Photo: Pooneh Ghana
By Matt Bobkin
Published Jul 04, 2018Calpurnia's got an elephant — or, should I say, Wolf — in the room, and I'm not talking about their ages. Sure, they're teenagers, between 15 and 17, but there's another, uh, strange detail that hogs attention.
The easiest way to ignore it is to talk to the three band members who were on time to our conference call.
"I've seen people say online, 'Oh, they're just kids, blah blah blah,' but eventually, over time, people will take us seriously as artists and not just as a 'teen band,'" says bassist Jack Anderson.
"The second I pick up my guitar," adds Ayla Tesler-Mabe, "people can hear that I've put in the work, and that I don't want to be treated as a kid."
They've already received more attention — and more criticism — than any young band in their position; as a result, they've forged a remarkably tight bond. Says Tesler-Mabe: "There's definitely something ineffable about it, the chemistry between the four of us."
"We all click in a way, artistically and musically, we're on the same wavelength, so it's a really nice, organic environment whenever we're together," Anderson adds. "When you think about it, we're very lucky to have that kind of connection," says drummer Malcolm Craig.
Calpurnia have dropped their debut EP, Scout, on which fans will hear: Tesler-Mabe's effortless shredding, honed from a years-long love of jazz and rock; Anderson's passion for prog rock — "even the heavier stuff, like earlier Yes where it's organized chaos, or Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield," he proclaims; and Craig's dependable drumming.
By the time lead vocalist Finn Wolfhard — yes, of Stranger Things fame — calls in from Atlanta, where he's shooting the third season of the Netflix hit (not to mention working on a series of TV pilots and screenplays), he slots seamlessly into our conversation about the recent attention the band have been getting. It's been making recent gigs overwhelming, particularly with screaming fans who know all the words to their songs.
When asked what keeps them grounded, Wolfhard is quick to answer: "We've got each other!"
Finn Wolfhard ended up as the lead singer in a band after being cast as one. In 2014, when the actor was 10, he was cast as a boxcutter-wielding young Stefan Babcock, lead singer of Toronto punk outfit PUP, in the band's music video for "Guilt Trip."
"Guilt Trip" co-director Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux remembers the day Wolfhard showed up to an open casting call in Vancouver. Throughout the casting process, Schaulin-Rioux and co-director Chandler Levack struggled to find kids who were confident and charismatic enough to portray the larger-than-life goofballs of PUP. "Most of them were just like scared to talk to you. We'd give them a guitar and were like, 'Rock out! Be like PUP! Watch them!' And the kids would just like stare at their moms and be super scared," recalls Schaulin-Rioux.
"Then, Finn came in and was way more confident and cool than anybody else. He was intimidating our producer in rehearsals, because he's supposed to be a bully. It was like, 'Whoa, this kid's super got it going on.'"
On the set of the video, Wolfhard met future bandmate Malcolm Craig, who was playing the young version of PUP drummer Zack Mykula.
Though Schaulin-Rioux never could've predicted how successful Wolfhard and Craig would become, he knew they were destined for greatness. "The first time I met Malcolm, he was 10 years old, four-foot-eight or something, and he was like, 'Oh, you want me to play a Nirvana song on drums for this audition?' Like, what? And the first time I met Finn, he was talking about Arcade Fire B-sides and stuff like this, back when they were pre-teens. So the idea that they were gonna go off and do things in music was not surprising; their precociousness and musical taste was already on their sleeve back then."
Wolfhard and Craig began jamming shortly thereafter, adding Tesler-Mabe after meeting her at a rock camp for kids. She then recruited grade-school pal Anderson to play bass.
According to the band, their chemistry was instantly evident. "I ended up walking out after the first time we played going, 'What? That's the way band practice is supposed to be? That's awesome!,'" remarks Anderson. "Previously, I'd never been in a situation or an environment where it was so organic and the chemistry was so good."
"Even though the first time we played together, obviously, it wasn't perfect and we were just figuring things out, I could feel the chemistry," adds Tesler-Mabe. "It's so great working with people who don't have egos or anything. They don't wanna show off and they don't wanna write a song just for the sake of impressing people. I think everyone in the group just wants to write a good song, and we're always on the same page."
Says Wolfhard, "When we're all together, we have so much fun that we forget that there's all this weird other stuff to do like interviews. Doing shows, being together, writing music is very therapeutic and keeps us very grounded."
Even in a casual conversation, their ease together is evident; they mitigate the chaos of a conference call with patience and politeness, apologizing each time they accidentally cut someone off, and making sure that everyone gets a chance to speak, even stoic drummer Craig.
It's just as evident on Scout where, in a scant 23 minutes, each bandmate's voice comes through crystal clear. Though there's an obvious sound of today's indie rock (the band count Twin Peaks, the Growlers and Parquet Courts among recent favourites), Tesler-Mabe's jazz influence, Wolfhard's recent power pop streak and Anderson's predilection for prog rock are also readily apparent. Scout is a fusion of all of those elements and more, with Calpurnia's nascent voice emerging from a pile of inspirations.
