By Kristy Diaz
Photo: Julia Leiby
Like arguing on the internet, avocado toast, and the existential crises brought on by late-stage capitalism, nothing feels more 2018 than a band with five members who live in separate states; sharing tracks, with individual sections written from dorm rooms and Brooklyn apartments.
Forth Wanderers grew out of Montclair High School in New Jersey, formed of a once-crush (on the part of guitarist Ben Guterl) but now well-formed friendship between himself and co-writer Ava Trilling. The band was already in its early stages at this point, with “the boys” (including drummer Zach Lorelli, guitarist Duke Greene and Noah Schifrin on bass) in what Trilling describes as a “not so serious” band before Guterl approached her by sending some guitar demos on GarageBand. Trilling then put down lyrics and melody and it “flourished into this, I guess,” she says nonchalantly, like their high school band recently signing to one of the most prominent indie labels in the world wasn’t so huge a deal.
Having released their second album Forth Wanderers with Sub Pop in April, their rapid success – much like their slacker indie-pop style – feels much more happenchance than deliberate, but undoubtedly aided by their impossibly youthful talent. “We were constantly playing around New Jersey and the New York area, Connecticut… house shows with older kids that we knew from Rutgers University. The goal was ultimately to get more listeners and more fans, and obviously we wanted to play bigger shows and at the top venues, but I don’t think we had a system to get there,” says Trilling. “We were just screwing around, and it just kind of happened.”
Around the release of their debut album, 2014’s Tough Love, there was a turning point. “People would reach out to us, and we started [thinking] ‘people really like our music’. As we got more listeners and more feedback on our album, that’s when we thought, okay maybe we can do something with this. This isn’t just a high school band, let’s really try.”
After signing with a manager, discovered through the Baby’s All Right venue the band regularly played in Brooklyn, a number of labels reached out. Forth Wanderers released their acclaimed 2016 EP, Slop, through indie label Father Daughter Records (home to Diet Cig, Vagabon) before Sub Pop approached them – all whilst the band members were in college. “Our main priority was school, and signing with different labels can mean they want you to tour a bunch, so it wouldn’t have worked out well, but Sub Pop was super school-friendly,” Trilling says.
Forth Wanderers was recorded over five days during school breaks with vocals last, and separately, to the rest of the band. “It’s stressful because we had to find the time to do it and we wrote the record when we were still at school. Ben was sending me songs, and I’m sending him my vocals and lyrics and melodies back and forth, and then we would send it to the band. We never practised – I don’t think we even really played together that much before we recorded it. Zach learned some parts on the drive over.”
It’s typical of the ‘tin can’ approach to songwriting the band operates. Being at such distance, with very little real-world songwriting or practice time, each member works on their own sections: “We practice individually, I put my headphones in and listen to the tracks over and over again and sing along to our record, or some instrumentals that I have.”
That approach isn’t new, however, and is reminiscent of their now defunct labelmates The Postal Service, who named themselves after that very method of writing a record – albeit on a more analogue basis appropriate to the early 00s. Whilst writing and recording that way, given the advances in technology, isn’t necessarily too complicated, how does the band remain tight in a live setting without significant practice time? “The first couple of shows sometimes aren’t so tight,” Trilling laughs. “We do our best.”
“We all get home from school at different times, then we have to go to the first place that we’re going to, so we try and get as many songs in at soundcheck as possible. That’s really what it is.”
When asked whether that dynamic takes away from the feeling of being in a band, Trilling concedes that whilst it is different compared with the togetherness of high school, she has always been a slightly separate entity. “I think maybe it takes away,” she says. “We’re all really tight but the guys have been best friends since they were young and I came in separately… when they hang out with their friends, they’re hanging out with the band, and I have my own group of friends.”
It is easy to forget, owing to the depth of her vocal delivery, that when the band first started Trilling was only 14. “I think that we have all matured musically, melodically, lyrically. I feel like my lyrics in the first EP or the first few records were kind of naïve, not in a bad way, just ‘cause I was,” she emphasises. Musically, in writing the new record, they’ve abandoned the more math and emo elements of their early songwriting for a more dense, chunky indie-rock: “less noodly, more rocky, maybe a little more pop sounding.”
“The process of how I write hasn’t changed, I guess it’s just what I want to express has changed.” Trilling writes to discover what she’s feeling, rather than waiting to feel something and then write about it, her stream of consciousness like a form of therapy, drawing out self-discovery in the process. “I just write whatever comes and spew out a few different words and lines I think sound good and put it together, and it unfolds and becomes a way for me to realise what I’ve been feeling.”
On Forth Wanderers, those feelings fluctuate quickly between self-confidence and insecurity. The melancholy of “flowers bloom but not for me” on ‘Not For Me’ a world away from self-assured opener ‘Nevermine’: “I am the one you think of when you’re with her/And what do you have?/Nothing on me.”
“That’s one of the more confident songs on the album,” says Trilling. “It’s either sad and lonely and really down on myself and insecure, and the other side is narcissistic and petty and overconfident, and there’s no in-between.”
However, the album’s highlight, ‘Taste’, brings these polarised thoughts together, her confidence and vulnerability converging as she yearns “I can’t stand his face/But I like his feel/I’m all over the place/He thinks I’m the real deal”. It builds a complex and intense narrative of desire which sees the band’s high-school diary angst of old graduate into one of 2018’s most accomplished indie records.
It’s clear they had something to prove. “This is the record that we want to put out, and we want to show people how we’ve grown from five years ago,” Trilling asserts. But for her, the record has additional meaning: “I was going through a tough time, and writing these songs was such a great way to express myself and get all my emotions and feelings out in a creative way. I fell in love with the songs we were writing and felt really connected to them, so my goal was that people relate to this, feel connected and like someone feels the same way.”
But, making art that is both cathartic to create and relatable to listeners in a meaningful way isn’t necessarily a comfortable ride, especially in addition to the challenges the band have faced: distance, competing priorities, and the rapid growth experienced throughout formative teenage years as a result of their determination. Even having achieved levels of success the band had once dreamed of, when writing the record, Trilling described feeling like “life goes on, but I’m not part of the good stuff.” Their ‘high school band done good’ story – whilst true – is a little more complicated than that; neither linear nor effortless.
(Following the release of the record, the band announced the cancellation of their US tour, and later, the rest of their 2018 schedule, due to Trilling being diagnosed with a mental health issue. You can read the band’s full statement here, and we wish Ava all the best in her recovery.)