BY KYLE WEINSTEIN Wolf Eyes is not just a noise band. Wolf Eyes is a trip metal band. Wolf Eyes is a psychojazz band. Wolf Eyes is a constantly shifting musical phenomenon with roughly 300 recordings. Wolf Eyes is one part founding member, Nate Young, one part long-time member and meme lord Johnny Olson. Young manipulates his voice with an array of electronics and Olson plays sax, wind synth, and homemade monstrosities of noise. Aside from being a multi-instrumentalist, Johnny Olson is an avid record collector, family man, and runs a highly successful Instagram meme page called inzane_johnny.
Fittingly based out of the industrial hub that is Detroit, Wolf Eyes [pictured, below right] began in 1996 as the solo project of Young, and has had a few members come and go, existing mostly as a trio since 2000. The band founded Trip Metal Fest in 2016, which takes place every Memorial Day weekend in Motor City, hosting a diverse lineup of experimental and noise artists. The festival’s name hails from a 2013 Wolf Eyes meme, which was the first instance of the notion of “trip metal” being introduced to the public. Trip Metal Fest, by the way, is always free.
Ars Nova Workshop will be holding The October Revolution of Jazz and Contemporary Music at various locations in Philly from October 4th through the 7th. On Saturday October 6th, Wolf Eyes will be performing with Sun Ra Arkestra maestro (and fellow wind synthist), Marshall Allen, at FringeArts as a part of the festival. I was so excited to hear this that I just had to give Inzane Johnny Olson a call. DISCUSSED: Marshall Allen, tripping, Sun Ra Arkestra, awkward collaborations, memes, the definition of art, noise and trip metal.
PHAWKER: How did Wolf Eyes decide to hook up and collaborate with Marshall Allen?
JOHNNY OLSON: It was all the promoter at the fest’s idea. They facilitated it. We’ve worked with Marshall before with Hieroglyphic Being when he was playing with Danny Thompson, too, in Detroit at the Trip Metal Fest. Yeah, that’s pretty much it; there’s no romantic story about it at all, you know? [Laughs]
PHAWKER: So, for adventurous listeners who are trying to get into Sun Ra, where would you recommend they start and why?
JOHNNY OLSON: When I was in middle school, the first one I got at a record store for a dollar was Discipline 27-II. Either that or “Sun Song,” I think. But, I would definitely start with the Discipline one because that definitely has some weirder elements, but if your mom checked it out, she wouldn’t instantaneously put it out.
PHAWKER: Oh yeah, I know how that is.
JOHNNY OLSON: Yeah. [laughs]
PHAWKER: What are some of the weirder elements in that album that resonate with you?
JOHNNY OLSON: Well, I remember him saying that every single electronic effect that you hear was already done back in the 1900s and stuff like that in the early times, you know – the echo, the call and response, distortion, and all that stuff. His call and response with June Tyson and stuff like that. You can hear that, but it’s all acoustic. And it’s got a really good message about not taking yourself so seriously, and it’s just really listenable and weird and welcoming. And Side 2’s got some of the weirder stuff on it, not as weird as The Magic City, but it’s definitely a solid brick.
PHAWKER: Okay, cool. So tell me about psychojazz, trip metal, and how they’ve manifested in your discography over the years.
JOHNNY OLSON: Well, we were on acid at a gig at our clubhouse in Detroit – the Mug Warehouse – and one of our friends saw it and was just like, “Aw man, it’s like trip metal,” so that kind of took over from there. And we’ve always been into casually redefining stuff and making our own genres and just twisting stuff around, because it’s better to just define parameters yourself rather than have them handed to you. So, it started to catch on, and it just kind of took off, and then we decided to keep changing it. I think two or three years ago on New Years’, Nate came up with the term “psychojazz,” so we just kept moving that. Aesthetically not a lot has changed, but people make subtle differences between the two on their own, so it’s kind of hands-off and it’s interesting to see how it grows and separates. So, it’s mainly just empowering yourself to define what’s around you rather than taking what’s there, because it’s just more empowering, I think it just changes stuff. You know, someone, at one point, was probably just goofing off and said “rock” and “jazz” and this and that, so you know, it all starts somewhere, so you might as well just see if it clicks. [laughs].
PHAWKER: Yeah, I agree; that’s definitely the way to go about things for the sake of creativity. So right now, Wolf Eyes are doing this Residency Series. Could you tell me about that and how it works?
JOHNNY OLSON: We decided, this year, that we were going to just collaborate with as many people as possible, and try to stick in the town for a couple days and just spread it out, and do more with people locally. So, it makes perfect sense with Marshall Allen being in Philly. We started it in New York early this year playing with Jamie Branch and Twig Harper and the Flux dance group. So, I think, so far this year, we’ve played with over 50 people, and it’s been great. People playing what they think we sound like, and musically, it makes you a better player, and it’s exciting. I don’t think it’s something we’re going to be doing forever, but this year has been really productive and fun.
PHAWKER: So, when you do that, do you ever collaborate with small-time, local musicians who haven’t really made a name for themselves, or is it always with somebody who’s kind of established already?
JOHNNY OLSON: We’ve gone with the big names, and we’ve gone with just local people who the promoter picks out for us. We’ve done them in Belgium, we’ve done them overseas. It’s always good, it’s challenging. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s that razor-edge that makes it worthwhile.
