You can tell her you don’t give a shit,” Jake Lauer interjects. I’d just asked David Becker if his relationship with music has changed since it went from a hobby to a career. He was sifting through his thoughts when Lauer interrupted him. Becker is the bass player and Lauer the drummer for Mad Wallace, a rock band formed at Colorado College. I’m interviewing them in their house in Denver. The comment is funny only because Becker does, in fact, give a shit. Actually, he and the whole band give many shits, seeing as they’ve dedicated themselves to their band with the hope that they can eventually support themselves on their music alone.
The other two members of the band, guitarists Jake Sabetta and Jamie Rushford, chuckle and nod their heads. Becker fires back, “That’s why I play the bass. I don’t have to give a shit.” Almost every question I ask is followed by a punchy joke among the band members, before they settle into their more serious thoughts and opinions.
I remember seeing Mad Wallace at Colorado College’s Battle of the Bands last year. I went mostly to catch a glimpse of the infectious grin that can be seen on Sabetta’s face during a particularly satisfying guitar solo, but I stayed for the electrifying energy that the whole band created. Although Mad Wallace traces their humble beginnings to CC house parties, they are more than your run-of- the-mill basement band. Granted, they did record their entire EP in their basement, and they do practice there, but my sources have informed me that they do, in fact, leave sometimes. Mad Wallace is expanding beyond the confines of their carpeted underground lair—they’ve begun playing at major venues in Denver, and they’ve found that the world above the basement is brimming with musical possibility.
It’s apparent throughout our conversation that Mad Wallace is more than just four guys who play music together. They form a comic chorus: sharp and witty, they’re constantly interjecting and adding to each other’s thoughts, interacting with refreshing ease. I’m struck most of all by their unwavering humility. When I ask what they look for in a listener, Sabetta is hesitant to answer, assuring me that Mad Wallace is “by no means reinventing the wheel.” When he notices my extensive notes, he says, “Our music isn’t deserving of that!” But that’s the funny thing: their music does deserve attention.
In this age of computers, home recording studios, and YouTube tutorials, Mad Wallace stands out for their captivating live performances. Although they have released recordings on SoundCloud, they thrive in a live setting. So much of what they do is tied to their distinctive live sound, which does not always come naturally to musicians. Mad Wallace stresses the importance of being open to experimenting and moving away from what’s comfortable and practiced. In live performance, no song is ever played the same way twice. But while most bands slip into the comfort of playing the same song in the same way, Mad Wallace is willing to experiment.
In the spirit of improvisation and creativity, many of Mad Wallace’s live performances feature a jam— an improvised section with no set time frame. The jam creates an interactive space in which the instruments can have a conversation: one musician may ease into a motif or chord progression that he repeats until the other band members pick it up, and they build it together from there. Sabetta describes it as a “continuation of the songwriting process in real time.” It’s a dynamic call and response that only works if the musicians listen closely to each other. It’s very difficult to recreate that kind of energy and sound in the studio.
So let’s say that you just went to see Mad Wallace live. You’re standing there with your jaw dangling near the ground, head still bobbing to the beat that resonates in your ears long after the band has left the stage. You know there’s something different about the music you just heard, but you can’t quite put your finger on it until the obvious answer smacks you across the face: they are just really fucking good. Sabetta explains that they want their live sound to be “something that keeps your musical intellect interested, but also makes you want to stomp your feet and jump up and down and just get weird and lose yourself. It can be primal sometimes, or it can be really peaceful sometimes.” When the band plays live, they take the audience on a journey, and each note adds a subtle twist and turn. Mad Wallace songs will often reach a destination—a moment when different motifs rise together and cohere—only to let the destination open up into a new pattern. And the song rolls on.
These open-ended destinations are what Lauer calls “arrivals.” He says, “Our music is about arriving places. When I’m playing a song, whether it’s a jam or a written part, I get the most enjoyment when we all arrive somewhere together. Whether it’s something dark, or something happy and light, or something angsty, when we hit arrivals in our music, whether it’s choreographed or not, I just smile a whole bunch. You’ll see that when I’m playing live. You know when I’m smiling, that means we’ve done something right.”
Lauer pauses as his bandmates chuckle. (Sabetta later confesses that Lauer really doesn’t smile that often when they perform.) Lauer continues, “When I think about the background driving forces of our music, and what I want people to experience, it’s the feeling of a journey and an arrival. That doesn’t have to be the same feeling, but I want it to be an arrival to a certain feeling, and I think that changes with each song.”
