“It is very likely that, in one of these moments, you are going to die,” echoes a voice from my speakers as a Donovan Wolfington 7” spins on the turntable. After six busy years, the much beloved band is calling it quits. Founded in 2011 by then-Loyola freshmen Neil Berthier and Matthew Seferian, the band combined the duo’s distinct (and frequently contrasting) songwriting styles to cultivate a strong local and national following. However, the journey hasn’t been easy. The group endured multiple lineup changes and numerous other complications. When they recorded their 2015 album How to Treat the Ones You Love, the studio’s owner died in the middle of the sessions, forcing the band to rush their work and eventually finish the album elsewhere. In addition to their work with Donovan Wolfington, members—who now include bassist Alex Skalany and drummer Mike Saladis—juggled getting college degrees with performing, recording, and touring with other projects such as Pope, New Holland, and Ize.
Before the band departs, they are releasing a new album titled WAVES. This album is the group’s most experimental effort yet. While past releases featured a variety of different song styles, their latest tunes have internalized these stylistic differences within the songs themselves. Each number frantically spins in and out of different genres and tempos. This is also the first Donovan Wolfington release not to feature any songs led by Seferian.
D-Wolf plans to close this chapter of their lives with one final show this fall. Drinking hot coffee outside in the summer rain, Berthier opened up about the death of Donovan Wolfington and why he’s not mourning.
How have you been?
Neil Berthier: I’ve been overall very good: working at Gasa [Gasa], working shows, and I start bartending next week. I’m writing a solo record now that I’m very excited about. I still want to do it. I still like the idea of being in a touring band and making it happen. I was talking to Alex about it because he’s doing his solo thing and I’m playing guitar with him at that Girlpool show on Thursday that he’s opening up for. I’m just like, “Dude, why does Alex get to do that? I should just fucking do that. I should just go in and record all the instruments and do whatever.” I did that for the first D-Wolf record. It was me on bass for one song and drums for three songs. Point being: I’m sick of just dicking around. I’ve got to start my life and just go for it at this point. I like the new stuff. It’s different though. It’s more calm I guess, but that’s not bad.
I feel like Donovan Wolfington has tried to do a lot of different things. On the last album, you had a hardcore punk tune and a slow metal tune. Now, the new album has a song inspired by Kanye West.
That was all Mike’s doing. It was a beat that Mike had just made and showed to me. I said, “Do you want to just put it on the record?” At this point, we literally gave no fucks…
Donovan Wolfington’s last album came out in summer 2015. This has been the band’s biggest gap between releases. What has taken Donovan Wolfington so long to put out this album?
It wasn’t supposed to be that way! We recorded it last July with James Whitten, but we were building the studio in April and May (now it’s known as the Palace, across from the Music Box). We did the Gland show there. We try to throw shows and Mike’s doing records out of there. But at that time, it was just going to be our space. It was going to be this place where we would do this record and it was going to be cool because it’s super DIY… Around that time, I remember Matt was working a lot. There was a lot of stuff where we couldn’t organize schedules. Alex was working, too. We went in [and] not everyone even knew the songs. It was like, “I’ve had this song for four years. We’re gonna put it on the record. There’s no two ways about it. This is how it’s going to happen, no matter what.” James [Whitten] was fine with that. In the middle of the record, Matt was doing his songs and he had wanted his songs a certain way, but we only had the week to do it. We’d already paid for it. Being DIY is so dumb because we should’ve just added more time, but we wanted to own this record and do it all ourselves. We wanted to have the rights to it (which we still do and I’m happy about it). Once we were done we went on a three month tour. We were so rushed for time. The idea was that we were going to have it done when we got back from the three month tour so that we could mix it real quick and then start pitching it to labels. And we did that. We went out on this tour, but during that three month span where we went over to Europe with Caddy[whompus], I just started to realize, “Oh shit. This isn’t going to work.” That was the point in time where that thought first entered my head… I remember being over there and just being exhausted and realizing how we all were and what was going to happen in the coming months if certain things didn’t happen. We were just losing money over there [in Europe]. When we got back, we had done the record, mixed it, talked about it, and everything. I had sent out five songs to different labels and we ended up talking with a really big one. If there were three bigger punk labels that you were talking to as a younger band, I’m sure if you just took a wild guess you’d probably get the right answer. We were talking to a label like that and it began a thing that divided everybody. It was something that I really wanted to do. Everyone was questioning, “Do I want to commit this much to our lives?” which is completely understandable, but brought me to the conclusion of: well then why are we doing it? We all had different ideas of what this was going to be going in. I’m sick of working hard to get tours and doing all this stuff, especially because at that time we had a bum agent who didn’t do anything for us; I ended up doing everything. It was one of those moments where you think, “How long can I do this?” It’s just not fun anymore—especially with everyone else’s projects and lives. All that started to develop too, which is not a bad thing. I’m stoked for everyone. We’re still really close.
Do you feel that Donovan Wolfington breaking up is a result of you guys entering the post-college phase of your lives?
