INTERVIEW: Sad looks and sounds pretty on Rivals

INTERVIEW: Sad looks and sounds pretty on Rivals

Photo credit: Matt Bender

Ahead of Rivals’ upcoming album release, ‘Sad Looks Pretty on Me’, out 19th March, we sat down with lead singer Kalie Wolfe to chat about the creative process, the concept behind the music videos, and comparing the band to Paramore.

Comprised of Kalie on vocals, Sebastian Clarke on bass, Micket Woodle on guitar, and Josh Alves on drums, the genre-diverse quartet are arguably L.A.’s best kept secret. With a discography spanning post-hardcore to pop punk to dark alt pop, Rivals’ sonic eclecticism makes them a standout from their peers and poised to capture the attention of fans at both the heart and periphery of alternative music; there is quite literally something for everyone here.

Since their debut onto the scene in 2015, the band continues to go from strength to strength, and nothing highlights this more than the recent bout of releases off of their hotly anticipated second album, which have been met with strong enthusiasm from their fanbase in a time where we’re limited to the online realm as an indicator of success over physical ticket sales: 

I was extremely unsure of how it was gonna go considering Coronavirus and everything”, Kalie shared. “And typically when we release a record, we get to tour on that record. And that’s probably not gonna be a possibility for at least a year, so it’s definitely strange not being in constant communication with my agent trying to find tours and thinking about what we’re going to do. But it’s been great, especially fan-wise. Everyone’s excited and also, at the same time, confused like, “what are all these sounds!?”

Anyone familiar with Rivals’ last album in 2018, Damned Soul, has probably picked up on the drastic deviation in sound, leading to four new singles that are unique not only to the band’s prior work, but also to each other. 

Whilst ‘Lavenders’, ‘Strawberries’, and ‘Sad Looks Pretty on Me’ err more on the alt pop-punk side, ‘Fake Rich’ is the band’s reminder to us of their affinity for heavier undertones, with their next and final album single ‘Alkaline’, teased for release this week, looking to lean into this further. One commonality persists through each of these tracks, however, and that’s the sheer strength and passion of Wolfe’s vocals, often juxtaposing deep and introspective lyricism with an unexpectedly upbeat melody, making hard truths easy to hear. This all culminates in one question: how can we begin to predict what the album will sound like?!

We went everywhere. Poppy, emotional, uplifting, sad, we just…everywhere. We went everywhere,” Wolfe professes. “When we were writing it originally, it was very, how can we make this different? How can we make it more “all of us”?” Because we all really different, with completely different genres of what we listen to personally, so we just really wanted to be outside of our norm.

‘Fake Rich’ seems to exist as an ode to this sentiment, fully embracing the art of genre-blending with confessional snarls over hip hop percussions, followed by a metalcore breakdown. This hard-hitting melodic foundation makes it the perfect track on which to overlay a gruelling critique of materialism and social culture, as the lyrics proclaim: “Only feel good when others say they want me, please hit that like button, dear god I’m begging.”

Discussing how the song came about, Kalie recalled: “Our bass player really likes heavy music, and he just had this riff. And I heard it and was like, “that’s pretty cool! It’s heavy for us, but it’s pretty cool…” So he went to John Espy’s [producer], and they wrote ‘Fake Rich’. And I came in and I was like, “dang, this is sick. What’s a heavy topic that would make sense for the song?” I immediately thought, well, okay, what about the L.A. lifestyle? Like, how L.A. is the way that it is? Why it is the way that it is and, also, why I am the way that I am in respect to being materialistic.

And that breakdown? Well, that comes courtesy of Cane Hill’s Elijah Witt: “The bridge had this breakdown and I thought it wouldn’t make any sense for me to do something over that. But Elijah Witt has been a friend of ours for many years; we met through music. He was one of the first people in a band who cheered our band on, and so it kind of just made sense to have him on the track, if that makes sense. Like, it was more and more of a full circle scenario, where it just was like, well, he always cheered us on, so let’s just have him be a part of it…We definitely stepped out of our comfort zone on that one.”

The name of the album itself, ‘Sad Looks Pretty on Me’ draws its own poignance. Sharing the name with the record’s title track, it helps to set the tone of what’s to come from the get-go: “It was one of the first songs we wrote. I had something really bad in my life happened to me, and I was at a bar with a friend of mine and I was just sitting there kind of staring off into space, just existing. And he looked at me and was like, “you know, at least sounds pretty on you.” And I was like, “oh my god, can I have that?!” And so the phrase is what created that song. I worked so hard to get that phrase to somehow work in a song!

