It happened at a GRMLIN concert. Amidst the dingy crowd of the Smell, the sea of hip teens parted and I saw, rising up on stage in a leather jacket and looking like a young Julian Casablancas, with large blue eyes and a mop top of brown hair, Jordan Gatesmith, there to perform as his solo project, Wellness. It was the shock of his stage presence (his slight frame commanded all the air in the room) that caused me to realize I had no reason to stay for the main act. As if transported from an ‘80s underground London club, he led his set with his unmistakably deep voice before kneeling down to unplug his amp—the electricity in the air cracked and left, and once again all was normal. Everyone else might as well go home, I thought. There wasn’t any way to top that. It’s the kind of laid-back, nonchalant, enigmatic charisma bands try so hard for yet rarely hit, as if the Cure reappeared in 2019 recording a lo-fi record in LA. And for all my thinking that he already had the makings of a great rock star, it turned out he already was: Gatesmith used to be the frontman of the famed early 2010s group Howler. In fact, it was his inimitable stage presence that first got Gatesmith and his first band signed to Rough Trade Records in 2011. After the group split amicably, succumbing to the pressures and ready to throw off the outdated styles he’d grown out of, he relocated to sunny Los Angeles to start on his new project, Wellness.
Many of you might remember Howler: voted #44 on NME’s Cool List, a world tour opening for the Vaccines, and sets at all major festivals. Howler seemed like they had it made. But with all budding talent in the music industry, the insurmountable pressure and scrutiny takes it toll. Sometimes, you just have to go away and hide, mature, and process the absolute trauma of stardom before you can emerge with more knowledge of yourself. The truth is, life in the music industry is traumatic. There’s little guidance or supervision, especially for artists as young as Gatesmith, who was only 19 when Howler first started out. Howler broke up in 2017, but there was no blow-out. No quibbling over royalties. Rather, Gatesmith was simply burned out and depressed—truthfully, being in the spotlight made him self-conscious. And after his retreat from center stage, he’s emerged with his new project, Wellness, a reflection of his decision to leave Howler and how it’s been “the best thing (he’s) done for himself, health wise.”
“A big part of my music reflects how I’ve changed as a person: I’m much more reserved and introspective,” Gatesmith admits, sipping his latte as we chat in a pedestrian Silverlake cafe. “The reflection of yourself from being picked apart… you see it’s ugly, and it’s that reflection that freaked me out. I was too young and naive to have immunity to it and I kind of crumbled.”
“I did Wellness for my own good. Punk is a big influence for me and I’m more influenced in the lyrics than just making noise. I didn’t feel like I could do that with Howler. Now I’m a much more mature person than I was then. Now I can handle it, you know; when you’re young, you haven’t discovered your voice.”
The breakup of Howler was quite a surprise. Many bands who reach that kind of success don’t just break up, at least not without a major fight. But in Gatesmith’s case, it had nothing to do with internal disagreements, but rather disillusionment with the industry as a whole.
“We had a wild ride early on, it was insane. We experienced crazy things. Suddenly traveling the world and modeling and hanging out with your idols, like Johnny Marr. I walked away from it wanting nothing to do with it. I still have angst over what happened. Kids thrown into the spotlight, given alcohol, and no adult supervision.”
After the band split, Gatesmith left his native Minnesota and relocated to LA. He’s fond of Minnesota, recalling his frozen wooded roots of jamming at hootenannies and being a part of that folk music tradition early on. Being a teenager gave him enough angst to find his sound, and he played at local farmers’ markets earning cash. Gatesmith loves LA; while he credits the Midwestern weather for his grit, he much prefers the sunny, centralized bubble of California.
As I begin to ask him about how he got started with music, he gracefully leans back in the cafe booth—in addition to his enigmatic charisma, it’s easy to remember that he walked for Saint Laurent on the runway. “I started with music and keeping a journal that I wrote music in and lyrics in,” he cooly says. “While writing this record, my words and concepts were sucked up from my soul. It hadn’t been deliberate, but I wrote what needed to be released.”
