Brothers Nat and Alex Wolff have been making music since they were kids. Alex, the younger of the two, earned his first writing credit at age 6, while Nat was penning forlorn songs and rearranging his favorite Beatles tracks at 5 years old. But they’ve always been stronger together than apart, and their latest singles — “Cool Kids” and “Note” (out now) — are proof.
Though written separately, as they always do — Nat wrote “Cool Kids” while he was temporarily living in Los Angeles, and Alex penned “Note” after a long night of tossing and turning through anxieties in his head — they weren’t afraid to get a little experimental on the production side, bashing trash can lids and recording hidden messages on their keyboards. As a result, the two tracks fit perfectly together in their own weird way. “Cool Kids” is the melancholic turn-up, while “Note” is the come down you play in your soft hours. “It was definitely more experimental than we’ve been before,” Nat told MTV News of their creative process and newfound “fuck it, whatever” attitude in the studio.
And this is just a taste of what’s to come, as Nat and Alex have plans to release even more music this year. MTV News talked to the duo about their new tracks, experimenting in the studio, and what (or rather, who) inspires them.
MTV News: Your last formal project together was the EP in 2016. Why did like now feel like the right time to release new music?
Nat Wolff: We’ve been working on music all through that time. We’ve been playing shows and Alex has done some music for his film that he made, and we’ve been doing different things. But the decision to come together as a band to do two new songs, that happened when we started to go in a little bit of a new direction. It was definitely more experimental than we’ve been before.
MTV News: Were you just kind of excited by the musical landscape? What inspired that change?
Alex Wolff: When you give yourself that amount of time, it’s about two years, I think that a bunch of albums come out from other people and we discovered a bunch of different people, and we were starting to listen to a lot of different styles of music. I remember at the tail end of Public Places, our last thing, we were getting really into Frank Ocean’s style of production and playing around with it. Tame Impala, too. So we started trying more experimental vocal sampling and laying our voices as instruments and cutting them up, and also just listening to [Kendrick Lamar’s] Damn and a bunch of hip-hop albums.
So we took that time to go into these songs without our normal way of formulating music… We were bringing in crazy instruments, and sampling our vocals, and banging on stuff, and looping it backwards, and just like, fuck it, whatever, it all goes. We just got more ballsy. Hopefully, we’ll get more and more and more crazy until we put out a terrible album, and then we’ll start to bring it back.
MTV News: Which song came first: “Cool Kids” or “Note”?
Alex: I’m not sure, yeah I’m trying to think of the time…
Nat: We can just say that they came on the exact same day because there’s no way to prove that’s not true. And that’d be kinda cool if we wrote them the exact same time in different places and then we showed them to each other. [Laughs]
Alex: It was around the same time, and we knew that we’d pair them together. That’s one thing that we always subconsciously do is we’ll pair up songs, like this vibe goes with this — the way you curate a playlist.
MTV News: What was the vibe you were going for with these two tracks then?
Alex: We like to say that if a bunch of people are hanging out in a room, let’s say like a melancholic party, they’re dancing around listening to “Cool Kids.” Then the party cools down, and there’s like one or two people sitting there and “Note” comes on, and they just cry as if they reminisce about the party.
Nat: They’re nostalgic for the party that just happened.
MTV News: Nat, you wrote “Cool Kids” and Alex wrote “Note.” How did you guys collaborate on these tracks?
Alex: “Note” just came out of me. I stayed up all night, wrote it on the piano. My girlfriend was in Germany working. I was paranoid, and I missed her. You know when you stay up all night and you just look terrible and you feel terrible? I was in that state. But the sun was also rising, so I kinda just started experimenting and writing a different type of song. I think Nat was in a similar mindset while writing “Cool Kids.” Then we got in the studio and just shattered whatever we would have done a year and a half ago, two years ago, and tried something different for every instrument. We were pushing each others boundaries.
Nat: We have a crazy LCD Soundsystem drum beat in my verses to “Cool Kids.” And that was sort of the idea of the song, but somehow then the song started not feeling like itself, so we took that out and it opened us up to go in this completely other direction. That’s the most exciting thing ever: throwing away what your idea is of the thing you’re doing.
