In Conversation: Calpurnia’s Finn Wolfhard & Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste
You probably know Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler, the de facto leader of the band of kids battling Demogorgons and Demodogs on Netflix’s Stranger Things. But Calpurnia, his scrappy Vancouver indie-rock band, isn’t just some celebrity’s vanity project. Most of the four young musicians have been playing together for years, since before Wolfhard became a semi-household name. And he’s at least as passionate about music as he is about acting, citing contemporary acts like Grizzly Bear, Mac DeMarco, Ariel Pink, Foxygen, and Twin Peaks as influences alongside classics like the Beatles, the Cars, the Velvet Underground, and the Modern Lovers.
What Wolfhard’s big break acting on Stranger Things has afforded him is a chance to actually meet some of his musical idols. After learning he was a fan, Wolfhard’s older Stranger Things castmate Joe Keery, aka Steve Harrington, offered to introduce him to Twin Peaks frontman Cadien Lake James. And as a result of that introduction, James ended up producing Calpurnia’s entire six-track debut EP, Scout, at Twin Peaks’ studio in Chicago.
Calpurnia have already shared three tracks, City Boy,” “Louie,” and “Greyhound,” from the upcoming EP. The full collection comes out this Friday, 6/15, on Royal Mountain Records, the same label that releases music by PUP and Mac DeMarco. But before that happens, Stereogum gave Wolfhard a chance to talk about the EP with another one of his longtime musical idols: Grizzly Bear frontman Ed Droste.
Wolfhard took some time out of his busy day of attending school and being on set to chat with Droste on the phone, discussing their respective bands’ creative processes, what he’s listening to, and his experience as both an actor and a working musician. Read their conversation below.
ED DROSTE: How did the band get started? How did each member come into the fold?
FINN WOLFHARD: We’re a band from Vancouver. At first I met the drummer Malcolm [Craig], and we were both actors and kind of musicians — we knew how to play. We had met each other on this music video for a band called PUP, this music video called “Guilt Trip.” He played the younger version of the drummer and I played the younger version of the lead singer from that band, and so from there we became really good friends and we started playing music together — and that was the only guy I’d ever played music with. I played bass at the time and he played, and still plays, drums. We both wanted to learn how to do songwriting and my mom found this guy who taught at a summer day camp called Before They Were Famous Rock School. You go and meet other kids and learn how to write music and record music and you have an end of the term performance, and so that’s where we met our guitarist Ayla [Tesler-Mabe], and we just all got along super well and started jamming together. And that was in 2014. So me, Ayla, and Malcolm have all been jamming together for the past four years.
After Stranger Things blew up I got the chance to do this fundraiser for Sweet Relief, which is a charity that donates money to musicians who can’t really pay their medical bills, and so I needed a band for it. They wanted to put on a mini festival and then I realized I didn’t have a bassist at all. Ayla has known our bassist Jack [Anderson] since second grade and that’s how they started playing music together. So I had known about Jack, and I had met him once super briefly. And I said, ‘Hey, I only know one bassist and you really only know one bassist so can I talk to him for a bit?’ And then I talked to him and we all hung out for the first time to see how everyone did. This was a year and a half ago. We all met and hung out and just started writing immediately together, it was like an instant bond. We just started playing together and bouncing off ideas, so it was all pretty organic off the bat.
DROSTE: In my band, everyone has an equal creative say. We all write together or we go off in pairs, but when it comes down to recording or fleshing out the final song everyone’s equally involved. Is that a similar situation for you guys? Are you a democracy or is there a leader who’s the chief songwriter? What’s the creative process?
WOLFHARD: It’s all equal. It’s the same exact way that you do it. Typically, it would be like, me or Jack or Malcolm or Ayla would come up with a riff or a drumbeat or whatever and we’d build off that. Or for a few songs, I’d write scratch guitar and some scratch lyrics that I had just an idea for, and I’d send it to the band and we’d all talk about it and bounce off ideas and make it a real song. So one of us would have an idea and we’d all build off of it together. And the last song on the EP, “Waves,” that one I wasn’t even there for in Vancouver when they wrote it. They would send me voice memos and we’d all give notes and talk about it and then by the time we were in Chicago recording I did whatever I could musically. But yeah, it’s all equal for sure. If anyone has an idea at all, no one’s had a song yet completely written, it always goes through steps upon steps.
