a Q&A with Grave Babies’ Danny Wahlfeldt

Back in 2011, Grave Babies released the Pleasures 7" and with it’s densely layered, murky, dissonant and punishingly loud sound was one of the most interesting albums I had come across that year. In fact, it landed at number 15 on this site’s Best of List for 2011. 

February 26th marked the much anticipated release date for the band’s full-length debut, Crusher through Seattle’s Hardly Art Records. The album title is particularly apt as the album is a punishingly loud, aural assault.  Although the production process behind the album is much more streamlined from Pleasures, the material on Crusher manages to posses a palpable tension between gloomy, scuzzy, grime and an overwhelming sense of unadulterated joy. As lead singer and Grave Babies founder Danny Wahlfeldt told me in this interview, it stems from seeing “chaos and order at the same time." 

I managed to catch Wahlfedlt during the period between the official release of Crusher and during the early part of the band’s tour to support their full-length debut. And in this Q&A, Wahlfeldt explains how one can be influenced by bad art, the concept behind the eerie video for the band’s latest single "Skulls,” and more. He also talks about his first band, an unusual Nirvana cover band in which he played “rhythm guitar,” the band’s first proposed name and much more. 

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Photo Credit: Angel Ceballos 

WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that it was something you had to pursue? 

DW:I got into music as a kid around the age of 10. I had a really good friend that had this weird advanced appreciation for pop stars like Michael Jackson and Elvis, and he would emulate them. He did a Michael Jackson performance in our 4th grade talent show that ended with him throwing his hat into the crowd, and it was too cool to see him performing like that and I was so impressed and had no idea how he was so into this thing that I didn’t know anything about, so we started hanging out more. He played guitar and had a black, Squier Stratocaster so I absolutely had to have an electric guitar so I started taking lessons on my dad’s brother’s classical guitar until it was my 10th birthday and I asked for and got to pick out my own red, Squier Stratocaster. I took lessons until the teacher said he had nothing left to teach me, and I’d just bring in my Nirvana cassettes and have him teach me every song. While I was taking lessons this same friend of mine started a band that played only Nirvana covers. Somehow I talked my way into playing what we called “rhythm guitar” in his band, which didn’t make any sense because there was only one guitar part in any Nirvana song. That was how I was introduced to playing music with a band and understanding music, how songs were structured, by learning and rehearsing Nirvana songs and it taught me a lot. The Nirvana cover band ended for who knows what reason, we were 11… So, I stopped playing music completely really from middle school through high school. It wasn’t until I was in college and I became really bored with life that I wasn’t sure what to do with myself, and I got the idea to try and use recording software my dad had to perform and record songs. I didn’t have any experience with actually recording music at that point but that would have been the next step for me at age 11… I feel like I picked up where I had left off when I was 11 in a lot of ways. I then wanted to make my recordings [with] a real band and just kept going. I never really thought too much about what I would do next with my life, that was it. I think I was making music so I wouldn’t have to think about what to do next with my life. 

WRH: How did the band meet?

DW:Tyler, who plays synth, was my roommate when I first moved to Capitol Hill [a neighborhood in Seattle, WA] after moving to Seattle. We were both in similar places in life and both interested in going to shows and interested in music in general, so we began to hang out a lot. I was making music and recording before I moved to Seattle and just continued to do so when I moved here. As I was creating what was becoming Grave Babies it seemed like a great idea for him to play synth to fill out the bass section for a live show. We performed as a live band that way for about a year, playing house shows and bars. Through doing that for some time we eventually met Keith who offered to us on a couple occasions to fill the drums out by accompanying our drum machine with live drums. That was the obvious next step for a live band, we’d thought about it already, so once it happened it was perfect. The band only sounds better the longer we’ve been playing together but that’s probably to be expected. The next step beyond that was to add a bass player as that was the last piece of the puzzle to creating a live band that matched the recorded band. Our very good friend Mitch joined on bass in a similar way to Keith on drums, and that was a beautiful sound to add and have. It didn’t quite work out with touring and we went back to a 3 piece with Tyler’s synth getting more complicated to better fill in the low’s and high’s. We always seem to have to get creative to match the live sound with the songs as they’re written and recorded. 

WRH: Who are your influences? 

DW:Grave Babies is a unique thing in my imagination I feel but there’s a lot of bands that have influenced me in terms of how I personally approach art and creating music, songs and a band. It would be everything from Roy Orbison, Elvis to Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, lots of 90’s “alt-rock” that I grew up, even all the 2000’s girl/boyband stuff, 90’s and 2000’s R&B stuff… a lot of rap… I see all of that in Grave Babies somewhere. I like to pull from my own imagination of what a band or artist is like and use that as an inspiration. Even if something is totally god-awful, you can mock it with your art and it’d still be considered the inspiration. It’s about how you learn from art and you can learn amazing things from really bad art. 

