“I think I was there the first time Ben smoked weed!” exclaims Zach Lorelli, the wry and excitable drummer of on-the-rise indie rock band Forth Wanderers. “No, it was the second time,” songwriter and guitarist Ben Guterl, whose big curly blonde hair makes him seem even taller than he is, corrects him. “When I actually got high.” Duke Greene, their slender, angular-faced guitarist, remembers, forlornly, “I was supposed to be there with y’all, but I had to go home for dinner.”
The five Forth Wanderers and I are lined up on a bench in a Greenpoint playground on one of those rare warm Saturdays in March, cracking up as they tell me how they all became best friends. The music these pals make together is hinged on misty, nostalgia-inducing chords and the kinds of memories and observations borne from being smart, bored, suburban kids. Because they’ve known each other for such a long time, they have the kind of bond only childhood friends can have. Their sound is rich with chemistry that comes from witnessing each other’s low points, from sharing secrets. They finish each other’s sentences as often as they lovingly talk over one another.
They’re all in college now, but they grew up together in Montclair, New Jersey, a small town in New Jersey’s Essex County, a short drive from New York. Their kinship runs deep. Zach and Duke have known each other since fifth grade, and now live together at Rutgers University in N.J.—Zach studies Jazz Performance and Music Education, and Duke is majoring in Criminal Justice. Bassist Noah Schifrin, a shaggy-haired wit who studies English and Film and Media Studies at Tufts, tells me he smoked his first black and mild with the pair in high school. Noah, Zach, and Duke were in a band called the Pokemen (they once beat the funk-inspired rapper Topaz Jones at Battle of the Bands with a parody song called “Welcome to the Jersey Shore”), and met Ben, who’s studying Studio Art at Oberlin College in Ohio, and does all of Forth Wanderers’ art, when they were 15.
A couple years later, they were introduced to their gooey-voiced, green-eyed singer, Ava Trilling, who’s two years younger and is now an English major at the New School in New York. This is one of the very rare times the fivesome are in the same location together, and it’s a joy to see them catching up and reminiscing.
“I was so nervous the first time I came over,” Ava tells me, recalling that initial day they played together. Ben had heard her music, and was “trying to shoot [his] shot,” so he sent her one of his guitar demos. She returned it, overlaid with her vocals, and Ben invited her over to practice with the band. “I was nervous, too. It was so fuckin’ awkward,” he remembers.
“So awkward,” Ava agrees, laughing, explaining that the four boys didn’t even have a microphone set up for her yet. “I thought they were really cool, found out they weren’t,” she teases.
But something clicked, so they began making music together in earnest. They started with a 2013 EP called Mahagony, which was recorded and released before Forth Wanderers ever played live, and includes the first song they wrote together, “Sip Neigh,” as well as Zach’s personal favorite track, the cloudy “Paws.” At the start, their hazy sound was emotive and intimate, much softer than its current iteration. A full-length, Tough Love , followed in 2014, this time a little angrier, and a tad more profane, establishing the band as masters of fed-up, self-aware basement rock songs. But it was the Slop EP, in 2016, released right after Ava graduated high school, that really got them attention. The title track is still one of their best; it’s dulcet angst, a truly perfect song that somehow feels both naive and wise beyond its years. “Things change / I’m still young,” Ava sings as a sweet and steady guitar chord unfolds. “New fears, they get old, too / They’ll get old soon.”
“I want people to feel what I’m saying, and just dig it,” Ava tells me of her highly personal lyrics. She’s grown up a considerable amount since the songs on Slop, even, and says looking back on them is like rereading a diary, watching herself change into who she is now. Ava was 15 and 16 when she wrote most of Forth Wanderers’ previous songs, a time when she was still avoiding shows because of anxiety and stage fright, making excuses not have to go on tour.
Now, they’re seniors in college (except for Ava, who’s a sophomore), and about to release their much anticipated self-titled full-length on their new label, Sub Pop, on April 27. Their process for writing and recording Forth Wanderers remained pretty much the same disjointed operation it’s always been; they send their parts to each other via email and sometimes even have to record separately because of school schedules. But in tone and theme, the album is a definite progression, which they recognize too “The melodies are more efficient,” Ben notes. Noah leans over to tell Ava her lyricism has evolved in a cool way, observing, “You’re more confident in your lyrics, and you’re talking about things that aren’t confident.” Ava agrees that overall it’s “less shy.” They’ve all matured a lot, since going to college, adds Duke. “We’ve seen the world!” Noah declares.
