The ladies in Wet Leg are a shy pair — Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers often speak in hushed tones and regularly giggle at each other’s words, almost as if only the two of them are in on the gag. But today, before this evening’s soundcheck at the Louisiana, an independent venue in Bristol, England, both members of the suddenly famous indie-rock duo are extra quiet. Why? They’re about to meet one of their heroes — albeit over Zoom.
“Hello!” beams David Byrne in a welcoming tone from his New York apartment, ready to be acquainted with his favorite new band to talk about life and music. Wet Leg regularly cover one of Byrne’s most famous songs in concert, Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” And all three musicians share a knack for infusing their tunes with deft, sly humor. But Byrne and Wet Leg’s paths to global recognition most certainly evolved at a different pace. Whereas Talking Heads waited two years after opening for the Ramones at CBGB to even record their debut album, Talking Heads 77, Wet Leg have been on a rocket ship for the past year, arriving seemingly out of nowhere with their acclaimed debut single “Chaise Longue,” earning rave reviews from artists like Dave Grohl and Elton John in the process. It all culminated with the release of their acclaimed self-titled debut album earlier this spring. It’s been a whirlwind for the two natives of the remote Isle of Wight — the late-night talk-show performances, the interviews, the famous admirers like, well, Byrne. Now, they’re heading to Europe after a run of Stateside music festivals including Lollapalooza and Outside Lands.
“We’ve never really had a plan! It’s always been very much off-the-cuff. Flying by the seat of our pants,” Chambers tells Byrne, who repeatedly says he wants to make sure these two musicians are able to handle the roller-coaster ride they’re on. And Wet Leg? Talking to Byrne, they want nothing more than to soak up the iconic musician’s knowledge and wisdom. How, they wonder, for instance, does one remain as prolific as the 70-year-old multi-hyphenate, who in recent times has starred in a lauded Broadway musical, American Utopia, and is set to debut an immersive experience in Denver this fall entitled Theater of the Mind that involves a guided tour through a person’s life in reverse order. “You can always evolve into something else throughout your life and career,” he tells Wet Leg. “You can try something else and it might fail — I’ve done things that have not been well-received — but I feel like that’s okay. You just have to keep the muscles moving.”
David, you’re a self-professed fan of Wet Leg. How did you come to hear their music?
Byrne: I don’t remember. It might have been on some website. It might have been in a magazine that mentioned you guys. Like a lot of people, and I’m certainly not alone here, I clicked to listen to the early songs — the two that were released first, “Chaise Longue” and “Wet Dream” — and I loved them. Immediately added them to my playlist of what I was listening to that month. I was not alone there, I soon discovered. It was like, Get in line! I want to ask about your songwriting process. How does that work? I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times already.
Teasdale: Yeah, but not by you!
Byrne: I know for me, sometimes I start with music and then kind of improvise a tune over that and then the words will come last. And then sometimes the words are first. Especially if it’s some sort of story or point of view that I really have in mind. That works too! I feel like I can go either way. But starting with the words gives the music more space to develop. I don’t have to box it into the words or anything like that. Okay, let’s see where this wants to go. So how do you all work?
Teasdale: With this band we never start with the words. The words also come at the same time or are revised from an impromptu kind of jam afterwards. When I used to write solo stuff, I would always start with the words. Hester, I don’t know if you did the same?
Chambers: Maybe a bit of both. But I would always more likely have a guitar with me. Otherwise I felt like I’d never be able to actually marry the words with the music.
Byrne: So you have to have the instrument going?
Chambers: I think it can be really helpful.
Byrne: I find that sometimes having an instrument in my hand — in my case, yes, it’s usually a guitar — just that motion and the repetition of playing through some chords or a rhythm or something like that — that opens up my mind and lets the words come out without me thinking about them too much. These random things start to flow. It’s the repetitious movement of the music that helps. So I assume when you’re writing a song, both of you work on it and then you bring in the band later?
Teasdale: Moving forward we’ll be writing together with our band because we’re such a close-knit group now. But when we first started out it was me and Hester, and we wrote “Chaise Longue” and “Wet Dream”; we actually wrote those with Joshua who plays keys in the band now but that was never really the plan. It all happened so quickly and was so unexpected.
Byrne: Where are you now? Are you at home?