WRH: How would you describe your sound? 

DW: Loud. Our sound is loud. Its kind of like running through a small tunnel at times or being on a roller coaster. 

WRH: How did you come up with the band’s name? Did you have any other band names in mind? 

DW: Vitamin Baby Slaughter was a band name I wanted to go with. Tyler and I deliberated for a month or so on a band name before we found one that rolled off the tongue just right.  

WRH: Who are you listening to now?

DW: Right now I’m listening to Lil Ugly Mane.

WRH: Crusher seems to be a peculiarly apt name for your new album. the material is a punishingly loud and intense aural assault. Did you have the title in mind first and the material just fit the title – or did you have the material and the title just came upon you? 

DW: It was originally called “Crush” but that didn’t seem to fit. Toward the end as the record came together it seemed obvious to call it “Crusher”. I was thinking of even calling it “Crusherer” but that seemed a little too much. It’s hard to draw the line with Grave Babies sometimes…  

WRH: How does Crusher differ from the Pleasures 7"?

DW: The music on the Pleasures single was a big step conceptually and with regard to song-writing. Production wise, Crusher is more streamlined and I always try and follow a trend of better, more complex or “interesting” song-writing even though everything is kept very simple. Crusher follows that trend and fits together as it’s own piece of art. 

WRH: How does the songwriting process work for you? Does one or more members of the band come to the rehearsal space or the studio with material in various degrees of completion with the idea that everyone else helps flesh out ideas when necessary?  

DW: For the most part, songwriting and recording happen at the same time. I’ll go to the basement with nothing or a loose idea and try and flesh it out as a song, a whole song recorded and finished in less than 4 or 5 hours is usually the goal. I’m pretty upset if it doesn’t happen. It will ruin my day a lot of times. 

WRH Through both the Pleasures 7" and Crusher, the band has quickly developed a reputation for possessing a sound that’s quite gloomy and filled with such sturm und drang (storm and stress). How much of that is based on actual life experience and those of others you know? 

DW: Well for me personally I had a lot of stress, anxiety and depression after I graduated from high school and through college. I don’t want to sound like a pussy or anything because I feel like everyone feels that way, at some point or at that time specifically, but it was such a shock to life as I knew it that it definitely effected my outlook on life and the world around me. All of that is at the heart of the reason I started making music how I did and when I did. And why the music I make is consistently similar in a lot of those ways.  

WRH: Songs like “Over and Under” “No Fear” and a few others on the album are perhaps the most anthemic songs I’ve heard from you guys to date. Despite the gloominess, the scuzziness of your overall there’s this overwhelming joyous feel. To me it creates this palpable, discordant tension. I can imagine that some listeners unfamiliar to your sound may find that disturbing and yet kind of thrilling. From what I’ve read this is intentional, isn’t it? And what exactly is the influence behind it?  

DW: I think that’s just how I view the world and it makes complete sense to me. I see chaos and order at the same time. Like most people are full of shit but totally honest at the same time and that’s totally possible and totally real and there’s nothing wrong with that. I feel like people get so worked about everything but then do nothing about it and that’s just the way it is and that’s fine, it doesn’t matter. We get so caught up defending the world in our imagination that we can’t even see anything for what it is.  

WRH: I recently saw the video for “Skulls” and it was by far one of the strangest and unsettling videos I’ve seen in recent memory – and it also manages to evoke the creepy, unsettling feel that the song has. What exactly is the concept behind it? And whose idea was it? 

DW: I’m surprised you deemed any of that to be unsettling. Our friend (Emily Denton) made that video and it was her idea and concept. She picked the song from the record and had visions of what she wanted to do so she went forward in creating it. We hung out a few times and talked about her concept, and what would need to happen and it came together very well. I don’t want to get it wrong, but I remember her concept was somewhat indescribable. The band was to be playing and I was to be singing and it was woven in with this story of the character suffering some bizarre moment of disease or something unknown to the audience. It could either be some literal, biological problem or a representation of something psychological with the character but it’s never quite discerned to the audience at the conclusion of the video. The story progresses and climaxes with the character returning somewhat to it’s original state, while displaying the flower as a reminder of the struggle the character just went through, figuratively and showing the character obviously reflecting on it’s experience. I think it’s representative of the art in general and the song itself.

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? 

DW: Hmmmmm…….. Hey, hey, hey, hey… Smoke weed everyday.