How Wet Leg turned their 'really dumb songs' into a perfect indie-rock debut
Rhian Teasdale, lead singer of the British group Wet Leg, treasures the single line of advice that wound up giving her band its mission. "Someone once told me, 'You need to trust your own bad taste,'" she recalls. "From the word go, we made sure to do that with Wet Leg. Why else would we have let these really dumb songs we recorded see the light of day?"
From the moment they did, however, listeners have been reminded of just how brilliant "dumb" songs can be. In the hallowed tradition of ironically dim-witted anthems like the Ramones' "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," or absurdist outbursts like the B-52s' "Rock Lobster," Wet Leg's two singles from last year — "Chaise Longue" and "Wet Dream" — combined a sensibility so dazzlingly off-center, with new-wave earworms so insidious, they generated a pan-continental buzz.
Timing played a key part. When the songs were first released, more than a year into this seemingly endless pandemic, the bliss baked into random lyrics about spending all day on a couch or the unexpected occurrence of nocturnal emissions — matched to zombie-dead vocals and super-bright hooks — inspired over eight million streams on Spotify and more than four million views of their videos on YouTube. All of this occurred before the group had played a single significant gig and more than eight months before the release of their eponymous debut album.
"We were quite lucky," says Hester Chambers, the group's other key member. "When our first song was released in the U.K., it was just two weeks before restrictions were lifted. The fact that our songs had an element of silliness, and that they didn't require a lot of brain power to understand, turned them into three-minute respites from the anxiety everyone was feeling."
Logical as that connection may seem now, the success of such askew music, produced by two unknowns from a fairly remote part of the U.K. — the Isle of Wight — has thrown the women into a perpetual state of gobsmacked wonder. That reaction was on ample display at their inaugural New York show several months ago, as well as during an interview a few days later at a Brooklyn hotel. Performing at the Mercury Lounge for the first of three sold-out shows in the city, Teasdale seemed surprised that anybody had even shown up. "We normally play a support set," she said with a giggle. "We're not used to playing this long." It showed minutes later when she started one number singing the lyrics to the song the band had just finished performing. "I just went back in time," she joked, to the crowd's delight. As Chambers put it during our interview: "We're here to give weird joy."
At the same time, the full Wet Leg experience reveals something both more subversive and more substantial. While the women may come across as modest and slightly dazed in public, their album shows focus and intent. Teasdale's lyrics, studded with enough epithets to award nine of the album's 12 tracks an "explicit" designation, serve as a protest against the limits on how female pop stars are often expected to act and write.
"At one point, we realized that if you say exactly the same thing a boy says while being a woman, it comes across so differently," Teasdale says. "One of our lyrics is 'Why don't you just suck my dick?' Men have been saying shit like that for years, and you just let it breeze over you. When a woman says it, it stands out."
For proof, look to the YouTube comments on the group's "Too Late Now." The cheeky rant of a song finds Teasdale calling the world "harrowing" and her life "shit," before railing against the ubiquity of dating apps that "tell me that I look like crap… I'm too thin or too fat… and whether I should shave my rat." (That last part, you might have guessed, refers to the grooming of a "private area.") "One of the boys wrote, 'Why can't women just sing about sunshine and love and the stars?'" Chambers says with a laugh.
Teasdale gets more specific, pointing out that one commenter had misplaced the potentially shaven region in question. "He thought it was talking about my vagina," she says. "I'm taking about my vulva!"
A key inspiration for her lyrical approach was Cardi B's I-can't-believe-she-just-went-there anthem "WAP." Other artistic encouragements came via the lyrics of the American rapper Ashnikko, who titled one of her songs "Clitoris! The Musical," and the Australian group the Chats, who've put out cuts like "Drunk and Disorderly" and "The Clap."
"Both have that great thing where they're really silly — but cool," Teasdale says.
The women credit some of their quirky sensibility to growing up on an island known to outsiders only for its historic music festivals. "It's a very sheltered and rural place," Chambers says of the Isle of Wight. "There's not much there. Maybe that's one reason many young people do music."
They started playing fairly casually, taking up instruments in their teens. Chambers, who is 27, began playing drums, then switched to acoustic guitar to try to master Nick Drake songs, with limited success. "Even now, I'm still not confident [as a player]," she says.
Teasdale, 28, began playing piano in college but eventually got bored, so she pivoted to guitar. "There's something nice about being able to stand up when you play," she says. "And everything sounds like a pop song when you write it on guitar."
In the years leading up to the formation of Wet Leg, the two worked various day jobs. Chambers designed pieces for her parents' jewelry business, while Teasdale had waitressing gigs before landing "a dream job I didn't even know existed" — as a wardrobe assistant for TV commercials and music videos in London. After playing in some previous bands, they came together in 2019 as Wet Leg, a name devised, like most everything about them, at random. Some friends added a rhythm section and synths to the demos of their simple, yet maddeningly catchy songs, which mainly Teasdale pens. The words she writes tend to show a love of sloth, as well as an aversion not only to love but to most social interactions. A typical verse? "It used to be so much fun/Now everything just feels dumb/I wish I could care." Or this doozy: "You're going to party/I heard there's gonna be some arty/People talking about themselves/Or whatever it is that you always talk about."
"As a person, I don't really have time for things I don't want to do," Teasdale says. Some of that attitude came from a breakup she experienced before she began writing the songs. "I had this boyfriend I was with for seven years, the whole of my 20s," she says. "I wasn't living for myself. I would always think of him first. I've given myself so much space now."
Judging by the songs, she seems to have filled it with cynical humor. Her songs burst with tersely flip non sequiturs like "You're so woke/Diet Coke/I feel gross." It's the kind of writing one might expect from someone who's seriously stoned. "The songs weren't created that way," Teasdale says with a laugh. "We're not that rock & roll. I think we're just naturally cruising around in an altered state."
Even so, they were focused enough to put up a four-song demo on Sound Cloud in late 2020 . In short order, a manager contacted them and soon landed them a contract with a major indie label in the U.K., Domino Records. "It was surreal," says Chambers. "We didn't get to play a gig for them because it was lockdown and there were no gigs. I was super worried about that. I thought, 'Wow, when they eventually see us play, they're going to find out that they made a mistake.'"
"The imposter syndrome hits pretty hard," says Teasdale. "It feels like you've really pulled the wool over their eyes."
"But," adds Chambers, "the label hasn't dropped us yet."
Judging by the Mercury Lounge show, Wet Leg have no trouble translating their sound to the stage, aided by extra musicians, including bassist Ellis Durand, drummer Henry Holmes, and guitarist and synth player Josh Omead Mobaraki. Still, Teasdale and Chambers admit it can feel odd to play a full concert for people who've heard only four of your songs.
"We were nervous about that," says Chambers. "But at a certain point we realized we're just trying to make the music that we want and if people enjoy it, that's a win. If not, we're still enjoying what we're doing. Isn't that what counts?"
Wet Leg is out today.