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In Extremis

Rorschach Effect: Nate Young Talks Regression & Wolf Eyes
Ian Maleney , November 6th, 2013 06:27

Nate Young has had a busy year, presiding over the return of Wolf Eyes on ferocious form and guiding his Regression solo electronic project into hypnotic zones. He speaks to Ian Maleney about improvisation, manual labour, and how Wolf Eyes are becoming even more unhinged with age

After a decade and a half at the heart of the aggressive noise scene of the American Midwest, Nate Young is feeling better than ever. As the founding member of Wolf Eyes, Young has a claim for being the central figure in the global explosion of noise music during the last ten years. Alongside Aaron Dilloway and John Olson, Young developed Wolf Eyes from frantic teenage experiments in noise to an overwhelming sound-world, distinct and completely their own. Dilloway left before their crossover hit Human Animal dropped on Sub Pop in 2006, and he was replaced by Mike Connelly of Hair Police. Connelly left earlier this year to be replaced by "Crazy" Jim Baljo, a long-time friend of the band who drove them in his own van on their first tour.

Their latest record, No Answer: Lower Floors on De Stijl, sees them once again at the peak of their powers, with Young's production work growing in confidence and density. Recorded in Detroit, in an abandoned factory building recently taken over by the band, the record is the work of a more reflective, more refined - but still really bloody heavy - Wolf Eyes. And while his main band went through a quiet period in the years prior to No Answer, Young was being characteristically prolific in his solo work. The most notable result of his efforts is Regression, a solo project exploring a much more sparse and less aggressive set of aesthetics.

The Regression series of albums presents an aesthetic shift away from the more abrasive and in-your-face work of many of Young's other projects, which has taken some listeners expecting more Wolf Eyes-style material aback. This year's fourth instalment Blinding Confusion was released via NNA Tapes, while Vol. 3: Other Days was recently given a vinyl issue by Demdike Stare's self-titled label. They contain much more balanced and carefully plotted music, which achieves a great deal of mileage out of simple patterns of synth and drums colliding in strange, unexpected ways. Regression has since developed into a project in its own right, beginning with Dilloway and Olson guesting on one of Young's recent releases.

The Quietus caught up with Young at home on a short break between the end of the last Wolf Eyes tour and the start of his current solo jaunt around Europe.

You just got back from a short tour with Wolf Eyes - how was it?

Nate Young: It's strange, we're kind of in a rejuvenated place with Wolf Eyes. It's probably the most fun I've had being in this band in quite a while. It's somewhat fresh, the material, the songs and whatnot, but also just the energy. As we're getting older, we're beginning to realise how important it is to keep the energy going. We love to do skateboarding and that, just as a health factor, it's kind of made jet-lag non-existent. A lot of things like that. Just the overall energy coming from being active and not just falling into the dressing room hole, you know what I mean? The backstage pit. That's half of what touring is, it's just downtime. You've really got to make use of your downtime in a positive way or it can take you some time to get used to it.

Having a new member must help with that fresh energy.

NY: We needed new energy, I'll tell you that much. You start repeating ideas and then you're in trouble. You can call it refinement but at the same time, it is just repeating ideas. It's nice to at least have someone with a fresh take on old idea.

'When Nothing Works', taken from Blinding Confusion (NNA Tapes)

You guys were at Incubate, right? Did you do a solo set there as well?

NY: Kind of a new thing that's been popping up with festivals is that they'll ask us to do a couple of our bands, or as many as we can. What I mean is that Wolf Eyes collectively have about five or six different projects, probably more. At Incubate, we played Stare Case, Wolf Eyes, Henry & Hazel Slaughter, Regression and the Crazy Jim Band. So that was quite a lot, it was challenging. But at the same time, I think what we're going for is that all of our ideas, separately, do add up to what we're doing together in Wolf Eyes. It's interesting and fun to poke at that fact, and kind of make it ironic, like 'Oh wait, all of a sudden we're seeing Henry & Hazel Slaughter, but it's the same people on stage'. It's kind of funny. It's natural, to tell you the truth, it's just how things played out.

Do you think playing shows with all the different projects helps to give people an better idea of what goes into Wolf Eyes?

NY: Sure, it kind of helps tie everything together. Everything makes a little more sense. Even the more far out ideas are anchored in some kind of communication between a couple of people. It's still easier to digest, I think. We hope that it makes some kind of larger picture for people, but if not it's just confusing. I think that's good too, you know? It's healthy. You should always try to stump yourself, get that brain working.