Absolutely. At the end of the day, there were no fights. With the label thing, there was a bit of a divide. There was a bit of distrust between everyone and where everyone’s loyalties lay. Some people seem to wonder why it even mattered. But it does matter, because this is our life; this is something we should take very seriously. When you narrowed it down, everyone started to realize that we all think really differently about music and how we want to pursue our careers. Alex has his solo record. Mike has this studio and is doing records out of there all the time. Matt has Pope and he has a solo record too. I know he’s recording that this week because I just saw him five minutes ago. I don’t want to take a backseat to this stuff that we’ve been doing for so long if we’re not really all into it. We’re all into playing shows and chilling, but we can do that anyways. I, personally, want to take this a bit more seriously. Since then, everything has been good. It was taking a look back and thinking about where our side hustles lay… I think we’re all kind of finding where we lay and what we want to do with that. It’s been better, I think. I’ve been a happier person for it. I’m not on the edge of my seat.
You mentioned Matt’s songwriting. I noticed he doesn’t sing lead on any of the songs on this new album. Could you talk a little bit about the songwriting process for this album?
That was a weird thing. He originally had songs that were on the record, but it was this ratio that got less and less because he’s writing for so much stuff. He had songs on the Pope record and then he had songs that he wanted on the solo record. The ones he got for us were great songs but when we started talking with label X, he explained, “I don’t want to lock my songs into something like that because it’s really intense and I want to own these things.” He took them off and, rightfully so; I get it. I think they’re going to go on his solo record, which he’s doing right now. That was another discrepancy where I think we all had different ideas on how we wanted to go into this one. On my end, I had so many songs for such a long time that if they don’t go on there, I’m going to snap… It was much less of a collaborative process than the last one, which I think definitely pissed people off too. Sorry, but I didn’t know that I was going to be so upset if these specific songs weren’t out the way they are now. I don’t really care about anything else more than it being out in the world now so that people can enjoy it. We’re doing it no label—DIY… just Bandcamp.
Given the recording process and everything, do you feel happy with how the record turned out?
Yeah. I’m stoked; I really love it. I think that every Donovan Wolfington record has had some kind of strain on it, which has been so annoying. It shouldn’t have been that way because every other aspect of our band for the past six years was so fun. Working it up the way we wanted to do it was the fun part, but once it came to the recording, I was unhappy or Matt was unhappy. Everyone had their own take on it. That was the idea of it—that this was democracy, run by the four of us. We’ve had a million different lineups but even in those times it was kind of the same way. No one just said, “Yeah. This is the way it is.” I think that kind of thing led to everyone getting angry at each other. It eventually got resolved, but I hated the recording process for every single record. It was never fun. With the last one, it was the producer dying and having to take stuff out. The one before that, we did it in the Maze; it was a ragtag process. This one was, oddly enough, very much in our control. Once we have it in our control, there’s the opposite [problems that come with that]. I’ve never liked recording for that reason—there was always something ridiculous and stupid.
Is that why you feel that you want to have more control over the solo stuff? You talked about wanting to record all the instruments yourself.
Yeah. I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t want to deal with any other ideas. I want it to be super raw. Like, here you go: this was the way it was thought out, and this is the way it is. No second guessing anything. We always wanted to do that with D-Wolf because that’s how you’re going to get the best product and get everyone’s input and that makes it such a group thing. That’s great but, on my end, it was also so straining to the point that some people would be saying, “Let’s do it. Let’s get it done” and other people would say, “Well let’s really think about. Let’s really bring it home.” They are two ways of looking at it and neither way is better than the other. It just depends on how you want to do it; but when those two are really different, they don’t really work together. This album was such a process for me that I just want to make something and have it be the way I intended it. I just want to like it fully. I really want to love it fully, but I don’t know if that is going to happen.
At the end of the day, there were no fights.
I don’t know about that yet. That is something we’ve kept up in the air. It was originally going to be in July, but now I think we’re pushing it to the fall. People leave for the summer, so it would be nice to do that. Maybe [we’ll] do [Gainesville] Fest, but I doubt it. I like the Fest but I don’t want to drive nine hours for one show. Part of me thinks maybe we should do a tour. I’m sure we will at some point. I just don’t want to do it anytime soon, because I don’t really feel like it.
So you guys aren’t drawing a hard line and saying, “We’re breaking up… period” so much as that you don’t want to keep doing what you’ve been doing?
We’re done in the sense that I don’t want to do another record. Why put ourselves through that? To me, it just doesn’t make any sense. Let’s just work on each other and ourselves and make it something special, as opposed to having strain and conflicting ideas. I don’t see another record coming out of the project Donovan Wolfington. I don’t think it’s going to happen. Tour? Possible. If we do tour, I’d like to do a Northeast or California thing; I don’t want to do the full U.S. or anything like that. I’d like to go to some places that we really like and then just end it… just have it be what it is. I like the idea of having this record be for everyone who really liked us. No song premieres on whatever site that some blogger doesn’t really care about or all the hype created around a record just to sell more records.
