What happens when a band emerges as a hometown favorite smack dab in the middle of Ohio before finding mainstream success? If you're Columbus and they're the Wet Darlings, you might try to keep it to yourself.
In the city named for that Italian explorer who let the word out about the New World, the supportive rock residents have kept a tight grip on their little Darlings since the explosive quartet emerged in 2008. With the national release of Beautiful Things on Oct. 23, it'll be time to let go and share them with everyone else.
Of course, that's as long as these four Ohioans who celebrate a spirit of fierce independence decide they really want to break out of their protective cocoon and spread their wings.
Guitarist Bill Patterson, a Columbus native, founded the band seven years ago with bass-playing younger brother Joe after finding their future front-woman, goaded by peer pressure and liquid encouragement, bravely belting out Beyonce in a local karaoke bar.
The group's mastermind and principal songwriter, Patterson didn't mind poking fun at his meticulousness during an hourlong phone interview he and intense lead singer Jenny Lute conducted at separate Columbus locations in early October.
Asked if the band intended to take seven years to release its first full-length album, Patterson laughed, saying, "No, to think about that kind of time going by, it's a terrible idea, right? (both laugh) You can't plan more poorly than that, really. We had a couple of EPs that came out before (2010's X, 2011's So Long, Lover earned them a spot in Columbus Alive's annual Bands to Watch issue). ... But, yeah, to really get the sound that we were looking for, to kind of come into our own, it took a little more time than we expected."
Partially crowd-funded through Indiegogo, Beautiful Things includes everything you want in a rock-your-world record. Angst, anger, arpeggiated guitar chords, tasty pop hooks, tasteful synths, a thunderous rhythm section, and lyrics that are intelligent and intrepid, all fueled with surging vocal vigor by Lute.
If she had a Scottish accent, Lute could be the millennium's Shirley Manson and the Wet Darlings would be this year's Garbage. These Midwesterners, though, don't seem to mind keeping their name to themselves, avoiding crucial details on an album cover revealing only one mysterious image that's open to interpretation.
"We like that stark element," said Patterson, who as a big fan of King Crimson remembers some of that group's similar statements from the '80s. "There's a certain strength that it kind of gives to the image, to not weigh it down or take away from the image by putting words on it. Some of my favorite album covers of all time (including Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon) are the ones that are like the most simplistic because they become iconic."
Lute had a more practical explanation for liking the image, a prism that doubled as her necklace in the still-to-be-released Beautiful Things video. "If this were me and I'm in a store and I see a record that I've got to pick up to find out what it is or who it is, I'm gonna do it."
Patterson kept the "nonsensical" name for his group after a female friend starting a jazz quartet rejected his suggestion because she didn't think her male counterparts could accept being called "Darlings." Initially satisfied with flying under the radar, the Wet Darlings take their indie cred seriously, employing a booking agent but no manager. Patterson realizes that tactic isn't always beneficial.
"I think it's a double-edged sword," he said. "I think it allows us to do whatever we want and move at our own pace (including six to eight months to write the bridge section on the title cut). At the same time, it probably comes around to bite you in the ass a little bit when it's time to put yourself out there a bit more. ...
"We can sometimes be our own worst enemy because we do work on our own schedule," he added, calling that lack of time management their biggest weakness. "We can take two years to make a record, or more. But when you do that, you lose a bit of momentum from your name not being out there as much. ... But again, it took us that long to do it right. (laughing) So can I say we did the wrong thing? No. We made what we wanted to make and we feel really good about it. So that's what we set out to do. I can't really kick ourselves too hard about that."
That the Pattersons and Lute, along with drummer Aaron Bishara, who joined the band in 2009, managed to form one cohesive unit is a compelling story that the Wet Darlings' two most powerful components were willing to share.
The Wet Darlings, from left: Bill Patterson, Joe Patterson,
Jenny Lute and Aaron Bishara.
'Church bubble' bursts
"Jenny, she never thought she'd actually sing in a band to begin with," Patterson said, recalling that fateful Tuesday night when he was hanging out with friends at Savari while in the midst of a desperate search for a female lead singer because he was certain no one wanted to hear his "terrible" voice.
"I don't even think she knew the song ("Crazy in Love") that well but when she got to the chorus, she had this great tone to her voice that not everybody has," Patterson added. "And I was really blown away."
Lute, who spent a shielded childhood in the tiny southern Ohio community of Peebles, about 70 miles from Cincinnati but light years from modern musical movements, seems equally amazed and amused by her circumstances.
"Oh, gosh, honestly, I just grew up singing in (a charismatic non-denominational) church," she said. "... And then when I finally grew up and left home, it's kind of like I honestly figured that I was done. It was kind of like a means to an end. I was just singing because the church needed a singer and whatever. I liked doing it but I just never imagined myself doing it outside of that context."
