Evolution of a sellout

Koe Wetzel hones in on his signature blend of rock, country and hip-hop with first major label release

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Jody Domingue

When word got out last year that Koe Wetzel had signed a major label deal with Columbia Records, he heard it from some of his fans who were worried that this would spell the end of Koe Wetzel as they knew him.

“Once we signed, it hurt a lot of people, I guess, just because they felt we weren’t going to keep making the same music,” Wetzel recalled in a recent phone interview. “So I just wanted to kind of tell them look, nothing’s going to change. We’re still going to be the same us. You’ve just kind of got to trust me on it.”

Wetzel responded to the concerns of fans with some humor, titling his first album on Columbia Sellout and including a couple of brief sketches joking about his music and the label’s devious plans for him. 

That response was in character for Wetzel, who has some rebelliousness in his nature, an obvious sense of humor, and is not always politically correct with his songs or during his live shows.

This authenticity, he thinks, is part of what makes his concerts special for his fans and part of what has made him unusually successful as an independent artist, particularly in Texas, Oklahoma, and surrounding states. It’s quite common to see comments post-concert from fans raving about Wetzel’s performances and even saying it was one of the best concerts they have seen. 

“I think it’s just connecting with the crowd on a normal fucking level, just being personal with people and just not trying to be something we’re not,” he said, offering his take on what makes his concerts stand out. “Whenever we go out there, we’re doing pretty much anything we would do on a regular Saturday night or a Friday night. We want to have just as much fun as they do, so we’re partying and we’re acting up. We’re just doing it with instruments in our hands and we’re making music that people can relate to. Man, we want to be loud. If you want people to hear you, you’ve got to be loud. So we crank everything up pretty loud, and I don’t think it’s people leaving going, ‘Holy shit, that was a great show.’ It’s people going, ‘Holy shit, I can’t hear nothing.’” 

Unfortunately, it’s been awhile since Wetzel’s fans have heard or seen much of this artist. Like virtually every other act over the past year-plus, Wetzel found himself sidelined from touring because of the pandemic. Only recently as spring was heading into summer did Wetzel and his band get back to some semblance of touring. 

Getting out on the road played a big role in Wetzel’s impressive growth in popularity as an independent artist. The native of Pittsburgh in east Texas began his music career after an ankle injury sidelined him from playing football at Tarleton State University. He subsequently dropped out of college to focus on music.

Within 18 months of playing concerts multiple nights each week around Texas and Oklahoma, his fan base had grown to where Wetzel’s shows were starting to sell out. The 2017 release of his first full-length album, Noise Complaint, accelerated his momentum. Four songs from that album—“February 28, 2016,” “Something To Talk About,” “Fuss & Fight” and “Love”—generated tens of millions of Spotify streams each, as more fans were drawn to Wetzel’s music, which combines hard-hitting grunge-ish rock and country twang with some hip-hop thrown in for good measure.

A second album, Harold Saul High, followed in 2019 and gave Wetzel two more popular singles, “Ragweed” and “Forever.” By the time he signed with Columbia Records during last year’s pandemic, Wetzel had sold 200,000 units and amassed 500 million streams.

Despite that success, Wetzel felt he needed to be on a major label to further grow his career

“I just think there’s (only) so much you can do as an independent artist all by yourself. So we wanted to broaden,” Wetzel said. “We didn’t want to be a band that was stuck in Texas or the U.S. We wanted to be with a label that was going to throw us out into the world. We had talked to a couple of different labels and Columbia just felt right. They didn’t want to change anything we were doing. They didn’t have any crazy ideas. They were really straight forward with us. We told them what we wanted to do and they were like, ‘Absolutely, let’s fucking do it.’ So I don’t know, they just felt like the best fit for us.”

Signing with Columbia wasn’t all Wetzel did during his pandemic down time. He also wrote and recorded Sellout, using his touring band in the studio. And Wetzel is right when he says the album has reassured fans that his musical style isn’t changing now that he’s a major label artist.

Sellout has plenty of the kind of muscular rockers Wetzel’s fans have come to expect, with “Cold & Alone,” “Kuntry & Wistern” and “Sundy Or Mundy” bringing sturdy melodies and lots of crunch. A more prominent country element gets filtered into the galloping “Lubbock” and the atmospheric ballad “Drunk Driving.” The wild card on the album is “SideChick,” a rather abstract, effects-laden ballad that doesn’t gel, but is an interesting departure for Wetzel. 

Wetzel, though, does feel that with Sellout he’s gotten closer to achieving the stylistic blend he’s been pursuing over the past half-dozen years.

“I think it (the difference) was just the mixture, the heavy grunge guitars mixed with the country lyrics and the country twang and then the style of the beats, as far as trying throw in a little hip-hop and just trying to actually blend all of those together and make that one sound,” Wetzel said. “I’d say we captured that a lot better on this album than we have on the other ones. 

Harold Saul High, for us, the album before Sellout, I think we were getting there,” he added. “And this album, we really honed in on doing that and blending all of those sounds together and making it what we wanted it to be.”

Wetzel said he’s written a number of new songs since Sellout was recorded. But he’s resisting the temptation to get back in the studio and make a new album. Instead, he’s going to make sure Sellout gets its moment in the sun as he tours through November.

“We’re excited to get out,” he said. “We’ve been mixing in a bunch of our new songs on our new set and kind of mixing in everything—we always play the crowd favorites. But we’re trying to throw this new record in as much as we can.”

On the bill: Koe Wetzel. 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18, Mission Ballroom, 4242 Wynkoop Street, Denver. Tickets: $40-$100.