Two Sides of the Beast

16 Mar

WOLF PEOPLE‘s Tidings LP (Jagjaguwar Records, 2010) is out, and what a heavy temporal trip it is. Recorded primarily by WOLF PEOPLE leader Jack Sharp over nearly half a decade, it documents the pre-history of his current band in homemade, quilted fashion. The sound is a kind of hermetically sealed and delicately wrought English psych/prog, comparable in approach to the earliest BEVIS FROND records. Jack renders things economically with the assistance of a few choice friends, a stack full of scratchy old LPs, and an assortment of vintage instrumentation. Some songs are honed to fine points, jousting out of the speakers like lost Roger Chapman & FAMILY demos; others are rough sketches that fragment and/or coalesce in beautiful ÄLGARNAS TRÄDGÅRD dislocation; still others meander quietly in the background, lilting on the periphery of collective folk memory for weeks after. It’s a really intimate, beautiful statement that, while steeped in the rock forms of another generation, is imagined and executed in ways only thoroughly modern cats could, circa 2010.

But studio creations like this do have their limitations, since absolutely nothing can top the cathartic rush of seeing a great live band, doing it in real time. And WOLF PEOPLE, today, are doing just that. Recent gigs have been phenomenal, demonstrating a refined sense of musical interplay that’s moved far beyond any of their waxed evidence to date. TELEVISION comparisons remain the most apt, with the anxious, Richard Lloyd-like freakouts of gtrist Joe Hollick acting as a foil for the Tom Verlainesque pose of Jack himself. But then, there’s that hardened rhythm section powering it all – Daniel Davies’ fat, upfront bass lines and chordage (shades of Jack Casady!) meshing powerfully with Tom Watt’s faceflattening drumming. Taken in toto, the whole concoction bowls me over every goddamn time.

I wanted to know more about this two-sided beast, and decided to do something about it. As there are already a few interviews with Jack Sharp floating around the internet, I lobbed a few questions toward Joe Hollick, perhaps the quietest WOLF person of all. And lo and behold, he’s happily answered them all, and in wonderfully candid fashion! Heck I’d reckon even WOLF PEOPLE newbies should be able to appreciate this one, so crank up Tidings and read on . . .

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1. WOLF PEOPLE’s Tidings LP is a kind of archeological dig, exhuming your very earliest studio stirrings. Can you talk a little about how things have changed since those recordings were made? I imagine anyone seeing you guys live today would be struck by just how evolved you now sound.

The way we’ve developed is a little odd in terms of how bands usually get together, we’ve sort of ‘reverse engineered’ the current sound from the act of learning to play Jack’s original recordings. Tidings is basically the sound of Jack in his studio experimenting. When his first recordings were picked up by Jim from Sea Records and Doug from Battered Ornaments, there was no live band whatsoever. I’ve known others who have done solo projects and they’ve really struggled to recruit a band with any real ‘life’ in it, but not with this project, its managed to really bed in and take off. I feel really lucky to be playing this music; I’ve always wanted to be in a band like this since I was 10. Jack has chanced upon musicians who have the same interests, playing styles and almost identical backgrounds, at times spookily so. When learning the songs that comprise Tidings, we found we couldn’t do them exact, so we just started bending and stretching the songs to fit us, that’s how the current sound has evolved into tougher things like Caratacas and Tiny Circles. Its also been so much fun playing the tunes live that it made us feel like a proper band very quickly. The main problem we have is it differs from the Tidings sound, I just hope people understand the lineage and appreciate how we’ve changed.

2. Do you guys all contribute to the music, lyrics, and arrangements? It’s some potent, heady stuff for sure.

Musically, the current setup is almost a rough four way split, leaning heavily towards Jack, we don’t really discuss it too much, our ideas seem to lock in, we are all on the same page. Jack looks after the lyrics and arranges his ideas in anticipation of how we will play them. None of us know too much about his lyrics, but it’s the only band I’ve been in where I’ve been proud to hear them sung, they describe a certain Englishness that I think is missing in all music I hear now from this country. Personally I think Jack uses me as riff-o-matic generator, I’m terrible at arranging but the only thing I can do is occasionally have some weird thing fall out of the fretboard to be given up for dissection. The next record is going to be the sound of us, mixed with the production elements and ideas that Jack originated with. You can hear the influences of the other musicians creeping in gradually, Cotton Strands was the first thing me, Jack and Ross did. Tiny Circles is the sound of Jack writing a tune knowing in advance how we play live, and knowing how good Tom and Dan can be when given a great big nasty riff to dig into.

