For over fifteen years Mid West mavericks Wolf Eyes have managed to bring jaded hardcore heads and improv nerds together under the crucible of eviscerating noise. The Detroit-Michigan trio currently consists of John Olson, Nathan Young and Jim Baljo, who man an arsenal of anti-social handmade electronics and perform with a ferocity that psyches up and repulses crowds in equal measure. Over the course of 500-plus releases, Wolf Eyes have managed to create a dialogue between Neubaten-esque industrial, ragged American hardcore and vital free music improvisers like AMM. Yet despite their penchant for the extreme, the enduring legacy of Wolf Eyes is their ability to make noise genuinely fun, and their ascent into decidedly mainstream waters via releases on Sub Pop and more recently, Jack White’s Third Man Records, is an unusually successful alloying of larger audiences with mace-wielding, gore soaked anarchy.
Another anti-social project embraced by a surprisingly large audience is Ron Morelli’s imprint L.I.E.S. Since 2010 Morelli has corralled many a bedroom loner, introducing the world to the reduced, beaten-up house sounds of Beau Wanzer, Florian Kupfer, Xosar, Person of Interest, Delroy Edwards and Terekke, to name just a smattering of Morelli’s ever-expanding roster. L.I.E.S managed to capture the imagination of an international dance music scene hungover from the minimal era and the omnipresence of grey-scale techno—indeed, the hype surrounding L.I.E.S’ early period has thankfully dropped in intensity, allowing Morelli to discretely churn out a bevy of satisfying club tracks alongside a trio of his own LPs for Dominck Fernow’s Hospital Productions… an imprint that has released Wolf Eyes material in the past.
Rightly or not, L.I.E.S has always been associated with noise, so bringing together Morelli, Olson and Young for a conversation cast the boundaries and bleeding points between dance music and noise culture into relief. And with Wolf Eyes on the cusp of their biggest release yet, the question of how underground ethics interact with the mainstream has never been more pertinent.
Nate Young: Tell me something about yourself, Ron. I might know who you are.
Ron Morelli: I run this label, L.I.E.S. Records, and I do records with Dom [Fernow, AKA Prurient]. My own music comes out on Hospital Productions. I’ve seen Wolf Eyes play in various situations throughout the years: some solo gigs, sometimes with Black Dice, sometimes with other bands. I saw John [Olson] playing solo in Detroit at the Russell [Industrial Center] building years ago.
NY: You saw Olson play as Henry Hazel & Slaughter up in Russell Industrial?
RM: Exactly. It must’ve been three years ago.
NY: That’s cool, man. That was one of my favorite Olson shows. It was like an endurance test, too. Motherfucker, you played for hours straight.
RM: And it was hot as fuck, too. When I first came out to the Detroit area, I guess that must’ve been somewhere around 2004, my friend brought me around everywhere. In that weekend, I hung out with all kinds of people: some chick in a garage band, or some fuckin’ dude in noise—it’s not separate. Everyone was interested in music, flat-out.
NY: There’s nothing here, and we don’t have a lot going on. You said you were able to see everything, but you know, I do think you’re able to see a wider variety of stuff in other places. Detroit is great and the local music scene has always been really amazing, but you don’t get that many international or national acts coming here.
John Olson: We’re like our own desert island. Touring people go from Ohio to Chicago—they don’t dip up to Detroit, especially punk bands. Some electronic bands come up to pay homage to the OGs, but there’s really not a lot of touring people coming through here, which is a benefit to us as artists because then we have to come up with it ourselves. There’s no system set up. It’s like shooting freedom into your arm.
RM: It was just sick. In that weekend alone, I saw Rodriguez playing live, met Robert from a Number of Names, Mammal, Joe Preston, DJ Havery, Traxx. It was everything and anything, and people were just down, man…everyone would come out, from garage rockers to techno heads. People were just down for music across the board. It got my mind open—it wasn’t like that in New York. It’s one way or the other way, which is unfortunate that people don’t get their heads open like that.
JO: There’s all this back and forth [about distinguishing between music genres]: is it this? Is it that? Us Michigan boys up in the woods, we’re just like, “Let’s just call it trip metal.” All this “Well, it’s techno-noise,” “Well, it’s goth-noise,” “Well, vampires like it”—whatever man, just invent your own name and whatever happens, happens. There’s no guidebook for trip metal, and there will never be. People are already starting to define trip metal without us even being a part of it. I think that’s better than getting the balance beam out and weighing techno on one end and harsh industrial, nihilistic feedback on the other end.
NY: It’s not a big deal, but people get really protective and territorial over their specific branches, experiments and investigations, which is fine. But it really works to close peoples’ minds rather than encouraging them to explore and progress. If people actually consider themselves artists, isn’t that the idea? Not to limit yourself and only do things that you’re comfortable with.
JO: So many cats shut it down if it’s not in their genre. In the Pandora and iTunes world, the computer decides what you would like, so maybe having something forced down your throat is a better way to listen or gain knowledge than clicking through 13 people who sound like Jose Gonzales and wanting to shoot yourself afterwards…But hey.
NY: What about you, Ron, what’s your take on all this?
RM: I’d have to agree 100 percent with you guys. It becomes an unfortunate thing when the people who are generally making the music have their own well-intentioned reasons for wanting to do what they do and then it gets blown into this whole other fucking extremely restrictive view by the media, by the Internet, by the fucking goons and what have you. Especially for my label, no one ever goes out and says, “I’m this, I’m doing that, I’m doing that”—they just do their thing with the intention of making music, not saying “I’m house, I’m this, I’m that.” It is what it is.
NY: The media definitely has a lot to do with that. We were in Finland, where they have an amazing music library. It’s so vast and has everything you can imagine: experimental noise, industrial, classical—everything. You’ve got to categorize that in order to catalog, you know? So there is that point. I understand why things need to be cataloged. It’s not very fun, but I guess from a historical standpoint it makes sense to go through stuff.
RM: In the sphere of electronic music, maybe it becomes more narrow. There are ideas and rules about what house is and what techno is. They’re territorial about what can be something, what something has to be and what it can’t be.
NY: It’s our job to confuse and blur those lines, right? We’re not librarians. We’re musicians and artists. It’s not our job to adhere to anything at all. I believe my role is exactly the opposite: to do anything and everything that I feel like doing, and it’s against any categorization and whatnot.
JO: A lot of people around here find their groups and stick to that. We did an experiment once—the Clash of the Titans concert series where we tried to get people from different groups to come together to have one night of local music—and it was a nightmare. People had fun, but there were personality clashes and yadda yadda yadda. So a lot of people stick within their own little enclaves. The experiments we tried to do, doing gigs with punk bands, never worked out, anywhere. Even in Mexico City it didn’t work out. But that’s, you know, no holds barred. We’ll try it. But in terms of the audience, there was a lot of confusion.
NY: It is hard, but it is better now, I will say that. We did have problems trying to put on more musically-diverse shows, but we’ve had shows at our little spot, MUG [Michigan Underground Group], that have gone off pretty fuckin’ well. One sticks out: what was that, Hair Police with a punk band—Kremlin. That was great. Everyone got along.
JO: When we did a bunch of shows with Sonic Youth, some of those were the most volatile concerts ever. Me and Nate opened up for Kim [Gordon] and Thurston [Moore] solo, and that was the most insane clash environment ever. Even “noise” fans didn’t want to hear it. It’s kind of like Frankenstein: the more they want to put us down, the more we get shocked with a bunch of bolts and we get stronger.
NY: That’s always been our path since the beginning. We knew what we were doing. It was part of a mentality of “Let’s see what we can get away with.”
RM: I mean, to be straight-up, I’m not from the world of noise. I’m not—for the lack of a better term—of that world. I’m around it, I’ve known about it, I’ve witnessed it, but my roots—I haven’t been touring in a noise band for 17 years or something like that. I come more from the side of DJ culture. I don’t DJ noise records when I play. You go to the club, you put the records you play that reflect some of your taste, you challenge them a little bit, but you don’t just rip peoples’ heads off. I like Traxx because it’s challenging to watch him DJ. He’s pushing it, but he’s not completely alienating the crowd. They want to dance. He, in my opinion, is one of the few people DJing who actually pushes it with what he does.
NY: There are similarities between us, though. We do have crossovers, like Container. And we all call ourselves “artists.” There are traditions. We all agree on that, right?
NY: And then the next thing is that we’re entertainers. Is there a mentality now where people are entertained by being alienated? Is there a certain alienation that they want in their music? Is that the challenge that they’re looking for, exactly?
JO: I think you gotta look at the audience. We consider the audience for this kind of category to be outsiders, but they go to shows to be in a social group. What my man Ron was saying about still being able to dance, it’s the same thing with us: the audience is a bunch of outsiders, but they’re still there to have fun.
