In August of 2015, Donovan Wolfington released How to Treat the Ones You Love. It was their second album, and while plenty of bands struggle to make a second record that measures up to their first, Donovan Wolfington had a harder go than most. Before the album’s recording, keyboardist and vocalist Savannah Saxton left the band, and before it was finished, bassist Chris Lanthier would quit, too. They’d also grapple with the death of Rick Naiser, the owner of Festival Studios, where the band was recording the album. They’d eventually finish it off, but it required some stolen gear and after-hours sessions to make it happen.
Those dark clouds had seemingly cleared by the time the band went on tour in support of How to Treat the Ones You Love. “When that record came out, we had dealt with all of that,” says vocalist-guitarist Neil Berthier. “That next year, 2015 into 2016, that was one of the best years of our lives. I think I can speak for everyone on that. We just had a ball.” With this difficult spell now behind them, it seemed like Donovan Wolfington was revitalized, catching a well deserved second wind after a particularly fraught year.
Then, in 2017, they announced they were breaking up.
No explanation was given, but there was the promise a new album called WAVES in the can, with a tentative release planned for July 2017. There was talk about a last show, too, but as time stretched on, neither the record nor the show materialized. By that point, it seemed as if Donovan Wolfington had disappeared, their final album never to be heard, and a reason for the band’s end never given.
“There were three different things that all led up to what ended up happening,” says Berthier. The details of the band’s three-pronged undoing are long, but the first was this: Berthier pushed hard on the band during the making of WAVES, controlling the songwriting and mixing in a way that pushed other members away. “There were just all these inner-workings of us not being on the same page. So that’s step one, just not being able to communicate,” says Berthier. “I don’t think it was anyone’s fault really. But if it was anyone’s fault, it was mine.”
The second was an ill-fated European tour. “It was another thing of mine where I was like, if everyone else is doing Europe, we’ve gotta do Europe,” says Berthier. “But we didn’t have an agent over there, and I didn’t even think of that. I was like, ‘Europe’s smaller, let’s just go over and do it.’” But without having reliable contacts—aside from their friends and tourmates, Caddywhompus—the band didn’t understand the continent’s geographical layout, and they were thrown into the tour without anyone to assist them. Not only was it stressful for everyone in the band, they were hemorrhaging money. It’s why the quick-talking Berthier has no qualms calling the Europe trip what it was: “A dumb fucking idea.”
And that third thing? Well, Donovan Wolfington were in talks with a bigger punk label, and they were getting close to signing a contract. Had they signed, it would have taken them to the next level, making it into a full-time endeavor for the New Orleans band. But the band was already fracturing, and with their future on the line, they instead pulled the plug. And while that sounds dispiriting, it was the best thing that could have happened to them.
“It was just like, you’re about to break up so you ask the girl to marry you,” says Berthier of the band potentially signing. “Thank god it didn’t end up happening.” Instead, Donovan Wolfington broke up quietly, and though it was difficult at first, with Berthier noting that the members didn’t interact for a solid four months, their personal relationships slowly healed. “Everyone grew to be their own person, and we’re all just way better off being best friends,” says Berthier. It’s evinced by the fact the band members still play together, with some filling in for bassist Alex Skalany’s band New Holland, as well as guitarist Matthew Seferian and drummer Michael Saladis playing together in Pope.
Berthier now calls Nashville, Tennessee, home, and even though he’s removed from the rest of the band, he says they still communicate regularly, and FaceTime on special occasions, like Saladis’ birthday. All that time apart has made it so they finally feel comfortable playing a final show, something Berthier kept putting off—“It felt like I was planning my own funeral,” he says. So instead of making it into something mournful, they decided it should be party. On March 10, as part of the Community Records ten-year anniversary show, Donovan Wolfington will get up on stage for the last time. Not only that, it’ll also mark the release of WAVES, the band’s final, and best, album.
WAVES is a culmination of everything Donovan Wolfington built, while also pushing the band in expansive new directions—there’s an instrumental hip-hop song on it, for Chrissakes—but for now, people can listen to “Wave,” the album’s opening track. “Wave” sheds all the dark overtones found on How to Treat the Ones You Love, as Donovan Wolfington sounds outright celebratory here. The guitar riffs are more intricate and mathy, sounding like a pop-focused Hot Cross instead of a moody indie-rock band. The fact that “Wave” features some of the strongest hooks the band has ever written shows that, despite what people might think, Donovan Wolfington is going out on top.
When Berthier looks back now, he doesn’t focus on any of the negatives that swirled around the band. Instead, he’s proud that he never compromised, and that he got to make a record with his best friends. “I think the thing I’m most thankful for was getting to grow with the people I did. Some people aren’t that lucky,” he says. “I think it’s a real testament to who we are as people that we got as far as we did just being ourselves. That’s what I’m most proud of.”