Rat Saw God, out 4/7 on Dead Oceans.
As a kid growing up in Greensboro, N.C., Karly Hartzman “always wanted to be in a band, but wasn’t,” she tells Billboard. By “going to every show I could and photographing shows and making zines,” she eventually landed in a pop-punk band in high school – “just kind of noodling around” on a microKORG synthesizer – before taking up songwriting and performing in earnest as a student at University of North Carolina Asheville in the mid-’10s. After buying her friend’s guitar in junior year, Hartzman “just kind of fucked around until I made a sound that sounded good,” she says. “I taught myself on a combination of watching live videos of other bands on YouTube and learning covers. I still haven’t had a lesson really – so I’m just kind of flying by the seat of my pants.”
Hartzman conceived alt-country project Wednesday in 2017, subsequently turning to peers in Asheville’s robust indie circuit to make it a proper band. The following year’s self-released yep definitely served as a test run, before the band — by then comprised of Hartzman, Xandy Chelmis (lap steel), Alan Miller (drums), Margo Schultz (bass) and Daniel Gorham (guitar), released I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone (“our first album, like with a label that we were excited about”) on Orindal in February 2020.
“The first time we felt validly like, ‘We’re doing music, this is a record we have on vinyl’ was right before the pandemic,” Hartzman says. “Our release show got canceled because of the pandemic. And then we weren’t playing any shows, [so we] had no idea how people felt about the album.”
Wednesday fuses traditional alt-rock hooks with enveloping shoegaze and country twang for music that’s both familiar and singular, and Hartzman’s evocative, specific songwriting draws on great country music storytellers – Drive-By Truckers, Lucinda Williams, “a lot of the outlaw country people” – who she credits for producing “some of the most amazing lyricism in the world.” Hartzman spent her North Carolina youth “hearing country songwriters ambiently kind of against your will, whether you liked it or not,” and spent years keeping the music at arm’s length due to its conservative cultural connotations. But she reconsidered her stance after discovering artists, like the Truckers, who “[embodied] the fact that you can enjoy country music and promote social justice.”
In 2022, Wednesday released a covers album, Moving the Leaves Instead of Piling ‘Em Up, that epitomized the band’s diverse interests, with songs by country legends (Gary Stewart, Roger Miller), alt-country greats (Vic Chesnutt, Drive-By Truckers), The Smashing Pumpkins, and contemporary Brooklyn DIY upstarts Hotline TNT. “We take all of the genres we do have influence from very seriously, and we have a deep love and appreciate for all of that music,” says Hartzman, describing the set as “less of us trying to replicate a sound and more us trying to do justice to where we’re from and how it influenced our taste.”
Another key element: Chelmis’ lap steel work, which took on a distinct character after he accidentally routed it through a distortion pedal and liked the sound. “He’s really revolutionizing that instrument,” Hartzman says. “When you tour with an instrument that is not just a regular guitar, I think it is really engaging, because it brings some of the magic back into music. Not knowing how something works as an audience member is one of the most fun experiences you can have — watching someone who has mastered this mysterious thing.”
With the pandemic raging in 2020, and little bearing on how much IWTTDYTS was or wasn’t catching on with audiences, Wednesday scored discounted studio time in Asheville and recorded Twin Plagues, which it released in August 2021. (Gorham departed Wednesday before the sessions and was replaced by Jake Lenderman.) When touring restarted and the band hit the road in support of the record, it was shocked by the way positive internet buzz had grown its real-life audiences. “We were like, ‘What the hell? When did this happen?’” Hartzman recalls. “It was very zero to 100 … very surreal. It felt like it didn’t happen fast, because it was years of standing still with the pandemic — but if you put the show before the pandemic next to a show after the pandemic, it’s a huge jump.”
