Falling Apart, Moving Together: Forth Wanderers Continues to Figure Out the Future

Geoff Nelson

photo by grace rossi-conaway

The halcyon origin story for youthful Montclair, NJ band Forth Wanderers: Guitarist Ben Guterl develops a high school crush on singer Ava Trilling; he sends her a tape of his guitar arrangements; for a time she says nothing; she sends a demo back with vocals on it; the first Forth Wanderers EP was born. The actual events likely had less of a curvature, less of narrative, less of a sense of having been shot with one of those washed out filters on your phone.

What about those days between when Ben sent his tape and when Ava returned hers? How would they both have felt – a high school junior boy and a freshman girl, one staring at a tape and one starting at the absence of one – wondering what to do next with these gestures? Is it weird or polite to send someone a tape and is it weird or polite to send one back? What was the shape of those shapeless moments? Get a tape, send one back, make a band. The story is modern and primitive, maybe one of the reasons Forth Wanderers feels and sounds new and old. Even the band’s name represents a contradiction: Forth Wanderers muddles directionality with peregrination.

Ben’s crush amounted to nothing more than a band – a band now with an LP and two EPs to its name. The most recent EP, Slop, elevates the band far beyond the hallways of high school in New Jersey. The origin story is only recent history anyhow: all the band members are still too young to legally drink – the most precocious, Trilling, just having graduated high school in June. Slop, the EP, and its eponymous second track, “Slop” are unimpeachably good, the kind of good necessitating a reorganizing of the past into a story. Chance meetings re-articulate themselves as portentous inflections. The Tape. But, history is one thing and the future for Forth Wanderers is another. At the moment of their breakthrough – and surely Slop is it – the band members find themselves thrown to the winds of bourgeois exigency: college, university, New York City.

Guitarist and song-writer Ben Guterl stutters describing the days since the band announced their new EP. “We can’t really believe it’s been this well-received. We’re all really proud of it, and we figured – I guess hoped – it would do somewhat well. We’ve got 25,000 plays on Soundcloud, which is more than all our other music combined.” European and UK tour bookers reached out over email, to which Guterl responds after his summer job busing tables. “The emails have been nonstop,” he says a mixture of delight and weariness.

The realities of being a young band with five members, often headed in different directions, lurks at the edges of our conversation. “It’s cool. It’s exciting,” he says, pausing to add, “Since we dropped the single, we really haven’t seen each other that much.” Later, talking about the difficulty of heading back to school in the fall – the members attend Oberlin, Tufts, Rutgers – Guterl remarks, “We’re all so spread out. It’s tough to put up with doing homework when you’re thinking about all the shows you’re missing. We’ve had to pass up a lot of opportunities.”

The dream of being a young band lives and dies a little – even if most American post-adolescents would love the problem of navigating between their lives at an elite private college and the burgeoning success of their band. Guterl, almost shambolic in his humility, says, in the least dickish way possible, “I find it’s hard to do Forth Wanderers stuff, logistical stuff because it’s too much of a fantasy. I would love to never go to school again and just do Forth Wanderers, but I have to finish and keep my head down and do it.” The frustration is a unique and privileged one. Not many 20-year olds are passing up European tours to go back to the tree-lined pathways and seminar rooms of a liberal arts school in Northeast Ohio.

Forth Wanderers has hung together with the same division of labor that brought Guterl and Trilling together in high school. Guterl still writes the guitar arrangements, and Trilling still writes the melody and lyrics. Trilling cites Amy Winehouse, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Paul Simon as influences. She’s been recording songs since she was eight years old. Of her time in Forth Wanderers she tells me, “My creative process hasn’t changed much. I’d say the only thing is that it has gotten easier to structure my lyrics and melodies, which makes the song sound organized and even.” Guterl says he trusts Trilling implicitly. “It’s cool because she sees them differently than I do. She comes at it from a different angle,” he says. Separately, Trilling echoes this sentiment. “I feel like Ben and I are pretty in sync. I usually love most of the songs Ben sends me, which makes it super easy and fun for me to write to.”

On “Slop” the generative nature of their partnership emerges. The guitar arrangement proceeds with the chunky brilliance of Guterl’s favorite band, Built to Spill, and Trilling’s throaty alto rises above the maw with brittle resoluteness. You believe her when she sings, “I love too much to hurt this bad.” Trilling’s melodies and lyrics often have this shape: rising and falling in parabolic fashion. She operates in the interstitial space between fragility and firmness. Guterl says she writes about young love, which is true, but listening to Forth Wanderers never seems like an adolescent exercise. Or, perhaps, more accurately, Trilling’s wisdom lies in divining the universal aspects of the adolescent experience. On the title track of band’s 2015 LP, Tough Love, when Trilling sings, “One day I’ll see the better part of me,” they aren’t the words of a teenager only.

Other than the excellence of the band’s coming EP, nothing looks simple for Forth Wanderers. It’s easy to picture Guterl sending out the band’s group text or email, asking who can play what shows based on class and work schedules. Blue bubbles pop up on their phones, trying to figure it out. They’re missing a celebration of Montclair bands in August because someone, Guterl can’t remember who, had school. They fit live shows in where they can. Last year they opened for Alex G’s Beach Music release show at Baby’s All Right, which cost them more than they made. Flying home from college, even to open for Alex G, isn’t a sustainable model. Guterl tries to hold it all together, even when it feels like the band’s time might appear and pass in the same moment. How to explain the missing of something that never happened? Guterl doesn’t sound afraid of the future. “It’s always been pretty simple for me. I want to make songs that I like and that I’m proud of, and try to get other people to hear them,” he says.

Trilling, for her part, sees the band’s next steps more clearly. “I really want to perfect our live performance stage presence. I’ve always been shy, and extremely nervous when it comes to performing. In the beginning it was so bad that I would avoid even playing a show. It’s gotten a lot better over time, but it’s definitely still there. I’d like to overcome it in its entirety.” Watching the band play an acoustic version of “Slop” for Sofar New York in January, you might see a precocious song-writer and an anxious teenager in the same moment. Trilling lingers on one of the band’s most important lyrics, “I’m slow I’ve been told/Things change, I’m still young/I stay the same.”

It’s another contradiction: Change, youth, stasis. The future sluices backwards into the past; Trilling and Guterl are still passing tapes back and forth. If we are always stuck creating a past from the present, making origin stories from the chaos, the past, too, does its mysterious work in creating the future. Entering the next phase of their life as a band – the polyglot future – Forth Wanderers move forward, together, toward somewhere.

Slop is out November 11th. It is available for preorder now.

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