DROSTE: That’s awesome, because some bands there’s a leader who’s always driving the ship. It’s rare these days to hear that everyone is creatively participating in that sense, and that’s so cool to hear that you guys do it that way.
WOLFHARD: My favorite thing is to have collectives. Even when it comes to filmmaking as well, filmmaking and music and most art in general, I feel like everyone should have the same say. If you’re in a collective, I feel like everyone should have the same say. Even when we were recording, our engineer Andrew would come in almost like an equal band member, and same with Katie the producer. We were all equal in the studio.
DROSTE: I find it so helpful personally to have other people to challenge my ideas and bounce them off of, otherwise I feel like I sort of get stagnant with my creative process.
WOLFHARD: Like, your song isn’t going to have any creative conflict, you know what I mean? There’s no background behind it. It’s definitely something you share with your partners and you should be comfortable enough to call them out on whatever needs to be called out. Everyone should have the equal right to do that.
DROSTE: I’m really curious about your tour. You haven’t played a ton of shows, am I correct?
WOLFHARD: Yeah we played … oh man, how many? Like five. We played five.
DROSTE: Wow, so touring is sort of a new journey for you guys, so to speak. And I see that you have some shows this summer and I know you’re hyper busy with film and TV and acting and all that stuff, but is there any plan to do a traditional North American tour?
WOLFHARD: I mean, maybe for the album. We’re going to try to do an album the next thing. But for this particular EP, it’s just because my schedule’s so crazy and the guys are still in school. So they can’t just up and leave their high schools.
DROSTE: Right. [Laughs] Summer only.
WOLFHARD: Yeah, exactly, and by the time we record and release the album, they’ll already be out of school. So it would be a lot easier just to do that. So yeah, now we’re just doing scattered tour dates. We just did Atlanta a few days ago and we’re doing LA in like a month, and then we’re doing Montreal and a bunch of dates in the summer and also festivals. But yeah, that’s kind of the dream, to play a continuous thing for however long.
DROSTE: I was going to try and pick your mind a little bit about how you feel about life on the road, but I guess you haven’t fully done the driving your van or riding your bus. So you might not be at that state. I’ll have to interview you later for that one. [Laughs] Do you ever get nervous when you’re performing still or not really? Because I still, to this day, before a show, there’s never been a show where I don’t have a little bit of butterflies. It doesn’t matter how big or small.
WOLFHARD: In Atlanta, I was more just excited than anything. I still had complete nerves. But if you don’t have nerves then you don’t really care as much. You need to have those nerves to get your energy up. In New York I had pretty bad anxiety the day before, but I kind of just got it together near the show. Because I think what really gets me is anticipation. It’s just waiting there. Like I’ve gotta just go do it, you know what I mean?
DROSTE: That’s one of the things about touring. It’s a lot of waiting. You’ll see. It’s a lot of waiting for the show to happen.
WOLFHARD: Yeah, for sure. In the Atlanta show, we’d be like, “Well, can we just go on fifteen minutes earlier?” And they’d be like, “No, you gotta wait, at least for ten minutes.” And then we’d just go on. But we usually just go on a little early because we want to go on so bad and the crowd’s hyped up anyways. I definitely do get nerves but it’s great, it’s the best feeling. Coming off the stage is the best feeling because it’s like, you did it, you went over that bridge.
DROSTE: Yeah, always such an adrenaline rush. So I’m curious, you working in two creative fields, being an actor and a musician … Is there any part of the creative process for you that when you are writing or performing music or when you’re acting or playing a role that you feel like they tie into each other? Do they inform each other at all, or are they totally two separate parts of the brain for you?
WOLFHARD: There are things that I sort of group together, when it comes to writing anything, because I write music, I write scripts, I write anything in my mind, I write kind of a lot. My dad’s like, “Man, just chill out, you’re writing so much,” and I’m like, “No,” because when I’m writing anything, when it comes to anything, it doesn’t feel like many different things, it feels like one cohesive thing. But when it comes to acting and music, those are so different. Like, I do try to definitely keep those as separate as I can. But I would say that the only time I group acting and performing on stage band-wise together is just kind of like, you know, stage presence, and playing that character, and banter, and using your brain improv-wise. So I use it then. When it comes to waiting around as well, you have to do a lot of waiting when you’re an actor.
