Wolf Eyes' John Olson Says Noise Music Is Over: "Completely, 100 Percent"
Wolf Eyes is one of the most iconic bands from the early- to mid-2000s explosion of noise music that reverberated (deafeningly) across North America.
While the genre is the cumulative product of often disparate scenes, this Michigan unit -- consisting of Nate Young, longtime collaborator John Olson, and a shape-shifting cast of worthy collaborators -- crossed over to the indie-mainstream, eventually even being inked to the Sub Pop records roster.
After a brief hiatus, which saw Young and Olson emerge with their highly musical (though still challenging and psychedelic) Stare Case project, Wolf Eyes is back. And nothing will ever be the same. The band is once more a three piece. But on-again, off-again collaborators Mike Connelly and Aaron Dilloway are no longer in the picture. Enter "Crazy" Jim Baljo, the guitarist who is seemingly the human embodiment of the group's new era.
Crossfade: Your label, American Tapes, is gearing up for its last hurrah. When you started out, there was a heavy emphasis on packaging. Were you interested in making separate art objects or supplemental material?
John Olson: When I was starting out in the early '90s, I was really influenced by MSBR [Koji Tano's Molten Salt Breeder Reactor project]. Back then there were, like, ten fans. So if you're only making ten tapes, it's kind of ridiculous to not have them be special. I worked at an antique store. So I had access to a lot of amazing materials. A good time to experiment with sound and a good time to experiment with how things go together good.
What made that early Midwest free-music scene so fertile?
There were no categories and it was hard to communicate. You had to do it through letters. You became really good friends with people through the mail thing, watched each other to progress. It was no different than the tape-trading culture in Europe in the '80s, or the death metal culture from Florida. It added a lot of work and mystery to it. And the music was made that much more abstract. It was technically "noise." But it was folk, it was rock, it was all this kinda stuff.
At that time, did people use the term noise as a self-identifying banner?
It wasn't thrown around at all. There were very few distros, and things were handmade. It wasn't based upon an us-versus-them thing. It was like, "Oh, we're all into this special music we can make ourselves. Let's communicate this way."
Over and over, in different interviews, you've been saying "We're not fucking around anymore." Was Wolf Eyes fucking around before?
In a sense, yeah. There was a lot of experimenting live. Taking drugs and doing jams on the spot. Sometimes at the audience's expense. We were lost in a field of experimentation trying out a million things. You can only do that for so long. You get stuck in the same rut. But now, Jim, the new guy, he's not a jammer at all. We can make stuff that is riff-based and we can make shorter songs with a lot more parts. It's like a shorter train track with a lot more bells and whistles. All three of us are full-on gear heads now. Jim can tell you what kind of pickups Cliff Burton used. It's very much more about mechanics rather than blasting off to the cosmos and hoping the audience is still with you. We're sticking to the songs and getting into the power of composition and structure and stuff like that. Which is what Nate and I were doing in Stare Case. All this freeform stuff, you sort of just speak in some safety language and your vocabulary gets more and more limited.
So Stare Case was the initial foray into this new interest in musicality?
Me and Nate got tired of people just using texture and not having enough composition. How many dudes play noise, and you can say "Oh, that's wrong" or "That's right." When you actually get into scales and the power of notes and actually playing, to go back to vocabulary, you just have a lot more to say. Rather than just being stuck on texture and adjectives. It's like making a cake with too much sugar. Yeah, it tastes good, but it ain't enough. It's like reading blueprints rather than just walking away by yourself. Discipline. The more you know about music and how to play something wrong. A lot of people in experimental music, you tell them to play something wrong, and they can't. it's honing your chops and the discipline of things.
I notice a lot of sonic space on the new record.
Coltrane, he would play a flurry of notes and what would hang in the air was the chord. We took that approach a lot. You can throw a dart, but you gotta wait. You gotta throw one and let the weight of that guide the next one. Not always going forward. Letting things hang with momentum.
Is Wolf Eyes slowly becoming a rock band?
We've always been a rock band. Now we're what i call a trip metal band.
And at the same time you're playing trip metal, a great majority of what once constituted the noise scene has started playing one form or another of electronic dance music.
A lot of these cats digging into the techno trend don't seem to be too-well versed in the history of dance music and that culture. So what they're coming out with is on the wrong side of naive and amateur. It seems like a lame attempt to get more people to gigs. socialize the music instead of keeping it alien and abstract.
Is noise over?
Completely, 100 percent. That's part of why I'm quitting the label. All the categories, everything has run its course. The whole solo culture of it has invented a million people playing by themselves trying to be geniuses. You're getting a million one-way conversations.
Look Alive Fest, Day One. Friday, December 6. Churchill's Pub, 5501 NE Second Ave., Miami. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the show starts at 9 p.m. Admission costs $10. Complimentary Beck's beer is available to the first 100 guests with proper ID. Visit lookalivefest.com.
Look Alive Fest, Day Two. Saturday, December 7. Gramps, 176 NW 24th St., Miami. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the show starts at 9 p.m. Admission is free before 10 p.m. with RSVP via lookalivefest.com/rsvp_2013. Visit lookalivefest.com.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.