3. Without Ross Harris’ flute, your Telecaster has gradually taken on a more prominent role in the WP sound. Was this a conscious choice you guys made?

Not at all, Ross is a great friend who turned up at rehearsals and now is busy playing with his other project, THE SPEAKERS CORNER QUARTET. We made no active decision to get a flute player, he just started hanging around, and it sounded brilliant, he’s a real force of nature that lad. He’s way too good for us, he knows Pythagorean scales and can play under water backwards. It is really hard to fill the gap when he is not there though. I’m not the most confident of guitarists and quite like hiding at the back with my head down getting on with it, and it was easy to hide behind Ross. He provides a real focus point live, and without him at first we were just exposed as a basic guitar band, but it made us kick up a gear. I’ve had to try and turn into a lead guitarist, and take some of his improvisational style and constantly reinvent parts every gig.

I must point out that my poor old Telecaster was a stop gap guitar, I’ve given it back to my dad. My main guitar was my old 67 Firebird III that has the best neck pickup ever, but that does not like being in a car or actually being played at all, and I want to take this opportunity to apologise to everyone concerned for the 3 years of out-of-tune gigs that wonderful guitar provided. I tried putting the Firebird pickups in the tele, but it sounded rubbish, I think its got something to with the placement of the neck pickup in relation to the 12th fret of the Gibson, or some voodoo like that. Its all changed since I found this Strat though…

4. Where in god’s name did you learn to play such blistering leads and bluesy slide?

I’m flattered, that’s the first compliment I’ve ever had from someone who isn’t a family member, unless its sarcasm? Are you not getting confused with Jack?! I actually find playing guitar very hard and very painful, I actually don’t know what I’m doing. My Dad taught me to play when I was 5, but only one chord for the first year, he taught me how to hammer on and do a staccato rhythm before I learnt chords, so I would just sit and chug away on an E chord. He never used a pick, but gave me a bit of cardboard, this soon wore away so I learnt to use the back of my fingernail. At this time I didn’t know why you played guitar, it was just something my dad did, so I developed this odd way of playing that has either provided me with a different thing to others, or has hampered me in terms of developing. I get stuck in ruts, and try to overcome technical inability with nervous energy. I really don’t like performing, I feel like such a fraud stood on stage, and I get incredibly nervous, so I end up getting over it by grasping it and almost have to will the notes out of the guitar, I think this sometimes translates and other times sounds like a bit of racket.

My favourite guitarists are people like Richard Thompson and Neil Young, they manage to turn mistakes around and I think that’s what I’m ok at. I like playing acoustic and play really softly, but with an electric I feel like I’m bending bits of barbed wire. Without a pick you get lots of subtle sounds with your fingers and nails but you don’t get the clarity that a pick provides. My index finger is more trebly, whereas my middle finger is used for chords, and I occasionally I play with two fingers and a thumb. Through a squashy valve amp on full its amazing the sounds you can get. I think me and Jack compliment each other, he can do all that technical stuff and play in a very clear, melodic and articulate way, whereas I tend to play more percussively. I’m better live, but can’t record for toffee, I can’t play the same thing twice and have to push myself very hard to get it right, and I’m never happy with what I’ve done.

5. I’ve gathered that Jack Sharp arrived at the current WOLF PEOPLE rock trip via hip hop, originally as an attempt to create the very music he was sampling, but on real instruments. Certainly, the cut n paste mixing of the LP reflects that. Did you also come at all this through hip-hop/DJ culture?

No not at all. I am about as hip hop as a cupboard. I love that Edan record Beauty and the Beat though, and a guy called Sonic Sum. I grew up listening to people like J.J. Cale and Richard Thompson, the Strict Tempo album and Calvary Cross being favourites. By chance I heard CAN when I was too young and that blew my mind right off. I did get into dance music and electronica, a lot of ambient drone and noise type stuff. However meeting this lot and hearing the music that peers Cherrystones and Rich Hero play has just opened the floodgates. I’m not massively into records though, the others are in a big way, and I don’t listen much at home. I have a record player but it only plays DUNGEN 4.

6. I’ve noticed your audiences seems pretty disparate: a diverse mix of young hipsters, longhair stoner types, gristled old hippies, even the odd American nutcase or two. This must make for some interesting audience reactions. Has there been a most-memorable gig thus far?

