COVER STORY | Wednesday’s Year of the Rat

The Asheville rockers discuss Rat Saw God, becoming the loudest band on Earth and honoring the "spiritual and emotional" attitudes of punk and country

Music Features Wednesday
COVER STORY | Wednesday’s Year of the Rat

“The bees in my stomach are dead and getting used to it,” Richard Brautigan once wrote in A Confederate General from Big Sur. For a long time, in my heart, I felt that way about my hometown, especially when driving across a 10-mile strip of highway between my house and an eroding shopping mall I used to lamely chain-smoke cigarillos outside of. In that space, there are, approximately, a half-dozen Dollar Generals, two Starbucks franchises and a sorry looking Panera Bread near a tractor store. There are gas stations with flatscreens projecting insufferable, unwatchable newscasts; local kids loitering near the convenience store with head-sized drinks in their hands; billboards for a sex toy den catty-cornered with a gun shop. I had been down that road before. It’s a gothic, picturesque emblem of Appalachia. It’s also the setting of a Wednesday record.

There’s always been a space for telling the stories of blue-collar America; they counteract the metropolitan glitz of New York City and Los Angeles. But even tales of Chicago, despite it being an epicenter of Midwestern culture, feel somewhat distant to those of us tasked with chronicling the backroads of towns that no one, not even the people who live 10 miles away, has ever heard of. I think Springsteen’s romanticizing of uninteresting, uncompelling places ruined that for me. To fall in love with a beautiful person in a place where the only fun thing to do is cruise under some lyrical, idyllic moonlight after a day spent operating heavy machinery and making an honest living, that is meant to be a destiny much more familiar and worthwhile to the masses than the cinematic pastorals of the ocean, or traveling to some great, wondrous land in another country and walking the same streets as famous poets and painters. “Tramps like us,” yada, etc.

Perhaps that is why Wednesday, a quartet-slash-quintet from the outskirts of Asheville, North Carolina, near the Blue Ridge Mountains, has reinvigorated my romance with the banal, sub-3,000-person township I grew up in—and inevitably moved back to once freelance work couldn’t sustain my rent in a capital city. Wednesday, they are actively working to transcribe a completely new category of geographical genre. Their country falls someplace in-between the mountains and the city streets, in the muck and brutally honest reality of rural life. While there are more than enough musicians out there making records about collapsing into the arms of some West Coast haven, or falling in love with a stranger on a late-night subway ride, those themes will never crop up on a Wednesday song unironically.

In fact, on the song “Toothache,” they make their stance against such storytelling liberties known: “The Beach Boys song about the / California girls, they really like them / It’s always December / It’s always December / Takes a year / For the water to boil.” And that rebellion against faux-migratorial fantasy occurs because frontwoman—and harbinger of queasy, doomed, affectionate poetics—Karly Hartzman has never lived anywhere else and has no intentions of pretending otherwise. “At the end of the day, when I’m writing songs and looking out from my front porch, I’m writing about the landscape I see,” she says. “I would never try to speak on a place I haven’t been or I don’t understand.”

The current members of Wednesday—Hartzman, shredding axeman Jake “MJ” Lenderman, percussion prince Alan Miller, lap-steel prophet Xandy Chelmis and bass sorcerer Ethan Baechtold—haven’t always made music together. The chemistry they exude as a musical organism might trick you into thinking the opposite, but the band, initially, started as a casual, diaristic outlet for Hartzman alone. She made a record called yep, definitely and put it on Bandcamp in 2017, before venturing out and finding like-minded musicians around Asheville to make music with—though that wasn’t the labor it might be for folks in bigger cities. “Since it’s a small town, you meet people who are into the same shit as you immediately,” Miller says. He and Hartzman met through going to the same shows in town, while Hartzman and Chelmis worked together at the Mothlight, a now-defunct live space that housed local and traveling musicians for nearly 10 years in West Asheville. The band’s original guitarist, Daniel Gorham, left after their debut album, I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone came out in 2020, and Baechtold replaced bassist Margo Schultz after she departed in 2022. Lenderman came into the fold just before Wednesday released their breakthrough, proper sophomore LP Twin Plagues in 2021.

Rarely does Paste give an artist a “Best of What’s Next” designation and then check back in with them so soon after doing so. However, no other “Best of What’s Next” recipient has crashed indie rock’s party quite like Wednesday. Publications have fawned over their alchemy, how these four North Carolinians have found the perfect interpolation of hardcore, shoegaze, post-punk and folk rock. Earlier this year, one outlet even went as far as including them on an “Artists to Watch in 2023” list, which felt like an odd placement, given how well-received and loved Twin Plagues was two years ago.

