Wolvhammer On Writing With Blood and Guts, Evolution, and The Search for the Best Chicken Wings
“I always I want us to feel like approachable people. That’s why it’s like, ‘If you’re in the city, let’s go have a beer and talk this out.’ I always want the human quality to come across,” says Wolvhammer founder / drummer Heath Rave. It might not be a sentiment most people would expect from someone whose music is as dark and menacing as the Chicago / Minneapolis-based genre-bending five-piece tends to run, but it’s one of the not-so-secret facts of the metal world that very often, the uglier the music, the sweeter the musician.
Wolvhammer’s third full-length, Crawling Into Black Sun, comes out on Profound Lore on July 8. The record, which was recorded by Dan Jensen at Minneapolis’ Hideaway Studio and features artwork by the band’s friend and labelmate Stavros Giannopoulos (The Atlas Moth), takes a distinct turn from the raw, take-no-bullshit merging of blackened sludge and punk of its 2011 predecessor, The Obsidian Plains. With guitarist Jeff Wilson (Abigail Williams, Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium), who joined the band just before recording Obsidian, emerging as a lead creative force, the band peels back some of its sonic grit and depravity, revealing an icier, even more abysmal core under vocalist Adam Clemens’ occult-influenced lyrics, mixing sorrowful, silvery melodies in with its trademark, hook-riddled ragers.
It’s Rave’s day off from his job as a tattoo artist and he and his girlfriend have met me at the Chicago dive bar Wolvhammer has pinpointed as having the city’s best chicken wing special on Tuesday afternoons (“[Wings are] kind of our thing,” he explained when we confirmed the location). Next on their schedule is a stop at the art supply store and then home to play with their pitbulls, but first we get to talking about the new record and how to keep a work-life balance when both are equally kinda awesome. A condensed version of our conversation follows.
Noisey: Wolvhammer started as amalgamation of everything you liked about heavy music that came out of punk rock. Can you tell me a little about how you put it together?
Heath Rave: I was playing in this super heavy doom band at the time and we wrote a three-song, 45-minute, over-your-head, “we’re fucking awesome,” self-indulgent party record and I was really bored. I wanted to do a band like Motorhead doing black metal so I could get drunk and play drums fast on Friday nights. That’s all there was to it. I had the name for two years, the most generically awesome name ever. I even made a MySpace page for it so no one could take it from me and I drew the logos and all that shit, but I didn’t find personnel for it until two years later.
Did it sound like your dream band when you finally got it together?
It’s going to sound like whoever you’re playing with. It took me a bit to find people that I’d want to play with. The lineup changes over the years worked for the times we were in. The punk thing you brought up, you can hear that because having an interview with you right now was definitely not on my list of intentions with this thing at all. It was just to get drunk on Friday nights and open for my friends bands. That’s it.
So, what kept it going to the next level?
Four months after we started playing, Fred Pessaro (current EIC at Noisey) put us on a Brooklyn Vegan mixtape. We recorded that thing, “Dawn of the Fourth,” and put it on the Internet for free. Fred heard it and put it on Brooklyn Vegan and all of a sudden I was too busy to handle any of it
Did you know Fred before that?
No. We met Kim Kelly at a party at the Atlas Moth house about six years ago. I gave it to Kim, and she gave it to Fred and things just kind of snowballed from there. Fred’s a really good friend now, and he’s been really great to us, I think, because he was a fan already. I think he’s why we’re on anyone’s map at all.
Was your move to Chicago more for music or tattooing?
The lineup had changed. We knew that Andy was going to move to San Francisco. Jeff had joined the band, my best friends live here, and I was bored in Minneapolis so I might as well move up here. Adam stayed there, but with the advent of the Internet that’s no big deal now.
How does your songwriting work now?
Jeff wrote the entire new album. The whole thing. Parts of it I didn’t even hear until we got into the studio. For the last album, Andy and I came up with the song structures for everything. Jeff came on and came up with a lot of the melodies and a lot of leads, and he wrote the last song on Obsidian [“The Sentinels”].
That makes sense. That song is sort of the bridge to the new record.
Definitely. If you play them back to back, that song could go into the next one. Jeff has a pretty distinct style, especially if you go back to Assassins [Nachtmystium’s 2008 album, Assassins: Black Meddle, Part 1], and then you listen to our record you can tell how much he wrote. Jeff writes what Jeff writes. He’s got Chrome Waves too, and I think we’re two distinct beasts. This is Jeff more pissed off and Chrome Waves is a little more melancholic and sad, but there are some similarities.
For the last record, there were more of you living in Minneapolis, but you came to Chicago to record. This time the situation was the opposite. How did you decide to work with Dan Jensen this time?
Dan Jensen is a great friend. He’s my old roommate. The Off With Their Heads stuff [he recorded] sounds fucking impeccable. They’re the greatest punk rock band in Minneapolis right now, to me. He’s also in Battlefields, and did that last Battlefields record on Init.
