Gus + Scout
has been a long time in the making. Gus Wenner and Scout Willis (yes, their parents are Rolling Stone
founder Jann Wenner and Bruce & Demi, respectively) met while growing up in Hailey, Idaho, but lost touch until the were re-introduced as students at Brown University. Instead of doing the usual collegiate partying (well, that may have happened too), they started writing and playing music together, and before long they had turned their band into a school project for credit. That independent study is the basis for their self-titled debut EP, which comes out today. The collection of five stripped down, alt-country tracks features the duo harmonizing on lines like, "When your jeans so tight / Can't cross your legs / So you sit upright / While you're lying in bed / And baby I know you felt it too / Tell me is there nothing I could do." We caught up with the duo--Gus called in from Long Island while Scout reported from New York City during her last days of summer break (she's got one more year to go)--to find out why their songs are like having a heart-to-heart with a buddy and what type of advice their dad's gave them.
Knowing each other as kids, did you ever imagine coming back together and working on a project?
Gus Wenner: When we hung out as kids, we were really young. But it didn't take long once we were older and freshmen in college to want to do something together.
Scout Willis: I remember my mom or dad telling me later, "Oh, Gus Wenner, you had dinner with him as a kid."
So when did you reveal your musical talents to each other?
SW: He lived in this building where they would do open mics, and by the fall he was playing. And I was like, Wow this kid's really good. I was always embarrassed [to sing] in front of people. And then late at night we'd start jamming and playing music, and it felt like something awesome was happening.
GW: It wasn't like I heard Scout sing, it was more on a personal level; it was something where we connected emotionally, and I saw how i could transfer it to songs. We were just talking one day and started just fucking around, and we started writing.
What is your song-writing process like?
SW: I don't really play an instrument--I don't have the technical background that Gus has. But I am very musical and I have an ear for it, but I've never been in a band before. Playing music with Gus, I was singing him a melody, or he would give me a poem he had written. It's all just this really beautiful, natural amalgamation of both of our creative inputs.
GW: One element to our songwriting process that's kind of amazing to me is that I can think of one or two songs that I had written before I even knew Scout, and I don't know exactly what she would do, but would bring them to life in this really amazing way, and she'd push me to put more into it. It would become more than the sum of its parts.
How did you convince your teachers to accept your band as a school project?
SW: That was basically to make time for ourselves. We decided last December we wanted to put serious time and effort and practice into writing this album. So at Brown you can do this independent study, so we wrote this whole thing. We had to check in and show the teacher the songs we were working on, and we had a huge final presentation.
GW: [Our advisor] saw that we were really serious about it. Independent studies are all over--you can really game the system that way--but Scout and I took it really seriously and worked really hard on it, and he really loved it. He really loved the music. We felt so fortunate to have hours and hours to sit and do that.
SW: Which in hindsight we would have done anyways, but it was really awesome to have anyways. It's saved me [in school[ this year; playing music with Gus is the thing that keeps me sane.
There aren't any bells and whistles and synth-bleeps to the songs--and even the name seems really stripped down. Are you striving for honesty in the music?
GW: I don't think there was ever a point where we considered making a different kind of sound. We just make the only sounds we could. And that, fortunately, was a very honest and natural one.
SW: And Gus and I just realized that we've both been struggling to play the music we've been wanting to play our whole lives and just didn't have people to play it with. This music's been coming out of me my whole life. It's personal because it's the music we need in our lives to be sane and express ourselves; the fact that people would want to listen to it and be so enthusiastic about it is beyond our wildest dreams.
GW: The way it's set up, with me and Scout singing together, it's like having really deep conversations with one of your best friends. There's nothing better than that in life.
Coming from such creative families, you must have gotten some good advice on being successful in an artistic endeavor.
GW: I think Scout and I both learned a lot from my dad, actually, just talking to him about the music we're making. The kind of music that we make is something that for him and Scout's dad is very real for them and their experience growing up and whatever.
SW: It's amazing talking to Gus' dad because he's come to a ton of shows and he'll be very, very honest. Usually he waits until the show after to be like, "That was so much better!" It's great to have such an incredible resource.
With Scout still in college, what's the plan for this coming year?
GW: The most exciting thing about this whole project so far is how much room there is to grow. We want to take this year to write as much as we can and just perform and get better. And when the time comes we want to make the best record we can possibly make.
SW: School is very important to me, and there's no way that I'm leaving with a year left. But it will afford us opportunities to grow; even since we've recorded the tracks on the EP, we've grown as musicians.
GW: I have a lot of friends in bands and sometimes people can take opportunities too soon. I think this next year will be really amazing, and we just want to be more mature and better.
REBECCA WILLA DAVIS