But, the truth is, Wednesday are still on the brink of properly obliterating modern music, though I’m not so sure they care much at all about any of that. Instead, they are as individualistic as they are a well-oiled machine. The aim is to corral influences and do their best interpretations. On Twin Plagues, the focus was enveloping Hartzman’s storytelling in a blanket of sonic checkpoints ranging from math rock to Bakersfield sound to power pop. And now, with Chelmis’ pedal steel getting more and more spotlight, the band is, albeit slowly, getting a bit more honky tonk with it. “It’s weird to consider trying to do better or improve our sound for our fans or our crowds,” Chelmis says. “Because, the progression has been, ‘Oh, let’s make music that sounds like this,’ and we just do what everybody’s into at the time. [The sound is] becoming harder and harder, and, now, it’s edging into a country space. But, it’s not for anything other than it’s what we’re into and what ends up coming out.”

2022 was a particularly important chapter for Wednesday. In March, just eight months after Twin Plagues, the band released Mowing the Leaves Instead of Piling ‘em Up, a pastiche of hi-fi and lo-fi covers of songs by everyone from Roger Miller to Hotline TNT to the Smashing Pumpkins. They recorded the album at two studios—Betty’s and Haw Creek—in Durham and Asheville, paying respect to their sonic forefathers at every turn. The lo-fi, DIY tracks stemmed from what Hartzman and Lenderman made together in their bedroom at the beginning of the pandemic, while the hi-fi tracks flourished through an opportunity to record in a big, professional studio, something the band had never done before.

Soon after Mowing the Leaves, Lenderman (as MJ Lenderman) put out his critically beloved solo record Boat Songs in April, which, uniquely, caught an extra gust of wind in online music circles when year-end lists were circulating, which Lenderman calls “wild,” but with an extra emphasis of slacker bravado. “I love it. It’s a slow burn. People are still realizing how much they fuck with that record,” Chelmis adds, thoroughly chuffed about his best friend’s masterpiece. The surge in the record’s popularity makes total sense; “TLC Cage Match” was one of the best songs of last year—or any recent year, for that matter. Boat Songs was a stroke of masterful, sometimes lucid and always unforgettable songwriting. Lenderman’s woozy colloquialisms compliment Hartzman’s brash, fabulist outlines perfectly. “It’s this very natural, unforced, symbiotic music thing,” she says. “I’ve learned more about how I could write based on how my style interacts with his style, versus just him picking up things from me and me picking up things from him. It’s a thing that’s more malleable and organic than something I’m able to put into words, I think.”

In turn, Lenderman joining the band has become the game-changer for Wednesday. Before he and Hartzman began dating over three years ago, she was a fan of his solo music without even knowing him. “He has records that aren’t online anymore that were out when I was still working in food service, dreaming of being in a band,” Hartzman says. “He was in high school. It’s crazy how long his music has been good as fuck and influencing me and tying into the culture of the Asheville scene.” In early 2021, after spending all of their time together during the pandemic (which they still do, as we enter another year out of lockdown), Hartzman and Lenderman put out an EP (as MJ Lenderman and Wednesday) called Guttering, a compilation of lo-fi tracks relishing the textures of distorted, bubblegum grunge. With Lenderman in Wednesday, his presence allows the band to hone in on consistent influences and an unbreakable vision. “[With Gorham], who is awesome and is in a lot of pop-punk, emo projects, we did come up with a lot of interesting stuff, because there were very different styles at play,” Miller says. “But, we really became cohesive, stylistically, with what our aims were for our sound, with Jake.”

Twin Plagues was only the beginning for the Wednesday we know and love. Lenderman put out his own LP, Ghost of Your Guitar Solo, the same year, but was able to finally plug into a place where his main role was shredding on the guitar. “Being able to go into the next album and be in on the process of putting the songs together, that was my favorite part of the pandemic,” Lenderman says. “I was playing drums for somebody else. Actually, I spent more time as a drummer the two years leading up to joining Wednesday. I’d always been writing my own songs, but I didn’t have any drive to book my own shows. My music getting noticed was pretty slow and organic.”

Wednesday’s new record, Rat Saw God, was first teased in the fall of 2022, when the band released “Bull Believer,” the seething, head-splitting, eight-minute rabble-rouser of mythical, distorted and hollering proportions. A year ago this month, the band took to KEXP in Seattle to perform the songs from Twin Plagues and, during the interview portion of their performance, Lenderman joked that the next Wednesday song would be eight minutes long. Knowing who Wednesday are as people—most evident by the fact that the first five minutes of my Zoom call with Lenderman and Chelmis were spent watching Lenderman make an embarrassing photo of Chelmis his background and have a chaotic, gut-busting laugh about it together—you wouldn’t have been wrong to think that, maybe, Lenderman was genuinely joking about the direction of their next record.

