Wolf Eyes were a noise band that managed something that other acts could only dream of, they actually crossed over.
After a few years of putting out tapes, CDRs and vinyl that only a select few would ever get to see or hear, the Michigan trio led by Nate Young were snapped up by West Coast indie label Sub Pop and everything changed. Suddenly a band shackled to a basement scene that could count themselves five to ten fans in each major city were playing to actual crowds of people – and what’s more, those crowds seemed to like it.
Fast-forward a few more years and the indie mainstream’s interest in noise has come and gone. Many of the select set of scene vanguards from Dominick Fernow (aka Prurient) and Pete Swanson, to C. Spencer Yeh (aka Burning Star Core) and Ren Schofield (aka Container) have moved on to different sounds and things have, for now at least, returned to normal. For Wolf Eyes this is just business as usual: noise was never a mainstream concern, and there’s an enjoyable comfort in knowing that things are simply getting to the (few) people who actually care once again.
In 2013, Wolf Eyes’ release schedule has slowed down considerably from their mid ‘00s peak (in 2006 they released over thirty records), but their new album No Answer-Lower Floors shows a band still willing to push themselves creatively. It’s still noise, and it is still packed with the gritty textures that endeared the band to fans worldwide, but there is a sense that the band has matured significantly in the years since the squealing, teeth-gnashing bluster of their 2004 breakthrough Burned Mind.
I spoke to founding member Nate Young, who tells me that the project was birthed simply out of a sense of necessity: “When I first started playing music I started with a guitar, and someone stepped on it so that was over. So I started looking around for whatever else I could play.” He elaborates: “That’s literally how I got into making electronic music, was just because everything else broke. Looking around in the trash for something. That and a healthy supply of LSD. Definitely that was a big part of it.”
The first Wolf Eyes recording emerged in 1997 on Aaron Dilloway’s Hanson imprint and was based around Robert Redford’s 1971 recording The Language and Music of the Wolves. Over this backdrop, Young added a kick drum and recordings of water, and he says he recently revisited the music again for the first time in a while: “I would be caught making this recording if I hadn’t already done it. It kind of shocked me because the howl kinda sounded like saxophone in a way and even similar to the way [long-time member John] Olson plays saxophone sometimes. Total prophecy, or blueprint really.”
His recording methods at the time were primitive, but effective: “I learned this trick where I could put tape over the erase head and multi-track you know, and that kind of set it off. I was suddenly recording and making these, you know, sound things. At that time I didn’t know what a sound collage was, but that would have to have been maybe ‘96 or ‘95 or something like that.”
This punk approach to recording continued until the higher-budget Burned Mind, and even 2001’s Dread, one of Wolf Eyes’ most crucial and acclaimed recordings, was deceptively simple given the sound: “Dread was recorded out of the back of my amplifier into a Minidisc, and I mixed it while I was singing, everything’s done live. And I know the Minidisc has some sort of compressor built into it, so you get that sort of sound you know. I tried to reproduce that; Slicer was recorded the same way but then we had a record between Slicer and the Sub Pop-era called Frenzy, and we had starting recording that and then abandoned it for a little while and then we got signed to Sub Pop. We never ended up using that material or that name because Lightning Bolt put out a record named Frenzy, so we were like “you just stole our name” [laughs]. Recording yourself live there was always that purist mentality, I think it was just pride, like “aah no overdubs”, you know?”
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Young explains that the ‘proper albums’ were considered very different from the diary-style masses of live cassettes, CDRs and vinyl releases that the band released almost obsessively over the last decade. “I originally broke it down into two categories where the CDRs and tapes are more like research and development, and then you have the results. They’re both informed by each other, you end up with the results and getting something that sounds way different from the research and development, but if you don’t listen to at least some of the research, you don’t really get the point of the final product. And that’s been the case because you hear different ideas captured live on those research and development releases, which you don’t really hear unless you are familiar with the original and the final. It’s special, I think with Wolf Eyes you kind of have to take both of those worlds into account before you can be like “I like this” or not. Which is weird, I know, but we’re always on the outskirts of being a real band versus being this kind of project or idea. Of course we’re big fans of music so being in a band is always really attractive, but if you look at the overall body of work it’s confusing, you’re like “What band does this? They just did an art show.””
