Anyone who has seen the Spice Girls’ 1997 film Spice World will remember their incredible tour bus. The group’s multi-level home-on-wheels was decked out with fire poles and a swing, and personalized nooks for each member that, while varied to match their “Spice” persona, all managed to coordinate to create one of the coolest shared spaces ever put on screen.
Waltzer, helmed by singer/guitarist and lyricist Sophie Sputnik (a.k.a Sophie Pomeranz), and its debut album Time Traveler are kind of like the Spice Bus (if you will): a coordination of Sputnik’s selves over the past 10 years, and friends she’s made along the way, travelling across the country to get to the big show on time… and alive.
When Audiofemme connects with Sputnik over the phone, she laughs at the comparison. “I think Spice Girls are a huge reason why I do what I do, too,” she says. “I was obsessed with Spice World.”
After six years as half of Florida blues-grunge duo Killmama, her howling voice emanating from behind a drum kit, Sputnik found herself at a crossroads. She’d been writing her own songs – tracks including “Lantern” and “Ugly Misfits” – but didn’t know what to do with them; they felt different and her vision stretched beyond the limitations of a two-piece. Billie Holiday and Roy Orbison became mainstays in her record rotation and she dove deep into girl groups of the 1960s, enamored with singer Ronnie Spector after hearing Oakland, California-based outfit Shannon and the Clams’ rockabilly-flavored reimagination of the sound at a show in South Florida.
Clearly, Sputnik was itching to move on from the constriction of a scene dominated by garage rock infleunces, and she and her then-bandmate weren’t . “You can only do the ‘Ty Segall’ thing for so long,” she says, half-jokingly, noting that relentless touring had driven a wedge between herself and her bandmate. “I knew that we’d kind of hit a wall and I needed to figure out what was next.”
With the hope of finding inspiration in new surroundings, she moved to Wisconsin with her previously long-distance girlfriend Amanda, who had planned to relocate there for a new job. While one final Killmama tour followed, performing took a backseat, but Sputnik kept writing, penning stories of love, fear, obsession and loneliness, and the disorienting effects that come with each.
That feeling of personal unease, of teetering on the edge of destruction, dances across Time Traveler. It’s a moody rock ‘n’ roll album pulling from the best of country’s emotional storytelling and complimentary twang, capturing the tension between desire and distraction, the slow spiral of depression, the head-spinning crashes brought on by drinking too much and getting too high, and the catharsis of saying the hard things out loud.
Sputnik sings of life and death intimately – unfettered by selling anything resembling pop music’s idealistic reframing of even the saddest of themes. Well, with the exception of “I Don’t Want to Die,” a catchy Wanda Jackson-meets-The Ronettes warbler masquerading as a love song. While it introduces Sputnik’s more theatrical side, the lyrical narrative is confessional; Sputnik has faced death head on.
“I’ve lost a couple of friends to overdoses, suicide and things like that. I had cancer as a kid and have kind of been speaking about mortality for a really long time,” Sputnik says. “It felt really good to admit the truth of it: I don’t want to die. I’m not done yet, because sometimes I have felt like I wanted to, but I love being on this crazy planet. It’s fucked up, but it was important for me to realize how grateful I was; that I didn’t want to leave it.”
Honesty has shaped much of Sputnik’s core, and you get the sense that writing those things down in song as opposed to internalizing them ultimately stripped away any need for her to be someone or something else. “It felt really fucking good to say ‘I feel ugly,’” Sputnik admits, her relief practically audible over the call. “It felt good, like none of that even mattered, and then that translated to ‘Time Traveler’ [the song]. All these songs were just things I needed to say so I could hear it back and believe it.”
She chuckles. “That’s also scary.”
That energy derived from feeling unworthy, ugly, lost and then found is woven through the eight-song album’s finale – a one-two punch of the titular track and “Destroyer,” an organ-grounded, haunting ballad about taking the risk in stepping into what’s unknown, with a guitar solo that will make you miss seeing and hearing live music (more than you already have been).
It took patience to get there. First, a move to Chicago; Sputnik was offered a job at a chance meeting while waiting tables in Wisconsin, Amanda agreed to relocate, and the couple did so in 2017. While Sputnik’s day gig and “living like a normal person” weren’t the right fit, “Everything I did in Chicago gave me clues of what to do next,” she says. She bought a loop pedal from producer/musician Charlie Kim (professionally known as Tuffy Campbell) via re-sale app LetGo; that interaction proved to be a key that unlocked Chicago’s D.I.Y. music scene for her and eventually helped solidify her commitment toward making Waltzer a realized, full-band project.
“I wasn’t sure how I was gonna play my stuff live and he introduced me to a few people to jam with,” she explains. At the time, Sputnik was considering joining a band as a drummer. “After writing with Charlie a bit, he told me I should check out [Treehouse Records]. I immediately called them and Barrett [Guzaldo, owner/engineer] told me to stop by.” She had a few songs, but needed a producer. Guzaldo suggested she contact Rookie guitarist Chris Devlin and, as she puts it, “the rest is history!”
To this day, her band remains a revolving door for anyone whose energy feels right and is up for the challenge (mainly of listening to Sputnik’s fantastical introductions of them, as heard in the band’s recent Audiotree session). The current group spotlights the talents of Sarah Weddle on drums, bassist Kelly Hannemann, Harry Haines on the keys, and guitar player Michael Everett.
Rooting in active creative communities and providing space for all types of artists to belong as a means of giving back comes through her complimentary passion, Waltzer TV. A hybrid musical showcase and sketch show, the hour-long YouTube episodes have included performances from the likes of Y La Bamba, Reno Cruz and more.
Between sets, Sputnik transforms into a myriad of costumed characters in episodes – even a loose interpretation of her uncle. In Florida, she dabbled in improv as a kid and loved musical theatre in high school. A similar style comes across in the band’s music videos. The web series was partially born out of necessity due to the onset of the COVID pandemic (Waltzer had been scheduled to make a SXSW debut in 2020, having played only a handful of local shows). But it’s also an outlet for Sputnik’s multifaceted performance – spoken and sung, comical as well as serious.
On Thursday, February 25, Waltzer TV will serve as the format for the band’s proper (re)introduction. Written and directed by local filmmaker Robert Salazar, Time Traveler: An Album Release Movie will be streamed via Noonchorus. Admission is “pay what you want” and viewers can tip the band during the broadcast. Please note: there is also an accompanying pizza, “The Ugly Misfit,” available thanks to a collaboration with Sicilian-style pizza spot, Pizza Friendly Pizza.
Shot at beloved Chicago venues the Hideout and Empty Bottle, the movie’s guests include Ratboys, Kara Jackson, “Lonesome” Andrew Sa, WOES and Helen Gilley, with an appearance by noted performer, actor and future legend-about-town, Alex Grelle. “It’s not heavy. It’s really silly. There’s a puppet,” Sputnik jokes. “I think people are gonna feel happy watching it. Then all of it will be over in a hour and we can go back to our chaos.”
Joking aside, Sputnik consistently uses her platform to pay it forward and celebrate others’ joys and successes, and she hopes to be a model of perseverance and creation in spite of depression. “Even if your depression is trying to isolate you, tell you you’re not worth trying, ignore it. Just show up to fucking everything, even if it ends up being a waste of time,” she recommends.
“I feel like it’s not necessarily ‘cool’ for a woman to talk about their own struggles with self-worth when they’re trying to empower other women,” adds Sputnik, “but I really want to inspire other women to speak up and go for it – just put it out there.”