The Aubreys Are Taking It Slow

Finn Wolfhard discusses the band’s post-Karaoke Alone momentum, trusting themselves as producers, embracing their "singles" era and the origins of their new song, “Running.”

Music Features The Aubreys
The Aubreys Are Taking It Slow

It was the summer of 2017 and the world had not yet collectively lost their cool over the second season of Stranger Things. The main cast had become global sensations and household names a year prior, especially the kids, who boasted the show’s lovable soul. But out of nowhere and in the midst of the buzz, a 14-year-old Finn Wolfhard and his band, Calpurnia, dropped a cover of Twin Peaks’ “Wanted You” onto their brand new YouTube channel. Wolfhard sang lead and played rhythm guitar, his vocals arriving raw, worn-in and charming. It was the dawn of a new adventure for him, and the seven years that have passed have felt like an entire lifetime to most of us. Yet, that moment was especially crucial for Wolfhard, as he and his band were paying a specific tip-of-the-hat homage to their Chicago-based heroes—specifically their lead guitarist Cadien Lake James, who would produce Calpurnia’s only record, Scout, in 2018.

Wolfhard met James through his co-star Joe Keery—who’d grown close with Twin Peaks through his own membership in Post Animal—and helped make a formal introduction around the time that they were unveiled a run of songs that would, eventually comprise their Sweet ‘17 Singles compilation. “I started sending Cadien songs, just as a friend or mentor,” Wolfhard explains. “Then, when Calpurnia started, we were going to record locally in Vancouver. We got this offer from Royal Mountain Records to record an EP so, basically, they were like, ‘Who do you want to produce it?’ and the first person that came into my head was Cadien. They’re still heavily involved in the way that I write, and I try to talk to Cadien weekly.” Being teenagers doing their first rock record, having Twin Peaks act as mentoring figures was essential for Calpurnia, as Wolfhard proclaims that it’s the best thing that could’ve ever happened to his music career. “What they were really good at was helping us try to find our own sound and be influenced by them but not try to emulate them,” he adds. “I think that’s the most important thing a producer can get a young band to find.”

Calpurnia would unveil Scout in June 2018 and then, after a year playing shows with folks like illuminati hotties and Lunar Vacation, making their television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and tracing some serious mileage on the festival circuit, they called it a day and went down separate paths. The EP yielded successes, including the song “Greyhound,” which has racked up over 21 million Spotify streams since its release. But you could tell that Wolfhard was never going to let the music sit idle. Immediately, he and Calpurnia drummer Malcolm Craig—who’ve known each other since starring in the music video for PUP’s “SLEEP IN THE HEAT” in 2016—opted to keep the momentum moving forward by forming The Aubreys and releasing an EP called Soda & Pie mere days before the pandemic hit in 2020. It signaled a turn towards something streamlined and matured, something that leaned further into the power pop-injected garage rock they’d only scratched the surface of in Calpurnia. It couldn’t have been more clear that The Aubreys was built to last.

The Aubreys would remain quiet for a few months after Soda & Pie, cropping up in December 2020 with a pre-recorded gig at Neptoon Records in Wolfhard and Craig’s hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia. They played 11 songs—some singles, unreleased tracks and a few covers—and it finally seemed like something big was imminent for the two-piece. They tracked their own renditions of classics by Wilco, Pavement and Jay Reatard, showing how those rock staples held such strong throughlines with their own work. Covering other artists’ tunes is something that opens up new ground for Wolfhard, both as a listener and as a performer.

“Playing other people’s songs unlocks different melodies and things that I never thought that I could access as a writer,” he explains. “It’s like learning another muscle, learning someone else’s song. It inspires your brain to start writing your own version of the track. It gets you out of your head a little bit.” These days, Wolfhard isn’t doing many covers—mainly because he and Craig have more than enough original material to siphon inspiration from, and he’s much more comfortable with his own writing style. It’s become a source of joy more than a crash-course.

Given Wolfhard’s relentlessly busy schedule (since Scout, he’s made a season of Stranger Things and acted in nearly 10 feature films), it should come as no surprise that The Aubreys have actually barely played any gigs at all. By the time their full-length debut, Karaoke Alone, came out in November 2021, their only real stage exposure was at Shaky Knees Festival the month prior. Despite not having the same resume as other working bands who finally make it to their first LP, The Aubreys leveled up on Karaoke Alone. Going through the breakup of Calpurnia and striking out on their own together completely transformed how much confidence they could, and were able to, put into their own music-making.

Wolfhard and Craig teamed up with James again—this time bringing Twin Peaks keyboardist, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Colin Croom and the band’s longtime producer Andrew Humphrey into the fold—and were able to make a no-doubt leap towards the excellent kinetic energy they’d been slowly harnessing as writers. It was a romantic set of 12 songs glazed with ambitious indie rock high off the no-strings-attached spirit of making music just to fucking make it. “We were really excited for [Karaoke Alone] because it was a good representation of the kind of writers we were growing to be,” Wolfhard says. “The Calpurnia stuff, I’m really proud of and I feel like there’s some great stuff in there. But, I feel like it’s more of a time capsule of where we were as teenagers at the time and what kind of music we were listening to. Karaoke Alone was our first step into maturity. I’m really proud of that record.”

