Breaking news: Playing music is supposed to be joyful. In any creative endeavor—especially one where a certain level of success is obtained—it’s easy to lose sight of that fact. When Canadian actor Finn Wolfhard, known the world over as Mike Wheeler on Netflix’s Stranger Things, started his band Calpurnia with guitarist Ayla Tesler-Mabe, drummer Malcolm Craig and bassist Jack Anderson in 2017 at age 14, it was for the simple pleasure of making music with his friends. And then it wasn’t anymore.

In two years’ time, the band grew exponentially: No longer an experiment in Craig’s Vancouver basement, the quartet signed to the tastemaking indie label Royal Mountain Records (Orville Peck, Mac DeMarco, Alvvays), toured North America hitting legendary festivals such as Governors Ball in New York City and collaborated with Weezer on the music video for their cover of a-ha’s “Take On Me.” They were given opportunities usually reserved for musicians much further along in their development, and when it became untenable, they had the wisdom to call it quits. That was in 2019.

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But Craig and Wolfhard never stopped playing together, opting, instead, to do things the ol’ DIY way. They sent tracks back and forth; they threw some demos on Bandcamp. Soon, fans took notice. Even in the midst of a pandemic, the pair found ways to record in isolation. First came March 2020’s Soda & Pie EP, and now, a full-length—with help from their producers, Twin Peaks’ Cadien Lake James and Colin Croom, as well as Andrew Humphreys—Karaoke Alone. “There’s no big giant push [on this album]. We don’t have a label behind us. It’s just us. So, there’s something really freeing about just putting out music by ourselves,” Wolfhard tells Alternative Press. “We can control our music careers.”

Over Zoom—Wolfhard from Los Angeles and Craig from their hometown of Vancouver (“The ’couve,” as they lovingly refer to it)—the band detail their sonic obsessions, their admiration for local music scenes and the out-there experiments that lead to the Aubreys’ debut, Karaoke Alone.

If you’re looking for a meditation on an actor-turned-rock-star, look elsewhere. This is the story of two 18-year-old musicians, finding solace in song.

What’s the meaning behind the phrase “Karaoke Alone”? It feels inherently sad. Karaoke is supposed to be a social experience.

FINN WOLFHARD: Malcolm wrote the song first. The album name came from the song, from the title track. It was something Malcolm said. The full meaning behind it—the song is essentially taking a sad road trip by yourself. Right, Malcolm?

MALCOLM CRAIG: It was written in really early COVID days. I was missing all my friends. I missed Finn. It was just like, “Aw, man, looks like I’m doing karaoke alone tonight.”

Do you write alone? 

WOLFHARD: It’s an amalgamation. Some of the songs were written with me and Malcolm in his basement. Then some songs Malcolm would have a demo that he did a bunch of the instruments on. He would send it to me. He would send me the Stems, and then I’d put on a bunch of stuff, and then we’d just send files back and forth. That’s usually how we’d do it. Then we’d call and talk about it.

CRAIG: Once we’re in the recording studio, everyone jumps into the song.

WOLFHARD: Everyone puts in their two cents, and that’s how it goes. It becomes bigger and bigger.

When you say everyone, do you mean the guys from the band Twin Peaks?

WOLFHARD: Yeah. They’re our producers. Cadien Lake James, Colin Croom and Andrew Humphreys.

Do they also play on the record?

WOLFHARD: Yeah. Everyone is playing everything on that record. Malcolm and I are playing guitar; we’re all playing bass sometimes; we’re all playing synth sometimes; we’re playing aux percussion—it’s different every song. Even our friend Clay [Frankel]—who is one of the lead singers of Twin Peaks—came in for a whole day and hung out and was like, “Oh, I’ve got an idea for a piano part,” and went and recorded it. It’s very organic.

And you recorded it in their hometown, Chicago. It seems like you both have a relationship with the Chicago music scene—Twin Peaks specifically, of course—but how did that come to be? What is it about those bands that you’re drawn to?

WOLFHARD: A lot of my favorite bands are from Chicago. I became obsessed with Twin Peaks when I was 13.

CRAIG: You just texted them out of the blue, right? Instant friendship.

