Calpurnia: teenage dreams, so hard to beat…
It’s 9:03pm on a Tuesday night and three quarters of Calpurnia are talking about the sorts of things you’d expect a group of teenagers to be talking about. They’ve just got to the topic of how they have left at school before the freedom of summer holidays when there’s a beep on the line and their final member joins us. “Sorry I’m late, I just got in from work,” says Finn Wolfhard. That’s a subtle reminder that these teens also have very different things going on compared to your typical 15-17 year olds.
The work he’s referring to, of course, is playing Mike Wheeler in global phenomenon Stranger Things. It’s filming the third season that means he’s all they way down in Atlanta instead of back home in Vancouver with the rest of his bandmates, and the attention he’s gotten from the show is largely what’s facilitated the group making moves from guitarist Ayla Tesler-Mabe’s basement to playing sold out shows in the US and, now, putting out an EP with the support of two well-respected labels (Royal Mountain in North America and Transgressive/Paradyse in the UK).
Calpurnia isn’t a hollow project designed to cash in on Stranger Things’ success, though. It’s a band of likeminded music diehards the universe has been very favourable to so far. They’re best friends who will be chatting about their group obsession with The Beatles one minute, and mercilessly teasing each other for one comment made weeks before the next – today, it’s bassist Jack Anderson’s turn for comparing songwriting to moulding a lump of clay in another interview. “What’s up with you and pottery?!” Finn asks after another light dig at his bandmate, to which the line erupts into a chorus of laughter, crackling like someone downing an entire packet of Pop Rocks.
“Most of the fans of Calpurnia are Stranger Things fans, which is not a big deal at all,” singer and guitarist Finn says, growing more serious. “They’re super loyal and incredible, and really do like the music. It’s the people who aren’t fans of the music and are just there because of Stranger Things that really bother me.”
“Hecklers shout, ‘I love Stranger Things!’ I’m like, ‘Cool man, I also like music, which is what’s happening right now’”– Finn Wolfhard
He’d like to distance the band from the TV show as much as possible, but also readily admits that’s a challenge for the whole group – especially while the show is still running. “We’re all at peace with it,” he says, as long as they don’t have to deal with some of the heckling they’ve been served in the past. The band made their live debut at a benefit show in LA last year and it took all of 30 seconds for the ST references to make an appearance. “I remember going up on stage and plugging in [my guitar] to tune and hearing, ‘Where’s your girlfriend Eleven?'” Finn recalls. “I got one at Toronto and shut them down super hard – in a nice way. They said something like, ‘I love Stranger Things’ and I was like, ‘Cool man, I also like music, which is what’s happening right now.'”
Finn’s interest in music has long been documented via Twitter video covers of Mac DeMarco and Nirvana, and appearing in a music video for Canadian band Pup, where he met drummer Malcolm Craig. The hope is that once the band have a few songs out in the world and people can see what they’re actually about – fun indie-rock jams rather than running from Demogorgons – the actor Finn Wolfhard will start to be separated from the musician Finn Wolfhard. Calpurnia’s debut EP ‘Scout’ is arriving right on time, then. It’s an eclectic first step – one that’s full of promise and some very good songs. “What’s super cool is that all of the six songs on the EP are the first six songs we’ve written together,” reveals Ayla, adding that they’ve developed some kind of group intuition that makes songwriting a doddle.
“I’ve never been confident enough to write songs on my own before,” Finn chimes in. “I didn’t know what I was doing until I hooked up with everyone else. We don’t want to make it seem like we rushed this record or anything, but we’re just progressive people and we work super fast.”
The results certainly don’t sound rushed. ‘Wasting Time’ is a twist on The Beatles’ early sound, a gargantuan guitar solo transplanted slap bang in the middle, and ‘Waves’ is beautifully gloomy with the tiniest psychedelic edge. The sombre ‘Greyhound’ tells the story of someone taking a trip to a show in Seattle in tribute to a lost loved one as a “send-off”. The first half is rooted in Jack’s own experience. “I skipped school and went to the Neptune Theatre in Seattle to see Joe Jackson, who’s my favourite musician ever,” he says proudly. Whoever said playing hooky wouldn’t get you anywhere?
