Noise is for heroes

Oct 20, 2004 at 12:00 am

It’s 11:30 on a chilly Friday night and some guy called Roach — all 6 feet 2 inches and 200-plus pounds of him — is furiously clicking a computer mouse in vain, trying to get Slayer’s “Angel of Death” to stop blasting through the speakers. Big, loud speakers that dominate this 7-by-11-foot concrete room just off the college strip in Ypsilanti. See, thing is, Nate Young, one-third of Ann Arbor’s acclaimed noiseniks Wolf Eyes, is presently hunkered down over a handful of hard-wired scraps of metal and retro-fitted machinery as 25 sets of open ears gather to drink, smoke and generally bask in the aural throb that Young is attempting to lay down, volume knobs turned to 11. His back is crooked to the effort, and his right index finger is covered in black electrical tape — a makeshift Band-Aid to stem the blood that started flowing when he cut himself scratching a dub reggae record on a portable toy turntable.

The lights are off save for an asteroid ceiling lamp. The tables in the room are covered in half-built homemade instruments and rewired electronics, and the walls boast an equal number of girlie glamour shots and Young’s macabre, goth-abstract pen-and-ink works. Squat gents in camo jackets bob their heads knowingly, and a handful of thrift-store fashionable ladies converse in the far corner. A wan fella with shoulder-length sandy brown hair looks askance at the entire proceedings as he smokes another bummed cigarette.

A little more than an hour earlier, the same computer was screening an impromptu audiovisual mash-up of slow motion archival footage of skinheads gone wild on Geraldo Rivera (you know, the episode that saw his nose broken) set to the tune of Wolf Eyes’ alternately pulsing and blasting new indie-hit single “Stabbed in the Face.”

“You think Sub Pop would go for this?” John Olson is asking the gathered, a rubber Halloween mask propped over his unruly mane and thick black-framed glasses.

Wolf Eyes’ guitar player and tape mangler Aaron Dilloway is concerned that some ignorant fools might misread into the clip a racist message, thus ending for now the discussion.

All of this is going down in Wolf Eyes’ rehearsal/recording space — a suite of disused offices and clinic spaces in an abandoned blood bank that the band shares with independent printing operation VG Kids (for which Wolf Eyes member John Olson toils by day).

When one imagines the life of a band that has recently returned from an 18-day tour with Sonic Youth (who are fans of Wolf Eyes), playing in front of thousands, whose new album is on a major indie label that is part owned by corporate giant Warner Brothers records, this is likely not the scenario. But Wolf Eyes’ is hardly your garden-variety rock band. Their sound simply assaults the ears. What’s remarkable is how kids are picking up on it and enjoying it.

Wolf Eyes started to coalesce in 1997 when Young quit his spot in Baltimore-based psych-noise band Nautical Almanac and, simultaneously, tired of the experiments he was conducting as one-half of Ypsi electronic act Mini-Systems.

“Mini-Systems was music played with toys, like, ‘Hey, you can make this toy telephone or whatever make all these cool noises!’” says Young.

“But eventually, I kinda got tired of how small it sounded, I wanted to make, you know, louder music,” he says, laughing.

Young had been working on a homemade patch-synth — a jerry-rigged synthesizer he could bend to his idiosyncratic will — and had started experimenting with making instruments from bits of other broken instruments.

“You know, some people pick up a guitar, other people make their own instruments,” Young says by way of explanation. “It was nothing more than playing rock with the instruments at hand. People are always trying to ask why I started by playing with this stuff and it’s no different than someone who picks up a Stratocaster or whatever. No different at all,” he says, waving his hand dismissively.

But the sounds he was making were certainly not the standard verse-chorus-verse/boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl. Still, it was rock ’n’ roll as practiced by a twentysomething who grew up with a healthy dose of Michigan autumn night chill in his veins.

Brighton native Dilloway, in the meantime, was busy playing guitar and processing sounds for Ann Arbor collective Galen. He had retired his spot in the recently defunct Tree Town noise rock pioneers Couch.

“I heard he was doing some stuff, and one day he invited me over to play some guitar on some shit,” says Dilloway of his recruitment into the Wolf Eyes fold.

And, according to both Young and Dilloway, they were trying to conjure some alternate-reality version of glam rock.

