Interview with Wolf Eyes
We talked to Aaron Dilloway and Nate Young of Ann Arbor’s Wolf Eyes the morning of their set, with John Olson sticking his head in at interview’s end. Wolf Eyes shouldn’t need introduction—they’re the biggest fish in this small shaking pond, or the small fish in a steadily seeping pond (a one-off on Sub Pop comes out in a few months). But it’s not like their music’s getting any easier. Harsh howls and loops (and gongs) against all kinds of silence as negative space—there’s song structure there, but it’s architectural. And if the kids decide they prefer skeletal face-rip noise ugly to distended false-metal nu-rock ugly, who’s to blame ’em?
Ben Tausig: How did Mini-Systems become Wolf Eyes?
Aaron Dilloway: I wouldn’t say it necessarily became Wolf Eyes. It was just electronics. That’s a good enough reason. Because before that none of us really played any electronics, it was just guitars and weird mics hooked up to shit.
Nate Young: We hardly even knew how to patch a fucking guitar cord together. Man, we knew jack shit. I remember the first time someone showed me how. He was like, ‘Yeah, you take this wire and connect it to this wire and it does this.’ I was stoked. I hooked up a siren and almost burned down his house.
BT: And when did you start building stuff?
NY: Nautical Almanac. We were on tour. The first tour I ever did with Nautical. The end of the tour, we got stuck in New Orleans, and we couldn’t get our shit back. I had a guitar and stuff.
AD: And the van broke down, right?
NY: The van, and the tour just disassembled once we got to Orleans. All my equipment got stranded down there, so I made it back up to Michigan and I was just waiting for my equipment in the mail forever, nothing was coming, nothing’s coming, so I just made do with what was around. Little shitty keyboards were accessible and easy to find, and little radios and shit. Then I started actually messing with them, taking them apart. I was just like, Way more interesting than playing guitar. It was actually everything I was trying to do on the guitar. Just lots of squeaks. It worked out. If it wasn’t for that…
The weird about it is that the same thing happened to the other member in the Mini-Systems. He was on that tour too, Tony, and the same thing happened, and he called me up and he’s like, “Hey man, we got to get together and jam. I’m working on some really weird stuff.” I was living in a trailer at the time in the back of my parents’ place and he came over and he had the exact replica of what I had made. Well, it didn’t look the same, but it was the exact same components. We started jamming. Somewhere along the line, when the mail lady pulled up and the trailer was rocking back and forth, someone yelled out, “The Mini-Systems,” and that was how that happened. The Trailer Jam, that’s the first Mini-Systems.
BT: Have you also built stuff, Aaron?
AD: I can’t really build shit. I just mess with tapes mostly, and Nate makes me little gadgets every now and then.
Sam Frank: Was that your box on stage? The thing you were playing last night.
AD: That’s all 8-track tape loops, and cassette recorders that Nate made and put pitch knobs on for me, and then a little oscillator thing that Nate made for me.
NY: Me and John made. It’s a collabo.
AD: John made it. It broke. Then Nate fixed it.
NY: John’s a little more primitive of an electronic style. He uses a lot of bubblegum, still.
AD: To keep stuff together
SF: Are you going for particular sounds from the stuff you build, or are you just doing new wiring things
NY: You know pretty much what you’re going to get out of a lot of machines. There’s very few machines that you don’t know what you’re going to get out of them. Those are the ones that are really interesting, but those are the ones that are really frustrating, because there’ll be a hundred thousand sounds, and only five of them are good. The original Wolf Eyes setup was like that. I take a radio, I know what it’s going to do.
SF: Why do you choose to build on a new thing?
NY: It’s kind of my craft. It’s what I enjoy doing. And at the same time I’ve been trying to build the ultimate instrument. I’m not that much into just the object, the art object side. I am, but it’s more so about building the ultimate instrument. And that’s the funny thing—they end up sounding just like a regular synthesizer. But it’s like, “I made it! All my ideas!”
BT: What is the ultimate instrument?
NY: You got me, man. I’m still working on it.
AD: An eight-track player.
NY: I asked him the other day. I was like, ‘What would be the coolest thing to play?’ He was like—
AD: A tower of eight-track players.
NY: He described his setup.
AD: I totally did.
NY: It’s like, “Two eight-track players, a couple tape players.”
AD: An oscillator.
