clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Wednesday’s Teenage Dirtbag Hymnals

The Asheville, North Carolina, band has become one of the breakout indie bands of the young decade by sifting through the dirt and embracing its own version of a Southern thing. Now it’s signed to Dead Oceans and back with an excellent new LP, ‘Rat Saw God.’

Getty Images/Grandstand Media/Ringer illustration

“Ask for forgiveness, not permission.” It’s pretty terrible life advice in general, especially if you’re an artist who plans to air out family business for public spectacle. Karly Hartzman has no issue exposing her own high school humiliations throughout Wednesday’s teenage dirtbag opus Rat Saw God, which arrives later this week. But after digging in her memory banks and old journals to exhume the suburban legends that populate Rat Saw God, she had to clear her samples, so to speak. Most of those stories are hers to share, but not all. Take this yarn from “Quarry”: “The kid from the Jewish family got the preacher’s kid pregnant / but they sent her off and we never heard too much more about it.” “That’s my uncle,” Hartzman says, and given the last half of that line, she was justified in her due diligence. Or maybe she just forgot that oversharing is alive and well with those still on Facebook and that the illicit thrill of others seeing you at your lowest transcends generational boundaries. “He was cool with me using that. He’s actually really into it because he’s an attention whore.”

If you’ve read a single thing about noncountry rock music from the Bible Belt in the past 20 years, the “duality of the Southern thing” that Drive-By Truckers once coined should be very familiar: “Proud of the glory, stare down the shame.” Throughout Rat Saw God, the Asheville band’s “Southern thing” isn’t a duality as much as it is a [adjusts glasses] dialectical monism. Whether it’s her uncle, the high school friend that ODs on Benadryl, a kid gawking at a dead body in a Planet Fitness parking lot, or Hartzman herself, there’s a glory in their shame, where people play up their most embarrassing moments as a way to prove that they actually exist. “Most people around here, they’re just happy to be immortalized,” Hartzman says. That includes herself, as she fills Rat Saw God with a litany of formative cringe: showing up hungover to work, pissing in the street, going to Jewish summer camp in upstate New York at a “meant to lose your virginity age”—the sorts of things that made Wet Hot American Summer feel like a documentary.

“Nothing will ever be as vivid / as the darkest time of my life,” she sighs on “What’s So Funny,” and she makes that apparent through Rat Saw God. The album is rife with 3D renderings of pungent detritus: ripe breath steaming off the grill of a pickup truck, piss-colored bright-yellow Fanta, rain-rotted houses, sex shops with biblical names. These images aren’t exclusive to the American South, but this type of decay does tend to thrive more in regions of economic depression and sweltering humidity.

As they have with a lot of people south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Drive-By Truckers helped the native North Carolinians of Wednesday grapple with their identity as Southerners who want to shed light on their surroundings, even if it means exposing some of the more unsavory parts. “They’re telling stories about people from around here in a way that makes it seem like they’re worth telling to people outside of where we’re from,” Hartzman says of Drive-By Truckers. “The second I realized I could write a song about my dad and my uncle or my friend from high school, that it could emotionally resonate with someone the way [Drive-By Truckers] do with me, that was the most life-changing bit.”

The Truckers’ influence on Rat Saw God and, really, Wednesday’s trajectory over the past two years has been transformational. Hartzman believes they were completely unaware of Wednesday’s existence before her band covered Southern Rock Opera highlight “Women Without Whiskey” on last year’s Mowing the Leaves Instead of Piling ’Em Up compilation. Guitarist and vocalist Jake Lenderman—“no one calls [him] ‘MJ’ unless they don’t know [him],” Hartzman attests—is an ardent but recent convert, admitting he hated DBT while growing up, mostly because his dad was a huge fan. Six months after Mowing the Leaves, the Truckers took Wednesday on tour as an opening act. DBT is also paid tribute in recent single “Bath County”: “Hit ’em with a dose of Narcan / Sat right up in the leaned-back seat of his two-door sedan / On the way home play Drive-By Truckers songs real loud / You’ll be my baby till my body’s in the ground.”

