“I was basically a little kid when I did all that stuff,” Finn Wolfhard, the Stranger Things megastar who will turn 19 next month, says from his home in LA. He’s not looking back at those first few seasons of the hit Netflix show, in which he plays child Demogorgon-buster Mike Wheeler, but on the musical side of his career so far. It’s a week before the release of his debut album with The Aubreys – the band he fronts alongside drummer and best mate Malcolm Craig – but Wolfhard can’t talk about that project without addressing the end of their original band, Calpurnia.
That group – which also featured Craig, plus guitarist Ayla Tesler-Mabe and bassist Jack Anderson – took Wolfhard from TV sensation dabbling in indie rock to established musician on the rock scene. But Calpurnia was short-lived. They released one EP together – 2018’s ‘Scout’ – and played a handful of sold-out, scream-filled shows before calling it quits in 2019. The singer and guitarist’s already considerable fame made it difficult to commit full time, especially when they were blowing up so quickly.
“I think I did feel like I was holding back or letting down the rest of Calpurnia,” he tells NME, two years on from the split. “I was also just kind of tired. I didn’t want music to become something I resented.”
Thankfully, his bandmates “understood” the decision. It wasn’t a messy break-up. And although those first forays into the industry didn’t work out, they did teach him a valuable lesson. “It shaped how music should be, what it should feel like [for me],” he says. “It should feel fun and it should be a release – a thing that you can escape to and feel like you have a voice and feel like you’re collaborating with people.”
Perhaps that’s why Calpurnia never made an album, and why The Aubreys have. Where Calpurnia had the backing of big indie labels like Royal Mountain and Transgressive, The Aubreys are keeping things DIY and low-pressure. The duo initially started out as a fun distraction, before blossoming into a fully-fledged project.
“I’m really proud of Calpurnia, but I also look back and cringe”
“We’re designing exactly what we want our career to be,” Wolfhard says of taking back control. “If I wasn’t acting, maybe [working with] a label would make sense, but sometimes with labels you can start to be pushed in a certain direction. With self-releasing, the band always comes first and so does creativity. Sometimes it can get a little more muddled when you have more people that you’re trying to make money for.”
While there was charm to Calpurnia’s ‘Scout’ EP, ‘Karaoke Alone’ is undoubtedly several steps up – a lo-fi indie record that playfully skips through sounds and styles as Wolfhard and Craig share their feelings on life and love. “[The songs on ‘Scout’] were my first ever songs,” Wolfhard says with a slight sigh. “It was almost like experimenting, but in front of the whole world. I’m really proud of all that stuff but I also look back and I cringe.”
Wolfhard is three years older now, and has worked hard on his songwriting. He also says a “healthy existentialism” has allowed him to know more about who he really is – as well as how to put that authentic worldview into words and melodies.
“Literally none of the songs on the Calpurnia EP were drawn from personal experience at all,” he says. “I feel like now I really draw from personal experience and try to write how I feel. I didn’t really know how to do that at that point. I think I was too young to figure it out.”
Recorded in Chicago with engineer Andrew Humphrey and Cadien Lake James and Colin Croom (of Canadian rockers Twin Peaks), ‘Karaoke Alone’ is Wolfhard’s best work yet. His encyclopaedic knowledge and unrelenting appetite for music has led to a record that’s chock-full of different, diverse influences. It was inspired largely by New Zealand cult act The Clean, as well as other bands tied to the Kiwis’ “Dunedin sound”. You can hear fragments of ‘60s girl groups, noughties NYC garage rock and rustic country folk as well.
“The Aubreys’ new album is Wilco, The Flaming Lips and LCD Soundsystem blended together”
“Wilco was a huge inspiration,” says Wolfhard, getting excited as he rattles off the artists that impacted the album. “So were The Flaming Lips. Our producers are super into Japanese synth bands like Yellow Magic Orchestra, so all of the sounds on the album are inspired by that band – and LCD Soundsystem. Even though our album sounds nothing like their music, we were also listening to a lot of The Hives. It’s all those things blended together.”
