Formed at Queen’s University, Toronto-based band Wild Rivers is on an upward trajectory. The indie four-piece, comprised of Khalid Yassein on guitar and vocals, Devan Glover on vocals, Andrew Oliver on guitar and bass, and Julien Laferriere on drums, recently released their EP Eighty-Eight, a mix of Americana and folk influences.
The record is a perfect soundtrack for when summer starts slipping into fall, one that pivots between tones of longing and nostalgia on tracks like “A Week Ago” and the beautiful harmonies of “Howling,” and resignation on the plaintive “Call It a Night” and kiss-off track “I Won’t Be Back.”
Wild Rivers are currently opening for Australian band The Paper Kites on the North American leg of the Where You Live tour. The Varsity spoke to Yassein about the production of Eighty-Eight, the band’s time in Nashville, and the upsides and downsides of touring.
The Varsity: You and Devan [Glover], the other vocalist in the band, were formerly a two-piece called Devan & Khalid, but you’ve since added two new members, Ben Labenski on drums and Andrew Oliver on bass and guitar. How has that affected Wild Rivers’ music making process?
Khalid Yassein: We’ve kind of become a whole band as opposed to the duo that we were before. We’re more jamming in a room instead of just doing acoustic stuff, and sounds are coming from different places. So it’s really enriched our creative process. That’s two, three years ago, and we haven’t looked back.
TV: You just put out an EP a few months ago, Eighty-Eight. What were some of the themes that you wanted to incorporate in the writing and production of that album?
KY: Musically, we wanted to do a pretty raw representation of who we are as a band. A lot of the sounds were tracked live in a room, without a lot of additional stuff. So it’s got a live feel, which we really wanted. We spent so much time touring our first album and playing on the road that we feel like we have become a real band. Then, thematically on the album, a lot of the songs explore relationships in some way or another. And a lot of them involve the element of time. “I Won’t Be Back” and “A Week Ago” are songs about getting out of town and having regret, and that became the theme accidentally to the EP, which is why we called it Eighty-Eight. There’s a lyric in the first song, “A Week Ago,” that goes, “If I could get this Chevy up to eighty-eight / I’d take it back in time,” from Back to the Future, obviously. That kind of theme just accidentally came across through all the songs on the record.
TV: While you were listening back to all the songs that you had put together, was it then that you felt like there was a theme? It hadn’t been obvious to you all along?
KY: Totally, yeah. We have our tendencies when we write, to write about certain stuff — usually mention a car, or a movie reference, or some kind of accidental calling card. It’s cool that it makes the music feel a little more organic and not so contrived, that the songs just naturally have these ideas that we’re talking about based on where we’re at in our lives. So it was cool to notice that and lean into that after the fact.
TV: Would you say that while you were putting the songs together, you were thinking of how they would play live?
KY: I think it was actually a little bit of the opposite. Usually, before we record we do pre-production, which is us in a room rehearsing and talking about the arrangement of a song, and we definitely did that for the EP, but a big part of it too was that we played a bunch of the songs live this year before we recorded it and got the live feedback from the audience and figured out what hit, and what worked, and what felt good live. That more informs the record than us worrying about if we could play the songs on the record live. At its core, it’s just us, because we played the songs, and that’s what made it feel good and real. If we want to do something in the studio, we try not to worry about if we can do it live; we consider it a totally different medium. We find that it’s been good not to tie ourselves down to worrying about that too much.
TV: How do you know when to take feedback from the audience and when to disregard it because it’s something you feel really strongly about?
KY: It’s kind of intangible — when you go to a show and you can feel that moment that everyone’s in it and responding to it emotionally. Everyone in the room, us and the audience, can feel it when that kind of stuff happens. It’s more of an organic thing than someone coming up to us at the merch table and saying, “Ah, you should add a bridge after verse two.” It’s a feeling, and after the show we’ll talk about, “Oh, ‘Call It a Night’ felt really good tonight.” We feel like we were catching a groove and everyone was buying into it. So it’s that kind of thing that informs it on a human level, which is hard, because the magic about it isn’t obvious on paper and it’s rather a vibe, which is something we tried to chase for the EP.
TV: How would you say that your sound has evolved over the years? Even from being a duo with Devan through to the album in 2016, and now with Eighty-Eight.
KY: In terms of genres, I think we started in the indie-folk world, and that was a product of the songs starting as a voice or two voices and acoustic guitar, and building a song around that. Every song on the first record had an acoustic guitar at the centre of it because that’s the origin. And on the second record, the EP, there were more band songs, more songs that originated from the four of us jamming in the room, and that’s allowed for a different sound — rock, some indie-rock, some country. It’s become a little more of a polished version of our sound, especially production-wise. We just recorded a song a week ago that doesn’t have an acoustic guitar at all and it’s a different feel. We’re all individually into all kinds of music and we’re lucky that the fact that the two voices and acoustic guitar makes it us, but at this point we can explore a little bit to do something cool and different and it still feels honest and like a Wild Rivers song. So it’s cool, we feel like we’re in a place where we can really do whatever we want and we’re always trying to get better at what we’re doing.
TV: I read in an interview with the Queen’s Journal that you wrote Eighty-Eight between Toronto and Nashville. What do you think those two cities bring to the table, musically speaking, and do you think the EP has influences from both places?
KY: We’re all from the Toronto area, and that’s where the conception of the EP happened. We wrote a bunch of the songs in Toronto but we made them our own in a little studio that happened to be on 888 Dupont Street, a little basement recording studio, so that was another push for the namesake of the record. It started in Toronto and then we went to Nashville, which we’d been spending some time there this year, and wrote two other songs for the EP. We’re all crazy about the city and it’s so rich in talent; every time we go, we feel like we soak up a ton of energy and inspiration and get a lot done. We consciously decided to lean into that influence as a product of being on the road and being in Nashville that year. It was a cool part of where we were at. There’s definitely a little bit of that feel in the design, the album cover. It was an important part of the project practically and it comes out a little bit in the sound too, which is probably more country, Americana than we’ve ever done.
TV: Do you see Toronto as your home base for the foreseeable future?
KY: I think so. Right now we’re talking about spending a month or two here to start working on the next record, but we’re very easily enamoured by new cities. So, who knows, Toronto’s definitely our home base and I don’t ever see us leaving for good, but the great thing about this job is we don’t have a 9 to 5 and we can live and do whatever we want, whatever feels cool, and push ourselves. So, who knows, maybe the next record we do will be an LA concept record or we’ll move to a cabin in Montana.
TV: Pivoting a little bit toward the tour, is this your first months-long experience on tour or have you done similar lengths in the past?
KY: This is basically on par with our longest tour. We just came back from our longest tour, which was a little over a month long. It was a couple weeks ago, we just came back. So we’ve been on the road a lot this fall. But I think this is the biggest scale tour we have. We’ve upgraded our van, we have a tour manager, we’re playing these amazing theatre venues all over Canada and the US, so it feels like we’re doing it bigger than we’ve done before.
TV: What’s your favourite and least favourite aspect of touring?
KY: Favourite is eating good food and getting into shenanigans with my friends. My least favourite is probably that it’s tough to sleep and it’s tough to stay healthy. But you live so much and have so many experiences in such a short period of time that you don’t really think about how tired you are — you just kind of enjoy it. We’ve had a lot of fun touring and being on the road this year. I think we’ve set a good balance of being ambitious and serious, and also appreciating that what we’re doing is actually crazy and enjoying every moment.
Wild Rivers will be opening for The Paper Kites on November 22 at The Opera House.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.