COSMIC COJONES Wolfmother

Do you feel? The
Australian power rockers come alive… and then some.

 

BY MICHAEL G. PLUMIDES, JR.

 

It was Friday, April 14, 2006.  I was waiting outside the Drunken Unicorn, a little
shithole of a place on Ponce de Leon, in Atlanta,
that didn’t have a phone number to inquire about ordering tickets. They were
available online only through their website, and early indications were the
show was sold out.  I arrived around 7
p.m. just to see if anyone had an extra floating around somewhere. I had never
been to the Unicorn, although I had passed by it a few times and witnessed
young punk rockers in full regalia standing by the roadside, smoking
cigarettes.  After asking around, I found
some kids from Savannah
Art School
who had a single; luckily one of their buddies bailed at the last minute.  

 

During the performance I thought I had just witnessed the
rebirth of rock ‘n’ roll when Australian three-piece Wolfmother took the stage
amidst the sweaty, skinny jean-wearing, emo hair-styled fans, all crammed into
the tiny venue for the band’s first appearance in the South.  I reached into my pocket to buy another beer.
I had nothing but a piece of paper.  I
had scribbled down a review of their EP, that I had written earlier that week on
my MySpace blog, and I couldn’t wait until after the show to hand it to the
lead singer and guitarist, Andrew Stockdale.

 

It was a bad time for me. 
My ex had run off with a guy with lips tattooed on his neck; I had lost
my job and dropped 20 pounds en route to a looming depression; and was partying
way too much. To add insult to injury, I was studying to take – yet again – the
bar exam. At the time, and in my loneliness, I found solace in blogging about my
various torments. It was therapeutic. But I was also writing a few short
stories on MySpace regarding my many experiences in the music business and had developed
a deeply disturbed following.  At the
time I really dug the stoner rock scene (also referred to as desert rock,
desert doom, or stoner metal):  Fu
Manchu, Clutch, Monster Magnet, Dozer, Kyuss (and early Queens
of the Stone Age), as well as Orange Goblin. The stoner rock movement wasn’t
something new, and had mostly gained ground in Europe,
although it was a predominantly American phenomenon.

 

I had discovered Wolfmother by accident on Napster, of all
places. Cross referencing my favorites, I stumbled upon the band’s earlier indie
recordings issued on the Modular label. The demo versions of “Dimension”, and “Woman”
really blew me away.  Their sound was new
and yet oddly familiar combining the sludgy guitar fuzz of Blue Cheer,  a thunderous rhythm section a la AC/DC, and the shrill, squashed-testicle
vocals of Geddy Lee.  Regardless, Wolfmother
was the medicine I needed to wrench my soul from oblivion, and the band turned
up at just the right moment.

 

My succinct review went something like, Imagine if Toni Iommi and the White
Stripes’ bastard child rubbed up against David Bowie’s greased, naked ass, as
Edgar Winter opened the back of Bowie’s head with a claw hammer, and
Styx was forced at gunpoint to play ‘Equinox’ over and over into
his skull, as Iggy stitched up his own wounds after a bar fight.  The result would be Wolfmother.”

 

When I approached Stockdale, he was a tad distracted by the
leggy female who held his hand. As I read the item to him he nodded his head
repeatedly, half-listening, and afterward muttered, “Thanks,” in a faded Aussie
accent.  He slowly pushed the note into
his pocket, and then turned his attention to the thick, doll-lipped brunette. The
back of Stockdale’s head looked like a total eclipse; as he was over six feet,
his signature ‘fro blotted out the red neon bar light overhead.

 

It was rare that I was excited about anything in music, and
to approach Stockdale to express how important his arrival was, was way out of
character for me.  I had met all my
heroes, and I was never much of an ogling star fucker anyway. Although Stockdale’s
response seemed mildly withering, at least he kept the note, which left me more
amused than disheartened.  After all, I
really didn’t write it for him anyway.

 

Originally from Erskineville, Sydney, Wolfmother formed in
2000 as a trio. The lineup consisted of Stockdale on vocals and guitar, bassist
and keyboardist Chris Ross, and drummer Myles Heskett. The first several years
saw the band garage jamming for the most part, consigned to obscurity.  The Aussies pricked up their ears when the
band contracted with Modular; their first two EPs, Mind’s Eye and Wolfmother,
rose on the Australian singles charts, and to some notoriety. 

 

Wolfmother recorded their first full-length release in the
summer of 2005, helmed by David Sardy, an eclectic-minded producer who’d
overseen the likes of Slayer, Jet, Oasis, and the Dandy Warhols.  With this release there was a slight
departure from the swirly, stoner rock sound of Kyuss’ hard-edged desert psychedelia
– no doubt in hopes of appealing to a broader audience, leaning more toward the
taste of alt-rockers eating up the Raconteurs and Kings of Leon. The
self-titled album was recorded at the legendary Cherokee in Los Angeles and released on
Interscope/Universal in October with re-recordings of “Dimension”, and “Woman”
along with new songs such as “White Unicorn” and “Joker and the Thief.” Wolfmother
was received with much ado and critical acclaim, alongside biting criticism,
some pundits asserting that the band was “too derivative of ‘70s rock.” Wolfmother
sold more than 5 million units and toured steadily for the next two years,
performing at high profile festivals such as SXSW, Lollapalooza, Sasquatch, and
Coachella. In 2007, Wolfmother received a Grammy for “Best
Hard Rock Performance,” citing the song “Woman.”

