Published Mar 26, 2013With Afraid of Heights Williams' has achieved a rare type of punk rock maximalism, crafting a massive, buzzy record on his own terms. Following Nathan Williams' 2009 public breakdown, few would guess the San Diego artist would still be making music in 2013. Lacking his last record's frantic pace, Williams channels titans of mid-90s alt-rock like Green Day and, especially Weezer; the massive Blue Album guitars are all over the record. Despite a year in the studio, paid for on Williams' own dime, there's still a nice lo-fi vibe to the album.
You spent a year in the studio working on this?
There were a couple days off here and there, and we were still playing shows, but mostly back-to-back days. Generally speaking I work pretty quickly, but this was long.
Was there a reason?
We were probably paying a little more attention to detail on this one. There's more stuff going on in every song. We tried hundreds of guitar tones, different distortion pedals for every song, different amp combinations, different head combinations, going direct in… just every possible thing you could think of, we went through before we got to the process of mixing. You never know how people are going to respond to it, but for us it definitely made a difference. We couldn't have done that in a two- or three-month time period.
Did you go into the studio with songs already written?
I had half of the songs done before we got in there. But there was a lot of sorting through, because I have a lot of demos. A lot of "let's try this, no this didn't work. Okay let's try this..." "Dog" was written in the studio and "That's On Me" and a couple others.
Were there alternate versions of the tracks on the album that were drastically different?
There are some pretty different versions. Not so much melodically or lyrically, but different tones, different sounds, that stuff was changed. We'd go back and listen and decided something was wrong and you'd have to change everything before we'd figure out what it was, and then put everything back together.
Was that why you decided to team up with John Hill to produce? Is that his forte?
I had worked with John prior to us recording the album. We had written songs for other artists. So we had a working relationship. He's meticulous and a little bit mean, which I kind of wanted a little bit. Since I decided to pay for [the recordings] myself I wanted my money to be well spent. I wanted somebody to be honest with me. [Say] stuff that other people might not say to you. Especially a year into it you're like "I think this is wrapped," and he was like, "No, it's not. We need to do some more stuff."
Who were you two writing for?
We did a song for Big Boi that I ended up featuring on but originally I had just written it for him as a writer. That ended up on his last album. Some of them are hanging right now, they're possible tracks that the person might still use, so I can't say exactly who it is. But we've worked on stuff for No Doubt before, and we worked on a couple of other things that didn't end up being used.
How did you and John meet?
I think he just reached out through my manager. He said he liked King of the Beach. I knew somebody who went into the studio and wrote with him and I guess he said something about me when he was in there. I had never written for other people before, but he asked me if it was something I would be interested in, so I just went in and did a couple things and it turned into this.
Did you enjoy that process of writing for other artists?
Yeah. I'll probably do it again at some point when I have more time. I don't know when that will be — this year is probably going to be really busy. But it's a nice change of pace every once in a while. I've always been a big fan of pop music so it's not out of the realm of possibility for me to actually write pop songs and enjoy doing it. It's not just about money.
You've mentioned in several interviews that Weezer's Blue Album was a big influence on Afraid of Heights. Were you a long-time fan or did you just get into that record during the recording process?
I'm a long time fan, but Stephen is the real Weezer-head for sure. He camped outside of Tower Records, like waited overnight for The Green Album to come out. I remember him saying he was disappointed by that one. But The Blue Album is just, I think for people that are my age, like mid-20s — I'm 27 — this is a big album for everybody. And Matt Sharp, I've always been a huge Matt Sharp fan. I love the Rentals. I think The Blue Album is one of those timeless-feeling records.
What triggered such a love affair with that album for your record now? You've said you had it playing in the studio all the time.
I don't know. We weren't totally sure what direction we wanted to go in when we first started recording. It was just up in the air. So the first couple weeks was just everybody getting shit-faced in the studio, not getting anything done, tinkering with sounds, listening to other stuff and seeing what we wanted to do creatively. We ended up on this song "Afraid of Heights," that's the first song that we actually tracked. We were like, "Okay, I think this is good. Let's keep doing stuff like this." That was definitely after listening to some Weezer. But some of these songs were things I had written when I was 18, so some of these songs are eight years old and some of them I wrote in the studio too. I don't know. I think it was something that Stephen and I both wanted to do. There were hints of it on King of the Beach. So we just kind of went for it a little more. We had more time to do it too. We had a couple months to do King of the Beach, but we couldn't spend days trying different pedal and amp combinations. Because we didn't have a label involved in this, I was paying for it myself, we were like, "Fuck it, let's just do it till it's right."
Are you the type of songwriter that's easily influenced by what you're currently listening to?
