End of the loud wars
Talking noise with sound artist and meme king Johnny Olson of Wolf Eyes
Wolf Eyes will perform on Dec. 6 in Tulsa at Cameron Studios.
Wolf Eyes have spent more than two decades exploding minds worldwide through an ever-evolving exploration of sound. The experimental group from Detroit began as the solo enterprise of Nate Young in 1996, but their ranks have expanded and contracted over time to include the mind-flaying contributions of sometime members and fellow noise vets Aaron Dilloway, James Baljo and Mike Connelly.
Johnny Olson, who joined the band in 2000, has become a cult celebrity within the oft-perplexing, circular in-joke world of Instagram meme culture, through his popular inzane_johnny account. This is yet another chapter in the strange, exciting history of an underground noise band who had a brief fling with legendary indie label Sub Pop during the “noise wave” of the mid-2000s.
Olson and Young, the current iteration of Wolf Eyes, will be performing on Dec. 6 in Tulsa at Cameron Studios. The show is presented by Tulsa Noise, a project by Oklahoma native Nathan Young (no relation), a Tulsa Artist Fellow and 2019 Arts Integration grantee. I talked to Olson in anticipation of the upcoming show.
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Christopher Piercy: The output of Wolf Eyes is so sonically diverse. It’s not just loudness for loudness’ sake. I know you’re a fan of jazz. How does that inform what you do?
Olson: Well, you can have a sound, but you have to have a certain amount of body and depth to it. It’s like drawing something. There has to be, you know, shape and form to it and stuff like that. It’s always been very much in-tune with classical electronics … That stuff is all about range and subtleties. I mean, you know, it’s fun to be a rock ‘n’ roll band, but it’s more fun to be an abstract, mysterious, dynamic, creeper band. You know? [Laughs.]
You know, the ‘loud war’ is—there’s always going to be someone louder. And to be loud just for loud’s sake is, you know, it’s kind of a losing battle. So, it’s always good to have a range, have something you can play at zero and something you can play at 10, you know?
Piercy: I know collaboration has been really important for you guys. You’ve worked with everyone from Sonic Youth to Anthony Braxton. What’s your collaborative process like?
Olson: For Braxton, Nate just asked him in a bar in Victoriaville the night before. We met him in Sweden. We just asked him and he rolled up—and that, you know, it turned out really good. We’ve been trying to do it since, but it’s kind of hard to pinpoint him down. But a lot of it is just friends within the community, or just reaching out to other people with a certain amount of vibe or something that would be interesting. It keeps the playing fresh and it’s good for meeting people and moving forward and expanding the sound. It’s a fun, inspiring thing to do.
Piercy: I know a subset of harsh noise took the macho energy of early groups like Whitehouse …
Olson: [Laughs.] Yeah.
Piercy: … and pushed things heavily in that direction. I know you have talked about how you got kind of fed up with that, I think in Wire. But it feels like abstract music and experimental music has kind of moved away from that a bit and become more inclusive. Do you have any thoughts on this, or is this just my perception of how things have gone?
Olson: It’s the whole idea of ‘noise is power’ and all that stuff. It’s personally not too enticing for me, and the certain amount of campiness involved is not such a wellspring of aesthetics, you know? You talk about purity and all this stuff and it just doesn’t really work. When you talk about ‘pure this’ and ‘pure that’ it doesn’t really come up with a lot of progressive things. People are drawn to that, and I guess in some instances it has its place. But for me, I’ve seen so many people come and go that [it] just is not one of the things that has stuck with me … rotting bodies and fascism and stuff like that. I got a daughter and a family, you know? It’s just not where I’m at.
Piercy: Do you mind if I ask you about your Inzane Johnny Instagram profile?
Piercy: Are you sick of that question?
Olson: No. I mean, it’s just a tool. It’s just a fun thing. When I started doing music and stuff in the ‘80s, you had to make a flyer and promote to get people to the gig, you know? I’m an artist and a painter. It’s just images, you know, and it’s just fun … by no means is it a looming thing that controls anything. I use it a couple hours a day at the most. [Instagram] is not even installed on my phone right now.
I just check what people send me in my inbox and I post what’s funny, and I just move on, you know? But it’s under the guise of flyering from the ‘80s and stuff like that. It’s the same kind of mentality … with a kind of a Sunday comics kind of vibe. I guess it’s political satire, whatever, satire of the ridiculous world of being an underground musician.
Piercy: Do you think it’s altered the Wolf Eyes audience at all, or brought anybody in who might not have been exposed to your music?
Olson: I can’t really tell because, just in general, it’s difficult to get people to gigs. If it turns somebody on to a new way of thinking, or it turns them on to a new band, or it opens their mind to something that they’re not used to—then by all means, it has succeeded. You know?
But it’s difficult, abstract, electronic music. Not everybody’s going to come to that and be warm to it, and thus the grinding against the normies is a nice fulcrum to use for counterculture. It’s always good to, not necessarily convince someone who doesn’t want to hear it, but to have the challenge of being against someone who’s almost forced to look at it. It’s why those early gigs with Sonic Youth were so good. I think you play better when you’re not playing, and when you’re forced to play into people that don’t necessarily want to hear it. I think it’s good for aesthetics. And as a musician it’s a great challenge. It makes you more yourself. Which is the point.
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Tulsa Noise presents: Wolf Eyes w/ Raven Chacon, Gospel, Spirit Plate, etc.
Cameron Studios, 303 N. Main St.
Dec. 6–8 p.m., Free