Wanderlust: An Interview with David Woll

David Woll's Transit is a perplexing and beguiling album that explores a lonely life on the road travelled by the strange, the hopeful, and the hopelessly lost.

Montrealer David Woll’s Transit, was an atmospheric travelogue voiced by a lost and intrepid traveller whose adventures spanned a ghostly world of abandoned lives. Hopelessly navigated by a forlorn heart, Woll’s character, a bleary-eyed, hard-hearted rocker with a guitarist-as-gunslinger stance, blazed across continents in search of some elusive fix on dreams found only on the cinema screens. Woll didn’t write a novel, but he may as well have; his stories chapter the lives of downtrodden losers who have seemingly escaped from the pages of a pulp-paperback. His album, lamentably, was released to very little attention and he now seems to occupy a space in musical obscurity. Woll’s aural worlds and inner landscapes evoke the mysterious, sonic terrains of Ennio Morricone, and the cigarette-chaffing cool of Godard films; it's pop music for sure, but the rich imagery supplied by the lyrical vignettes offer up a world that was born from cinema.

Very little is known about the musician, and the sparsely-written bio on his website only helps to further the self-sustaining mystique that he created for himself through his work. Those looking for an apt comparison may look to Dirty Beaches -- both acts having grown up on a diet of rockabilly. But while the moribund-blues of Dirty Beaches stretches a single hue across a groundwork of scuzzy guitars, Woll paints his canvas with the colours of New Wave, punk, Tex-Mex, chanson and the romantic smears of gothic Americana. Odd clashes of Spaghetti-Western guitars and Euro-jazz are sized up against a wall-to-wall of catchy punk-pop in a surreal landscape peopled with characters straight from the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Woll turns enigma upon enigma, churning out pop-song conundrums while his ghost-in-the-gramophone vocals call from somewhere outside the songs.

Distinctively European in spirit, Woll essays a personal journey through Europe (he travelled extensively throughout Eastern Europe prior to recording the album), while keeping his musical heart rooted in American soil. Here, the artist discusses the factors that led him on a journey, both musical and personal, and how his restless wanderlust keeps him in transit.

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Can you tell me about the writing of this album? My understanding is that you traveled quite extensively in preparation for the writing of the album. What places did you visit?

I’ve traveled through Eastern Europe and Turkey for two months before going into the writing process of this record. When I got back, let’s say a few things went wrong in my personal life and I felt this urgency to write day and nights to fight loneliness. Then this influence of the Wild West in my music became more and more present. I wasn’t writing about the travel I’ve just made; it was more about continuing the whole journey and packing my bags again. It was about escaping the past and get on this road without looking back. And this road, in my mind, was heading West.

There is an obvious influence of Ennio Morricone in your music. What is your relationship with cinema in your music?

Well I’ve actually made (and studied) films while I was in College and at the University. I’m a huge cinephile. And of course since both my parents were musicians, it was my way of distinguishing myself from them. But after finishing University, I found myself drawn to music again. As a kid I’ve taken piano, cello and guitar lessons but I wanted to start writing. Since music was influencing me a lot while I was making films, I realized that cinema had also a huge influence on my songs, especially [genre] movies. That’s why songs like "The Summer When the Earth Inhaled" and "Transit" are highly influenced by spaghetti western, "Little Green Men" by sci-fi B-movies while "Mrs. Death" refers a lot to German expressionism. I like to call them the landscapes of my songs.

Who were some of your musical influences growing up?

I know it might sound a bit boring, but I think the Stones are the roots to everything I like in music. Also because they were so influenced by many major music movements, like rhythm and blues, psychedelic, glam rock, reggae, punk, country, pop … I really loved them from the '60s to well, let’s say 1981, the year I was born, ironically. Then I went deeper and discovered David Bowie, Lou Reed, Johnny Cash, Dylan, and the Clash. Now I really like Wilco, pretty much all Jack White’s projects, Fleet Foxes, Girls, M. Ward, Arcade Fire … the list is really long because they’re so many out there now.

Your lyrics are rife with metaphors of a literary sort, they sometimes read like passages in a novel. Can you go into detail about some of the themes you explore on the record?

Pretty much all the songs on the album evoke life transitions. I’ve dealt with loss and breakups the year I wrote them. I wanted to turn those sad events into something positive so that’s why even if the subjects are dark, you can feel this will to overcome different fears, like being left out, being close to death or insanity. All my life, music really kept me away from darkness and this album was my way to deal with those transitions to become a stronger person. So even if some songs refers to the past, it’s not by nostalgia but in order to understand the person I am right now and who I want to become. It was a therapy, really!

Rockabilly factors into your music quite heavily; it comes across in a very romantic fashion. Can you talk about this element in your music?

I’m a big fan of vintage stuff, like old clothes, vinyl, black and white movies, old amps, radios, cars, especially from the '50s. And of course I’m a huge Elvis fan! For me the '50s and early '60s evokes something quite peaceful and naïve, with a bit of rebellion as well. Since I can go quite dark on this album, I think it added a bit of lightness, which prevented me from just sounding pathetic.

Your music is very visual; it evokes a sense of time and place and seems rooted in the past. What kinds of ideas did you have for this album visually? What kinds of images were you trying to impress upon the listener with your songs?

I had the chance to work with a wonderful graphic designer called Christine Roy. She designed the whole booklet and I think it represents quite well what I had in mind and what she “saw” in my music. Making this album was a way to share my journey with people, driving through those deserts, ghost towns meeting all those mysterious characters; feeling lonely. Those songs were really postcards of my life, that’s also why they can be read like short stories.

Finding the right producer for Transit was crucial in amalgamating all your ideas into one solid package. How did you go about choosing Denis Ferland to produce the album?

Well, to cut a long story short, I knew Denis for quite a while but we had lost track for nearly eight years. One day I’ve played some of my very raw material to a good friend of mine Denis Faucher (the keyboardist on the album) and he told me “you need a fucking beast to play those guitar parts; not just a guy with good technical skills, but a real visceral punk rocker”. So it had to be Denis Ferland. And when I mean “punk”, I’m not talking about his haircut, I’m talking attitude, playing and vision. We had a wonderful time doing this album and I don’t regret any second of it. I’d work with him again anytime. What I especially loved about him, besides his incredible sense of humor, is that as much as he embraces spontaneity in the making, he is also an obsessive perfectionist. I sensed that pretty early, which for me was really important because I like to give a lot of freedom to the persons I’m working with. I can’t think of a producer’s quality that he wouldn’t have. I was just very lucky to work with him (as of all those great people that made this album possible).

You’ve played some live shows; how does the album translate live onstage?

Denis Ferland is the only one playing on the album that is also doing the shows. All the others weren’t available at the time so I’ve managed to find others incredibly good musicians; David (bass), Jonathan (drums) and Jean-François (keyboards). It’s also interesting since they also brought their personal touch. I’d be curious to try an acoustic version of the show, though. Would be a great way to experiment more things with my voice. After all, most of those songs were folk songs in the beginning.

At this moment, what are you exploring musically? What kinds of ideas are you working with for your next album?

I’m actually listening to a lot of stuff right now. Most of them are genres I used to hate. I’m almost forcing myself to it. But since in every genre there’s good and bad, I’m trying to let go any preconceived ideas I could have had on those genres. At the beginning it was a bit disorienting and then you realize that this open your mind so much that you start losing any preconceived ideas on what you’re writing. I was kind of stuck in that “rock ’n' roll” thing and it helped me a lot to listen to some hip-hop and Latin music, for example. It’s just very refreshing, it’s like taking a holiday, I guess. In the end, it might still sound like rock music, but maybe a bit more exotic.

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