Why There's No More Separating Art and Politics for Wavves

Wavves have been making, well, waves.
Wavves have been making, well, waves. Gilles O’Kane
Wavves didn’t start out as a political band. The musicians are better known for fun surf-rock songs and razor-sharp lyrics that are directed inward, not at the state of the world at large.

It’s not so surprising, then, that the band have missed the mark on an act or two of artistic opposition. A month before artist Karen Fiorito’s provocative Donald Trump billboard went up in downtown Phoenix, Wavves frontman Nathan Williams announced on the band’s Twitter that he wanted to crowdsource an anti-Trump billboard. And his project could have been just as controversial as the one gracing the intersection of Grand Avenue and Taylor Street. That is, if it had come to fruition.

Williams commissioned artist Johnny Ryan to create drawings that would “grab [President Donald Trump’s] ugliness and turn it into something good.” The most lurid of these pieces depicted a baby Trump being breastfed by his senior adviser Steve Bannon. The artwork would have directed people to a website to donate funds to causes important to the San Diego-based noise-punk quartet. According to bassist Stephen Pope, Williams’ project hit some roadblocks.

“[The artwork] crossed the obscenity laws, so that paused [the project] for a second,” Pope explains. “Steve Bannon is kind of on his way out now, too, so it seems a little dated.”

Some have noted that this act of resistance comes just as Wavves is releasing their latest album, You’re Welcome. And six albums in, you can detect a renewed sense of focus in Williams both melodically and lyrically. The track “Animal” is written from the point of view of a man ready to resist, with a chorus that begins, “The whole world covered in gasoline / And burning alive / I feel taken advantage of / And empty inside.”

This newfound awareness seems suspect coming from a band that is frequently questioned about partying and drug use (much to their annoyance) or their song detailing Williams’ admiration for Nirvana’s drummer titled “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl.” (For the gazillionth time: No, he hasn’t.) But, Pope explains, in the connected world we live in, it’s impossible to separate politics and art.

“I don’t know how it’s affecting the music itself, because I don’t think we’ve ever written a straight-up political song and I don’t know if we ever will,” Pope says. “Social media is such a big thing that goes along with music now. It’s hard to avoid the shit that’s going on in the world, so you have to intertwine your art with politics.”

For example, long before Depeche Mode had to make clear they are not the official band of the alt-right, Williams explained (again on Twitter) that anyone in the following groups was not welcome at a Wavves show: Donald Trump supporters, racists, homophobes, anyone who blames rape victims, and anyone who has “gone out of [their] way to defend police in America.” He later clarified that statement by emphasizing that he “didn’t ‘ban’ anyone from shows.”

“I said I don’t make music for rapists, racists, or homophobes,” the frontman wrote.

According to Pope, this stance didn’t stem from an incident at a Wavves performance or a hate group using their music. It’s simpler than that.

“We don’t want hate at our concerts,” Pope says, “Things right now are so insane, both of what is acceptable in the political world and the social world. I don’t think artists necessarily have a responsibility to speak up about things but it is kind of hard not to when things are so fucked up. It seems like things are going in reverse when people are accepting homophobia and racism again as the norm.”

Wavves are scheduled to perform at The Pressroom on Wednesday, May 31.

Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version.
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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil