Photo by Alivia Zivich
I recently hit up John Olson, the trip metal-mongering iconoclast and cofounder of legendary Michigan DIY Noise purveyors Wolf Eyes, and dude’s plate is loaded to the hilt. Olson’s in full-on dad mode, scarfing down ice cream with his kid; his band’s new post-industrial slab of creepoid groovescapes, I Am A Problem: Mind In Pieces, just dropped via Jack White’s Third Man Records, and that's without even mentioning the firestorm that recently erupted when the noise provocateurs hijacked their label’s Instagram account (to hilarious results).
But there’s more. Repercussions are still being felt since Olson declared “noise is dead”, while Wolf Eyes’ signing on to White’s high profile imprint has raised some highbrows. No matter. For Olson and his mates Nate Young and James Baljo, their MO has always been going against the grain. Case in point: the then-unlikely Wolf Eyes/Sub Pop alliance that manifested with noise touchstones, 2004’s Burned Mind and 2006’s Human Animal.
While Olson reminisces about Wolf Eyes’ dalliance with Sub Pop fondly, he’s moved on. There’s a tour with labelmates Timmy’s Organism coming up, and he’s hoping to finally shoot the shit with his boss Jack White, whose path he has yet to cross—with the exception of the well-documented amp-borrowing shenanigans that may have resulted in the White Stripe’s owing Wolf Eyes a big fat check.
Here, Olson filled us in on an array of topics including touring Israel, Michigan’s deep-assed musical history, playing a Satanic event, Sub Pop, and Third Man.
Noisey: I Am a Problem has been kind of a long running theme with you guys. Does that come from something in particular? Are you a problem? Are your minds in pieces?
John Olson: We generally try to be a problem anywhere we go and it ends up being that way anyway, so it’s, a lot better way to live life then trying to be a saint. Being skaters and misfits, the trouble just kinda finds us, so, it was suitable We all grew up skating, so we’re totally used to getting kicked out of places—being menaces in public [laughs].
How does your Michigan hometown inform Wolf Eyes’ vision?
Well, this morning, I was looking at the Why Be Something You’re Not public access show with Negative Approach and I was just stoked on the cultural perfection of being so Midwest [laughs]. So, you know, I think as far as talking like them and dressing like them, we’re not too far off. Very stark, and there’s always a joke in there but giving people their personal space and being yourself but also being cognizant to… every season here is beautiful so there’s always a change. So, it’s very rootsy. Ah, but you know, being from Michigan is totally—that’s the most important thing about the sound.
I dig John Brannon’s Twitter—his “Check it out” shtick for everything rules.
Yeah, I think it’s fake, but it’s still spot on. Necros and Die Kreuzen—all that stuff. I love Midwest hardcore people, going back to The Stooges and all that stuff and Michigan and Midwest rock, you know. We played a gig in the mid-2000s where it was Dilloway, Awesome Color, Wolf Eyes, Negative Approach, MC5, and then The Stooges. That was the best night ever.
Was that Wolf Eyes’ best gig ever? It definitely has to rank as best lineup ever.
It was the best lineup, but the best gig we ever played happened this summer in Michigan when we played The Unveiling—the largest Satanic event in history. That was the heaviest night ever. That was in the middle of summer, like, a couple months ago. There were protesters, and it was just completely grassroots and dystopian nihilism at its best. When you walked into the room, which was a bona fide Satanic temple for the night and also the biggest public Satanic event in the history of time, it just felt like you got a nine-volt charge ‘cause the atmosphere was so intense.
Do you usually get that charged up when you play live?
Last time we got that charged was when we played Jerusalem.
Yeah, the back cover of this record is the Wailing Wall, and the insert for the record is our equipment at the Satanic show.
How was the experience playing in Israel?
It was amazing. We tried to play Palestine right after but it’s nearly impossible to do them both consecutively. We played Jaffa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We met the most incredible people we ever met there, and Mia, who books us, is from there so it was amazing. Every night, the people were partying hard so I drove the entire time [laughs].
How was the reception? Is there a contingent of Wolf Eyes fans there?
It’s hard to get in, so they’re down for anything. The gigs were a blast. I absolutely loved it. And then we played Turkey right afterwards so it was a good tour.
It’s been a while since you were on Sub Pop, but how did that all go down that Wolf Eyes wound up on there?
It goes back to Clint (Simonson, owner of De Stijl Records). He was working with them for the Michael Yonkers reissue and he had a made a joke. They were like “What do you guys wanna put out next?” and he just made a joke like “How about Wolf Eyes?” And they were like “No way, it’d be like selling microwaves to a circus.” Then they were like “Oh, that’s a good deal, let’s check out a gig.” Then they flew to Minneapolis to check out a gig and it just played out from there.
Did Sub Pop think noise was the next big thing?
I mean, you’ve been to Seattle—whatever they think the next big thing is four years behind that [laughs]. I had no idea what was going through their mindset.
Did they try to get you onto bigger, more high-profile gigs?
Well, we were all posed to do Lollapalooza and then at 6 in the morning, I got a mass email from Perry Farrell saying Lollapalooza was shut down two weeks before we were supposed to go out for, like, four months. So, we had to do a pick-up tour with Sonic Youth for a month and a half and we played with a lot of weird people and in places there.
How did you hook up with Jack White’s label, Third Man?
We’ve bumped into Jack White back when he had no fans and he was just a weirdo hanging out. He’s just a fan, in general, of Michigan stuff so him getting us on the label is akin to the roots of the Midwest more than anything else. We had the record done, we were just asking around and since it’s not too far off from the Sub Pop thing, someone joked about hitting up Ben Blackwell so we hit him up and it turned out really good.
Are you a White Stripes fan?
Detroit is a small place and I think Iggy and Alice Cooper said there’s a hundred people and everyone’s in a band. I remember seeing the White Stripes a bunch of times and people were like “Oh, they’re ok” and then, all of the sudden, they did three consecutive shows in Detroit, which was unheard of, and all of them were sold-out. And everyone was like “Oh, I think there’s something to this.” I thought that they were great and were very unique. I think that one of the most musically amazing things is how big they sound as a duo. It’s kinda like AC/DC. It’s completely syncopated music that’s hard to play that sounds huge and that’s hard to do. Usually, you hear a lot of duos that are completely syncopated and small and they’re just doing the same thing. And inversely, you see a bunch of two-drummer bands who are playing the same thing and it doesn’t sound big. But White Stripes sound huge. And, I think he really played really well to make style and vice versa. Musically, it’s amazing.
Has Jack checked out a Wolf Eyes gig yet?
No, but Nate got an email from him but we’re doing a residency at the end of the month so I’m hoping we’ll meet him then.
So you feel pretty at home on Third Man.
We try to strive to not be applied to anything and not to call anything “home” because we like the freedom of always maintaining a distance from everything. Like Sub Pop, we like being on labels where we stick out because that gives us more freedom and personally, I think that’s where aesthetics are the best when they’re challenged for people who want to hear it, you know? That’s why we liked playing with Sonic Youth and all these other rock bands because when you’re playing to people who don’t want to hear, you’ve gotta play better and be yourself. From Thurston to Kim to Lee to Steve, those guys helped us a lot. I’ve got nothing but respect for their entire squad.
So in terms of aesthetics, it’s like weight lifting aesthetics. If we’re just playing to the same people then you’re not really challenged. This is experimental music and there should be some type of conflict or failing or something, you know?
I Am a Problem: Mind In Pieces is out now via Third Man.