In Conversation: Calpurnia
“That Calpurnia led a modest double life never dawned on me. The idea that she had a separate existence outside our household was a novel one…”
As the black matriarch in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Calpurnia seems light years away from the four teenage kids from Vancouver who carry her name. They’re young in a modern way, as one would hope: still goofy and wild, still piecing the world together between gym class and Fortnite. Nonetheless, just as Scout becomes fascinated with the scenes beyond her housekeeper’s gaze, the band have had to negotiate the world’s obsession with their own second lives.
After bringing their first singles together with two new tracks for a debut collection titled - what else? - ‘Scout EP’, the quartet are starting to get attention for all the right reasons. They’ve been picked up by Canadian indie label Royal Mountain, with Transgressive covering distribution across the UK and Europe. Their live shows are getting hot reviews across the board. Weezer even tweeted to say how much they loved the band’s cover of ‘Say It Ain’t So’. In other words, they’re proving to be a whole lot more than a casual side-project for their lead singer, Hollywood actor and Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard.
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Not that they’ve stopped getting the occasional reminder at shows. “I like to shout people down now,” Finn tells Clash, not pulling any punches these days when he gets cringey heckles about Eleven or the upside down. “Not in a bad way. But we have a lot more people in the audience who are fans of the band, not just fans of the show. Now I just call them out: ‘No, you’re in the wrong place.’” Does he see it dying down eventually? “I think once we’ve released an album, it’s definitely gonna thin out.”
Wolfhard met drummer and fellow actor Malcolm Craig back in 2014, on the set of PUP’s music video for ‘Guilt Trip’, and instantly became friends. When the pair attended a rock camp and were put together with childhood friends Ayla Tesler-Mabe (guitar) and Jack Anderson (bass), they realised the missing pieces had fallen into place. “Ayla and Jack were two years older than us and had been playing together for years,” according to Finn. “David [Beckingham, guitarist in Vancouver indie-rock heroes Hey Ocean!] put us together, and it all just kind of worked, you know?”
The feeling was mutual, Ayla says: “We got along straight away, not just as friends, but as musicians too. It felt right.” Now they were a gang.
Listening to Calpurnia today, you sense that spirit of camaraderie still moves through them. Debut single ‘City Boy’ is decidedly rough around the edges, all bluesy guitar licks and yelped vocals, but it feels honest and vital: “When you answer to a bunch of dudes, you should run away,” stands out as an irresistibly 2018 pronouncement, regardless of how long it’s been true. It’s no surprise to learn that songwriting is a team effort.
“Even if one person brings an idea, it’s always workshopped,” Finn explains. “For the last few songs, I’ve written some lyrics and brought a crappy acoustic demo. But if the rest of the band doesn’t buy it, we’ll work on it until it sounds good. On ‘Greyhound’, for example, we wrote all the lyrics together.” It feels fitting. Those early clutch of songs share disparate emotional strands, but all seem to speak to the commonality of youth, that wild kinetic energy that keeps you running long after you can remember what you were running from. The important thing, we’re reminded, is to keep moving.
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Inevitably, that also means coming to terms with constant change. The woozy, soft-focus melodies on newer tracks ‘Blame’ and ‘Waves’ already suggest that the tide may be turning, which is perhaps to be expected; though they often speak of their shared love of The Beatles, naturally each member of the band carries their own personal obsessions. “I’ve been listening to Steely Dan almost exclusively for the last two weeks,” Ayla reveals, with admirably more pride than confession in her voice. Malcolm reveals that he’s been rinsing My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’ “three or four times a week” lately. It’s all subject to change of course. How much can we expect any four-piece with a lower combined age than Mick Jagger to stay the same?
Aside from the Stranger Things mania, the band’s age is something that gets brought up a lot. As learned from our photo shoot, their joie de vivre is infectious; in conversation, Calpurnia are not only enormously fun, but a perfect archetype of Canadian grace and politeness. Far from diminishing their rock ‘n’ roll ambitions, it seems the lack of ego has been a blessed relief for many in the industry. “When we recorded that Spotify Singles session [‘Wasting Time’ and ‘Say It Ain’t So’], we kept being told: ‘You would not believe how many dicks come in here who hate being in the studio, guys who are just okay as musicians, and make a hard time for everyone,” Finn says. “Then they would look at us and think, well, at least these kids are having fun, and besides, they’re actually really good. It makes us proud to be younger musicians, without carrying that kind of ego around.”
Of course, they’ve got a million things coming up on their itinerary. There’s a few festivals already booked for next year. Next up is a UK tour, and a new release - though not yet a debut album. “Right now we’re planning to record a little thing, just something to tide people over before the album,” Finn teases. “We’re still figuring out dates, studios and everything else, so the LP won’t be until next year. But we are really, really proud of the new songs we’re recording. Super proud.”
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As with every question Clash asks, the overwhelming emotion we get back from the band is one of optimism, positivity, a belief that anything is possible. “Every show is different, and they’re getting better and better,” beams Finn. “We’ll see how tour goes, but we’re always open to evolving.”
Ayla admits that balancing the workload isn’t always easy, but carries the same desire to enjoy it regardless. They all do. “It would be amazing if we could spend more time together,” she says, “but to be honest it just means we look forward to it even more. We have the chance to get excited for that moment.” No Fleetwood Mac-style combustion on the horizon just yet then.
More than anything, you sense that Calpurnia’s existence is an opportunity for the whole band to show the world what they can do. For Finn in particular, perhaps, it’s a chance to prove that he’s not riding on anyone’s coattails when it comes to music.
“The thing about playing shows is that you have a voice, a real voice,” he states. “And you can use that to your advantage, you know? Be as funny as you can, as smart as you can. You can erase all that negativity, and you can have fun doing it.”
In an age of bleary-eyed cynicism, we need as many of those voices as we can get.
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Words: Matthew Neale
Photography: Elliot Kennedy
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