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Wilma Draws From the Past To Forge a Hard-Rock Future

Emotional bedrock

 

“Trigger warning: This video contains depictions of injustice,” reads the title card.

As the graphic fades, drummer DJ Buchanan’s hi-hat hisses and Viky Leone’s bass bubbles like a witch’s cauldron before Matthew Leone’s whiplash guitar riff swoops and circles. As the hard-rock trio ratchets-up the tension, Viky’s jittery line-drawn animation shudders across the screen depicting a horrified finger-pointing woman, a huddled figure spiraling in the void and a cloudburst of accusing eyes. As Matthew’s arching vocals ascend, lyrics appear onscreen:

The closet’s unlocked ‘cause it’s skeleton-free/And the beast of temptation has choked on the key…

“[It’s] about the hypocrisy of people pointing fingers at other people when they themselves are horrible,” says Viky, explaining the genesis of the song “Soap Head.”

The resulting song and accompanying video, released in July, encapsulates the Leone brothers’ chiaroscuro approach to rock — a clash between light and dark, cacophony and compassion, brutality and beauty. “Soap Head” is an intense statement, coming from a power trio with perhaps the most un-rock name you’ve ever heard: Wilma.

“We joke with people and say that it’s because of The Flintstones,” Matthew says.

In fact, the name Wilma originated with alt-metal band Helmet’s composition “Wilma’s Rainbow,” one of the first songs the brothers played together. Matthew says he also wanted a feminine band name to confound expectations.

Wilma
Matthew Leone, DJ Buchanan, Viky Leone (Photo by Nick King)

“If you hear a name like Rage Against the Machine…” Matthew begins.

“…or Cradle of Filth…,” Viky interjects

“…You can guess what you’re in for,” Matthew concludes. “With a band called Wilma, you don’t know what it might sound like.”

From Iron Maiden to Uncle Tony

“Growing up all I ever wanted to do was be in a band that rocked the socks off of every person in the world,” Matthew says.

The Leone Brothers are earnest and erudite as they tell their band’s story at a corner table at Birdsong Brewery. Twenty-five-year-old bassist Viky goes by the name Steven in his day job as an art teacher at Harding University High School. His nickname comes from his middle name Ludwig, pronounced “Lutvik” as it is in Germany, where they often shorten it to Viky.

Viky’s younger brother, 22-year-old Matthew, is effusive about working as a barista and a baker at Central Coffee Co.

“It’s my favorite place that I’ve ever worked,” Matthew says, calling his bosses and co-workers lovely.

 

Writing poems and lyrics at age 8, Matthew found inspiration in music he loved. As a military family, the Leones once lived in Naples, Italy, where Matthew went into a music store and was drawn to the pulp horror cover art of Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast. When he bought the CD and played the rampaging “Run to the Hills,” he was hooked. Iron Maiden made Matthew want to play drums. Later, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Purple Haze” inspired him to pick up a guitar, and Soundgarden gave him the impetus to sing.

But growing up in Manassas, Virginia, and getting further into the new millennium, the Leone brothers were out of sync. Unlike their peers, they cherished music from the 1990s — Soundgarden’s slow introspective grooves, Pantera’s pummeling aggression and Alice in Chains’ intricate harmonies.

“When we were young, we harmonized like [Alice in Chains’] Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley,” Viky remembers. “Harmonies are now a huge part of our sound.”

Viky Leone, DJ Buchanan, Matthew Leone of Wilma. (Photo by Anastasiya Samotyja)

To battle the boredom of Manassas, Viky started writing songs with his high school friend Gage Duvall. The friends launched the band Faces of Society, and recruited Matthew on guitar, accompanied by Viky on keyboards and rudimentary bass. Viky says the band was shooting for heavy metal, but often sounded like an homage to Depeche Mode.

“We made one tour out of pocket,” Viky says. “We went completely broke but it was beautiful experience.”

Meanwhile, Matthew was writing and recording songs in the basement of the family home. The demo for his song “Alien,” on which he sang and played all instruments, caught the ear of his uncle Tony Leone, who at one time sang with Dirtbag Love Affair and currently fronts The Grave Rollers. Drawing on his connections, Tony invited Matthew down to the Queen City in 2017 to re-record “Alien” in a professional studio manned by Steve Coleman (Slack Babbath, No Power No Crown).

