Finn Wolfhard has wanted to play music since before he broke out as an actor on hit Netflix show Stranger Things. One of his first on-screen gigs was as a young stand-in for Canadian punk band PUP’s frontman Stefan Babcock in a music video. This was in 2014, when the 15-year-old was just 10. Answering an open audition call, he knocked it out of the park as a knife-wielding bully who shoots a sheriff’s deputy with his own gun and burns the body.
While the video was an early stepping stone on his way to young stardom as an actor, the shoot was also notable because that’s where he met Malcolm Craig, his friend and bandmate in Calpurnia. The Vancouver indie rock band may be attracting hordes of Stranger Things fans, but it’s no vanity project.
“It’s obviously different from any acting that I do,” Wolfhard said in a call with his bandmates yesterday. “To prove that, we just play our music.”
Wolfhard and Craig, who has himself acted on shows like Bates Motel, met guitarist Ayla Tesler-Mabe at a rock and roll day camp. The young shredder, two years their senior, brought in bassist Jack Anderson to complete the Calpurnia lineup. The friends then spent three years jamming together for fun before settling on a name (after a character in To Kill a Mockingbird), writing and releasing their first original song just last year.
By the time Calpurnia was ready to record, Stranger Things was a hit, and this allowed Wolfhard to fast-track the band. His TV co-star Joe Keery (who plays warm-hearted bully Steve Harrington and is also in Chicago band Post Animal), introduced Wolfhard to Twin Peaks’ frontman Cadien Lake James. The two became friends, and James volunteered to produce Calpurnia’s debut EP, Scout, which was released in June on indie label Royal Mountain Records.
Despite their age, Calpurnia’s sound is closer to ‘90s alt-rock bands like Pavement than what their peers are making. Each member pulls in unique influences, from ‘60s Britpop and rock (the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are huge influences on all of them) to new wave, slacker and psych-rock (Mac DeMarco is both an influence and a friend), garage rock and even jazz, through the talented Tesler-Mabe, who had gained her own following for posting videos of her covering Jimi Hendrix and others online.
With so much going for Calpurnia, the only thing holding Finn Wolfhard and co. back is time. He’s busy filming Stranger Things and all of the obligations that go with the show. Wolfhard is also set to reprise his role as Richie Tozier in the follow-up to the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s It, and that’s just scraping the top of his ambitious goals for his career. The other members, meanwhile, still have high school starting very soon. Their show at the legendary Fillmore is sure to be a topic of conversation during their “what I did on my summer vacation” speeches, right up there with battling killer clowns and beastly Demogorgons.
RIFF: You guys haven’t done many shows this summer, and they’ve been a little scattered. How did San Francisco make the list?
Finn Wolfhard: San Mateo is kind of another home for me. I went there a lot as a little kid to see family friends. [San Francisco] was kind of this big, daunting thing. I didn’t even know that there was a huge music scene until maybe the beginning of last year. … Also, the Fillmore is such a landmark. I would always pass it when I was really young and just kind of be scared by it, because it was so big.
A lot of your favorite bands have played the Fillmore.
Wolfhard: Yeah. We’re really, really excited. It’s an honor.
Have you played in bands before this one?
Ayla Tesler-Mabe: I have been playing in bands and jamming with people. When I first started playing the bass, I played in a Led Zeppelin cover band, and we played at the Vancouver Art Gallery a bunch. Jack and I have a friend from school that we jammed with for years and years, and still jam with. I still play with a lot of different musicians and I think that’s such a great way to develop yourself as an artist and meet new people.
Wolfhard: Malcolm and I played in … a two-piece. … We did that for a good three years, just at Malcolm’s house. And then, we started really getting into starting bands when we did this rock camp where we met Ayla.
Ayla, I came away really impressed by your videos. Your soloing ability really took me by surprise. How long have you been playing?
