interview – american wolf

american wolfchicago’s american wolf have spent the better part of the past five years meticulously honing a craft that blends stadium-caliber rock music with more introspective, sprawling atmospheric sounds.  the culmination of that work can be found on last fall’s my main sport, an album that quietly found its way onto our best of 2014 list.  we recently caught up with the quintet to talk about the songwriting behind that album, the chicago music scene, and the band’s essential mix of songs.  check out the transcript below.

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my main sport is your third full-length effort as a band, so i’d imagine you all have been at this for quite some time.  can you give a quick american wolf backstory?

the band was initially started as a solo-acoustic act by sal in 2010 in chicago.  he had a collection of songs that he self-recorded that year and called the advantages of being deaf, so i guess you could call that our first “record”.  eventually, he began looking for other members to play these songs with and american wolf was born.  since then, we’ve gone through a couple of line up changes and like you mentioned, released three studio records and a couple of eps.  additionally, we’ve tried touring and playing as much as possible.

there’s a stylistic shift from myriad to my main sport that could be perceived as moving away from smatterings of technical lead guitar work and more towards a cohesive, spacious soundscape dictated by the entire band.  did you have any particular sonic or textural goals while writing the new record, or was the outcome pretty organic?

it’s definitely a mixture of both.  myriad was made with two past members who actually left as soon as the record was done.  that definitely contributed to the way that record was created.  as a band, we took a completely different creative process with my main sport.  we had a chance to really step back and figure out where we wanted to go without feeling rushed or obligated to anything.  we wanted to try stepping into simpler musical arrangements with a more cavernous and atmospheric sound.  we’ve always been really into weird and surreal ideas so we wanted to incorporate that into our music.  but most of all, we wanted to say more with less.

talk a bit about the songwriting process on my main sport.  was the approach any different from previous efforts?

we definitely had more time to write my main sport than our other stuff.  we try to be active listeners and truly digest our influences.  it helped us revise and further develop our ideas in a way that we hadn’t before.  being our third record, we were more knowledgeable about the whole process and how we wanted to execute our ideas.  we tried experimenting with an array of ghastly and ethereal sounds.  musically, we wanted to create musical movements with lesser chords and fewer words.  it was definitely our most collaborative effort to date.

i think i’ve compared you sonically to silversun pickups, partially due to sal’s vocal range, and i’ve read other reports likening you to brand new.  who do you draw inspiration from, either collectively or individually?

we definitely love those bands and have been directly influenced by them.  we are always listening to new music.  i think that as musicians, it’s part of your job to listen and constantly ingest new stuff.  at any given moment we could all be listening to the same thing, or the complete opposite.  we’re really digging flying lotus and mum right now, and we’re really excited for radiohead’s new record as well.  they’ve always been a tremendous collective influence of ours.

where do you see yourselves within the spectrum of the chicago music scene?  do you have a support group of other artists and bands that you like to perform and/or collaborate with, or have you carved out your own niche?

chicago’s scene is always changing; it has a mind of its own.  it’s a city rich with talent and so many bands.  i think that the city has so much talent that people almost take it for granted.  i guess it’s somewhat understandable as any given night you can catch amazing music.  the good thing is that we get to play with so many different acts.  i guess that makes it hard to create a niche, but it helps us network and stay connected with bands.  most importantly, we’ve honestly just tried to establish ourselves as a band that loves what they do.

who have you guys been listening to as of late?  what collection of artists would constitute the essential american wolf mix tape?

track list as of late:

mum – “we have a map of the piano”
polyenso – “falling in rain”
muse – “starlight”
pup – “reservoir”
copeland – “like a lie”
st. vincent – “huey newton”
the decemberists – “make you better”
flying lotus – “coronus, the terminator”
tycho – “awake”
sigur ros – “isjaki”

essential list:

elliott smith – “ballad of big nothing”
owen – “bags of bones”
bob dylan – “don’t think twice, it’s alright”
jimi hendrix – “little wing”
thrice – ”open water”
periphery – “the walk”
led zeppelin – “good times bad times”
radiohead “2+2=5”
the beatles – “don’t let me down”
radiohead “knives out”

what’s on the docket for american wolf in 2015?

we’re going to be releasing a new music video for our song “cave fantasy” in a couple of months.  additionally, we’ll be playing a ton of shows until august or so and then we’ll head into a writing cocoon.  we’ve tried to make a point to travel outside chicago as often as possible, and we’ll be performing at audiofeed festival this year down in champaign, illinois.  we’ve already begun writing some new stuff and exploring where we’d like to head; we’re not sure if we’ll be releasing an ep or another full length.  it’s become increasingly difficult to release records every year as we are becoming more and more meticulous about the stuff we release.  we’ll see.

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those in the midwest would do well to seek out an american wolf show in the coming months.  the band plays a haunting brand of alternative rock that doesn’t quite match anything else coming out of the region, and their increased affinity for dreamy soundscapes makes the follow-up to my main sport that much more enticing.  look for more coverage when the “cave fantasy” video hits later this spring, and click on the links below to hear more of american wolf.

