Wild Cub's Keegan DeWitt talks Sundance, film composing


Wild Cub's Keegan DeWitt isn't exactly the prototypical electro-pop musician. The film composer has brought a handful of films to Sundance and the film component of SXSW, in between performing as a singer-songwriter and, now, part of Nashville electro-pop quintet. Their full-length Youth was re-released on Mom+Pop Music and Big Light Recordings earlier this month, and DeWitt brought his musical compadres up to Sundance with him this time, performing and screening new music. We caught up on a cold Tuesday during his busy January to talk about his band's new album and his beef with modern music criticism (and ideas for a pay-to-play model that we think is a joke). 

Wild Cub will perform at a free show at the DO317 Lounge tonight as part of First Friday. 

NUVO: So you're in Hollywood and there's disco music?

Keegan DeWitt: Yeah were staying at this absurd hotel where like just everything is pictures of girls in bikinis for some reason and just non-stop disco music. Like guys, come on, it's 9 a.m.

NUVO: I don't even have a comment about that. So we're excited to see you in Indianapolis where it is frigid. It's 14 below, wind chill.

DeWitt: My parents actually live in Indianapolis so they're suffering though that right now.

NUVO: It's awful. It's like every Tuesday it's colder than the last Tuesday. Specifically Tuesdays it's bad.

DeWitt: I'm trying to like soak up these moments of warm weather because after this we go into the darkness of winter for a long time.

NUVO: As long as you have a car with really good heat I think you might be okay.

DeWitt: Totally

NUVO: So I've got about 5 or 6 questions for you here and then I'll let you get back to the bikini hotel. I'm always interested in the experience of re-releasing a record - is it strange that you have all this build up to a release when you initially do it, and then you have this re-release when this entirely new group of people discovers your record you've already had out for a while?

DeWitt: Well here's the thing, there's so many different facets to this. One big obvious one is I think we live in a time right now where music is way too disposable. It appears and then it's instantly gone. It's like what else do you got, you know? I, in a way, feel a little bit lucky to take something we put so much work in and really make sure that is has a life that it deserves. That it can really breathe and exist for a while.

But also on top of that, we released it and I think the band essentially formed around us recording the record. I was doing singer-songwriter stuff and kind of floating around and we wrote "Thunder Clatter" and started to record it. We were like, "Okay, I think we might have a record here. Let's keep digging on this." And then we recorded the record. So really although it's existed for a little a while, we've kind of been forced into existence because of the record, in a good way. And so right now it feels like were only now really starting to fully realize what it is.

And I guess the third tier to that would be, and it sounds a little bit cheesy but it's a useful analogy, if a tree falls in the woods, does anybody hear it kind of thing. And now it's really great because we spent the first six months to a year essentially like tap-dancing and being like, "What did you think guys. Hey, we're Wild Cub!" and just trying to get people to care. So now it's a whole different way more substantive journey to be able to go places and have the room be full and have the people know the music and be excited. To be able to be like really, really bring the density to the music that is not there if it kind of exists on Spotify, and people can flip through tracks really quickly.

I feel like we kind of constructed the entire record around the idea that people's interpretation of the music and people's own personal wealth of experiences and emotions are way more compelling and way more interesting than any thing we could just obtusely tell them what it is, you know? And so that's why the lyrics are like these little sparks; they're just little hints and little glimmers out there to spark people's imaginations and their own personal experiences.

So much of the record is about mood and about moments and about these kind of like glimpses into small little moments. And so to be kind of congruent with that we feel like now being able to go and do this with the live show and bring the music to people and add a whole another layer to that it kind of extends that out where we can now be able to share the music with people in a live setting. And they get to see us drumming and moving and me singing and all these different things that help add even more layers to it, which is really exciting.

NUVO: That kind of leads me into my next question: I have this quote from another interview with you pulled where you talk how Nashville in ways based around people's names, that people that come out to see a singer-songwriter are coming out for a name. And that you like having this opportunity to not have your name or face on it and instead have Wild Cub, this label that's kind of disassociated from you as a person. Why does that separation of artist and art intrigue you, particularly for this project?

DeWitt: As you grow up a little bit, or at least for me, each year my desire to be personably recognized in that kind of way has almost evaporated. I've started to realize the more and more we get to go to these big festivals and see other bands play and so on and so forth, music and obviously the arts in general, has this great capacity, which is to allow people to acknowledge emotions within themselves and hopefully in a constructive way. And so I feel like stripping our face off that - stripping my name off it - lets people make the music intensely personal to them and have ownership of it for themselves. And that we try and create music that is about emotions and about moments. So doing that in a faceless way really lets people feel like that they own the record rather than it being something that were presenting to them.

NUVO: There is definitely a specificity to the kind of crowds that are drawn to electronic music and mega EDM producers - that these massive sold out shows are a lot tone and about mood [and not necessarily lyrics, or specific songs]. It's intriguing to me that you're so outwardly constructing your shows to fill those needs for the crowd that is attracted to that, to go out and dance and have this really personal musical experience.

DeWitt: Well that was like the direct contract to being a singer-songwriter. When you're a singer-songwriter, you're going, "I have to write this so that I can sing it and play it on the guitar at any moment in any room and be able to try and command attention in that room." So this was an exciting, different way to make music, which was, "What happens if we just layer things?" We used layers and a cacophony of noise and imagery and the facelessness of not having us on the cover and stuff to be able to make music in a different way.

