In every sense of the word, The Wallace Collective is truly that: a collective. Having had more than 40 performers play with them at one time or another, the Grand Rapids folk-rock group has always had a communal focus from their very beginning.
“‘Collective’ is a term that seems to be popping up more and more, and I always hope to avoid preconceptions that people might have about the term,” bassist/guitarist/vocalist Kevin Fein told Recoil. “In our case, it’s used as a literal description of what we do, so I think the title is fitting on its own merit. I think that some people are put off by the term; that it’s too ‘hip’ or indie elitist or whatever, but I think that’s a little unfair, ignoring the fact that it’s a word that has a specific meaning.”
At their core, The Wallace Collective are currently Fein, vocalist/guitarist/banjoist Brandon Muske, and vocalist/guitarist Olivia Johnson. All three are songwriters in their own right who bring material to the group, as well as collaborate together.
Fein and Muske have played music in various groups since high school, while Johnson always had a passion for music, but never played out live until she made her first public performance opening for The Wallace Collective after meeting Muske at an open mic. Two months later, she was a member.
The group, as a whole, is a constantly evolving idea, pulling in friends, artists and other key players, such as Jeffrey Niemeier, Mat Churchill, Sam Parks, Christian VanAntwerpen, Gabe Dutton and Kyle Rasche to fill out different arrangements, both at live shows and in the studio. With such a revolving cast, Fein and Muske said there’s no predicting what the group will do from one show to the next, sometimes playing the same set with quiet, deliberate sincerity one night and whiskey-fueled abandon the next.
“Different people with different musical backgrounds always have different ways of approaching a song,” Fein said about how playing with so many people keeps their songs fresh. “A violinist will have different ideas for a solo than someone on a clarinet, or an electric guitar. It can be very fun and extremely interesting to hear such varied interpretations of the music. That’s the easy part. The hard part is the work it takes to get there. We have had to learn to rehearse very efficiently, quickly running through a whole set of material to familiarize a new player. We’ve been privileged enough to work with some amazing people who make this type of band possible – people with a lot of talent and who can help bring us all to the next level.”
For their self-titled EP that they’ll release May 4 at Founders, Fein, Muske, and Johnson were joined by Niemeier on violin, Parks on lead guitar, VanAntwerpen on keys, Christopher Morse on drums, and Rasche, Dana Jackson, Lucas Wilson on vocals, with Churchill and Dutton providing further instrumentation. The set was recorded at Stone House Recording Studio by Peter Fox, and mastered by Joseph Barker (of Bella Ruse) in Columbus, Ohio.
“I think Founders is my go-to ‘favorite’ venue to play,” Fein said about what venue best suits The Wallace Collective. “There are of course varied benefits in a variety of settings, but Founders is the package deal – everyone wants to be there, it’s a great room with great food and beer, reasonably priced or free admission, and just a fantastic atmosphere of camaraderie within the Grand Rapids music scene.”
The group has played just about everywhere in West Michigan, with Muske and Fein recalling having the privilege of playing Frederick Meijer Gardens last summer to a huge crowd on a stage that’s frequently graced by some of their favorite acts in the world, as well as a show at the Deltaplex where their bass amp blew up before the show and Muske had to drive in a blizzard to get a rush repair job done, only to play to a house so empty that Fein could hear his mom cheering from the stage. Of course, they added that some of their most memorable shows come along with cheap whiskey, beer, and tequila, remembering a Cinco de Mayo show at Mulligan’s with Valentiger that made them want to “stomp their feet and burn things,” and a birthday celebration at Rocky’s that forced them to encore songs they’d already played just so the crowd could sing them louder that the band.
In addition to releasing their self-titled EP at Founders on May 4 with Chain of Lakes, The Wallace Collective already have several albums’ worth of material written that they hope to begin recording before the end of this year.
“The next batch of songs will really be a continuation of this record with a bit more percussive-driven ideas,” Muske said. “It’s really hard to say what an album will sound like before you track it, but we will focus on tight percussion and continue to focus on harmonies.”
For more on The Wallace Collective and their self-titled EP, click over to thewallacecollective.com.–Eric Mitts