I was reading before that some people were kind of confused by the Regression shows - people not knowing when it was starting or when songs would finish.

NY: Well you know, that's typically a problem with experimental music in general. Being delicate and especially coming from Wolf Eyes or any sort of aggressive project that I might be in, it can be kind of confusing for people for sure, not really certain when I start or when I end. I don't mind that. Nowadays I'm adjusting my set and looking at a larger arc instead of individual songs. So those awkward moments are integrated into the composition. That's just how it has to be.

Do you get that kind of reaction often - where people are expecting one thing and getting another?

NY: When I was in Japan it was like that. I had to headline over Incapacitants. They ended and literally threw their equipment over their heads and I mean, Jesus, they absolutely created amazing chaos. It was a great show. And I was like, fuck, man, I have to go after that? It was really difficult, it took a while to get the audience into it. Especially after Incapacitants. That was a tough one to follow, I have to say. In the end it worked out really well I think, because I just ended up playing for a lot longer, making it obvious that things were just supposed to be abstract and psychedelic, not in-your-face abrasive. It was appreciated. Contrast. I do work with the contrast, but it's hard when you run into situations when the audience is so in one zone, and it's difficult to contrast everyone's vibe. Most of the time it works. The Regression series is pretty straightforward though, it's always really been real sparse, and more about beauty than abrasive mess, you know?

That's one thing I found myself thinking listening to the last track on Blinding Confusion, 'The Bastard Gums'. I just thought, this is actually really beautiful. Is Blinding Confusion a Regression release? I'm a little unsure which are Nate Young releases and which are Regression releases.

NY: That is a Regression release. It's real confusing, what I'm doing. Again, I'm kind of intentionally confusing people. But to me it makes sense. There is the Nate Young Regression Series and that's all solo work, purely solo work. Then I started, towards the end of the series, to work with different people. I had Dilloway and Olson on the one before last. It struck me to start working with other people within this established aesthetic. So far I've only collaborated with one other person, this guy Chris Durham. He's a Detroit cat. I can see how... I'm confused even talking about it. But that was the vibe I was going for. This was my solo attempt, and now I want to integrate musicians and different players into the band, and try to elaborate on this aesthetic. It's the same kind of process I did with Wolf Eyes - just starting solo, and inviting members here and there until we clicked. That's kind of the idea. I'm hoping to get a full band eventually with Regression, but as of now, I haven't been able to have enough time to continue to jam with more than one or two people. The tour is just going to be me. The record has a little bit of collaboration.

Do you have a set kind of aim or set of goals when you're working on the Regression stuff? What makes a track a Regression track rather than another project?

NY: It's all about trying to make records you want to listen to more than once. That fit different moods, that isn't just one kind of vibe. That kind of seep into different parts of your day. At least that's my attempt, I'm not saying I always achieve that yet, but I'm definitely trying to go that direction - because a lot of experimental records I'll listen to, but at very specific times of the day and times of my life, like the end of the night or when people are just a little intoxicated and you put on something a little crazy and you see a reaction from them. This is something a little different, like I could put my record on any time and people would be okay with it. Well, I hope.

Is there like a set process for each record? Do you have a particular set-up that you use for the Regression project?

NY: I have a process. Initially with the Regression series, I was doing everything via tape loops and triggering sequences on my Pro-One. That worked really well. It gives you a really awkward, unsymmetrical but inverted, kind of Rorschach effect. Just recently I started to elaborate on that and include just straight up MPC sequencing. Actually I've had one for years and I never used it as an actual sequencer, I always used it just as a looping device. That's kind of what I've been getting into lately. Trying to translate these Rorschach type rhythms onto the MPC, so I can make it a little more melodic and have a little more control over the song progression.

Is the set up different from project to project?

NY: It is. There are different instruments for each band but I have been trying to refine it to the point where I can do them all, go back and forth, but you know, there's always one extra piece of gear that I can't bring. Right now I'm not even sure exactly what I'm going to bring on my next tour. It's funny because once I got over the idea that I was using very specific vintage synths on tracks, once I got over that, I was pretty open to use any sort of synthesiser as long as there was some CV/Gate or even MIDI control. The door is wide open. I'm a knob guy. You gotta have knobs.

Are you still making your own instruments, still modifying things? I was reading elsewhere that nearly everything you were using before was modified to some extent.