That said, the members of Wednesday realize that they’re not facing as much resistance as their Alabamian benefactors once did, given that Wednesday’s music largely stays out of politics and they’re not identified with the deep South. Hartzman grew up in Greensboro and met Lenderman, drummer Alan Miller, and lap steel ace Xandy Chelmis through the DIY house show scene at UNC–Asheville. Lenderman and Chelmis are both born and bred townies, who are becoming more and more rare in Asheville these days, as the city has emerged as an escape hatch for urban burnouts and regularly tops “best places to live” lists in men’s interest magazines because of its thriving art and craft beer scenes. Reclusive art-pop auteur Moses Sumney recently relocated to Asheville from Los Angeles, and his personal assistant ended up being Wednesday’s neighbor. Hartzman frequently sees Dave Portner, more commonly known as Animal Collective’s Avey Tare, in the grocery store, though “I don’t think he’s registered who I am.”

Despite the inexorable march of gentrification, or rather because of it, Asheville is unlikely to become a scene in and of itself, even to the same extent that Chapel Hill was in the mid-’90s thanks to bands like Superchunk and Archers of Loaf. “The comforting thing about living in Asheville is that it’s hard to have a big head here because we live in the same fucking house in the same fucking town,” Hartzman says. Since forming in 2017, Wednesday has already witnessed most of the punks and art kids being driven out of the city. Hartzman and Lenderman say they’re already planning to move farther into the sticks once they inevitably get price gouged out of their current residence.

Perhaps their plans seem overly pessimistic in light of Wednesday’s current status. Though Rat Saw God was still over a month away from release when I caught up with the band, it had already been called one of the year’s defining records, one that will take over the world. After two LPs on beloved Chicago label Orindal Records (and the self-released 2018 debut yep definitely, which is no longer on streaming services), they’re now labelmates on Dead Oceans with Phoebe Bridgers, Japanese Breakfast, Mitski, and MUNA, all of whom … well, released defining indie records of the past three years and pretty much took over some corner of the world.

A real-deal indie rock band often (perhaps not accurately) described as “country-gaze” might seem a bit too regional or raw to match that kind of mainstream appeal. It’s been a great year for hardcore thus far, but I don’t think I’ll hear the human voice make an uglier sound in 2023 than the one Hartzman lets out toward the end of the nearly nine-minute “Bull Believer.” (Future productions of Mortal Kombat should be required to use her scream of “FINISH HIM” during fatality scenes.) But Rat Saw God is a rare Great Unifier; anyone who has identified as an indie rock fan in the past 30 or so years will find something to love here.

While delivered with a tiny bit of twang, Hartzman’s words twist, tumble, and curdle, bound by the satisfyingly counterintuitive melodies that typified the college rock happening a few hours east at Merge three decades ago. They’ve expertly covered Smashing Pumpkins and John Prine, touching on the alt-rock boosterism and wry country that are primary flavors of contemporary indie guitar music. While Hartzman appreciates the plausible deniability and ego camouflage of leading a band rather than a solo project, her lyrics are specific, unequivocally autobiographical and yet easily quotable as a listener’s own experience, much like those of her aforementioned Dead Oceans peers. Or, as someone who relentlessly repurposed Drive-By Truckers and Rilo Kiley lyrics about getting drunk and falling down in the street or a ditch on my LiveJournal in 2003, I see a modern analogue in the devastating punch line of “Chosen to Deserve”: “Now all the drugs are gettin’ kinda boring to me / Now everywhere is loneliness and it’s in everything.”

Most of that was true on 2021’s Twin Plagues, as well, Wednesday’s first album to feature Lenderman, and one that I remember being met with modest acclaim upon its release. And yet by the time it scratched out a few respectable placements on year-end lists, Wednesday had achieved a long-tail, word-of-mouth hype that might have been explained by rave reviews or exhaustive touring in years past. “We didn’t even realize [that success] was happening because our shows pre- and post-pandemic were suddenly different,” Hartzman recalls. “It was gradual, behind-the-scenes online. And then our first shows after the pandemic were like, ‘Damn … guess that’s sold out. That’s weird, why?’”

Miller concurs: “I had no idea that anyone we didn’t know personally would want to come see us.”

Now, this gets a little “time for some game theory,” but hear me out. To the same degree that some people sought art that reflected a new, fucked-up state of being during the onset of COVID, many went in the opposite direction. 2020 was a banner year for both disco and hardcore, two genres that are almost entirely reliant on the live, ecstatic collective experience. Wednesday likewise reminded people what had been taken from them, namely, “a good hang.” Witness the “Handsome Man” video from Twin Plagues or the in-studio foolery of “Bull Believer,” or extra bonus points for anyone who remembers Hartzman’s lovably goofy Fest-core band Diva Sweetly.

