Written By Laura Curry
The New Brunswick-based band Wishwell infuses its music with a sense of urgency that keeps people fully immersed. Their songs are packed full of layered guitars, ethereal vibes and raw emotion that work to enthrall anyone who listens.
Wishwell is Tom Risi on bass, Jakub Szczepaniak on guitars, Kenny Valinote on guitars and vocals, Conor Risi on guitars and Charlie Cohen on drums. Together they create an indie post-rock sound that combines electronic and hardcore elements. Fans might agree that their music is reminiscent of Foals or Radiohead, with some additional harder rock components.
There is an undeniable intensity to Wishwell’s music, which is fully realized when you see them live. Transitions between songs offer room for improvised jams that give their sets continuity—there are no disruptions, and no show is ever the same. By the end of their set, show-goers are left wanting more and wondering how the time passed by so quickly.
On the opening night of their very first tour, Wishwell played at a DOPE venue in New Brunswick, which gave Pop-Break the opportunity to talk to them about their tour, the Reasons EP, their sound and group dynamics.
Tom explained that their first tour is symbolic because it has been exactly one year since they recorded their first EP, Reasons, which was released on February 19, 2016.
“Here we are a year later actually going out on the road and promoting it and playing it,” said Tom. “So we’re finally excited to see our vision—the stuff we’ve been planning out for years, come to fruition.”
“The point is that we were a brand new band that nobody had heard of,” Jakub said. “As we were figuring out all the moving parts, we knew that once it was time to announce the band, we were going to do it right. We were going to have everything lined up no matter how long it took … it was all planned out. We wanted to make a good first impression.”
They all agree that the goal of the tour was to get out there and reach as many people as possible. This week-long tour had them riding in Jakub’s parents’ party rental van to play five shows: one show in New Brunswick, three in Pennsylvania and one in Akron, Ohio.
The Reasons EP features five emotionally charged tracks that listeners can hear at their live shows. Tom explained that he and Jakub had worked with the New York-based producer, Mike Watts, previously. They agreed that he was a great style fit for them and decided to record the Reasons EP with him at Vudu Studios in Port Jefferson, NY.
Kenny explains the dark origins of the song “Bury Me” and said that in the mental institute where he works, he speaks to a patient who has six or seven different personalities, and is determined to kill all of them off. The song is about this patient burying all of these personalities until it’s just him left. The other songs don’t have quite as somber themes, and instead they explore relationships and personal experiences.
“Two Colors” sticks out to Kenny as one of their heavier, higher-impact songs. It starts off where you just don’t think you’re good enough and you feel dependent on somebody. It comes to resolve at the end where you realize you can do this on your own and you’re better off without someone, Kenny said.
Tom added that “Two Colors” is one of their most compelling and well-written songs, specifically because it is a building arc of emotion and volume. “The music is intended to reflect the lyrics, where it starts out quieter and builds in energy and confidence, just like the lyrics and then it culminates at the end so everything is meant to mirror itself,” Tom said.
Tom explains that the songs on the EP underwent major changes before reaching their final forms, which took a lot of collaborating. “It was a constant back and forth with everyone; it’s a collective process,” Tom said. “It’s not just saying ‘the song is done let’s move on.’ It’s asking ‘does it really serve a purpose? How does it fit with the other ones? What’s the context?’ It’s a very meticulous process because you care.”
As for how Wishwell began, Jakub and Tom started a band together in high school, and that lasted all the way through college until December 2013. They both wanted to continue making music, but they were looking for a new singer and a new sound, so they found Kenny. The three of them went into the studio last May to record the Reasons EP, and once they got the final masters back, they needed a “permanent” drummer *cue Charlie.* They finally realized that they needed another guitarist to round everything out, so Tom’s brother Conor came on board, Tom said.