Living inside what she called "a church bubble," the former choir girl's musical exposure was limited to listening to black gospel while developing an appreciation for the banjo through her mother's side of the family, including her grandpa ("an amazing bluegrass player").
"I've always, since I was a little kid, loved it," Lute said of the banjo, which she hopes to "tinker around with" after being given one by her stepfather.
Joking that she plays a mean tambourine as her secondary instrument after contributing piano on the band's EPs, Lute doesn't see the Wet Darlings incorporating a banjo into the act any time soon, especially if they're depending on her.
"I know me and my level of commitment to things that take work. (laughs) So we'll say I'd like to (learn it), but will I? I don't know."
The one radio station in her hometown played country during the day and Southern gospel at night, so by the time she was legally old enough to drive, Lute and other members of her church band (including the guitar player she eventually married) would "sneak off" to suburbia near Cincinnati and "spend our whole evening in Borders Music listening."
Empowering singer-songwriters Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette were part of her "normal '90s rock" experience that included R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam. But it was hearing the late Jeff Buckley that made a difference by the time she was 17 or 18.
"Anybody that knows me knows that, hands down, that's the one person that I could say, one artist that has influenced me in so many ways and really no other artist has in the same way," she said. "I hate to put so much on him but, yeah, he was the one that kind of opened my eyes to the feeling of, well, I can have this big soul or spiritual, internal experience to something that's secular music. Something that's not God music."
If Lute and her friends would buy an occasional CD, they'd keep it a secret. Why?
Because where I'm from, your eyes and ears are a gateway to your soul and what you put in is what you put out," she said. "And if you're trying to lead people into the presence of God and letting all this garbage in (laughs) ... I grew up in a religious family, a big family, a very religious family. And that was fine.
They accept and support what she does now, her mother attending all the Wet Darlings' CD release shows, her father checking out a couple of random concerts in Columbus and her proud younger brother thinking "it's really cool."
Now they'll have to share that adulation with outsiders who don't have to listen to God's music to be part of a religious experience.
Band of brothers
Growing up, Joe and Bill Patterson III never seemed destined to be the next Brian and Carl Wilson, even if their father (Bill Jr.) played guitar in a blues cover band called the Boogiemen.
As a teen, Bill started out as a substitute drummer in his dad's band where, "I got my classic rock education. When you've got to learn 80 classic rock songs to play for four hours a night to drunk biker babes and whatnot ... I thought it was cool to be 15 and I was spending my New Year's Eve watching the ball drop and playing Doors songs."
After listening to bands like Van Halen and Def Leppard, guitar soon became his instrument of choice, though. Meanwhile, Joe, a year younger, was playing tapes by the Beastie Boys and -- "I probably shouldn't tell you this," Bill noted -- New Kids on the Block. "I know he at least had their Christmas album," Patterson added, laughing along with Lute. "So there was some divergence. And I can't blame him. You know, I get it."
A "typical sibling rivalry" caused them to butt heads a lot during their early years at Hilliard High School in suburban Columbus. But eventually music brought them closer. Seeing his 16-year-old brother perform in a Battle of the Bands, Joe decided, "I want to do that, too," and began playing bass, later becoming, according to Bill, the family's "better keyboard player" who added synths as the Wet Darlings expanded their sound.
In the '90s, Bill needed to replace the unreliable bass player in the high school band he started, but wasn't planning to recruit his kid brother until ...
I was headed to practice one day and my mom heard the bass player wasn't going to be there and she's like, 'Take your brother!' And I didn't want to do it. I was upset. I was like, 'No, he's stupid. I don't want to take him. He can't be in this thing.' But then the part of me wanted a really great band and also knew that he knew how to play these songs. So I took him with me and he's pretty much been in my bands ever since.
Their varied musical tastes also converged with the playing of one tape to and from school every day for a year.
"It seemed like a dangerous album at the time," Patterson said of the self-titled debut by Rage Against the Machine, the subversive rap metal act he saw perform at Lollapalooza in 1993. "So I remember riding to school one day and it's like, 'I'm gonna hit play on something, and you can't tell Mom and Dad I have this.' ... We bonded over that. From that point on, we really did listen to a lot of the same music."
Tied to each other
This truth-is-stranger-than-fiction origin story continued with the small-town girl with great expectations leaving home when her church closed down and moving to Columbus about nine years ago after studying at Shawnee State University in nearby Portsmouth, looking for somebody, anybody to employ her.
"I really didn't have anything going on down home anymore," said Lute, who eventually divorced her fellow church band member. "And it's a small place. I never wanted to be there forever anyway. I've always had an itch to get out. And then I just applied for a bunch of jobs and the first place to hire me, I moved to that city. And it was Columbus," where she still works for Ohio Health, currently as a home care liaison.
