Wilderado: Connection Through Vulnerability
Written by Michaela Stock. Photo: Wilderado, by Cassidy Mandel.


"We got robbed this morning,” said Max Rainer, lead singer of Wilderado, the day of our interview.

“I got to the studio, and both of our trailers are gone, so I’ve been talking to the cops. They’re here right now.”

With a tour scheduled to depart later that week, Rainer and Wilderado have more than just rehearsing and packing to finish before they hit the road. They now have to rent new trailers, or find their own, in just a few days.

“That’s not going to happen,” Rainer said with a laugh.

Rainer is no stranger to setbacks, though. His band, Wilderado–an indie folk-rock group from Tulsa, Oklahoma–have been together since 2015, after forming in Rainer’s fifth year of college. They gained mass listenership from their first album cycle, Misty Shrub, which procured a guest appearance on major late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel, as well as support tours with artists including Band of Horses and Rainbow Kitten Surprise.

But even with nine years of writing, recording and touring, Rainer is still learning what it means to “make it” in music.

“This is a hard road. There’s no real success, there’s no real money. It’s just loads of work,” Rainer said. “It’s almost like a burden as much as it is a joy.”

Rainer discovered music as a child, thanks to his artistic family. Uncovering his gift for songwriting, however, didn’t come until much later. As a student at Baylor University, Rainer was selected to record his original music on a campus-run record label. Feeling lost from switching majors at the last minute, this project gave Rainer the inspiration he needed to find himself, his path and his band.

“I found out that people connected to something that I didn’t know I was interested in. I also found out what a cool, wild west business the music world is. That had a huge impact on me, kind of a simultaneous impact of inspiration, discovery.”

With a love of songwriting and a knack for business, Rainer graduated college with a career–Wilderado–and an artistic point-of-view.

“Everywhere I went, when I would write songs, I just would see people connect to it,” Rainer said. “I realized my point-of-view as an artist was me, and I think I was intrigued by that. Not because I thought it was better than anything else, but because I quickly realized that that’s what everyone’s point of view as an artist is.”

In fact, Rainer’s emphasis on personally connecting with his fans has brought humility to Wilderado’s commercial success.

Jimmy Kimmel was cool, but it wasn’t as cool as seeing some woman cry over a song she connects to,” Rainer said. “As much comparison as there is in this world, and specifically in this industry, it’s kind of nice to know that the only way to do this well was to do it truest to yourself.”

Musicians culturally take on a self-sacrificial role; they say what most people are too scared to admit. But behind the curtain, songwriters have personal relationships that can change based on what they release through their art. Part of Rainer’s audience also includes his 10 nieces and nephews, and his position as a familial role model has been a turning point in his songwriting.

“The nieces and nephews think I’m a big deal because they can see me on their screens and hear me sing, and then also see me in person,” Rainer said. “It’s a fragile thing that I don’t hold loosely. I just take it seriously that they listen.”

Rainer has wrestled with what he feels comfortable sharing with them in his music.

“Walking it back from like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t want my nephews to know I smoke weed,’ well, who cares about that? What you want your nephews to know is that you’re real. I think it’s just striking this balance of not making fear-based decisions.”

While most songwriters fear making mistakes, part of Rainer’s artistic power is not being afraid to be wrong. In fact, Rainer believes that acknowledging his faults further invites people into his art.

“I was afraid to be wrong for so long, and it just keeps you away from everyone,” Rainer said. “I think as a songwriter, some of my biggest challenges were to stop trying to be right. Just do your best, and allow yourself to be wrong when you are, and then go back to doing your best.”

Overcoming this has given Rainer the confidence to release music that deviates from some of the hallmark sounds that first put Wilderado on the map. The band has recently teased four tracks off their upcoming record, Talker, which is set to release in the fall. Fans may be surprised to hear that it’s much more folk than rock. “I wanted to make something with more space and just kind of easier on my ears, from the drums to my presentation of my vocal.”

Talker has a lyrical undercurrent of observation. With more spacious and organic sounds than the band’s hook-driven songs of the past, Rainer had room to create tracks that verge on confessional.

“I get so upset with motivational music. I think it’s so cheap and disconnected. What I found was, I’m connecting to a hurting person. Maybe that’s just where I should be, is admit that I’m a hurting person and talk from that point of view and say things.”

From stolen trailers to uncovering truth, Rainer and his band Wilderado have spent the past nine years untangling challenges along their artistic path. With their new album– Talker–and a tour underway, Rainer is continuing to focus on the “why” behind his decision to be an artist.   

“I think it’s all been baby steps,” Rainer said. “There are really meaningful moments, and that’s all that life really is, right? Just collections of moments.”

The Pyramid Scheme
68 Commerce Ave. SW, Grand Rapids
July 30, 7 p.m.