A Sunday afternoon spent with Sophie Sputnik of Waltzer is both nourishing for the soul and satisfying. After starting out her career in South Florida as the drummer in the garage punk act Killmama, Sputnik is getting through the tough times and truly blossoming in Chicago, where we chat via phone. Don’t let her punk past fool you. Sputnik has also dabbled in R&B, folk, showtunes, blues, and has found a way to fuse all of it into her newest project as Waltzer, which she notes is really just a cooler version of herself—just listen to “Destroyer,” a soaring, bluesy rocker and her first single under the project. If that’s true, I certainly can’t wait to be front and center for the next live gig, but until such fun is allowed again, Walzter will continue releasing new tunes, including “Eugene,” the darker, classic rock brother to “Destroyer,” which will be out on May 28th as part of a show hosted by The Hideout (one of Chicago’s great small venues). Through our conversation we discuss her run-in with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, life in quarantine, and how Waltzer developed.
Before we get started, I wanted to make sure that you’re doing well and your loved ones are navigating through this Pandemic alright.
It’s like, I’m always in disbelief and I just assume the worst, I guess. And obviously we’ve all been okay—I feel really lucky, my whole family, everybody’s doing well. My brother is in LA and we’ll call to check up on each other and, like, if you’re going to quarantine somewhere I feel like LA is a good spot for that. I’ve had a couple of things close to home but everybody I love is okay and that’s all that really matters. My girlfriend and I have been quarantining together and we don’t want to kill each other yet, so that’s pretty impressive.
It’s a very big step!
I know, I’m like, “Wow, maybe we really are in love!” *laughs*
Yeah there’s always that doubt, but this is definitely the time to figure out if it’s for real or not. I know for me and my family, we can’t wait for all of this to be over so we can find normalcy in this soon.
Yeah, my mom lives alone and she’s in Florida. She’s been really good about quarantining but I’m worried about her mental state and what this does to people in their 60s. I’ve been researching online things that I can try to help her with in that sense, other than FaceTiming her.
He’s very happy. You may have seen Chicken, or maybe it was Astro. We have two little dogs and a cat and they’re very, very happy with us home. Astro and I have a very deep relationship. He already had separation anxiety, so now when we go outside to take the trash out, he’s like “Wait where, where are you going?” The last time his anxiety flared up we actually had to put him on Trazadone cause he would—so long story, but in other places I lived he would actually find ways to break out and then he would just show up at my work.
Wait, he broke out and just tracked you down?
Yeah, I worked very close but he still knew. I was a server and I would be mopping the floor and all of a sudden my dog would just run into the restaurant
That’s really cute!
It was cute but it was also sad, which is like my favorite combo, so it was perfect
Yes, I feel like there’s a lot of that duality in “Destroyer.”
Well that’s good, I’m glad that you get that. I’m still kind of learning what is coming out of what I’m creating because I used to be in this pretty angry band, Killmama, where it was for the most part serious but it was a garage band and there was a huge side of aggression that I loved exploring. It was super therapeutic and I was unsure what “Destroyer” was going to come out like, if it was going to be the same because I had access to that part of me that was super aggressive. I feel that the older I get I’m accessing the child part of me—I always feel like a narcissist when I talk about this stuff, there’s a very thin line between musician and narcissist but I’ll go with it. I think there’s just dark parts to all of us and there’s an innocence to it as well. That’s what I’m noticing that’s coming out: the innocent part of us and the dark part of us and how that all exists all at once.
I kind of had this epiphany over the last 10 years, which actually all stems from a conversation I had with my friend’s mom. She was really worried about her daughter because she had a drug problem and almost died. She lived on the streets and did heavy drugs, this basically terrified her mom who was worried that she was never going to be the daughter she hoped she’d be, that she was never going to amount to the dreams that she had for her—at this time her daughter was clean and I loved her daughter. And I was like “She’s already a masterpiece, all of those dark things that have happened to her, and that she’s been in, are just as important as the really beautiful things that you see in her and that all together can make this incredible masterpiece of a person.” Once we had that conversation it kind of made me look at myself, all the light and dark stuff that is a part of me, and I wanted to explore that more. It excited me because I’ve always been pretty harsh on myself about regrets.