I guess the biggest thing is just using your brain. I know that sounds weird, but like, using your brain power to your advantage. Because when you act, people don’t know that you’re using your brain all the time for different choices that you’re making, things you say, how you say them. So you’re always kind of thinking about that. For me, I’m always thinking about what to say onstage. We like to do onstage bits sometimes to keep people moving and stuff. It’s all so spur-of-the-moment and people really like it when you have that banter with the audience — and people definitely know their place now. The first few shows of Calpurnia were definitely pretty cringey just because people were screaming Stranger Things references. And now people know. If they do scream Stranger Things references I put them in their place.
DROSTE: [Laughs] How do you do that?
WOLFHARD: One time I got kind of pissed in Toronto and someone was like, “I love Stranger Things!” and I was like, “What?” And they were like, “I love Stranger Things!” And I was like, “Okay, thought that was what you said.” Then I was like, “You know what I like more? Music. And that’s what we’re here for.” And everyone was like, “Yeah!” And then we just started playing and they were like, oh yeah, I forgot that I’m at a music concert right now. Totally different.
DROSTE: One thing that I’m super impressed by with the EP and also just with what I’ve read about all of you guys is your incredible influences. You guys all listen to and have so many different influences across the board and I can hear a ton of it in the music. And it’s really funny, the last song on the EP, “Waves,” I was hearing little pieces of Mercury Rev’s “In A Funny Way,” or early Clientele. I’ve read that obviously you guys have been influenced by the Beatles and the classics — not necessarily obvious picks per se, but the ones a lot of people are influenced by. What are some of your influences that people might not expect or might not have heard you talk about yet?
WOLFHARD: For “Waves” actually, the song we were always talking about for that was “Apocalypse Dreams” by Tame Impala. Obviously there’s no correlation, they don’t really sound the same, but it’s kind of the same essence. And also “Yet Again.”
DROSTE: Oh!? Our song?
DROSTE: Oh no way!
WOLFHARD: Yeah, there’s a part in there that we referenced as the Grizzly Bear part. And it doesn’t sound anything like Grizzly Bear, but there is a part where there’s a break where you hear bird sounds in the background and all you can hear is a guitar like [mimics guitar sound]. We were all like, that’s the Grizzly Bear part because it sounds so beautiful and melodic and sounds a lot like the instrumental breaks on that album. And during the album we were listening to tons of people — we were listening to Joe Jackson and we were listening to this band called the Lemon Twigs and we were listening to Ariel Pink a lot and a lot of the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones and stuff. Right now, we’re listening to a lot of the Cars’ old stuff, like their first album. I never really got into them until recently but they’re just so great. And also during that we were listening to Foxygen and Alvvays, stuff like that, fun indie music, and the Growlers. So we have tons of different influences. Our guitarist, Ayla, is totally into jazz as well, so you can kind of hear the jazz influences on some songs and on that last song especially.
DROSTE: She’s an incredible guitarist. I’m really impressed.
WOLFHARD: Yeah, she’s a beast.
DROSTE: This next question actually ties into the last one. I was thinking about how I first contacted you and it was funny because I just suddenly noticed all these fake or fan accounts. Like, it would be your name with some letters after it or some numbers after it, but all of these accounts started following me and I was like, “What the hell? Why are all these fan pages following me?” And then I realized you followed me and I was like, “Oh that’s so cool,” because I was a huge fan of Stranger Things. And then I just contacted you and I was so surprised, like, “How do you even know about our music?” And you had mentioned that your dad, either he introduced you or took you to a show, is that how it was?
WOLFHARD: He introduced it to me when I was younger. He had all the albums on CD, so I kind of grew up listening to Grizzly Bear. And my dad would tell me the story of like, how you guys came up with the Grizzly Bear name and stuff like that. And every time “Half Gate” would come on my dad would always say, “This song! I want this song to play at my funeral, man, you gotta play this at my funeral!” That’s a very pivotal memory for me when it comes to music that’s always in my mind. But yeah, definitely I’ve been listening to you guys for a long time.
