MJ Lenderman Is Knockin’ On Rock Stardom’s Door
Everywhere I look, there’s Jake Lenderman. I first spot the tall, scraggly 24-year-old backstage at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival on a Friday afternoon, telling an interviewer (not incorrectly) that his own new MJ Lenderman single “Rudolph” is the Song Of The Summer. A few hours later, he’s onstage with his backing band at a jam-packed Lincoln Hall, playing indie-skewing roots rock for his largest crowd yet as a headliner. A few hours after that, he walks into a bar down the street with those same bandmates, trying to enjoy a nightcap at last call. The next afternoon, he takes the stage for his Pitchfork set at Union Park, this time with an extra drummer in tow: local fixture Spencer Tweedy.
My experience in Chicago — Lenderman at every turn, more and more people gathering around him each time — is a microcosm of indie rock over the past few years. Anyone observing the guitar-slinging, ‘90s-inspired corners of the scene has surely spotted Lenderman onstage in some nightclub or heard him in recorded form on some critically acclaimed record. He used to play drums for his fellow Asheville singer-songwriter Indigo de Souza, including on her first two albums, 2018’s I Love My Mom and 2021’s Any Shape You Take. He became more of a known quantity as guitarist for Wednesday, the countrified shoegaze inferno led by his girlfriend, Karly Hartzman. All the while, he was releasing his own records as MJ Lenderman, culminating in last year’s slow-burn success story Boat Songs.
That album, a chooglin’ convergence of alt-country, classic rock, and peak ‘90s slacker indie, turned Lenderman into an underground household name and got him signed to ANTI- Records, the rootsier, folkier offshoot of punk-rock standard-bearer Epitaph. You can see why the record caught their attention. Boat Songs is ideal backyard drinking music, shot through with sadness but brimming with sonic life — a little bit Tom Petty, a little bit Modest Mouse. It plays like a junkyard filled with classics and cultural detritus, with Lenderman drawling and wailing about iconic athletes, pro wrestling, amusement parks, and (yes) boat ownership over music that pulls inspiration from the likes of Neil Young, Jason Molina, and Drive-By Truckers. The guitars churn through simple chord progressions and unfurl into ripping solos. Xandy Chelmis, also of Wednesday, haunts everything with traces of high lonesome pedal steel. From the hard-charging “Hangover Game” to the dirge-like “Six Flags,” it’s a tour de force.
Lenderman continues to refine the Boat Songs sound on “Rudolph,” his riff-blasted first single for ANTI-, and its B-side “Knockin’,” out today. “Knockin'” is peak Lenderman — a lumbering classic-rock metatext that isn’t quite a “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” cover but harnesses the old tune’s power at just the right time, to climactic effect. At both of his sets in Chicago, these songs already felt like staples of the MJ Lenderman catalog. More are on the way — but not yet.
Lenderman had exciting things to say about the forthcoming tunes when we sat down at a picnic table to chat before his Saturday afternoon Pitchfork set. He also talked about coming of age in Asheville, signing to ANTI-, his manic tour schedule with MJ Lenderman and Wednesday, and how he ended up playing on an upcoming Waxahatchee album alongside Spencer Tweedy. Below, listen to “Knockin'” and read a transcript of our conversation.
Are you tired?
JAKE LENDERMAN: Yeah, definitely. The Wednesday tour we just did was really nuts. We did a full US, we had two days off, and then flew to Europe for three weeks. Two days off, and then another two and a half weeks in the States. So that was crazy. We don’t really have, like, a crew or anything. We had a [tour manager] over here, and over in Europe we had a T.M. who drove and stuff, which was really nice. But yeah, it was crazy. You feel like a cloud of smoke after a while. When we got home, we were there for a couple of weeks, and I was able to get back into some sort of normal living situation. But now we’re back out, and immediately, my brain was geared for six weeks. But it’s only five days.
The late night last night wasn’t too bad, and today we didn’t have to get up early, but I think the worst part is driving so much. Which we didn’t have to do this morning, so I feel refreshed.
I know you played on the new Waxahatchee album. Was that Katie or Allison [Crutchfield] who was hanging out with you guys last night?
LENDERMAN: That was Allison. She was my A&R for ANTI-.
I didn’t know she did that!
LENDERMAN: Yeah, it’s funny. I met them both at SXSW a couple years ago. They saw my set there. They were both there together, and they introduced themselves. Within a couple months, Katie asked me to be on her record without really knowing me, which was pretty crazy. And then Allison started talking to me, too. I think the Waxahatchee thing also came together because I’ve worked with Brad Cook before. I used to drum for Indigo de Souza, so we did a record with him in the middle of COVID.
Yeah, all this blow-up for you happened during COVID.