Music and acting, too, have always been blended together for Wolfhard. His love of both was encouraged from a young age by his parents. Car journeys were always filled with classic albums – and his screenwriter dad passed down a passion for movies to Finn and his brother. He says he’s often asked which ambition – to be an actor or musician – first bubbled up inside him. But he can’t answer because they happened at the same time. “I remember seeing The Beatles’ movies like Help! And A Hard Day’s Night and being like: ‘Oh my god, they’re acting and they’re in a band – that’s amazing!’” he recalls.
Soon after, Stranger Things came calling and turned his life upside down – but he’s adamant that part of his world can co-exist with the other. It’s something he’s proving by releasing ‘Karaoke Alone’ in the same month that his biggest blockbuster yet, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, hits cinemas.
“It’s two sides of the same coin,” he says, before describing how his top-rotation tunes often inspire his performances on camera. “I always listen to music on the way to set, and on the way back from set – that’s a routine that I have without realising it. If I have a scene that’s more energetic, I’ll listen to punk music to get me [in the zone], or music that’ll jack me up like loud rap or whatever.
“[On Ghostbusters], I was listening to a lot of singer-songwriter stuff like Wilco – very ‘take it easy’ music, so I felt that way going to set every day.”
“Hanging out with Bill Murray was like being in a dream”
The original Ghostbusters film is one that Wolfhard describes as “a big movie for him”. “My dad would quote it all the time,” he says, grinning at the memory. “It was a huge part of growing up. Being in the new one doesn’t feel real, I still haven’t figured it out yet.”
It’s unsurprising, really. Wolfhard spent much of the film’s shoot hanging out with Paul Rudd, Sigourney Weaver and Dan Aykroyd. It sounds like any teenager’s dream. He nods his head in agreement. “I was explaining to someone today that if I were to tell them my Bill Murray story, it sounds like a dream,” he says, before doing just that. “I was sitting between Bill Murray and Annie Potts on the couch, talking about a music festival. If I were to say, ‘I had a dream last night where I was sitting there talking about this festival with Bill Murray’, you would believe that was a dream.”
He admits that being around such big names is something you do get used to, but doesn’t take those opportunities for granted. And while Murray didn’t give him any advice in particular, Wolfhard tried to pick up new skills just by watching him on set. “I learned so much,” he says gratefully. “It was pretty amazing.”
When Wolfhard talks about his time on any set, you get the impression he is constantly absorbing and observing, keen to learn absolutely everything about the craft. It makes sense – he has designs on becoming a filmmaker himself. He’s already written and directed a short film called Night Shifts, and is currently working on his first feature-length film. “It’s a horror-comedy-slasher movie that takes place at a camp,” he says, keeping the rest of the details close to his chest for now.
Before we get the chance to see his own cinematic vision, the hotly anticipated fourth season of Stranger Things will have arrived. He’s already trailed the new episodes in interviews, calling them “messed up” and teasing that things are about to get “incredibly dark” in Hawkins. When we take the opportunity to needle him face-to-face, he’s similarly vague: “The Duffer Brothers are at a point where, as the characters grow our audiences grows with them. That’s really nice and we can start to get a little more scary and kind of horror-related. There are a lot more gross things, for sure.”
“The new season of ‘Stranger Things’ is a lot more gross”
Of his character Mike’s storyline, he will only be drawn to share one tidbit – a morsel that he reveals only after a long ponder: “I’ll just say he’s visiting someone…”
With the return of Stranger Things finally on the horizon, his debut album out imminently and tons more iconic projects lined up, it seems like both avenues of Wolfhard’s career are in a place most 18-year-olds could only dream about. “I’m at the point where I’m very lucky to be doing things that I really like,” he agrees. “I’m proud of that and I hope people keep hiring me, but I’m having fun for sure.”
The Aubreys release their debut album, ‘Karaoke Alone’, on November 5. ‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ hits AU cinemas on January 1, 2022.