Wend: Flipside Fest Pick of the Day

Wend (photo credit: Lila Ray)

The must-see band today, the second day of the inaugural Flipside Fest in Garden City, is actually one of the first scheduled to play. In a city with many promising bands, Wend are one of the most ambitious — and riveting.

While early in the day, Wend’s Main Stage slotting speaks volumes about a band that hasn’t yet produced a full-length. Curious music nerds looking for a point of reference might consider Rachel’s, the chamber music band from Kentucky that rode the rise of underground post-rock popularity with Quarterstick Records bandmates June of 44 and Shipping News.

Wend invoke a deep-seated love of the live performance, infusing their music with flows and builds. Or crescendoes, as musicians might call them. Or “tumescence” and “detumescence,” as pretentious writers familiar with James Joyce’s work might call them.

At any rate, the contractions in Wend’s compositions rouse the heart and soul. And they don’t just make music for the headphone/earbud experience, either. Billed third to Marissa Nadler and Brett Netson at Neurolux on August 27, Wend’s performance there was positively transcendent.

Artsy but not precious, Wend’s music is so expertly crafted and rehearsed that it unbelievable — in the truest sense of the word — that they haven’t yet released a full-length record.

To experience Wend isn’t just to appreciate their music but to allow one’s self to be moved emotionally and even spiritually as well. While not overtly emotive, there is an emotional range that undulates beneath each song, led by a muse similar to the one that directs us in Boise on our hikes in the foothills. Following one’s instinct can lead them to a cluster of trees, dazzlingly colored flowered or even an open expanse that instantly delivers serenity — so long as one’s heart and mind are open.

If none of that makes any sense, let’s turn to The Bad Penny’s recent interview with Wend, who took some time on a day in late August to discuss what makes them tick. Singer/harpist/songwriter/band leader Riley Anne Johnson and five of her companions — bassist Ross Demastus, drummer Wade Ronsse, guitarist Nick Archibald, viola player/vocalist Emily Jones and violinist Jessica Harned — all graciously spent a generous amount of time with us in late August, well ahead of their set at Flipside (which happens from 1:30 to 2:20 p.m. on the Main Stage).

Wend seems like a very wide-ranging project encompassing a shifting lineup and, for that matter, sound, too. When did you feel like it was finally time to make a “record” — not just a physical product but also a permanent account of Wend, even if it is an evolving project?

RILEY ANNE JOHNSON: Oh man. We actually had dates booked with Steve [Fulton, owner] of Audio Lab [in Garden City] in May 2020. So it would’ve been a very different album. Then the pandemic hit, and everything shut down, and we postponed, and didn’t have any money, and weren’t really meeting up much in that year.

I didn’t touch my instruments for a year. I retreated into myself and had a lot of work to do. Also, Ross, Wade and I were living in a house with mold, and I got really sick. Us becoming a full-fledged band almost directly correlates with us moving out of that house. It felt like things were moving slow. I got a thyroid disorder. We would have gone into the studio with Steve with the songs I wrote. But the band morphed and shifted since then.

Since the pandemic, Ross has been learning how to do audio engineering. Then we went with a DIY recording route, which has been fun — but a learning curve, and time-consuming in that way. So we’ve been working on an EP that is about 98 percent done. We’ll probably be announcing a release date for that very soon.

It’s a collection of five songs. One of them is released as a single [“Parting Ways With Ease”] and there are four others. They’re also some of my earliest songs, so they would have been on that first album. We’re also working on the full-length album that has the full band in it.

ROSS DEMASTUS: In February 2020, we played a show that was Riley, myself on bass and a string quartet. It took a while to prepare for that show, and when we played it, it felt like, “Oh, we’re really a band now.”

That was a show we played at LED with [Salt Lake City vintage Motown artist] Joshy Soul. 

Riley Johnson of Wend (photo credit: Brodograph)

Was that when things really clicked for Wend as a band?

JOHNSON: There’s been many. A lot of different things have clicked for different reasons. Sometimes it’s been a solo project, sometimes a duo, sometimes we’ve played with nine members onstage. But that definitely felt magical, and it’ll be nice to release those songs.

WADE RONSSE: It was their development from a nine-piece to a six-piece that I felt really was the starting point for Wend playing in town a lot, including the performance at Treefort last year. Over the winter, we made the decision to finalize the lineup and really become a band.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Up until a little less than a year ago, we weren’t really having consistent band practices, because everybody was in four or five other bands, and I was writing all the music. After Treefort [in September 2021], a lot of members dropped their other projects, and we started practicing three times a week and writing more collaboratively.