Wolf Eyes’ ‘research & development’ releases have slowed down considerably in the last few years, and I ask if this a conscious choice? “Yeah it was, but honestly Olson was in school, and also having a child, so that slowed things down and in the process we weren’t jamming together as much so there wasn’t a need to document every single thing and make it available. We didn’t see a final product at the end of it, and it just became obvious to us that if there wasn’t a bigger picture that we were working towards it was just kind of flooding the market with stuff that people would just be like “it’s OK” you know? Without being able to see the bigger picture it would just be pointless for us to continue putting out reams and reams of us making jokes in the studio. A lot of those are hilarious because of that though.” Did the band ever consider making a Sub Pop comedy record? “Yeah, we’ve thought about it.”
While they might have slowed down, No Answer-Lower Floors is the band’s most developed album for years, and marks a return to the De Stijl label, who they last worked with in 2004 (releasing the Smegma collaboration The Beast), I ask what prompted the move back? “Clint (Simonson, De Stijl boss) is the reason we got signed to Sub Pop, he was doing the Michael Yonkers stuff through Sub Pop and they were like “Hey can you recommend any bands, we wanna sign some new stuff” and for a total joke he was like “What about Wolf Eyes?” They replied “We’ll check ‘em out,” and he said “You should DEFINITELY check them out”, thinking that they would run away with their ears covered, but they were actually really interested. They flew us out to Seattle a couple days later. But dealing with Clint had always been really, really good. He’s an old friend, Olson has known him since like ’92 or something like that, they’ve been trading tapes and just had a nice relationship for the longest time, and when we started recording this new record and started getting towards the end of it, originally we were going to do it ourselves.”
“I had a lot of questions about how things should be done and whatnot and dealing with the music industry in general and I was having a hard time getting straight answers from people, like it was some secretive thing you know? Like how do I get a list of contacts, that sort of thing. So I called Clint and he was so straight up with me that after talking for about 20 minutes I said “ If you wanna do this record I’d be honored”, and he said “Well send me the tracks first, I’m not gonna put it out unless I like it” [laughs]. And I was like “Oh man that’s exactly how it should be.” He listened to one track and wrote me right back and said “I think I wanna do this.” And it was just a trust thing, I really trust him and I really think his taste, his label in general is just flawless. So just being on his label again it means a lot to me and to Wolf Eyes in general. It brings everything full circle, which is what I’ve been trying to do, make sense of what this crazy nonsense called Wolf Eyes has been. ”
I ask if the record is a push towards a more composed sound, and Young explains that it was more a case that over time, the band have found it necessary to get better at working out what each of their roles are: “We wouldn’t know who was playing, I wouldn’t know even if I was playing. I think that a lot of noise bands and abstract and experimental artists can relate to that. In the early days it was such a problem that I actually developed a system where I put sound to light modulators on top of all the amplifiers so if you were playing the light would be on. It would flash or pulse or whatever when you were playing. Now there’s not that much of a problem, Jim [Baljo] strictly just plays guitar, and tape loops of the guitar, and Olson he’s solely playing electronics, and a little bit of reeds. I pretty much solely focus on my vocals at this point, tape loops too but vocals for the most part. So it’s simplified in that manner, you can tell what’s going on a bit more. Maybe that gives the illusion of something a bit more composed, but honestly it’s compositional in a really simple way. You do my part, I’ll do my part. Very simple. Obviously this record has that kind of vibe. Some people have said it’s had a minimalism to it, which I agree with. Slightly.”
Was the band listening to minimalist music at the time? “Not really, the record eventually just showed itself. It just kind of appeared in a way. Sure it can be like reductionism and the influence of all our solo projects, and other sorts of things but it wasn’t something we all talked about. It was an unconscious kind of culmination of all these different ideas that we had separately.”
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He cites the inclusion of new band member James ‘Crazy Jim’ Baljo (who replaced former member Mike Connolly) as maybe the album’s biggest influence: “He was a big part of the early days of Wolf Eyes being our first roadie and the first guy we convinced to let us use his van. So he kind of experienced all the kind of spiral down into the darker intensity of things, because when he first got on board it was kind of the rigid residuals of noise rock, that Dilloway and I had done on the first Bulb release and whatnot. So working with Jim I didn’t wanna go too far ahead so he couldn’t relate to what we were doing at all.” Crazy Jim was also the reason why their recent European tour was their “funnest” for a while, if only because of the first-time visitor’s reactions to the nuances of British life: “The best was when we got to the UK, he’d never seen a car with the steering wheel on the other side. It was just priceless.”