But he wasn’t, and “Bull Believer” arrived thunderously, as promised. There wasn’t anything calculated or strategic about making it the first single; the band just knew it was a special track and released it into the wild accordingly. “It was just obvious to all of us,” Lenderman says. “We thought it would be a cool thing to do.” Yet, that casualness doesn’t diminish how important the song was for Wednesday. To begin an album cycle with such a dense track that pulls no punches, you are building your own pedestal; you’re setting your own baseline early. “We wanted to grab people’s attention,” Chelmis adds. “It’s probably the most impactful song that we recorded.”

It’s funny to hear Chelmis say that in real time, after months of road-testing the track, when more eyes have been zeroed in on Wednesday than ever. And Hartzman can no longer play a set without “Bull Believer” in it. “There’s just shit going down all day on tour, so it’s nice to let any frustration or stress or grief out every night,” she says. Chelmis’ thoughts about the song mirror how audiences first reacted to the song at live shows. “When Karly’s screaming, and this sounds fucking tacky, but I’m, sort of, screaming along with her in my playing,” he adds. “There were some people in the crowd who were breaking down and crying. The song was still really fresh and raw to us, so I felt that a lot.” Lenderman, on the other hand, has a slightly different reaction to the song, which has become a “Helter Skelter” moment for him. “When I see [‘Bull Believer’] coming up on the setlist, I have to prepare. It’s a marathon. But it gets me really excited. My fingers start bleeding,” he adds, grinning ear-to-ear.

“Bull Believer” is unique in how it tests the limits of Hartzman’s singing capabilities. Being that she is the main songwriter, you would think that her voice is pretty malleable to what each song’s arrangements require. However, it’s intentionally the opposite. “I like to write something purposefully out of my range, just to force myself to get better,” Hartzman says. “Even one of the first songs I wrote, ‘Fate Is…,’ incorporated a note in there that I couldn’t really sing until I practiced it a bunch.” When Hartzman begins screaming in the final act of “Bull Believer,” it’s her first real attempt at doing so on tape. Yet, when the band crescendos into a deluge of noise alongside her, it sounds like one of the most in-sync moments in Wednesday’s catalog. The more industrial and incomprehensible the song gets, the easier it is to believe that these five people belong with each other, making music for the rest of time.

Journalists have been trying to describe Hartzman’s vocals for years, and I’m not sure there’s really an apt enough descriptor for her pipes. She can surf between twangy, nasally, hoarse and downright euphoric, all within a few bars. It’s that kind of magic that sets her apart from other singers. But what makes Wednesday one of the best bands in the world, aside from their aces chemistry, is Hartzman’s songwriting. It’s paradisiacal in a scuzzy way, adaptable to any underbelly in North America and wickedly unafraid of being too truthful or unabashed—which is a muscle that Hartzman had to build for herself across multiple records. “I started out writing more vaguely,” she says. “I think the way I’m writing now is what I always wanted to work up to, where I’m just telling the truth about the story. I always regret when I don’t go where I intend to, because I’m like, ‘Why didn’t I just say what I meant?’ And I realized, after a while, that it was fear.”

Though there were moments on Twin Plagues where the lyrics were hinting at the clear-eyed-yet-sludged-out POV of the world she has (like “How can that dog be / Barkin’ in the backyard? / We ran over him years ago” on “Ghost of a Dog” or “The gutter is a drippy nose / Of a kid who’s contracted swine flu / And the cartoon crucifixion / On a ceiling beyond suffering” on “Toothache”), everything became fully realized on Rat Saw God, where Hartzman’s strange pageantry of the South gets its Fanta-soaked wings.

If you’ve ever tumbled through a world where a fast-food restaurant is one of the top hangout spots, or left high-school dances to go vape in friends’ basements, there’s a language that Hartzman employs across the record that is niche to outsiders but biblical to those in on the joke. “I used to drink ‘til I threw up at my parents house / My friends all took Benadryl ‘til they could see shit crawlin’ up the walls / One of those times my friend took a little too much / He had to get his stomach pumped,” she sings on “Chosen to Deserve.” It’s a track spearheaded by Chelmis’ country-drunk lap steel, where, atop the gauze of her and Lenderman’s dueting, Lyrnyrd Skynyrd-evoking, power-pop guitar licks, Hartzman unleashes a psalm of coarseness no western outlaw would dare speak of, due in part to the literature, music and hobbies she consumes during the songwriting process. While making Rat Saw God, she was ingesting everything from Cruddy by Lynda Barry to the ‘90s Boston rock band Swirlies to the video game Sally Face.