Matthew went down and cut the song. Chalking up the session as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, he went back to Manassas, until in 2019 he returned to Charlotte to record more of his songs with Coleman. In the interim, Coleman had called on The Walbournes’ DJ Buchanan to re-record the drum part. When Matthew heard Buchanan’s work, he was blown away.      

“I decided to launch the band when I met DJ,” Matthew says. He contacted Viky, then living in Palm Beach Springs, Florida, to play bass in the newly formed Wilma. Viky jumped at the offer.

“It happened quickly,” Viky says. “It snowballed.” The Leone brothers started practicing regularly with Buchanan, who introduced Matthew and Viky to his bandmates in The Walbournes.

“We befriended [The Walbournes] and they took us along for a lot of their shows during the first two months that we lived here,” Viky says. Fortunate to have a support group of friends just as they jumped into the Charlotte music scene, Viky and Matthew frequented Skylark Social Club, The Milestone, and other local music venues.

At the same time, Tony Leone did far more than introduce his nephews to his music connections, Viky maintains. After the brothers moved to Charlotte, the elder Leone and his wife housed them for a month and helped them find a place to live.

“Tony knew people and also gave us the backbone to go be adults,” Viky says.

Matthew says moving to Charlotte was one of the best decisions he ever made.

“I knew that music was my life from day one,” he says. “I needed to be in a place where music mattered and there were other musicians, like-minded people like me, that I could learn from.”

 

In contrast to Charlotte, Manassas held nothing musically or intellectually stimulating for the Leone brothers.

“I could see myself going nowhere if I had stayed there,” Matthew says.

Once Viky settled in Charlotte, he resolved to play bass properly. A keyboardist at heart, he was not comfortable with stringed and fretted instruments. Although Viky had taught himself simple bass lines to get Wilma’s songs across, he decided to add a few more notes per measure. Given the band’s power trio lineup, Viky’s approach fills spaces left by the absence of a rhythm guitarist.

“When the guitar isn’t fully riffing, I’m doing more with my fingers,” Viky offers. “When [Matthew] comes back, I just relax.”

With Coleman’s attention shifting to his solo career, Matthew decided to find a new producer for the band. He went on Facebook and typed in “studio.” The first thing that came up was Dead Peasant Studio. Matthew thought the name was awesome and gave them a call.

Rot ‘n’ Roll with Dead Peasant

Wilma immediately hit it off with studio owner and producer Brandon Hamby.

“I asked him what kind of music influenced him,” Matthew says. “He said he loved Alice in Chains, and I said, ‘You’re perfect!’”

Viky credits Hamby with technical expertise and an ear for crafting and mixing a song, but he particularly praises the producer for his lack of ego and ability to listen to what his clients want.

“Many people with his talent are very opinionated,” Viky offers. “Brandon gives us suggestions, but if we don’t like them, he’s cool.”

Wilma’s first session with Hamby in November 2019 yielded a re-recorded version of “Alien,” which was released as the band’s first single on January 10, 2020. The mid-tempo slow-burning rocker ascends to a volley of interlocking incendiary riffs reeled off by Matthew, which enfold and cradle the guitarist’s introspective lyrics: “Finally, I see it, what I am/I’m an alien in my head…

“I’m telling the world I’m this weird thing,” Matthew says. “It sounds like it’s sad, but I’m discovering something about myself. I’m confessing … letting the world in on a secret that I might not say in a normal conversation.”

 

Viky praises his brother’s deeply personal, yet universal lyrics, saying they are particularly impressive when you consider that Matthew penned them when he was 15 years old.

A second Dead Peasant session in February 2020 produced six new songs that became the foundation for Wilma’s first full-length release Will Yell, which was not released until the following October. Among those tunes was Wilma’s second single “Rot.”

“It’s got an interesting time signature,” Viky says. “Matthew came up with a riff, got me to follow him on bass and created an entire song in a couple of weeks. It was our most exciting song on the album.”

The grooving, thrashing rocker also became the soundtrack for the band’s first music video.

 

Amid a squall of guitar feedback, a roaring decaying chord emerges. A nimble Middle-Eastern sounding bassline coils like a cobra, as thundering drums propel a series of spiraling riffs.   

