Cory Hanson doesn't have perfect pitch—the rare ability to hear a random noise like a car horn, and identify it as, say, a B flat—but he is uncommonly attuned to tiny differences in tone. If he picks up the slightest disharmony while he's singing, everything sounds bad to him.
Or, at least, it used to. As frontman for the rock band Wand, he's been forced out of his own head.
"I'd think I would be singing flat because I can hear mostly the bass, or one of my guitar strings goes off a little bit," Hanson says from his home outside of Los Angeles. "I'm just neurotic and paranoid about being well in tune. So, when I stopped giving a shit about hitting wrong notes, then it started to get really good."
The band also recently started turning down the volume on everything—guitar, bass, synthesizers and drums—which might seem like an odd move for a frenetic, wildly experimental and borderline heavy-metal band, but it's allowed Hanson to settle in more comfortably as a vocalist.
"I was like, Holy shit, I don't have to scream over this, I can just sing," he says. "Especially with the new music, which is so much gentler at times, it feels better to sing over that."
The new music in question is the band's fourth album, Plum, released in late September via the esteemed Drag City. Plum is less in-your-face than any of Wand's previous studio work. Consider, for example, the record's title track and lead single. It begins with Hanson crooning over steady piano chords and builds subtly. Rather than climaxing with a fuzzy guitar freak-out, it becomes a languid swirl of airy noodling and dueling vocal harmonies. It's not exactly what one expects from a band that made its name on science fiction themes and monster riffs.
After forming in 2013, Wand went hard out of the gate, releasing three albums in close succession: Ganglion Reef in 2014, then Golem and 1000 Days in 2015. The extensive touring to support it all was an exhausting grind, Hanson says, and everybody involved needed a breather. During the two-year interim, the band added synth player and backing vocalist Sofia Arreguin and guitarist Robert Cody.
Wand's members also fundamentally changed the band's creative process. Previously, Hanson approached his cohorts with an idea for a song and they helped fill it out; now decisions are more collaborative, resulting in an increased focus on the craft of songwriting and a generally softer sound. The pop element that used to be an undercurrent has risen to the surface. Thus, Plum is heavy, but more so in the emotional sense, according to Hanson.
"I think it's our heaviest record, but I use the term loosely. When we were working on this record, we were looking for strong, resonant feelings. We wanted to see how heavy we can make them," he says. "It's a weird record because it's our harshest record, our softest record, our happiest record, but it's also our saddest."
Plum has thus far received mixed reviews. Some music outlets have praised the band's sweeter, more melodic direction, while others have panned it as a restrained and bland turn from a previously exciting rock band. A good number of fans appear put off by Wand daring to try something new. Hanson says he doesn't quite get the criticism. For him and his bandmates, revisiting the same musical palette for the sake of pleasing their fan base would be a miserable effort.
"I don't even see our identity shift that much, but people seemed to get really upset when we don't do things the way they want," he says. "I don't really understand that. The heavy records are still there—you can still listen to them. It's like, if your friend used to work at Best Buy, but now he works at Bed, Bath & Beyond and you're mad because he left Best Buy. The point isn't the vessel we're inhabiting for a moment as a band, whether that be rock or metal or psychedelic."
Fans can rest assured, however, that Wand's live shows still rock. Hanson has always been a thrilling guitarist who coaxes outrageous, ear-catching squeals and laser-gun sounds out of his six-string.
"It's gotten to the point where I have to stop doing ridiculous shit because it just doesn't sound that good when you're noodling the whole time. I have to rein it in."
Hanson's greatest challenge remains singing, but he's finally beginning to trust his voice while playing in front of festival-size crowds. But he loves singing now more than ever, he says. As Hanson continues to push himself with his own skills, perhaps it'll continue to propel Wand toward even more compelling creative output.