When most unknown bands come over to America from England, they find themselves in a cramped bar playing to roughly 12 people only paying half attention. The floors are sticky, the bathroom makes the NYC subway look like Buckingham Palace, and they’re running their own merch table. But when the Wild Things made their American debut last spring, they were onstage at Madison Square Garden.
“That’s a bucket list for anybody,” says lead singer Sydney Rae White. “My dad was texting me at three in the morning, our time. He’s like, ‘How was it? God, I wish that were me.’ I was like, ‘Sorry Dad!’”
The Wild Things’ big night was a surreal experience made possible by Pete Townshend, the group’s unofficial godfather, who has opened up countless doors for them, from producing and playing on their new album, Afterglow (out next year), to giving them an opening slot for the Who’s next shows on Nov. 4 and 5 in Las Vegas.
At the Garden, they won over Who fans with their hook-laden riffs, tight melodies, and White’s stage presence. With a blonde mullet, a burgundy jumpsuit, and glam rock makeup, she’s like a magical combination of Ziggy Stardust and Tinker Bell. She also didn’t hesitate to restart the stunner “Paradise” after technical difficulties. “I don’t want to half-ass it,” she says. “If we’re going to put on a show, we’re going to do it — excuse my French — fucking right.”
At the end of their set, the band promised everyone in the arena free entry to their show at the much smaller Mercury Lounge the following evening. “I’m not really fussed about coming out with money on this tour,” says guitarist Rob Kendrick, who is also White’s husband. “I don’t give a fuck if I come away with $50 for two shirts. If I can put that back into some people getting extra music, that’s great.”
Their plan worked: Countless dudes showed up in Quadrophenia T-shirts the next night, clutching beers and giddy to see this young band that prove that rock music is still a thing. “Rock is having a resurgence,” says White. “You only have to look at last night to see that people are still itching for it.”
Townshend, on a phone call a few weeks later, agrees: “Suddenly there are lots of serious rock bands, and that’s how I would qualify them. They have something special, and they’re right for the time.”
A FEW HOURS before their Mercury Lounge show, White and Kendrick are sitting at a noisy table inside Katz’s Deli. It’s their first time at the New York institution, and Kendrick, 36, is nearly foaming at the mouth when he orders a pastrami sandwich. White politely declines, explaining she’s been a vegan for nearly five years. On top of her burnt-orange jumpsuit rests a grocery bag full of pineapples, baby carrots, and hummus.
“Our guitar tech has been a vegan for, like, eight years,” Kendrick says. “He came straight to New York and started eating pizza.”
This wry British humor steeps into the Wild Things’ music. “My Heart Is in New York,” which they debuted at the Garden, may sound like a lovestruck ballad, but it was actually written after White’s brother — producer and bassist Cam White – dared Kendrick to write a song about a bumper sticker.
The track features White’s powerhouse vocals over a forlorn guitar, but even the lyrics are an inside joke with the band. “At the end of every half verse, the main character dies,” Kendrick says proudly. “I just thought it was a really funny idea, that every time they started singing, they dropped dead for some reason. Pete was like, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’”
Townshend’s connection to the Wild Things runs deep. White and Kendrick first met after the Who guitarist cast them in the 2009 U.K. production of Quadrophenia, with Kendrick as Jimmy and White as his girlfriend. “It’s a Cupid story,” Townshend says. “I watched the moment at which Rob and Syd fell in love onstage during a rehearsal.”
White and Kendrick both began their careers in acting. White was in the U.K. adaptation of the Disney show As the Bell Rings (“She’s very much like Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears and people who have grown up on children’s TV shows,” Townshend notes), while Kendrick recently appeared as a composer on the first season of Bridgerton. “I said to the makeup woman, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be back for the next season, so just make my hair as big as fucking possible,’” Kendrick jokes. ”Because if I turn into a meme, they might want to bring me back.”
Following the musical, the couple formed Wild Things, with Cam on bass and Pete Wheeler on drums. White and Kendrick had kept in touch with Townshend, so they fearlessly emailed him their music. “He was very honest, which I thank god for,” White recalls. “He was like, ‘This is not good, kids. This is not good.’” (Townshend laughs and claims not to remember giving this feedback. “If it’s what I said, then I’m pleased that I trusted them to take it on the chin,” he says.)
The band later sent Townshend songs that would end up on their raucous 2018 debut, You’re Really Something, and his response was encouraging. “He really liked it,” White says. “He sat down and was like, ‘I still think you have places to grow.’ We were younger and stubborn, and we were like, ‘We think it’s the greatest album of all time.’” Adds Townshend: “If they suffer from anything, it’s over-confidence.”
AT THE END of 2019, the band brought four new songs to Townshend, and this time he invited them over to his home studio to record what would become Afterglow. They spent five days at the Ashdown House in Oxfordshire, with Townshend dissecting each of their songs. “It’s fascinating to watch him,” says White. “He’s got such an esoteric mind. He can be quite intimidating. If you’re expecting this kind of grandeur, I think you’ve got the wrong opinion of him. And I hope that if he ever hears any of this, he will not smack me around the face for it. But he’s just a genius.”
However, Townshend takes a modest stance and says he contributed very little to the process: “All I had to do was pat them on the head and make a few changes,” he says. “I’ve never really liked being produced. I’ve never worked with a producer in my entire career where I would be able to put my hand on my heart and say, ‘It was a joy!’ So, I try to make sure that it’s as much of a joy as possible and that the music rolls out at a good standard.”
Working with a rock legend responsible for multiple concept albums gave them the idea to create their own. Afterglow takes place over one evening in the fictional town of Valentine, with each of the 11 tracks telling individual stories. “You can take each song as it is, as a singularity, at face value, or you can really dive into this world that we’ve created,” says White.
White and Kendrick were aware that concept albums can come off as pretentious, but they saw it as an extension of their acting. “I think there can be a stigma behind a newish band who are writing a concept album,” White says. “’Ugh, who do they think they are, Radiohead?’ It just happened to be that we as actors immerse ourselves in stories like that all the time. It felt like a natural progression.”
They want to take the concept album even further, eventually adapting it to a TV show that Townshend compares to a musical version of Schitt’s Creek. (The band even convinced him to introduce them to Cameron Crowe, in hopes he will executive produce it.) For now, though, they’re focusing on their upcoming shows that include a cruise with Kiss on Oct. 28 and opening for the Who in Vegas. Their English charm will hopefully help them get signed to a label. “If any of this sounds fucking wank,” says Kendrick, “Just get rid of it.”