LENDERMAN: Yeah, it’s weird! I released, between Wednesday and my band and Indigo, I guess it’s four records that I was part of came out during COVID. It’s funny. I think Wednesday released our record I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone, and then we did my first tour with the band. I wasn’t really — I was on the record a little bit. But my first tour was February 2020. So that was kind of it for that. But then, yeah, we started getting a lot of good attention. It was funny because it doesn’t really feel real or mean anything to see it on the internet. It does mean something to see people writing about it, but it’s easy to still feel normal. Like, nothing really changed within our lives. Like, I worked at an ice cream shop since high school. I just stayed there, and it’s the only job I could tour with. I was still doing that. It really doesn’t feel like anything until we started playing shows again and people were coming to our shows in different cities that we’d never even been to before. I guess since November 2021, it’s pretty much been nonstop between the two bands.
You mentioned working the same place since high school. Did you grow up around Asheville?
LENDERMAN: Yeah, I grew up there. I went to UNC Asheville for three semesters, but you have to live in a dorm there for the first year. So I moved out of my parents’ house, and I could basically see their house from my dorm room. And then the last day of class that first year, I moved into Colin [Miller]’s house. It’s a little bit farther outside of town. He’s my drummer. Eventually Karly moved in with us. There’s another house right next door that our other bandmates lived in. They moved out, so now me and Karly are in the small house together. We’ve been on that property for five years.
And the other bandmates are next door?
LENDERMAN: Right now it’s just me and Karly, and then next door is Colin, my drummer, and our friend Lewis who used to be in the band. Over time I think everybody in my band, almost, except for Xandy, has lived in that house. And John too ‘cause he lives in Philly. Ethan [Baechtold] and Xandy also grew up in Asheville. And Colin too. He moved here when he was a kid. Me and Ethan have known each other and been playing music together since we were like eight years old.
I’m about to turn 40. Some of the influences I heard in your music made me think, “Damn, there’s still young people getting into the shit that I like.” Like, how did you get into Jason Molina?
LENDERMAN: A friend showed me in high school, and I got really obsessed. I think you’d be surprised. All the musicians I know that are around my age love Molina. It kind of goes without saying, I feel like. There’s some compilation that Run For Cover, I think, is heading up, and a bunch of other artists around my scene or whatever, age group, are doing stuff, too. I think everybody loves ’90s music, people my age. I don’t know exactly why. Maybe just naturally, you just look back to what was right before what’s going on now.
It feels like this perfect combination — you got some of the ’90s indie stuff, some Southern rock stuff, it blends together really well. I hear some Tom Petty.
LENDERMAN: I just started listening to Tom Petty. I’ve never been into him. But I feel like the new batch of songs I have are a little more influenced by him. Katie’s a huge fan, so I feel like she and Brad got me into some Tom Petty. But yeah, the Southern stuff, I guess maybe just naturally being in North Carolina I hear it. But a lot I learned from my dad. He’s a big music fan. I got all of his CDs when he was cleaning them out. There used to be a full wall of CDs at their house, but they tore it down and put a bigger TV in. Drive-By Truckers, I’d go see them with my dad in high school, and that live show’s kind of a life-changing experience for me. I’m super influenced by the no-setlist thing. I tune my guitar down a whole step like them. I just grew up hearing them and Neil Young, too. I think he was the first country-sounding artist I actually got into, even though he’s Canadian. I think that was my entry point. And then, you know, like, Dinosaur Jr. — I feel like everything I like has been influenced by him in a huge way. I think that was the way that I found out about a lot of music was through my dad and the CDs he has.
How did you decide to sign with ANTI-? Did you have other labels asking?
LENDERMAN: Yeah, I talked to a few others. It was weird — it was kind of a scary decision to make. I don’t know if scary is the right word, but it was the biggest decision I’ve had to make so far. Because I think the goal is to pick one and stick with it. Allison as an A&R was great because she felt like talking to somebody who was already a friend. And she’d been road-dogging it for years, so she knows what it’s like. And Andy Kaulkin, he’s one of the head guys at ANTI-, we get along pretty good. He’s just a big music nerd. You can tell they really love music. That’s kind of what I felt vibe-wise, energy-wise. It felt right.
You’ve got this “Rudolph” and “Knockin'” single out now. I assume you’ve been writing more new songs?
LENDERMAN: Yeah, kinda slowly. I’ve been working on stuff whenever I can. I haven’t had too much time at home to be doing that. But I’ve been recording just everything that I’ve been able to write. Any time that I’m home I’ll book a few days at Drop Of Sun. I’m working with Alex Farrar, who worked with me on both songs, and he did the last two Wednesday albums as well. But yeah, it’s coming together slowly. I’m pretty close, though, to a full record. I’m not in any hurry, luckily. But yeah, I love recording. That feels like maybe my favorite part. I love performing too, but the road’s not always fun.
