The Rembrandts

Biography

Let’s get this out of the way first: The Rembrandts—the pop-rock duo of multi-instrumentalists and songwriters Phil Solem and Danny Wilde—co-wrote the effervescent Friends theme song, “I’ll Be There For You.” That song, with its inimitable handclaps and jangly guitar riffs, spent 11 weeks at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart, climbed several charts around the world, and continues to find new audiences thanks to Friends reruns.

However, for Solem and Wilde, that song is just one small chapter in a friendship and creative relationship spanning four decades, two bands, four studio albums, two greatest hits records, a handful of U.S. radio hits, and two U.S. Top 40 singles. Anyone familiar with the Rembrandts only from “I’ll Be There For You” should know that the band has a rich catalog brimming with smart, well-wrought pop gems.

“Our m.o. is to only put out things that have a timeless kind of quality to it, that isn’t going to be time-stamped in some era,” Solem says. “And, so far, our records have done pretty well with that.”

That streak remains unbroken on Via Satellite, the first Rembrandts studio album in 18 years. The meticulous, guitar-driven songs explore every nook and cranny of the pop continuum. “How Far Would You Go” is jangly rock singed lightly with ’60s psychedelic atmosphere; “Broken Toy” hews toward dizzying power-pop with hollering vocals awash in emotional grit; and “Come to California” is electrified roadhouse blues-rock burnished by glam-soul detailing. Anchoring these songs are Solem and Wilde’s harmonies, which are imploring and tender on the twangy “Count On You”; Beatles-esque on the jaunty “Me And Fate”; and graceful spirals on the chiming midtempo ballad “Now.”

“We are individuals, and we do have our own unique sounds, but it’s the harmonies, the interweaving of the melodies, that really make the Rembrandts sound,” says Wilde.

The band has put together different iterations of Via Satellite across the years, although this particular version “is much more cohesive,” Solem says. “We finally got it to our liking.” In fact, he’s happy the Rembrandts decided to tinker with the album so much. “In waiting, maybe we did the right thing,” he says. “Now there’s a sense that there’s more people that care about the kind of music that we had there in the first place. There’s a certain amount of clarity to that record that might make more sense now than it would have if we put it out earlier.”

Via Satellite’s lyrics are certainly clear-eyed about life’s ebbs and flows—including romantic breakdowns, changes of geographical scenery and unexpected emotional fissures—and the leaps of faith people take in order to pursue happiness. As always, words come courtesy of both Solem and Wilde. The former penned the melancholy “Broken Toy” (“Which is definitely about the end of a relationship”), although he says his lyrical contributions tend to be more observational: “Most of the other stuff coming out of me was just how I look at the world.” Wilde concurs. “Phil’s a quirky guy—he’s the guy that comes up with the crazy lyrics and, you know, borderline genius stuff. I’m more the romantic in the band, and I write more relationship stuff. It’s just my comfort zone. He helps me with that, and I help him with that, and then we come up with a Rembrandts song.”

That give-and-take is also a hallmark of the Rembrandts’ overall creative process. Solem and Wilde might come up with musical ideas separately, and then swap files back and forth remotely, or hunker down together in person to see what inspiration they can generate together. “We draw from a lot of the same stuff, but then we sort of almost willfully push back on each other’s ideas and get each other to come to the other side for a minute,” Solem says. “There’s always a bit of a friendly struggle, I guess, to get to the ultimate conclusion.”

Wilde is blunter: “Phil and I don’t really bullshit each other. If I’ve written something that’s a piece of crap, he’ll tell me, and I’ll tell him too.” Yet the duo’s working relationship is supportive rather than deleterious, in particular because Solem is also generous with praise and insights. “We prop each other up,” Wilde says. “When you’re feeling kind of insecure, then it’s nice to have Phil come along and say, ‘Man, that’s cool, let’s work on it.'”

Being on the same wavelength comes naturally to the duo. Solem and Wilde originally met each other at a party, where they bonded over a stack of David Bowie, Brian Eno, Roxy Music, and Cheap Trick vinyl LPs. At the time, Solem and Wilde were just 20. The former was performing around the Los Angeles music scene with power-poppers Loose Change, while the latter was playing in the now legendary power-pop band The Quick. When that group dissolved, Wilde and his Quick bandmate, bassist Ian Ainsworth, formed Great Buildings and recruited Solem to join, adding vocals and guitar work that created a signature Great Buildings sound. The band released one album, 1981’s power-pop/new wave cult classic, Apart From The Crowd, for Columbia Records.

After Great Buildings, Solem and Wilde moved forward with solo careers, yet were always close in touch. In 1989, the pair gathered together for a songwriting session in Los Angeles. It was from this meeting that The Rembrandts were born. “We always said, ‘Yeah, one day we’re going to get back together and do something,'” Wilde recalls. “When my solo deal finally fizzled out, I called Phil and said, “How about we get together, write a few songs and see what happens…….So Phil came out to Thousand Oaks and, man, we just woodshedded.”

