San Francisco's Dire Wolves take an excursion to Cloudland with their new record that adopts psychedelic instrumental improvisation in lieu of conventional songwriting.
The band released its latest record earlier this year, Excursions To Cloudland. Can you tell us a little about the record and what the "excursion to cloudland" meant for you?
Sheila: We right away had the "cloudland" part of the name. Cloudland really seems fitting with this album's surreal and spacey moods and Lau Nau's exquisite vocals. The other version of the title that was voted out was Rehearsals in Cloudland and then there was the goth version Scarlet Cloudland!
Jeffrey: Rehearsals for Cloudland was my Tower Recordings reference that got voted down. Yeah that record really made an impression on me.
Brian: Cloudland wasn’t necessarily our direction since we hadn’t even planned to record an album. But a certain slowly unfolding vaporous presence started to manifest as we played. Couple this with our home base being Fog Town, USA (especially in summer when we recorded the songs that appear on Excursions, as well as on Oceans of Green (out in mid-May on Feeding Tube Records), and you find yourself lost in a JW Turner painting, albeit one featuring the Pacific Ocean.
The record features 4 long players, layered really well with tons of droney, psychedelic instrumentation. What's the writing process like for a 10+ minute psychedelic voyage like the opener "Enter Quietly?"
Jeffrey: There is no writing. I am not interested in that. I am only interested in feeling and listening and playing with others who do the same. That’s where the magic is. I want to improvise completely and get lost in the sounds. Some of the best things happen when I close my eyes and nod out, completely unaware.
Sheila: We all really enjoy playing together and somehow our chemistry comes up with these journeys in sound. We really don't know where this comes from because we all have different musical tastes, but you could say when you take our different styles and blend it together, it ends up being very psychedelic!
Jeffrey: For sure – everyone obviously brings their own musical orbit and that’s what makes live improvisation so exciting. The sounds that come at you often make you play something you would never think of. This is the drug. Throw a hippie, a goth, a metalhead, a folkie, and a minimal electronic musician in a basement. We all like Bob Marley though.
Brian: "Enter Quietly" is the first “song” we recorded with Laura, who was on a West Coast tour (as Lau Nau) in early summer 2016. Other than Jeffrey, the rest of the band had never met Laura until the moment we all converged at our space. There was no writing process as such. The entire album is made up of spontaneous compositions (with minimal overdubs).
Jeffrey: Yeah I met Laura while I was touring Finland in 2004 with Black Forest/Black Sea. Then, we played shows together on and off over the years here and in Europe. She is in an incredible talent with a lovely ear. Last summer, she was visiting and I invited her down to our practice space, introduced her to the others and then 2 minutes later (after the whiskey was passed around) we hit record and "Enter Quietly" came out.
How did you guys record Excursions to Cloudland and did that process mimic some previous record's processes? What things were different recording-wise for Excursions?
Sheila: What is great about Cloudland is that it was recorded in our practice space where we are really comfortable. It is literally a 10'x6' room in a basement in San Francisco. It also helps that Jeffrey is really good with recording and mixing.
Jeffrey: Ha, thanks Sheila! It was recorded to 8-track, everything close-mic’d. Except for the drum overheads that pick up everything but that’s kind of what makes it sweet. There’s enough separation to mix later but still that excellent live sound that just makes it real. I was a taper when i used to follow the Grateful Dead, and this was the mix i always went for – even on the shitty Marantz 2-track cassette that I used back then: 1 channel from a boom mic and 1 channel from a board feed (if we were lucky that night). We used to daisy chain those single board feeds all around the tapers section!
How did the band come together? What's the writing delegation like for the group?
Jeffrey: Well it started it as a way to blow off steam/just to mess around in the basement of an espresso bar cafe that I owned in Pittsburgh, PA. A kind of rawk power trio at first, and then more people joined, some people left, instruments changed, we put out a lot of tapes on different labels and it just kept getting weirder. We played a few shows at Zebulon in New York but didn’t get out of town much otherwise. Well, there was a short Midwest tour in 2010 (I think?) with some folks in the van who had never met each before we got on the highway (sound familiar?). Then at some point it was a weird trio with Liz on guitar, Daphne on trumpet and I was playing banjo. Then I moved to San Francisco and sort of forgot about it... started making new age music.
Sheila: But writing-wise, we all write and come up with our own parts and literally like something as a whole. We aren't the kind of band that nit picks this bar and that note.
Brian: I can only speak about the West Coast version of Dire Wolves, which began in 2014. I had heard the band when I was given the Jams and the Giant Peace cassette by the folks at Stunned Records in 2012 and really dug it. I also had met an ex-guitarist for Dire Wolves, Matt McDowell at that time. Three years later a mutual friend told me Jeffrey happened to work at the same museum as I did. I emailed him and suggested getting together to play music with Sheila and I.
Jeffrey: Yeah, Matt played drums at first and then moved to guitar, like J Mascis.
Brian: Everyone brings their own vibe to the whole. We have a couple members who drift in and out. We’re open to more drifters!
You've had 12 full length records released since 2008 when the band formed. What type of things keep the group creatively engaged to generate new and diverse material?
Brian: Probably having twenty people play in the band over the course of ten years and never having real songs.
Jeffrey: Hahaha. Things change with people and instruments for sure, but I kind of like the way that this has evolved naturally as a result. Since I started playing with Brian and Sheila, it's been more of a core sound than Dire Wolves has ever had. And now with Arjun’s violin – what a fantastic addition! It's a really solid foundation to build off of with other players and other sounds. But most importantly its fun. And why should anything else matter? We have fun, we experiment, we improvise. It's not always going to work, but that’s why we record everything.
Who are some influences for the psychedelic and folk arrangements in Dire Wolves' recordings?
Sheila: Again our combined musical tastes that seem to come up with this sound. Some influences are Pink Floyd, Electric Prunes, Rush. We are in such crazy times now in the world that it seems natural to gravitate to psychedelic side of things.
Jeffrey: At home I mostly listen to Joni Mitchell and Cocteau Twins.
Sheila: I wouldn't say influenced by the Cocteau Twins....replace with Bauhaus!
Brian: Musicians and non-musicians who play exploratory music or create their own unique sonic world. We get compared to Trad Gras och Stenar and Amon Duul a lot. I’m into a pretty wide spectrum of music/sounds, not just space rock. There are no arrangements on the album other than the ones that spontaneously occur. The music found its own form very quickly and mimic “songs” pretty well.
Jeffrey: I thought we played jazz?
What's the live performance like for the group and how has several years of playing together changed the performance?
Sheila: Playing live adds in the excitement/nerves and the audience vibe, which can often effect our sound. We definitely have had some times where we jump into some bizarre riff at the same moment and look at each other like "what the hell just happened?"
Brian: Sometimes we use code like “play a forest of tiny sounds” to generate inspiration before a live show. Also band members come up with song titles beforehand which we then attempt to describe musically. A good example of this is the title Sheila came up with, "Marching Goth Soldiers, Blood, Diamonds and Black Silk" on our cassette, The Bernal Codex.
Jeffrey: Vibes man.