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Wolf Eyes - Interview

  by Dominic B. Simpson

published: 23 / 6 / 2006



Wolf Eyes - Interview

intro

Michigan-based industrial noise trio Wolf Eyes recently toured Britain. Dominic Simpson talks to them in London are about their ferecious sound and obsession with heavy metal


Shadowy trio Wolf Eyes have been messing with my head for a while now. Their music is often harrowing and brutal (one review of their album began with the words “Music should not make you want to die”), a howling dystopia that resembles the industrial wastelands, malfunctioning robots and cyber dread of 'Terminator 2', 'Tetsuo': 'The Iron Body Man', Phillip K Dick’s novels, and the paranoid computer Hal in '2001 : A Space Odyssey' (one of the band members’ runs a label called Dead Machines), unable to come to terms with it’s own mortality. I am tempted to think that the creators of such music are in fact unemotional battle-scarred androids, neo-Robocops roaming a post-apocalyptic wasteland, endlessly imaging brutal future scenarios in their wake; instead, they are three charming blokes from Michigan. I first saw them play at the Electric Ballroom, on the same bill as crazed Rhode Island duo Lightning Bolt; their set was ferocious in its execution, a bludgeoning, noxious noise. The band has just finished their soundcheck at Electrowerkz, a brilliantly uncompromising industrial warehouse-cum-venue in North London, full of granite passages and gig/club spaces. At 2am that night, they will take the stage as part of an all-nighter promoted by the club night Sick and Twisted, who specialise in gabba, drone noise, and industrial ‘power electronics’ and ‘improv noise’ which is music of the kind that Wolf Eyes often get cited as part of. This brand of music has its precursors in the machine-line assembly industrial obsessions of Throbbing Gristle, Coil, Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’, and Einstürzende Neubauten’s metal bashing end-of-the world vibe, one formed from a diet of squats, amphetamines, and a decaying, bombed-out industrial Berlin landscape. The soundtrack to the 20th century’s industrialisation and assembly-line organisation of work, the logical conclusion of such music has surely reached it’s apogee (or nadir, depending on your viewpoint) in such acts as Atari Teenage Riot and Whitehouse, the latter a controversial extreme UK outfit formed in 1978 and still going strong, whose output includes songs dedicated to serial killers and such charmingly titled ditties as ‘Wriggle Like a Fucking Eel’ and ‘I’m Comin’ Up Your Ass’. Exactly how children of the 60’s hippy ideal produced such death machine music is a moot point. In the book ‘Rip It Up And Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-84’ author Simon Reynolds claims that Throbbing Gristle’s music, while ostensibly completely the opposite of 60’s psychedelic hippie music, in fact shared many of the same features. The use of tape machines and primitive electronics is one feature, but equally the sensory overload live bombardment of trippy visuals and intense repetition of music has been common to both; however, Throbbing Gristle often used it as a brutal tool to bludgeon it’s audience rather than pervade blissed-out synaptic aura designed to flood the senses and enhance psychedelic’s music trippy quality. Throbbing Gristle thus took the hippy experience on its head; as Reynolds puts it, “industrial replaces kissing the sky with staring into the cosmic abyss. Industrial is psychedelia inverted: one long bummer trip”. There’s something of this echoed in Michel Houellebecq’s claim in 'Atomised' that the Manson murders were simply the flipside of the 60’s hippy dream rather than its complete opposite – the "logical extreme", as he puts it. The hippy dream died the day of Altamont and the Manson murders; equally, it could be argued that this was year zero for extreme ‘noise’ bands such as Whitehouse. Wolf Eyes themselves are less committal on the idea that they are part of a current ‘noise’ scene that takes in artists such as Japanese power electronics nutter Merzbow, Brooklyn cathartic noise demon Prurient, Yellow Swans, and the aforementioned Lightning Bolt. “It’s the Michigan sound”, shrugs Mike Connelly, whose position in the group oscillates between guitar and electronics (replacing the recently departed Aaron Dilloway). “It’s just a Michigan thing – we want it to be like Michigan folk music. We like all those [noise] bands but we try to represent where we’re from…” Ever since Detroit birthed the Stooges and the MC5, the state has always produced hard, grimy music that reflects the state’s hotbed of car manufacturing, and the music’s legacy can be seen in the industrial sound that Wolf Eyes have perfected. Formed around 1998, they initially moved to New York City for a couple of months at the behest of, inexplicably, Andrew WK – yes, him of ‘I Get Wet’ and ‘Party Hard’. “He’s been a good friend of ours from high school”, explains Nathan Young (vocals, electronics, programming). “He invited us out for the summer - we were actually supposed to be in his band, and he in turn was supposed to be in Wolf Eyes. But he was going in some weird direction and it didn’t really work out for us. But I love his stuff to death – it’s amazing. It took me a while when I was living with him…I was having trouble hearing how amazing it was, and then a year later, I was completely blown away.” Their self-titled debut now sounds like a crude approximation of Wolf Eyes' sound: a primitive, barely functioning drum machine pumps out skeletal electro beats against Young’s self-conscious, weak vocals.