By the end of the EP, with six-minute slow-burning closer "Waves," the band have forged a sound beyond their influences, with oceanic guitars and ethereal, harmonized vocals, a far cry from the jangly, retro-rock of the EP's early numbers. Their musical skill and maturity belies their youth.
"We're definitely not the Naked Brothers Band or Hanson, where a label found some cute blonde kids and wrote some songs for them. We're a band! That's what we are," says Anderson.
Calpurnia solidified themselves as rock stars when they opened two shows for future label bosses Hollerado at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto.
"The first time at the Horseshoe, when they fully came on stage, Finn had this super, drunk-rock frontman swagger," recalls Schaulin-Rioux. "It was like, 'Oh shit, they are a real rock band.' The crowd were made up of mostly adults, it wasn't just like screaming pre-teen fans, and you could see each one of them, halfway through the first song, going like, 'Oh shit, these guys rock. They're a real band.'" (Schaulin-Rioux was inspired to start a mosh pit during the show.)
Also in the crowd was PUP lead singer Stefan Babcock — the real, adult version — who sums up his feelings with a simple "they were wicked."
Teenage bands are a familiar concept for Babcock. During his own teen years, he was known around Toronto as the frontman of ska-punk troupe Stop Drop N Skank. "That band was so fucking stupid," says Babcock. "I was kinda writing songs and the lyrics were dumb garbage and all I was doing was playing four chords, like upstrokes.
"And then to see Calpurnia, they're young and they're gonna get a lot better, but for kids that age, holy shit. Those songs are really good. And they play well. Ayla is fucking incredible. I've been playing guitar for as long as she's been alive, and she could play circles around me. It's insane."
Another major difference, notes Babcock, are the fans. In 2016, shortly after the first season of Stranger Things had taken over pop culture, PUP released the music video for "Sleep in the Heat," a sequel to the "Guilt Trip" video that reunited the kid version of the band with Schaulin-Rioux. "The video got a lot of weird traction because of Finn. A lot of retweets from @mrswolfhard460Brazil or whatever. It's been a little strange," remarks Babcock.
The resulting attention has led to much speculation that Calpurnia exists as an easy way to capitalize on Wolfhard's fame, which rightfully angers him. "This isn't the Finn Wolfhard band. For anyone to think that is stupid," he says.
"Obviously, Stranger Things has done so much for me, but this is so different from that. People have to get off their high horses and realize that this is a completely different thing. We're not cashing in. If it was a Finn Wolfhard Stranger Things band, it'd be like 'Finn Wolfhard and the Upside Down!'" he says to laughs.
Babcock agrees. "I'm sure Finn could make a lot more money and become a lot more famous forgetting about music and focusing even more on acting, but I think it's good that he's taking this opportunity to do something that he loves."
Wolfhard's passion for music drives him to make time for it, no matter how hectic his other commitments can get. "There's something so therapeutic about it," he muses. "I've been listening since I was a baby. It's kind of a part of me now. It never feels like work when I'm doing it. Same with acting and same with writing anything and doing any art. It all feels the same to me."
Adds Tesler-Mabe, "Obviously, it's great that this has given us a vehicle to get to certain places very quickly, and we're obviously very grateful for that opportunity, but hopefully people will realize that, regardless of that, we've loved music way before any of this happened. We'll love music even if we're just playing in a garage for our parents."
Calpurnia use their youth and skill with digital platforms as beacons for a new generation of music lovers to connect with decades of musical history and a network of contemporaries across the globe. Their age and enthusiasm isn't a hindrance — it's a call to action.
"You don't have to be an adult to be a musician," says Wolfhard. "We were raised in this world where, if you're under the age of 18, you can't do anything. And obviously times are changing and you can. I hope it inspires people to start their own bands and take music seriously and pursue it early."
Calpurnia have taken a much different musical approach from PUP, but they're still following the older band's path. They've signed to Toronto-based record label Royal Mountain Records, who put out both of PUP's albums, and they're making music videos with Schaulin-Rioux, who recently shot Calpurnia's first proper music video for Scout cut "Greyhound."
Having worked with the band as actors — Tesler-Mabe had a small role in the "Sleep in the Heat" video — and now as the talent, the director can't help but marvel at the way the band members have grown up over the years.
While their working relationship has changed — "Before, we'd have them falling off things and fake barfing and cutting each other, but they were actors not getting paid super well, so I felt pretty nervous. And now, it's like, 'It's your band. If you wanna jump off shit and get in trouble, it's your band, so go for it!'" — Schaulin-Rioux has noted that, throughout the fame and attention, the quartet are the same as they've always been.
"The thing that I've been really impressed by is how they've not changed," remarks the director. "The thing that's impressed me is that, as they become stars, all in their own right, and individually, they're still the same super-cool, down-to-earth, bust-your-balls buds.
"That's from 10, 11, 12-year-olds to 15, 16, 17-year-olds, the time where you'd expect someone to become harder to hang out with or not as friendly or more narcissistic. But these guys haven't done that at all. They're still the same really cool not-even-kids anymore that I met all those years ago."