Nathan Williams of Wavves has often been a fixture of media focus for all of the wrong reasons. The meltdowns, the buzzed-about relationship with Best Coast and — lest you forget — the in-your-face marijuana worship all took precedence over the reason anyone was supposed to care in the first place: his music. Adding to the problem were his natural defense mechanisms, which were easily mistaken for genuine irreverence and brattiness. Translation: He seemed like a real ass, and was largely branded as one.
“When I first started playing music I wasn’t able to be criticized or scrutinized by people at all,” a day-drinking Williams told Vita.mn over the phone. “I couldn’t handle it. Now it’s way too hard for me to even, like, try and dissect other people’s opinions of me. I don’t mind if people think I’m gimmicky or an asshole or whatever. People have been trashing me for years.”
Williams was a hard guy to read for a while, and he probably liked it that way. But the past year has provided growth in terms of musicianship and demeanor. That maturation is evident on his latest album, “Afraid of Heights,” which dropped three days ahead of his gig Friday at the 7th Street Entry.
These days, Williams has enough of a sense of humor to poke fun at himself. But if there’s one thing that’s hard to attack, it’s the bold approach that went into the creation of Wavves’ fourth and most polished record. In true punk-rock form, Williams didn’t want anyone twisting his arm in the studio for “Afraid of Heights” (been there, done that). So he decided to finance the project entirely out of pocket before choosing a label (he eventually tabbed Mom + Pop Music).
“With ‘King of the Beach’ [Wavves’ breakout 2010 album] there was a label that had given us money and there’s just a lot of stuff that comes with that,” the 26-year-old San Diegan explained. “Since I had the money to pay for the record myself, I just went for it.”
Teamed with pop producer and friend John Hill (Christina Aguilera, M.I.A.), Wavves’ “Afraid of Heights” adds a bigger, more multifaceted sound to the hook-heavy, sun-drenched fuzz that defines the band. Williams is the first to declare that it’s a “headphones” album and he’s right: Hill’s bombastic finesse is best appreciated in the intricacies of each track. Indie-pop crush Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley makes a cameo, just as Williams did last year on rapper Big Boi’s latest. The characteristic self-loathing is still there, it’s just more intimate and, at times, even poignant.
“This is definitely the most personal thing that I’ve put out, which I’m not entirely sure is rewarding or not yet,” Williams said, adding that the lack of label involvement was especially liberating. “I think honesty in music can sometimes go further than the music itself. I had some stuff to say, a lot of it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek but it feels good getting it out.”
For the current tour Wavves deliberately booked smaller venues — 500 capacity or fewer — mostly in an attempt to reclaim the intimacy of their earliest shows (the current touring band features drummer Jacob Cooper and bassist Stephen Pope). It seems the perfect approach for a duplicitous body of work that’s simultaneously punk-rock and vulnerable. Williams is proud of how far he’s come, but the mischievous kid element of his personality is still alive and well.
“I’m most happy now to take this stuff on the road,” Williams joked. “Now I have a reason to get drunk every day and not feel bad about it.”
With: FIDLAR and Cheatahs. When: 8 p.m. Fri. Where: 7th Street Entry. Tickets: sold out.