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best of 2014: honorable mentions

it’s nearly time to unveil our favorite full-length albums of 2014, but for now we’ll tease a handful of albums that didn’t quite make the cut in order to build some unnecessary suspense.  the following five albums aren’t ranked – instead, they’re presented in alphabetical order – and adequately represent the large musical palate made available this year.  as you may have noticed with previous posts, links to stream relevant content are provided in the titles.  dig in.

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american wolf my main sport coveramerican wolf – my main sport 

chicago’s american wolf certainly isn’t immune to the emo resurgence currently underway across the midwest, but the quintet has enveloped that aesthetic safely inside more atmospheric ambitions.  seven of the eight songs on my main sport are sprawling efforts – the shortest one clocking in at four minutes, the longest flirting with the eight-minute mark – wrapped up in intricately-layered guitar melodies that build patiently to each individual apex.  it’s the kind of dreamy pop music that bides its time in the background before fully unleashing its cacophonous potential.  some songs burn slowly, like the early standout “may” and “cave fantasy,” but american wolf is also adept at executing straight-ahead, unabashed alternative rock in the form of “evil eyed.”  sal plant’s counter-tenor is eerily reminiscent of brian aubert’s work in silversun pickups while joe sherman’s meticulous drumming makes my main sport a trip to experience rhythmically, two traits that bookend an impressive melodic and harmonic journey from one of chicago’s preeminent outfits.

virgo indigo coverfog lake – virgo indigo

 with the runaway success orchid tapes experienced during the final half of 2014, it’s understandable that some of the label’s earlier releases may have skirted the public eye.  ricky eat acid’s three love songs is an obvious exception (more on that tomorrow,) but a trio of releases were decidedly low-key.  at the forefront of that pack was aaron powell’s fog lake, a newfoundland-based solo project that exudes the bedroom pop trope so commonly associated with orchid tapes.  virgo indigo contains twelve songs, most of them short works directed by powell’s voice and guitar, although the appropriately-hokey “mad scientist” is based around a playful piano progression.  it’s commendable that powell can evoke such emotion and overall bleakness using a relatively static approach to composition, but this is largely aided by strong forays into ambient territory; virgo indigo is bookended by two such songs, and its centerpiece “transcanada” is the soundscape to a snowstorm, a poignant representation of sheer isolation.

gem club in roses covergem club – in roses

gem club has been composing heart-wrenching ballads for some time now, but the boston trio hit their stride on their second full-length, in roses.  christopher barnes and his piano are still the focal points of the project, but an increased sense of ambiance is injected to make the trio’s plaintive sounds less plain and more complex.  the interplay between barnes and cellist kristen drymala is more prevalent as well, compounding gem club’s somber mood in a different timbre on sprawling tracks like “first weeks” and “polly,” but the trio really benefits from the extra time spent on arrangements and studio overdubs.  the synth ostinato on “hypericum” provides a sense of momentum so often absent from gem club’s material, and it’s easy to hear how doubled and harmonized string lines flesh out the overall orchestration.  regardless of the instruments used, it’s hard to dispute the sheer beauty of in roses.  acoustic timbres collide with barnes’ laments on “speech of foxes,” but the song’s gradual descent into ambient noise is indicative of the fragility gem club has come to represent, in its antecedent state and in its aftermath.

sea oleena shallow coversea oleena – shallow

from the first arpeggiated piano melody on shallow, it’s clear that charlotte loseth has succeeded in capturing a mournful aesthetic similar to that of her predecessor on this list, but one that deviates down a slightly different path.  percussion plays a more prominent role in sea oleena’s music – and on this album more so than any of her other releases – yet the instrument’s true power is felt once it’s taken away; then the contrast of loseth’s ideas become that much more stark.  after a tight execution over the first half of opener “if i’m,” loseth trades in that thought for a rambling, ambient one that sprawls over the next twenty minutes of the album, lowering her voice gently into a pool of thick reverb as she jockeys between a guitar and a piano to provide harmonic support.  when loseth surfaces from the stupor on “everyone with eyes closed” a low-end thump does indeed dictate each downbeat, but she’s now snuck in a wealth of grating strings, one that must be contended with directly on the album’s penultimate epic, “vinton, la.”  shallow is the kind of album one can easily digest on the cusp of sleepiness, yet it’s also one that demands a thorough investigation as to why lethargy is inevitable upon listening.

st. vincent coverst. vincent – st. vincent

yeah, st. vincent’s fourth album may also be titled “st. vincent,” but to simply refer to it as her self-titled album may be shorting her some credit.  st. vincent is a complete immersion in the persona annie clark has so meticulously crafted over the past decade, as evidenced by her visual transformation, adoption of symbols, and the sheer outlandish nature of the songs inside the album.  but outlandish is good, as it allows clark – who has become entirely consumed by st. vincent at this point – to lash out with her guitar, yielding songs like “prince johnny” and “huey newton.”  st. vincent is also her most lyrically ambitious effort yet, as she portrays a dystopian world ruined by technology (“digital witness”) and tries her hand at humor (“birth in reverse”) all while holding up her characteristic tropes of religion and metaphor.  but peel back the accolades and the tremendous musical accomplishment clark has achieved and st. vincent is unabashedly fun, a whirlwind of a record so dizzying that it takes infinite listens to fully absorb and dissect.