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Wild Cub’s Keegan DeWitt Talks Debut Album, Defends Dance Music + Big-Ups Blur and the Boss

Wild Cub
Will Morgan Holland

Keegan DeWitt came to New York City last month with every intention of giving the city his all. The Wild Cub frontman and mastermind has a background in film score, but he’s as comfortable onstage as he is in the studio, and that’s fortunate, if not essential, given the nature of his latest project. Suave and poppy like Tears for Fears, slick and dancey like Prince, derivative of neither, Wild Cub kick irresistible neo-New Wave jams that have made the Nashville quintet one of this year’s most buzzed-about bands.

Indeed, DeWitt left part of himself onstage in NYC — Wild Cub’s sold-out gig at Mercury Lounge had Diffuser.fm busting some regrettable dance moves — but that’s not all he left behind. Days later, he revealed via Twitter that the group had been robbed of more than half of its gear. Fortunately, DeWitt took it in stride — perhaps because he has more important things on his mind. He and his wife are expecting their first child, due later this month, and Wild Cub have been taking meetings with record labels, planning the next phase of their career.

In an interview with Diffuser.fm, DeWitt discussed impending fatherhood, his love of dance music and his earnest performance style. He also explained his goals in writing ‘Youth,’ Wild Cub’s recently released full-length debut.

What happened with your gear?

We added a show at the last minute, that Atlas Genius show at Webster Hall. Tuesday morning, I walked out to the van, and there was a note on the van that said, “Your van was broken into. All of your equipment was scattered all over the street. We put it in the basement of our business.” [The thieves] had gone trough everything and decided what they wanted, and left the drums for some reason and a couple amps. But they’d stolen the two really expensive keyboards and all the guitars and a bunch of other stuff.

We’ve actually had to do this once before in New York. Our release show in August, we had our van towed with all the equipment in it. And we found out as we as we were going to drive to the show. That was a lot more harry, because it was like, “Let’s find all of our equipment in the next 45 minutes.” … We were joking around [this time] it was a lot easier to pack the van going home.

You’ve got to look on the bright side. On a related note, you’re about to become a father. How might that affect Wild Cub? Will parenthood make you focus more on your film work?

It’s gonna be an interesting year, because we’re on the road a ton this summer. And with my score stuff, we have a film that went to Sundance that is now going to Munich and the Prague Film Festival. When the baby is about a month old, we’re gonna throw her in a baby bjorn and take her to Munich and Prague, and that will be our indoctrination to figure it out.

You come to Wild Cub having done acting acting and film scores, and you’ve also recorded some folky singer-songwriter solo albums. This is a much more pop- and dance-oriented project — were those influences always there, or have you recently gotten into these things?

All along, while I was doing the folky stuff, I’d always desired to be in a band in the most basic way. I really desired not only the ability to command a room — just basic noise level in general, where you can demand attention — but even when I was releasing the more singer-songwriter stuff, I was primarily interested in rhythm. I was really excited about dance music.

My gateway into it was that growing up, I really admired Damon Albarn from Blur. He made that Mali record [2002's 'Mali Music] and other more rhythmic Gorillaz records — especially the later Gorillaz records get really interesting — and that started to spark my interest. And then I would follow down all of those different pathways he would hint at, about these different African musicians or rappers. That started when I was 16, and I got to a point where it was like, “I want to make something where rhythm is the primary thing.”

My primary goals were: How can I make a record where my face isn’t on it, and if possible, my name isn’t on it, and it allows people to just totally enjoy the cinematic aspect of it? We’re creating moments. We’re trying to hint at moments inside people’s identity. We do that with both the image — the record doesn’t have any of our names in it, and it’s just black and white with these little snapshots — or we do it with rhythm … A lot of [the songs], I would write drums first. I was trying to totally invert how I would write as a pop musician. Rather than starting with an acoustic guitar and writing a melodic line and going, “That’s really cool” and building from there,” I’d start with a drum beat or a bassline and try to avoid guitars until the very end of the whole process.

In recent years, indie rock musicians have become a lot more comfortable talking about dance, pop and R&B influences, whereas once, that wasn’t really the case. Do you notice a shift?

Being the person who’s doing it, you constantly battle people hating dance music and thinking it’s stupid. Well, I disagree, and there’s a huge, long lineage of people who really disagree with that — people as classy as [Italian producer Giorgio] Moroder who have really proven there’s substance to dance music, and there’s really cool stuff there and so many different routes to get there … [On the other hand], people are like, “Indie music is really boring. You’re using bar chords on a guitar. That’s really boring. Why can’t you be like Grizzly Bear?” It’s so funny, now that I’m a 30-year-old man, to be able to look back and see how critical indie music is of itself. That’s the great gift of being a little bit older, saying, “Well, guess what? F— you guys. I dont’ care. I’m making music to enjoy for myself that mirrors these emotional themes I think are really interesting, and I’m gonna explore whatever route I want to do that.” And I trust people connect on the other end of that. And I find people do, which is really cool.

We were in a record label two days ago, and they were like really hip, really indie rock. I still have moments where I’m like, “I don’t even know if these people like dance music.” … If it’s uncool, that’s fine. As long as I’m earnest about it, and I put hard work into creating it, I can make peace with it.

In terms of pulling old R&B influences, for sure, I feel that way. I don’t want to say any names specifically of stuff that fuel ['Youth'], because you can pull them out yourself, but I think there’s a value, too, in going, “I really like [a specific band].” For example, [the 'Youth' song] ‘Wild Light’: People will come up after every single show and say, “I hate to ask this, but do you like the Talking Heads?” And I’m OK with that, because that song, for me, is like my exploration of my appreciation of them. There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about it. I really enjoy it, and the lyrics have resonance for me. They’re about something that’s really interesting and that I feel like I’ve taken pride in. It’s all valuable, and it’s all a valuable exercise to go through and be able to retread on that stuff.

Your music is similar to that of someone like Twin Shadow, but whereas he has sort of a theatrical look and mystique about him, you’re very approachable. Onstage at Mercury Lounge, you were constantly thanking the audience, and it came across as very genuine. Is that a conscious thing?

I’m unashamedly a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen, more so in terms of his work ethic: “I’m present here for you, and my purpose is to be here for you and facilitate your emotional connection to the music.” It’d be different if we had a million-dollar budget, and we could do some amazing light show. Then I’d talk less and let people experience it.

You’ve mentioned meetings with record labels. Is signing with a major still something groups think about? Are you heading in that direction?

We’ve met amazing people. Everywhere we go, the people are awesome. But the overwhelming response from everyone in the music industry — and this isn’t just to us as a band — is everybody wants you to prove you can do it 110 percent by yourself already, and then they want to work with you. And then they want to take 50 percent of your profits … If we can continue to release records 100 percent ourselves and be totally in control of all the videos that come out and all the press that comes out and the special edition vinyl — and be able to maintain 100 percent ownership of that — we’d like to continue to do that.

But that would change if a label — and this remains to be seen — steps forward before the next record and says, “We’ve got all these different intangible things.” There are a couple labels we’ve met with where just having [their] name attached would go a long way to shepherding it to a whole crowd of people.

Watch Wild Cub’s Video for ‘Thunder Clatter’

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