What’s always been impressive about The Aubreys is that, despite Wolfhard being a name recognizable enough to garner big-time label intrigue, he’s never had much interest in deviating from making self-recorded albums with his buddies in local studios in-between movie gigs. It’s the crux of any actor who tries to make it as a musician, that you have a built-in audience ready to back up your first big move elsewhere. Keery had that when he started Djo in 2019, though his Post Animal roots date back to before Stranger Things; Wolfhard had it when Calpurnia germinated at the height of his newfound fame. But the truth of the matter is that Wolfhard is making pretty damn good music despite whatever his name is first-and-foremost tied to. More folks know about him and his music than ever before, yet he still treats the process like he’s a Vancouver teen who’s never even sniffed a Netflix script and is just trying to make the next great rock record. It’s familiar and earnest.

“I feel like, if I wanted to when I was younger, I could have gone and just released a really bad record on a major label,” he says. “There are a lot of great bands that are on major labels but I think that—it’s an amazing career to be an actor. But it’s also a weird thing, because you have very little control over your career. It’s amazing because you get to be making movies with all of these people that you really love and that you’re influenced by, and it’s very creatively stimulating. But, at the same time, you are, at the end of the day, being told exactly where to stand, exactly when you have to be at work, exactly what’s going to happen. I’m in a very lucky position to have that job, but I look at it like ‘Why would I have two careers—and things that I’m passionate about—both be uncontrollable and, sometimes, anxiety provoking?’ Why would I do that to myself? What’s always attracted me to music is DIY and punk, because—and not to sound too corny—music has the most humanity in it, because [artists] aren’t doing it for anyone else but themselves and the scene. I’ve always been attracted to that.”

Now, two years removed from Karaoke Alone, The Aubreys are pulling themselves back into focus slowly. Earlier this summer, they released the standalone single “Kato,” a sublime, reflective and vulnerable track that showcases Wolfhard’s growth as a singer. It was a moving mark of what he and Craig have been up to over the last 24 months, inspired by getting older and, in Wolfhard’s case, starting to face the uncertainty of what his music career might look like once Stranger Things concludes. Today, they’ve unveiled another new song, “Running”—which they made with a few friends in their rehearsal space in Vancouver. As Wolfhard puts it, he and Craig are in their own Sweet ‘17 Singles era. They’re going to continue sporadically putting out tracks until, eventually, they can put it onto a compilation record and have it serve as a bridge between Karaoke Alone and whatever LP is next. “The way that we’ve been recording has been really fun,” he says. “Once we have an idea for a song, or a demo for a song, we just go in and then, a month or two months later, just release it. That’s really creatively stimulating, because it’s like Holy shit, it doesn’t feel rushed.’ It feels like an alive, fun thing that you’re doing.”

Between Craig being fully committed to art school and Wolfhard acting in everything from the new Ghostbusters films to A24 releases to co-writing and co-directing a recent horror flick called Hell of a Summer, the unpredictable schedule they’re both on just works. They get together for a few days at a time, bang out some tracks and then go their separate ways until the next time. It helps that the two musicians are so close and have been making music with each other long enough that there’s a trust that The Aubreys will always be there when they need it. “We’ve come to the conclusion that, in order to grow as musicians, we need to also be writing other stuff,” Wolfhard says. “The idea is for both of us to come back to The Aubreys whenever we can, release stuff and then, if we have ideas for other projects, go do those.” Craig currently has music he’s working on that isn’t so rock-oriented, while Wolfhard is working on his own solo record. “We have the rock in the middle and everything is flickering around it,” Wolfhard adds.

“Kato” turned the spotlight on a vivid, surrendering mode of songwriting from Wolfhard, whose confidence as a composer has continued to swell up as he’s gotten older. “I’m just forever on, until I can’t put on my clothes,” he sings on the track. “I don’t feel the same as I used to, maybe I’ll just have to be okay.” You can sense that Wolfhard is really reflecting on mortality and young adulthood in ways that transcend the quota of ingenuity he and his pals sought to meet on Scout five years ago, attempting to now put sentimentality and preciousness into every note—though that’s not to say that “Kato” is undoubtedly anecdotal for him. In fact, he’s made it to a place where he’s no longer buying into the notion that songs have to always come from a personal place in order for listeners to connect with them, nor is he all that sold on the concept of death or breakups being only pre-requisites for a great song.

“An amazing song can only have two lines and don’t really have anything to do with anything and just are there to be a fucking awesome, catchy song,” Wolfhard notes, before pointing towards a band like Grapetooth—a Twin Peaks side-project put into motion by vocalist and guitarist Clay Frankel—and how their song “Trouble” really gnaws at its own liberation as a party track that’s immune to even the slightest hint of bummer vibes. But, on the other hand, Wolfhard recognizes that writing music for the sake of wanting to share feelings, beliefs and energy is just as important, if not more so.