NY: That’s what all our stuff’s like. It’s just oscillations. Making something feedback. Pretty much all that I work with nowadays. I don’t really do much of the soothing circuit bit [?] sounds per se.
SF: You guys still screw around on the guitar or anything?
SF: You still practice, like, every day?
AD: The only time I play guitar is when we’re practicing or playing a show. I never sit down and play guitar.
SF: Do you process it or anything?
AD: No, just try to get as much feedback and distortion as possible. Don’t really do too much to it.
SF: You guys record every practice session, all the time?
AD: Most stuff.
NY: I’d say about seventy percent of them get recorded. Seventy percent of shows get recorded by us or by someone else.
SF: For release, do you end up editing them down?
AD: Usually John [Olson] takes them—he’ll take tapes of shows and practices—and collage them, add effects to them. That’s what most of the American Tapes releases are.
SF: When you’re doing something a little more official, like a Bulb thing or the Troubleman thing?
AD: We’ve only done one thing for Bulb. No, I guess we’ve done two. Both of those are reissues of things we’ve done ourselves.
SF: Is Sub Pop going to be any different?
AD: The stuff I put out on Hanson is mostly live to Mini-Disc, with a little bit of manipulation after recording. And most of John’s stuff is all collage, more lo-fi stuff.
NY: We try to keep the Troubleman release, all those thousand-plus releases—we try to keep those true to our live sound, so it’s more song-oriented, but I don’t know if you want to call it a song.
BT: What about the Sub Pop record?
AD: Same thing.
NY: What’s interesting about that record is that it’s really every idea we’ve been working on for a long time, at once, so there’s a lot of aspects of American Tapes shit, Hanson shit, squished in there.
SF: So do you spend a long time on songwriting, arranging, or doing stuff over and over again until it’s done?
NY: We really do. The funny thing is, we’ve been working—I guess it’s pretty typical for average musicians, but not really for noise dudes, to work on a song for a year and a half. You know, finally, I just finished writing the lyrics for “Stabbed in the Face.” And up until then I did not sing anything. I just would growl and snarl. Finally got it done, and it still sounds the same. It’s just now I know there’s lyrics. It takes us a while to get a jam right.
SF: Counting syllables, scanning the meter?
NY: Oh, totally.
AD: We played that song for a year before we recorded it, just like a lot of songs. A lot of songs will get dumped—we’ll play live, on tours, but just never get recorded.
SF: On the record it’ll just be a tape with a little bit of stuff over the top, or are you going to crunch takes together?
AD: The Sub Pop record. It’s half songs, half jamming.
NY: It’s not a whole lot of cut-ups. It’s pretty much all live source material. Funny thing, though: With the ideas of the other aspects of our other labels, American Tapes and Hanson—we have those ideas and we’re trying to really represent everything, not just a straight take of songs. It’s going to be our biggest release yet, so we really wanted it so people understand, you know, a little bit more. It’s not just all gnarly. (But it is.) There’s breaks, where things get quiet.
SF: So much of your stuff is so limited. Do you have a sense of how something that has real distro will do—of what your audience is like?
NY: We have no idea. And every time we play New York, we play festivals, or just with other bands that are really big. That’s the norm for us—we have no idea what our audience really is like, except for our friends. That’s what we consider our audience to be, just our friends. And it pretty much is. Everyone that’s at these shows—I probably know seventy percent. I lost my voice two nights in a row, just saying hi.
SF: If somebody came up to you and said—like they did to Andrew WK or something—“Here’s $100,000, here’s a 96-track studio,” would you be able to use that? Would you be interested in doing something really massive and composed?
NY: That’s pretty much what Sub Pop did for us. They’re like, “Here’s three grand. Buy yourself a computer. “
AD: Go for it.
NY: We recorded in a studio, did demos, with a really good friends of ours.
AD: Weren’t supposed to be demos, but it’s really hard for us to work in a studio. It just didn’t come out right.
NY: The songs weren’t written yet, either.
AD: We took bits and piece from that stuff, took it home, and reworked it.
NY: I love recording. The funnest thing for us is just recording the jams, just jamming. Really a lot more fulfilling than the tedious fucking—well, I guess it’s what everybody does, I find it tedious—writing songs. I’d rather just jam nowadays.
BT: Does that ever turn into songs?
NY: It does, that’s the thing. All of a sudden you’re stuck in a song. You’re like, “Wait, this doesn’t sound right.”