“Well, we didn’t have a good drum machine then, mostly it was just us, keyboards and organ”, he shrugs. This embryonic version of Wolf Eyes only really solidified with the release of their second album 'Dread', which Young says “was kind of the turning point of the music, the pivotal point.” It marked the arrival of John Olsen, him of the electronics, primitive tape experiments, and, inexplicably, a saxophone (though you could argue that saxophones have always been associated with noise music, going right back to the jazz-punk freak out of the Stooges’ 'Funhouse' – itself surely a proto influence on noise music.) The pivotal new member “kind of sealed the deal”, Young explains. Collaborations with the likes of Black Dice and Prurient followed. Young is especially full of praise for the meeting with the former: “the collaboration was amazing, a very small studio in China Town in NYC. It was just us crowded into this little room, it was phenomenal - I’ve never played with so many people at that point”. The intensity of this meeting was exacerbated by the fact that it was shortly after September 11th, with the chaos of the outside world seeping into the music and the claustrophobic confines of the studio: “It was right after 9/11, so it was kind of a weird, dark vibe”, as the band put it. The band’s link to the underground noise/free-jazz/freakout scene remains strong, particularly in their cassette aesthetic - something spurned on by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, whose Ecstatic Peace label has strong links to Wolf Eyes (Wolf Eyes have also toured with SY in the past). The band’s recent 'Fuck Pete Larsen' album in fact has a similar cut-up feel to Sonic Youth’s early No-Wave primitive live document, 'Sonic Death', with it’s moody, cut-up technique collage of moaning sounds rustling like a howling wind. Its feel is of a disturbing, dystopian soundscape, and remains moody and simmering, rather than the all-out aggression of some of their other material. “We have a huge discography and there’s all sorts of different ideas there”, reflects Young. “The collages are just another tool. It’s not about the techniques, it’s about what you do with it.” Of 'Fuck Pete Larsen', he confusingly asserts, “there’s actually two versions of it. The LP is totally different to the CD…” In some respects, Wolf Eyes are paying tribute to the idea of an underground band that survives through flexi-discs, fanzines, and tapes rather than through the iron jacket of a major label route. Nonetheless, their signing to heavyweights Sub Pop indicated Wolf Eyes’ intent; ironically, the LP that followed, 'Burned Mind', was their heaviest and least commercial yet, with song titles like ‘Stabbed In The Face’ and ‘Urine Burn’ pretty much matching the visceral ferocity of the music. It’s the album that has pushed the band in the limelight.“They’ll be releasing the next one [too],” Young says of Sub Pop. “Totally supportive – they gave us absolute freedom”. Wolf Eyes' connection with Sonic Youth also led to the band playing as part of the No Fun Fest curated by Thurston Moore. The festival lead to the band connecting with like-minded acts, fostering a sense of camaraderie in the noise scene and strengthening the underground scene milieu.“It’s great that it’s an entire community and bands that we know”, enthuses Young. Wolf Eyes channel primitive electronics and analogue equipment, processed and signalled so that it creates the internal feedback mechanisms which lead to Wolf Eyes’ distinctive sounds; as Young elaborates, “a lot of it is internal feedback”, and this is mixed through pedals to achieve endless permutations of sound. Nonetheless, the band has a very rock aesthetic when it comes to music. They don’t look like electro geeks with shaved heads making complex mathematical electro music; rather, Wolf Eyes grew up listening to metal, and look the part too. On 'Burned Mind', bass and corrosive guitar parts increasingly came to the fore; as Connolly admits, on recent releases “there’s always guitar and bass on everything, pretty much”. Young agrees, adding that “the new material has a more kind of black metal kind of vibe”. Not that the band would ever listen to any hipster drone metal acts such as Boris, Sun O)))) or Earth – “We’re into stuff like Dark Throne, Emperor, and Warmaster” says Connolly, rejecting any of the aforementioned acts as an influence. One of the group has a copy of 'Terroriser' - a “cool extreme metal mag”, as they enthuse - which is running a