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Making Noise with New West

Making Noise with New West

BY KAREN BLISS

New West sell out first-ever live show at Toronto’s The Axis Club, June 16, 2022 — photo courtesy of Universal Music Canada.

When Toronto cinematic indie rock “collective” New West played their very first show at The Axis Club on June 16, 2022, the 600-capacity marquee club — the very same one The Weeknd debuted live, was rammed. The crowd was enraptured; they screamed; they sang; they took photos and videos. The band was on fire, as if they’d just come off an 18-month global tour — polished, tight but just loose enough for the kind of spontaneity that makes someone go, “I am never missing a show by this band” and tell all their friends “I was there when…”

Singer-pianist Kala Wita went into the audience, wound his way through the space-deprived crowd to the back of the room and ended up on the balcony — where he jumped, flipping mid-air onto his back and was cushioned safely by the fans. It was just the move to seal the deal: the New West is the new next.

How did this happen? A band, even many people in the music industry didn’t know at the time, selling out their first show at a sizeable venue?  One word. Or make that one song; two words: “Those Eyes.” The little indie song that could, did.

It was the first song Kala Wita, Noel West, Lee Vella and Ben Key wrote. (The liner notes for their new album, Based On A True Story…, are a little confusing because the writing credits are under their birthnames, making it appear there are eight different people involved with New West or they don’t write their own material, but rest assured they do but simply want to be known by their stage names).

New West think “Those Eyes” had a viral moment on Tik Tok, then word just spread of this gorgeous stirring ballad.Toronto indie label Dine Alone stepped in, releasing a series of singles, starting in the fall of 2021, culminating in a six-song EP, In Good Time, in April 2022, that does not contain “Those Eyes.” Still, the buzz just continued from there. By that September, the band reportedly had 2.5 million monthly listeners, 100 million total streams.

The band, which they called a “music collective,” signed to Giant Music/Republic but maintained their D.I.Y. vision, the members all multi-instrumentalists who switch it up on record, and West produced, mixed, engineered, and mastered everything. And as they worked in various recording studios around the world to cut tracks for their full-length debut, “Those Eyes” kept reaching more listeners.

To date, on YouTube alone, the song (uploaded with a static photo) has 15 million views; the music video 51 million views and this year’s “home session” has 18 million views. In April, they were invited to perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which they did seated in the most chill of living room settings.

On Oct. 20, New West’s debut full-length, Based On A True Story…, dropped. The album is a thing of sonic beauty, meant to be listened to beginning to end, nuanced, layered, a carefully crafted piece of art; to be cranked on a highway or with the lights out on headphones, intense and chill, depending on volume. The final track is “Those Eyes,” the 2019 version that started it all but there’s, of course, been teaser tracks and new singles, equally good, such as “Cold Tea,” “IYKYK,” “Homecoming” and “In My City.”

A week before the album came out, New West set out for a month of U.S. dates, opening for Tegan And Sara, Charlotte Cardin, and two back home in Canada on their own in Vancouver. They have back to back headliners at Toronto’s Opera House Dec. 14-15, then hit Ottawa’s The Arena at TD Place, Feb. 6, and Laval, Quebec’s Place Bell, Feb. 9-10.

New West is managed by Brooks Roach, alongside Shawn Holiday, at Full Stop Management; their responsible agents are Tom Kemp, at The Feldman Agency (for Canada); and Marty Diamond and Eli Gelernter at Wasserman (for U.S. and Mexico).

Wita and Vella talked with Making Noise on a Zoom call, outside the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, during a tour stop, shortly after the release of Based On A True Story...

What came first in 2017, the band or living together in the same house?

Lee Vella: At that point, we had been working together for about a year or two and just all decided it’d be cool to move in together. This was right before Covid. And, then, within how long of living there?

Kala Wita: Not even a month.

Vella: Barely any time at all, covid struck and we decided to set up a studio in our house and we did our whole In Good Time EP, recorded in the kitchen and living room of that house.

You’re all super-talented, multi-instrumentalists. Why do you prefer the word “collective” to band, a description more applicable to a Broken Social Scene with some 15 members?

Wita: What’s the answer? (Looks at Vella).

Vella: It was more so that no person has such a definitive role. There’s so much multifaceted things each person brings to the table, rather than just like, ‘Hey, I play bass. Hey, I play guitar. Hey, I do this.’  There’s just no straight definitive role per person, so that’s why we avoided the word “band” for a while there.

You have to be pretty organized and get along really well to be able to do that.

Wita: No, you don’t (Vella laughs). You don’t. That’s a lie. (Both are smiling.)

I’ll tell you why. It’s hard to have four people working together who all have kind of equal talent. Maybe one wants to do a guitar solo.

Vella: I think we’re all pretty good at putting the recording first.  Like, we’ll come with ideas, but if, ultimately, it doesn’t serve the recording, then it doesn’t serve the recording. So I don’t think our egos really get in the way, in that sense.

Wita: They seldom do.

Vella: (repeats) They seldom do.

It’s an interesting time. Artists are getting discovered on TikTok and maybe have never, ever, performed a show. People aren’t really coming up through the clubs anymore and building a following and shopping for deals. What was your plan back then to get a record deal?

Vella:  It was mostly just that we wanted to be consistently putting out music and writing and recording and have a pretty consistent release schedule of every five, six weeks putting out a new song. And, we did that for years. We said that we didn’t want to play a show until we sold out the Mod Club [since renamed The Axis Club]. That was just what we said early days. It might’ve been a pipedream at the time when we said it, but we actually set out that we had no purpose or no intention of doing a show until we could do one of that kind of size or magnitude.

New West perform “Those Eyes” on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, April, 2023

I was at that show. I didn’t know what I was walking into. I remember thinking I’ve been living under a rock. It was packed. Kala, you’re leaping from the frickin’ balcony. There was nothing leading up to that to indicate you knew you had that kind of chemistry, charisma, ignition onstage?

Wita: Yeah, we didn’t know. That’s what made it so special. We didn’t know what to expect. Everyone kind of had this, not anxiety, but that we just couldn’t wait to get on the stage together to find out what would happen. And so, we were pleasantly — or unpleasantly — surprised, it doesn’t matter — we were just shocked at how well it performed.

Vella: And how the music, our music, when you listen to the recordings doesn’t necessarily come across with the same energy we bring to the live show, which, I think, is a pleasant surprise for a lot of listeners. Like, when they see that we can bring so much more energy to a type of music that doesn’t necessarily seem like it would have that same type of gusto.

Like, the fire. Were you surprised how well it went? Not everyone’s comfortable on stage. Not everyone interacts with each other on the stage, especially in those first few shows. But throw them on the road for two years and they come back a different band. Did you rehearse the live show?

Vella: We definitely rehearsed a lot. But it was only in the few weeks leading up to the show. It’s not like we were rehearsing for months and months. It was maybe the two weeks leading up to the show. We just had eight or 10 rehearsals. We ended up taking more time than we needed just because we had never done it before. We didn’t know what putting the whole show together would look like. So we took a good chunk, but then once we got into the swing of it,  it just felt very natural. It felt very good pretty much out the gate.

You had The Feldman Agency there. Were they your booking agency?

Wita: That show was put on by Live Nation.

How did that happen?

Vella (to Wita): Did we have an agent yet at that point?

Wita: We were in touch with Denise Ross [promoting manager, Live Nation], but we didn’t have an agent at that particular moment.

So that was a showcase for you?

Both: Yeah.

Wita: It was a more or less a showcase, and for fans, friends and family.

Vella: An introduction to the live show, showing them that we can actually play music; we don’t just fake it.

The song — “Those Eyes” — the version on Based On A True Story…  is the version from 2019.

Vella: Yes. It’s the same version.

Did you have a sense of how good a song it was when you wrote it?

Wita: We knew it was special because it came out of the four of us, getting to know each other and finding our mutual love for the same music. There were a couple moments throughout its lifespan, up until now, where we’re like, ‘Oh my god, we’ll be all right as long as we have “Those Eyes” kicking around.

Vella: It was the first song we ever wrote together. First song we released, which is just crazy.

And it’s gone uphill from there with your other songs.

Wita: It’s gone uphill, downhill, sideways, in and around.

Vella: It never stops trucking. It seems to just keep moving on.

When did you look at each other and were like, “Holy, what is happening with this track and what do we do now to back it up and do we have enough songs?”

Vella: I don’t think the amount of songs was ever an issue for us. We’re always just writing recordings. There’s a back catalogue of unreleased, or at least demos. There’s so much music there, but the day it actually started spiking was April Fool’s of last year [2022]. We’re just like, ‘Whoa, why is this all of a sudden just like starting to pop off?’ And it was April 1st and we’re like, ‘Is Spotify taking the piss? Are they just pulling an April Fool’s prank on us?’ But, it, from then on, just kept growing and growing and growing and then everything just kept moving from there.

How did you reach the industry?