“It’s the first time for me playing with so many people with different musical backgrounds, so everyone brings a different perspective based on their age and interests,” Tom said. “It really helps us keep things diverse and push a lot of boundaries that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”
“When I joined, the first show we played, nobody knew what everyone else was going to do,” Charlie said. “I didn’t. And now it’s predictable and these environments are comfortable for us. It’s going to be a lot more fun to go outside of New Brunswick and be comfortable with each other and play in front of new people.”
As far as previous experience goes, none of them are beginners. “We all have recorded and done stuff together,” Tom said. “Jakub and I historically. Charlie has done studio work. Kenny has been in like gagillions of bands … it’s constantly putting yourself out there and getting experience and trying new things.”
“With us, it’s not a competition,” Conor added. “No one’s trying to be better than you. You want to see your friends do well.”
“This is a fit for us right now,” Tom said. “In five years it could be different, but right now our objectives and interests align. We’ve taken our prior experience and learned from it. Who knows where it’ll go from here. Every release and show is a snapshot of where we are at that moment. Right now, it’s here.”
“Before this, I used to scream in a Metal-core band and it just didn’t fit for me,” Kenny said. “When I found this, it felt like home. This feels right to me.”
When it comes to their music, Conor said that he wants to create a sound that he wouldn’t normally listen to. He doesn’t want listeners telling them that they sound like any other “fill-in-the-blank” indie band.
Jakub expanded on this point and said, “We don’t want to have a spacey sound, we don’t want to have too heavy of a sound, we want to have elements of everything.”
“We just want to be ourselves,” Conor said.
Charlie explained that when he first joined the band, everyone’s talent impressed him. “It was the first time in a long time that I played with people who made me want to get better,” he said.
Conor piggybacked off of this idea and described how it’s about the band’s chemistry. “It’s about understanding each other and picking off of each other’s techniques and ideas,” he said.
Jakub added another factor to the equation and said, “We treat it as seriously as we can … we make it a goal to meet in some way once a week on the weekends. We talk all the time. We’re texting all the time. We’re figuring things out. Everyone’s adding to the pod of what they can do within the band. Everyone stays motivated and we’re all happy with the sound.”
When Wishwell creates music, it is a fully collaborative process. During practices, they start with a free-form jam that begins to sound like sections of songs after 5 or 10 minutes. They use these jams to warm up and it helps cultivate their raw material. Later on, when they’re ready to write songs, they mull through everything and pick out sections that they like and build off of them, Tom said.
“When we do the improvising, that’s kind-of the essence of our band and it lets us make sure that in the songwriting process, everyone has a say because it started with something that we all did together,” Tom said.
Another aspect that works to strengthen the group’s dynamic is that most of them were friends before joining the band. “It’s not about strictly playing music,” Conor said. “At the end of the day we’re here to have fun. We’re here to enjoy ourselves. When you stop enjoying yourself, why would you want to do it anymore?”
During performances, Wishwell wants listeners to feel a sense of energy. “We’re passionate about it and we want that to be conveyed,” Tom said. “If you play a flat set that has no energy and no emotion, or isn’t striking or compelling, people are going to feel that. I feel like when I’ve seen bands that are genuine and authentic, you feed off that emotional energy. You’re not just witnessing the set, you’re a part of it.”
Tom goes on to explain that with bands like Foals, when you’re at the show, it’s an interactive experience. “They’re so passionate about it, you are too and you have a connection with them,” he said. “It’s being able to establish that kind of connection.”
“We don’t play live strict to the record, we adapt the songs for the live versions, and we add a new energy to it,” Kenny added.
“That’s the best part: the ad-libbing between the lines. I love to do that,” said Charlie.
“There’s stuff that I do with my vocals that isn’t on the record,” Kenny said. “I don’t even think about it. If I feel something, I’m just going to do it.”
Tom expanded on this idea by saying that they’ve added transitions and plenty of room to jam during shows. They don’t plan it out beforehand, they just feel it out and see where it goes.
“It keeps it fun for you,” Tom said. “Otherwise you’re just playing the record over and over again. When you play live like that and you get to expand on it and make each show unique, it keeps it fun for you too as well as the audience.”