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Riffing in the Studio With New West 

The indie music collective invites us to listen to their new album, reflecting on their TikTok success and the nostalgic sounds that inform their process. 

by Aurora Zboch

“My life is a movie” is often a sentiment fit for not-so-humble social media captions. But, deservedly, it also happens to be the theme for New West’s debut album. Having found success online from their very first single, then making a home out of legendary recording studios around the world, the Toronto-based music collective plays back the shiny memories like grainy film while sitting in a studio with RANGE listening back to their new album.

New West is a collaboration between four musicians: Kala Wita, Vella, Ben Key, and Noel West. Key and West, childhood friends, invited Vella to join, and later found Wita who would become the lead singer. 

Vella has arguably the most swagger of the group, his hair tied up and wearing a leather jacket and bucket hat, his morning-after lowkey look. Wita sports a paperboy cap instead of his usual cowboy look. Key likes to speak with his hands, with arms covered in tattoos. West sits in the corner sipping coffee and breaking down the recording process in this final stage before release. 

Sleepily, we bop our heads while listening to pre-mastered tracks, enjoying the dreamy ride in the cushy studio and discussing the places that this album took them, from Los Angeles to Zurich. They insist it was a cost-effective venture, as they chose studios that included boarding. This gave them a chance to settle into temporary homes while setting new scenes for the movie that is their lives. Wherever New West go, they make the studio their home. 

New West performing on stage for Jimmy Kimmel Live!

While sonically exploring the bygone eras of British rock, they reminisce on their shared efforts on Based on a True Story…. They lived together during the pandemic lockdowns in East York, near the border to Scarborough, in Toronto’s east end. They recorded their EP over COVID in their living room and kitchen, but this debut album took them to many new places. 

“It’s nice to leave, but it’s always nice to come back and have a home base and everyone you love,” Key says. 

“Preach!” Wita interjects. Key continues, “And everyone who loves you back… sometimes”

“Sometimes,” Wita echoes. “Only when you accomplish things.” 

“Everyone loves me all of a sudden,” Key says laughing with a confused smile. 

New West’s story begins in 2019. Formed five years ago, they are now defining who they are as individuals, and as a collective. The viral hit “Those Eyes” was a track that the collective began writing at Key’s parents’ cottage. That’s where they jammed and sparked what would be their first release. 

“My parents and brother have been building a place for 10, 11 years,” Key says about the cottage. “It was an open construction site, but we set up a studio. It was better that way, because it was open and just insulation.” Ten tracks would eventually make up the album, including the single, which has already lived a significant life on its own. 

Just like Ozzy Osbourne, Liam Gallagher, and Robert Plant before them, New West spent time in the Wales recording studio featured in the documentary Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm. “We went there!” they say in unison. Completing each other’s sentences, they throw in the details: “We watched the doc with the guy who runs it, Kingsley [Ward]. He invites us into his living room, and we’re watching the documentary in his living room, where he gets interviewed in the documentary — in his living room!” Key says excitedly. Vella jumps in, “He’s sitting in the same chair where he’s getting interviewed… It was meta as fuck,” Vella laughs. “It was super meta. He was a character, man,” Key affirms. 

Mimicking the way Ward stomps into the studio from the pastures, Wita quotes him: “‘A farmer knows to change his underwear when it sticks to the ceiling.’” Key says, “We’d start talking about tape machines, and next thing you know, we get into a 45-minute conversation about these tape machines from the 80s. He’s wearing boots covered in mud.” He then realizes, “There is Rockfield on the album, because I took a voice note outside the window and put it onto ‘Cold Tea’ — birds, and there’s actually cows in there!” 

Key draws a line in the air. “We all have eclectic music tastes and different music tastes, but the one commonality between all of us is British-derived music from the 90s, 2000s, and obviously earlier. As early as the Beatles, (The Rolling) Stones, but then as much as Keane, Travis, Oasis, Coldplay — that era. Blur; I’m a massive Blur fan. Late 90s, Y2K era British music is definitely heavily, heavily influencing us.”

New West are blessed with one tool that the classic Britpop acts weren’t: TikTok. “Those Eyes” gained popularity on the app with videos using the track reaching tens of millions of views. The hashtag #thoseeyes has reached nearly 800 million views. It’s not the kind of bop to elicit a dance challenge, rather a touching ballad that describes the body language of love in simple forms. 

“That’s the one thing about TikTok; it’s a free-for-all. Anything could come back at any time,” Wita says, finding joy in that fact. In the similar category of ballads and alt-rock blowing up, they speak to recalls and throwback tracks.

“I like that ‘No Surprises’ was a TikTok trend,” Key says, enjoying the new life brought to the Radiohead chime. “There’s a Patrick Watson song that blew up on TikTok, ‘Je te laisserai des mots.’ I love Patrick Watson. I lived in Montreal for a bit. He’s obviously a legend in Montreal.”

The musicians seek out modern sounds like warm guitars and whirring synths, but apply the old school processing for a non-stop nostalgic walk in the British world of rock. Wita’s skill is in writing contemporary lyrics over early 2000s instrumentals. 

“Main Character” includes string sections reminiscent of The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.” It comes complete with a dramatic pause, then quickly resumes its triumphant progression.  New West consider the penultimate track, “Retrograde,” to be the most beautiful on the whole album. “Nothing’s sacred anymore / Everything’s been said and done,” Wita sings on it. 

For the tightly knit foursome, it’s important not to get caught up in anything and just trust what sounds good. It’s easy to romanticize anything from gear to what your favourite band did, but they decide to take a step back.  “For me, it’s in the process,” West says. “We’re trying to not be super derivative.” 

Back in the studio listening to the pre-masters, the men land upon their favourite memory: recording and getting put up at a studio in West Hollywood felt great enough, but the fondest one was the car test. “It was the moment we were playing ‘Based on a True Story’ and we were driving down the [Hollywood] Hills. We wanted to match what we were seeing, match the scenery. The car test is crucial,” Wita says. 

Vella recalls, “That rental car had a sick stereo, too. My car stereo sucks, man.” 

Key laughs and shyly admits, “It was a rapper car.”

But despite growing in new directions and seeing greater heights, New West remains true to its roots and we can’t wait to hear what they do next. 

Based on a True Story… is out now. Catch New West on tour in Canada and the US with Charlotte Cardin through Feb. 2024.