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Wand never pulled off an ongoing game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Wand never pulled off an ongoing game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Michael Begak

Wand Makes the Hard Choices

If any band was going to have an intense, ongoing game of Dungeons & Dragons, it would probably be Wand. You don’t name your band after a wizard’s weapon of choice for nothing.

Alas, the members of Wand never got the game off the ground. In the band’s defense and by drummer and founding member Evan Burrows’s account, there was a “pretty honest effort” to make it happen — they even drew up a few characters. One was reportedly a drunk dwarf monk named Nogrod who liked to fight. But then Wand got busy, you know, being a band.

“Once things really got started, we had so much to do,” Burrows admits. “It was hard to commit to a really involved role-playing exercise once or twice a week in addition to everything.”

Instead of playing Dungeon & Dragons, Wand busied itself with a handful of other activities, namely writing and recording five full-length records, adopting a grueling touring schedule and, for Burrows and frontman Cory Hanson, touring and recording as part of the Ty Segall Band.

In its original incarnation, Wand was the domain of Hanson alone. In 2013, he invited Burrows, along with guitarist Daniel Martens and bassist Lee Landey, to record a small collection of songs he’d penned.

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Burrows was intrigued by what he heard and agreed to help out, though this wasn’t his original area of expertise. Raised in Chicago, he grew up loving Minor Threat, Anti-Flag and Dead Kennedys. On the weekends, he attended hardcore and punk shows held in the basement of the now-closed radical leftist bookstore New World Resource Center. When he moved to Los Angeles to attend CalArts, he started drumming in lo-fi post-punk outfit Behavior.

But Burrows said yes to drumming with Hanson, and together with Landey and Martens, they released debut album Ganglion Reef, introducing Wand as the heir to Segall’s proggy-scuzzy garage-rock throne — a position endorsed by Segall himself, who released the album on his own Drag City imprint God? Records. Wand remained Hanson’s brainchild through 2015, the same year the band dropped two full-length records in short succession: the psych-sludge odyssey Golem, with fantastical lyrics to match its title (inevitably linking them to Thee Oh Sees), and the brighter, proggier 1000 Days.

By Burrows’s account, Hanson was at least preparing to surrender some creative control by the start of the 1000 Days sessions. Granted, Hanson still provided the riffs, themes and song ideas, but there were fewer finished demos and more group input on arrangements than before.

By the end of 2016, Hanson was ready to blow the doors open. Wand, now a trio after Martens’s 2015 departure, invited keyboardist Sofia Arreguin and guitarist Robbie Cody to join the band on a full-time, name-in-the-lineup basis; Hanson welcomed a new phase in which he would relinquish primary control in favor of a group vision. He and Burrows couldn’t deny the expanded creative possibilities of “five thoughtful, attentive bodies in the room instead of three,” especially in terms of improvisation. As it turned out, welcoming growth doesn’t necessarily exempt you from the attendant pains.

“There have been all kinds of confusions and crises on the way,” says Burrows. “What we’re living in is a five-person relationship, a really intense familial-feeling series of friendships that are all interconnected.”

By the time the group started writing Wand’s first truly collaborative album, 2017’s Plum, it wasn’t just democracy its members had to contend with: Burrows’s father died; a bad breakup left Hanson spiraling. Gone were the mythical creatures that had populated Hanson’s prior lyrics; gone was the straightforward approach to psych and prog and garage rock that had drawn easy comparisons to Ty Segall. In its place: rich and melodic rock that resembled Spoon in places (namely “Blue Cloud”) and traded in ’80s shlock-rock riffs in others (specifically during the loud part of the loud-quiet-loud of “Bee Karma”). General critical consensus at the time of its release? The band’s best record yet.

With Plum written, recorded and out in the world, Wand had broken the seal on collective effort. Its members approached this year’s followup, Laughing Matter, with the same improvisational spirit, and sequestered themselves to tap into it. The band spent sixteen days in relative isolation at Sonic Ranch, a massive recording studio complex (and working pecan orchard) some forty miles southeast of El Paso — an experience that Burrows remembers as “feverish, pretty intense, pretty insular” but also like summer camp.

Whichever description you prefer, Laughing Matter exudes an exploratory spirit similar to that of Plum: old-school psych flourishes à la Love, the psych-metal-garage highs reminiscent of earlier albums, thick no-wave bass lines, and one particularly claustrophobic Velvet Underground-ish ballad as a finale.

Burrows insists that the changes, the messes those changes made, and the collaboration those changes created, intense as it all may have been, were part of the plan, however implicitly. Hanson could have kept control, Burrows could have stuck to drumming, it could all have been business as usual. But Wand — all five of them together — chose this, he insists.

“There have been all kinds of crises on the way, but we try to stick with it and trust in our judgments,” he says. “Everything that has happened to the music is because we wanted it to happen.”

Wand plays at 8 p.m. Monday, October 7, at the Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue. Tickets are $28-$32 and available at the Ogden Theatre website.

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