WOLF PEOPLE are crossing not only their fingers, but all of their extremities that their work visas arrive in time. The English band is scheduled to make a trip across the pond to play Oregon's Pickathon festival this weekend; it's their first-ever visit to the West Coast, and only the second time they've been to the States, following a 2013 tour playing some East Coast shows as the opening band for Unknown Mortal Orchestra. But due to problems with the application process, and a few unfortunate mistakes from the bureaucratic powers that be, the clock is ticking down without visas firmly in hand. Scheduled shows in Seattle and Vancouver have already been canceled due to the delay.
"Organizing this run of dates has been the hardest thing I've had to do for the band," says drummer Tom Watt, who's functioning as the group's de facto tour manager. "It's been a series of tests, as we've been calling it. It literally feels like they're trying to break us down."
A bigger, more established band would have other people working out these types of kinks for them: managers, booking agents, and so on. But even nearly a decade after their first live show, Wolf People remain a largely self-run operation. All four members, who live in different parts of England, work full-time jobs; the band makes time to get together roughly once a month for a long weekend of writing, jamming, and rehearsing. "We kind of joke that we're a bit of an email band," says guitarist/vocalist Jack Sharp. Their low-profile endeavoring is in spite of some spectacular releases on the well-known Jagjaguwar label (home to Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Bon Iver, Dinosaur Jr., and others) and a small spate of rave reviews. Yet Wolf People remain maddeningly obscure, beloved by a handful of psychedelic-rock anoraks, but still fully beneath the radar of even the underground music press.
This is a pity, because Wolf People is one of the best rock bands in the world.
On October 11, 2013, I watched the group play its first-ever American show at the Knitting Factory in Williamsburg, one of three small headlining dates they'd booked in advance of their tour with UMO. I'd flown with a similarly obsessed friend across the country simply to see them in action. We joined a small Friday-night crowd of curious onlookers (and a few fellow fanatics) and sidled up to the lip of the stage. From the opening bars of "Silbury Sands," the first track from their 2010 album Steeple, we instantly knew we weren't crazy for making the journey.
Wolf People didn't merely sound as good as they did on their two excellent albums (Steeple and 2013's Fain); they sounded better, as the dimensions of their music expanded to immersive levels. The group's ferocious dynamics swooped, dove, and rose like a peregrine falcon at full-speed flight. Sharp's melancholy voice carved a path for his folk-flavored melodies through the bedrock of Watt's dinosaur stomp and Dan Davies' firmly anchored bass. And guitarist Joe Hollick, playing without a pick, was a force unto himself, incorporating subtle counterpart to Sharp's guitar lines, then exploding into full-scale blooze howl at a moment's notice.
Wolf People's sound has been compared to several bands from the past—Jethro Tull, in particular (although apart from a flute appearing on one track from Steeple, that likeness never really held water). There's a distinctly British undercurrent to their sound, reminiscent of the cold-English-rain moodiness of early Black Sabbath, or the autumnal atmosphere of Richard Thompson-era Fairport Convention. I also get strong hints of Led Zeppelin, and that band's superimposition of British blues onto more mystic, English-countryside qualities; thankfully, Wolf People manage this without any Tolkien references. They do share Zeppelin's looseness, though—an offhand rhythmic lubricity that bears down like a freight train during their more sturm-und-drang moments. And Wolf People are quick to cite more obscure British bands as influences, like Groundhogs and the wonderful, criminally overlooked Mighty Baby, along with a wealth of obscure Scandinavian psychedelia.
But these reference points don't do the band justice, in that Wolf People's music is both ageless and fully contemporary. "I try not to worry about it too much—the whole retro aspect of it—but I don't really want us to be some kind of throwback," says Sharp. "There are things that you want to take the essence of and take them forward. But I think if we worried too much about taking them forward, it might sound a bit contrived. If we started bringing out a load of drum machines and synths, it might sound a bit silly."
Surprisingly, Wolf People's "peat bog superfuzz sphagnum moss sludge" sound (a term coined by British comedian Stewart Lee) has its roots in hip-hop and the art of sampling, which led to members of the band excavating odd slices of rare vinyl in the hopes of finding that perfect break.
"Tom and I both got massively into hip-hop when we were around 17 or 18, and making beats and stuff," says Sharp. "We got into collecting records for samples, and eventually it opened this whole new world of stuff. You're looking for breaks or little bits of weird sounds; basically you're looking for stuff that's unique. And at a certain point, you start going, 'Shit, these records are really good.' So we started listening to all this stuff just to listen to it, and then we started going, 'Why are we just sampling this? We can play instruments—why don't we try to make stuff like this?'"
Watt says, "One of the records for me that stands out is Pugh Rogefeldt, a Swedish guy who's quite famous for being sampled by DJ Shadow. The first one on [his 1969 album] Ja, Dä ä Dä, just that drum break and that first guitar... Hearing that, we were like, 'There's no point sampling this, we need to make music like this.'"