But the most obvious influence on Rat Saw God is from the Kristen Bell-starring, cult-favorite TV show Veronica Mars. The album name was taken from a title of an episode in season two, though what happens during the runtime had no real effect on Wednesday at all. Instead, Veronica Mars is background noise for Hartzman. “I watch a lot of shitty TV because I sew a lot,” she says. “I’ll sew for six to eight hours a day. The thing is, when you’re sewing, you have to watch something that’s not too good, or else you’ll sew through your fingers.” Hartzman didn’t see the episode’s synopsis—which involves a kid moonlighting as a detective—and project the story onto her own experiences for some coincidental connection. Instead, it was much less mythical. “I saw the name of the episode and I was like, ‘That’s the name of our album.’ And then I sent it to our group message and I was like, ‘Is this the name of our album?’ and everyone was like, ‘Yeah,’” she says, laughing.

It’s not surprising that Hartzman spends her time binging old, goofy teen dramas. It coincides with the looking glass that’s at the forefront of her songwriting, as she’s constantly recollecting. “Nostalgia” can often be a death sentence for lyricists. Not to mention, it’s a saturated term in music nowadays because of how improperly it’s used. However, I think nostalgia is one of Hartzman’s superpowers. She’s not writing from a reactive place. All of it is confessional and romantic through thoughtful reflection.

In “Chosen to Deserve,” she sings about having sex with someone in the back of an SUV; in “Bath County,” she writes about her and Lenderman, on their way to Dollywood, watching a man get a shot of Narcan after overdosing in a parking lot. For a while, she felt a bit of restraint when it came to going all-in on details, mostly for the sake of her parents not thinking those are active stories she’s living through anymore. “I didn’t want my parents to worry about me, but I’ve talked to them and built trust with them,” Hartzman says. “They know now that, when I’m writing something like that, that I’m not in that moment. It’s more just looking back at my past in a way that feels very far away from it, [because] you still have to give yourself space from something to write about it. It’s a healthy way to deal with memories.”

The stories on Rat Saw God are not just Hartzman’s own. On “Quarry,” she sings about her dad burning down an entire cotton field on accident when he was a kid; “What’s So Funny” is about tragedy spun into comedy, when Chelmis got stung by a colony of yellowjackets and Lenderman couldn’t stop laughing about it. But Hartzman’s personification of the boonies and backroads of North Carolina should not be considered the sole entity of Wednesday’s album narratives. She perfectly interjects those Harry Crews-like, gravelly details with little fits of Brautigan-like beauty. On Twin Plagues, a standout lyric was: “Rooms would look much better if they had you standin’ in them / Jealous of the rooms whose floors can feel your weight upon them.” Flash-forward two years, and the sweetest moment on Rat Saw God comes amid the chaos of its most reckless triage when, on “Bull Believer,” she sings: “God, make me good but not quite yet.” Later, she finds solace in accepting grief while surrounded by others. “The boat I feel so lonely in / Ends up to hold us all / I cannot tell myself apart / At night I don’t count stars, I count the dark,” she sings.

In the two years between becoming a full-fledged band and releasing I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone, something wasn’t clicking fully for the band like it is now. Hartzman attributes it to everyone being so new to music at the time, and that, through practice and time, the whole animal of Wednesday eventually evolved. “That’s why each record feels like leveling up, to describe us and where we’re headed,” she says. Chelmis sees it similarly, emphasizing that the band’s willingness to be patient and let their personalities pave the way is what has gotten them to Rat Saw God and the sonic palette that comes with it. “Those two years were definitely a good time for all of us to just cook and congeal,” he says. “ We found what we all, individually and collectively, identified with. I always really believed in Karly’s songs and writing and our sound. We weren’t getting ready for this style; we were just playing music because it was fun.”

Listening to Rat Saw God, you might not hear a more cohesive-sounding record this year. The well of folks who think Wednesday are a special band is, seemingly, untapped for now—and for good reason. It’s clear, and has been clear since Twin Plagues, that Hartzman, Lenderman, Chelmis and Miller rock very hard. They get onto a song together and it just fucking goes, immediately. Each different fragment, whether it’s post-punk or country or shoegaze, has been done before, but the way that it comes together on a Wednesday track is the special part that goes unparalleled. And the music-making process is pretty solid for the band at this point, as Hartzman brings lyrics and chords to rehearsals and then everyone else writes their own parts in, as Chelmis puts it, “a good way that just works.”

