Nat and Alex Wolff talk balancing music and 'huge' movie roles
Nat and Alex Wolff both have movie careers that are only set to grow. Nat, who was in this summer’s YA phenomenon The Fault in Our Stars, has the lead in fellow John Green adaptation Paper Towns and a role in Nancy Meyers’s The Intern, and when EW talked to the brothers over the phone last week, Alex had just scored what Nat deemed a “huge” movie part. But music is “home base” for the brothers, whose musical talents have long been in the public eye considering their starring roles in Nickelodeon’s The Naked Brothers Band.
Last week they released two new singles: the folk rock-inflected “Where I’m Goin'” and “Rock Star,” the latter of which was featured in one of Nat’s movies, the Gia Coppola-directed Palo Alto. The brothers chatted with EW about their songwriting process, productive procrastination, and the symbiotic relationship between their movies and music.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Obviously you have been writing and making music together in a public way for a very long time. How have your writing style and your collaboration style changed over time?
NAT: I would say that when we were younger we writing about things that we were excited about, and as we’ve gotten older, we’ve gotten smarter and are hopefully deeper. So the songs have gotten smarter and deeper.
ALEX: It’s not necessarily when we were younger we were writing shallow songs. When we were younger we were writing about stuff that was going on right in that moment. Now we’re writing about stuff that’s going on right in this moment, and this moment is just happens to be a little more developed and a little more heavy and a little more serious.
NAT: And Alex said that but I’ll take credit, because he said it way better.
Has your process of writing together changed at all?
ALEX: I started out as a drummer, and it mostly Nat was the lead writer, but I wrote songs. I think in the beginning it was a little more tough for input for me because I was so new to it that I felt overshadowed and was scared by it. Now I think it’s a little more, if Nat has a suggestion, I take it as a suggestion not like my older brother.
NAT: It’s just two people in the band and we both have an equal power dynamic, and usually it’s like 50 percent my songs and 50 percent his songs, but even in those songs that are my songs or his songs there are usually little bits that we’ve helped each other out with. A lot of times it’s just a small suggestion or it’s the way it’s produced or it’s a lyric change, but we work together well once we’ve worked separately.
ALEX: I totally agree. We’re not crazy into sitting down and writing together. That’s just too hard. I just think it’s too hard for us.
NAT: We’ve done it a couple of times.
ALEX: But it took so long.
When you bring stuff that you’ve already worked on separately to each other does it gel more?
NAT: For me, it’s really exciting to present songs to each other. I love hearing Alex’s new songs, and I love playing my new songs for Alex. Not actually because we’re brothers, I think it’s because we both think the other is talented. We both like each other’s music and we trust the other’s opinion. But we also like just having a smart audience. And also to hear things through Alex’s ears I go back and change things anyway just because I know I’m going to be playing it for Alex. Because I know there are certain things that Alex is going to say. It’s good to have somebody that you want to present things to.
What have been your influences for this new stuff and how have they changed over the years?
NAT: Yeah, they’ve changed over the years. We’re obsessive Beatles fans since we were kids, so that was always like a base for us that everything else was built upon. Then as we got older we had a lot of disparate influences. We love The Replacements and Neil Young.
ALEX: We’re both crazy into Wilco right now too.
NAT: I think now it’s sort of about stripping things to their essence, stripping things down to acoustic guitar and voice, just playing our songs as opposed to building something in the studio. It really is about songwriting for us.
What was the writing process like for these singles?
NAT: I mostly wrote “Rock Star,” and Alex mostly wrote “Where I’m Goin’.”
ALEX: I wrote all of the lyrics down in biology. I wrote the entire song down.
NAT: Procrastination is good.
Presumably you do not remember what was being taught in biology that day.
ALEX: Yeah, I do not remember. Yeah, I have no idea. Probably something about something.
NAT: I’m glad you weren’t paying attention that day, dude.
You have fans from when you were much younger. Are you hoping to reach an entirely new audience with the new stuff? Nat, Fault in Our Stars has a giant fan base, but are you generally hoping to carry some fans over who probably have also grown-up with you?
ALEX: That’s kind of a scary question. It’s kind of scary because Nat and I are so—not that we don’t care—but anti-fretting about who’s going to like it. I think we kind of just trust that people are going to go along with what we’re doing. But the good thing is that Nat and I have been a band for about 10 years, basically, which is pretty insane to think about. So the people who liked us then have gotten older with us.
NAT: Well, we just got one new fan, because I was in a taxi and I was doing this interview and he goes, what’s the name of your group? We got a new fan, Alex.
You should have given him some music.
ALEX: The answer to the question now is just our audience is taxi drivers.
NAT: I think what Alex is saying is we love music and we just write our songs and make our music and then whatever happens happens. It’s just too impossible to control. We love the people who come to our concerts because a lot of them are people who have stayed fans of ours since we were 11 years old and Alex was 8 years old. We’ve gotten a lot of new fans through being in movies and that kind of stuff, but when they come to concerts they know all the words to the songs, so they’ve become equal fans of our music. Even though maybe they heard of us or re-heard of us through Fault in Our Stars, it’s not just like they are going there to get their Fault in Our Stars DVD signed. They are really excited about the music and that’s great.
On the topic of movies, I know that there was a version of “Rock Star” in Palo Alto…
NAT: Yeah, “Rock Star” was in Palo Alto and I played it in Palo Alto, I was, like, playing it on the piano. It was something that I had already written by Gia Coppola said, “can you play a song at the party?” and I just thought that this song kind of was almost written from my character’s perspective—this person that needs to break out of where they were. It just seemed right and nihilistic. But the studio version has never been released so this is like the studio version that we did with Matt Wallace, who produced all The Replacements records and produced Faith No More and Maroon 5.
How are you two balancing your movie projects with the music?
NAT: It’s really hard. Alex just got a huge role in a movie yesterday.
ALEX: I’m probably not allowed to say what it is.
Is it hard to juggle movies and music?
NAT:I think it’s hard to juggle movies and music mostly because of scheduling, because it’s hard to schedule tours when you don’t know when the movie’s going to start. The good thing is we’re both doing movies and yet we’re both still completely committed to the band.
ALEX: Yeah, it’s a really cool problem to have.
NAT: We’re really lucky in the fact that we’ve been able to get music in movies. I had the song in Palo Alto and a song in Stuck in Love and Alex had a song in Fault. And then Alex has had a bunch of songs in the movies he’s been in. It’s great when those two worlds collide. We do run into scheduling issues a lot.
How does that work with what element of your careers you want to pursue? Does it make music take somewhat of a backseat because you can’t tour?
ALEX: In some ways, I think in some ways it’s actually enhanced our music career to have movies. Nat doing Fault was the greatest thing for our band, and the only reason that our song got in it because Nat was screaming it in the movie. Now we can say that we have a song in Fault in Our Stars and we have a thousand fans who went to listen to our music because we performed at an event for Fault in Our Stars. I think the movies and the music are only helping each other.
NAT: It’s been kind of a weird thing because it’s not based on any kind of grand career trajectory. Like, well let’s do really well in our music so we get more movie parts, or let’s do a lot of movie parts so we do better in our music. It’s just we’re super passionate about both these things and we both are passionate about two separate things and they both have started to feed each other career-wise. So it’s been kind of magical, especially in the last year. There was a kind of harder period, but especially in the last year it’s been kind of magic.
ALEX: With all the movies and stuff that we do, it always does feel like this is our home base when Nat and I are playing music. Because we do acting and that’s so fun and we do it and we’re really passionate for it, but when I’m playing music with Nat—I don’t know how to really explain it, it just feels right.