The lyrics don’t kick in until well past the two-minute mark, and that’s when viewers of the high contrast black and white video may notice that the band members are isolated and never in the frame together. Buchanan pummels the skins in a forest clearing. Matthew wails on his guitar in an abandoned parking garage. Viky, mohawked and face-painted like a warrior, flails his bass in a darkened tunnel.

For the “Rot” video, shot in February 2020, the band filmed each member’s performance separately — a prescient vibe that would become more popular in the months of quarantine to come.

“We went to Chantilly Park,” Viky says. “At first, we were filming in an open field. Then this big guy came up and said there was a really cool tunnel nearby.” The shots of Viky flailing on his bass and brandishing a torch in the darkened tunnel looked so good, it solidified Wilma’s plan to shoot each band member separately.

Wilma
Charlotte’s Hard-Rock trio Wilma. (Photo by Nick King)

Matthew and Viky shot footage of each other playing guitar and bass, and Buchanan recruited friend Shelby Bumgarner to film his performance in a tree-lined glade. The video was simple to shoot, but it yielded stark and captivating results. Both the song and accompanying video dropped on April 17.

“I’m proud of [the video] in terms of how much effort I put into it and the actual result,” Viky says.

Yelling & crying

Another song recorded during the highly productive Dead Peasant session in February became the basis of Wilma’s second video, the edgy and agitated animated presentation for “Soap Head.”

“Uncle Tony said, ‘Why don’t you release one more cool song, just to get people excited?’” Viky remembers.

Two days before the single’s release, Viky sat down to animate the scrawling line drawings that propel the song’s impressionist narrative. For the band’s first overtly political statement, Viky drew inspiration from the October 2018 Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. Future Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh was credibly accused of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford while they were both in high school. Following a supplemental FBI investigation into the allegations, the Senate voted 50–48 to confirm Kavanaugh’s nomination to the highest court in the land.

“No matter what happened, [Kavanaugh] was portraying himself as this biblical character: ‘Just look at me, I’m so precious and sweet with my calendars,’” says Viky. “These are the people who make me the most nervous. They try to tell you that they are squeaky clean.”

 

The “Soap Head” single and video dropped in July. Along with four other songs, “Alien,” “Rot,” and “Soap Head” all appear on May Yell. The title forms the first sentence in a story as brief as a haiku, Matthew offers.

“It’s a tiny saga – ‘Wilma may yell,’” he says. “I named [the album] that specifically because most of the songs on it are outwardly directed. There is a lot of anger, frustration and sadness directed at someone or something.”

With songs that “yell,” Matthew has recently harnessed anger as a tool, balancing it with the interior examinations and discoveries that fueled earlier songs like “Alien.”

“What has happened in the past four years has angered me greatly,” he says. “But it has also caused me and millions of other people to pay attention to what’s going on in the world.”   

While May Yell, a collection that draws on influences like Rage Against The Machine, is outwardly directed with aggression, one song on the album turns emotion inward to mourn the loss of a fellow artist. “Fix the Sun” is Matthew’s tribute to the late Chris Cornell, frontman for two major Wilma inspirations: Soundgarden and Audioslave.

 

The song grapples with the emotional turmoil that led Cornell to take his own life in 2017. It makes several references to Cornell’s lyrics, most notably the sun motif that recurs throughout his work.

“Cornell was a poet,” Matthew says. “He uses … intense linguistic tools to pull you into this thing he’s feeling inside.”

Like “Fix the Sun,” Wilma’s second album, slated for a 2022 release, returns to the inward examination of the band’s earliest material. In contrast to the first album’s title May Yell, the new collection will be called May Cry.

“Wilma may cry,” Matthew says. It’s the second half of Wilma’s saga, the intuitive yin to May Yell’s assertive yang. While several songs still need to be mixed and mastered and others have yet to be recorded, the Leone brothers reveal that the new album will delve into contemplation and soul-searching. That said, it may be the catchiest batch of tunes Wilma has ever produced. The music is dynamic and energetic, Viky says, but the lyrics deal with existential dread.   

Moving forward, Wilma will likely continue the balancing act between aggression and introspection, Matthew offers.

“They scratch different itches, but I hold the same amount of love for each,” he says.

It’s the kind of knife-edge balancing act between militancy and empathy that you’d expect from a blistering rock band with the unlikely name of Wilma.


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