I know, I know—we’re less than a week into exhausting boygenius discourse around how much public performance of friendship should be considered an artistic quality. But it’s hard to deny that this stuff really does matter to an audience still starved for analog camaraderie and that it can be the basis for genuine, powerful songwriting. As far as what Wednesday thinks of the “good hang” allegations, “That’s one of my favorite compliments that we get,” Hartzman confirms. Throughout our time together, she gets interrupted as each member shares their favorite image from Rat Saw God. Lenderman likes when his leaps off a diving board are compared to a rusty can opener in “Formula One.” Chelmis is partial to the scene in “TV in the Gas Pump” in which he comes to in a Dollar General parking lot: “Xandy took mushrooms before a show in Nashville, and he was trying to microdose, but it was not a microdose,” Hartzman cracks.

As Miller sees it, “It would be impossible for us to not be best friends and not want to hang out,” and he’s been the only member of Wednesday whose contribution was threatened by a desk job before he quit his gig as a programmer over a year ago. “Karly’s music has always been good enough where it felt like [being a full-time band] was a possibility,” he says. Lenderman most recently worked at Ultimate Ice Cream, the sort of upscale farm-to-scoop creamery you can probably find in a neighborhood experiencing rent hikes. During the dead winter months, he’d play feel-bad slowcore titans Codeine as a means of preventing additional foot traffic. “It was such a heavy bad vibe in there. I’d do shit like that all the time,” he deadpans, before teasing an upcoming solo project titled The Many Flavors of MJ Lenderman. Even throughout Hartzman’s time at UNC–Asheville, “being in a band was the only option for me, which is good because it forced me to figure it out.”

For all the good vibes, Wednesday’s bonds have been tested of late; though Margo Schultz is featured on the album cover, she’s no longer in the band, in a way that seems very “off the record.” After last year’s SXSW, they posted a balance sheet from a tour through the South that left them $98.39 in the red. An initial expression of solidarity from bands who’ve experienced the fucked-up economics of indie rock touring ensued, but Wednesday soon found itself at the center of an extremely online and very tiresome debate about “get in the van” ethics and how much suffering bands should be expected to endure in the name of “DIY.”

One thing that somehow didn’t disrupt Wednesday’s unity was the success of Lenderman’s solo album Boat Songs—a collection of beer-goggled blue-collar rock that name-checked “tables, ladders, and chairs” cage matches, Dan Marino, Michael Jordan, and Jackass. In The Ringer’s Best Albums of 2022 recap, Rob Harvilla memorably described Boat Songs as “Jason Molina with an Athletic subscription,” and understandably, Lenderman has noticed that “a lot of people like to make this joke that it’s music for dudes,” before adding, “and it totally is.” In the interest of challenging this reputation, Miller recommends titling his next album Sportsball.

Nevertheless, Boat Songs has inspired a new and only somewhat awkward dynamic at Wednesday gigs. As Hartzman explains it to Lenderman, “You get a little semicircle of boys who want to kiss your ass after every show, and there’s always two girls like, ‘I think I’m in love with you’ that don’t know we’re dating.” Then again, she sees this as hilarious rather than threatening. “Like damn, I’m dating a hottie. A hot boy that girls wanna smooch.”

As much as Rat Saw God is about the wreckage of the past, the relationship between Hartzman and Lenderman serves as the album’s beating heart. Take the one “sports” song that Boat Songs fans might expect to be a Lenderman number. Instead, “Formula One” is Hartzman’s short and sweet tribute to her peak-pandemic ritual of falling asleep while the self-described “Drive to Survive–pilled” Lenderman watched the Netflix docuseries. The subsequent “Chosen to Deserve” is an outright barroom anthem about the etiquette of emotional dumping. “We always started by tellin’ all our best stories first / So now that it’s been awhile I’ll get around to tellin’ you all my worst,” she sings to her partner while questioning whether we’re cosmically predetermined to be with the ones we love or actively attract similar energies.

Of course, by “worst,” she means “most embarrassing,” which in turn means that they are some of her best stories. Yet underneath the communal warmth and beer-hoisting uplift is a question that’s touched on quite often in heartland rock of this sort, stretching from “Summer of ’69” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” to Southern Rock Opera to, possibly, Rat Saw God: How do you move on if you’re too attached to the stories of the past? “I’ll be able to talk about my present life at some point,” Hartzman admits. “But so far I’ve only gotten this far in my timeline, so I’m still stuck in high school.”

Ian Cohen is a writer and registered dietitian living in San Diego. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, and Grantland.