You’ve been tour managing PEARS lately. How has that been going?
It’s been awesome. It’s so fun. I learned a lot with them. They were the band that always brought us up and was always encouraging, trying to put us on. They were always super cool to us, and when they started to blow up, I was watching, [thinking] damn, not only so proud, but thinking that it would be awesome to see that band every night. Brian [Pretus, PEARS guitarist] and I were at that Jimmy Eat World show at the Joy Theater. We both got in and it was me, him, and his wife. He was saying, “They have a second guitar player. It’d be cool if PEARS had a second guitar player.” I was just like, “D-Wolf is breaking up! Let me play second guitar in your band!” [laughs] He said, “What?!?!” He was one of the first few people I told. I don’t think I’ll end up playing guitar for PEARS. I was just drunk, but he said, “Tell you what, we are going out on this Me First and the Gimme Gimmes tour. We know you have a van. Would you like to guitar tech and drive?” I said, absolutely! At that point, I hadn’t been on tour since Europe. It was a solid six to seven months where I was just at home working. It wasn’t bad, but you start to think a lot when you’re home. I hadn’t been home for that long in years.
That’s probably the longest you’ve been off of the road since you started Donovan Wolfington.
Absolutely. Going out on that tour was just so fun. D-Wolf never really did a tour like that. The biggest tour we did was with Joyce Manor, who are friends of ours. Obviously, we look up to those dudes too but it’s not Jay Bentley from Bad Religion, where I’m just like, “No Control was the first record I ever bought!” [laughs] It was just so fun and eye-opening, especially getting to watch PEARS play to these huge crowds. Then we did the week-long tour in Florida from Atlanta to south Florida. Zach [Quinn] blew out his voice and Maura [Weaver], his girlfriend who was in Mixtapes, and I got to sing. We split Zach’s vocals for two nights. The first night was fine because it was 40 people and all older punks who were all, “Yeah! The show must go on!” The next night was like 125 people in Orlando and it was people who were actually stoked to see PEARS. Both Maura and I just looked at each other thinking, “Fuck. I don’t want to do this again.” It was a fun one-time thing, but I was really worried about how people would react. But everyone was really stoked, and we sold a bunch of merch. It was really cool and Zach was really thankful. It was weird. You can’t fill in for Zach Quinn. He’s a tough one. I don’t know how he does it. He’s got it really down to a science, especially the notes that he hits and how fast he’s singing. It was tough for me to not run out of breath.
Tell me more about what is next for you musically.
I’m going to do a solo record and I’m really excited. I think it’s going to be really cool. I believe I’m going to call the project Ghost Boy. Then I’m going to do a hardcore project called Unarmed Cops. I want to do everything one at a time. I was talking with Bryan Funck about it. He had heard the new record before everybody because James [Whitten] does all the Thou stuff and James did our record. He heard one song, I think “Waves.” He said, “Yeah, man. I liked that one song until it got all metal and stupid.” I said, “Sick. Thanks Bryan.” He said, “Why do you do that? It’s always really dumb when you do that. You should just start projects that are one thing and have a bunch of different projects, not fit it all into one project.” I said, “No. That’s our thing. That’s how I want to make it.” And he was totally right. He’s been right about everything for forever. He knows things and is a very smart guy, so I think I’m going to try that for a while. By late 2017 or early 2018, I want to have some stuff going and get some shows going for the solo thing. If that goes well, I’ll focus on that. [Then] I’ll not write another Ghost Boy record but write an Unarmed Cops record, which I really want to do with Brian from PEARS. It wouldn’t be PEARS-style stuff where it’s melodic. It’d be more Trash Talkesque, but not Trash Talk.
How has New Orleans impacted you as a musician and a person?
I would not be anywhere near as well-rounded or relaxed as I am. I was born in New Orleans East, moved up to Connecticut, and came back for school at Loyola. I remember when I first got to Loyola, I was so pissed off and rigid. I was coming from that Northeast hardcore punk thing. Straight Edge is really big up there and all that type of stuff. Coming down here, I realized that you can do whatever you want when you just follow the rules, which are: be nice to everyone, when you want something you ask for it, and follow through with your convictions, which is oddly tougher than it sounds. That to me is how I’ve run my life. When you go to other places, you bring that type of vibe and sometimes it’s almost off-putting to people, like saying hi to everyone on the street. People get weirded out by that, especially in the Northeast. I remember I was walking with my buddy Theo from Ovlov in Boston and I was saying hi to everyone on the street. He commented, “Dude why are you doing that? You’re crazy” and I told him, “No I’m not!” It was so weird. I like that this is a city where we can kind of look at the rest of the world from our little microcosm of cool and awesome stuff. Just kind of make our assumptions and realize how we want to fit in with that. It’s not a New York and an L.A. thing where I’m trying to make it. I’m hustling, bustling. I’ve got to talk to these people and do these things. No. Fuck that.
photos Emily Quirk