PHAWKER: Have you ever had an awkward experience doing that?
JOHNNY OLSON: Oh yeah. [laughs]
PHAWKER: Does anything stick out to you?
JOHNNY OLSON: Well, in Belgium we played with a fellow that played ancient instruments, like recorders and stuff like that from the early 1500s. And we sound checked and it was cool, but then we got to the gig, and it was his time to play with us, and Nate and I were doing our thing, and within like five minutes I don’t hear him, and I see him just kind of looking at me like he doesn’t know what’s going on, or he just couldn’t really flow with the thing. You know, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s all part of the process, and it makes you a better player, and it just makes for an interesting time. I mean, it’s experimental music, so by all means, you’ve got to experiment. You know?
PHAWKER: Absolutely. So, in an interview you did in 2013 with Miami New Times – and I know this is going back – you said that noise music is “one hundred percent over.” Since then, have you encountered any musicians that would have you feel otherwise, and what would it take for noise music to have a future?
JOHNNY OLSON: Well, it was done with tongue-in-cheek. They kind of extracted that as a pull-away quote, and the follow-up sentence to that was “oh, and then there’s trip metal,” so it was just kind of taking a jab at everything. Like, we grew up in an era when noise was a really broad thing – it could be acoustic it could be this or that. You were an individual in a really small community, and as it progressed it got more and more segregated and self-righteous, and just kind of disinteresting from our standpoint. So we figured, let’s just come up with our own genres in contrast and see what happens, you know? So, that was that. I mean, of course it’s not dead, it will always be there, it’s just more of a calling for you to be separate in contrary to the parameters that people put there to choke out a genre that we all liked at one time.
PHAWKER: Okay, yeah. So, I remember, in that article – back to the self-righteousness thing – you said that noise musicians are primarily trying to be their own geniuses by themselves and just having a one-way conversation. Do you think that noise musicians, in order to have a future, should be more collaborative and be more open to musical conversation?
JOHNNY OLSON: Well, I mean, that in and of itself would be kind of a self-righteous thing to say, I guess. It’s just that the culture of some of these musicians is just kind of, I don’t know, it should be more community-based. I just think that it should be more people together and not being so exclusionary and this-should-be-that-and-that-should-be-this. I don’t think it makes for a very bountiful underground. I mean, look at Sun Ra. So many people went through his band, and it maintained its sound and its vision, but the ingredients changed so much, you know? There are very few solo Sun Ra recordings – My Brother the Wind parts one and two, and just a handful in his discography – but the majority of it was the collaboration and spreading the vision out through other people.
PHAWKER: Yeah, absolutely. So, here’s a weird change of topic: are Wolf Eyes egg punk or chain punk?
JOHNNY OLSON: [laughs] That’s a tough one, that’s a tough one.
PHAWKER: I thought it would be.
JOHNNY OLSON: If you could come up with an anagram between the two, I would say we’re in the gray area between the two.
PHAWKER: Chegg punk?
JOHNNY OLSON: [laughs] Yeah, something like that. We’re whatever you don’t want it to be.
PHAWKER: I love your meme page. Actually, one of my favorite ones that you posted was Tony Hawk’s Prostate Exam.
JOHNNY OLSON: Oh, yeah yeah yeah.
PHAWKER: I love the Tony Hawk stuff.
PHAWKER: Yeah, it escalated quickly [laughs].
JOHNNY OLSON: Yeah, as those things do [laughs].
PHAWKER: Do you have a favorite series of memes that you’ve been posting recently?
JOHNNY OLSON: The Steely Dan ones are always good, just because I like the band. And the Bard ones – I actually got a lot of messages from professors that didn’t like it. So, anything that makes someone feel happy or angry, I’m for. Anything that’s middle-of-the-road should be completely annihilated from aesthetics.
PHAWKER: Oh yeah. Otherwise it’s not art, right?
JOHNNY OLSON: Otherwise, it’s just not doing anything [laughs].
PHAWKER: It’s a lot like music, memes.
JOHNNY OLSON: But, I mean, the life of a meme is so short. You can look at something and the next day it’s just not cool at all, so, that energy and that spontaneity of it is part of the reason I like punk so much. You know, a band will put out a 7” demo and then be gone within a month. So, the energy of it and the overturning of ideas continually is very bountiful, aesthetically. But, it’s by no means art; it’s just 2018’s comic page in the newspaper. It should always have a little sting to it. That’s the whole egg and chain punk thing.
PHAWKER: That’s interesting. So how would you define art then?
JOHNNY OLSON: I would define art as an idiosyncratic cultural representation of where you are and who’s around you.
PHAWKER: Well said.
JOHNNY OLSON: Which, again, goes back to Sun Ra with the cosmic idea, and the handmade artwork, and everything like that. It’s about as cultured as you can get, referencing new and old music, and music from the future. He’s one of those musicians and artists and philosophers who’s one of the best, so the chance to play with Marshall [Allen, pictured right], him being 94 is just incredible, and as an alto player, he’s one of my favorites.
PHAWKER: Yeah, it must be surreal. I mean, he’s a jazz-freaking-hero.
JOHNNY OLSON: Yeah, and aside from his efforts leading the Arkestra, as a player himself, his tone is incredible. All those insane solos and colors he does on all those classic Sun Ra records and his oboe playing and all that stuff is just incredible. He’s a big part of that sound.