Do you find that recording is always fun?
LENDERMAN: Nothing is better than writing a song. I think that’s the first part. And then building it in a studio situation is really exciting to me. I like playing around with sounds and just realizing a song. ‘Cause I usually just write on acoustic guitar. So just hearing what the full band will sound like. Usually I’ll play all the instruments myself, like at least drums and guitars. Obviously vocals. It’s kind of like the only chance I get anymore to play drums. I used to drum a lot more.
And then obviously you’ve got Xandy playing pedal steel.
LENDERMAN: He does that on all the recordings too. My first album that I made in high school, I recorded it with Colin at the house. And that one’s wiped from the internet. When I started playing songs as MJ Lenderman, Xandy and Colin were already good friends. I asked Xandy to come play keys. And then one day when we were practicing, a family friend had lent me a lap steel, and I just had him try it out. And Karly saw him do it, stole him. And yeah, that’s it, I guess! I still have that lap steel. I never gave it back to whoever lent it to us. But then during COVID Xandy bought a pedal steel, and he’s just such a quick learner. Like, I got some new tunes with some fiddle on it, and he’s bought one, and he’s already getting pretty good at it.
So it wasn’t like he was the guy around town who played pedal steel.
LENDERMAN: No, he’d never touched a pedal steel before.
But now he’s kind of that guy.
LENDERMAN: Yeah! People ask him to play on their albums and stuff. It’s really cool. He’s gotten so much better. He keeps getting better. He’s a very, very quick learner. A talented guy.
How hard is it to navigate having these two bands that overlap a bit that are both blowing up?
LENDERMAN: Logistically, it’s not too hard because we have the same booking agent. So he knows where we’re going to be and when. It hasn’t been too much of a problem. I think the hardest it’s ever been was this last 10-week Wednesday tour because after a while I feel bad if I’m not writing or something. But I think it’s also just a lot of learning for everybody. We realize that we don’t want to be on the road that long. We don’t have to. We can just break it up a little more. Just like at least a week or two off in between every three weeks or something, and that’s totally possible. Even having that much space in between stuff is kind of enough for writing. But as far as focusing on one band at a time, I think it’s just kind of accepted that if Wednesday releases an album, that’s going to be Wednesday album cycle time. Vice versa when I release whatever record I’m working on.
But normally if you’re in one main band, that band’s cycle winds down and you get some time off. But it’s like you fill up that time with an MJ Lenderman cycle, and then…
LENDERMAN: That’s why last year, between the two bands, I was on the road the whole time. We were trying to seize the opportunity of people starting to pay attention to both of us. Literally, I think I was on tour from November 2021 to December 2022, with maybe two weeks max in between tours.
It seems like now you’ll keep doing what you’ve been doing, but with a few more breaks in between?
LENDERMAN: I guess that’s the goal! For at least Wednesday, we have stuff booked through May 2024. So we’re not slowing down, really, but we will have a little more time at home.
I saw you’re doing one of the Guided By Voices anniversary shows.
LENDERMAN: Yeah, it was so funny. I remember the day we found out about that. We were in Europe. It was peak tiredness. We had just gotten off a Ryanair flight, like the shittiest flight of all time. I think it was maybe a connection for our way back to the States. It was a 20-hour travel day or something. And we get a text from our manager with this offer, and Bob Pollard specifically asked for us, apparently. And we were like, that’s great. I remember getting off the plane and asking the band, “Did you guys see that?” And they’re like, [groans/sighs]. Like, of course we have to do this, but thinking about booking another show right now is the last thing we want to do. But we were like, it’s a one-off, and of course we’re going to do it. Can’t say no to that. But that’s kind of the mindspace. You’re never thinking a couple years ago, you get offered to play with Guided By Voices and Built To Spill on the same night and the first reaction is an eye roll. But as soon as we get home, we’re ready to go back out, too.
Do you feel like your songs are changing at all?
LENDERMAN: I think so!
You mentioned fiddle. How do you describe the evolution of where it’s going?
LENDERMAN: From my perspective, it’s hard to say since I’m so close to it, but lyrically I’ve changed the most, especially since the self-titled album I made. I’m still trying to learn how to write songs. That sounds funny, but every time I do it, it restarts. Like, I don’t know how to do this. Sonically, I’m keeping myself feeling fresh. There’s different instrumentations. I have a friend playing upright bass on some songs, and there’s some clarinets going on in the record, too. But I’m not trying to make a synth album. I’m not doing that or, like, an orchestra. I’m just trying to play with new sounds to me and just keep it exciting that way.