I could never come up with a better description for Wolf Eyes than John Olson’s own “100 percent guillotine dynamite.” To be honest, I’m not sure what that even means, but that sort of fuzzy intensity fits Wolf Eyes’ musical approach like a glove. A black, bloody, spiked glove. See, I’m not good at this.
Olson says it’s been an inspired year for the nand, and that’s saying something for the noise rock pioneers, given their 100-plus recordings over the years. Linking arms with Third Man Records delivered the creative catalyst along with a new platform, which means 2016 will likely be even better. Two new records are already in the works, and, of course, that doesn’t include the 100 improvisational recordings ready to release. All of them, guillotine dynamite.
Stereo Subversion: I’ve noticed the obvious, prolific nature of things until now, but then the time taken between the last couple of albums. Is there a creative or real life reason for that?
John Olson: Well, we’ve never stopped rehearsing or touring. Usually, between the “big records,” we have a two or three-year window. For a while, we didn’t have a label. With this new style, we’ve been working more on songs, less jamming on the record. But, now that the record is done, we’ve done absolutely the inverse of that. For the last couple of months, we’re not necessarily improvising, but we’ve been making up a ton of stuff on the spot. Because, Third Man, when we were there last week, we recorded 26 tracks. We were working on making up songs on the spot. So, that’s kind of where we’re at right now.
SSv: Do you feel like your inspiration never shuts off? Given the amount of time and experience that you’ve put in, I’d love to hear what you’ve learned about finding the muse, the balance between inspiration or finding the mystery, and the discipline and hard work.
John: That’s a good question. [There was] a Japanese architect, I forget who, said that you can’t work primarily on inspiration alone. We’ve kind of adopted that. It’s more in terms of a faucet that you can just turn on and off. When you’re in front of stuff and you just hear things, it’s just kind of natural to respond. And I’ve been playing with Nate for so long that, whenever he hears something, it’s just intuitive to respond to it and play along to it.
It kind of goes back to what Lightnin’ Hopkins would do with his blues stuff. A lot of his songs were made up on the spot, but you wouldn’t necessarily call them improvised. His ability to just create songs on the spot… he would have his guitar with him all day and just play along to wherever he was at on the bus.
So, it was more about just flowing with the stream. We can play for eight hours; we can play for 10 hours; we can play for 10 minutes. With electronics and our setup, there are just a lot of possibilities, a lot of things you can stretch. It works that way for us. But, there are bands who don’t agree with that style, so much. It’s just a matter of what you do. We view it as more of a folk response than anything else.
SSv: Is that chemistry the primary element to keep going and stay inspired?
John: Back in the day, Nate would come over on Sundays, and we would just hang out all day. It was real casual. It didn’t have to be a song. It didn’t have to be intense. A lot of it has to do with stripping the ceremony and sentiment out of things. For instance, you can do a 10-minute piece, and it doesn’t have to have a big, dramatic intro and a big, intense ending. You can just momentarily just stop. Or you can just conclude it right there on the spot. It’s 50 percent listening, 50 percent playing.
SSv: You referenced the blues, earlier. Has that form or approach been an inspiration for you musically?
John: Oh, yeah. Me, Nate, and Jim… Michigan is a real roots-based place. It has a real intense back history of isolated blues and jazz. John Lee Hooker comes to mind. All those guys had an improvised style. It was real intense on mood. It was a real musical beast. Especially, jazz and all that stuff is really akin to what we’re doing, mixed with post-nuclear apocalypse electronics. [Laughs] Jazz and blues don’t have to be this grandiose thing every time. It’s very much a stream of consciousness kind of thing. We’re able to, just from listening to it and talking about it, able to hone into that mindset.
SSv: You mentioned the freedom earlier saying that the compositions didn’t necessarily have to be songs. Has there been a season, as a group, where you felt that pressure that the music had to about certain things?