Those crate-digging proclivities led them to a trove of obscure psychedelic treasures, particularly from Scandinavia. Watt's wife is from Finland, and he scours the local vinyl bins each time they visit her family. "You know what it's like—you go anywhere and you turn pebbles, and you find some really interesting stuff," he says. "But there's just something about that Scandinavian sound. It just conjures up the landscape. They take folk music very seriously there as well. I don't know if it's to do with everyone throughout the years having been stuck inside for all those cold winters."
Sharp similarly stumbled onto the British Isles' rich folk music heritage through second-hand sampling, and that exposure heavily informed Wolf People's developing sound. "I'd sampled a Pentangle record and then got into that record massively, realizing all the songs were stuff that my mum used to sing me," he says. "That's kind of how I got into folk music. When you're younger it seems like the least cool thing in the world, or it did when I was young. But you start looking into it and you find all these incredible stories. I quite buy into the mindset of real traditional music, that it isn't about an individual or performer, it's about the material."
Sharp made some solo recordings in 2005 after leaving London, searching for a darker, spookier sound that touched upon the discoveries he and Watt had made. Encouraged by a friend from university to put a band together, Sharp recruited Watt along with another guitarist friend who dropped out after their first rehearsal. The bass player they were playing with, though, had met a guy in the pub the night before and thought he might be a suitable replacement.
"And I just rang him up," says Sharp of first approaching Hollick. "We chatted about guitars and music and stuff for about 40 minutes, and he turned up at a rehearsal and was just the most amazing guitarist that I'd ever seen. I think even if I weren't in this band, I would say that Joe is probably one of the best guitarists in the country. There isn't anyone who sounds like him, either. He goes through so much equipment, and he's always trying to change to a different guitar, but he always comes back to that Firebird. He's grown up with that guitar and it's become a part of him. I've tried to play it, and it's like a piece of industrial machinery. I can't get it to work."
The first Wolf People recordings were collected on Tidings, and their first proper full-length album, Steeple, bore the group's immensely confident and imaginative sound. It was heavy, but not heavy metal; it was technical, but not needlessly proggy. It was quintessentially English, but not in the sense of maypoles and dancing fairies—this was a darker, more druidic sense of the country, with castle keeps and standing stones suggesting an ancient but ever-present history.
2013's Fain simplified the band's approach with more song-oriented material, although longer pieces like "Hesperus" and "Thief" spilled out from the confines of the verse-chorus formula. And the album they're working on now will contain the most concise Wolf People material yet.
"When we toured America last time," Watt says, "and especially when we met up with all the guys from Jagjaguwar, I think having them see us play live properly and them all coming out and supporting us really had a big impact on us. They were like: '[American accent] Yew guys rawk! Yew gotta make a rawk album next time!' That had quite a lot of impact. I think we thought, well, let's try and capture this attitude that we really do well live, and try and get that on the record."
"It's definitely a little bit different from the other stuff," says Sharp. "After Fain, we made a conscious decision to make it... I keep calling it a dumb rock record. Short songs, keeping it kind of simple and hard and as heavy as possible."
A fruitful week of rehearsals in the Devon countryside led to some new recordings, although the album—which will be culled from the largest amount of material Wolf People have worked on to date—is in various stages of completion. Some songs are finished and mixed, while others have yet to be laid to tape.
"I've been recording it all in a very different way to how we were doing it previously," says Watt. "I've been basically just setting up some minimal mic'ing at all our rehearsals, wherever we've been doing them, and hitting record as we've been rehearsing. It creates a very natural environment where you don't really feel like you're going for a take. We've tricked ourselves into recording most of the stuff on this record without even thinking about it."
"Songs have kind of lifespans," adds Sharp, "and when the idea is very new, there's an excitement to it that I don't think we've ever managed to capture before. Sometimes they have a kind of cycle where they go off for a bit, and it's not really happening, and then you change one thing and everybody's excited again. If we'd had more time and got together more often, I'd love to write something and have it recorded within about a week. That's the ideal, but it's not practical, really."
It remains a slow process for Wolf People, but all four members of the group, scattered as they are across the UK, realize they're attached to something special. And those select listeners who have encountered the band know the kind of instrumental chemistry they exhibit is rare. Perhaps the fact that Wolf People haven't become global sensations (yet), or sold hundreds of thousands of records, is what allows the band to function at the level and pace to which they're most suited. For now, Wolf People remains a special jewel, all the more coveted because of its rarity.
"I'd love it if we could just wander down the road and play once a week, but I dunno," says Sharp. "Maybe that would make us into something different. Maybe the fact that it's quite difficult to do, and that it's a bit of a struggle, makes it into what it is."