“We were listening to a lot of Sweet and Gary Glitter,” Young says .

When Dilloway first started collaborating with Young, that’s exactly what he was rocking on the six-string — glitter rock chords over homemade electronic throb and squall.

In fact, when the two were performing as the Michigan Wolverines at the Record Collector in Livonia (at one of that store’s frequent after-hours noise freak-out sessions), they recruited Olson and Ann Arbor free-jazz blower Wade Kergan to blast along on saxophone. (Dilloway and Olson were playing together in Universal Indians — a free-noise-improv-psych-whatever trio that also included current Terror at the Opera member Gretchen Gonzales.)

“We were blowing, like honky tonk,” says Olson, as he launches into a “whomp, whoomp-whomp” sonic recollection.

“But the beat we were trying to ride was this real Gary Glitter thing,” says Young, “like boom-pa-ba-boom.”

Eventually the three found each other and a mutual love of inflicting voluminous noise, creating moody, broody atmospherics and rocking out until all hours of the evening. The trio bonded, Wolf Eyes was born.

“At the time … there were a ton of places to play in Detroit, in like 2000 or around then,” Olson says , talking about the downtown rock scene. “Everyone was doing something different every weekend. Everybody was playing with everybody else.”

More than 100 records later — the band releases nearly everything they record in some form or another — Wolf Eyes has seen the audience for its sound grow as ears have become tired of the rote guitar ’n’ drums stylings foisted upon them by so much rock ’n’ roll revivalism.

In Wolf Eyes’ music one will hear the postindustrial anti-groove as laid down by Genesis P. Orridge and early Throbbing Gristle, the clanging through empty city streets and abandoned buildings of Einstürzende Neubauten and the bleak moodiness of thick-gauge death metal.

While Wolf Eyes’ stylistic reach dives into the depths of industrial machine groove, it also stretches up to the heights of freedom offered by the band’s beloved free jazz improvisation.

And, along the way, there are jaunts through Jamaica via the headtrips of Lee Perry and Augustus Pablo. The Wolf Eyes sound owes quite a bit to dub’s sense of untamed space and bong-rattled time. In fact, the band’s love of Caribbean sounds met its proclivity for macabre imagery with their punnily titled 2002 full-length Dread.

“I think our music has very strong ties to both [free jazz and dub],” Dilloway says. “Around the time John joined the band we were listening to a ton of reggae and dub stuff. Now looking back I can see the influence it had on our Dread LP. The title of that itself was kind of an in-joke on how much reggae we were listening to.

“As far as jazz goes,” he continues, “we all had been into free jazz long before the band started. I think our jam style is very similar to that of free jazz musicians whereas we do play songs, but every time we play them we take them to different places. Our favorite music though is early noise music. The records of bands like Whitehouse and the New Blockaders are very important to us.”

“You know, everybody’s always trying to define what it is we do, like assign some importance to it or whatever,” Young says, half smirking/sneering, strands of chin-length black hair sneaking toward the Winston he’s smoking.

“It’s noise, but it’s rock.”

And a couple years ago, Wolf Eyes’ path almost changed dramatically. Before the release of Andrew WK’s major label party anthem landmark, “I Get Wet,” the former Ann Arborite (and former Wolf Eyes’ labelmate on BulbRecords) WK tapped his buds Dilloway and Young to act as part of his backing band. And it almost worked. Almost.

“We went to New York and practiced with him, and he even sent us some jams as Wolf Eyes too, but in the end, New York was too much. We’re Michigan dudes,” Dilloway says.

A few years of slugging it out on the club ’n’ basement circuit playing for anyone, anytime they were called upon to do so, Wolf Eyes can now draw a startling 700 people to their Big Apple shows. Stunning because it is some of the most confrontational music a bunch of leather-clad Williamsburg hipsters could hope to encounter, much less endure.

What, you may ask, do Wolf Eyes’ throbbing, haunted night sound tracks have to with WK’s party anthems and general “up with people” ethos?

“They’re the same energy, the same feeling,” Dilloway says, “except he sings about girls and we have songs like ‘Urine Burn.’” (Incidentally, about the latter, Dilloway describes the title’s genesis as his idle wondering what it would be like if you peed acid that burned your pants off. Light listening for curious minds.)