John: I think we’re always working towards something being “song” like. Usually, you can tell when something’s completely improvised on the spot. And when you’re a listener, it doesn’t necessarily instill a vote of confidence just seeing people explore up there. Because with a lot of improvisation, a lot of it is just about showing off what you’re playing. It has a whole lot of baggage to itself.
But since we’re primarily a rock-n-roll band, we like to always maintain a song-like structure so that it’s more listenable to the listener. For instance, instead of just complete abstraction, putting in a figure that someone can relate to in a human matter rather than just black hole, cosmos, free-form improvisation, which is fine, but that’s not necessarily the avenue we’re trying to investigate these days.
SSv: I love the tension you just mentioned. What have you learned about navigating that fine line between what’s indulgent and what’s accessible?
John: ‘Indulgence’ is a tough word. To me, indulgence is like playing on and on without any attention towards the audience or what’s going on outside of them. I’ve met a lot of performers who don’t care what the audience thinks, or the room, who played before them, who’s playing after them. We love those things — how the room sounds, who played before us, who played after us — the environment around a gig cues what you have to deliver.
So, it goes back to maintaining a tension throughout the whole thing, which, you hear it in the Velvets, and Stooges, and Bo Diddley. It’s a casual kind of tension. I think that’s Jazz 101. I think it helps to have vocals on more stuff. When you have vocals on a song, people relate to it more like with a figure in a painting. It helps a lot in maintaining our song style.
SSv: You guys just finished a recent run of tour dates. How did that go?
John: It was great. Going back to what I said before. There were a bunch of gigs where we didn’t play a “song,” we just did it in our ass kickin’ Wolf style. At the most, we played maybe one or two songs off the record. So it was still the completely spontaneous songsmiths, I think I’ll say, rather than cosmic improvisation. It was extremely satisfying as a performer to do that. At the end of the day, you want people to go, ‘What song is that?’ You got me. I don’t know either!
SSv: That’s pretty neat, but I would think, as a fan, that it would be pretty amazing to see it in the moment and have this rare experience, but yet not being able to do anything with it after that–
John: Well, I think people are starting to trade live tapes. You know, we all love the Grateful Dead a lot, when people are tuned in to a bunch of stuff that will never be done again, I think that that makes people listen more and take the kind of rock ‘n’ roll ejaculation approach out of a lot of performances you see.
SSv: How did you guys come together with Third Man? And what are the hopes there with what that allows you guys to do?
John: Third Man started because Jack got screwed over so many times by labels and by the record industry in particular, so he wanted to make a fair, creative place where it’s possible for musicians. We were there for almost four days, and it was like what I imagine hanging out at Andy Warhol’s factory was like. We went in there at 8:30 a.m. and before you know it, it’s 10:00 p.m. There were people filming videos. You turn your head and there’s Kid Rock. Mick Jagger was in there the day before. It was just a really exciting environment. It was just crackling with creativity. It was just fun. There were interesting people everywhere you went.
It was also mainly just young people. And a lot of young people today are just banal deviceheads. There was no zombie Facebook, Instagram stuff going on there. It was just young kids who were alert, aware. It’s been a while since I’ve been blown away by youth. More than half of them were female, so the energy there was just amazing. It was definitely a utopian artistic environment.
SSv: Did that bring out something in the music that wasn’t there before?
John: Oh yeah. Going back to folk music, when people are themselves and are comfortable, then you can really hit them with the scary stuff. [Laughs] In terms of us playing, it was really just guillotine-dynamite, 100 percent. It really felt good.
SSv: Do you have a good grasp of what’s in the future, what 2016 looks like?
John: Well, we’ve already got a bunch of songs for the next two records, so we have two other records in the works. But then we’ve got hundreds of recordings in this new spontaneous style. Between that, we have a lot of interesting records that we can still put out. Tour-wise, we’re going to do three weeks in South America in January, but we’ve only done that a couple times. So, we love playing these places. We’ll be doing Argentina and Chile, Columbia, stuff like that. So that’ll be really exciting.