From firsthand experience with Mad Wallace, I’d say the band is, more than anything else, like a big peanut butter and jelly sandwich. For our purposes, let’s say the music is the peanut butter and their relationships with each other are the jelly. In the metaphorical sandwich that is Mad Wallace, said peanut butter and jelly combine. Although they are two individual elements of the sandwich, once you’ve smeared the peanut butter and jelly together, it’s almost impossible to completely separate them. As Lauer puts it, “It’s really hard to separate music from our relationships. When practice ends, it’s hard to turn off the music and turn off the connections that we’ve just built. So however practice goes is kind of how our relationships go.”
It may not be ideal to tie personal and professional lives so intricately together, but Sabetta compares being in a band to “being in a family.” He says, “Everyone’s got to pull their weight, you can’t be an asshole, you’ve got to control your emotions, even when you’re pissed or when you’re really sad. You’ve got to bring your best. That’s the toughest, when you’re grieving over something, or life’s got you down, and you have to bring your A game, you can’t be a Debbie Downer. You have to bring some positive energy, or else practice is just shit.”
These guys know each other inside and out. According to the members of Mad Wallace, this can be good. But it can also be detrimental to their relationships and music. Or, as Sabetta put it so eloquently, “dishtrimental,” as in when someone leaves their dirty dishes in the sink and the rest of the band members chuck crusty dishes at the guilty party during practice. Throwing dishes might seem messy and counterproductive, but the band’s somewhat aggressive conflict resolution is actually an art of its own. Becker says, “The house isn’t built with the thickest walls, and Jake [Sabetta] practices singing all the time, so it’s just like being a stay-athome dad.” Lauer adds, “It’s like the roommate that sings in the shower, except the shower is two hours long.” (And the bathroom is the whole house.)
In the midst of all the mom jokes and playful jabs, there is an undercurrent of seriousness, especially in the way that Mad Wallace talks about their music. During these moments, they muse with all the thoughtfulness of careful critics. One particularly insightful comment comes from Sabetta: “Choosing to pursue music is our best option to make some sort of impact. I think all of us think about that, either subconsciously or not … People come up to us after the show and say ‘Man, this week was so shitty, I was thinking about transferring from CC, or just dropping out completely, but your music refueled me and gave me hope for the future.’ If you can have an impact like that on one person every time you play, or just at all, then you’re doing something good. And I think that’s our hope—that we can make enough money to get by playing music, but do also something good and have a platform to spread the joy that we get from our music to other people.”
All four members mention that playing music professionally has been a dream since they started. Now that they’re pursuing the dream, they say it feels surreal. On the ground, however, it involves grunt work— they no longer have the luxury of playing at college parties where people can come for free and casually enjoy the music. Now they have to schedule venues, record demos, and convince people to pay money to see them. Being a professional band is not just about the music, it also involves marketing themselves. Considering the extreme humility and self-deprecating humor that cropped up during our interview, I’m not shocked when Sabetta makes a comment about how the band is pretty bad at self-promotion, hoping that “the music will promote itself.”
So, I am now going to try my hand at this so-called promotion (because obviously, so far I’ve been a completely impartial observer). Mad Wallace is remarkably talented. Just talking with them for an hour left me impressed and feeling lucky that these four musicians are generous enough to share their art with the rest of us. I would be glad to pay to see Mad Wallace live. Hell, I even want to start my own rock band. But the thrill of the music is better left to Mad Wallace themselves. I’ll let them tell you about it, in their classic witty way:
Sabetta: “When you play live and you have that connection with the audience, you all feel like you’re there together, it’s a high unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced, drugs, sex, whatever, and nothing satisfies it until the next show. It keeps you wanting to keep going, to do more of it.”
Lauer: “Post-show letdown is such a real thing. There are times when we played a great show, and the second it’s over, it’s just like, ‘Well, fuck, I’m depressed now.’”
Sabetta: “Yeah, let’s go see what heroin’s like.”
Lauer: “It makes sense, you know.” Sabetta: “I can see why so many musicians do…”
Rushford: “This is over…”
Becker: “You should stop there.”
Sabetta: “Make music! Make music, don’t do drugs, kids.”