MisterWives: Love, Trust and Mistakes
by Emily Zemler on September 27, 2016
A few years ago, MisterWives bandmates Mandy Lee and William Hehir found themselves walking home across the Queensboro Bridge at dawn. The pair had been in Manhattan, out late, when Lee’s fake ID was taken away. After downing a few bodega beers in a Bank of America vestibule, they had the idea to trek home to Astoria from Bleecker Street. The sun rose in the distance as they crossed the bridge, and, like a scene out of a movie, the two musicians unveiled their hopes for the future.
“We were going to Governors Ball that day and talking about what it would be like to play it,” Lee recalls, phoning from her apartment in New York, where the five-piece rock band is currently at work on their second album. “It was pretty cool to have it all come full circle and to play Governors Ball this summer. We felt like kids saying, ‘Oh, one day.’ I always remember that moment and think, ‘Holy shit. We really are doing it.’ If you told me on that bridge that things were going to come true, I would have laughed in your face. But we’re really lucky. It’s special. We don’t take it for granted.”
A lot has changed for MisterWives since that early morning jaunt across the Queensboro Bridge. The group, formed in late 2012 by Lee, Hehir, Etienne Bowler, Marc Campbell and Jesse Blum, didn’t arrive on the indie scene with any particular vision. They were five people who liked hanging out together, and their aim was simply to make good music and, hopefully, find themselves on bigger and better stages.
“We all remember the first time we played together like it was yesterday,” Hehir notes. “Mandy had written these amazing songs, and when we started jamming, everything just clicked. At that moment, we realized what we had was truly magical. Mandy writes all of the music, and every time she brings a new song to the table, we’re blown away and immediately start demoing it. We try not to pigeonhole ourselves into a specific genre, so I think that allows us to experiment with new ideas and incorporate different styles in every song without worrying about what other people think.”
The band signed with Photo Finish Records in 2013 and unleashed their debut EP, Reflections, in January of 2014. The songs immediately clicked with listeners, but it was MisterWives’ live show that particularly compelled their new fans. It’s been those performances— dynamic, propulsive bursts of energy—that have delivered MisterWives from their early days to now, where they are playing festivals like Bonnaroo and Governors Ball and headlining massive venues around the country.
“It’s been pretty wild watching the evolution—not just of our show and how we perform, but how the crowds have grown,” Lee says. “They keep getting bigger and bigger, which is amazing. We’ve been on the road for a couple of years now, from the first tour opening for Half Moon Run to the last headlining tour where we sold out Terminal 5. It was a pretty massive leap. And the show has grown.” She pauses and laughs, “Oh, my God, I used to wear skirts onstage because I wasn’t jumping around as much. But now I go absolutely nuts. So many things change as you grow, like your stage energy and your performance and how you sing.”
Lee considers MisterWives’ tour with Twenty One Pilots in 2014 as a pivotal turning point for the band. Watching the unbridled energy of their peers allowed MisterWives the opportunity to really let loose onstage. “I’ve never seen a show like that, really,” Lee says. “It’s something we strive for. Although, I’m not doing any backflips—those guys are insane.”
One of the primary components of MisterWives’ live performance is their refusal to use any sort of backing tracks onstage. The musicians aren’t interested in bringing a computer along on tour to augment their playing, so every note that comes from the stage during a MisterWives show is live in that moment. The band, which now includes saxophone player Mike Murphy as its sixth member on the road, wants to create a genuine sound.
“It wasn’t the goal,” Lee admits. “We weren’t like, ‘We’re going to be a band and we’re not going to do tracks.’ I didn’t know they existed! I was super old-school with all the bands I’d been in. It was really organic and everyone just played their instruments. And then, we started to tour, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute. How is that sound happening? They’re not playing that!’ I didn’t realize it was such a common thing. It used to be something that was shamed— if you used tracks you were like Milli Vanilli and Ashlee Simpson. It was a huge ordeal that could ruin your career, and now it’s the norm.”
She stops and then offers an amendment: “It works for other bands but, for us, honestly, being humans and feeling the energy and feeling each other and what the crowd is doing and having that liberty— I’d be scared not to have that. I want to connect with my bandmates and the crowd. Maybe I’m a little old school in that, but I think there’s something so magical about feeling how you’re playing and having that freedom.”
“Touring over the years has helped us reinforce the idea that recorded and live music are two different animals,” Hehir adds. “When we rehearse, we try and expand on what people have already heard on the album. One of the most fun things about being a band is that you can continue exploring new ways to play live. We arrange our songs differently than they are on the record. We also don’t play to a click, so sometimes things might be a little rushed because we’re all so excited onstage, and it comes across in how we play o one another.”
The absence of backing tracks onstage means that the male members of MisterWives have had to learn how to sing since the release of the band’s debut album, Our Own House, early last year. The album and its preceding EPs were built on layers of harmonies, since, as she writes, Lee aims to create interesting vocal textures. It’s a goal that takes on one incarnation in the studio but is much more di¡cult to manifest on tour. None of the musicians, save for Murphy (and Lee, of course,) sung before joining MisterWives, and the past few years have been one long singing lesson.