WOLFHARD: Yeah. Joe Keery, who is also a musician, he’s in Stranger Things as well, he grew up in the Chicago scene and started that band Post Animal. He played a bunch of shows with Twin Peaks and knew the Twin Peaks guys. He gave me Cadien’s number. So, I texted Cadien and started sending songs, so he became my little mentor. I started sending him songs, and he started giving me advice and notes. There was this label that came around, and they were like, “Hey, do you want to record an EP?” And I was like, “Oh, my God, yes.” They were like, “Who do you want to record it with?” “The Twin Peaks guys. They’re my favorite band.”

It was a dream come true. We got to go to Chicago [with our old band, Calpurnia, and] hang out with them. It was a big learning experience for all of us. As we’ve gotten older and that band’s dissolved, we’ve remained best friends with Cadien and Colin and all those guys. Ever since then, we’ve wanted to go back and record a much more refined and mature album with them. So we went back, rented a house in Lincoln Park and stayed there, roomed together, for like two weeks. It was great.

Chicago doesn’t feel competitive and feels like every single band is best friends with each other. Which is true. So, we’ve gotten lucky enough to get to know some of the people in the Chicago scene just by knowing the Peaks guys. It’s an amazing city.

Your record is very weird, and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s great. It reminds me of how people used to review ’90s college indie rock, like Pavement. “It’s quirky… slacker rock.” Everything feels a little charming, off-kilter, a little hard to pinpoint exactly. Did you set out with a particular ambition?

WOLFHARD: Thank you. That’s a big compliment. There’s a lot of artistic liberties, I’ll put in air quotes, of “production notes,” songs where we’re like, “I want this song to sound like this.” That’s why I’m really proud of the album. I’m really into indie rock. I love Wilco and obviously Twin Peaks, and Malcolm likes these people, too—the Stones, more traditional rock. Malcolm’s into Tame Impala and Animal Collective and Deerhunter and stuff like that. So, we wanted it to sound, in a perfect world, like a Wilco record meets LCD Soundsystem.

Where’s all the psych stuff come from?

WOLFHARD: That’s all Malcolm.

CRAIG: I wanted to come in and take Finn’s demos of him with an acoustic guitar and just throw some wild shit on there, out of the blue. Push ourselves out of our comfort zones.

WOLFHARD: That’s why I think the album is interesting and why I’m so proud of it. Because it’s a new step. What’s so awesome about having Colin, Cadien and Andrew be our producers is [that] they lean into stuff. When Malcolm was like, “Oh, we should put some synths here,” we’d call it “bleeps and bloops,” some weird sound, [and] they’d go full on. “Dude, why not?” We really experimented on this album. We sampled YouTube videos. 

Let’s get it out of the way because the people are going to want to know. What happened to your old band, Calpurnia? It seemed like everything went quickly—you had a record deal, you blew up and you broke up—all in the span of two years. 

WOLFHARD: Why the split? We all met when I was 13. Me, Ayla [Tesler-Mabe] and Malcolm jam all the time. I was hosting this charity event, and I needed a band. Ayla knew Jack [Anderson], who was our bassist, from school, and they’ve been friends since kindergarten. We all hung out and played.

We did this EP [2018’s Scout]. Because we were young and swept up in it, we didn’t realize that we had to make a bunch of money back for the label. It was really fun, touring, but it devolved into being about money. Menno [Versteeg], who is the owner of Royal Mountain [Records]—we still talk to him and are close with him; we love Menno and everything he’s done for us—but at the time, it was not the right fit. Or we were uncomfortable with it.

When you’re 14 on the road, and everyone is telling you you’re incredible all the time, you’ll be upset when stuff dissolves. When stuff doesn’t go your way. We were doing things that we didn’t want to do. We were playing shows we didn’t want to do. We were putting out merch we didn’t want to put out. It was just like, “Oh, this sucks.”

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So, I called everyone. “I think we should go on a hiatus and take a break.” We were in a very incredible position. I wouldn’t take back any of it. Also, I am so lucky to have a job in acting that is successful. But you get to a point where you have to be honest and say, “This is not fun anymore.” I think that’s fair. Then Malcolm and I, we saw each other and hung out and jammed, just him and I, and it felt like we didn’t have to prove anything to anyone. We were just playing to play. “Ah, man, this is what it should be like. Let’s write songs together.” I went back to everyone and said, “I don’t think we should do a hiatus; I think we should break up.”