To get an inside look at how Wednesday makes a record, Miller humbly likens the process to some of the songwriting scenes in The Beatles: Get Back. “[In the documentary], they were like, ‘It’s the hardest thing until it’s the easiest thing,’” he says. “Maybe it’s cliché to quote that, but I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that makes a lot of sense.’ Because, there’s a moment where it locks in and you really settle into what you feel like you want a song to sound like, or somebody does something and you’re like, ‘Oh, now we’re getting it.’ Just a guitar lick, or something. We sit in a circle and play and, honestly, the first hour or two of doing a new song is one of the most frustrating, intimidating and awkward-feeling portions of the process,” Miller says. “Then, it just feels like [the song] hits its stride. Everybody is throwing everything at the wall and seeing what works and sounds great.”

Rat Saw God was recorded at Drop of Sun Studios in Asheville. The last day the band was in the studio, they officially signed with Dead Oceans. The process for making the record, however, was a totally new experience for them. The recording of Twin Plagues was done in a “home basement version” of Drop of Sun, according to Chelmis. Now in company with the likes of Japanese Breakfast, Mitski and Bright Eyes, Wednesday have the resources and visibility to do something big. But, since the record was all but finished before the ink dried on their label contract, that’ll have to wait until the next project, which Hartzman is already writing songs for. Instead, they took the opportunity to take care of the folks who helped make Rat Saw God such a feat. “The people who ran [Drop of Sun] knew us from around,” Chelmis adds. “Local guys, really sweet people who just wanted to hook us up with a good recording experience. Then, when we signed with Dead Oceans, it gave us the opportunity to just give them a ton of money.”

Where do Wednesday go next? “We’ve peaked. It’s all downhill from here,” Chelmis says, laughing, while trying to prop his phone back up on a patio table outside his house. His family is starting a farm, which Lenderman and Baechtold have been helping with. “I helped cut down some trees, do a little concrete,” Lenderman floats. But, in truth, Wednesday are en route to becoming the loudest band in the world, which isn’t always, initially, the hardest sell at the venues they tour through. “We always have problems with sound guys when we first get up on stage and they see Karly and they see a pedal steel,” Lenderman adds. “Then, we start playing a chord for soundcheck and they’re always like, ‘You guys need to turn it down.’ We learned that, before we even plug in, we have to warn them: ‘Yeah, we like these guitars really loud. You’re gonna have to deal with it.’”

The magnitude and decibels of Wednesday’s live shows harkens back to when Chelmis and Hartzman worked at the Mothlight together and would work metal shows together. “It was me and one other guy running sound there, and the other guy didn’t like metal shows, so I’d work all the metal shows,” Chelmis says. “It’s the kind of show that [Hartzman and I] probably wouldn’t have gone to on our own, but, since we had to be there, we were there. The fucking impact of how loud those shows were, after they were over and we were cleaning up, we were like, ‘Can we do this? This is so sick, when the sound of the show is rattling the bones in your body.’” Lenderman echoes a similar sentiment immediately after: “The idea of just being a super loud band is really appealing to us.”

But, what cuts through the noise is spiritual and emotional attitude, which Wednesday have perfected. Through their confections of punk, hardcore, country and shoegaze, they’ve made their own cross-sectioned subgenre. Lenderman and Hartzman bonded over My Bloody Valentine when they first met; the band has toured with the Drive-By Truckers and learned how to bridge the gap even further between country and punk, especially. “I feel like punks and country folks definitely believe in self-love and comfort just as much as they do hard work and being pallies,” Chelmis says, giddily.

For Wednesday, it’s the year of the rat. They’ve etched their existence into all of our hearts like a kid writing his name in snow with his own piss. I listen to Rat Saw God and the bees in my stomach have come alive once more, just as they have in the molecules of Wednesday’s sound. I now care about what the news anchor in the gas pump wants to tell me. There are teens doing whippets in the alleyway behind the local pharmacy; guns and cocaine are hidden in drywall. There is a parade everywhere, bounties of gargoyles, neon signs half alive and heads full of lice. When the eye of the storm calms down, there are five people. Five Tar Heel punks. Five rats. All of them, they’re more in love with each other and more in love with music than ever before. And what do rats do? They scavenge. They make use of what others throw away. On Rat Saw God, Hartzman, Lenderman, Miller and Chelmis have taken the ugly bits of their pasts—what everyone else has forgotten about—and reworked them into funny, imperfect and beautiful mementos of chaos and growth.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin