Ten years ago this week, I was sitting on a broken-down chair underneath a 5-foot papier-mâché skull — staring down a motley collection of punks, freaks, errant frat folks and friends who had converged on an otherwise unassuming brick house in Ann Arbor’s student ghetto. It was Halloween. I was drunk. And suddenly, I had to command my limbs to play drums in time with organ and guitar. I was officially in a band.
Two hours and many butchered rock ’n’ roll cover tunes later I realized something very important: Halloween as I knew it would never be the same. Since then, Halloween has been a very special musical time for me (cue the strings). And, if my informal survey is correct, I’m not alone here.
Maybe it’s the impending cold. Maybe it’s the lingering psychic residue of years of Devil’s Nights that leaves one wanting to make a mess of things. The anonymity of costume? The overwhelming rush that comes with the mass consumption of sugar-coated sugar bombs with sugar on top? The darkness that reminds you the bogeyman might not be just a Jungian metaphor? All of this and then some.
But whether you’re talking about Alice Cooper, ICP or Count Scary, one thing’s certain: Halloween in Detroit’s a beast of its own breed.
“I’ve never lived anywhere else, so I can’t really say [why Halloween’s such a big deal],” says Aaron Dilloway, one-third of Ann Arbor-based rock experimenters Wolf Eyes.
“Devil’s Night seems like a big deal. When I was a kid I thought every city had Devil’s Night. I didn’t know it was primarily a Detroit thing. They call it Angel’s Night now though, huh? That’s funny.”
That distorted sine wave of a robotic lupine howl you’ll hear coming from Ann Arbor’s Blind Pig this Halloween night will be the sound of Wolf Eyes ringing out the harvest season.
Wolf Eyes embody everything that is strange, wonderful and idiosyncratic about music made in these parts. Now, there’s nothing overtly Halloween-y (snicker, snicker) about Wolf Eyes’ music. But it does favor a fevered, locked-down basement atmosphere that suggests mad scientists, full moons and the beauty of nature’s cyclical, er, nature, mugging technology of its obsolescence in the service of art. And if we want to keep this column in lock-step with the Hallow-theme, Wolf Eyes’ music is as do-it-yourself as a homemade hobo or vampire costume, a ghost made from a sheet, or more appropriately, a duct tape-and-cardboard robot.
Indeed, according to Dilloway, his rural Michigan upbringing made him work that much harder to connect with a music culture that made sense to him.
“Growing up in a small town like Brighton helped me dig harder for more interesting stuff,” he explains. “Because what was out there in front of my face seemed pretty boring. It’s like ‘there’s got to be more than this.’
“So I ended up finding out about punk mail-order companies like Toxic Shock by reading ads in the back of Hit Parader. And living out on a farm with no cable TV or anything, maybe that helped me figure out early on what I liked myself, whereas kids in big cities seem to have things shoved down their throats.”
Wolf Eyes was formed in 1997 by former rural Michigander Nate Young (who’s also in the DIY-electro group Nautical Almanac) and brought Dilloway on board in 1998 and renaissance sound savant John Olson (also of Universal Indians) in 2000. They let their freak flag fly from the very start, releasing dozens of recordings and leaving a trail of documentation that spans the vast spooky reaches of the avant-electro-rock galaxy. They share a puckish headspace with such current artists as 25 Suaves, Magas, The Locusts and — most commercially successful of all — former Ann Arborite Andrew WK (with whom the members of Wolf Eyes have worked).
This is a space where rock ’n’ roll serves merely as the host body for the ongoing assimilation of other musics, sciences, sounds and cultures via homemade, jury-rigged and purposefully broken musical technology. In Wolf Eyes’ case, the musics likely ingested were dub, metal, John Cage and industrial ga-ga like Suicide and Throbbing Gristle.
In other words, even though they share the same underlying approach to breaking down barriers, don’t expect to catch Wolf Eyes’ music in a Target commercial anytime soon.
“Personally, I think it would be pretty funny if Wolf Eyes reached mass popularity,” says Dilloway. “It’d be pretty hilarious to see teenage girls all over wearing T-shirts with dead rats on them. Ha! Don’t really see it happening soon.”
As for the effect their music does have on the people that have discovered Wolf Eyes, well, Dilloway defers to a certain area photog extraordinaire and über-music gadfly: “Doug Coombe says that we are a ‘Musical Rorschach Test’ Ha!”
“We have fun and goofy violent reactions where beer is spit, things are yelled, people are pushed, and chairs are thrown,” says Dilloway. “We also get reactions of confusion, boredom, excitement, disinterest, inspiration, fear, joy and just about any other reaction you can get.”
Perhaps Detroit’s foremost Halloween evangelists are the gentlemen responsible for noise outfit Princess Dragonmom.
Every year PDM’ers Davin Brainard, Warn Defever, Ronald (PDM’s Dutch member) and Scott Goldstein erect the Haunted Tube, a one-day art-noise installation-cum-haunted house that has become a scary ritual around here since its debut at Alvin’s on Halloween 1996. The Tube was installed last weekend at CPOP and, fear not, it will make its return same time next year.
“I’m bummed that I’m going to miss the Wolf Eyes show. This will be the first Halloween that I haven’t been in Michigan,” says Brainard.
The Tube, in case you missed it, is an immersive spook-house that uses white noise where the cheesy local haunted houses use strobe lights, strange squishy things instead of chainless chainsaws. You crawl in one end at the behest of the Devil’s Robot and get helped out the other end by the Unqualified Zombie Nurse.
“(Former PDM member) Kenny [Mugwump] and I worked at a Jaycees haunted house one year,” explains Brainard, “and we couldn’t believe how lawless it was behind the scenes!
“They didn’t put us through training and tell us ‘don’t punch people’ or whatever, they basically showed us the room with the masks and set us free in the haunted house. It’s such a power trip waiting in the darkness for people to come down the hall — it’s so easy to scare them,” he says.
“One of the things we learned was that volume scares people. You can jump out at people all you want, but if you have a loud noise, people really jump.”
The next year, PDM wanted to get involved with the Jaycees, but the Jaycees didn’t need any help. So the PDM gang got a bunch of refrigerator boxes and someone came up with the name Haunted Tube.
A lot of haunted houses rely on visuals, but the Haunted Tube is decidedly un-visual.
“The inside has a lot to with volume, and physical stuff,” says Brainard. In the early days we wanted the inside of the tube to look good, but it was just lost.”
The Haunted Tube has even made the leap across the pond. It’s appeared in the Dutch gallery Artis and at a major retrospective of works by PDM’s hero Hieronymus Bosch in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
But if Brainard and company have their way, that’s just the beginning.
“We had a dream about getting the Tube involved with a marketing campaign in Europe, sponsored by a candy company to get people in Europe turned on to Halloween,” Brainard says only half-jokingly.
“It makes sense. For the candy companies, it’s totally their biggest holiday and we’re trying to bring Halloween to people ’cause it’s the funnest holiday of all,” he continues.
“Everybody has Halloween stories to tell and silly pictures of themselves as Spiderman!”
Or, in some cases, vague memories of passing out underneath a giant skull at four in the morning wondering what happened to simple trick-or-treating. The holidays are truly the most wonderful time of the year. Awoooooooo!
Wolf Eyes performs with Ectomorph and Carlos Souffront perform Oct. 31 at the Blind Pig (208 First St., Ann Arbor). Bring a costume. For information, call 734-996-8555.Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]