Michigan, of course, is no stranger to the joys of noise. Hell, it wouldn’t be a stretch to connect the Stooges’ strain of post-industrial punk and techno’s mechanical minimalism to the undercurrent of squall and skronk that’s bubbled up from the Detroit underground for the past 30 years. This is the city that gave the world the assembly line and, as such, Detroit owes it to the world to crank out not only the rhythmic beat, but also the endless grind. And Wolf Eyes, in many respects, is the latest in a long and distinguished line of noisemakers who connect the Motor City to other unhinged sonic hotspots like San Francisco, Tokyo and Berlin.

Detroit’s offered an unbroken string in this earplugs-necessary arena of rock’s outer fringes. From the artful holler of the post-Stooges Destroy All Monsters to latter-day pranksters like Princess Dragonmom and their feedback-soundtrack’d “alien autopsy” performances; from the melancholy drone of space-rock bands like Medusa Cyclone and Windy & Carl to their haunted atmospheric progeny like Mammal; from the hardcore howl of Negative Approach to edgy out-rock spazzes like Couch and, as of late, Tamion 12-inch, Human Eye and the Wolfman Band (what is it with wolves, anyway?).

In this context, Wolf Eyes is one of the wilder members of a pretty large pack.

Add to the Wolf Eyes mystique that rock and/or roll hasn’t really scared parents in a long time. Thankfully, Wolf Eyes is among the bands that are changing that. Sure, metal has always struck a nerve with the parental set, but over the last 10 years, it’s become self-parody just as it’s splintered into sonic factions too numerous to list. Punk rock is a commodity. Hip hop has seemingly resorted to a strategy of either diminishing creative returns or underground cred-waving. So the front lines of independent rock ’n’ roll are left wide open to the assault of a new kind of hardcore — namely, noise.

Hardcore, when it first burst open the jugular of punk in the early ’80s, was tribal, cathartic and adhered to its own set of seemingly monastic, quasi-violent rules. The new wave of noise is just as self-sustaining and just as navel-gazing in its own set of edicts and culture. But there are more than a few bands that have popped up — among them the rockier edge of Providence Rhode Island’s Lightning Bolt, the heavy-heavy sludge of SunO))) and, in the third pincer of the attack, the horror-heavy, piercing abstract rock of Wolf Eyes. Don’t believe this music is getting a toehold in the collective imagination of the kids? After 140 cassettes, CDRs, singles and “legit” releases (many of which have found the light of day under the imprint of either Dilloway’s Hanson Records or Olson’s long-running cassette-only venture American Tapes), Wolf Eyes has recently released their first records on labels that get coverage in the mainstream press on a regular basis. Last year’s three-song opus of fear and menace, Dead Hills, came out on Brooklyn’s über-hip indie Troubleman Unlimited. And they recently inked a one-off deal with Seattle’s Sub Pop records. That a band so musically feral and unhampered by music biz convention could end up stars of a stalwart major indie is one of those anomalies that can renew your faith in the spirit of independent music.

The Sub Pop “deal” happened in passing, according
to Olson.

“One day we were just talking to the dude who would become our guy at Sub Pop [label head Andy Kotowitz], and he’s a Michigan dude, and he said, ‘You should do a record for Sub Pop.’ We were just like, ‘Yeah, all right,’” recalls Olson.

So they did.

The Sub Pop album, Burned Mind, just hit store shelves. In August, the label released a 12-inch single (“Stabbed in the Face”) and as fast as the records were pressed, they were sold. An astonishing 2,500 copies were snapped up before word got out that the record had even been released.

But who’s buying this stuff? Well, the disenchanted younger brothers of rock hipsters, for one. Kids who embody the hardcore alienation of youth without embracing pop music’s forms. (Plus, a bunch of jaded aging rockers looking for a new kind of kick.) And it’s connecting for exactly the reason that it’s alienating — Wolf Eyes’ music is uncompromising and heeds its own muse and Young, Dilloway and Olson are damn near monastic in following their sonic instincts. And the kids can smell it on ’em (just as, no doubt, Sub Pop could). Sure, the market for harsh noise, no matter how well-made, is relatively small. But right now, Wolf Eyes is the kind of “no compromise” commodity at which at least a good-sized pack of kids are looking to howl.

The world’s in desperate straits. And that calls for extreme sound tracks. If a tool like Bush gets re-elected, can we expect a lot more where Wolf Eyes came from? The answer is yes. What’s funny is the band is nonplussed by this affirmation of its growing popularity.

The heart of the Wolf Eyes phenomenon is their galvanizing live show. On a dimmed stage cluttered with gear that’s homemade, retooled and store-bought, the three men share the unseen bond common to bands that have been tried in the fire of live performance and tempered by spending countless hours together in vans criss-crossing the country and playing to crowds that range in number from 20 to, lately, thousands.

Onstage, Young is, indeed, the alpha male of the pack, glowering and maintaining an air of menace even as he performs such simple tasks as moving a finger to hit a button or drag a piece of metal across another. Lanky, aloof and with a mischievous look in his, indeed, somewhat lupine visage, he conducts the affair. Dilloway, perched behind a stack of tape decks and, as often as not with a guitar strapped around his neck as though an afterthought, something he might need in a pinch, is intense, focused and oddly boyish in the context of the piercing shrieks and pitch-black tones the band busies itself coaxing.

But the lightning rod of the group when they’re in front of chin-scratchers, rockers and antipathetic audiences, is Olson. He seems to feed not only off his beat counterparts in their binary exhalations, but he also moves to an ecstatic inner voice, raising his hands in the air, fists clenched like he just scored the winning goal. He wears a shit-eating grin on his face, egging the crowd to shout, “Go! More! A-wooo!” or, occasionally, soaking in the “you suck” and throwing it back at the audience processed through his own stack of machines. And often he just dives into the crowd.

On the Sonic Youth tour, Olson had a serious accident with a mace that he wasn’t quite accustomed to wielding (however facetiously) and required staples in his head when he clocked himself onstage with it.

“It was like, ‘Ooooohhh, check out the crazy guy with the mace,’” Olson chuckles. “Then one night I was swinging it and it just hit me and was like, ‘Ouch, damn, that hurt!’ but I kept playing. Then I saw Dilloway just pointing and grinning, and he never does that. Then everything went red and the security dudes were handing me towels and everything’s all red. Just red everywhere. The ER people were looking at me like I was some drug addict.” (It just so happened that the doctor who eventually treated him was a Sonic Youth fan).

“You just get into some serious right-brain shit when you’re up there,” says Olson of his on-stage persona. “I just feel complete and total joy. Like you know everything is in its place and you’re in total command of your instruments.

“You know that at the touch of a button, you can blow people back 10 feet!” adds Young.

“It’s like, the ground is level,” continues Olson, holding his hand straight out in front of him, “but you know that you have the ability to tip it so everyone’s off balance.” He continues tilting his hand to a 45-degree angle and grinning.

But when there’s a critical mass of kids, swaying to the band’s bass-heavy compositions, a sort of alchemy happens that rarely does at standard-issue rock shows anymore: The kids actually participate. They sway and run into one another; they grin back at Olson; fists are pumped in the air at particularly opportune blasts and syncopated squeals. In short, when it’s working, audience and band bond.

“I think we all grew up seeing bands or at least seeing tapes of bands where there was that participation, and we want that. We try to create that,” Dilloway says.

“We have a few chin-scratchers,” Young says, “but not many. …”

“But we’re not playing to make people angry,” Olson says. “We’re playing to have fun.”

And that’s apparently infectious.

Earlier this year, when the band toured with Sonic Youth for three weeks, they met up with proof that they were doing something right in the form of M.A.N. — Mothers Against Noise — a group of middle-aged mothers picketing outside a California venue.

If that sounds like a throwback group, you’re not far off, to hear Olson tell the story:

“We pulled up to the venue in San Diego and there’s all these women outside with M.A.N signs. And (Sonic Youth’s) Thurston (Moore) was like, ‘That’s not for us, dude. That’s for you.’”

So Olson, of course, went over to talk to them.

“They were just tired of their kids going deaf from listening to really, really loud music,” Olson says. “It was that simple.

“So we talked, and they asked what it was that we did, and in the end, I said, ‘It’s just like Chuck Berry.’” He pauses, smiles, and says, “And really, it is.”


Wolf Eyes is currently in Sweden and next performs locally Nov. 20, with Psychic TV at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward, Detroit). Call 313-933-9700 for info.

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]