“It’s hard to play the drums and sing most of the major harmonies,” Bowler says. “My head always feels glued to the microphone, but all I want to do is head-bang around and have some fun. Blending four male vocals with one female lead is sometimes hard because we can’t always sing in the same range as Mandy.” He jokes, “Although, our sound guy usually mutes the dudes and boosts Mandy. Still trying to figure out why.”
“I feel bad,” Lee laughs. “I’m like, ‘I’m sorry I asked you how to do magic.’ But they pull it o and they keep growing and it’s really fun to watch. It would have been hilarious to be a fly on the wall in the early stages of trying to get vocals down when we started off as a band. I’m really proud of them and how they’ve grown. They seriously carry all the backing vocals. They have worked a tremendous amount to get their harmonies down.”
The melding of the vocals and how the sound will play out live has influenced the way Lee is writing for the band’s second album, which will arrive in early 2017. As of late July, Lee had written eight new songs, and the band demoed several with Bowler serving as producer. It’s a bit early to assess exactly how the album will shake out, but the musicians do know what they want and what is influencing their choices.
“Whenever I write, I think, ‘Is this something that’s going to easily translate with the instruments we have now and the voices that we have now?’” Lee notes. “We want to make sure we can pull it o live. We take that seriously—keeping that energy alive.”
“Performing in front of thousands of people while they all sing the words is not only something worth writing about in itself, but it’s moments like those that stick with us during the writing process,” Bowler adds. “We can really imagine how a crowd will sing and participate with a song, and we keep that in mind when coming up with parts and new jams. With this next record, we really just want to make the best music possible that is true to ourselves while simultaneously pushing boundaries, and go places we have never been.”
Lee, who says the album so far is about “love, trusting and making mistakes,” has been consistently penning new music since MisterWives returned from Bonnaroo in June. They were planning to tour with Walk the Moon this summer, but the dates were canceled at the last minute. It ended up being a blessing in disguise for the group, who ended up spending August locked in the basement recording studio at Bowler’s parents’ house. It’s was a relief for Lee, who found herself unable to write while on tour.
“I tried and I failed miserably,” she sighs. “I need to be very much alone with the piano. So I haven’t really written anything over the last two years. I got home and it just poured out of me. It was nice to remember that this is why I write music. On the first album, I had writer’s block and there were time constraints, and I was thinking about all these expectations and people I had to make happy. It’s been really nice just writing because I need to and not thinking about anything else.”
One song in particular has been especially cathartic for the singer. Lee’s brother was diagnosed as bipolar a few years back, and it’s been an ongoing challenge for her. “It’s been a really intense summer of him being in and out of psych wards and helping him,” she explains. “So I wrote a song for him. It’s about mental illness. It’s a tough song to talk about, but it’s really important to me and to my family. But that’s what music is there for. I’m really lucky I have this outlet to write about my feelings. As silly and clichéd as that sounds, it’s true.”
That sentiment seems to remind her of something, and she offers a possibility for why fans continue to connect with MisterWives’ music. “I hope they can use it for whatever hardships they’re going through and realize that we’re all going through many different things, and music is there to connect us and lift each other up and make us feel like we’re not alone,” she notes. “This album isn’t all sad— there are songs about the band and how we’ve grown. There’s a lot of songs about hope and love and fear. I don’t want anyone to feel alone, and that’s what music is here for and that’s what we’re here for. We’re one big unit that can get through anything.”
In June, as MisterWives made the pilgrimage to Tennessee to perform at Bonnaroo, that feeling was markedly clear. The band was given a late-afternoon slot on the festival’s main What Stage, which the band still can’t believe happened.
“It’s one of the only festivals we’ve played where people camped out for four days, and there is something really special about that,” Hehir says. “Music is all about building communities and bringing people together, and Bonnaroo definitely proved how amazing that can be.”
“It was especially amazing for me because I had played Bonnaroo eight years ago with a small band on a small stage in front of small people,” Bowler notes. “To come back and play the main stage was a real moment for me to recognize how far we’ve come. I may have cried.” He adds, “It wasn’t raining that day so, yeah, I probably cried.”
The musicians stayed on the festival grounds long after their set had ended. As LCD Soundsystem took the stage—the same stage that MisterWives themselves had played on only hours earlier— the band climbed onto the roof of their tour bus, which was parked nearby.
“We opened the fire escape and got on top of the bus and danced our asses off,” Lee says. “It was amazing—definitely a moment all of us will never forget. That whole day was so magical. It was one of the best moments of our lives. Bonnaroo is a really unique festival because it’s all about the music, which music festivals should be, but there’s usually a lot of other stuff going on. This is just everyone there, smelling terrible, dirty as hell, and having the best time ever by watching music. That’s something we can really connect to.”