I ask what it was like performing to what is perhaps a lot of recent converts: “I think a lot of the newer kids, even though they’d never seen us before did have some preconceptions of what we sounded like, what we were supposed to do or something.” He goes on: “I really like the kind of abstract relationship we had with the audience because no one really knew what to expect. Are they gonna hate this? Are they gonna like this? Are we gonna freak out? Are we gonna headbang or whatever, is it going to be exciting or is it gonna be the doldrum of old men. I was conscious of that, after the first couple of gigs I was like “Oh right, this is a live performance.” Being on stage, it’s not a right – it’s a privilege. You should be trying to put it all out there at any age. At any point in the band’s history that’s definitely been one of our unconscious goals. We never really talk about it but it kinda was obvious to me, like “Oh right, there’s a performance aspect to this music that makes the show that much more interesting.” Although it all really boils down to is some sweaty dudes from Michigan throwing their hair around.”
Young has a solo release planned for Demdike Stare’s own eponymous imprint, a re-release of last year’s Regression Vol. 3 (Other Days). Due to be packaged with a track from Demdike Stare themselves (a take on the Regression theme, rather than simply a remix), Young wasn’t so familiar with their material prior to this: “I had actually never heard them before, I’d just seen their name around. And then they approached me and I was like “Yeah, I’ll do something with you,” but they wanted to do a reissue so I was game for that.”
Is there any newer solo material due? “I’ve got another album coming out on NNA later in June, which should be interesting as well – all new material, all new Regression material. It’s called Blinding Confusion, and it’s a little more of the macabre stuff that I’ve touched on. I don’t really know how to use that word but it’s darker, highly composed kind of stuff, it’s going to be my most criticized record because I must have spent two years on it pretty much.”
Young’s Regression material has long been paralleled with an increased awareness of 80s synthesizer-based horror scores. Were John Carpenter and Fabio Frizzi et al a direct influence? “Honestly, when I first got a synth that’s what I heard – I was like “Wow, listen to this it’s a horror soundtrack” automatically. As soon as you turn it on. For sure it’s been an influence. More the instruments themselves are the biggest influence, learning to use synthesizers and realizing their capabilities, and then from there being able to compose. You end up in a different place if you just kind of use random instruments, just anything you can get your hands on. With synthesizers it’s a totally different vibe.”
So is this material is a reaction to Wolf Eyes’ recording processes? “I never really thought about it like that. I suppose in a way. At a certain point I felt like I’d visited and revisited and revisited and revisited all these specific instruments that I’d crafted my style for, just rewired, and I wanted something new to mess around with. Yeah, synthesizers were the next obvious step honestly, and I think that’s what I was trying to make when I was wiring together keyboards or wiring together radios looking for those sounds. It was funny, I did realize I could make the same sounds with synthesizers but there were so many more.”
With the band commitments and solo work, Young doesn’t get a huge amount of time to explore new music, but he’s made some new discoveries all the same: “The whole dubstep thing kinda escaped me, it was not really such a big genre in Michigan, but this music doomstep I thought was totally entertaining and actually kinda refreshing in way. And I don’t even know if it’s a real thing.” He also came across “screwed death metal”: “it’s just wicked slowed down death metal, and it’s not Sunn O))) style stuff as it turns out. Turns out metal doesn’t sound like Sunn O))) when it’s slowed down which is actually really amazing”
Only time will tell whether these encounters will end up burrowing into future material, but that could end up emerging sooner rather than later: “We’re working on some new stuff actually. This record (No Answer-Lower Floors) is only forty minutes long, so when we play a live set even if we play the record in its entirety we fall a little short for some venues that want us to play for an hour. So we’ve been improvising, and while we were on tour we wrote two or three new jams, one is just called ‘Splatter’ and literally it’s just a big splatter of sound, that’s exactly what it is. But a couple of other ones are really coming along, and that’s the beauty of touring I suppose. Sometimes you’re forced to make up new material, forced to improvise. It’s not like there’s a gun held to my head or anything but you are forced a bit. Sometimes I just want to play my record and that’s it, but some places they want you to play for a lot longer [laughs]. We’ll probably start working on the new record after September or something like that, because I’m going to be pretty busy this summer with the Regression stuff. We’ll see where it goes from there. We don’t need to expose ourselves as much as we used to. Those long tours are great, but at the same time they end up taking up a lot of our time and sometimes we play for very, very, very few people. It’s still great, I love playing basement shows but don’t think really, realistically we have time for that any more. Full time at least, I’m sure we’ll still be doing odd basement shows here any there, locally especially. Actually later this month we’re doing one. Nothing really changes.”
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