DROSTE: We don’t have a ton of a teen fanbase, but the younger people that we have met at shows, it’s often that they have been introduced by their parents. Which is a real look in the mirror, like, “Wow, you’re really old now!” Like, you’ve been making music long enough that parents have had kids that have grown up and they’re now teenagers and they’ve grown up listening to you. But it’s also really cool. In another interview, your bandmate Malcolm was talking about his dad’s mixtapes that he used to listen with a lot of indie music and I was wondering, how much do you guys credit your parents for sort of informing you of your musical taste? Or not credit them per se, because obviously you’re all your own people and everything, but how much would you say your parents played a role in terms of introducing you to things or steering you places?
WOLFHARD: For me, I would say like 90% of all my music taste is based off of my parents, and the 10% is all of the music I’m listening to now. But the 90% is kind of the base; the 90% is the influence and the 10 is the music I’m listening to now that I found by myself. But yeah, I’ve had phases from every single genre of music, you know? So when I was super young I’d listen to like, Blink-182, and in the car my dad would listen to Future Islands. And then I’d go from that into the Growlers and I’d go through weird music taste. It was kind of whatever my dad was listening to when I was younger, and from then I kind of had my own taste because of that and it gave me more room to roam the music world. My dad would play “The Blue Album” a lot, the first Weezer album, and that influenced my alternative indie thing and that’s kind of how I found tons and most of my favorite bands. There’s so many influential albums my parents would put on. Like the first album I ever heard was Help! by the Beatles and from there I just loved rock music. My dad would listen in the car to this band called Doves. So I’m definitely influenced by all that and slowly I just gathered my own taste.
DROSTE: It’s really cool, all the different influences that every single member of the band has and how diverse and far reaching, not only current but so much older stuff too. It’s really cool to see that coming from a younger set of musicians. But when I’m on tour I have a thing where I don’t listen to music suddenly, like I’m so inundated with the process of having to perform. Since you haven’t really toured, I guess I’d be more interested to hear when you’re acting, do you need to just completely focus on the acting, or do you listen to a ton of music on set? Do you just get into a zone where music is distracting to you?
WOLFHARD: No, I need it. For me, I need to listen to music in the morning, and after, it’s kind of like a shower, you know what I mean? It’s kind of getting rid of everything. I always play music after I act. It’s not a conscious thing, like, “Oh finally, I need to do this,” it’s kind of a constant need. So I listen to music before and after I act and it just helps me gather all of my thoughts in one part of my brain so the rest of my brain is focused on art. Music collects all of the best parts of my brain and puts it into one place, which I find is really really nice and therapeutic.
DROSTE: I wish I could do that. I always find it so distracting — even when we’re recording, I find I can’t listen to too much music or otherwise I feel like I start to imitate it. So when I’m recording and touring I start to tune out music and then when I’m off I start to consume and reinvestigate what’s going on in the music world.
WOLFHARD: Well, sometimes during recording we wouldn’t listen to that much music. We would always listen to stuff that’s really different from our pace because like you said before, we don’t want to imitate anything. So we’d listen to a crazy operatic song, an epic, and we’d get really really hype, like, “Let’s go record!” It inspired us. It’s kind of a nice thing, it’s nice to see other talented people play music.
DROSTE: Do you share similar music taste with any of your cast members when you’re down in Atlanta shooting?
WOLFHARD: Yeah. Well, mostly the older dudes, the guys who play the teenagers who are actually adults but look younger, we all bond a lot over music. Like Joe Keery, who plays Steve, he’s a musician and has a band called Post-Animal and does solo stuff and he’s really cool, so we all bond over music we’ve been to. We’ve all been to concerts and stuff, we saw Mac DeMarco together and hung out with him, and that was cool. And we went to Foxygen and hung out with them for a bit, and they’re great.
DROSTE: That actually leads me to my last very silly question where I was texting with Mac because I know that he had hung with you and you guys knew each other and I was like, “What should I ask Finn?” And all he said to me was, “Oh yeah, he’s the homie.” And then I said, “Well is that a question, should I ask him?” And he’s like, “Yeah, ask him!” So Finn, are you the homie?
WOLFHARD: Yeah, I’m the homie, apparently. From Mac’s perspective, I’m the homie, and Mac’s the homie too, and Ed’s the homie as well.
DROSTE: Thank you! I guess we’re all in the homie posse. [Laughs]
WOLFHARD: We’re all in the homie posse together.
Calpurnia’s Scout EP is out 6/15 via Royal Mountain Records. Pre-order it here.