‘City Boy’, a lo-fi garage rock cut, also shows hints of the nuanced songwriting Calpurnia are growing into. “When you answer to a bunch of dudes, you should run away,” drawls Finn in its second verse. Although he says he didn’t write that line with the intention of talking about sexism and equality, it’s gained meaning over time. “I just had a picture of someone in a newsroom or something – an intern getting coffee for a bunch of guys,” he says. “There’s no women. If you watch an ’80s movie, it’s a control room full of just men. You don’t get uncomfortable, but it’s like, ‘Did they hire women back then?!'”
To record the EP, the four headed to Chicago for a much more exclusive, exciting version of the rock camp where Finn and Malcolm first met Ayla. They spent 10 days working with Cadien Lake James, the frontman of one of their favourite bands Twin Peaks, but had originally planned to record themselves in Ayla’s basement. Then came the news that Royal Mountain (Mac DeMarco, Pup, Alvvays) wanted to work with them, which Finn kept to himself until the end of their next rehearsal.
“Sometimes they let me clap the board at the beginning of a take. I get so excited when I do that”– Finn Wolfhard
“He was like, ‘Oh, by the way, I sent some of our demos to Royal Mountain and they really like our stuff and want to put us in touch with Cadien, and wanna talk about making a record,'” Jack remembers. “I didn’t really believe it at the time cos the whole concept of a record deal was so ridiculous to me.” Malcolm, meanwhile, explains his reaction much more relatably: “I remember going home with nausea and panic.”
They all agree, once the panic subsided, working in the studio was the best experience of their lives and “almost like being in music school”. Over the phone a few days later, Cadien is just as positive about their time together. “Their demos reminded me so much of making demos in my bedroom when I was a kid,” he says, explaining he and Finn bonded over text before they decided to work together. “It was honestly such a blast. I was nervous, with their age, if they’d be able to pull it off, but it was all really easy. They were naturals in the studio. They’ve got a lot of talent.”
There’s a curiosity and freshness to Calpurnia that you hope doesn’t fade away as they get old. They talk a mile a minute and even faster when they get excited about something, which is often, be that Jack fixing up old vintage guitars, Ayla having “the best naps of my life” in the studio’s vibe room, or Finn weighing up whether he’ll ever quit acting to do music full time. “I love learning on set, it’s the best acting school ever,” he says. “Sometimes as a joke they’ll let you clap the board [at the beginning of a take] and I get so excited when I do that. The things I want to focus on are music, writing, directing, and developing stuff. I love acting, of course, and I would still love to keep acting, but I want to try my hands at so many things.”
Next up – more sold out shows and their first festival appearances while they’re on their summer break. If they’re anything like their first “proper” shows earlier this year, they’ll be chaotic fun, full of One Direction-level fandom (every song, comment or strum at their New York show in January was quickly followed by very loud, very piercing screams). Where some might find that level of excitement annoying, they’re into it so far. “It’s electrifying being on stage and having all those people there so excited to hear your music,” Ayla, who is already poised to become a guitar hero with her nonchalant but flawless shredding, says.
One show the band are trying to not make happen, though, is an invite from Shrek soundtrackers Smash Mouth. “We talk about them constantly,” explains Finn, starting on a mini spiel about them. “They’re kind of a meme band and no one takes them seriously. It’s just a funny joke, but they are musicians. When you start thinking about it, they play live and they probably work pretty hard.”
To cut a long story short, Smash Mouth somehow found out how much Finn brings them up in conversation and tweeted at him to play a show together. “I immediately texted the guys like, ‘I’ve gone too far. I’ve gone too deep into the rabbit hole. We’ve gotta stop.’ And we haven’t talked about Smash Mouth since.”
At this point, Smash Mouth need Calpurnia far more than Calpurnia need Smash Mouth, and that chasm is only going to get bigger as the teens continue. They say they’ve no specific goals for the band, they just want to carry on doing what they’re doing. “That I’m able to be in this band with my best friends and live the dream is pretty amazing,” Ayla says. They may be more laidback about everything that’s happening to them than your average person would be, but don’t underestimate them – they’re ready to step out of the shadow of Finn’s other job and make you say, “Stranger what?”