NY: I have some instruments that I've modified or put together different circuits or whatnot. The more fragile ones - and by fragile I mean the ones I didn't build so well - those stay home, but I have a couple of black boxes. That's totally what they are, nondescript black boxes that I travel with. Those are attempted to be played in all the different projects, but it's increasingly difficult. They fall apart and it's all about trying to perform something accurately or at least expressively each night, when your equipment is just crumbling, just out of over-use. It's on its last legs. I would go as far as to say that 70% of the time when I'm on tour, my equipment is barely functioning. That's just how it is! That's where the improvisation, the fresh performance ideas, comes from. You can't even help it.

A lot of recent interviews with you have mentioned how you've been getting into music theory and that more formal side of music. Is that still ongoing for you?

NY: It's not like I study at all. If you look at music like a kit, like say you're building a model car, music is very similar to that. The elements are there and knowing how it fits together can really help, like following instructions. You see the four-four and the block foundation of everything. I definitely have been going that direction but at the same time, as soon as I get some sort of grasp - even, like, a result that I like - then I start to abstract it a little bit and see what else I can do. Following music theory definitely helps, but at the same time, it can be a real hindrance. You can hit a brick wall just because you're like, 'this sounds so ordinary', but the funny thing about that is that ordinary can be really beautiful sometimes. I'm treading lightly on both sides of the fence, just feeling out what I can do with very basic music theory.

Is John Olson musically trained? I've always assume he was just because of what he plays.

NY: Yeah, he's been playing maybe since he was like 15 or something like that. His mother has always been a musician, she plays harp in this band, Kindred Spirits. They're killer. It's really weird though, his dad was like an army boss guy, a general or something, something heavy. He had both sides of the fence, this kind of beauty queen mom who played harp and this tough-ass dad! That tells you about Olson.

That sounds pretty extreme. Was your home similar to that?

NY: I kind of had the same thing. My mom was a seamstress and my dad was a carpenter. Very Midwest, classical, traditional gender jobs. So, yeah, for sure.

I was reading that actually, that you work with your dad when you're not touring or whatever. Do you still do that? Have you been working with him much lately?

NY: Not much this year. I've been pretty busy just with touring and recording and whatnot. But yeah, that'll probably be my business someday. My brother and I will probably take it over pretty soon, you know. He's getting on in age, he's seventy something now. Someday. I like working outside. It really gives you a balance of the seasons. You really experience them. Without that, I don't know if I... I don't know. It definitely helped form some of my character just working with him throughout the fucking terrible winters. Slushy, mud-ridden, fucking springs you know. It's intense work.

My dad was kind of the same, he builds farm sheds and things like that, big structures. But he was always like, you've got to go to college, don't even think about doing what I'm doing.

NY: That's totally the same thing but he was an old hippie freak, so what could I do but go with my freak roots? He knew it too. He's too much of a free thinker and wild party animal. I love the contrast, it keeps me grounded. Obviously when there's not work to be done playing gigs, it's always nice to go and fall back on doing simple, manual labour. Building a structure. It puts your head right. That's kind of what we were doing, in Wolf Eyes' quiet period. We all just started finding odd jobs to take our mind off of this project for a little bit.

Wolf Eyes - 'Choking Flys', taken from No Answer: Lower Floors (De Stijl)

I'm sure it was probably necessary from a financial point of view too though, right? It's probably good to not be completely reliant on the band for money.

NY: I have encountered people who have a weird perspective of Wolf Eyes. A lot of people tend to think that we're well off, that we're just making money with this project, and it's not really the case. It's always a hustle. You look at why there's so many different bands, there are reasons. We have not been able to make the ends meet with Wolf Eyes alone. It's all part of being in a band. Sometimes people can't go on tour, sometimes things come up. You got to hustle. John's got a degree in industrial electronics and he's going to try become an electrician in the next couple of years. We try to keep it earnest, not get totally lost in dreams of touring forever. It's not so realistic. I will never stop touring but it definitely goes up and down. My music is just not wanted all the time! That's the path I chose, this is the kind of music I want to play, and I understand that it's not going to be popular.

That's something every weird or experimental musician kind of just has to come to terms with really. It's probably a blessing in many ways.

NY: You just choose it. It gives us the freedom to really lay it on the line when we do go out. There's total freedom and having a clear conscience to go absolutely apeshit, to make a big spectacle. Here we are, let's party, let's destroy. I think in our youth we were quite self-conscious about that. We went crazy, but at the same time, I think we're going crazier nowadays. I really do. The shows are getting a little more insane than they were before. Maybe it's just me, maybe it's just the refreshment, the rejuvenation, an intense energy. It seems like we are turning it up a notch. I like that. It's better now that we're older. We're free to absolutely go insane. Every tour we look around and if we don't feel that we're having more fun than anyone else in the room, then we're feel like we're letting ourselves down!