Teasdale: No, we’re at the Louisiana in Bristol. It’s like a little pub music venue. We’re finishing a run of shows that we were doing for Independent Venue Week, which we were the ambassadors for.
Byrne: Oh good! Did some of those venues have a hard time surviving the pandemic?
Teasdale: Yeah. I think so. Which is why it’s so nice to get to do it this year. To get to be the ambassadors, whatever that means.
Byrne: Did the venues get any government support to help ride out the pandemic?
Teasdale: Yeah, I think there was a little bit of government support. But then you have to, like, thank the government profusely whether you agree with their values or not. [Laughs.] Like the Ventnor Exchange where we’re from on the Isle of Wight, they were very grateful for the money but were also quite alarmed by how they had to thank the government.
Byrne: Yeah. You probably have to prove you’re using it for the club and the staff and all that rather than just, “Thank you very much. Good-bye!”
Teasdale: Exactly. Where are you calling from?
Byrne: I’m calling from my home in New York. I’m here working on some projects. I did a Broadway run of a show that ended a couple months ago. It was a lot of fun to do. I was doing various versions of that show for a long time, like four years, and then eventually I just thought, I need to move on and do something different. And then come up with some new stuff. When it was in rehearsals, it was all-encompassing. But once it gets going it’s just a job: You go to work at six o’clock and you’re done by ten and you have the whole day free. And then you’re home. So it wasn’t like everything stopped. But I certainly couldn’t tour. I couldn’t leave the city.
Teasdale: It’s kind of funny hearing you say you were anchored to one place and can’t tour. That must be quite different. That’s quite a unique thing doing the type of jobs that we do.
Byrne: That is really different being anchored like that. I like touring too! I like traveling around every once in a while; I take a bicycle and explore the different cities.
Teasdale: You take a bicycle on your tour bus?!
Byrne: Yup. I have a folding one. It’s larger than a Brompton but a little bit smaller than a full-size bike. And it folds up and fits in the luggage compartment of the tour bus.
Teasdale: That’s so nice!
Rhian and Hester, you regularly cover Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” in your live set. How did you land on that track in particular?
Teasdale: It was just a song that I’d grown up with my dad playing around the house. I think it’s a cool song that’s really fun. It’s an interesting song to take on as a woman. It always immediately hits differently when you take a song that’s written from a male perspective and then a woman sings it. It just sounds different. I think some of the best covers are the ones that somehow you will hear something different in them. That was quite an easy one for us to land on.
Byrne: I don’t [perform “Psycho Killer”] very often now. It was the first song I wrote and I kind of did it just to see if I could write a song. And I discovered, Oh yes, I can! And then I started immediately writing songs that were different than that. Even though that one was very popular. I remember I thought, I wanted to write about this dramatic subject in a non-dramatic way. I wanted to write from inside this person’s head. It was not going to be a slasher movie. It was going to be a little bit calmer than that. At least that’s what I was thinking. I originally wanted it to be more of a folk song. We did a version with cellos and acoustic guitars and things like that and that was the way I imagined it should be — this folk song as opposed to a rock song. But that version wasn’t so popular. [Laughs.]
Wet Leg began in the Isle of Wight, which is very rural. Have you two enjoyed traveling around to more cosmopolitan areas?
Chambers: I suppose we’re used to it now.
Teasdale: Also, we’re so busy it’s kind of like off the flight, into the dressing room, back to the hotel. Honestly, we could be anywhere all the time.
Byrne: You need bicycles then! Sounds like that to me. After a while, of course, that routine of the hotel, the bus, the gig, the hotel, the bus, the gig … it starts to make you a little bit crazy because you have no idea where you are. As much fun as it is performing, at some point, after a few years I realized, I have to get out and realize where I am. Maybe get some inspiration from the various places we are in.
Chambers: We had two weeks on the tour bus for the first time in America this year and it was the best thing ever just waking up in a new place.
Teasdale: It’s been really good but there’s just been a lot of promo that’s sandwiched in between tours so hopefully when we are on the road a bit longer we’ll be able to have some time to explore on bikes. David, have you ever toured with a pet on the bus? Like a dog?
Byrne: I don’t think so! I’ve toured with children on the bus. That’s kind of okay. You’re carrying pets?
Teasdale: No, but we’d like to. We’re doing the groundwork research.