When I start recording a record I generally stop listening to other music, or I try to because I want to avoid ripping somebody off. Leading up to it, "Afraid of Heights" was a song that Stephen and I had written a long time ago, so it wasn't written with the intent, like "This is going to sound like a Weezer song, or this is going to sound like Green Day." I think it's just the music we grew up on. Even though the song was written three years ago, it still was the same idea for this record. We wanted to do big chorus, '90s, alternative-sounding music. For me writing melodies and guitar parts [like that], it's the first thing I think of.
Why did you decide to pay for the recording process yourself? Did Fat Possum stick their noses into the King of the Beach sessions a lot?
Like any label, they give you money and they want a return on that money and they want to know that the money is being spent properly. So I understand that from a business standpoint. I have a fine relationship with Fat Possum. I don't have any bad blood with them but with this particular record, for me, I wanted to keep the money part out of it. The people that would come in were people that had never written songs before. They'd be wanting to pick a single or see how the record's doing and what it sounds like and the songs aren't even halfway done. They have no idea what the process is like. Having them judge you halfway through recording and writing, I just feel it's counter productive to the whole creative process. It's not just Fat Possum. Any label that put money into it would have stuck their nose into it. That's just what they do. So we just figured I'll pay for it myself and we'll get a label to pay me back after it's done. They can't meddle in it any more.
Did you approach Mom + Pop?
We took meetings with almost every major label. And we took meetings with a couple of indies as well. Mom + Pop, it was the best deal and they were genuinely excited about it and we like them. We have a good rapport.
What were the meetings with the majors like?
I mean, the food was good. We definitely got to pick out the restaurants. I'd look up the most expensive restaurants in L.A. So I got to just eat crazy filet mignon and bone marrow and $300 bottles of wine. And then we didn't sign with any of them. Some of them were nice guys. There were a couple of kind of what you'd imagine from these major companies. Douchey-ness. There was one that knew all the other majors had offered me semi-big money and were talking about this record and this guy came in and was talking about all the different things he was going to do for us. And it turned out he had never heard the record. He was just like, "If they want you, I'm going to make a bid." Like wow. You're a piece of garbage.
It's like it's the early '90s all over again.
I know! It felt like it for a second. But no, not that big of money. I wish. It was like the time Courtney Love told me, "Just wait until you make your first six million" and I looked at her like she was insane. And she was like "Whatever, two million." What world do you live in! Come on Courtney!
When did that happen?
My manager manages her as well. I met her in New York maybe a year ago. She's really, really cool actually and knows a shitload about random crust bands from L.A.
You've talked about how your ego got away from you in the early days of Wavves. Do you think that rise and fall allowed you to make records like Afraid of Heights and King of the Beach?
Yeah kind of. I guess so. But when I make these records, I'm not like "I'm gonna prove them wrong..." But I think humility is good for any excursion in life. It's probably good to take a dose of it once in a while and step back. It's hard to go from nothing to playing shows and people liking you and then not realizing that the same amount of people that like you are going to hate you if you're in some sort of entertainment position or creatively where a lot of people are looking at you. It's also growing up. I was in my very early 20s when I first started doing this and I was a cocky asshole and I probably still am now. I think I've probably toned it down a little bit at least.
How do you tune out the negative voices?
You have to come to terms with it, or you can't do this. And it doesn't really matter in the end. There are going to be tons of 15-year-olds who call you a faggot for no reason and then turn around and say, "Just kidding, please don't block me." Like, do you even know what you're doing? You're a lost soul.
Were there any exterior forces in your life that affected the album lyrically?
For me the general feeling of the record was, Stephen and I didn't really now what our future was. He moved out here and we were just waiting to make some sort of move and trying to make something that was… we wanted to reach further than we had before. Getting into something like this and putting ourselves in the situation where we're paying for it ourselves was like saying, if you're going to pay for it, make sure that its right. If we had a label doing all that stuff for us, and giving us a time frame, you just stick to the time frame. They're the ones paying for it because they're your boss and I didn't want a boss.
Were you doing the Sweet Valley records with your brother at the same time you were recording Afraid of Heights?
We'd come into the studio for the Wavves record around 12 or one p.m. and leave the studio around 3 a.m. So I'd wake up at 10 and work from 10:30 to 12:30 with my little brother on Sweet Valley and then go to the studio. So I was just working and sleeping for a year. I'm actually excited for touring. I never thought I would say this but it will be easier.
Was there any crossover in the material?
No they were pretty separate for the most part. There were a lot of demos from Garageband from the Wavves stuff. The Garageband demoes had some really interesting sounds on them. We sampled them in Sweet Valley and Wavves.
And now you've got some production work lined up with MCs for Sweet Valley?
Yeah, we've got some work lined up with this guy from San Francisco called DaVinci, and we're in the process of doing this record with Killer Mike as well. I don't know when that will be wrapped up but the DaVinci one is close.
How do you find working with MCs compared to working with Wavves?
It's a nice change of pace. It's fun.