As they prepare their album 'Undertow,' the Michigan noise band mull an artist's responsibility in a post-Trump world.
When John Olson woke up the day after Donald Trump's election, feeling a little heavier than the day before, he noticed something curious. A schoolteacher friend had taken to Facebook to let the world know that he'd been playing Olson's noise band Wolf Eyes for his class. Throughout the day, he saw other friends and fans posting similar sentiments. The sickly, chaotic records that Olson and co-founder Nate Young had been brewing over the last couple decades seemed, for many, to be a soundtrack for the endtimes.
"We thought, 'That's so beautiful,'" Olson says of seeing people gravitate toward his band's music. "I'm like, 'Alright man, if that's a coping mechanism, we should extend that to everyone.'"
At their manager's suggestion, they made all of their music on Bandcamp pay-what-you-want for a full 24 hours. They blacked out their website, publishing a simple phrase "fuck the patriarchy" and donated the nearly $3,000 they raised over the course of the day to a Michigan center for LGBTQ youth, the immigration rights organization Border Angels, and Planned Parenthood.
It was strange and heartwarming to see strangers rallying together around noise tapes on Twitter and Facebook—especially because Wolf Eyes are rarely expressly political. As much as their music has indulged in chaos, mirroring the oppressive slog of pushing onto another day, those feelings—or the staticky tape loops, or blinding saxophone blasts—tend to be abstract in nature.
The Michigan noise trio's new album Undertow, due March 31 on their new imprint Lower Floor, doesn't pick explicit targets for its malaise either. It was recorded before the election, and Young, Olson, and guitarist Jim Baljo engage in a disorienting sort of symbology—its hard to pick out the particular targets of a atonal synth squeal, or a cacophony of layered voices. Still, there's something about it that seems to acknowledge the harrowing state of things. There's a cyclical nature to compositions like "Thirteen"—a threatening ebb and flow driven by Olson's sax bleats and third member Jim Baljo's sewer-stained guitar work—that makes the gloom feel inescapable.
It was an affecting statement on its own. Still, Olson and Young hopped on the phone back in February, just a couple of weeks after Trump's inauguration, to explain why they now feel the need to do more—whether that's gestures like the Bandcamp sale, a forthcoming "sonic protest" workshop at this year's Moogfest, or simply being there for people in their personal lives and local communities. Read on for a conversation we had about political engagement and the story behind Undertow, alongside a leaden new track from Right in Front of You—a limited CD that comes with presale copies of Undertow.
THUMP: How are you guys holding up in this wild world?
Nate Young: It's really affecting me man, I've gotta say.
John Olson: Well, just today, [Trump] did his "dress like a woman" tweet. It's just fucking disgusting.
Young: It's just not going so good.
Olson: As anticipated, but even worse than I thought. I thought that I would be able to block it out or something, get on with my life a little bit. But every fucking day... This is going to sound a little weird, but for once, I feel very similar to a large amount of people. It feels kind of good.
Young: There's a unity in everybody thinking, like, "This sucks."
Is that why you felt the need to donate your Bandcamp sales to charity?
Olson: We've never been activists or [had] anything political in our music. But we realized you can do something so simple—just giving something away or giving people the option to pay what they want can mean so much to people. For the first time, I actually feel a part of something. Growing up especially, I always felt kind of like an outcast, not understanding what's going on.
Politically or in general?
Olson: In general. In politics, of course, but only as they applied to my everyday life, which wasn't so much unless you really paid attention.
Young: I think Michigan people love to be left the fuck alone. And in this day and age that's kind of hard. With us, artistically, it's difficult to stray from us making up our own rules. But at least we can kind of look at how we function within our own artistic ways, in a system, in society, and start to celebrate being a part of the human race rather than the opposite.
Olson: Running from it.
Young: You start to realize that's not really helping society at large. And not that I can do a lot for society, but at least I can recognize that my art does help people cope with what's going on. At the end of the day, we're not activists, but we do care about mental health. That's something we can really talk about.
Olson: When you see freedom being jeopardized—you know fascism and all that stuff—you've gotta do something to maintain your own stance.
The workshop you're doing at Moogfest is about sonic protest. What does that mean in the context of the overall Wolf Eyes project, especially if you don't think of yourselves as being activists?
Olson: There's protest in terms of a political thing, and then there's protest in terms of just aesthetic individuality. It's more of a cry to freedom and to be yourself, you know. That's more relevant these days too.