SF: What did Andrew WK do when he played with you guys? I’ve heard various things, that he used to be in Wolf Eyes.
AD: He never really played with us. When Nate and I first started playing together—Nate did Wolf Eyes for a little while by himself, and then when I started playing with him is when Andrew moved here [to New York], and we talked on the phone a lot and bounced ideas off each others’ heads. He would record a bunch of stuff called Wolf Eyes and send it to us, so we have all these tapes that say “Wolf Eyes” and have all these song titles, but it’s all Andrew.
NY: He had another branch of Wolf Eyes going. He considered it a theory.
BT: As articulated in [Andrew’s zine] Wolf Slicer.
AD: Yeah, yeah. Then we moved out to play with him, be his backup band, when he first started writing all the songs that ended up on his first record. But he was way more just going for his own thing, and we were doing our own thing, and it didn’t quite…
NY: I learned to play “Party Till You Puke” on bass. He was like, “That’s good, man. This is going to work out.”
SF: You make any record collectors really mad when American Tapes puts out something in an edition of 22? Do they get all pissy?
AD: Not really. John’s got a couple dudes that are fucking psycho and need to have everything. I lived with the guy and I didn’t even get everything. It’s like, “Fuck! Those are gone already?”
SF: Does John have any particular idea behind keeping them that limited, or does he just not want to dub that many?
AD: It’s just how many tapes he has around at the time. It’s just what he does in his spare time. Record, fucking spray paint, fucking draw.
BT: How do you feel when some of the more limited things sell on eBay for a bunch of money?
AD: It’s weird. We’re going to be reissuing a lot of that stuff—our favorite ones. It’s cool, I guess. It sucks that a kid has to spend forty bucks to get this tape. But if they’re happy with it, cool.
NY: I consider it pretty cheap. I think they should be paying more. John just raised his prices and I congratulated him.
[Tape gap. Nate says something about how American Tapes is John’s art, and he should get paid a little fairly for it, art-type prices. Then Aaron talking about when John worked in antique shop and what his releases were like then] …fucking lacquer shit. He made these crazy, giant objects, eight of them. I remember seeing them at his old house, and I'd like to see it again after all these years. Goddamn, man, I wish you would do stuff like that again. Absurd, amazing things.
NY: You know what has really come out of these people paying a lot of money for American Tapes, for the limited material, is that there's really a lot of quality control now. Realizing that people might have to pay forty bucks to check out this tape, we want to make sure that tape's really good, and worth it. That lathe cut we just did, we just did a hand cut. We did a couple before, and they didn't even sound that good. It was just an object, a souvenir. Some kid's gonna get that and be so bummed out. "I paid this much for this?" We're trying to make everything a lot more high quality. Not to say it hasn't been in the past—but those hand cuts were a little rough.
BT: What about records cut onto CDs?
AD: Those were done in maybe '94, '95.
NY: I acquired a record cutter back then, a little tiny '40s Dictaphone. You couldn't fit a seven-inch size. What the fuck? Do it on CD. It sounded really good, actually. I had to hold my finger actually on the needle to cut deep enough, pretty painful. It took a long time.
SF: Are you going for a big fucking scary sound? Are you going for anything in particular in your music? What makes you say, "This is good"?
NY: It needs to sound big and I hate to say evil, but I want it to sound kind of scary. With the Mini-Systems, Pterodactyls, we've gone the goofy end of stuff, we've been there and back, and we never really checked out really scary shit. Now people react to it a lot more intensely.
AD: The scary shit's goofy too. You look at us on stage, and we're just, fucking, three retards up there.
NY: Even on Dread, you'll be hearing these spooky sounds, and all of a sudden you'll hear an elephant go hawwww. What?!?
SF: Is it what gets a strong reaction from you?
AD: It's not a reaction. It's just our own personal tastes. The records I like to check out are—they're heavy—doom rock shit and fucking Halloween records.
BT: When you title a record, is it just a certain word, like mugger, that's evocative, or does it actually have anything to do with the record?
NY: They're cool.
John Olson: A lot better than flowers.
NY: Exactly. We'd rather sing about skulls and knives than about flowers and candy. We had a game called Rain of Terror. We used to play it every once in a while. Grab a big chunk of rock, throw it up in the air.
AD: It was a scary game down by the railroad tracks. Throw a bunch of rocks in the air, run away, try not to get hit. That's where one of our song titles came from.
By Dusted Magazine