Techno Westerns is Toronto’s outsider underdog at NXNE

OK, NXNE is worth all the hype” says the girl from Saskatoon

I was late to Techno WesternsNXNE slot at Handlebar, which was entirely my fault. I had to make a last-minute outfit change, leading to a last-minute panic attack, which led to me arriving almost 20 minutes into the 40-minute set. The one show I actually NEEDED to go to that night to write this article was the one I would miss nearly half of, and I was pissed.

I had sat down with frontman Wyatt Hautonga earlier in the week at Skyline Restaurant. He walked right past where I was sitting, but I suppose writers are more challenging to recognize than musicians. He wore the classic musician uniform: skinny black jeans and leather jacket, accessorized with a single dangly earring poking out from the curls of his shag-mullet haircut. I’m not sure what writers are supposed to look like, but I was wearing a thrifted cardigan and that one pair of Levi’s I’ve long since shrunk out of but refuse to donate.

Wyatt was never a popular kid. He still doesn’t consider himself to be one. Born and raised in New Zealand, Wyatt moved to New Brunswick at 13. He wasn’t popular among his classmates throughout middle and high school, not blending in with the local crowd he describes as hillbillies. Even now, having been in Toronto and active in the scene for the last five-or-so years, Wyatt says he still feels like an outsider, a new kid with a chip on his shoulder, mainly because people don’t seem to know what to do with him or his music.

Music wasn’t always Wyatt’s dream. Throughout his youth, his dream job changed a handful of times. At first, he wanted to do politics, but he didn’t feel gutsy or scummy enough. Then he considered being a lawyer, but it had the same unsavoury vibes. Wyatt says he can’t imagine defending someone who absolutely did something horrible. He finds music is an excellent vehicle for making positive change without consequence, explaining, “You can do a lot of the things that inspire change outside of the straight and narrow rule set.”

Unfortunately, Wyatt’s parents didn’t initially support his musical aspirations, so enrolling in post-secondary for audio engineering was a sneaky workaround. “I didn’t want to be there. My parents forced me to go to college. I said I wanted to be a musician, they were like, ‘That’s not fucking happening.‘ So I was trying to find ways to step around the fact they weren’t going to let me do that, and I was like, ‘I want to be a musician, I’ll do music school,’ and they were like, ‘Fuck no, that’s not happening.’ So I found out audio engineering was a thing, and that’s a professional title, so I was like, it’s perfect! It has engineering in it; they’re gonna get confused. So I said I was going to do audio engineering, and they were like, ‘Oh, you’re going to be an engineer!’ And I was like, ‘…yeah.‘ So they let me. I hated it, but it was better than nothing.”

The answer was overwhelmingly negative when asked if his time studying audio engineering impacted his creative process. Wyatt says the learning environment was just not for him. “It was very stuffy, very antiquated with their approach. One of the dudes that was teaching us had worked with George Martin, who did the stuff with the Beatles. He’s like this old hippie dude, and his ideas of how you do music were just so far removed from what I wanted to do. So I feel like I didn’t retain anything other than being like, I don’t wanna be this. I don’t ever wanna be that.” Not flourishing in college and absolutely hating Fredericton, Wyatt knew he needed to set out on a different path. He eventually dropped out to pursue music with his whole heart.

Technically, Techno Westerns began in 2015. Wyatt came up with the band name first, holding on to it if he ever had a band. However, having no musically inclined friends, Wyatt kept the title in his back pocket until after high school when he started recording demos independently. Wyatt describes these early demos with a laugh, “They were very poorly, poorly done. Not that I’m necessarily the best vocalist now, but it was like two shrieking cats, just like, being dragged behind a car. It just was not good.”

A self-described Tumblr kid, Wyatt began posting his demos to Tumblr after hearing that’s how Halsey found their fame. Wyatt used Tumblr as his primary platform for a number of years, reaching out to people in hopes of gaining new listeners and growing a small fanbase with moderate success. Obviously, he had different luck than Halsey. Still, the encouragement from the people who occasionally did give his work a listen was enough to keep him going.

Wyatt had been looking for people to form a band for years, but nobody wanted to play indie. When he ran out of people he knew to potentially play with, he went to Kijiji, where he was not only unlucky, but catfished.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFee6u5z_Jw

Wyatt reached out to a man on Kijiji, named here as Matthew, who claimed to love all the same bands as Wyatt and have a lot of musical experience. But, when Wyatt knocked on the door and asked for Matthew, there turned out to be no Matthew. “I was like, ‘Hey, Matthew, you hit me up on Kijiji? ‘And he goes, ‘No… You’re Wyatt though?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, is Matthew here? ‘And he goes, ‘No, no, I’m the guy that reached out to you.’ 

Confused, Wyatt followed the man into his musty basement, where the guy picked up a guitar. When Wyatt asked to play a song by an artist “Matthew” had claimed to like during their conversation on Kijiji, the guy didn’t even seem to know the band, suggesting they play Metallica instead. “I don’t know much Metallica off the top of my head. I listen to Metallica, but I don’t know how to play Metallica.” Wyatt admits. After an uncomfortable jam session, he knew it was time to leave. “I was getting kind of creeped, so I said ‘I have a date I have to make, so I’m going to get going now,‘ and he was like, ‘Oh man, do you wanna stay a bit longer?’ And I left, and I never saw him again.”

If you listen to any Techno Westerns song, you’ll quickly realize Metallica isn’t the type of sound Wyatt is going for with the project, and neither is techno nor western. Citing Prince, Michael Jackson, Arctic Monkeys, the Killers, Frank Ocean, Drake, and NWA as influences, the result is indie rock with bedroom pop undertones. Techno Westerns’ lyrics and overall sound include lots of callbacks, making a point to showcase affection for the artists who make the sound what it is.