It was definitely for the best. People were bummed, but at that time, and even now, I don’t regret it at all. I wish the best for Jack and Ayla, who are insanely talented musicians. There’s no bad blood. There’s no crazy fight, Brian Jonestown [Massacre] onstage. They’re doing their thing. It wasn’t fun anymore, and when you’re in a position where you have the choice to make it fun, why would you put yourself through that? Especially when you’re that young? “This is my outlet, and this is going to ruin it for me.” And will ruin it for all of us. When it becomes more about business, what’s the point?

Finn, it seems like you work hard at keeping your music and acting lives separate. And you used the word “outlet” earlier. Is this band, the Aubreys, your release?

WOLFHARD: Definitely. I grew up as a child actor. It is important to have other outlets in your life to not go insane. I’m lucky that I have a few of those. I have the Aubreys. I write movies. I read. Those are so important to me. I didn’t get into music because, like, “I want to be in a band. I want to look cool.”

I saw a community within music, and I wanted to be a part of that. I realized that writing songs and playing guitar was really meditative for me. A lot of actors go into music. Some of them go into it wanting financial gain. If I really wanted to be huge, I’d be in a boy band. I’d be signed to a major label. I’m just doing it because it’s really fun for me. I’m not doing it to change the world. If people listen to it, I hope they really like it. I’m doing it because being able to do it with my best friends is great.

Does it bother you, if some people see the Aubreys as “just the Stranger Things guy’s band”? 

WOLFHARD: It doesn’t bother me. That’s what they would know me from, right? But there is a negative connotation. That’s what I would say was the hard thing about playing live, when I was younger, for everyone in Calpurnia. I felt bad playing shows and people weren’t paying attention to Ayla playing guitar or Jack playing bass. People just had their phones out and were yelling Stranger Things references. I felt bad for all the people who are working hard onstage.

CRAIG: Also, the people who are there because they like the music.

WOLFHARD: I don’t want to sound spoiled. “Oh, I hate that people like me.” I don’t mean that at all. But sometimes it blows for the people who aren’t there for that. People have grown out of that, especially as I’ve gotten older. There’s a lot less “Stranger Things fans” at shows, which is nice. People start to respect it now.

Earlier you mentioned some themes on the record. What about cars? There’s a car in “Karaoke Alone.” You sing about changing lanes in “Same As You.” It’s a metaphor, baby!

CRAIG: That might be a weird coincidence. We’ve both been getting our license recently. I got my driver’s license; I feel like a fucking million bucks, dude. I got it last spring. I’ve been on the road for a while.

WOLFHARD: Yeah. I failed my test. I could always go back. I think it is a fun coincidence, and I also think getting a driver’s license is a grasp onto freedom, [and] growing up, and that’s the biggest theme on the record. It’s about coming into your own and being your own person [and] having your own opinion on things.

Was there a song that was particularly challenging to write? Musically or emotionally?

WOLFHARD: The challenges came in recording. There’s a song called “Resale,” our second single. I was like, “I really like the melody of the chorus,” but when we recorded it, we realized it was two songs in one—the chorus is very different from the verse—and for the first few days of recording it, we were like, “Oh man, this song isn’t going to work.” We left it alone for a week and came back to it and figured it out. It’s the song on the album that I’m most proud of.

The difficult stuff came from the trials and tribulations of recording. The writing was the easy part. Usually, you have two versions of the song. You have the version you have in your head, when you first record on your acoustic guitar, and then you have the studio version, which has a lot of moving parts. You’re trying to make it perfect. But asking yourself the tough questions is no joke. “Resale,” the song, is literally about me feeling like I’m the same person but sensing that everyone sees me differently, and I keep being passed around to people. I feel like I’m going from family to family, with the job that I have. [It’s also about] growing up and having your own thoughts for the first time.

You’re writing from a very specific experience, but it’s also universal, that feeling.

WOLFHARD: That’s what I wanted to get through. I wanted to write things about my very specific life, but I also want people to relate to it.

You can read the full story in issue 399, available here.