Being featured in Rolling Stone and Pitchfork is great and all, but Asheville native Xandy Chelmis had his heart set on another publication.
“Mountain Xpress — this is the big time!” says the lap steel player for local indie rockers Wednesday. Flashing a genuine, megawatt smile, he adds, “I’m psyched!”
The enthusiasm for his hometown’s alt-weekly paper is one of numerous reasons why it’s easy to root for Chelmis and his bandmates to succeed on a national and even international level. And the appreciation for the little things also feels like one of many signs that they’ll continue to value the city where the band formed — no matter how famous Wednesday becomes in the wake of its impressive new album, Rat Saw God, out Friday, April 7, via respected indie label Dead Oceans.
In late April, the five-piece ensemble will hit the road (and skies) on a tour that takes them across the U.S. and over to Europe. And as the group continues to grow its fan base and play its biggest rooms yet — including its first headlining show at The Orange Peel on Saturday, July 1 — the musicians are preparing themselves for potential tidal shifts that seemed like a dream just a few years ago.
Making the band
Karly Hartzman (vocals/guitar) didn’t start playing music until her junior year at UNC Asheville in 2018. After honing her songwriting skills, the Greensboro native formed Wednesday with Chelmis, Alan Miller (drums), Daniel Gorham (guitar) and Margo Schultz (bass), and they released I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone in 2020. Fellow Asheville native Jake Lenderman (who also fronts the rock band MJ Lenderman) contributed guitar parts to the album, and when Gorham’s other band required his full attention, Lenderman stepped in as the new lead guitarist for Wednesday.
But before then, Hartzman was making moves as an intern at The Mothlight, which she describes as her “first noncollege-kid experience in the Asheville scene.” The job also provided opportunities for Wednesday to open for various bands, including Speedy Ortiz in 2019.
“We were losing our minds,” Hartzman says of opening for the indie rockers. “And then Sadie [Dupuis] from that band said we were good, and we were like, ‘That must mean we’re actually good because this is someone who’s actually doing well.’ That was a huge turning point.”
Through their Mothlight connections, Wednesday connected with Alex Farrar and Adam McDaniel, who were then running Drop of Sun Studio out of McDaniel’s house. Together, they recorded Twin Plagues, which was released by indie label Ordinal Records in August 2021. The album featured significant upgrades in sound quality from I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone’s bedroom studio sessions, earning its compelling mix of shoegaze and alt-country a positive review from Pitchfork and a feature in Paste magazine.
Wednesday then played the Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh the following month and in 2022 released the covers album Mowing the Leaves Instead of Piling ’em Up and toured with Beach Bunny (including Wednesday’s debut at The Orange Peel) and Drive-By Truckers. That’s when it started to dawn on the band members that they had a sizable following outside of Asheville.
“We released two records during the pandemic out of [financial] necessity,” Hartzman says. “And then by the time we were able to tour post-pandemic, I remember we sold out our New York show and we were like, ‘Who the hell are these people and why do they know us?’”
With Asheville-based manager Rusty Sutton leading the way on the business side, Wednesday signed with Dead Oceans last summer. The news came with a mix of elation after years of hard work and a sense of imposter syndrome that lingers with each band member to varying degrees.
“We did so many sh***y DIY shows for so long that you prepare yourself for the worst — just so you don’t get your feelings hurt every show,” Hartzman says. “Now that we’re like selling and doing so well, it’s hard to get that muscle out of your brain that tells you, ‘We’ve got to accept defeat.’ But I think it’s necessary for a band to have that experience. If I could do it over again, I would not get rid of any of those shows.”
Divine rodent visions
Along with its tightknit, battle-tested camaraderie, Wednesday’s greatest strength might be its unpredictability. Steady surprises await with each of Hartzman’s sharp-eyed observational lyrics, which touch on everything from yellow jacket stings and highway sex shops with biblical names to getting full-size candy bars on Halloween. And though the layers of instrumentation — particularly the symbiotic interplay between Lenderman’s lead guitar and Chelmis’ lap steel guitar — are insanely catchy, they refuse to adhere to any standard formula.
That sense of rugged independence is in peak form on Rat Saw God, whose announcement in January was preceded last September by the band’s Dead Oceans signing and another atypical detail: the 8.5-minute lead single “Bull Believer,” which culminates in two minutes of Hartzman in full Mortal Kombat mode, screaming “Finish him!” While the track’s length and intensity make strong statements, the songwriter didn’t necessarily set out to craft an opus or go against the radio-friendly single grain.
“I never really think of songs in terms of ‘short song, long song.’ Every decision is based on the emotion I want to express, and I knew by the end of ‘Bull Believer,’ I wanted to scream about a certain event in my life — and then I ended up taking the eight minutes to set that scene and prepare myself to go there,” Hartzman says. “It gives me a lot of time to navigate that feeling during the performance of the song. It demonstrates how tough it is to access that feeling — it takes buildup and context and time to get there and open that door.”
Hartzman adds that “Bull Believer” is an excellent example of the band hearing what she’s saying, supporting her lyrics with their instrumentation “in the most appropriate way.” That artistic cohesion is evident across Rat Saw God, from “Chosen to Deserve” — which emphasizes the “country” half of the band’s alt-country leanings — to album standout “Quarry,” which features a vocal melody coincidentally reminiscent of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.”
“I think it’s cool that it lined up that way, but it wasn’t intentional at all,” says Hartzman, who was first alerted to the similarities by Drive-By Truckers bassist Bobby Matt Patton. “I don’t mind it, but I feel like I should be more familiar with it, considering how much it comes up.”
The beat goes on
The upcoming run of shows will reunite the Asheville-based Wednesday contingency with Miller, who moved back to his native Durham after graduating from UNCA at the end of 2018. And though Schultz is all over the new album, including the full band, oil painting cover art that she created, she’s no longer a member of Wednesday. Hartzman says the split was “as amicable as it could be” and that Ethan Baechtold has been filling in on bass.
The shift is a sizable one for a band on the cusp of the national spotlight, but the group’s current members say life otherwise hasn’t changed all that much. They feel grateful to live in a place where they remain fairly anonymous in public, even as the amount of press piles up around Wednesday and MJ Lenderman — which, except for Miller, features the same lineup.
“Other people are telling us that we’ve got a lot of attention. We don’t have necessarily that perspective on it outside of the internet, which for me is probably the worst part about it,” Lenderman says. “Social media is such a distraction for trying to make new music or just develop as an artist and not care about what people are saying about you — including good stuff.”
Deep, long-running connections to the local community and music scene also helps instill confidence in Wednesday’s long-term success. Chelmis notes that the Asheville music scene’s lack of a cutthroat mentality, “need-to-know people” and socialites helps keep egos in check. Likewise grounding him is the farm that he recently started with his family in Madison County, which keeps him thinking about trees and soil when he’s not on tour rather than dwelling too much on music. And his lifelong Tar Heels in the band also have no intention of leaving the mountains.
“Our time at home is so precious,” Hartzman says. “The crazier our life gets out on tour, the less time I want to spend in cities. That first moment when we breathe North Carolina air is the most sacred part of a tour.”
To learn more, visit avl.mx/cjs.