Since moving to Toronto in 2018 and finally assembling a group of people to officially become the Techno Westerns, it’s been an intense five years for Wyatt. “I’ve gone through the craziest character development arc possible, with enough for an autobiography as we speak. Apparently, I’ve got more gas in the tank, though.” After two years of playing as a band with a rotating lineup and putting out music, they planned a tour slated for 2020. When COVID hit, they pushed it back by a month or two, and suddenly, he was three years older. Despite all the character development, Wyatt describes himself as a social pariah in the scene, which I can’t understand because he mentioned he was diagnosed with “being extremely cool and definitely not being stuck up my own ass”. Regardless, he’s not afraid to call people out, which results in a penchant for getting himself in bad situations without meaning to, and allows him to make people dislike him with ease. At the highest point in his still-growing career, Wyatt still seems to feel like that 13-year-old kid in New Brunswick: something of an outsider. Whether or not it’s because of his big mouth is unknown.

“I feel very much a kid in the scene,” He says. “I still have a weird chip on my shoulder about how I do things and how the band does things. I’ve never felt like part of the Toronto music scene as much as I’m kind of like this weird underdog, going ‘someone, PLEASE, recognize what we’re doing.’” And people are recognizing what they’re doing. The band is set to headline Lee’s Palace in August, a stage few are so lucky to ever step foot on. Regardless, he often finds it hard to appreciate things like this. “I feel as if by the time I realize I’m at the point I want to be, I’ll already be like two years past that point entirely, but when you put it that way, it is crazy to be playing Lee’s at all.”

Having a unique sound within the scene is advantageous because it sets them apart. Still, it’s hard to find acts with a similar sound, making booking gigs difficult. The Toronto rock scene sits on two ends of a spectrum: most bands are some form of hardcore or punk, or, alternatively, surf or garage rock. Wyatt describes Techno Westerns as pop music. Largely influenced by his Tumblr youth, listeners can compare them to Catfish and the Bottlemen or The 1975. Though most might describe the band as indie, Wyatt feels it’s reductive to use the adjective as people associate it with too many things. Still, he also says it’s pretentious to identify their sound as some obscure subgenre. By being in such contrast to other groups, he finds they become known as the “weird pop guys”. Wyatt admits their sound might be best described as 2014 Tumblr indie, which, while sounding like a ridiculously specific sub-genre, is making a resurgence. The fact that Techno Westerns’ sound is outside the scope of the Toronto scene makes the milestone of booking Lee’s Palace so exciting.

Having just released Dusk, the second EP in what he hopes to be a series of four EPs culminating in an album, he says it’s hard to gauge the reception. “There’s stuff on it that did really well that I was not expecting to do as well as it has, and there was stuff on it that I was not shocked at all at the response. It’s done as well as I would like it to, for what it is.”

https://open.spotify.com/album/2Mod1Vx6DkOjMcsLWNb64y?si=4E7cx6PFSNe2cpD4GMUzoQ

Wyatt is currently very focused on recording the next EP, Evening, which is slated to drop on August 11th, the day before the Lee’s Palace show. Still, he’s concerned if the final product will meet his standards. “I should be finishing everything up three to four weeks from now, and I am not three to four weeks out. It’ll get done, but will I be absolutely pissed off if it’s not what I want it to be? Absolutely. Will people probably still like it and tell me it wasn’t at all bad? Absolutely. Will I still hate myself for it? Probably.”

When asked about NXNE, Wyatt feels honoured for Techno Westerns to be playing at the festival, especially for the second year in a row. They feel more prepared this year, since last year they had to swap out their drummer only four days before their show. While this year’s festival spot seems it will go smoother, he says they don’t take anything for granted until they’re comfortable. Following the release of the next EP, the band will go on their first extensive tour throughout August and September, playing in new cities like Montreal and Ottawa. Wyatt hopes to play the UK sooner rather than later, saying they have fans out there, and he feels obligated to play for them. Wyatt notes that creating and contributing to a safe scene and community is vital to the band, and this philosophy extends past just Toronto.

Wyatt was confident yet humble when asked what people should expect to see at their live show. “On the best day possible, we’re one of the best bands you can see in the city at this level. On the worst day, we’re above the noise. Worth at least $5 of a $10 door price.” Wyatt also says, according to a security guard at the Horseshoe, they’re the best entertainers he’d seen in 15 years. Like many bands coming up right now, they recognize the importance of energy and stage presence, as well as visual aspects. They prioritize things like dressing cohesively, good lighting, and their big LED sign.

So, when I got to Techno Westerns 8pm set at 8:17, you can understand why I was upset at missing so much of it. I rushed to the front of the stage to get pictures and see if Wyatt’s description of their performance was accurate. When photographing a concert, you must always have your camera ready in case they do something especially interesting. Sometimes, you’ll go to a show where the band hardly does more than strum their guitar and sing into the mic. You leave with a handful of pictures you took in the first ten minutes and a dead battery in your camera/phone. While the set wasn’t long enough to kill my phone battery, it was interesting enough to fill a great deal of my iCloud storage. They play loud with a lot of energy, have a really cool visual style, and not only do they sound just as good live as their recordings, but they also sound very different compared to anyone else you’ve seen from Toronto.

“If you like indie music, we do it, and it’s at least a 7/10. Come see if it’s not a 7/10.” – Wyatt

https://open.spotify.com/artist/5xaiSC0OYN55Zm0UIFZK1Y

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