This new six-member rendition of Wend that will be represented on the full-length album, that we’ve been touring as this summer, that really clicked into place a year ago. That was the birth of that iteration/trajectory.

Well, you wouldn’t be a Boise band if every member didn’t also have three other bands.



So was it that your sound had reached a certain point to your satisfaction or that the chemistry was really good or …

JOHNSON: The compatibility between band members is very good. When we all play in a room, it feels very playful. And that makes it feel worth getting in a room together — because there’s an excitement and a giddiness as well as a belief in the music that we’re creating. We all feel like we’re just scratching the surface with our potential, which is really motivating and exciting.

DEMASTUS: When we started rehearsing, we devoted very large chunks of our time to improvising and hearing each other’s voices as musicians. That solidified this transition from being members of Riley’s band to being co-creators of the band together.

JOHNSON: That definitely increased the excitement. Prior to that, we weren’t even rehearsing once a week. But the vibe is completely different when there’s eight of us and I’ve written all the songs and we’re trying to figure it out to get it all done. We’re professional musicians, so we did, but it’s so much more exciting and playful now. There’s this element of unknown, and everyone isn’t looking at me for what to do.

NICK ARCHIBALD: Everything evolves so much faster when you’re meeting up multiple times each week. We did this thing last Tuesday [everyone laughs] where it was, like, “Is this the right thing?” became “Can I even remember that thing?”

JOHNSON: Things came together so quickly leading up to Treefort [2022, in March]. Playing at Sonic Temple [an un-renovated Masonic Lodge] was incredible. They had the Mad Alchemist [Liquid Light Show].

Emily Jones of Wend (credit: Brodograph)

EMILY JONES: That Treefort concert was the first time we played live with electric violin, so that was another added level of excitement. I had never performed live with an electric five-string before. It made me really nervous but was so much fun.

HARNED: Since then, we’ve added pedal boards too. Emily and I are trained classically, but some of our instruments a that show were very new, so we had new experimentation going on. I have a newfound love for how to make myself instrument sound interesting.

Were Wend’s first singles — “Retrograde,” “Live at Byrdhouse 1” and “Holotrope” — all yours, Riley?

JOHNSON: Yeah. With “Retrograde” [released in December 2017], I’d been performing for about three months and playing harp for about a year. That was a Treefort deadline. It was two hours before the Treefort submission deadline, so I plugged in a synth and recorded it. I don’t know if I can consider that a true “single,” because it sounds so much better now.

“Live at Byrdhouse 1” was an improv. Whenever I play solo, it’s improvised. “Holotrope” I can consider our baby, our first release as a band.

Did you consider putting “Holotrope” on Meditations I?

JOHNSON: No. “Holotrope” will be on the album that we release as a band. Meditations I is a series of releases that Ross and I are working on, a sequence of albums that features the more ambient side of Wend. Ninety percent of the sounds on that EP come from harp, and there’s a little of my voice and the tiniest bit of Ross’ bass. It’s super-chill music you’d want to put on if you want to meditate or …

JESSICA HARNED: … take a bubble bath.

RONSSE: That metaphor is something you should be proud of, Jessica.

That’d be fun having a couple of tubs onstage while you’re playing, with people soaking in … sorry, I’ll stop the bad pun here.

RONSSE: We’d all probably end up in the bathtubs if that happened. I just saw a lightbulb go off above Riley’s head. 


JOHNSON: I mean, I have played a couple of shows at a hot springs. People really liked that.

Did you and Ross talk about releasing Meditations I under a different name.

RONSSE: I think [the song title] was my fault, actually. There was a John Coltrane record called Meditations [released in 1966], and even though he only did one and ours sounds nothing like it, I thought it’d be cool if we did it. Meditating is something you do more than once, so I liked the sound of it.

What about as far as calling the EP a Wend release?

JOHNSON: The range of music I write and then you add in the collaborative aspect of the band, it’s going to cover a lot of genres. As a group, it doesn’t feel like there’s a point subdividing it and putting it under different bands, because it’s under the same sphere of origin point, so it feels like the same project. Anything I create, I want it to fall under the name Wend, because of where that name came from.

Would you like to elaborate on that? I usually don’t ask a band about their name, but it seems appropriate here.

JOHNSON: Yeah. I had a very fractured relationship with my creativity from age 11 to 21 or 22, so much so that I didn’t believe I was creative. It was very, very thoroughly repressed. It took a while to recover it. I started playing in bands in Boise when I was 23. I picked up the harp when I was 25, I think. In the process of being in a beginner mind with a new instrument, it helped me be in a beginner’s mindset with making music in general.

The name Wend means to go down a path. You go a very meandering way, but there is a specific destination — it’s just not straightforward. It felt reflective of my journey as an artist.