NY: It’s interesting to me, because there is a relationship between club and noise. There is, I really truly believe there’s something there. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I do see it work here and there.
RM: I mean, yeah. I oftentimes just wonder, because you hear people say this and that, but if you go back and listen to [Jeff] Mills’ Waveform Transmissions and you have some of the heaviest brutality out there—it’s grindcore. It’s power violence. It’s everything, man. Sometimes when people see it as “techno” because that’s how they associate Jeff Mills, then the music is more acceptable than when its seen outside of that context. If someone else does it, it’s not that. But since he’s that, it’s that. Sometimes people can’t get that out of their heads to see something else.
NY: We definitely enjoy challenging our audience with different aesthetics and working with different people. The elephant in the room is Jack White. That’s part of our history, but it’s also incredibly shocking to people. Third Man is inviting us into their world, and in turn, we’re inviting them into ours. We consciously knew that a lot of what we were doing wouldn’t be appropriate for a lot of different environments, so it’s interesting watching the progression of things. Obviously, noise and experimental music and trip metal as we know it has become more popular.
JO: More accepted.
NY: OK, so let’s try this out. Yo, I’m a A&R guy with Warner Brothers, Ron. We’re looking to sign more experimental music. We’ve been checking out your label and your music specifically. What do you think? Do you want to come over?
JO: Your fan base will probably freak out.
NY: It’s different for us because what we’re doing with Third Man is definitely a part of our history. We were pulling pranks on him at a shared rehearsal space. We were playing shows at the same time. I think we even played with him. So it’s a bit of a different circumstance. But if Warner Brothers was to approach us and offer us a ton of money, I would consider it, definitely. But if they were douche-y and had no idea what was going on—I don’t know man. I don’t know if I could deal with it. The Sub Pop thing was the first time we experimented with a larger label, and that was great. I really felt like that helped noise in general take off a bit more and be recognized by more people than ever before.
JO: Ever before?
NY: Yeah, why not. Ever before. That’s important for culture at large. Let’s just fuckin’ do it. If no one’s gonna do it, we will. And I feel like we do it the best way it can possibly be done. Signing with larger labels can be detrimental and fucked-up for bands’ careers, but we’ve had really good luck, and everything has started to make sense. It’s a strange world we’re living in. We wouldn’t be in this situation if people weren’t able to have access to anything, anytime all the time. It would still be very much how we all came up in the ‘90s. I’m an old man nowadays.
RM: Yeah, I came up with no internet, just seeing dudes skating with a Misfits shirt and talking to them to see what’s going on.
NY: Totally. Those were the days. Talking about skating as your way of meeting people—without those simplistic signs, like a Misfits shirt, you wouldn’t even meet someone. And sometimes when you did, you’d be like, “Fuck you, I don’t want to know you. I was into this, and now you’re here.”
JO: That’s pretty much what it’s like nowadays when you see someone with a Misfits shirt.
NY: Still applies.
JO: Kind of applies a little bit more. It’s like a sign of someone you don’t want to hang out with.
NY: What’s that great story of Roach? That shirt that someone was wearing.
JO: Oh, yeah. I don’t live in Detroit, I live in Lansing. It’s 90 miles west. We’d come up to Detroit when there’d be a gig. Around ’95 or something, a good friend of ours—the buddy I drove with—Danny Ramirez, came up to Roach at a show because he was wearing a Merzbow shirt. He was like, “Aw man, cool Merzbow shirt,” and Roach just looked at him and said, “Fuck you.”
NY: That is a true telling of Michigan lore. That’s what our culture is kind of like. “No one likes it, and I want it to stay that way!” But I have this thing I’ve been saying that kind of ties everything together. Trip metal attempts to capitalize on confusion as a means of connection. That isn’t a threat to authenticity. That’s where we’re at now. We all have confusion in common, that’s the one thing that bounds us together, and we can talk about it. Endlessly.
JO: It’s confusing times. Everything’s coming at you at once. You’re two clicks away from hearing the entire Jeff Mills discography. You have access to the biggest library in the universe, and you’ve got to do something with that. It’s a big job to step up to. Then somebody tells you to fuck off in a Merzbow shirt. The funny thing is, my homeboy Ramirez didn’t think he was a dick, you know. It’s what you expected, I guess.