Young: It's about finding a healthy way to deal with the current state of things. Maybe our music can help comfort or express something. What we hope to do at Moogfest is more about mental health. And I hope to bring in Twig Harper and have him talk about some of the alternative therapies that he's working on with psychedelic treatment, mushrooms, salvia, and sensory deprivation tanks. That's kind of what we're realizing we can do. I don't think we're equipped to really go out and gather people and create an active protest. But we can gather people and help them relax, and express how they feel, without putting themselves in danger. And maybe from there these groups we've gathered together, this mental psychic gathering, can bring about a lot of different actions. I want to help people, just like everyone else.
Olson: It's more about self empowerment rather than catharsis through yelling and slogans and stuff.
Young: Healing comes from within. That's pretty standard, right? You can't physically heal yourself—or other people—unless you're mentally healthy. That's where we're starting, I suppose. It's helping ourselves as well. Realizing for ourselves that we're not completely helpless. Even if we don't understand politics at large—and it's confusing and convoluted—we're not alone.
What are you doing on a personal level to keep mentally healthy in the midst of all this?
Olson: Just listening to other people and trying to be open-minded.
Young: I have a dog, and I look at how she interacts with the world. I woke up today, made my girlfriend a coffee, had some breakfast, and went for a long walk with my dog. And it's like 20 degrees out, but I absolutely loved it. And everyday I love it.
Olson: There's no Donald Trump of dogs.
How does this connect with the record that's coming out?
Young: The title is Undertow. I think that says a lot. The lyrics were written almost five years ago, but they really have a lot of meaning now. [Nate starts reciting the record's first line] "I spent too much time staring outside; this place is never gonna change." It's a commentary on the underground, but also looking outside your window. It feels helpless. No matter what, that undercurrent always sucks you back in.
Olson: You can feel it in the air these days, man. There's just an undertow of dread.
Dread is the right word for this record, despite the fact maybe it's not as sonically heavy as some other stuff that you've released.
Young: That's what I love about being in this group: that we can continue to explore different feelings, different cadences, different instrumentation, different styles, and it's ok.
What does it mean to be putting out a document of dread in this sort of climate?
Young: I don't know if we're totally in control of that, to tell you the truth. It's a lot of trial and error, improvise this and repeat that.
Olson: We're not walking around in shrouds. We're happy people, but when you're onstage, that's what comes out. And we've worked hard to develop a vocabulary around that. When I was a kid I lived on an island. And everyone was afraid to swim because of the undertow. And you couldn't see it, and it was there. If you were on the receiving end of it you'd never be seen again. It really could have killed me. But as an adult it's kind of thrilling. Like feel that? There's something sucking around me as this beautiful force hits me and then goes back.
Young: We already did [a record called] Dread. The word ["undertow"] alone has that vibe of a force dragging you under, but it's also taking you back. There's like a reclaiming. It's more about nature and understanding where you fit in with that kind of cycle. So I think in regards to putting this record of dread out during this environment, at least it's about nature, not about this specific man.
This is one of the first records where I can make out a lot of your lyrics. Nate, did you feel like you had more to say this time around?
Young: I've been [figuring out the place of my vocals] for years now. This is something Olson and I came up with Day 1, when he joined, or at least we looked each other in the eye and knew we were working together. There needs to be a figure in a painting. There needs to be a voice. I never wanted to be a vocalist; [the voice] just needed to be there.
I mean, I've always had a lot to say. In the past it's been more about imagery. Like expressing even comic book-esque heavy metal scenes. Like a stab in the face. Horror. But I do have more to say now, rather than just some imagery that I want to share. Our music in general is becoming more about us—about who we are individually and collectively as a group. A lot of bands aren't this lucky, to be able to be working together for so long. If you were to ask me these questions even like five years ago, I would not have an answer for you. I would actually shrug them off and be like, "I don't know, man."
You guys were a band through the Bush era too. How does that living through that era compare to how you're feeling this year?
Olson: We cut our collaboration with Black Dice like two weeks after 9/11. That felt very similar to what's going on now.
Young: I got chased down the street in Europe by people being like, "That's the problem with you Americans, you don't want to talk about this." Touring overseas was the worst. There was a lot of anti-American graffiti in places we'd go. The Bush era sucked. It was harsh.
Do you feel better equipped to deal with that feeling now than you did then?
Young: We've lived through one presidency that fucking brutalized us. And we just tried to hide from it, and cower, and be like, "Fuck you guys, I've got my own rules, I'm doing my own thing." Walking away from people and being like, "Oh man, I don't have time to talk to you about this—like, I didn't vote for him." That is part of the problem.
We're better equipped now for sure. We went through that with everyone else. What we learned from that was no matter who you are or what you stand for, if you stand for nothing, you are a part of the problem.