And it applies to the improvisational aspect of the band as well.

JOHNSON: Yeah, both when Ross and I play duo shows and everything is improvised, but also the fact that “Holotrope” is an improv. The breathing, the non-lyric vocals, the drums and the bass was layers we added onto. A lot of the music we write is improv that we have to relearn. So there’s a process of you’re meandering about but you’re getting to somewhere beautiful that feels like the place you were going to the whole time. The detours are part of the journey.

It takes a lot of patience, doesn’t it?


And so does being in a band with so many members — and changing members, at that. 

RONSSE: It’s funny, because I had been in the band for a year, if that, and we needed a new string player. And actually, Emily I had known since I was a freshman in high school; we were in marching band together. I walked into the room and there was that “What the hell?” moment. It was the marching band kid equivalent of the meme with the two Spider-Mans pointing at each other.

Riley, you don’t play a full-size harp, right? Is there a name for it?

JOHNSON: They can be called folk harps or lever harps. Yeah, it’s not the full-size pedal harps that orchestra people have. It is full range, it’s just my electric one impressively small, ‘cause the strings on mine are fluorocarbon, so they get to be shorter and denser.

What inspired you to pursue harp when you were 25?

JOHNSON: I’d wanted to for years, it was just expensive and took a lot of time to find one that I could afford. I’d heard a couple of people talk about how it felt to play, and I had a belly feeling like I wanted that. It just took $5,000. I built a cardboard harp first and challenged myself to play for two months and see if I still enjoyed it, which I did.

Turning to a broader topics, since you’re all participating in this interview, what are the pros and cons of being a band based in Boise?

ARCHIBALD: It’s far away from everywhere else. The most difficult thing about being a band in Boise is being able to travel and play shows. It’s a seven- or eight-hour drive to the next major metropolitan area that isn’t in Utah.

Have you played Salt Lake City yet?

ROSSE: No. We’re just enough of a baby band that many of the things we’ve talked about so far haven’t come to fruition yet.

JOHNSON: The band evolved so quickly, and the combination of that and the pandemic created this weird, multi-year incubation period that is unusual for a band’s trajectory.

ARCHIBALD: We played our first out-of-town show in May, as the six-piece band that’s putting out the album. That was the first time the larger Wend ensemble played outside Boise.

Jessica Harned of Wend (photo credit: Brodograph)

Do you feel relaxed playing shows in Boise?

DEMASTUS: Now I do. But at the beginning of the band, absolutely not.

[Lots of laughter.]

DEMASTUS: Riley would write these songs …

JOHNSON: It’s my fault ..,

DEMASTUS: … that were tremendously complex. We’d have somewhere between a couple of weeks to a month and a half to hammer it down and get a performance ready. With that amount of prep time — and maybe a rehearsal once a week … I’m pretty sure the whole band hadn’t all been in the same room together before we played our first show.

JOHNSON: For the first two years of band performances, we weren’t all in the same room at the same time.

ROSSE: Shout-out to anyone who has worked sound for us, because we’re a nightmare.

You’re like Weird Al, with all the costume changes and props. … So, changing gears, how are you feeling about Flipfest?

JOHNSON: We got invited about a month ago, after the festival was announced. We’ll be performing as a slightly different lineup. We’re diving back into songwriting mode so we can get the new record out as quickly as we can. Wade will play more electronic-based drums and Nick will play synths, we think … we’re still working it out, but it’ll be a different set than when we [played with Nadler].

So is your debut record close to completion?

ARCHIBALD: It’s written. The parts are basically done. We’re just tracking it at this point. It’s just a matter of making the time to get everything tracked.

DEMASTUS: Tracking is about 60 to 70 percent done. There’s a lot of hammering down for the ear-candy aspect of it. More complicated harmonies, more production-oriented things. Who knows how long that will take. And then mixing is pretty involved, given how many people are involved.

ROSSE: We’re putting a lot of work into it. We’re doing it ourselves in a home-studio environment, so the way one would normally go about recording an album isn’t the way we’re doing it. There’s so much experimentation going into the recording process as well. There’s a lot of refining and rewriting to make the songs as impactful as we can. That reflects in the way we’re playing songs live.

JOHNSON: Maybe we’ll get it out in the spring and tour next year. We’ll see how it goes. I feel very lucky. These are the best vibes of any band I’ve ever been in.

DEMASUS: Please join us in the hot tub!

Wend play from 1:30 to 2:20 p.m. today on the Main Stage.

For more interviews with band playing Flipside today, check out The Bad Penny’s interviews with Ealdor Bealu and headliners Monophonics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: