Friends Making Beautiful Music Together: An interview with Wolfie
by dave heaton
Since 1998, each year, around Spring or so, Wolfie has been blessing my world with their catchy pop-rock songs. While their first two albums, Awful Mess Mystery and Where's Wolfie, were quick bursts of sunny pop energy, around the year 2000 the group decided to change their sound. That year's two releases, an EP (Wolfie, and the Coat and Hat) and a 7" ("Heavy Lady"), had a crunchier rock sound and more complicated song structures. Their most recent album, Tall Dark Hill, comes after a significant lineup change where one of the group's original songwriters, Michael Downey, left to continue with his other band, Mathelete (now National Splits), leaving guitarist Joe Ziemba as the group's chief songwriter (the group's other three members are singer/keyboardist Amanda Lyons, drummer RJ Porter and Colin Dekuiper, who replaced Downey on bass). Ziemba shares the singing with Lyons--the pair (who are engaged) sing beautifully together throughout Tall Dark Hill, as they did on the under-appreciated classic they created under the name Busytoby (It's Good to Be Alive, released in 2000). Tall Dark Hill continues the more rocking style of the group's 2000 releases, but with even more depth, both musically and lyrically. Wolfie continues to rock in a completely uplifting way; it seems like each of their releases is better than the previous one. On the band's web site, they write that they are "just four friends who play music together because it's fun and we have a strong passion for it." That passion has led to some truly gorgeous music. I recently had the pleasure to interview Joe and Amanda of Wolfie over e-mail. My questions and their detailed answers are below.
You made a conscious decision to change your sound up a bit after expressing some dissatisfaction with with the way your second album Where's Wolfie turned out. Are you happier with the Wolfie sound now, as represented on Tall Dark Hill? What about it do you like better?
Joe: Yes, we're all much happier with Tall Dark Hill sonically than our previous albums. At some point, I realized that the 'production' of an album is very important -- I think it's hard for people outside of indie-type circles to take lo-fi albums like Where's Wolfie seriously. Not that the point of making music is to be taken seriously, but it's just a matter of growing and maturing musically and personally.
Amanda: Yes, we are much happier with the sound of Tall Dark Hill. Before we started recording the album, we definitely had a more fuller and "rocking" sound in mind, and we're very pleased with how the recording turned out. I think that it just took a lot more time, energy, and patience on Joe and Rick's part with recording the album, and like I said before we're very happy with the outcome. As far as the actual sound of the band goes, I think it's much more defined and powerful. Not just in a 'rocking out' sense, but in the sense that we all feel more competent and confident in what we're doing. Sometimes we're still pretty sloppy live, but it's a great time regardless.
One difference with the new album seems to be that Amanda's vocals are at the forefront more often. It reminds me more of the vocal mix on the Busytoby album than that on the earlier Wolfie albums. To what extent was that a planned change, a decision to try and use more of a combination of your vocals, as opposed to being something that just developed spontaneously?
Joe: It's a little of both actually. Amanda's got a beautiful, wonderful voice and I've got a pretty average voice, so it only makes sense that she take over the leads more often. That just came about naturally over the last year or so. Now though, I'm actually moving in that direction with the new songs -- Amanda's becoming the main singer instead of me. Sometimes it's a little hard because the range I write in doesn't always fit in with hers, but it usually works out alright. It would be great to have an Everly Brothers type of approach, with both of us singing together in different harmonies. We shall see.
Amanda: I think that it was a bit of a planned change because I remember when Joe was writing some of the songs, he would ask me if it was in my range of singing. Then we would choose what parts I would sing, what parts Joe would sing, and when we'd sing together. I'm happy with the change though, because I really enjoy singing, and especially recording vocals. It's an enjoyable thing to do.
Tall Dark Hill has one song that's especially long for Wolfie--"Happy State of Mr. Bubbins" (a fantastic song, by the way). What can you tell me about that song? Do you think it marks a style of songwriting that you'll try again in the future?
Joe: Thanks a lot! That song was definitely influenced by bands like Queen, the Who, and Arthur-era Kinks. I set out to write a 'rock opera,' but the story wasn't suited to be spread out over a significant amount of time. It turned out to be a mini-rock opera similar to the Who's "A Quick One." The story is almost 100% true (I did make a few assumptions and fabrications towards the end). It's basically about life and death and getting a second chance from the people you love when you need it most. At this point, I don't think I'll ever try to write something like 'Bubbins' again. I'm really happy with how it turned out and I wouldn't want to retread something we've already done. Another song like that would probably turn out all wrong.
That song and a few others on Tall Dark Hill involve characters and stories, seeming more like fiction than personal narrative. Is that something you're more interested in these days?
Joe: The story-like songs on the album all directly relate to me. I like the idea of true stories presented as fictional ones, as well as fictional stories that relate directly to things I'm feeling. For instance, 'Gwendolyn' is a fictional story, but I'm singing about a lot of things that I feel or relate to personally. This is something that's definitely developed in my songwriting during the last two years and probably started with 'Rachel Carson' from the Coat and Hat ep. I'm definitely interested in pursuing it further.
Both that song and some of the more story-oriented songs also seem like a step closer to doing a full-blown "rock opera." I seem to recall that with Busytoby you once considered doing an album length children's story--is that right? Have you considered doing something like that with Wolfie in the future?
Joe: Yeah, the Busytoby album was going to be a humorous children's album called The Norybee Musical Machine. Fortunately, it ended up sputtering out before we could make fools of ourselves. The main reason it didn't work for me was that it was too detached personally. It felt like my heart wasn't in it for some reason. I was trying to follow up a concept album (It's Good To Be Alive) that was extremely personal with the antithesis and it didn't work. The only way I would ever do something like that again is if I have a good enough topic to sing about, or one unified feeling that's very strong. I don't see anything like that coming in the foreseeable future though.
