Wolf Eyes: Interview
“Wolf Eyes are finished fucking around. I know how to write good Wolf Eyes songs, and music theory has done nothing but make the process more efficient.”
Wolf Eyes have spent years in the depths of noise-making insanity, solidifying themselves as the kings of malevolent, burning sludge. In the last few years, however, they’ve undergone something of a metamorphosis. Longtime member Mike Connolly (Hair Police) left Wolf Eyes to pursue other projects, making room for new guitarist James Baljo. Original members Nate Young and John Olson have refined their chops, studying music theory and stripping back the Wolf Eyes sound into a leaner, meaner, sharper beast. Their new album, No Answer : Lower Floors (De Stijl), while dark and terrifying, shows off Wolf Eyes’ new attitude of intention and restraint.
Nate Young and John Olson recently talked to Tiny Mix Tapes about this progression. While Young was thoughtful and measured, Olson ranted with a manic grandeur. These divergent narrative styles mirror the internal turmoil throughout the new record, so we all had a great time.
The description of No Answer : Lower Floors on your website calls the album the “dawn of a new Wolf Eyes era.” How so?
John Olson: Got Crazed Dribbling Jim in the band now. Blues groove-jammer guitarist. New sounds, new vibe: NEW.
Nate Young: Wolf Eyes has been around 16 years. We’ve released hundreds of recordings, and toured more than I would like to even recall. We finally spent the last couple years reflecting on our home-made nuclear war on music. I feel that we have reached a point where we understand our collective capabilities. There is less random elements in our mutant jams.
It’s interesting you say that, because many of the songs on No Answer : Lower Floors sound more focused and direct than earlier Wolf Eyes tracks.
JO: Less texture and piling up of a horrid mass of sound sources. More concentration on patterns and repeating tones, in tune. More “musical.”
NY: The past 16 years have been about total experimentation. In the earlier days, I would switch gear every gig — build and destroy everything all the time. We are finished fucking around.
On this record, I am using a double-vocal technique in order to blur the meaning of the words I am saying.
Can you tell me about the circumstances and setting of the recording of this album?
JO: Cold horrible winter nights in the haunted chambers of the DESTROY COMPLEX: MUG gambling compound. Drums through the PA and direct: huge sound… very natural and smooth a.k.a. TERROR SOUND.
NY: About a year ago, I had a weird dream about playing on stage with Aaron Dilloway, Mike Connelly, John Olson, and a blurry figure. The next morning, I called Dilloway and asked him if he would be interested in playing on a new Wolf Eyes record. He came over and we started working. The results are heard on “Warning Sign.” The year that followed, Connelly started to focus heavily on his solo work, and it became clear that he was going to retire his slot on the Wolf Eyes tours and live shows.
The blurry figure started to come into focus: it was Crazy Jim. I could finally see what had been in front of my face for years… looking like a apocalyptic art project more than a band or a biker gang at a rumble. This record captures all the different perspectives of all the different eras of Wolf Eyes.
I was so happy to have all the members represented on this record. I recorded, mixed, and engineered No Answer at MUG Michigan Underground Group. MUG is our club house/recording studio. The environment at MUG is very communal, with people coming and going at all hours. You can hear footsteps, whispering voices, and a crackling fire on the entire record. Having a crew of MUGs around gave us immediate critiques and made our rehearsals live performances.
How has the switched changed Wolf Eyes? What does Jim bring to the table?
JO: More RNR low groover: Jim is more immediate note-strangler. Less texture and aggression: more snake, more “in tune.” All skaters. More concentrated direct Wolf sound, natural.
NY: Jim simply adds what Jim adds. “I do not care what people think, because I do not know what I think.” His guitar playing is very refined and comes from a more blues background than noise. This sort of fresh perspectives gives us all new life and ideas.
Vocals seem exceptionally important on the new record, from the singing/chanting/yelling on “Choking Flies” and “Born Liar” to the experiments with the rhythm of spoken word on pieces like “No Answer.” What were you aiming for with your use of vocals?