Tesler-Mabe: I have been playing seriously for probably about five and a half years now. And I’ve just been practicing as hard as I can, and I played the bass for about a year before that. I’ve always loved the electric guitar, and I got one when I was very young, hoping I’d play it. I never really did until I started playing the bass and I realized that the guitar was really what I wanted to do.
All four of you have different influences. Who are your biggest ones?
Wolfhard: Beatles was a big one, but I also was into The Who. My dad got The Who Greatest Hits when I was 6, so I would listen to that kind of on loop. So, a lot of classic rock influences. Then I got into Nirvana. It’s a very basic answer, but The Beatles and Nirvana were the two big ones for me when I was younger. The band to get me into indie music was this band called PUP.
Jack Anderson: For me, it’s really hard to boil it down to two. But I’ll go one musically and one for my instrument. Because I taught myself the bass, I didn’t really have an orthodox approach, so I kind of did some weird things that would be considered strange, stylistically. Then I started listening to New Order and Joy Division, and I realized I kind of approached the instrument like Peter Hook—very melodic and constant notes instead of a traditional bass line. … Not that I am putting myself on the same pedestal as Peter Hook, because he is miles above. But, as far as instrument inspiration goes that’s one. In general, I’d have to probably go with my favorite band ever, Pink Floyd, ‘cause they’re ambitious and they make beautiful music.
Malcolm Craig: What really brought me into music was The Beatles. That would be the first thing that everyone listens to. And right now I’m really into Ariel Pink.
Did the six songs on the EP have a different lead writer, or did you contribute equally to each one?
Wolfhard: Usually how it goes is one of us will come up with a riff. … I’ll come up with lyrics, and then a test bass line that Jack will just throw away and do his own—which is better because I don’t really know how to play bass. Malcolm will do his own drumbeat. And then Ayla will do her own lead. It kind of just comes together naturally. One of us will have something and then all of us will help each other from there. … I wrote “City Boy” on acoustic guitar with the lyrics already written, but Jack and Ayla and Malcolm wrote all the music to it. So it’s all a group effort no matter what.
Tesler-Mabe: One person presents some pizza dough, and we all just throw our own seasoning on top of it.
What about the band Twin Peaks, and Cadien Lake James, appealed to the four of you? You reached out to him; why him?
Wolfhard: Twin Peaks; I think right now they are my biggest influence. They’re just one of my music heroes in general. … They’re the most underrated rock band right now; if anybody should bring back rock and roll, it should be them. Because they have fresh eyes and fresh ears, and they know how to have fun on stage, and recording like no one else does. They bring back that kind of fun loving energy and playfulness that The Stones brought, and I think they’re just so incredible. I had already been talking to [James] before, through Joe Keesler, who knew him. He gave me his number, and so I was texting him just as a friend.
How many shows have you played so far, and how comfortable do you feel on stage?
Anderson: I think we’ve probably played about 10 shows now. I personally am really comfortable with it. I just have a great time. It’s my favorite thing in the world to do, so can’t ask for more. And I think we’re sounding better every show, which certainly adds a bit of comfort to it.
Are you working on an album now?
Tesler-Mabe: We’ve been writing songs over the past little while, and we started performing them more at shows. [An LP] is in the works, and we’re just trying to write as much as we can.
So, theoretically, if you work on this through wintertime, then by the time school lets out next year, you will be ready to really hit the road, right?
Wolfhard: Oh man, yeah, we’re trying to whenever we can. Obviously, I’m a busy dude. And these guys are busy too when they have school, so we’re trying to figure out a tour right now. Hopefully it will all fall into place.
Tesler-Mabe: Yeah, definitely once we are out of high school, it will become a lot easier.
Finn, is there anything that you’ve got coming up besides this band? Obviously, the third season of Stranger Things, and the IT sequel. What else are you working on?
Wolfhard: I’m doing a little acting, I’m writing and directing [music videos]. We [Wolfhard and director friend Patrick VanZandt] are also developing a movie, and a series and shorts—just trying to build up our brand, do as much independent stuff as possible.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.