Perhaps helping to elevate the singles more so is the music videos that have accompanied them: four videos for four singles. As stand-alones, these capture the idiosyncrasies of each song, but as a collective watched in a particular order, the keen-eyed amongst you will have noticed that they tell one continuous intertwined story:

“My guitar player typically comes up with the ideas, and we’ve had this idea for a while of doing an overarching themed story that is somehow connected to each other, like in a realm. And he came up with the concept of the music videos, which starts with ‘Strawberries’; at the end of it, I die. And then ‘Fake Rich’ is essentially the transportation of your soul to heaven, but in the process, you end up trapped. And that’s when you end up in limbo for ‘Lavender’. And then I end up getting out and ending up in heaven, but heaven isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that’s why I end up leaving at the end.

For the latest of these video releases, ‘Strawberries’, you’d be given for seeing the explosion of pastel pink and thinking that this exists solely as a happy uplifting song: “That video was an interesting one because I knew I wanted to do something very bright because it’s our only song on the record that’s in a major key. So I was like, let’s keep it poppy, let’s go bright, let’s go extra with it. And then Micket is straight edge, but he was like, “well, what if we just take ‘strawberries’ like it’s acid or shrooms?” And I was like, “Yes! That sounds ridiculous!” There were concerns about whether it would work or not, but it does.”

But whilst the colourful and playful nature of the video might mask it at first, the single tackles the theme of addiction and the naive innocence that comes with self-destruction. The video and melody combined almost make you see the appeal of it, until it all comes crashing down at the end…

Despite the accolades Rivals have earned in their own rights, something any female-fronted band is no stranger to is the constant unwarranted barrage of comparisons to, well, just about every other female-fronted band, as if every front woman is forever doomed to live in the shadow of Paramore’s Hayley Williams. Breaking out of this pigeon-hole based on gender alone in a heavily male-dominated industry adds yet another layer of complexity to the everyday challenges of being a band. For Rivals, this is no different:

I’ve brought this up on many occasions on social media. I think what people forget is that Paramore more was compared to Avril Lavigne for probably 10 years or so and, after that, PVRIS was and still is compared to Paramore now. And even Avril Lavigne probably was compared to No Doubt! So I don’t think the cycle’s ever broken, and I don’t think you can escape it. I think you just accept it and you go this is my marketing pitch. Like, if you like Paramore or if you like PVRIS, you might like us. And if that’s what gets people to listen…I don’t enjoy it…but that’s how it goes. It’s just kind of one of those things that I learn to accept.

Conversations like these have seemingly become part of the norm in rock culture, however it’s hard to understand how these sort of comparisons still hold so much weight in a world where more and more women are not only entering, but slowly starting to dominate at the forefront of alternative music. One thing’s for certain, and it’s that the gender disparity evidently remains at the forefront of fans’ minds, and comparison comments serve as a stark reminder:

I think it’s just because rock is still so minimal in comparison to male-fronted bands, especially ones that are on a higher level. It’s like, you don’t have that many [women] there, and especially in different genres, like pop punk. You have Tonight Alive, Stand Atlantic all in one genre, and obviously at the highest point you have Paramore…but it’s hard. It’s just, I think the only thing women can do right now is just do you, because that’s all you can do really?

And whilst it’s easy to assume that every woman making alt music is likely to draw their inspiration from Paramore, for Kalie Wolfe, it comes from much more than that: “I really like Demi Lovato, Jessie J, Katy Perry. Bands-wise, I grew up with Panic! At The Disco. Fall Out Boy, Bring Me The Horizon, All Time Low, even Sleeping With Sirens. You know, I kind of went all over the place with it.

This varies to the rest of the band who each bring a unique musical background to the table, to which we owe Rivals’ own distinct sound: “Micket’s really into Avenged Sevenfold, Bring Me The Horizon as well – he likes a ton of stuff. Seb’s really into like, Architects, but he’s also really into rap which is why I feel ‘Fake Rich’ ended up the way it did, because he’s really into both heavy music and rap and he’s the one who wrote that song. And then Josh has the weirdest music taste in the world. He listens to Nordic folk music and black metal…he goes so all over the place…and Polka! He’s crazy.”

A lot of us have been turning to music as a distraction during these trying times, and Kalie is no different. So, who has she been listening to recently? “I’ve been super into BENEE. I love her. She is like, phenomenal. UPSAHL, Alina Baraz, Ashnikko…she’s great. Two Feet. I love Two Feet!” Honourable mentions also go out to Njomza, Hands Like Houses, and Chase Atlantic. 

‘Sad Looks Pretty on Me’ by Rivals comes out 19th March via Smartpunk Records. Pre-order the album here.

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