Catching Up with Keegan DeWitt of Wild Cub

Music Features Keegan DeWitt
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Over the course of the past year or so, film composer and singer/songwriter Keegan DeWitt has undergone an artistic sea change of sorts. This November, he joined forces with established Nashville multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Bullock and formed Wild Cub, a venture that’s seen DeWitt exchange pianos and acoustic guitars for synthesizers and drum machines.

Youth, Wild Cub’s impressive full-length debut, came out earlier this week. Though it’s technically synth-pop by definition, Youth has a warm, handmade feel: it was recorded in a ramshackle home studio and processed through a TASCAM tape recorder. A similar type of detailed care went into the writing of the album, which DeWitt says he started soon after getting married and turning 30 years old.

We caught up with DeWitt earlier this week to talk Youth, a debut that draws richly from a wellspring of different sources: Dewitt’s background in film, his flirtations with a more rhythmic approach to songwriting, even literary influences like Jonathan Lethem, Philip Larkin and Walker Percy. After reading through Keegan’s thoughtful, intense reflections on the album, it’d be hard not to share in his excitement about Youth, too.

Paste: : Your new album, Youth, was written around the time you turned 30 years old. Was that a time when you found yourself looking back on your own childhood?
Keegan DeWitt: It’s funny. I said that, and now that’s going to stay with me until the day I die. It really wasn’t me turning 30, like, recollecting on my youth.

The idea behind Youth had a lot to do with me suddenly getting married. Ever since I can remember being my own autonomous person in the world, my singular focus, the thing that I was compelled by, was the bond that two people can share, how strange and elusive and compelling that is. Even though I was having my thirtieth birthday, I felt so young. It was almost like I had been running down this long, long hallway and there’s a door at the end. And finally, you reach the door, and you slam it shut, and you realize what’s behind you, and you’re like, “Woah. What is all this now? What an amazing thing, now that I get to explore everything!” It’s almost like the Ghost of Christmas Past, you get to go back, and now explore this same world that felt so gigantic and chaotic and crazy, but with somebody else, ow.

I’ve always been compelled by the idea of small moments, and moments aside. The writer Walker Percy talks about it really well, and has the perfect sentence for it, which is, “the sad little happiness.” He talks about how life doesn’t deliver you these big moments. For the most part, life delivers you sad little happinesses. What it’s like to totally get surprised, and spend the night with somebody. Or you know, you meet somebody and you have that chemistry and suddenly you’re driving home by yourself and it’s just like this thing that you can’t put your finger on. It’s not this huge momentous thing—it’s not like a Cameron Crowe movie. It’s just like, these sad little happinesses, these passing moments, that life is made up of.

Life is made up of these tiny moments that are really substantive rather than these giant moments that you think it’s about. The reason why youth is so compelling is that people, in the time of their youth, have this ability to be totally available, like, an electric live-wire to these small subtleties of life. When you’re a kid, or when you’re 18, and you’re like sitting next to somebody and their hand brushes your hand, it’s like, bells are going off in the sky. There could be these really big, amazing feelings, with these really small, incremental moments in your life. And that was what was really compelling. That feeling of, like, chaos in your heart or excitement about what this was, and what that was, or the small highlights in your life, that comprise so much of your youth.

The other thing about Youth was the idea of these small amazing moments. How do you become a fully formed adult and a human without being soured by the lack of fulfillment of your expectations? Right before I met my wife, this is really what Youth was about for me, writing this record, was realizing how scary it was that right before I met my wife I was wondering if, when I met the person that I was supposed to be with, would I be this twisted up, soured up old jerk at that point, you know what I mean? Like would I be able to appreciate it? Would I be able to be available? Because of all these things that you go through, when you meet this person, and then they aren’t what you expect. You go through so much expectation and letdown. How do you still—even when you’ve gone through all that—be totally available to whatever’s going to come down the line?

There’s a really great Phillip Larkin poem, called “When First We Faced and Touching Showed,” and it’s really great. A part of it goes like this:

“When first we faced, and touching showed
How well we knew the early moves,
Behind the moonlight and the frost,
The excitement and the gratitude,
There stood how much our meeting owed
To other meetings, other loves.”

That was so interesting to me, the idea of past things. You spend so much time in your youth just bouncing around in the world. Then suddenly you find yourself in a room, and you’re like, laying in a bed next to somebody. You’re like man, these are two very real people formed by all these crazy experiences behind us and all these crazy experiences that are going to happen after us. That’s a really interesting thing, that intimacy you can have with someone who’s a total stranger to you.

Paste: : So, Youth really doesn’t have much to do with nostalgia at all.
DeWitt: It’s hard not to make it sound like nostalgia. It’s not like I turned 30, and I was like, oh man, time to get out the picture book and look back at youth. That’s not really what I was compelled by.