The Patterson brothers, graduates of Otterbein College in nearby Westerville, invited their first female singer to come over and sing in the basement of Joe's home about a year and a half after their previous band, Chuck's Junk, split up.
All the men are married without children, finding jobs elsewhere to supplement their nightly income. Bill does freelance audio work, Joe runs his own landscaping business and Bishara teaches drums, is a freelance session player and performs with other groups such as the New Basics Brass Band and Global Rhythm Ensemble.
Lute is the single mother of a 3-year-old son, grateful for the good benefits and health insurance "that as of right now the band can't provide," she added with a wicked laugh.
Splitting lyric duties with Patterson on Beautiful Things' "Good Morning, Bad Dream" and "Home," Lute insists she has no desire to get more involved because "my style of songwriting is so much more simple and straightforward. ...
"Now this is me telling myself this. It's not that anybody else has discouraged me from doing this whatsoever," she added. "They've only encouraged me to do so. But in my mind, it's not exactly a good fit, so I just supplement where I can if I can because I like what Bill does. I think we all do."
Besides, Patterson's way with words is hard to top. A line from "Used to Be Better" ("I'm good ... but I used to be better") displays his sharp sense of humor, while on the rousing "Wedding & Wake," he demonstrates his ability to write from a woman's point of view.
You parked your car at the foot of my bed / When all I said was "pick me up"
The understanding bandleader showed a deep compassion for Lute while explaining how his idea developed for that song, one he originally thought would be a "sleeper album track" that has turned into a favorite of many, including mine.
"When we first started going into making this record, Jenny found out she was pregnant," he said. "And it was a surprise to her and a surprise to us. And it's all great, she's got this amazing son right now. But in the beginning when we started to do this, it made me realize, when you end up tied to someone, like the father of her child, or you have a child with someone, you're tied to the other person for the rest of your life in a way. ...
The whole process of her having this kid, I think it brought up feelings in all of us like, 'Wow, this wasn't expected. This is amazing, this is scary.' There's so much around that. And for us all being as close of friends that we are, I couldn't help but take that in and I guess make something with it.
As tight as the bandmates are and how much they like hanging out, the four still have more to learn about each other. And they take their career more seriously than themselves. During a series of earlier random bio questions in a match of acerbic wits, Lute needled Patterson when he wasn't sure where (or if) his drummer went to college.
"It's like we're a band full of strangers," his singer dryly asserted, twisting the knife.
"We joke around too much to pay any real attention," Patterson countered.
Just for the record, Bishara's Linked in profile indicates he attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, from 1999-2001.
So that might be news to Patterson and Lute, but they also were full of surprises about themselves, presented during this interview in the form of a stunning revelation or personal impression.
Downplaying his remarkable playing, he apparently astounded her by paying the Wet Darlings' "best asset" the ultimate compliment during this exchange about the challenge of balancing their strengths:
Bill: "For me, when you get to work with somebody like Jenny who has a voice like that, it commands attention. From the beginning, I knew if I made the guitar do anything that was going to go up against her voice, I would come out looking bad each time. She's a better singer than I am a guitar player."
Jenny: "No way, stop it."
Bill: "Well, I mean, if you even go back, if you look at any of our songs, so very few have any guitar solos in them. And it's by design. It's because she's the best asset at what we do and the best thing I can do as a songwriter is to put her on display. So I do think of that. I think of the dynamic that what I do plays alongside of what she does and I try to back off when I can."
Having developed chemistry like that, these like-minded individuals obviously belong in a group together, despite their different backgrounds. When Patterson recruited Lute, he said their modest "goals at that time weren't necessarily anything more than, 'Hey, can we make something out of this? Like, do these songs work with her voice? Does she like the material? Is this something that actually gels?' "
After the addition of Bishara, the answers were yes, yes, yes and yes.
"We realized, 'OK we've got a sound and this really works and it's heavy and it's moody and it's pretty all at the same time.' Then we started thinking, I started thinking, 'How far can we take this?' "
With Beautiful Things, the Wet Darlings can prove they're ready to go the distance, especially if they follow their instincts and start getting invited to major festivals in 2016.
"Now that we've got a full-length record that's gonna be out there, let's see if we can take that to the next level," Patterson said. "... Get out there more now that we have a product that we really stand behind and believe in."
True believers shouldn't think of Beautiful Things as their local heroes' way of saying "Goodbye, Columbus."
Give the rest of America a turn to make another important and incredible discovery worth celebrating.
For the Wet Darlings, it's only a matter of timing.
Publicity photos courtesy of the artist.