“Running” is, according to Wolfhard, a satirical song that arose through his rigorous listening sessions of Stephen Malkmus and Silver Jews and studying how they would balance their work with meticulous pacing and language that flirted with the boundaries between humor and sincerity. Lines on “Running” like “Oh God, I got me a mullet, I’m losing time and my cousin hates it” feel particularly rooted in the haircut that Wolfhard sported on the most recent season of Stranger Things, while “Brad’s got a Pontiac, the one from Breaking Bad. It’s a distraction, it’s got no traction” seems to hone in on syntax that is lightly familiar yet easy on the ears. “The way that [Malkmus and David Berman] intersect funny imagery and really interesting, creative lyrics with personal stuff, I think that is a really great skill to have,” Wolfhard says. “And this was my first time delving into that, doing crazy fantasy imagery and then also putting in lyrics that are personal. To me, the song is about forcing yourself to get out of bed when you’re feeling depressed and shitty, but surrounding it with ridiculous lyrics and imagery. It’s all about experimentation and whatever the song calls for at the time when you’re writing it.”

The skeleton of “Running” came together through demoing Wolfhard did on his acoustic guitar. He was listening to a lot of The Cars and Phil Spector/Wall of Sound stuff and wanted to try his hand at making something as dense and harmonic and, then, he and Craig started plugging the track into their setlists in an effort to workshop what parts of it worked and what didn’t. According to Wolfhard, they were practically writing it while they were rehearsing it for live shows and wound up, when the time came to record it this year, wanting to recapture the energy of delivering it to a room full of fans. While he’s a “throw everything at the wall” kind of musician, Craig is much more analytic and can “take whatever mess is on the wall and peel off all the dirty, shitty parts.” “It was Malcolm and I producing the song and then me being like ‘Oh, how does this sound?’ and him being like ‘That sounds great!’ And then it would be me being like ‘Alright, what about this?’ and he’s like ‘No, that is shit.’ I always defer to him when things are looking kind of uncertain,” he adds.

“Running” was recorded in eight days spread out across chunks of three, two and three. Adam Thein, who has been Keery’s longtime co-collaborator, came in and took the track’s sound to another level—adding keyboard parts and helping shape the full track into the jangly, blissful indie-pop tune it arrived as this morning. You can feel that final push when Wolfhard’s Pavement-style bravado slips into a choir of voices that emerge angelic and epic. And, for the first time really ever, he was running around the studio like a co-producer, miking instruments up and feeling confident in his ability to conduct a song from beginning to end and coach people’s parts outside of his own.

That confidence is pouring from every speck of the track and it’s most emphatically felt in Wolfhard’s singing, as his vocals sound better on “Running” than they ever have. If you go back to Calpurnia’s KEXP session on the Scout press tour, you could hear all of the imperfections and grit that lived in his register. Now, it’s turned into this polished, melodic benchmark that completely transforms “Running” altogether—and that is thanks, in great part, to James’ guidance when the two were working on Karaoke Alone in 2021 and aiming to, once and for all, make damn sure that The Aubreys sound and Wolfhard’s voice were unmistakable.

“[Cadien] told me ‘Don’t push your voice, be comfortable with being in falsetto and just see what happens. See what happens when you whisper a song,’” Wolfhard explains. “It was kind of this eureka moment. I think, when you’re younger, you’re trying to make your voice sound a certain way—because, maybe, you’re trying to capture a different vibe. When I was singing, I wasn’t like ‘I want my voice to sound like so and so,’ but I definitely was pushing it in a way that I thought really fit the genre—as opposed to what sounds good for my voice. Cadien was a big part in just being like, ‘Let’s find, literally, what your most comfortable register would be [for you]. Once we found that, I felt so much more comfortable in the songs that I wrote.”

Having made Karaoke Alone during quarantine (and Soda & Pie just before), it left Wolfhard and Craig to their devices—and that opened the door for them to record on their own and carve out a voice that spanned from the demo phase to recording in a studio with James, Croom and Humphrey to the album’s release and beyond. “We really were trying to cut our teeth on mixing and doing stuff on our own, because we just had the time and it was something that, I think, we were both testing ourselves on,” Wolfhard says. “I feel like it ended up paying off because we ended up being so passionate about it. It was just us in Malcolm’s basement figuring out how to record. That was really rewarding.” What is set to come next for Wolfhard and Craig feels particularly vibrant. They’re going to open for The Hives tomorrow in Vancouver and then, potentially, play more gigs around the city before the year wraps up. There are more singles in the chamber, the next ones being songs that Craig wrote. Who knows what that work is going to sound like when it does arrive, but one thing is for certain: The Aubreys are operating on their own terms now.

Listen to “Running” below.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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