In the record, there’s a quote. The only real words in the CD when you buy it is this quote from Jonathan Lethem:

Teenage life—possibly adult life too.. is all about what you want and can’t have. And then about what you receive and misuse.

That was a compelling idea for me. The idea of desires unfulfilled. The idea of desires just about to be fulfilled, and then what happens when you finally get certain things. You know, everybody has that thing where you think back on somebody…or, yeah, just once you get something and then you mishandle it. Those lessons. Those are all really interesting, and a big part of growing up.

Paste: You’ve got a pretty extensive background in film composing. How does that perspective influence the kind of songwriting you’re doing with Wild Cub?
DeWitt: As much as it sounds like a poorly written blog post, Youth is cinematic. The lyrics are that way. I think about it as though it’s a photo with air running through it—moments, frozen in time. I always write based on photographs or poetry, about super small moments. When I went to film school when I was 17 years old, the person I was super passionate about was Michelangelo Antonioni. All of his films were about flat narrative. At every moment there’s all these really tangible, cool things happening. That’s why there’s lots of talk about driving on Youth, or just, walking around at night, or things like that. I wanted to focus on these moments of subdued reflection, or brief little sections, or scenes.

I love film scores because they’re as minimal and selective as possible. I really love the idea of something that is just out of reach. It’s so close you can taste it but it’s not yours. I always think the absence of something is way more interesting than the presence of something, because it means that you’re using your imagination. People’s imagination is usually more interesting than whatever I could tell them.

The thing that I try to carry over some from the film composition to the songwriting, and I’m not always successful, is the idea that you can hit a single piano note over a two-minute scene, and it can break somebody’s heart. Someone glances at somebody else and you hit one piano note, and it could gut you. It’s a subtle, subtle acknowledgement that something else is there. Something else is at work.

Paste: The first impression you’ve probably gotten from a lot of people is that your work with Wild Cub falls under a totally different genre than your solo material did. Your solo stuff was a little more folk influenced, whereas this new album has a lot of synthesizers in it. It’s a little more electro-pop. What, over time, has inspired you to use those different elements in your music?
DeWitt: It should be different, because hopefully it is. That’s what a lot of people want to do with Wild Cub. Let me directly compare it to a Keegan record. If I wanted it to be a Keegan record, I’d just call it my name. There’s a reason I went through all the trouble to totally re-brand it, and not have my face anywhere on it.

I feel more compelled by rhythm and by volume and by the idea of building from drums and rhythm first. In terms of people who can write songs that are topical stories—I’m just not that great at it. I think that there’s too many people that are really, really good at it. Especially right now. I think the thing that I can do well is use rhythm, focusing on small moments and this cinematic way of kind of building out stuff to tell stories.

Before, I was writing things that I needed to be able to go and play on guitar, piano somewhere, all by myself, and were based on chords. These Wild Cub songs were me building just a raw drum beat, and then building a bass line. I really tried, as much as possible, to make any guitars that happened on the record as intentional as possible. So there was never a guitar on there just to be on there.

Maybe that’s a part of growing up a little bit. My ambition to have my face and my name, and just have it be me with an acoustic guitar expressing myself artistically, has waned. I feel like I’ve kind of stumbled on to this trail of something that revolves around repeating rhythms, and that’s really compelling to me. I think being able to separate my face and my identity from it allows me to fully indulge and go into that world.

Paste: There’s still a kind of warmth to the songs on Youth that some synth-influenced music or electro-pop lacks. I read about how you processed some of the recordings through a tape recorder.
DeWitt: That’s one thing I think I learned when I first started doing film composing and working on composing films: that there’s an art to being able to use limited means well.

Let’s just be real, the music industry is horrible right now. We could have sat around and waited for a record deal and waited for them to give us 30 grand and let them own our entire record, and then decide that they’re going to release it two years from now when we’re all dead and gone, with people living on Mars and stuff. Instead, we just said, let’s make a record. To do that, we went and built the studio, and we recorded it ourselves, and we mixed it with people who were generous with their time, and we mastered it the same way. I think that it really helped, to be able to add the personal thought of the tape recorder to it. But that was also us trying to convince people that we did this with our own hands, that we made this record. That’s always a lot more interesting.

We decided where we could get to something authentic was by beginning in a place where we were programming stuff, and then making it feel as if it was a diary entry, as if it was really personal, as if there was a human hand kind of doing all that work.

Paste: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned yet?
DeWitt: The main thing I’ll harp on about Youth is that this isn’t really about my reflection of youth. It’s about trying to give people something that makes them feel, like how they did when they were 20 years old, when you snuck out and found a pool, with five of your greatest friends. Those small moments that you have, those summers where you spend the entire time with one person and that’s all you do. Two summers later, you don’t even know where that person is, or what their phone numbers are. Those great moments. It’s more of an exploration of youth in general and less my commentary on it.