There have been gigs that make you question why you even own a guitar, yet there have been some gigs where it has felt like the planets have aligned, but I don’t really like looking up at gigs, so I can’t tell whether people like it or not really, this isn’t meant to sound arrogant, I just have to concentrate really hard. We have had some great support, at the last gig two lads drove down from Birmingham and back for the night, incredible, we really appreciate it. We tend to play well when we are the under-dogs. There was one gig at a festival where we went on way too late and all had work next morning, something clicked during the set and it reminded me why you spend £90 on petrol and 11 hours on the road, it was great, I love that feeling, where you lose your sense of place. I have great respect for the other members as musicians, I’m really proud of this band. We’ve actually got limited confidence on stage, though its growing. We’ve had some tough gigs where we’ve had mute reactions, but people who get the influences and see an honest enthusiasm tend to enjoy it.

I’ll always feel daft when someone pays to see us though, I feel like giving them a bit back for a pint to say thanks or something. Mainly as everyone can play guitar and is in a band it seems, so I always over-think about what we are offering in comparison to everyone else. I really hope the audiences stay diverse, I like to think we appeal to both record-heads and casual listeners, the sounds are there yet we try and keep it easy to digest. There are many bands that do long wig outs and noisy sections but we are trying to reign them in and concentrate them into shorter bursts, which for me is more interesting.

7. Aside for WOLF PEOPLE, you’ve also played on another Battered Ornaments release: THE LAUGHING WINDOWS double 10″. Can you tell us a bit about that project?

Its based around just meeting up with Luke Insect and Mike Sharpe and seeing what happens. We went to Pete Hedley’s (BENEATH FIRE & SMOKE) beautiful studio in south Wales and pressed the record button. After a year or two we collected enough bits and pieces to stitch together an EP, some of it recorded with one mic in a rehearsal room, there’s tons of other bits that went unused. I love it, it doesn’t matter whats in there, it is the attitude in which it was done. Its nice to just go and not to have to worry about structure or chord changes. Its really innocent and not trying to be anything with any purpose. We now live at opposite ends of the country but I think it will be something that’ll rear its head every now and again.

8. By day, you’re also a freelance graphics designer. Are you responsible for WP’s striking visual imagery too?

The first three sleeves are by the incredibly talented Luke Insect, who is a proper graphic designer. I did the Tidings sleeve, which was good fun, mainly as I could make models of machines. I was trying to copy the way Jack makes music, often going from one media to another and back and forth, from tape to hard drive and back. I took photos of all the gear involved, printed them out and made them into models and re-shot them. With other work, I just try and get by, I find the bread and butter work hard, but occasionally I get inspired. Most of the stuff has been done quickly and as a way of experimenting for other work, but I would like it to start getting better and more involved.

I used to work for Storm Thorgerson of PINK FLOYD/Hipgnosis fame, that was incredible, a real experience. He’s a great fellow, even though I was made to walk into EMI dressed as a section of The Wall. I wasn’t trendy enough though to get by in the freelance London graphic design world, I still get work down there and get to do a sleeve or illustration, but to make ends meet I have a part time job in a building restoration charity in the outskirts of Burnley. Its good for keeping your feet on the ground. It does mean that all future artwork is going to take on the influence of Georgian architectural plans however, but I feel this fits with the music, its quite solid and painstakingly built.

9. And finally: when are WOLF PEOPLE gonna go try and conquer the States? Americans are gonna devour it, I promise.

When we can all get holiday from our jobs and scrape together our loose change for the ferry. We’d love to come over, some of our most positive comments have come from the US, they really get it. I’d really like to know what more people think. I think its an import/export thing. To certain people here we are not ‘exotic’ or mysterious, just scruffy blokes from Bedford, London and the Yorkshire Dales. There’s a definite attitude over there that has allowed great bands like HOWLIN’ RAIN and THE BLACK KEYS to flourish. I think that an English band playing like that would be put down over here by our over-critical mainstream, in the States it seems they embrace it and let it breathe a bit more. It appears to be a dirty word to play your instrument with skill and finesse at the moment, but I’m proud of UK bands like VOICE OF THE SEVEN THUNDERS, SOUNDCARRIERS and THE LIFTMEN, they are going a long way to readdressing the balance.

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One Response to “Two Sides of the Beast”

  1. max d. August 25, 2010 at 3:55 pm #

    I love them. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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