s like a stupid thing you do you’re like: ‘We’re in a band, I don’t really give a shit,'” Guterl continues. “But now as we’re getting older and becoming adults I feel like we have to take it seriously and it seems a lot lamer when you have to take art and music seriously. Like it was cool telling people in high school I was in a band. Now it feels like super weird telling people.”

Forth Wanderers is the band’s first true full-length album and Sub Pop debut. The band signed to the indie heavyweight after playing a taxing number of shows at SXSW, hoping to attract a label. Though it’s their third release, Forth Wanderers chose to self-title it because it feels like their first real statement as a band.

“I think this is the one,” Guterl says and laughs. “I think this is the best album we’ve made, definitely. Unless we make a better one … “

Guterl trails off. He’s undoubtedly tired from spending the day in an airport, but he’s also caught in a state of limbo right now. Forth Wanderers will be released a few months before he graduates from college. Over the summer, the band will embark on a tour, and after that … it’s unclear what direction they’re headed. That lack of certainty fuels the album, both sonically and lyrically.

When I ask Trilling what some of the central themes are on Forth Wanderers, she hesitates at first before Greene offers up an answer: “A lot of confusion.”

“A lot of confusion, a lot of ambiguity about love,” Trilling says. “Human connection and sappy stuff. There’s like … I wanna say one or two confident songs in there but the rest are just kind of about heartbreak.”

One of those confident songs is “Nevermine,” the album opener that leads with the biting lines: “I am the one you think about when you’re with her/ And what do you have?/ Nothing on me/ Just some regrets and a plea.”

Trilling likes to front. That’s one of her best qualities as a songwriter. She often comes on strong before true feelings undermine the toughness she tends to lead with. “He says he likes my taste/ But I bite his tongue, you know just in case/ He starts to fall in love,” she sings on “Taste,” before admitting to not really knowing why she’s messing around with this person in the first place. And the rest of the band — or “The Boys” as Trilling refers to them — careen in-and-out of control with her.

Despite the fact that Guterl and Trilling write the music, they don’t dominate or control the Forth Wanderers narrative. The intuitive relationships the band’s maintained over the past five years lends every new release a little bit of magic. It’s rare that a high school band survives, even rarer that it ascends to any sort of status beyond gigging around your hometown. Forth Wanderers sounds like an album made by a bunch of kids who still feel a kinship with one another despite how different their lives have become. You can hear it in the way they finish one another’s sentences.

CREDIT: Julia Leiby

Forth Wanderers is out 4/27 via Sub Pop. Pre-order it here.