Interview Wesley Gonzalez: “Some people are gonna listen to the record and think I’m a wanker, whatever I say”

The hilarious Londoner talks new album ‘Appalling Human’, laughing in the face of despair, and why sometimes it’s good to be a bit of an arsehole (on stage, at least).

Wesley Gonzalez is probably never going to be the next Bieber – you’re unlikely, let’s admit, to get that much Radio 1 A List action when you drop the word ‘cunt’ into the first five minutes of your debut album. But, from his tenure as vocalist in late-’00s punks Let’s Wrestle, through 2017’s more synth-based ‘Excellent Musician’ to now, as second solo offering ‘Appalling Human’ elbows its way into the world, the Londoner’s mix of caustic humour and self-flagellating honesty has consistently made him a pleasing anomaly: a man who’ll happily namecheck both Tears for Fears and Mark E. Smith and seems somehow equally in allegiance with both.

We caught up with Wes for a very entertaining delve into life’s good, bad and ugly…

Hello Wesley! After being in a band for a good while, how have you found the last few years of going it alone?
I think I was desperate for it in a way. I’m a control freak, so the democratic nature of being in a band – having to respect other people’s opinions – is infuriating. It was such a freeing experience to be like, OK I can do this on my own and not rely on anybody. When you’ve just got yourself, you can do what you want to do.

You’ve described ‘Excellent Musician’ as a pre-therapy album and ‘Appalling Human’ as a post-therapy album. Do you think there’s an audible difference?
I see a big difference between the two albums even though they’re about sort of similar subject matters. The first one was a realisation that there were things I needed to fix in myself but hadn’t realised how to do that and the frustration is audible – suffering from those mental health issues and not having an outlet for it. And even though this new album has a lot of negative stuff on it as well, it’s more positive in the way it conveys it. It takes on a more forgiving form, and it makes for an easier listen in a sense. The more hindsight you have as a person, the more people can understand what you’re putting out there.

“When I talk to people after the show they’ll go ‘Oh, he’s actually… quite nice? He’s not a horrible bastard?’”

Someone once said in a review from your debut album tour that your stage presence is like “the opposite of audience participation…”
I think that’s my natural way of dealing with nerves a lot of the time – to take a Mark E Smith stance of ‘you’re going to accept this for what it is, or I don’t really give a fuck’. The first few times performing under my own name, I would stand in the backstage bit punching myself in the chest to get absolutely riled up to the point of losing it. I’d beat myself up in the dressing room to the point when I got comfortable enough to not give a fuck. I guess that’s always been my schtick; I guess that’s how I know how to perform. And the more I move away from a punk aesthetic musically, the more I appreciate it conceptually. I don’t listen to a lot of punk anymore, but whenever I go and see a really heavy band I always appreciate how visceral the performance is and find I don’t get that as much with pop stuff. So I always try and have that outlook on it.

Would you say it’s a character you play on stage?
It’s a heightened version [of me]. It’s always a fantasy, performing and pretending you’re a person that doesn’t have insecurities. That’s what I want from the experience personally – to have half an hour to an hour where you’re not thinking about stuff. I think it’s funny, ‘cos when I talk to people after the show they’ll go ‘Oh, he’s actually… quite nice? He’s not a horrible bastard?’. Because I’m quite aggressive onstage people expect me to be like that, when I’m the complete opposite really.

That kind of antagonism seems like quite a rare trait onstage these days.
I can find stuff like that in the hip-hop world, or things that are more underground, but not so much in British independent music. I don’t know why it’s gone out of fashion; it seems strange because there’s a lot to be angry about. I guess people are finding that with Fontaines DC and IDLES, but I’m not really that into guitar music at the moment, so it’s finding a way to do that with synthesisers. And also I like writing really traditional pop songs; I’ve been listening to Tears for Fears and the Eurythmics, which is not traditionally aggressive music. It’s odd trying to mix something quite so fey as electro pop with that energy.
The last couple of years I’ve been leaning towards [hip hop], but I would never feel comfortable making a hip hop record – it’s just not in my pantheon of abilities. But in terms of influence, the idea I have now is OK, I wanna stop writing so much about emotional stuff and I want to write songs about having sex, which isn’t something you really get in indie music. But I spend all day listening to Prince, so why wouldn’t I? I think it’s just about breaking down the boundaries of what I can’t do, slowly chipping away at them and finding a way to do it that’s tasteful.

I think if you grew up as part of a certain kind of alternative scene, people tend to park you in a certain kind of category.
I’ve had a lot of friends who all still listen to the same stuff they did when they were 18. Whereas now I can’t BEAR listening to that stuff – even if I appreciate it’s good, it makes me angry to hear it because I’m done with it. That music was such a great mould for what I wanted to be in the future even if it’s not necessarily what I listen to now, but my problem sometimes with music nowadays is people stick in their lane and say ‘This is what I like’ and I find it really boring.
I feel like, over the last 10 years, people saying that something grew on them has calmed down. I don’t feel like people would listen to a record four or five times now [to let it].

Do you ever get any comparisons that are intended as positive and fall into the unbearable category?
The main [comparison] I get all the time, and I think it’s just because of the sound of my voice, but I get Elvis Costello a lot who I’ve always ABHORRED. I can’t stand Elvis Costello. I’ve never understood it – I don’t understand what there is to like in Elvis Costello’s music and I think he’s vile as a person as well. I know I should probably take it as a compliment, but Elvis Costello was always one of those people I was kicking against. I’m sure one day I’ll crack; I’m very open-minded with music, but it takes a while sometimes for me to get over my pre-conceived notions of them.

“It’s always a fantasy, performing and pretending you’re a person that doesn’t have insecurities.”

There’s a lot of discussion about the sort of moral gymnastics of being human in the new record – where did that all stem from?
I think a lot of the record is about a family dissolution. Me and my step-father who pretty much raised me fell out to a really extreme degree, we still don’t speak. And I had the same sort of rejection as a child – my actual dad disowned me when I was a kid and actively told me ‘I don’t want to be your parent’. So over the therapy process, a lot of it was dealing with why have I been rejected. And that brings in the question of am I a good person or a bad person? Have I been rejected because I’m not worthy? So I think that’s where a lot of it came from. I don’t actually remember writing a lot of the songs; they were all so guttural and I felt like I was in so much pain when I was writing them that it became this blur and then the next day I’d look and be like, fuck I wrote that tune.

But there’s a lot of humour that everything’s cloaked in, too…
That’s how I am in life – I’ve got a very sick sense of humour and I can laugh about horrible, horrible things that have happened in my life and make jokes to the point where people get really uncomfortable. But to me, that’s my way of coping with it; you don’t let it rule you if you make a joke out of it. I think the key in these songs is going OK, I know I’m gonna do something quite heavy but I’m gonna make it as palatable as possible.

Is that a new thought process?
I think so! The first [album tracks] were written when I didn’t even think I was going to go back into music. I’d had a bit of a breakdown, and the songs were just for me – writing without the expectation of it being released. There’s a line on the first one, “A song to sing, a song to be blunt/ When did you start living life as a cunt?”. And it’s specifically about somebody who was a horrible arsehole, but if I’d thought it was going to be released I probably would have decided to calm it down a bit.

Nothing wrong with a good swear!
I don’t think there’s any swearing on this one!

What are your ambitions for this record?
I don’t have grand delusions, I know I’m quite a cult-y artist, but I’ll take any success that’s going so as long as I can keep releasing records and I’m happy… My ambition is just to get better, and I feel so much more confident with the release of this album because the first one was an experiment: ‘Let’s see if I can do this and stick all my weird ideas on one record and do the opposite of what I’ve been doing previously’. Whereas with this one, it’s written and I know it’s going to be released, and what I want it to sound like. And I’ve already written the third album and I know what that’s going to sound like, which is not like this one. So I think it’s just the freedom to change and the freedom to put out whatever you want is the only ambition I have.

Anything else you want to add?
I think it’s just for people to make up for themselves. Some people are gonna listen to it and think I’m a wanker, whatever I say. I probably need to get better at promoting myself and saying, ‘This is why I’m good’ but I just want people to hear it, and if they hate me afterwards I don’t care.

And isn’t it better to divide people than to have people just not think anything?
Of course, it’s the pantomime of the whole thing anyway! Going on a plane and drinking a bottle of whiskey cos you’re in a band, and then it’s just miserable and you feel like shit and you acted like a dickhead. I’d much rather get a response from people. My main fear is that people go, ‘Meh, that’s alright’. I was listening to Moby’s audiobook. He’s talking about that record ‘Play’ and it’s the most boring record ever, it’s so mundane, and he’s going around hanging out with David Bowie and Lou Reed and it’s like, what?! They’re supposed to know this is bullshit! That sort of tepid music is everything I dislike, so that would be my main fear - releasing something that doesn’t even somewhat get a rise out of someone.

‘Appalling Human’ is out 12th June via Moshi Moshi.

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