feature on the band. “The metal vibe just kind of manifests itself in our energy…we’re trying to put on a show”, considers Young, and it’s true, in many respects Wolf Eyes live are more akin to an overblown heavy metal concert – replete with audience headbanging – than any sleek Kompact-style electro or conversely geeky post-rock noodling. Wolf Eyes music is firmly entrenched in an adolescence bumming around listening to classic metal and punk. Of course, not only metal but also certain ‘noise’ music can reach such levels of bombast and OTT heaviness with their music that they become almost parody, in the same way that ‘hair metal’ (as it’s sometimes known) lapsed into ridiculousness in the 80’s. Black Metal’s propensity for dressing like extras from the orc army in the Lord of the Rings can invariably lead to Spinal Tap-esque levels, and likewise the obsession with extremism that Whitehouse and Throbbing Gristle have paraded have led to a faintly comic air. When watching drone metal band Sun O)))) play a set that consisted of at most two chords played at unbelievable volume (they had six amps onstage) recently, and likewise Whitehouse side project Consumer Electronics (in which bare-chested, ranting band member Phillip Best conducted an unpleasant tirade onstage involving all kinds of unpleasant subject matters, set to a backdrop of ear-splittingly loud laptop gabba beats), it occurred to me that the obsession with bombast and extremity in this kind of music has an inherent ridiculousness to it, not to mention an asexual, macho bent – though probably one that’s intended ironically in the latter example. “Oh yeah, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. There is a metal vibe and that comes from growing up with metal. I like the intensity of the cold, slow, Nordic stuff but…” Young trails of the sentence, acknowledging that such music when took to extremes can take on a hint of ludicrousness. As for Wolf Eyes, “I mean, some of the titles –‘Urine Burn’??” he laughs. Despite the metal obsession, Wolf Eyes can still relate to acts such as Spacemen 3’s Sonic Boom, who emerged from a rock background to embrace analogue electronics (though Wolf Eyes have done the opposite route, becoming progressively more and more rockist in their approach). Sonic’s recent gigs at London venue the Spitz have seen him abandon guitar and vocals instead of pure treatments involving patching bays and speak-and-spell machines instead, inducing an oscillating tone. This use of primitive electronics goes right back to the early experiments of the United States of America and the Silver Apples. “We love early Spacemen 3…'Taking Drugs to Make Music To Take Drugs To' - that’s our mantra”, smiles Young. That aside, though, there are few recognised acts that Wolf Eyes laud. They have no interest in any of the post-punk pioneers, waving away any interest in acts such as Joy Division or This Heat – though an obvious exception is Throbbing Gristle, who remain a big influence. Wolf Eyes have fostered links with Genesis ‘Breyer’ P-Orridge, Throbbing Gristle’s leader and founder of cult Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth. P-Orridge’s bizarre idiosyncrasies have let him to have a sex change in order to appear more like his girlfriend / band member Cosey Fanni Tutti. “He’s a very sweet person – they all are”, smiles Connolly. “We did some shows with Psychic TV (P-Orridge’s other band).” Elsewhere, though, the band reel off an obscure list: “Satanic War Master. Prurient. Birds of Delay. Smegma. Macra Nympho. Sick Lama. Ex-Cocaine.” With a new album 'River Slaughter' on the way, I ask them what they plan to do to promote it. “We’ll just keep doing this. We’re going to Australia soon”, says Connolly. “And I’m playing with my band Hair Police in London”. And touring the rest of the time with Wolf Eyes ? “Pretty much, and when we’re not, we’re recording at home, and doing other labels. I do Gods of Tundra. John Olsen does Dead Machines.” The band’s constant recording has been evidenced by the sheer abundance of CD-R’s that have been released on various labels, in a move echoing other prolific underground weirdo acts such as the Sunburned Hand of the Man and Jackie O-Motherfucker. This is one band with a hell of a work ethic that’s set to run and run, and WE’s ever-expanding discography is becoming increasingly daunting to document. A long night in the shadowy nooks and crannies at Electrowerkz, in which Olsen guests with one band playing sax, culminates at 2am when the band finally hit the stage and launch into a houling, energetic pummelling of their repertoire. The intensity of the set has a strange kind of purity about it, and by the set’s climax, my t-shirt is soaked with sweat as I lose my mind in the moshpit, headbanging to their cathartic, brutal sound. I feel pretty dazed afterwards. Wolf Eyes’ music does that to people.



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Wolf Eyes - Interview


Wolf Eyes - Interview


Wolf Eyes - Interview


Wolf Eyes - Interview



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