“You can choose your friends, but you sho can’t choose your family,” Jem tells prim Aunt Alexandra in the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird. This sage advice from Harper Lee’s coming of age classic has been repeated so often it’s become accepted as familial gospel — but not by alternative rock band Oh! You Pretty Things.
Why choose between family or friends, the Charlotte five-piece asks, when you can have both by forging a tight-knit “band family” from an eclectic group of musicians?
On a conference phone call, 30-year-old vocalist and songwriter Callie Wolfe introduces guitarist and co-founder Joseph Conde as the group’s “band dad,” even though he’s only three years older than her.
“I’m the middle child,” Wolfe says. “I [call] myself ‘dad’s favorite’ just to fuck around with everybody else.”
The ersatz family metaphor continues when 42-year-old drummer Aric Gautier is introduced to me as the “cool uncle.” Guitarist Travis Wonderly, a 29-year-old with a penchant for lyrical fretwork and rampaging rock riffs alike, is the baby of the band. Thirty-three-year-old bassist Paul Swanson claims he has no family title.
Conde and Wolfe chime in to correct him in unison by yelling “Oldest child!”
The bandmates are joking, but the closeness they feel for each other is tangible, particularly in their near-telepathic interplay on Oh! You Pretty Things’ latest single and accompanying music video “NYE,” which dropped Jan. 17.
The new song, along with old favorites, will be on the band’s setlist for a show at The Milestone on Feb. 3.
In the video, the band’s second after their debut video for “Say Nothing” in April 2022, glaring red light suffuses a bathroom as Wolfe struggles to climb fully clothed out of the tub. Meanwhile, Swanson’s moody liquid bass, Conde’s chugging and chunky guitars and Gautier’s precise yet swinging percussion weave disparate instrumental strands into a cohesive mid-tempo prowl. Enfolded by Wonderly’s cascading chiming guitar, Wolfe steps out into the night, singing smoothly and sweetly about seduction and betrayal:
“Left lying awake throughout the night/ Throw up both hands without a fight/ Can you see what you’ve done?/ You got under my skin/ Lies drip from your lips/ Broken promises/ Leave me wanting more…”
Wolfe’s lyrics, many drawn directly from diary entries, are fearless in their vulnerability. While the confessional lyrics of “NYE” touch on betrayal, it’s clear there’s no lack of trust among group members. Wolfe reveals that she’s comfortable sharing raw memories and emotions with her bandmates.
“[‘NYE’] is my most vulnerable song,” Wolfe says. “I am a member of the LGBTQ+ community [and] this was my gay awakening moment … at a New Year’s Eve party.”
Wolfe’s support for the community is echoed by her bandmates.
“Three-fifths of the band identify as non-binary, or not heterosexual,” says Conde. “We’re very much [for] inclusivity and diversity.”
The family that plays together
A blues guitarist, a folk guitarist and a music-loving former performing arts kid walk into a rehearsal space…
That’s not the start of a joke. It’s how the three initial members of Oh! You Pretty Things came together to develop their distinctive brand of alt-rock fusion. Growing up in Utica, New York, Conde wrote folk songs on guitar and produced beats on his computer. Wolfe grew up in Salem, Virginia, immersed in the pop and rock music her parents loved. She attended the Arnold R. Burton School of Performing Arts in VA and then moved to Charlotte in 2013 to study music and theatre at Queens University.
Conde and Wolfe became neighbors, and started getting together to play Dungeons & Dragons. They bonded over music, and even did a podcast together called Band Pie. After Wolfe asked Conde to form a band with her, the two friends started writing songs together.
Swanson played blues guitar, and built his own instruments in high school, but he earns a living doing theatre gigs. In 2015, he moved to the Queen City and was technical director at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte until the company’s closure in 2022. Swanson was tapped by Conde and Wolfe to play drums for their still-untitled band. When his bandmates heard how well Swanson played bass, they promptly fired him from the drum stool and rehired him as a bassist.
One day driving home from work, Conde heard David Bowie’s song “OH! You Pretty Things” for the first time.
“It was one of the most incredible songs I’d ever heard,” Conde says. “The dynamic between his piano opening and this hugely bombastic chorus — you’re like, ‘Where did that come from?’”
Conde texted the song to Wolfe and proposed the title for the name of their nascent band. She readily agreed. While the pair say their music does not sound like the Bowie classic, they feel the tune encapsulates the surprise and sense of the unexpected that their music evokes.
As a threesome, Oh! You Pretty things recorded and released a four-song emo and pop-punk-influenced EP called N is For Nostalgia in 2019. The band played a few shows before everything shut down in the wake of COVID-19.
“We chilled for a year,” Conde says. “Then we brought on Aric and Travis in 2021, right after the vaccine started coming out.”
Youngstown, Ohio native Wonderly pursued an IT career in Fayetteville until he discovered a broken guitar at a friend’s house. He brought it home, fixed it and taught himself to play. Wonderly dropped out of IT and put himself through school at Catawba College, where he earned a Bachelor’s in Popular Music and Music Business. After playing in the local metal scene, Wonderly went on website Bandmix looking for a change. He found it with Oh! You Pretty Things.
Growing up in New Jersey, Gautier was fired up by the flowering of grunge, particularly Nirvana, in the mid-1990s.
“Dave Grohl is why I picked up drum sticks,” Gautier says.
He formed a progressive metal trio named Shiwan Khan, named after a villain in The Shadow pulp magazine, and subsequent comic books. When the COVID pandemic hit, Gautier and his wife decamped for Charlotte to escape the high cost of Jersey living. Like Wonderly, he discovered Oh! You Pretty Things on Bandmix. After an online interview with the band, Gautier joined the fold.
The seeming serendipity that brought Oh! You Pretty Things together in its band family does not belie the hard work each member has put in to make the group succeed. Each member, however, cherishes the connection they feel from playing with their friends and fellow musicians.
“The crowd definitely feeds off how much we’re a family,” Conde says.
“We all might have different influences, but we’re all listening to [music] for the same reasons,” Swanson says.
Despite her high profile as a dynamic and relatable frontwoman, Wolfe says she shares all her moments of triumph with everyone else in the band.
“I couldn’t do it without them by my side,” she says.
Audiences respond favorably to Oh! You Pretty Things because they can tell how happy and comfortable the musicians are onstage together, Conde offers. He feels lucky to share his good fortune with audiences.
“All I ever wanted was to help people through music the same way that it helped me get through so many good and bad times,” he says.
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