In hindsight, Solem views that time apart as invaluable. “It was the exact amount of time that we needed to just go off on our own and kind of form our musicality individually,” he says. “Because when we got back together, it was like, ‘Alright, now we’re on the same page totally.'” That’s no exaggeration: In this initial two-week spurt, Wilde recalls the duo wrote “at least half to two thirds” of what became the first Rembrandts album, and recorded these songs on an 8-track recorder.

That the songs came together so quickly reflects the duo’s complementary musical influences. Both Solem and Wilde had their lives changed by the Beatles; a young Wilde even attended the Beatles’ 1966 Dodger Stadium show. Each grew up in a household where country artists such as Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline and Hank Williams were in rotation—in fact, Solem cites Glen Campbell as the biggest influence on him getting into music—and both started playing guitar while still a pre-teen.

Even more crucially, both men were also shaped by the otherworldly harmonies of the Everly Brothers; in fact, Wilde’s mom always told him he was singing “Bye Bye Love” before he could talk. Early in their friendship, the duo would get together and sing Everly Brothers songs, and even pondered doing a revue based on the band because their impressions were so spot-on. They even had a name: “The Eveready Brothers.” “One thing led to another and that was it,” Wilde says. “It was like the harmonies that we created together were what kept us together. We’re kindred spirits along those lines.”

Thankfully, other people also recognized Wilde and Solem’s musical chemistry. In short order, the duo’s 1989 demos landed them a publishing deal and then a record deal—and ended up comprising the bulk of the Rembrandts’ 1990 self-titled debut, nearly as-is.

“The way the songs were, the way they showed up on the record in the first place, was basically the way we wrote them, in the order that we wrote them,” Solem says. “We just had them that way and they said, ‘Yeah, the sequence is great!’ It was just like some sort of a dream. Like, this can’t possibly be real. And then the next thing you know, there it was. We had our first hit off of the first single, so you really can’t beat it.”

That hit was the sinewy “Just The Way It Is, Baby,” which landed at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100. “We wanted to write a Sade song, something that’s smoky,” Wilde recalls. “That song wrote itself; it was done in like a half hour. It was so fun.” The rest of The Rembrandts is equally low-key and loose, and encompasses soulful and soaring rock, as well as more acoustic-driven numbers.
The Rembrandts’ self-produced second album, 1992’s Untitled, is “one of my favorite albums that we’ve ever made,” Wilde says. Spawning the minor modern rock radio hit “Johnny, Have You Seen Her?,” the album boasted noticeably more sophisticated production values—thanks mainly to the band graduating to 16-track machines—and ambitious instrumentation and arrangements comparable to Jellyfish and the Beatles’ later work. Among other things, the pair overdubbed strings for multiple songs in Solem’s living room.

By the time of the Rembrandts’ slicker third album, 1995’s L.P., things became complicated. The band’s label wanted them to work with a producer, and they ended up collaborating with Don Smith, who was fresh off working with the Rolling Stones. Naturally, the studio process was more elaborate: Instead of working quickly, the musicians were asked to do take after take of tunes. Yet L.P. retains the group’s holistic pop approach, and the album’s moody, inward-looking songs fit with grungy rock contemporaries and quirky melodic bands such as the Posies and Crowded House.

The Friends theme emerged when L.P. was nearly done, and it happened quickly. Friends executive producer Kevin Bright was a Rembrandts fan, and enlisted Solem and Wilde to contribute to the song. Within weeks of adding their final creative touches, Friends premiered—and the theme became a radio sensation. The Rembrandts went back into the studio to create their own full, single-length version of the tune, and “I’ll Be There For You” was included on L.P. as a hidden bonus track.

The album was certified platinum on the strength of the song, and the band made the rounds of late-night TV shows. But after promotion for L.P. wrapped, Solem took a three-year hiatus, and Wilde released 1998’s Spin This, a Solem-less album credited to Danny Wilde + The Rembrandts. Eventually, however, the pair reunited for a proper Rembrandts album, 2001’s Lost Together. “We just got tired of not seeing each other, and we got together and made another record, which we had a helluva good time doing,” Solem says. “It was just like starting over. It was very au naturel. It was just like album one.”

In the years between Lost Together and Via Satellite, both Solem and Wilde have remained busy working musicians. The former, who moved from Minneapolis to Nashville in recent years, has written for and produced a variety of artists and done some commercial work. Wilde co-wrote several songs on the Gin Blossoms’ 2018 album, Mixed Reality, and released an album with that band’s Jesse Valenzuela, Prairie Wind.

This close-knit, loyalty-based approach goes a long way to explain why the Rembrandts remain a vibrant entity, nearly 30 years after Solem and Wilde came together in a garage, just to hang out and write some songs. However, both men also still possess vast musical curiosity, and remain deeply excited by the possibilities of creativity. This passion certainly elevates Via Satellite—”It’s in the grooves,” Wilde says. “You can tell that Phil and I had fun making the record”—and is perhaps the most enduring part of the Rembrandts’ legacy.

Rod Melancon