I think most enlightened beings will feel that way, right? We’re constantly trying to better ourselves, are constantly trying to figure out what’s the next right thing that we need to do.
Yeah and also, what is this obsession with being good? It’s like innate. Ever since I was little, I just wanted to be good. Does that mean that with all the bad things I’ve done that I’m not good?
It’s what makes us human.
Yeah it makes us human, exactly! And I think that feeling of wanting to cover up things and hide them, maybe I don’t need to.
Absolutely! I was reading what people were saying about your live sets and they all agree you have a vulnerable and raw presence on stage. Do you think a lot of that perception comes from this epiphany?
It’s cool that people are seeing that, you know, because I don’t really know what else I have to offer, like I’m not the greatest singer, I’m not the greatest guitar player, and I’m not the greatest songwriter, but I really get high off being as transparent and present as possible on stage. I really miss it so much. If I can offer people anything it’s just to feel a little bit better in their skin. I think it’s part of our generation, with our baby boomer parents—we just want to feel okay in our skin.
Yeah we were definitely raised by an interesting generation. To be able to leave all that bullshit at the door is an invaluable skill to have on the earlier side of your career. When did you first get into music?
My mom was a singer in a band and my dad was a guitar player in a band and that’s how they met. When I was younger I wanted to act. I wanted to do funny stuff, I thought being funny was more fun. When I was in my teens, I would sing the blues with my dad and I was writing music when I got stoned, which is when I realized I was a really bad actor—I would always forget my lines and stuff. I remember having this thought that I really like singing songs, like musical theater, I really liked the song part of the shows. I could always remember those lines and I realized I should probably just play music. So from that point on I started playing and it took a few years, though, and then I went through a bunch of shit and then I came out of it around 21 and that’s when Killmama started.
That’s quite a journey then.
Yeah, my 20s were intense and I almost made it once—I was doing, like, R&B hooks on the side and this song I did with this group got picked up by Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, so I got signed by Timbaland Productions while on tour with Killmama. We were at SXSW and I got a call that I had to go to New York to meet Timbaland to go into the studio. I was a drummer in my other band so I flew from Austin to New York with my fucking snare drum, threw on a dress, and went to Justin Timberlake’s restaurant to meet all these like celebrities and stuff and I was so nervous. None of it worked out; I got to the party last minute and then ended up at the bar next door by myself. For about a year I was signed at Timbaland Productions and I was in Killmama—that was a very intense, high-energy time. But that’s when I realized I didn’t want to do pop music and I didn’t really want to do things that weren’t true to me, so I was like, “I’m just going to be in this garage rock band for the rest of my life, I’m going to be one of those people.” I just wanted to do whatever music felt right, you know.
And now it seems like you’re kind of settling into Waltzer, almost like a rebirth.
While Killmama was ending I was already trying to think of what I was going to develop into next. It took about two years of me writing names down, trying to write songs. I knew once I moved to Chicago and I played my first gig that it was going to create itself. It took a long time to get there but then I just started getting the whole vibe of it. Going into the studio recording the album and hearing that back I was like “Okay, cool!”
I decided that I wanted to really try to leave my garage rock look behind and try something new, so I bought myself a suit and put that on. That was the time it clicked and I felt I knew who this character is and I’m really stoked to be this person because it doesn’t feel like I’m putting on a show. This person actually is me, but like, just a little cooler than I actually am.
So how did you settle on the name Waltzer?
I wish there was a really cool story. If it comes from anywhere it’s that a lot of the songs that I write tend to be in 3/4 which is a Waltz tempo and I just have always had this vision of people waltzing through life. You know, they’re just kind of falling into it and passing it and, I don’t know, that’s sort of what I’ve gathered in my mind.
New city, new name. Does Chicago’s music scene feel like a good fit?
Oh my god, yeah! I love Chicago. I’ve always actually wanted to live here and I don’t know if I’ll live here forever, but I just always knew that there was going to be a time in my life where I was in this city and it’s just better than I even imagined. Also, I’m maybe a little too old to be in the middle of the DIY scene. Scenes are tough to be in, I don’t really miss being in that, but being my age and playing music, Chicago just feels so much more professional. I played music in Fort Lauderdale, we were just like lost kids, but in Chicago everybody’s been to music school so it just takes it to a whole other level. When I bring a song to somebody they know all the ins-and-outs of the song before I do sometimes.
