“Cats Need to Lighten Up”: An Interview with Wolf Eyes

Noise veterans Wolf Eyes bring I Am A Problem: Mind in Pieces to Jack White’s Third Man Records, and live to tell the tale.

Wolf Eyes
I Am a Problem: Mind in Pieces
Third Man

“When you listen to Wolf Eyes I want it to be like, ‘These are dudes hanging out in the Four Seasons that are all intense, that are just insane.'”

On the phone is an animated John Olson, the second most longstanding member of Wolf Eyes. Formed in Michigan in 1997, Wolf Eyes are the rare noise band to achieve a degree of mainstream crossover. In the 2000s they released two albums on Sub Pop, an astonishing occurrence given the blackened malevolence of their sound. Their current lineup is Olson on electronics, drums, and woodwinds, founding member Nate Young on vocals and sound manipulations, and guitarist James “Crazy Jim” Baljo, who joined in 2013.

In a surprising move, the band’s newest album I Am A Problem: Mind in Pieces will be released on Jack White’s Third Man Records. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, so Olson explains how it happened. “We’ve all known Ben [Blackwell, drummer for The Dirtbombs and Third Man operations director] for a while; just classic Michigan old school stuff. He’s a huge fan of Michigan underground rock. With him just being inexhaustible in his Michigan underground desire, it just kind of made sense after a while.”

With a release out on Third Man, the band will likely reach new listeners. Should newcomers prepare for the sonic lobotomization and psychotic impulses found on Wolf Eyes releases of yore? Well … yes and no. As Olson tells it, the new collection is “more melodic. It’s more riff-based and it has more sustained moods. More Velvets. Kind of more classic. We road tested all the songs so by the time we threw them down on tape they were smoothed out and ready. It’s not as dystopian as our other records.”

When asked about the move from dystopia, Olson reflects on how the years can shift perspectives. “We’re older guys and Jim, the newest guy in the band, is a laid back rocker and you know we’re all hippies by heart. We didn’t feel the need to annihilate everything in our path as much. You say more with less, you know? You get older and you observe more and attack less.”

The recording of I Am A Problem: Mind in Pieces was not done in a traditional studio. “We’ve never had a studio work out for us at all,” Olson explains. “So we did some mixing down at our clubhouse, the Michigan Underground Group, in downtown Detroit, this big, brick and mortar, cavernous cave sounding thing. It’s good for drums. Then we did a lot of the fine tuning details down at Nate’s house, The Burning Log, north of Detroit, where we did a lot of solo stuff and details work because it’s real flat and compressed sounding.”

Wolf Eyes have a staggering number of releases, many on limited run cassettes. “We asked a couple of hyper fans and I think that there’s over 500,” laughs Olson, speaking of the band’s output. The extensive discography charts the adaptation of the group’s sound, which has grown more composed over time. Importantly, Nate Young’s sneery, delay-warped vocals have become more prominent. The new record continues likewise, with tracks that are economical as opposed to sprawling. There are some atmospheric pieces featuring Olson on woodwinds, but primarily this is a collection of tight, industrially lit songs built on hardcore/metal guitar riffery.

“I’ve been playing reeds with the band since the jump,” says Olson, speaking of the band’s instrumentation. “We stripped it down for a minute and just had electronics but then I slowly added them back. With the new member, you’ve got a trio. You’ve got to rearrange everything a little bit. With the new material, it’s really woodwinds heavy. Woodwinds are another lyrical element.”

The new record also features live drums, or at least samples-thereof. “There’s nothing worse than aggressive music with stiff, unmoving drums. Very few people pull that off. At the end of the day it’s got to swing, so there’s a lot more patterns of real drums. We did some gigs with me playing drums. We listened to a lot of classic thrash albums because they’re so big and tom heavy. We tried to get a bigger, more primitive but thrash-y, human sound out of the drums. At the end of the day it’s got to swing,” he advises.

Speaking with Olson, you realize he’s a musical omnivore working with an encyclopedic musicological background. A lot of his knowledge is applied to the question of how location influences musical expression. He’s interested in the chemistry of how a specific scene emerges from a particular environment:

“I want [the experience of listening to Wolf Eyes] to be no different than when you put on a Necros 7” and you’re like ‘Man this is Midwest as all hell!’ I want to be able, through our homemade electronics, to sound like our environment. That takes a lot of time and that takes a lot of surrender. You’re got to be aware of what’s around you, how it affects your music, and be able to inject that into the language of your music. I think music, and art in general, when it’s strictly based upon an idiosyncratic kind of localism is when it’s the best.”

Olson’s opinions on what works and doesn’t work musically are readily shared. As are his opinion on the noise scene in general. In a 2013 interview he declared that noise music was over, causing wide online debate. Now, Olson feels that people overreacted, saying that the resulting uproar “pointed out that cats need to lighten up.”

“More importantly,” he clarifies, “it was said in jest. Right after I think I said something like ‘because trip metal has arrived.’ When people take stuff out of context and put that as the headline, of course it’s going to get people talking. Saying that a form of music is over is ridiculous. Invent your own goddamn music form because at the end of the day none of them matter. I mean, cats had to do it with jazz. I’m sure there was some surly punk in the 20s, before Jelly Roll Morton, that said ‘Ragtime is over, welcome to jazz,’ and I’m sure he probably got chased out of town on the spot.”

But he isn’t done: “It was said in jest and I guess humor is the rarest thing in the underground these days and cats just need to loosen up. Everything is alive! More importantly, if you wake up in the morning and try to invent your own language and your own style of music, the music grows Frankenstein-style. It just expands the language one hundred percent. It’s like ICP. When they started, they said ‘You guys will never have longevity because you paint your face’ and in 2015 they said ‘You guys have maintained your strength.’ You just gotta be yourself and if cats are going to blast back at you, whatever. Just stand your ground if you truly believe in it. But it’s the experimental underground, not everyone’s going hug and kiss.”

As Wolf Eyes prepare to take their new album on the road, Olson reflects on how the band’s audience has has changed over the years: “Every scene has a five year lifespan. I read that somewhere and I think that makes more sense. People who were our same age had kids and drifted off and got into Afrobeat or yadda yadda yadda. Or quit music altogether. And then we had kids that were a generation right below us who were real mean; lots of yelling, very on the wrong side of confrontational. It made for a lot of tours that were rough.”

“Now, we’ve stayed strong, we’ve stayed ourselves, we got through that. And now we played in front of these kids and they just smiled and took it. It’s been amazing. There haven’t been broken chairs or fires or death threats. The conduit is more open and it’s warm rather than a tiny, cold thing where you have to go through all these legitimacy gate checks. This new age group, they seem like they’re just stoked.”