The band responsible for chart hits such as ‘Interminal Bleedings’, ‘Mugger’ and ‘Fuck Cleveland’ is on its way to VISIONS festival on Saturday. And if you’ve never subjected your eardrums to a blast of Michigan-based Wolf Eyes it’s time to prepare for the worst.
After all, the band hasn’t spent the past 20 years exploring the outer extremes of bloody noise and power riffs for nothing. The deranged trio take their sonic fuckery very seriously – and I defy you not to salute their dedication to the cause.
Just ask the band’s saxophone player and self-admitted ‘goofy fucker’ John Olson. “We just do what we do and be weirdo freaks. And if people want to listen that’s fine,” he says with a laugh. Olson – along with the band’s founder and electronics expert Nate Young and guitarist ‘Crazy’ Jim Baljo – have always viewed their project as a vehicle to push the limits of aural tolerance. And they’ve done it in an unabashedly and relentlessly experimental way.
The pair often describe their DIY musical endeavours in such glowing terms as: “Pure audio stun, homemade post-nuclear terror and claustrophobic atmospheres,” or: “The most shattered and confusing horror vision since Bo Diddley dropped the duct-taped warhead.” It’s warped and colourful stuff – and we advise you to go listen. You might even enjoy it.
“When you develop a musical language with other people it’s a relationship like none other,” Olson says. “We’ve spent countless years developing a really intimate vocabulary – it’s become another form of talking and communication for us. It’s really wide open and beautiful. I’m lucky.”
The mission of the band, Olson says, has always been to play gigs with all ‘like-minded outsider stoner/loner freaks’. And despite the countless homemade cassettes, CD-Rs and records the band has pumped out, the best place to experience the raw power of a Wolf Eyes gig is still a dingy basement.
During their unlikely stint on Sub Pop in the early 2000s their live sets were known for their brevity. Sometimes just 15 minutes long. But what the gigs occasionally lacked in duration they certainly made up in intensity. “If your heart is in the right place everything else just colours what you have to say,” Olson explains. Or maybe it’s all just a big practical joke?
Growing up in the Olson household meant moving around a lot. His father was a high-ranking US Marine and Olson remembers houses in North Dakota, Virginia, Japan and Hawaii. “It was either super serious or super jokey,” Olson says about the family vibe. “Nothing in between. To get any attention as a kid I had to tell jokes.”
There’s always a new sound, or a new approach, or a new piece of equipment…or a new saxophone.
Today, Olson’s ribald streak has found its home in the work of Wolf Eyes. The band’s seemingly chaotic and abstract obsession with punishing frequencies betrays a much more profound and joyous exploration of musical boundaries. “We’ve got a lust for playing and exploring the new vistas of electronic music,” says Olson. “It’s bottomless and once you’re into that stream of technology and electronics the only real limit is your imagination. It goes hand in hand with our love for sonics. It’s never died – there’s always a new sound or a new approach or a new piece of equipment or a new saxophone.”
One of the most audacious collaborations the band pulled off was recording live album Black Vomit with free jazz saxophone legend Anthony Braxton. Nothing would suggest that this unholy alliance would yield results – but it’s undoubtedly one of the high points in the band’s caterwauling discography as Braxton seems to effortlessly add a dimension to the proceedings. “Nate asked if he wanted to jam. And sure enough, he did – and his language on the saxophone is just insane,” recalls Olson. “There is nothing he can’t do on the horn. It was a perfect match.”
Earlier this year the band released impressive album Undertow on their new label, Lower Floor Music. And the wild flute and horn-heavy new EP, Strange Days II, is set to drop on August 11th. The band is nothing if not prolific.
Yet the formula is rather simple in Olson’s twisted mind: “Do what you love and it never seems like work,” he says. “Yeah, when you’re catching a train at 4am it sometimes feels like work – but a lot of it is just about moving your body from one place to another. It’s easy for me to turn my head off. Being a musician means you’ve got to be a pro at just hanging out because there is so much downtime. But as soon as you start playing it’s amazing.”
That amazement will hit Mangle just before tea time on Saturday. Olson says VISIONS is a festival that aligns nicely with their freak-friendly jamming policy. “The festival just looked cool and our kind of people. We enjoyed playing with Liars many years ago so it seemed a perfect fit.”