North Carolina’s Wesley Wolfe has been quietly making some of the great power-pop records out there for a few years now. His last record, Cynics Need Love Too was a “a perfect send-up of and heartfelt entry into the school of maudlin power-pop.” Now he’s back with Numbskull, his fourth record and finest to date. Though Wolfe recorded and played on the album himself, the songs boom with rock-band size and muscle. The drums feel propulsive, the guitars crunching and hefty. Wolfe’s eye for details—a perfect riff here, a touch of atmosphere there—become even more refined on this record, as does his knack for songs that are both clever and heartfelt. In short, it’s a record of ten great songs, songs that move from unbridled energy to contemplative spaces and explore both with the same meticulous craft and bittersweet charm. PopMatters caught up with Wolfe to talk about the process of making the new album, the joys of living and playing in a vibrant music scene, and Wolfe’s other trade: lathe-cutting records. PopMatters is pleased to premiere Numbskull, which is out 6 May on Wolfe’s own label, Tangible Formats.
PopMatters: Like your last record, Cynics Need Love Too, you pretty much recorded every part of Numbskull, but the two records sound very different. How did your approach change for the new record?
Wesley Wolfe: Cynics Need Love Too was a mix of songs that were recorded at different times using different equipment over the years. Since then, I’ve been lucky to work with some really talented people, and I have been exposed to new approaches to making an album. I wanted Numbskull to have a more cohesive sound like a studio album, but do it all at home. My past records were written and recorded with no intention of playing with a live band. Now that I play out live as a loud bro trio, with my dawgs Mike Glass and Al Jacob, I wanted this record to sound like a band made it. As for the overall sound, I was going for a squishy, which echoed my state of mind at the time.
PopMatters: The album seems to deal with managing ambitions and dreams alongside pragmatism, in the adult world, but also (and perhaps more pointedly) in making a life out of music. You’re part of an active and very collaborative scene in the Triangle in North Carolina. You recorded material with Flesh Wounds that will be on their upcoming single for Merge, you worked with Spider Bags on their last full-length, as well as many others. Does being a part of such a vibrant musical community help bridge the gap between dreams and pragmatism? What are the challenges in making a life in music, even in a thriving scene?
Wesley Wolfe: Yes! Not to be biased, but the scene here is amazing. However, I think I would make music wherever I lived. The challenges are still managing a balance between passion and reality. Out of necessity, I’ve learned to live a life without any expectations of profiting from music. If I may, I believe, the point of making music is to express yourself and your message and to be able to share it with people. All people, everywhere anyone that cares to listen. If they like it, they like it. If they don’t it’s fine, but at least you will be able to share it and possibly connect with someone. Today’s technology makes it easier than ever to be heard. I don’t think the point is to profit from it in the first place, although compensation as a gesture of appreciation would be nice. Haha! My goal has evolved through the years to get as close to breaking even as possible. So, I’ve figured out how to make a record for next to nothing. This is just what makes me happy, so why would I do anything else? That’s all.
PopMatters: You’re also known for lathe-cutting limited runs of both your own and other peoples’ records under your imprint, Tangible Formats. How has learning and working in that process shaped or changed your approach to creating music for your own records?
Wesley Wolfe: My work for Tangible Formats has exposed me to a variety of genres of music. It has helped me develop an appreciation for all kinds of music, especially the ones that I wouldn’t explore on my own. I think just by understanding the limitations of vinyl, I’ve developed ways to record with the format in mind. It also helps me with my life; this is the pragmatic part of me that pays the bills.
PopMatters: There’s always been a sly humor to your lyrics, though it never seemed ironic or winking, more an extension of the emotions of the song. That humor is still there on Numbskull, but the record also seems, if not more serious, then at least more emotionally direct that some of your earlier work. Do you see a change in your songwriting over time? When in the process do you move from a set of songs to a thematically cohesive album like this one?
Wesley Wolfe: Yes. I hope there is a change… or maybe a better word for it would be growth and not change because I’m still me, but with new experiences. Wait, what humor?
PopMatters: What’s next for you, after Numbskull finds its way into the world?
Wesley Wolfe: Shows are required again, ha!