Crumbling Dais: An Interview With Wolf People

"I'd always wanted to write something about the Night Witches, the female Russian bomber pilots."
Wolf People

Sometimes you can overthink things. Sometimes you can spend too much time on something when it would be far better to rip it up and start again. You can overanalyze, worrying whether it should be done this way or that way until eventually you become paralysed with inertia, with no idea which way to go.

In many respect, this is the antithesis of rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll is characterised by the beauty of spontaneity. Finding joy in the chaos of plugging in and letting rip. For Wolf People frontman Jack Sharp, it was that exact feeling that he wanted to capture on their latest album Ruins.

Wolf People formed in 2005 in the English town of Bedford. After releasing a handful of singles and EPs, they were courted by renowned American indie label Jagjaguwar. The label collected some of the songs from those releases into the compilation Tidings before releasing the band’s debut album Steeple, in 2010. After building a steady following in the UK, they released their second album, Fain, in 2013. The band’s sound draws on influences from throughout rock and folk history as they take the best bits of artists such as Jethro Tull, John Martyn, Cream, and Iron Claw. While reverential to these artists they take these touchstones and expand on them to create a sound all of their own.

By his own admission, Wolf People’s Fain album had seen the band experiment with ever more complex song structures. That is not to take anything from Fain. It is an excellent album that mixes folk, psychedelia, prog and hints of ’70s metal to often stunning effect. It is an album that demands to be heard as a whole as the band push at the edges of their sound to see how far they can take it. It is an ambitious record that could unexpectedly veer from finger-picked, pastoral guitars to Sabbath-esque crunchy riffs in a single song. It succeeded admirably but, in many respects, Ruins feels like a direct response to that record. The band is still ambitious, but the group wanted to reign things in a little. To think less.

That idea led them to, in a way, to go back to basics and produce a more straightforward rock album. It’s the kind of tight and concise rock album that you don’t hear very often anymore, as Sharp explains, “We were listening to a lot of hard rock, so we decided to make a hard rock record. I wanted it to be a dumb rock record where we didn’t think about it. We didn’t deliberate over any of the ideas. Here’s a riff, simplest song structure ever.” The result is one of the finest rock albums released last year. It is a concise, rock album that still allows the band to show off their folkier side but combine it with muscular, Zeppelin-esque guitar riffs and huge, inescapable choruses.

It might sound easier to make things simpler, but that is not always the case. As Sharp tells us, it more or less turned out as he wanted but it wasn’t as easy as he had imagined: “I think that was definitely the aim [to make a concise rock album]. I think it turned out slightly differently but with some longer cuts than we wanted. I wanted 14 songs that were only three minutes long, but it didn’t quite work out like that.”

Inevitably, the album shows a heavier, more powerful side to their playing, “We definitely wanted it to be a lot heavier, more immediate. When we went out and played Fain we found we started to get a lot heavier live. I think because we were supporting other bands and we were playing in bigger places we started to play with a bit more balls.”

The recording for this album aimed to capture the spontaneity, the “lightening in a bottle” moments that come with just plugging in and playing as a band. “What we didn’t want to do, that we had done with previous records is rehearse, rehearse, rehearse and then lock ourselves away for two weeks and then come out with the record because we thought we were pressured to get takes of stuff that was either not ready or we were bored with.”

To that end they would convene as often as they could and just hit the record button and see what came out, as Sharp explains, “We would just record everything and then listen back and have a chat with each other and decide what was good, what was not good what we could scrap, what we could continue using etc. Eventually, we ended up with four or five usable versions of each song, and then we’d pick the best one.” For the band this lessened the weight that comes with making an album: “It worked well because we never felt like we were recording a record. There was no pressure, so it’s just the sound of all us playing in a relaxed way.”

This looser, more impulsive mindset extended to the lyric writing, Sharp explaining that “I didn’t want to deliberate over the lyrics because on the last one I spent way too long going into stuff. I just tried to switch off and almost kind of write automatically.” Rather than setting himself the task of writing lyrics to specific songs, he let inspiration come more organically: “I didn’t want to sit down and specifically write lyrics on my time off for example. When I do that, in hindsight, the worst lyrics come out and actually if you allow yourself to live your life and wait for something to turn up that’s when the really good stuff happens. In all cases, I just waited for things to arrive basically.”

However, some of the themes of the songs were ones that Sharp had wanted to explore for a while, “I’d always wanted to write something about the Night Witches, the female Russian bomber pilots. I came up with this little song and a melody, and I thought ‘Right, this is the right time to write that song.'” Ostensibly, the majority of the songs allow for listener interpretation, “I don’t like to think that I’ve got to the bottom of lyrics very quickly. If you are writing a story about a character or things that have happened they are always a way of describing the human condition. The base, human emotions that people go through.”

Naturally, recording everything they did over the last three years has meant that some songs just didn’t make the cut. As Jack admits they can often be their worst critics, “We are massively hard on ourselves. There’s rarely a time when we would all step back and say oh yeah that’s really good so when that does happen you know that it’s right.” There was one song, in particular, that didn’t make the cut that could have been the defining song on the album. Nonetheless, it didn’t quite fit with their more succinct approach to song structure, “There is at least one, very good track that was left off because it was just too long. It could have been one of the best songs on the record, but it just didn’t fit in the end. It’ll probably be the centerpiece of another thing.” With that song tantalizingly ready to go, it makes sense that the band is looking to release an EP sometime this summer.

Overall, Sharp is delighted with the response to the record, “You have an opinion of a record which then changes once you release it. Then you start to get feedback and hear other people’s opinions. I’ve been amazed by the response to it, to be honest. People have really taken to it. I feel really happy that people have felt some kind of connection with the songs.” This has led to some of the best reviews of the band’s career and meant that they have earned a decent following both at home and abroad, shown on their recent UK tour, “We’ve spent a long time here [the UK] developing enough to play in not big places but every night was busy. We’ve also had some amazing reviews in the German press, so we are looking forward to heading out there as well as Belgium and The Netherlands.”

Sharp has every reason to be satisfied with the place he’s in. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is to play music,” he notes. “If ever that is validated by people turning up to gigs or buying records then that’s amazing and the dream really.” Hopefully, the positive response to Ruins will see the numbers at those gigs swell as it is an album that begs to be heard live. Ruins is not a dumb rock record — it’s replete with subtleties and nuances. They have maintained the cerebral quality of their music but boiled down what is so exhilarating about rock music to challenge and focus themselves. It just goes to show that sometimes it’s best not to overthink things.