MOSTLY BLUE and MALL GOTH are the EPs in question. The music sounds faintly British, a result of his London record label origins. My favourite song, “Mostly Blue,” was him comforting his friend who just had a break up. Its catchy chord progression and the moody vocals make it a favourite to play in my car and show my friends. MOSTLY BLUE is an EP you want people to hear you listening to—IF you want to be modern and hip, that is. Other highlights include “Part Time Jesus,” and despite going to Catholic School, Gatesmith denies drawing from it for any of his songs. “Fake Flowers,” off of MALL GOTH, is where he predicted Trump’s reign over America: “Shake a hateful first at every spray tan Baptist and strip mall Fascist.” Surprisingly, Gatesmith isn’t apathetic, but regularly invests in the news and politics, despite his “too cool to care,” nonchalant aura. “Fake Flowers is a rebuke of suburban America, and fake seeds of government power,” he says, delicately crossing his arms in disgust of our political situation. “All my songs are lyrical, lyrics are a form of poetry, songs are poems first.” With a sensitive and artistic Libra moon (the namesake of one of his songs), and an impressionable, otherworldly Cancer rising, it’s no wonder his music dives deep. We both bonded over our Aquarius suns.
The thematic elements of the record are rooted in nostalgia, and Gatesmith eloquently notes, “Nostalgia must be Frankenstein’s monster of the past. You make yourself feel better and cope through nostalgia. You have to be careful of how seductive it is.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine coping with the nostalgia of being a band that’s made it huge. The repeated thoughts of do-overs and what-ifs.
“I’m about the most tortured artist. Writing for Wellness, it feels like a Band Aid. Working on yourself. Using writing as therapy. Putting up a name in front of you name puts up a shield and a mask. I’ve always worn a mask when playing music, I always write from a persona. It’s easier that way.” While this sentiment is undoubtedly true, he also states the coolest thing to him is openness. “And people who smile. Smiling is cool.”
But at the end of the day, Gatesmith is still an artist: vulnerable, self-protective, sensitive, and changeable. He prefers to hang out at his Silverlake bungalow than venture out. Gatesmith is still close with his bandmates from Howler; in fact, his guitarist produced MOSTLY BLUE. The influences of his record can be plainly heard: The Cure, The Smiths, The Replacements, ‘80s punk, and jangle pop. It’s a far cry from the conventional indie rock of Howler, but it’s the most genuine music I’ve heard in awhile. I ask if he has any hidden subconscious messages, but Gatesmith is cheeky and mysterious. “Most of my songs will profess my love to Satan if played backwards.” The messages are for us to find out, though he admits everything he writes for Wellness is personal. “It’s all about myself, or parts of myself.” Wellness is a record that explores a healed and weary psyche of a musician who’s “made it.” All too often we forget the price of fame and fortune. Gatesmith admits to not being able to enjoy his touring with Howler, saying himself and his bandmates were too insecure and self-conscious. At age 19, scrutinized in front of the world, with no mentors or guidance, who wouldn’t feel small and unsure? Now, Gatesmith is relaxed and sure of himself, or at least, sure of his inspiration and the parts of his mind he’s ready to explore. “The formula for stage presence is confidence,” he tells me, “it’s all about putting on a mask.” It’s always easier to be somebody else, but the most genuine inspiration comes from yourself, and that’s reflected in the personal, moody, ‘80s influence stream of Wellness.
By the end of the hours spent together, Gatesmith had let me do his astrology chart and warned me against watching a documentary on the ICP (“don’t do it, run away”) which he himself watched on mute with ambient music for his birthday a week ago. We’ve talked about Neil Young and he encourages me to listen to more Prince. “1999 is the sexiest record, ever.” He gives me a hug and tells me modern punk isn’t dead, and then shyly thanks me for my time. I could have asked a million more questions, what he must have seen through jaded eyes touring with the Vaccines, playing major festivals, the parties. And although he looks like a world-weary rock star, he’s light-hearted and warm-spirited, playful enough to sign his name with a top hat emoji in texts.
MOSTLY BLUE and MALL GOTH have been my cures for the rain-drenched weeks of Los Angeles. Wellness was perfectly moody, a contradiction of being personal, yet detached, catchy, yet mellow. Listening might be a one way ticket to being hip, but more importantly, it’s a peek into the damaged yet healing psyche of a rockstar who’s come out of hiding
Wellness’s MALL GOTH EP is available now off of Forged Artifacts. You can check it out below.