Alex: We just yelled into a keyboard, like an old Casio keyboard, for 45 minutes…
Nat: Alex has the head of a trash can, and he’s smashing it against the wall towards the microphone. Occasionally the thought passed through our head like, “What the hell are we doing?”
MTV News: Let’s talk about “Cool Kids.” Nat, why are you so sad in L.A.?
Nat: That’s what you got from it?
MTV News: One of the lyrics is “I wear a face that hurts a lot.”
Nat: This song is about the difference between the face that you wear as your persona and then the person that you really keep hidden. That you push down, the shadow side.
MTV News: Like Carl Jung.
Nat: Yeah, exactly. I just remember seeing a drunk friend jump into a swimming pool with all their clothes on. And they had their phone in their pocket. He woke up the next morning and was like, “What happened to my phone?” And we were like, “Your phone’s gone man.” That image got me to start writing.
Alex: What’s great about the two songs being paired together is “Cool Kids” is a lot of colors and impressions and images. That’s what I love about it; everything is emotionally succinct even if some things are abstract and not 100 percent. “Note” is almost exactly the opposite, where it’s almost like a written down [inaudible 00:14:20] like long, like sometimes a long winded, but very stream of consciousness and inspired by Neil Young-style lyrics.
Nat: The headline is like, “Nat and Alex Wolff compare themselves to Carl Young, Neil Young, and the Beach Boys.”
MTV News: I will keep that in mind.
Nat: Also, I wrote the song when we had been going through some big struggles as a family, and I was stuck in L.A., while the rest of family was in New York, and I was super bummed out. Honestly, I do feel like the song captures a feeling that I had of feeling really alienated and separated. I feel like “Note” has a little bit of a melancholy, alienated feel too.
Alex: It was a lonely time.
Nat: Both songs were written at a time when our dad was really sick, and then he got better, and it was a miracle. But at the time that he was sick, we were all kind of like split up. So I think you hear that in these songs.
MTV News: And you still write separately, right?
Nat: We always have. We’ve only written two or three songs together our whole life.
Alex: And they’re terrible.
Nat: Honestly. They’re terrible.
Alex: But “Note” also doesn’t exist without Nat coming in and helping me get outside of it.
Nat: I can’t really think of a song where one of us hasn’t given a note to the other. You know what I mean? Every song has pieces of the other. In terms of production, we do everything 50-50. There is nobody who I am on the same page with more than Alex. I read an interview with the Coen Brothers, where they were saying that the actors could go up to either of them and ask them a question, and they’d give the same answer. It honestly feels like one of us could go to the bathroom, and the other could answer for the other.
Alex: And we fist fight in the bathroom, and then we come back and everything’s OK.
MTV News: Would you say one is more detail-oriented than the other?
Alex: Definitely. One might say too detail oriented. One might say this.
Nat: I would say that. With “Cool Kids,” I come and sort of have a bulk of the idea, because it’s my song, and it’s a little bit all over the place, but Alex is really good at honing it. Then I would say Alex did the bulk of “Note,” and I’m good at sending it in different directions and loosening it up a little bit.
Alex: That’s how we are socially too.
Cover artwork for Cool Kids + Note, painted by Brooke Adams
MTV News: What’s the story behind the single artwork? It’s really striking.
Nat: It’s a portrait of our grandma…
Alex: That our friend made, and it’s beautiful. By Brooke Adams. She painted it, and we just thought it was a good representation of the melancholy…
Nat: We were recording those songs right when she passed away. But it’s also that she’s a beautiful person, and it’s a beautiful picture. It’s something we could agree on. Also, when you’re an actor you have to take so many pictures, and there’s so many pictures of you out there. So for our music it’s nice to not have it be about us. Even our last album we covered our faces with weird lights and stuff. It’s also meaningful to the family.
MTV News: It takes the focus off you.
Nat: And puts it on our grandma. Our grandma’s like, “I don’t want that focus.”
Alex: “I don’t like that music. Go back to the folk music.”