You’ve got an upcoming online show with The Hideout, one of Chicago’s beloved indie venues. What can you tell us about it?
I’m doing this show for The Hideout and I’ve been asking artists I know in the area (and beyond) to do and perform really weird things for me and everybody’s been down. It’s basically going to be like a variety show with artists from Chicago, Nashville, and Miami, and in between these performances, we’re going to have like skits and a lot of them have to do with the creature that’s in the “Destroyer” video.
Yeah, you even did an interview with the creature for POND. This variety show is quite the creative project.
I really hope it translates well, we did some filming today and I realized there’s the risk it could not be funny at all, but it’s been really fun to show different sides of the creature from the video. I think it’s going to be like a quirky good time with PUJOL from Nashville, LG from Thelma & the Sleaze, Uma Bloo from Chicago, and AJ Haynes from the Seratones. It’s really cool to get all these people that I love together. It’s like I’m putting them in like my own little MUPPET SHOW.
Chicago is keeping you busy with all kinds of collabs, even with “Destroyer,” right?
Yeah, Chris Devlin was the producer and he did co-write “Destroyer.” I brought him a totally different sounding song that I was really nervous to show him because I knew it kind of sucked but there was a cool chord in there. So when he heard it he said it reminded him of a song called “Try Some Buy Some” by Ronnie Specter, which was written by George Harrison, so he played it for me and it just blew me away. I became obsessed with it and I had to write something like it. So then he and I sat together and he showed me how to write a song like that. I wrote the lyrics and he helped me figure out where the chords could go. He’s an incredible musician, incredible writer—it was really such an honor to work with him on that song.
And what about your upcoming release, “Eugene”?
Eugene is actually a newer song that I wrote since moving to Chicago. I wanted to write a rock and roll song, something a little more similar to Killmama, just to bring that aspect into the show. That essence, and basically the song, is about how when I was a kid I was a really weird kid, and I actually tell this story on stage, but I told my mom one day that I wanted to change my name to Dave. Basically I thought I was a boy and was like “My name’s Dave now so that’s what you can call me.” My mom kind of freaked out because my grandpa’s name was Dave and he died the year I was born so she kind of got this idea that maybe I was possessed by my dead grandfather.
You’ve got some kickass talent working on the video, right?
Yeah, I was actually planning on doing a music video myself, like a DIY iPhone music video, because “Destroyer” wasn’t expensive but it definitely had a budget and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that again. Then I started working with my manager, and I don’t really even know how it all came about but somehow Wayne White came into our circle and he seemed interested in doing this music video. I was really excited because I get kind of bored of my take on all of my music, I want to see what other people can contribute and I can’t wait to see what this guy’s brain thinks. I’ve always loved Peewee Herman, Sesame Street, the Muppets—I just love when inanimate objects have personalities and I feel like Wayne just brings things to life and I can’t explain how honored I am to have him as part of the project. He sent us some content of what he’s working on and it’s beyond my wildest dreams. I could never—I would never—even be able to conjure anything that he’s creating in my own mind so I can’t wait for people to see it. And another cool aspect of the video is my brother, who has a Masters in film and studied at UCF, offered to edit the video so it’s really cool to have him in on it too. It just feels very cozy, the whole situation.
After all that, what’s next?
We were going to go on tour in September but I’ve been working with Tristen in Nashville and she’s been co-writing for my next album, so that’s in the works. I still have a bunch of songs to release that I recorded with Chris at Tree House. And maybe after the Hideout show we’ll end up doing more stuff like it.
You can see the premiere of the newest Waltzer video, “Eugene,” over at The Hideout’s Twitch account next Friday (5/29), and hear the latest singles here. Be sure to tune into Walzter’s Dime in the JQBX appearance for Merry-Go-Round Magazine tonight at 6 P.M. PST / 9 P.M. EST over on JQBX.fm.