They’re avid consumers of pop culture, with tastes all over the place, which partly explains their super full sound. Ben listens to a lot of Tom Waits, Sun Ra, Yung Lean, Steve Lacy, and Porches. Ava’s into Migos, SZA, Ella Fitzgerald, the rapper Sammus, and British R&B artist IAMDDB. Duke likes Outkast and Stereolab, and Noah’s been spinning a lot of Sade and Erykah Badu these days. Zach studies jazz, so obviously his preference is for folks like John Coltrane and Christian McBride. “Just a bunch of cats,” he says, after listing off a slew of names. “You got all this down?”
The music these pals make together is hinged on misty, nostalgia-inducing chords and the kinds of memories and observations borne from being smart, bored, suburban kids.
You won’t necessarily find all those influences in their music, but what you can hear is their experimental spirit, their penchant for soulful, layered, and self-referential arrangements. And what you can definitely hear is that they’re all low-key inspired by the emo music they listened to as kids. “I used to love emo,” Ben says. “I think we all underestimate that.” Ava has a drawn-out whine that’s tied to Ben’s noodly chords as though by telepathy, and her words tug and stab at the heart. On the new album, her lyrics add a dollop of sensuality to all that angst. It works well.
“He says he likes my taste / But I bite his tongue, you know just in case,” she croons on “Taste,” an almost mournful tune about being conflicted in love and lust, a consistent theme on the record. She’s still rolling her eyes at herself, still self-aware and empathetic and a little bit lost: “He starts to fall in love / I can’t stand his face / But I like his feel / I’m all over the place.”
In a number of songs, Ava sings about waking up in someone else’s bed, not sure why she’s there, if she should leave or stay. On slow-building standout “Saunter,” she sings, “I was lying here last night / I thought it be best if I left,” alongside speckles of glittering guitar and a fuzzy backdrop. “I got up and went out for a stroll / I was nervous, I had no control.”
We’re hearing Ava’s coming of age on these tracks; it reminds me of discovering my own sexuality in school, feeling free to explore, but also confused, trying to find myself in other people’s bedrooms. “I am tangled up in you, can’t get loose,” goes the glowing, midtempo “Tired Games,” on which Ava is displeased with dating rituals. “Save me from who I strive to be / Hard and cold and empty.”
She focuses on mundane moments—letting her hair down, someone in a grey coat, the smell of a boy, a bloody lip, a new face—and unfolds them, making them feel huge and significant. And Ava (with her best friends and collaborators by her side) is in that period of her life where she’s letting herself make all the mistakes she wants to make, and she’s impatient with anyone who questions her. She’s trying to be honest with herself, even when she doesn’t really know who that’s supposed to be. Ben and the boys appear to do nothing but uplift her.
Though they’re seemingly never short of energy (when I meet them at Greenpoint’s Transmitter Park, the five are switching off doing tricks on Noah’s skateboard, trading jokes about memes, and yelling Cardi B lyrics back and forth) they are also really stressed out. It was hectic making the record, scattered around the country, emailing each other their parts and meeting up over breaks. Now they’re about to graduate and release an album, basically at the same time. That’s kind of a big deal.
“There’s so much up in the air right now,” Ben says of his anticipation for Forth Wanderers’ reception. “The suspense is, like, killing me.” Plus, now that most of them aren’t going to be in school anymore, they tell me, it feels like there’s a lot more pressure to be a serious, professional band. In high school and college, the stakes seemed so much lower. It’s the kind of tumultuous, transitional anxiety any college senior faces: What’s going to happen next? Should they try to pursue careers outside of music? Zach jokes, sarcasm dripping, “My mom used to be more proud.”
Correction: A previous version of this article said Montclair was an hour and a half away from New York, but it's closer according to Noah's dad. Dads know drive times better than anybody.
Forth Wanderers' self-titled album is due on Sub Pop on April 27.
Leah Mandel is a writer based in New York and is on Twitter.
Brian Vu is a photographer based in New York. Find more of his work on Instagram.