Earlier this month a group of editors and executives gathered at Electric Lady Studios on West 8th Street for an early listen of Wet's debut full-length album, Don't You (Columbia). The lights were dim, the floor covered in oriental rugs and the back tables lined with celebratory bottles of Pinot Grigio and beer. But still, heaviness loomed. David Bowie had died two days prior, and the void -- that palpable sense of loss he left behind -- was only heightened by the realization that Black Star, his final album, had been mixed in the same building. It was easy to let the mind wander to the surreal notion that each of our footsteps might be overlapping with Bowie’s own.
So there we were, ready to listen to the highly-anticipated LP that had taken Brooklyn-based trio Kelly Zutrau, Joe Valle and Marty Sulkow roughly a year-and-a-half to complete. Except unbeknownst to us, music wasn’t the only medium we’d be consuming. As the vinyl LP began, so did Turtle: The Incredible Journey, a nature movie that follows a loggerhead turtle from its birth on a beach in Florida across the North Atlantic. For 38 minutes, as the record spun, everyone’s eyes were glued to two big screen televisions.
If the setup sounds a little funny and maybe a little strange: you’re right, it was. But the visuals lent a surprisingly beautiful touch to the music, too. Most every movement -- right down to the way the turtle’s flipper-like legs waded through the water -- was in sync with the 11-track album. As the little turtle struggled to break free from the electric clenches of a jellyfish, struggled to survive the tumultuous current spawned by a massive boat, the room didn’t simply bob to the woozy synths and '90s R&B-heavy production. Clapping, laughing, even a few tears ensued.
The alt-pop group, who met in New York while completing their undergraduate degrees, say the decision to screen the film was made to offset the awkwardness that can sometimes occur during listening sessions -- and that it was inspired by sound engineer Tom Elmhirst, who played the video while mixing the record. But the turtle inadvertently gave new (and more obvious) meaning to tracks like “Deadwater” and “Island,” while also highlighting a sort of oceanic tempo throughout.
The evening culminated with "These Days," a stripped down track whose upfront piano, ethereal reverbs and delays, and lush strings make it one of the album's most moving and sonically unique. It was co-produced and by Chairlift's Patrick Wimberly, who recalls that in "listening to [Wet] for the first time, I knew I was listening to sensitive artists. In the past few years, they've become masters of their own sound, and it's a special one."
Indeed, as we collectively emerged from that subterranean haven, it was undeniable that -- at the risk of sounding trite -- the album playback had given us what turtles represent: forward-moving serenity, peace and determination on what began as a dark day.
Before performing a sold out show at Bowery Ballroom on the eve of Don’t You’s release last week, the group spoke about the new album, which largely references loss and heartbreak, as well as what’s in store for the coming year. Here is an excerpt from that chat:
The turtle. That infamous turtle.
KZ: It was so crazy.
JV: The best part of the whole night was that I kept looking back at Tom to see if he was realizing how perfect the sync was and he was just like [jaw drops].
KZ: And he had seen it like a billion times but he was just still on the edge.
Wet has taken off since you guys released the self-titled EP in 2013. What has changed the most for you in the past year?
KZ: The live show, for sure. We’ve toured two or three times in the last year, and that’s more than we ever have. And we’ve been rehearsing the last few months for this tour -- that’s really been the focus. We’ve also been working on visuals -- things like album art, single art, photo shoots -- for this album.
The album art is so striking. How did the idea for it come about?
KZ: The photograph was done by Milan Zrnic, and he’s done all of our photos up to this point. It was multiple photo shoots for us, and Hassan Rahim did the creative direction for it. The idea changed so many times, actually.
JV: We knew we wanted a hand to figure prominently in whatever the cover was, conceptually. And then we didn’t get exactly what we were looking for. There were a lot of other contenders.
KZ: It was one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever made. We had to lock ourselves in a room, we were living in London for a month playing shows and working there. We got to the point where we’d been talking about album art for about six months, and it felt like we hadn’t gotten anywhere. So we went through all of the images -- hundreds and hundreds of images, and we were not on the same page at all. Never was there an image that more than two people agreed on. I actually didn’t want this one to be the album cover.
How different was the one that you wanted?
KZ: There were so many others that I wanted -- the main one that I remember was an image of the back of a man’s head. It was still the back of something though, so I guess it wasn’t that different [laughs].
JV: The color palette was somewhat similar but the energy was very different.
What is writing process like for you guys?
JV: It’s pretty formulaic at this point.
KZ: They all start with me on autoharp. I come up with a rough structure for the song with lyrics and melody and basic chords. Sometimes they’ll stay like that and sometimes chords will change.
MS: Usually Joe will make a skeleton of the song with a beat and some ideas. Then I’ll work on it and send it back to Joe -- we’ll have a dialogue where we send it back and forth.
JV: We all work really independently of one another, so there will be times when we are all working on separate things.
You worked with Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly on the album. What was that like?
KZ: He worked the most on the last track, which he co-produced and wrote the piano part for, which is very integral to the song. He also arranged the strings, which an artist named Kelsey Lu played, and he did production on a couple of other ones. We love working with him, he’s one of our good friends at this point. He was just a really nice person to have when we were struggling with something--whether it was the label or just something we didn’t know how to approach because were inexperienced. He’s been through it all before.
I read that one of you used to repair voting machines?
MS: Joe and I both did that. Nine times out of 10 we were fixing paper jams -- they were electronic machines.
JV: The machines themselves look huge, but it’s a lot of plastic housing for a very small device, really. So it was mostly re-calibrating the touchscreen and working out those paper jams. The job was for all of New York City, every election that happened here. We both worked that when Obama was running, too.
MS: There were so many weird things about it. There’s this law where any outside contractor has to be driven around by a Democratic party operative and a Republican party operative, so you’d be in a car that was driven around by two people giving each other shit the whole time.
Can you tell me about the track “All The Ways”?
KZ: That was a hard one. That was the song we struggled with most on the album. We finished it the day we went in to mix it because we had to hand something in. It was the last day of mixing and we wanted it to be on the album, but it just didn’t feel finished. We have so many versions of that song -- many, many versions. It would be fun to go back and listen to them all, actually.
MS: I still listen to the Robin Hannibal version, that’s my favorite.
KZ: We still can’t hear that song objectively. If you put that song on right now, we just hear it as the worst song in the world. We went too deep into it, but I’m glad we have a more upbeat song on the album. It’s also fun to perform live.
I really like the album’s sequencing.
JV: That was such a fun part of the process for us. It came at the end of things, and I think it more or less revealed itself. We went out to dinner with Tom [Elmhirst] and he was like, “All right, I need to see it again!” [laughs]
MS: Even just agreeing to the amount of time that elapsed between each track . . .
KZ: Down to the quarter second, oh gosh that was hell. Every step of the way there were these decisions that we treated as though they were make-or-break.
What are your hopes for the coming year?
JV: So hard to see past the end of this tour, to be honest.
KZ: I’d like to find a way to feel more grounded because we are traveling so much. I’d love to find some way to have a routine and more consistency; I’d love to find a way to work more consistently while on the road. I’ve found in the last year that there is time spent readjusting to home life or tour life -- and there’s this small window of time that you can actually get something done. I want to find a way to just work all of the time.