Vella:  Well, we, at that point, had a distribution deal with Dine Alone Records. So we were working with Dine Alone and were very, very, very great with us in the early days there. The best guys, ever. We absolutely loved them. Still great friends with them and they were awesome.

Did you experience the traditional courting from the record companies — flying you down, giving you amazing tickets for shows, for games, taking you for dinners?

Vella: Yeah, once the major labels started to come to play, it was a lot of flying down, taken for dinner and all giving the same spiel [laughs].

You’re on Republic but Giant is Irving Azoff’s label. Who did you end up signing with directly?

Vella: Republic, but Giant has partnered on there as well.

What was it that they were saying to you that made them the people to go with?

Wita: It was more of a feeling. Like, up until that meeting with Republic, all of the meetings were kind of the same tone, the same kind of fluorescent vibe. And then, we walked into that Republic meeting, it was a little serendipitous, which has been the story from the start of this band. So, after all was said and done, we just did a vibe check of how we all felt about every meeting and Republic and Giant, both, not only did they say like the right things, it was more of a connection.

Vella: And then Giant also is the same as the Full Stop, who manages us as well. They also manage other Republic artists. So there’s a good relationship between Republic and Giant already through Full Stop Management. So it just all made sense for it all to work together.

New West hang at UK’s The Recreation Ground where Bath Rugby play (L to R): Kala Wita, Riley Bell, Ben Key and Lee Vella — photo credit: Sean Brown

It seems rare these days to look at publishing credits for a new act and not see a list of names on a song longer than your arm. New West is self-contained, as mentioned, all multi-instrumentalists, obviously been steering your career well. Was that something that was important in your discussions with labels that they not throw you in a room with this notable songwriter or outside producers?

Vella:  I don’t think we’re opposed to starting to work with other people in the future, but as we’re building this thing that we’ve already built so much ourselves, we wanted to at least, for the first little while, keep it contained to just us. Like, we developed the sound ourselves and we wanna keep rolling with it.

Was that something you brought up in your discussions with different labels?

Wita: I don’t think we ever like discussed anything like that formally. It just happens.

Vella: We’ve never felt pressured by them to work with other people if we didn’t want to.

I was pleased to see you went to all these different studios to record — from the U.K. to Sweden to the U.S. You were at some legendary ones — Peter Gabriel’s Real World and the farmhouse Rockfield [there’s a documentary on it, The Studio on the Farm (2020)], both in the U.K. For a long time, record labels stopped doing that for new acts. Was too costly when the industry was in trouble.

Wita: Rockfield was before we were signed.

Vella: Rockfield and Powerplay [in Zurich, Switzerland] were both before we had signed.

Oh, before you had signed.

Wita: But yeah. They let us fly out to Real World and some others.

That shows a commitment. We went through a bit of a rocky time in the industry where artists just made albums at home or home studios to keep costs down.

Vella: Well, I just think they know that that was something we like to do and they don’t want to impede the creative process. If that’s what works for us, then I think they’re happy to support.

What were your favourite studios, either creatively or hanging out, living and working?

Wita: Well, we have plans to go back to Real World in January, so I think it’s safe to say we have a connection there with that area.

Vella: That being said, they all did bring, even if it’s not for the music per se, just really cool experiences, just being in the areas it’s great. It’s always inspiring to go somewhere you don’t live, getting out of your little box and seeing some of the world.

is there a theme to the songs on Based On A True Story…?

Wita: I would say loosely. There’s a lot of room for interpretation, which is, in our opinion, what makes really good art or music. We obviously have our story that’s naturally attached to it, but the truth of it is, it’s like the album doesn’t even belong to us anymore. We’ve already gotten a lot of messages from people, like, ‘This is what this means to me…’  The meaning of the album completely expands once it’s out.

A few themes stood out for me, touching on travel, being away from home, the toll that it can take on relationships, being away that long, changing, and what happens between early adulthood into ‘You are now an adult.’ And, ultimately, relationships changing from people going different ways.

Wita: Yeah, a lot of our music is very coming of age. And even in that, it’s not something that’s super specific to any situation. It’s very much universal truths about life and love and relationships and all of that.

When the album came out last month, what were you doing? Did you monitor social media?

Vella: I fell asleep when it came out at midnight. I was in bed probably at 11. [Wita laughs]

And then when you woke up in the morning, did you start scrolling, see what people were saying?

Vella: I think it’s more of just a relief. We’ve been working on it for so long and once you’re done a project, it’s nice to just get it out there, let the people make what they will of it and start thinking about the next one.

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