Interview: Koe Wetzel Sticks to His Guns on First Major-Label Album, ‘Sellout’
Call Koe Wetzel a sellout all you want — all it does is fire him up to be at his very best.
"We're not gonna change. We're not gonna change what we're doing ... This doesn't change anything," Wetzel says emphatically of his new major-label deal with Columbia Records. A label representative may have patched him into our call, but he's still the same old Koe, walking in circles to try to stay within cell service range at his buddy's Alabama ranch.
Yeah, the Texas-born artist is in on the joke. In addition to naming his brand-new album, out Friday (Nov. 20), Sellout, Wetzel bookends the project with two skits — a tactic he's used sparingly on past records, too — in which label executives pan his music and contemplate trying to "turn him towards the pop side" before Wetzel himself comes in to sign his record deal.
"Wait ... Does this make me a sellout?" he worries after the Ts are all crossed and the Is are all dotted. If this were an on-camera sketch, he'd have broken the fourth wall to offer a wink and a smile.
"We've been doing our thing for going on nine years now. I think that, just, there's only so many things you can do as an independent artist. And, you know, there's only so many people that you can meet and to put out your music in the different areas," Wetzel explains of his decision to work with Columbia. "We had an opportunity for them to do that for us. So we just thought it was time ...
"We knew that this album was probably going to be some of the better stuff that we had made," he continues, "so we want to have as much firepower behind it as possible."
Wetzel is used to touring year-round, so when he found himself unable to do so due to the novel coronavirus quarantine, he and longtime collaborator Taylor Kimball hit the studio to complete Sellout. Wetzel wrote or co-wrote 13 of its songs — every track except for "Outcast," a 2008 William Clark Green cut that Wetzel turns into a haunting heartbreaker in the vein of Everlast's "What It's Like."
Wetzel covered the song for a late friend.
"In high school, we would jam that song all the time. Like, that was our — whenever we would get drunk in high school — that was our one, like, super-emotional, deep song we would get into," the artist remembers. "We'd even be at parties, we'd turn it on, and everybody was like, 'Turn this s--t off, it's too slow!'"
Green and Wetzel have become friends in recent years, and he was more than happy to have Wetzel put his spin on the song. ("He told me he liked it," Wetzel says of Green's reaction to his version, adding with a laugh, "He mighta been lyin' to me.")
"The song means a lot to me. So I was excited that we got to put it on this record," Wetzel adds. "I think it really rounded out the album as a whole, especially being as emotional as it is."
Wetzel's made his mark fusing country and grunge, though he was a baby at the height of that particular era of rock 'n' roll. Instead of living through it, he grew up on '90s country from his mom and rap from his dad, and heard grunge icons Nirvana for the first time in eighth grade, after a cousin put his entire playlist onto Wetzel's brand-new iPod Nano.
"I'm sitting there and I'm jumping on the trampoline, and I hear 'In Bloom' for the first time. And I was, like, blown away ... I was like, 'What the f--k is this?!'" Wetzel remembers. (Humorously, he wasn't aware frontman Kurt Cobain had died more than a decade prior, in 1994, and remembers "asking for tickets" [to see them] for Christmas.)
If you ask Wetzel, it's on Sellout that he's best managed to blend all of those early influences: country lyrics with rap-inspired cadence over grungy melodies. "With [2019's Harold Saul High, we kind of nicked it a little bit, but then, with this record, I feel like we actually grabbed ahold of what we were actually trying to do ... as far as the sound goes," he reflects.
Until the hidden track, "Chicken Farmer," that is. All bets were off when, at the end of a late night in the studio, Wetzel told Kimball he thought Sellout needed "like, a super-country story song" and had him press play and record whatever came out.
"That entire song is just me freestyling a song about a chicken farmer whose wife sleeps with his best friend, and it's just a bunch of bulls--t," Wetzel explains of the absurd, raunchy acoustic track that stretches his vocal range. What's on the album is the unedited first (and only) take.
"We listened to it like the next morning, and we're like, 'What the f--k is going on?'" Wetzel remembers, laughing at the memory of Kimball telling him there was no way the song could go on the record and him, in return, insisting that it become a hidden track.
"I'm a goofball," Wetzel admits. "A lot of people don't get to see that; it kind of gets overlooked."
Who Is Koe Wetzel? 5 Things You Need to Know: