Words by Billy Beale
As 2016 draws to a close, the future looks pretty bleak. One album chooses to look back to the past for its inspiration. That album is Ruins, the latest record from folk rock academics Wolf People, who kindly managed to squeeze us in for a chat when they came to Birmingham’s Sunflower Lounge on 24th November.
(Ed’s… To read Billy’s BREVIEW of Wolf People at The Sunflower Lounge, click here)
Ruins marks a philosophical departure for the band. “Our last record [Fain from 2013] was more of a folk rock record. We made the arrangements more complex and, when you’re tired, had a couple of drinks to calm the nerves, the stuff from Fain is really hard to play live. We just wanted to have a bit of fun with this one and do some obvious, bigger riffs; shorter songs and simpler arrangements,” says guitarist Joe Hollick. He’s selling Ruins and the current live set very short, it’s a far cry from the ‘big, dumb riffs’ typical of boneheaded, testosterone-fulled, Spinal Tap hard rock. Theirs is a far more studied and sensitive approach.
Speaking of study, one gets the impression from Ruins that Wolf People are a group of clever musicians making smart music, but Hollick says this is them taking it easy. “Having played together so long, there’s stuff that we take for granted that might seem complex to other people. A lot of it has become second nature. ‘When The Fire Is Dead In The Grate’ off Fain is like ‘oh my god, this is like three songs in one with loads of quick changes and stuff’ Once you’ve learned how to do that, it’s fun to unlearn it and try different things. We’ve been listening to a lot of Iron Claw and it’s made us realise that, while we’re still young enough to make big fuzzy rock music, let’s try and just enjoy the power of simple riffs.”
Wolf People have an almost archivist approach to their many and varied influences. “We listen to a lot of gangsta rap in the van,” says Hollick with an expression that acknowledges how little it befits a folk rock band to be trundling down the motorway with a van full of vintage guitar gear, bobbing along to rap. “‘Ninth Night’ was influenced by a hip hop track by Pusha T called ‘Numbers On The Board’. Jack wrote the initial arrangement for that and was trying to copy the kind of pushed rhythm.”
Besides rap, there are some less surprising sources of inspiration for Wolf People’s sound. “Turkish stuff has always loomed large for this band, even going way back to ‘Tiny Circle’,” says bassist Dan Davies. Hollick expands: “Obviously, we’re influenced a lot by UK folk rock bands like Mighty Baby, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span but also – we don’t mention this enough – we’re into a lot of Turkish music. When we initially started, we were on a Finders Keepers offshoot and we got exposed to a lot of Anatolian music [Turkish psych rock from 1960s-70s] and guitarists.
“In particular, Erkin Koray and his fuzz sound and riffs are quite influential for our tracks like ‘Not Me Sir’, ‘Belong’ and ‘All Returns’ off the last record. It’s just the production quality of those records and the way they structure things. They’ll have this little vignette at the start that never really appears that often in the main song. There’s a beautiful melody, it’ll drop into a riff and it’ll break down again. Rather than verse/chorus, it’s a more interesting way to structure stuff.”
Hollick and Davies are very much at home discussing the arcane artists that have left their mark on Wolf People. Davies continues “Similarly, some of the other psych scenes like the Polish band Breakout, Hungarian Band Illés.” This love for the less popular side of 60s/70s psychedelic music is at the very core of the group, says Davies: “I heard that stuff through joining this band, Jack [Sharp, vocals and guitar] and Tom [Watt, drums] were already on the record collector scene from doing the Hip-Hop and sampling thing. Jack sent me this mix in the post that had all the artists we’ve talked about, plus stuff like Captain Beefheart, and I straight away knew this was a band I wanted to be in. Nobody was doing stuff like that. I was a bit jaded about music and then suddenly there was this whole new world out there.”
That was a long time ago, Wolf People in its current form has been going for 10 years so the new album and tour is something of a celebration for the band. Have their attitudes changed during that time? “The new record took three years to make, which is another way it feels different to Fain. We sort of worked at it and crafted it and it became its own thing. We’re proud of the previous albums but they were done with a sense of urgency. We’re all a bit older now, we wanted to get it right,” says Davies.
They’ve achieved a lot in their time together. One of Hollick’s standout moments was when they made it over to Europe for the first time. “We played a café in Brussels on our first European gig and all these people coming to shake your hand, really emotional, thanking you for coming over and we had no idea there was that reach, even in the age of the Internet. It was incredible.”
They’ve also filled some very prestigious support slots, including Tame Impala and Dungen. Davies recalls their first time supporting a major act: “We’d been in the studio for a couple of weeks when we got the call, it was not long after we’d been signed and Dinosaur Jr were on the same label. We pitched up at Koko in Camden after being away in the woods for a few weeks and it was a weird contrast.” Davies recalls it being a nerve-wracking gig that almost went very wrong. “It was quite shambolic, our little band setting up at a gig like that. When you’ve been in the countryside for a few weeks and suddenly you’re in that, it was a big step up for us. We had a terrible soundcheck and fucked up one of the songs we were supposed to be doing. We went backstage and had a sort of conference and we played really well after that and people liked it. It could so easily have gone the other way.”
One final achievement comes to mind for Hollick. “The other thing is that we’ve managed to keep it going. We’ve all got jobs and families and other lives. The fact that we’re still doing it.” So often do broken relationships, external influences and boring old practicality kill off bands but Wolf People have kept it up and are arguably one of the best live acts around today.
Ruins is a part of 2016’s musical landscape and it shares that space with everything else to come out this year. Some of Hollick’s favourite releases from this year include House in the Tall Grass from Kikagaku Moyo, Spagat der Liebe by Germany’s Klaus Johann Grobe and Dungen’s latest release Haxan. The ever-modest Hollick adds “I would say these bands share similar influences to Wolf People, but I would feel insecure regarding them as contemporaries as I think they are better than us.”
We are in the room next to a soundcheck that has just started in full force, so I thank Joe Hollick and Dan Davies for speaking with me and let them prepare for their performance. At this point, I am unaware as to just how good the live set is.
For more on Wolf People, visit www.wolfpeople.co.uk
For more from The Sunflower Lounge, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.thesunflowerlounge.com