I guess it is a real performance with you guys too, you really go for it when you're actually on stage.

NY: That's rock and roll man. I feel like rock and roll fell off the whole noise thing a little bit. People forget that that's what it should be about. There's this guy we tour with, he's a tour manager but he was a driver before that, he said something kind of profound to us just recently. He said 'People forget that when you show up to a gig and you're on stage, it's a privilege'. You are there, you should give the audience and yourself as much entertainment as you possibly can. Whatever that may be, in the moment you should be willing to give. It kind of set us straight - we were like, right, sure it's about the music but we need to dig deeper than that and realise that it's more than that. Entertainment is sometimes more than just music, sometimes it's a party. Sometimes it's really letting loose and seeing someone act like they're 14 again. Personally I think that is where people need to be going nowadays with experimental music again. It's getting kind of dull! Where's the rock and roll, where's the punk? And I'm not saying that Regression is some profound reaction to that but Wolf Eyes definitely is. Regression is what it is.

Can you tell me a little about the Michigan Underground Group?

NY: That's our attempt really to keep it local. We have a very small scene here in Michigan. Really, you can write out the list of people who would be interested or might be interested, and you'd get to 30 or 40 and you'd be pretty hard pressed to find any more. That was the idea of the Michigan Underground Group, to find everyone locally and try to give them a spot where we could rehearse and also jam together. Typical clubhouse kind of thing, kind of modelling it after a biker club and some sort of workshop type of recording studio. It's a mouthful though for sure. The idea is that we have our own place and we can give back to other people who have hooked us up with places to play and places to stay throughout the years.

Is MUG in Detroit?

NY: Yeah, MUG's in Detroit, right in the middle.

The city seems in a bad way at the moment.

NY: It kind of always has been, that's kind of the thing about Detroit. Its city motto is 'We Hope For Better Things; It Shall Rise From the Ashes'. It just kind of spells out that it's always been destined for a phoenix-like thing. It burns bright, man, and it burns out every couple of years. We're at a point where it's starting to light up again, it's starting to burn. It's awkward for me, because I've never really been in the situation, I've never really witnessed the city have some sort of rebirth, so I'm really cynical about the whole thing. All I really see is a lot of groups of artists moving in who have some money, buying property and making bad art. I don't see a lot of really amazing, rejuvenating type of things. That's just me. For the average person who lives right down there, there's a decent grocery store that opened up, I don't know. There's a whole lot of bad art, did I mention that? That's pretty much it! There's a whole lot of bad art and there's a couple of grocery stores.

Sounds about right for the gentrification process.

NY: And people are all about, 'Oh, Detroit, we should get in on the ground floor, because it's supposed to be this fantastic place'. Throwing in 'Berlin' and all this kind of stuff. You know, it's so slow moving, you won't see the progress, but all of a sudden you'll be like, woah, here we are. I hate to be so cynical but it'll happen. And it'll probably burn out again.

And those people will move on somewhere else.

NY: They're trash. You know the term carpet-bagger? Carpet-bagger. That's kind of what we're dealing with. It loosely means people swooping in and taking advantage of something that has gone horribly wrong, and then once they realise that it's not going to get any better, they leave and they leave their garbage. That's kind of what we're dealing with. Again, I hate to be so cynical but that's just the city's history. I didn't make the history. It's just kind of how it's always been. A disaster. People come in thinking, I could make this better, and then they leave.

I guess the problem goes a lot deeper than there just not being enough places you can get artisan coffee.

NY: It's nothing you can put a band-aid on. The beauty of Detroit is that it's open, you get a lot of free space, a lot of time, a lot of personal reflection I guess. You're isolated. So that isolation kind of brings about a nice work aesthetic, a 'what else are you going to do' kind of vibe. I do understand why artists are moving there, because there is that kind of clarity from not feeling the pressure of the big city. There's a lawlessness that is inspiring. There's a kind of danger, I guess that can be inspiring too. It is what it is. You move here, you might get shot, you might get mugged, you might make some bad art.

Nate Young's Regressions Vol. 3, Other Days, and Vol. 4,, Blinding Confusion, are out now via Demdike Stare and NNA Tapes respectively.

Wolf Eyes' No Answer: Lower Floors is out now via De Stijl. For more on Wolf Eyes, click here to read our recent history of the group's craziest gigs, written by the band's John Olson.