NY: I have always thought of the vocalist as the figure in a painting. Vocals help balance a composition and give meaning and context. On this record, I am using a double-vocal technique in order to blur the meaning of the words I am saying. For example, “You get your car but you lose your feet” is said simultaneously as, “You use a clock to lose more sleep.” I like the idea of everyone hearing things differently, so I am attempting to force an audio illusion with my vocals.
For some reason, the repeating synth and background noodling on “Chattering Lead” reminded me of a jazz structure.
JO: Ever since Dread, it’s been playing over a strong pattern/beat: adding your own discourse to the electronic drama. There is a lot of “playing” over the patterns: embellishing: very jazz-esque. Always concentrating on the playing and chops.
NY: We cannot help trying to digest everything around us, so there is a constant din of indigestion in our world. Wolf Eyes are no strangers to jazz. We collaborated live with Anthony Braxton, and John Olson has played in jazzy groups for years.
The last song on the record, “Warning Sign,” had the most aggressively dissonant sounds of the whole album I think. Why did you end the record with such an abrasive piece?
JO: Only made sense after “Informer.” There was a lot of organic jamming: kinda took all the “jam” outta the LP on that track so end the story by burning/laying waste to the universe. Cold and mechanical, stiff: horrible horrible sound. Based on a loop from a vibes set. Two notes in conflict.
NY: I like ending things aggressively, I think of “Warning Sign” as a sort of a finale. This is the song Dilloway and I wrote. It has such an unsettling tone, and only works as a minimal, unwavering piece. We had originally done multiple tracks and overdubs, but it seemed to work best as just a long tape loop. That is what you are hearing, a seven-minute-long tape loop and nothing more.
I like the idea of everyone hearing things differently, so I am attempting to force an audio illusion with my vocals.
I read an interview with Nate a year ago where he talked about buying a book on simple music theory, then discovering how to tune his synthesizers and build off musical theory structure. Did anyone else in Wolf Eyes share this experience? What changes has this led to?
JO: Playing woodwinds: I studied notes and the “lyrical” quality and putting them together in scales. My mother is a harp player, and would show me all these things/modes. Around this time was the heavy Stare Case period, so the M.O. of the day was notes, the organization of them and the power they hold.
NY: Jim tunes his guitar to the kick drum, John plays feedback and horns in key with Jim. Writing in general has become easier and less mysterious. Again, Wolf Eyes are finished fucking around. I know how to write good Wolf Eyes songs and music theory has done nothing but make the process more efficient.
I’ve noticed that people like to refer to records like Burned Mind, Human Animal, and now No Answer : Lower Floors as your “proper albums,” which is difficult to discern because you put out so many releases in varying formats and lengths. Do you see these three as “proper albums,” somehow set apart from the rest of your output, or is it all part of the same stream?
NY: The puzzle of Wolf Eyes releases is best looked at in two categories: “Research and Development” and “The Results.” “R&D” releases are generally CD-Rs or tapes that give our audience a view into our creative process. They are also are very important tools in writing the final record. “The Results” are informed by different Wolf Eyes members’ perspective of the “R&D.”
Wolf Eyes record every practice, and each member has a different recording device that is placed in a different space in the room. Each member’s recording sounds extremely different because of this. Typically, the rehearsal recordings are then cut up into collages and manipulated with effects. Each member has his own style and each tape or CD-R helps us and our audience remember and understand certain moments that would otherwise be lost.
Wolf Eyes has been going strong for many years now. I’m curious: how have the reactions of your family and friends to your work evolved over time? Do your parents listen to your records? Your kids?
JO: It’s beyond natural to be doing this: has to be done, too many ideas in sound. We’ve played a gig with my mom: that’s the only family that has seen or heard this. My daughter likes the Wolves’ strong REGGAE influence: she can hang. She likes Dread and Lower Floors best: good for throwing toys and drawing for her.