I felt like the big moments that I've had in my life had emotion involved in them, like when you meet the person that you're going to spend the rest of your life with, when your parents pass away, whatever it is. It's these moments. There's no literal, singular emotion. It's like a whole big mess of emotions and that's what makes it so compelling. And I felt like with a band and with the facelessness of the band and being able to stack a bunch of different loops and drums and use rhythm, I was getting closer to being able to try and recreate those moments emotionally, for myself and for the audience. [Having] these different, multifaceted impulses happening at once: Happiness, sadness, fear, anxiety, confidence. All those things can happen in a single chorus of a song in a cool way that I can't do with just an acoustic guitar.

NUVO: So did Wild Cub play at Sundance while you were up there with your films?

DeWitt: : I was there with two movies that I had scored and then the rest of the band came up and we played the KCRW showcase with Dan Deacon.

NUVO: Did he divide the people in half and have them do like the dance parties and judge them? He's a nut. The first thing that I thought when I saw a posting about your performance was that I didn't know there were a lot of musical performances that went along with Sundance. Which seems like perfectly reasonable thing to have; It's just not anything that I had ever thought about, really. 

DeWitt: ... I literally said about a week before we agreed to do that show that "Hey guys, if we ever get asked to do music at Sundance, we're never doing it." Because it's like a lot of "The Acura Party, Sponsored by Stella." It's a bunch of people in expensive coats wondering around not listening to music. I remember last year I saw ]a band] play and it was before I had ever seen them live and no one knew what they looked like. It was like, here's [a band], playing in the corner of a Stella party where no one is listening to them.

KCRW does it exactly like it should be done. Like rent a club, right on main street. It's not like 'Oh hey, here's a band at a party." You came to a show, which is great.

NUVO: Talk to me about the difference between your process composing for films and composing for Wild Cub.

DeWitt: The quick answer is I work wherever the hell I can, whenever I get a second. I've got the whole mobile unit that I have. But I think the cool difference between the two, to just kind of touch on what I was just saying, is the pop music side of Wild Cub is busy and there is 80 different things going on. I've got to worry about how were going to play it live and what's the video going to be like and who's going to produce it, who's going to mix. It's just such a complicated big thing and that's to its virtue sometimes.

The amazing thing about film composing is that you get to exercise elegant restraint as much as possible. You can press a single piano note and have it have a tectonic effect on the film. That's the thing that I love the most. The filmmakers that I always was drawn to and the poets that I was always drawn to were these people who dealt with these very small acknowledgments. I feel like that's a really exciting thing that is exclusive to the film scoring. I always know that a film is good, if I watch it for the first time and I'm like I just want to write them and say, "This doesn't need a film score." It's so great how it is.

So it's nice for me to be able work from the totally opposite side of the spectrum and say, "What can I get away with not doing, to maximum effect here?" Rather than Wild Cub, where it's load into two, you're going to sit around for six hours, play a show. It's a big beast.

NUVO: I did read on the Internet yesterday - and I have no idea if this is true - that if you shave a baby tiger and baby lion, you can't tell the difference. They look exactly the same.

DeWitt: Really?

NUVO: Yeah, they're just wild cubs.

DeWitt: That's amazing.

NUVO: They're not wild lions or tigers, they're just wild cubs.

DeWitt: That's incredible. That'll be my new explanation when people are like, "What does Wild Cub literally mean?" 

NUVO: If there's one certainty in life, it's that people always want to know, "Why did you call your band that? I need to know."

DeWitt: Don't even get me started on that. That's a whole other argument about music criticism and how they want everything to be the most literal explained thing on earth.

NUVO: Since you've experience both, what can be [more problematic], music criticism or film criticism?

DeWitt: I don't feel like there is as much as a market for negative film criticism as there is for music criticism. People know movies are expensive and it takes years to make them. For some reason we've forgotten about that with music. It's something that I don't want to dig into too much just because it's asking for trouble.

There's a Warpaint review on Pitchfork last week, where the entire thing is, "Hey did you see this really popular guy directed their video and then they had Nigel Godrich produce?" It's like who cares, these guys suck right? This isn't even about this record. I was joking around with our publicist that any positive review you could publish for free on the Internet, and any negative review, you had to pay five cents a word. Just so people would be like, "Maybe I don't need to publish a totally negative thing."

There's something about curatorial and editorial criticism, which I think is way undervalued. Why don't you feature things that you think are worth mentioning, and let the other stuff fall by the wayside if you don't think it's good? It's one thing to say, "Hey, it's time to call out Coldplay. This record has the worst lyrics ever. Come on we can do better." I get the pop culture fun value of that. At that point you've kind of sacrificed yourself up for that if you're Coldplay. But, Warpaint, or any other band like that, I'm kind of like, listen. These guys have decided to spend their entire life traveling around, making music. If you don't like it, it doesn't matter really.

[Music] is so individual. Everybody has a bad record that they know is bad that they really enjoy. Everybody likes things for such unique, interesting reasons. And I feel that every night when I show up at a club and people come up to me and talk about our record. I don't even understand [their] point of view on it or I don't get how [they] connected to it in that kind of way, but that's amazing that [they] have. 

NUVO: I'll tell my interns and my writers, I don't believe in guilty pleasures - music is just a pleasure. Why should you ever have to feel guilty about liking anything? If you like it, you like it.

DeWitt: I think that's the thing, especially for me. I've got an eight-month-old baby so I've just realized that the world is a really big, dark weird place. So let's just let music be music, and be a wonderful thing and if you like it, listen to it, and if you don't, don't. It's one thing if you're Lester Bangs and you're writing about how Astral Weeks is the most incredible record ever and the review is just as beautiful as the record is. It's another thing if you're Pitchfork and you're posting a video of a monkey peeing into his own mouth as a review of a record.