'Stranger Things' Star Finn Wolfhard Talks Sharing Stage With All-Star Rock Cast for 'Strange 80s' Sweet Relief Benefit
Matthew Leone is exactly why the Sweet Relief Foundation exists. The bassist for the Chicago hardcore band Madina Lake woke up in the hospital in 2010 with one-third of his skull missing after he'd been severely beaten while trying to help a woman involved in a domestic dispute.
"I became the perfect illustration for why Sweet Relief is so important," Leone tells Billboard about the nonprofit fund started in 1994 to provide financial assistance to career musicians struggling to pay their bills while facing illness or disability.
"I spent a year in mental and physical rehab and long after it was out of the headlines, Sweet Relief stuck by me the whole time," he says. Leone now serves as the Artist and Global Ambassador for SR, and he's looking forward to giving something back to the organization founded by singer Victoria Williams in 1993 at a May 14 benefit show, "Strange 80s." The first annual all-star fundraising event at the Fonda Theater in Los Angeles will be hosted by Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard and feature sets from Tenacious D, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Sarah Silverman and members of OK GO, Taking Back Sunday, Velvet Revolver, Steel Panther, Filter, Anberlin and Goldfinger among others.
The show was hatched when Leone met Wolfhard's manager and asked if the teen actor wold be willing to donate something to the cause. That turned into a friendship, and then a conversation with budding musician Wolfhard, leading to a simple question: What's your musical fantasy? "Finn said he wanted to play guitar on stage with some of his idols and among the bands he mentioned were Tenacious D," says Leone. "I was like, 'I know some people,' and they said, 'Yeah, right.' Well, next thing you know, we developed it into a loose format and I got a list of artists from them and started making phone calls."
That was five months ago, and Leone hasn't stopped working on the show since. "Finn is wise beyond his years," he says of the young actor. "The natural inclination is, 'Oh, he's a young kid who has this meteoric rise and now he wants to be a rock star.' Who doesn't? Then he started listing these bands he likes and I haven't heard of half these bands! He’s brilliant and has incredible taste in music, so I knew it was legit and he has a real passion for it."
Wolfhard will MC the show and perform '80s covers with his band, Calpurnia, as well as jamming with fellow Stranger Things co-star Chelsea Telmadge, The Goldbergs actress Hayley Orrantia, actors Dylan Minnette and Braeden Lemasters, plus members of Slipknot, Anthrax, Filter, Honey Honey and others.
Billboard spoke to Wolfhard over e-mail about his dream gig:
Clearly you were too young for this music the first time -- what is it that you love about these '80s bands?
Labels put out albums that were way less mainstream and yet some of them became mainstream, so it was fertile. There is diversity and also fun, so something for everybody.
How did you get involved in this project and Sweet Relief?
I auctioned a guitar last year for Sweet Relief, and then it just went from there.
Had you heard about the organization before?
I hadn’t, but I had heard the Pearl Jam version of "Crazy Mary." I always thought it was their song but my dad told me it was by Victoria Williams. She was the first recipient of Sweet Relief and her songs were covered on an album that raised funds for SR. And it’s been rolling ever since.
You’re a well-known music fan, who are you most excited about on the bill?
I really love the D. "Weird Al" is awesome and so humble. And there are members of so many other great bands -- it’s an awesome mix of people from the Go-Gos, Velvet Revolver, Anthrax, and the list keeps going -- I mean, are we gonna play until dawn???
Since you’re not shy about singing in your videos, can you give us a preview of which songs you might hop up and sing?
I don’t want to say because no one else has yet, either, and the show is sold out because of support from amazing fans. I’m sure you will hear later but, in the meantime, if you are interested you can see my band Calpurnia’s cover of The Pixies “Where is My Mind?” on my YouTube channel.
What do you think is important about what Sweet Relief does for musicians in need?
Life gets weird enough without having to worry about whether you are covered for this or have to have a deductible for that, so the less stress when you are in need, the better. We just don’t have to worry about that in Canada, but in the U.S., man... I just experienced my first time in a U.S. hospital for food poisoning, and I am so incredibly grateful for my SAG-AFTRA medical coverage.
Like, everyone knows that we all need health care, but not only is it insanely expensive for most people in America, there are so many self-employed people who really struggle when faced with injury and disability and illness. Musicians are mostly self-employed, and for me the bottom line is that, as with health care, everyone also knows that we all need music. We need musicians! We need them healthy -- we need to dance and we need to escape -- and none of that is possible when musicians themselves need support. And that’s really why all of us, not just musicians, need to sustain and grow Sweet Relief.
You have to admit it's pretty cool that they put Strange in the title of the benefit. That must have been for you, right?
I’m sure it’s just a coincidence…. HA! Yeah, it’s sick, but more importantly it's helped raise awareness of the good that Sweet Relief does for artists that we cannot live without.
Give me your top 5 '80s tunes…
OK, this is going to sound really Canadian, because I don’t want offend anyone (so sorry eh!?) -- but this is a snapshot from this afternoon and influenced by my recent day trip to Athens. Tonight it is bound to be different but right now:
“Bastards of Young” by The Replacements
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears
“Rock Lobster” by The B-52s
“Driver 8” by REM
“Love Buzz” by Nirvana