Byrne: It sounds like it would be a bit tricky going through borders and things like that.
Teasdale: What age were you when you started getting really busy with your music? Me and Hester are 28 and 29 now so we’d paved a path for ourselves in a totally different direction and music was something we were doing on the side that was just a hobby. You grow up and you give up on it as a career. You settle into your job — and we had pretty nice jobs.
Byrne: That sounds really similar to me. I was in my mid-20s, I think. I was always doing music of one sort or another for fun with friends. But I didn’t take it seriously as a career. I thought, Well, this is a lot of fun but there are people who are really good at this. Naturally they’re going to be the ones who are successful. I remember performing early on, albeit to a really small audience — maybe 20 people — and they liked it and I thought, Oh, that’s 20 that like it. Maybe they’ll tell their friends! [Laughs.] And it did grow little by little. It wasn’t super fast as you’ve experienced. But maybe that’s a difference because of the internet and social media and everything that’s available now. But yes, it was kind of like, Oh, this is a bit of a surprise. Now I can direct my attention to this because people seem to like it.
Teasdale: Where were you at the time? Where were you living?
Byrne: I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore. Kind of an industrial town. It’s fallen on hard times. I lived in the suburbs. It was nice but I was kind of isolated. There wasn’t internet or any of that. Your friends would buy a record and you’d go, “Oh! I got the new record by so and so.” And you’d go over to their house and sit and listen to a record. It was really exciting! But the wide world seemed to be happening somewhere else. So eventually I thought, I’m going to go to New York to see what that’s like. Then I had to figure out what I was going to do. I loved it. I thought it was so wonderful I was in the big city. Just walking down the street was exciting. What about you two?
Chambers: I actually still live in the country on the Isle of Wight. I always thought it was kind of strange that when everyone reached 18 they were leaving the small town and going to the big city. I definitely thought about it, but I think maybe me being a quiet person I always felt like a tiny little speck. Almost like a grain of dust. So I found I get comfort from the small town. It’s okay to be a speck of dust in the country.
Teasdale: You can be a slightly bigger speck of dust in the country than you are in the city. But I think that’s what’s so nice about being in the city is that you’re a tiny speck of dust and there’s so many opportunities you can get blown into. Being on the Isle of Wight I would always feel quite hopeless. I saw my path and it was set out in front of me and being in the city, you don’t really know what you’re doing there. I was just working really weird waitressing jobs at first. But I was really happy to do that. I was happy to work with people who were actors and musicians and had their side hustles. It’s really nice. Whereas working a waitressing job on the Isle of Wight is quite sad because everyone around you … that’s what they’re doing, that’s what they do, that is your existence that’s mapped out for you. Being in the city there’s just so many more possibilities and so many more inspirational people around you.
David, what is the secret to constantly being so innovative? It’s so easy to become jaded, which is sad because often it’s for the thing you love. You don’t seem to have that problem at all. You seem to be able to reinvent.
Byrne: I saw other musicians who came before me who were sometimes doing that — they’d reinvent themselves or try different styles or try different kinds of things and I thought, Oh! That’s something you can do! You get known for one thing but you don’t have to stick with that. I’ve always been a little wary of being too successful. It’s nice to be successful, it’s nice to be liked. But I remember with Talking Heads we started playing really big venues — doing stadiums and things like that — and I started finding it very impersonal. I thought, Oh, now we’re kind of on a treadmill and I’m not sure I like this. Maybe time to try something else. I wasn’t that worried that it would all fall apart. I just thought, You need to keep exploring and trying different things. You do see people who get caught up in doing whatever was initially successful and they say, “I have to keep doing this forever and ever.” And that’s just not true. I think also I’m more comfortable now but at the time I was a little bit more uncomfortable socially, which also meant that I could really focus and direct my attention on whatever I was doing and didn’t really worry too much about what people might think. Sometimes that works. Not always. But sometimes.
Teasdale: We are really taking it every day as it comes. I don’t know if when you’re in this whirlwind you can begin to think about what you might want for yourself in the future. Who knows, we might get hit by a car tomorrow. [Laughs.]
Byrne: I hope not! Thank you, ladies, so much for taking the time to do this. It was an honor for me. Great to say hi and I hope to see you at a show somewhere someday.
Teasdale: That would be really cool!