In Wastelands, the debut album of Oakland’s Thought Leaders, took shape last year, during the pandemic lockdown. The quartet includes bass player and producer Tyler Cox, drummer Kirk Snedeker, vocalist and lyricist Ville Vilpponen, and guitarist Andrew Lund. After their formation, they made a decision to write songs that explored life’s contradictions, with an emphasis on the sinister side of the sonic spectrum. As the events of last year took shape, the quartet found itself in a perfect position to comment on the situation and bring a bit of light into the picture.
“Musically, we were in an intense and dark place to begin with,” guitarist Andrew Lund said. “The pandemic paved the way for the album to be recorded in a way that allowed us to put that kind of energy into it. It was touch and go for a while, musically and personally. None of us knew what was going to happen. I don’t think anybody did.”
Thought Leaders began playing live, impressing audiences with their aggressive stance. “We played our first show last March,” Lund said. “We recorded our Wires Crossed EP in April. We’d only been playing together for a few months, so the tunes have an immediate punch to them. Ville brought a different outlook, and new ways of thinking about music and arrangements. The EP was a way to get something out, capturing where we were at that moment and helping us start booking shows. In Wastelands has a more sophisticated interaction between the band members.
“The original plan was to go to Santo Studio, in Oakland, last summer. When the pandemic hit, we had five songs we’d been playing live ready to go, and four in demo form. Since we all have home studios, we decided to record the album on our own. It was a good way to keep the momentum, and not collapse. We wanted to get the songs out there, and it was a good motivation to get us through the lockdown. We tracked the songs that were complete, then focused on finalizing the demos and eventually recorded those as well.”
The album opens with “Enigma 41.” Lund’s chiming guitar hook and the subterranean rumble Cox supplies on the bass compliment Snedeker’s frenetic drumming. Vilpponen’s primal vocal describes the downward spiral of someone—or maybe society itself—locked in a haze of self-destruction. Lund’s brittle lead rides on his stuttering guitar rhythms and Snedeker’s aggressive backbeat to follow a soldier realizing the real war is the struggle within. Lund’s multi-layered guitarwork throughout provides a bright contrast to Vilpponen’s disconsolate lyrics and the acerbic, rumbling undertones of the rhythm section. The nine tunes embody a perfect balance between aggressive reality and dreams of deliverance.
“We enjoyed having time to think about our parts and mull them over,” Lund said. “Working on various ideas and permutations. Without being on a studio clock, it gave us a flexibility that was nice. A lot of our stuff is riff based. Some of them came from playing together and noodling on ideas. Some come from ideas written at home and then shared and expanded upon by the others. It grows from those kernels.
“All four of us contribute to the music. Ville makes the arrangements with the raw materials we come up with. Since he’s the singer, he drives the structure of the vocals and lyrics, but it’s a four-part collaboration, all from different sources in the band. I’ll have a part, then Tyler writes a part and Ville has a bridge, and suddenly it’s sounding like a finished song. It’s very democratic. I was also able to work at my day job from home for the past year and a half. The music satisfies the creative urge, but the day job pays the bills.”As things slowly begin to open up, Thought Leaders hope to resume playing live to promote In Wastelands. “Right now, we’re waiting to see what the clubs are doing,” Lund said. “Maybe, as things open up, there will be a wave of interest in live music. We just want to keep creating unique songs that showcase the balance of our four individual talents and points of view.”