Amanda: Yes, you're right about the children's album. We thought that doing a children's album would be a great idea, but in the middle of the process it just wasn't panning out the way we thought it would. I'm pretty sure that we won't be doing something like that again for Wolfie. Joe's songwriting style is still evolving and he is writing about many different subjects -- all somewhat stories in themselves.
How have your recent stylistic changes and lineup changes affected your live show?
Joe: If anything, the live show has become thicker in sound and confidence. It's not as held back as it used to be and I think we've grown a bit more comfortable with a few years under our belts. I've also grown to love playing live over the last year or so, where before I was happier recording and didn't care too much for it. These days I can't seem to do one too long by itself without the other. With the lineup thing, I think both the old and new versions of Wolfie were/are great. It's like a completely different band now, so I wouldn't say one is better than the other. Like I said, I feel there's much more of a confidence and fuller sound now, but it's always been pretty fun playing live no matter the line up.
Amanda: I'm really happy with everything about playing live now. I think that we're all pleased with having a bigger or fuller sound live, and having Colin join the band has been great too. I think that he really brings a lot to the band, and he always looks like he's having a great time on stage.
Do you have any current or future touring plans? How about recording plans?
Joe: No touring plans unfortunately. With two weddings happening this year (Rj's and Amanda and I) and Rj living 12 hours away from us, it's going to be pretty hard to play a lot of shows. Our summer tour was amazing though! The upside to not playing is that I've got a ton of time to work on new material and demos -- we've got close to 20 solid new songs right now, so I'm very happy about that. I'm pretty much constantly recording at home, so when we're finally happy with a batch of songs, we'll head into a studio and record another album. The future is pretty wide open at the moment, which is a good feeling to have.
Amanda: Unfortunately, we don't have touring plans or recording plans in the works right now, although we might be playing a festival in Canada this April. We've been recording a lot of demos, and Joe's been busy with writing new songs, so everything's kind of up in the air right now. On top of that, we've been super busy with so many other things that are going on, (weddings, work, school, etc.) It feels like we're going through some kind of transition point in our lives, which I guess is a good but stressful thing:)
It seems like the general positivity that your music has had right from the start has lead on you more recent releases (especially Tall Dark Hill and the Busytoby album) to a more specific theme of finding beauty and hope within the often sad and troubling thing that is life. Are you conscious of moving more towards that type of message? To what extent do you use songwriting to try and convey a particular message to listeners?
Joe: I'm not conscious of moving towards a message on a whole -- when I sit down to write lyrics, I'm not thinking 'What do I need to tell people with this song?' It's usually just what I'm feeling, and the majority of what I feel is that if you think positive, things will go your way. I think what you said is right on, that if you believe in beauty, trust, and hope then the things that are negative don't seem to matter that much. It's just the way that I feel. I just like happy endings so I try to have all of the songs end on an up note. Sometimes it doesn't happen, but that's just my general attitude.
A related question: the Busytoby album It's Good to Be Alive, which I love, caught a lot of flack from critics for its emotional directness, for wearing your hearts on your sleeves, so to speak. It seems to me that most of Wolfie's music has the same directness about it, so I'm wondering why you think people seemed so much more critical of that album?
Joe: Thanks for loving the Busytoby album, we still enjoy it very much and we're proud of it. Who knows why some people hated it with a passion? In the end, I could give two shits about whether or not critics liked it. It means a lot to me when people tell me they can relate to it and those kinds of comments are the ones that stick. One person emailed me about six months after IGTBA was released and said that it had gotten them through a very rough time when they lost a parent. To me (a person whose band has sold maybe 5,000 records over four years), hearing something like that from a fan is amazing. I'm a tiny blip in the world of music, but somebody really got something out of an album we created. It makes me feel good and makes me think that there's a reason for me to be playing music, that it's not just for my own enjoyment. I know what it's like when a record gets you through a hard time and it's special to me to know that we did that for someone else through our music.
Amanda: I'm glad that you love the album, thank you for saying so. I think in order to appreciate albums that have such an emotional directness, people need to have a certain mindset while listening. I understand that a lot of people don't, and that's ok, not everyone is going to like our albums. When we did It's Good to Be Alive, we weren't thinking, "Wow! This album is going to be a hit!" Joe and I were just having fun making an album together, and it was so great when we got occasional emails, letters, or reviews from people who enjoyed or really got something out of the album. (Thanks for being one of them!)
I'm curious about your reactions to the bands that people compare you to. Which bands do people mention that completely surprise you, and which influences do you think people miss when describing your music?
Joe: Early on, we always got the Superchunk comparison, which I never got. I even read that for Where's Wolfie in a couple of reviews and I would always scratch my head about it. Recently, it seems like a lot of the comparisons we get seem to be actual influences, so that's fine.
Amanda: I can't really think of everyone we've been compared to, but I guess I've been surprised when people have compared us to The Promise Ring or Guided By Voices. I think people sometimes miss influences of ours from the 60's.
One last question, the one I always ask. If there was an album, movie or live performance that has blown you away recently, please tell me what it was.
Joe: Live Performances: Nada Surf, Juliana Hatfield (both in Champaign). Albums: Plastic Ono Band by John Lennon, The Fox by The Rondelles, Early Singles/In The Red by the DB's/the Sneakers, Fountains of Wayne by Fountains of Wayne. Movies: Rear Window, The Anniversary Party, Halloween (tv version) dvd, Shrek.
Amanda: Hmmm, let's see. I really love the new Mirah album you think it's like this but really it's like this. I also really like the White Stripes new album White Blood Cells. As for live shows, Nada Surf and Juliana Hatfield, both in Champaign. Also, Joe and I just saw Ghost World at the theater, it totally blew us away, I definitely reccommend it.