Part of it was I had just moved here before Obsidian and Jeff had just joined us and it was easier for us to record here. I think we just wrote a better record this time, and we didn’t want the distractions of being at home. Even though I’m from Minneapolis and I got to see some old friends I wasn’t working or anything, I was just there to play drums. Dan’s a great engineer and I want to give him a chance to do more stuff and get his name on the map too because he deserves it. All of us have worked with Sanford [Parker] so many times on so many things and Sanford is busy enough as it is. I love him to death, he’s one of my best friends, but it was time to try something different.
Wolvhammer is a band that’s said, “We don’t take it too seriously. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.” Is that still the case?
We’re just heavy metal fans writing music we want to hear. If you listen to any of our records you can hear what our influences are at the time. I think this one really shows what we’ve always wanted to do with it and it’s probably our most serious record, but we’re not that full of ourselves to think we’re that fucking special. We just do what we do and have a blast. We’re not ultra kvlt craziness.
There are certain themes in our records—on all of our records, actually, we’re talking about some really dark fucking shit. The whole last record was all about self abuse. This one is way more occult, and that’s all Adam. Adam picked the title and all of the lyrics are his too. On the old ones I’d write lyrics too but these are all Adam’s and it goes into the record cover too. So this record might be more serious, but there are still these gigantic “put your foot on the monitor” cock rock blocks in there too. We never want to count higher than four and we want to be able to bang our heads while we do it too. We’re the same dudes.
Since the music became more serious on the third record, I wondered if the attitude followed.
What’s really funny is it’s almost less focused. I think it’s better because we we didn’t work as hard at it. Jeff wrote really good songs with simples structures and great hooks. We got home from that Black Dahlia tour, and then I moved, and then I cut my hand open in February, so I got to demo a couple of the songs and I never played them again until we went into the studio. The stitches came out four days before we to Minneapolis.
Were you able to work during that time?
I wasn’t working, I was sitting around for about three weeks, drunk with a splint on my hand. Truthfully, when we recorded it was the first time I had fun in a while so I was probably letting a lot of that shit out. It was a fun record to make, probably because of that.
Can you tell me a little about the artwork in terms of the themes? As an artist yourself, how involved were you this time?
I drew a rough sketch and then Stavros did it. On [Wolvhammer’s debut album] Black Marketeers of World War III, I drew the cover and Stavros added on top of that. He and I really collaborated on it. The last one had Jimmy Hubbard’s photography and Stavros did the layout. This time, I’ve been so busy tattooing that I don’t feel like drawing as much. I drew a really rough sketch of a circle and some arrows and a snake. It took about five minutes and I sent Stavros the picture and said, “make this” and he came back with it the next day.
Are you into symbology?
I know a little bit, but I’m not going to pretend to be an expert. The black sun apparently would be an occult or Satanic thing about your faith in yourself. So I wanted arrows in, and the arrows out are in retaliation to people that don’t understand it.
So retaliation has been a main thread this whole time?
Oh yeah. If you want to get into some deeper shit, I did make this band to have fun, but also at the time... I’m not going to name names in American black metal, and this is no reference to my friends or anything. Leviathan and Kreig are completely unfuckwithable and untouchable bands, so that’s not who I’m referring to. They’ve always known that black metal is about blood and guts, and not about, I don’t know... P.C. environmental farming bullshit, if you can catch my drift, so it was almost a direct reaction to all these bands that were bringing in this arty-farty P.C. bullshit but at the same time owed a whole ton of royalties to Varg for ripping off all his songs. That’s what all that shit sounds like to me. It was boring to me. I was like, “I want to hear stuff that sounds like Venom, Bathory, and Motorhead.” We’ve definitely gotten a little more esoteric, and grittier, and sadder, but that vibe is still in there for sure.
Are you involved with anything else, music-wise lately, or is there any crossover between your art and the music world?
I designed the logo for Corrections House this year. That’s been everywhere. I think I’ve been whored worse than the guy who did the Rolling Stones logo at this point. I worked with them on it, which was a real honor. I think I saw Neurosis for the first time when I was 13 so I’ve been a fan for over twenty years. And I’m a big Eyehategod fan too. I got to see Neurosis, Eyehategod, and Dead and Gone in 1996 when I was a sophomore in high school. So to get work with Mike [Williams] and Scott [Kelly], and then two of my best friends in the world too, Bruce [Lamont] and Sanford... Sanford saw the symbol I had done for Wolvhammer and said, “We need something like that.” I was completely honored to do it. The only other time I’d done that was for Battlefields, this old man with antlers. I’d like to do more of that, making a symbol for a band.
Corrections House took it to a whole new level, this serious propaganda. I like everything they’re doing, this in-your-face, Eastern Blok, warring kind of thing. I’m glad to have been a part of it from the get-go.
How about between the tattoo community and your music?
I try to keep it really separate. When I’m play drums it’s meant to be my break from my work because I spend so much time with that. I love what I do and I get to work at one of the best tattoo shops in the city for one of the best bosses in the city and I’m super busy and I couldn’t be happier and it couldn’t be better. It’s amazing. My life is all tattoos, skateboarding, heavy metal and pitbulls. It’s a pretty rad existence. I’m living the dream.