The attention attracted more than just fans: Soon, Wednesday signed with Dead Oceans, the prominent indie label that has in recent years helped catapult Phoebe Bridgers, Mitski and Japanese Breakfast to stardom. (With a laugh, Hartzman describes Dead Oceans as “our Harvard, our reach label. I was like, ‘There is no f—king way.’”) The band returned to Asheville and holed up in a “fancy-schmancy studio” to record its Dead Oceans debut.
The resulting album, Rat Saw God, expands Twin Plagues’ rootsy scuzz to epic proportions; Wednesday announced their Dead Oceans signing to the public with the release of the set’s lead single “Bull Believer,” a blistering, eight-and-a-half-minute opus that covers lyrical ground from Spanish bullfighting to Mortal Kombat before dissolving into squalls of distortion and Hartzman’s shrieks. But otherwise, Rat Saw God finds strength in concision, as sturdy hooks score Hartzman’s vivid and often unsettling verses, where characters might doze off watching Formula One racing, get their stomach pumped after tripping too hard on Benadryl, or overdose in a Planet Fitness parking lot.
While Rat Saw God is sonic step forward for the band, it’s an even bigger advancement for Hartzman’s personal, detailed lyricism, which shines throughout. Take brief and breezy album closer “TV in the Gas Pump” (out today), something of a travelogue documenting a recent two-week Wednesday tour.
“The lyrics for that one were collected in a phone note,” Hartzman says. “Anytime I would see something out the van window or we had an experience that stuck with me, I would write it down.” At one gig, Chelmis took more mushrooms than he planned for a microdose, and found himself overwhelmed in a dollar store across the street from the venue – forever immortalized in the song’s final verse as “Violently came up/ In a Dollar General/ You took too much.”
As the latest standard-bearers of North Carolina’s prolific indie-rock scene – embodied by revered Durham-based label Merge, and artists including Superchunk, Polvo and Archers of Loaf – Wednesday wants to help their talented peers get their due. Last fall, the band took Raleigh shredders Truth Club on tour as support, and one of Asheville’s most promising young artists lives within Wednesday’s ranks: Lenderman, Hartzman’s partner and Wednesday’s guitarist, released his acclaimed album Boat Songs as MJ Lenderman in April 2022. “I like the fact that we’re kind of coming up together,” says Hartzman, who frequently plays in Lenderman’s band on his solo tours. “It’s very exciting and fun.”
Hartzman’s excited to see how fans receive Wednesday’s new material live once they’ve had time to digest it, and she emphasizes how invigorating life on the road is for her creatively. That said, she cherishes returning home to North Carolina. “I’m glad I live out of the way, where people don’t really give a f—k about indie music a lot of the time,” she says. “My life at home will stay really normal, and then I can have my Hannah Montana moment on tour, and then come home and, like, be a person.”
The Piece of Equipment You Couldn’t Live Without
“I have like a ’90s Rat distortion pedal – I use that and a tuner on stage.”
The Artist You Believe Deserves More Attention
“Honestly, I feel like it’s time for Unwound to get their flowers, especially because they’re playing again [on a just-concluded reunion tour]. I feel like I don’t see people talking about them and how influential and how much their sound has affected a lot of [artists], especially Philly shoegaze sounds. I’m an Unwound head. It’s one of my favorite bands.”
The Piece of Advice Every New Indie Artist Needs to Hear
“Don’t think about the audience that is going to hear your song when you’re writing and just think about what you want to say.”
The Thing That Needs to Change in the Music Industry
“Oh lord. Everything? I think the first thing needs to be we need to change the way we pay opening bands. It’s really unsustainable for a band, especially if it’s a band in a van that’s trying to catch up with a band on a tour bus. It’s a really unsustainable practice.”
The Thing They Hope Fans Take Away From Their Album
“I just hope they hear this one and trust that I’m gonna keep making music. We’re signed to a bigger label and I think the sellout mentality, it scares a lot of people — but I feel like we are on a mission to stay very true to ourselves. I want them to trust that I’m going to keep doing whatever the f—k I want with my songs.”
Eric Renner Brown