The Wildbirds are some rugged mf'ers. The quartet hail from the rural wilds of Fox Valley, Wis., and came up with the songs for their Golden Daze album in an even wilder, more rural cabin on the border of their home state and Michigan's unruly Upper Peninsula.
"Some strange animal would wander out of the woods and we'd all just stop playing and stare at it," explains singer Nicholas Stuart. "Then one of us would grab a shotgun and we'd have dinner for the night. Some people are uncomfortable having a gun in their house, we're uncomfortable not having a gun in ours."
Besides killing their own food, the Wildbirds know their way around under the hood. They found an old minibus on Craigslist two weeks before their first national tour. "At one point I had half the engine in pieces," Stuart says. Something goes wrong, Stuart and crew have an awesome set of tools. "We had a manifold that was leaking oil on the way down to Texas, but we fixed it."
As rugged as the Wildbirds are in the wilds of Wisconsin, get them to the bright lights of a major metropolis, what with them city slickers, loose skirts and their firewater and all, and they fall apart. Stuart, for instance, promptly lost his cell phone during a hard night in the ci-tay after their New York debut. When he finally gets it together enough to call in this interview, it's half-a-day later and on a borrowed phone. "When alcohol and women are involved, I tend to lose it," he says sheepishly, still a little crispy.
As much as Stuart may not have the rock & roll partying thing down just yet—he and his bandmates are all still in their early 20s, after all—they do have their sound nailed. Golden Daze, recorded from the songs they cobbled together in their cabin, was produced by Greg Fidelman (U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash) and engineer Greg Gordon (Hot Hot Heat, Oasis), even if from the sound of it, all the Gregs did was sit back and hit "record." "I think they liked working with us so much because we did most of it live in one take," Stuart says.
Stuart, drummer Jon Jon Fries and guitarist Matthew Reetz all grew up together; bassist Hugh Masterson they knew as the guy who worked for Pabst Blue Ribbon. They all played in aimless post-punk bands in BFE Wisconsin. Then Stuart had a revelation. "One day, I was listening to 'Eleanor Rigby' in my car and I hadn't heard it in, like, 17 years. I got home and sat on the couch, was just baffled. 'What am I doing in this crappy indie band? I gotta learn to play better and sing better.'" The band came together in a shared appreciation of classic rock. "We were big fans of The Band, Van Morrison, Tom Petty—people that wrote really good songs and could play their instruments really well."
Ironically, for all the band's classic-rock overtones—from Fries' penchant for head scarves to Stuart's raspy, Steven Tyler-like voice and their clean, Zeppelin-y sounds—Golden Daze has a pop ring to it that makes it as catchy as it is potent. Fries favors stomping, double-time beats; Reetz's riffs are as melodic and lyrical as they are punchy; at least three tracks start off with that Tom Petty "American Girl"/The Strokes "Last Nite" power-pop beat and guitar jangle.
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As classic rock goes, the Wildbirds clearly learned something from their indie-rock tenure. Behind the second-hand smoke of rawk conventions, they write hooks more like Cheap Trick than Zeppelin. There's never that okay-I-get-it-it's-a-riff stoner-rock ponderousness, but instead an intuitive spontaneity, which is why "Shake Shake" sounds like Aerosmith covering Superchunk. Even better is "Slow Down," whose layered melodies and vocal counter-melodies evoke a hybrid of Boy-era U2 and Wildflowers-era Tom Petty.
Not bad company to keep; now all the Wildbirds have to do is get people to hear it. To that end, the band starts a month-long Monday night residency at Costa Mesa's Detroit Bar in August. It's a long way to the top, sure, but it's a start. They've toured with Jesse Malin, are hooked up with Green Day's manager's PRC label and are managed by the guy who reps Foreign Born. Stuart, for one, has perspective: "Every day I don't have to work in the pawn shop or work construction is a good one."
THE WILDBIRDS PERFORM WITH THE GROWLERS EVERY MONDAY DURING AUGUST AT DETROIT BAR, 843 W. 19TH ST., COSTA MESA, (949) 642-0600; WWW.DETROITBAR.COM ; 9 P.M. 21+. FREE.
THE WILDBIRDS' RECORD RELEASE PARTY IS TUES. AUG. 14 AT THE TROUBADOUR;