 

By 2008, there was already some turmoil growing within the three-piece
band.  Young men touring nonstop
together, playing night after night and traveling in tight quarters, could
curdle anyone’s milk.  Perhaps the band’s
overnight success, coupled with their surfacing constantly on T.V. in computer
ads, sports bumpers, video games and movies, had worn thin. I’ve seen it all before.  Occasionally stardom comes too much, too soon
for a young band.  Perhaps some ego
thrown in for good measure may have contributed to the rift.  After all, Stockdale was the center of the
attention, with his wild hair and stage theatrics, but it’s THE BAND who writes
the music. These were blokes Stockdale had played with for eight years and Ross
and Heskett had been reduced to wallpaper. The question that remained was, “Are
his band mates expendable, and moreso, are they replaceable?”

 

While on the road in The States, Chris Ross’ wife had a
child in Australia
so the tour ended abruptly, much to Stockdale’s chagrin. Ross returned to Sydney. Understandably, a
man far away from his family for months on end, occasionally has to make a
choice between the dreams of youth, and the duties of maturity.  The band’s mounting success and subsequent
dilemmas were probably a bit much for the Aussie trio.  Wolfmother was Stockdale’s family and the
triumvirate was teetering on divorce. 

 

After Wolfmother’s jet-ride to rock stardom coupled with two
years of solid touring, both Heskett and Ross had their fill and the pair packed
it in for the Queensland,
only to perform at one-off shows here and there over the course of the next
year. By August of 2008, Heskett and Ross had announced they would depart from
the band permanently, due to “irreconcilable differences.”  The two had probably made more money than
they could spend, anyway. Stockdale vowed to press on; he would find new bandmates
to replace the others, and so he did. 

 

The news had me a little sketchy.  Would Andrew Stockdale be able to “party on” Wayne and Garth-style,
and keep the momentum going?  Without
missing a beat, it seems; by January of 2009, Stockdale had already picked
Wolfmother’s replacements: session players Aiden Nemeth on guitar, Ian Peres on
bass/keyboards and Dave Atkins on drums. The band was now officially a four-piece.

 

Fast forward to Halloween weekend, 2009. It is now the year
of the Cosmic Egg.

 

While Wolfmother was playing the Voodoo Fest in New Orleans on the 31st, my girlfriend and I went out as
Lemmy Kilmister and Lita Ford to an overwhelming response, making appearances
at a few spots around Charlotte.
The rain was torrential.  Soaked all the
while, she and I debated those dark days of years past when parents and
teachers would tell children mythical tales of razor blades in candy apples,
and other urban legend spook stories to strike fear into the gullible hearts of
trick or treaters. I queried, “What kind of assholes would take the time to
make candy apples with razor blades in them anyway, other than say, the Manson
Family?”

 

By Tuesday, I had already shaved my chops, and with both of
us still recovering from the weekend, we managed to pick ourselves up off the
couch to make the Wolfmother show at the Fillmore-Charlotte, with opening acts
Heartless Bastards and thenewno2.

 

Upon entering the room, we caught the last few songs of
George Harrison’s only son Dhani Harrison’s band, thenewno2.  I could tell the crowd wanted to like them out
of respect for George. But it seemed that thenewno2 barely knew their own songs,
and their youthful sloppiness was a trifle bothersome as the unseasoned quintet
played through their new and expensive equipment, without a nick or ding. I
overheard someone in the crowd say something or another about “paying your dues”
and how the thenewno2 haven’t paid theirs. Nevertheless, thenewno2 are green;
fledglings if you will, leaving Dhani Harrison with some pretty big shoes to
fill and needing more time in the practice space.

 

Anyway, I had been hearing a good bit about the Heartless
Bastards, and stuck around to hear most of their set.  The band is touring to support their latest
entitled, The Mountain and were
recently profiled at BLURT. I sensed echoes of the Pretenders, P.J. Harvey and
early Smashing Pumpkins in the Bastards’ guitar-fueled alt-rock. Formed in
2003, years of playing tiny clubs have finally paid off for the Dayton, Ohio
quartet.  With their no-nonsense brand of
Patti Smith meets Concrete Blonde influenced garage pop, Heartless Bastards
were well received by the crowd of 800 or so.

 

Before Wolfmother came on, I was a little apprehensive. I
was worried that Stockdale’s “I wanna do my thing” aesthetic would overshadow
the music, and three hired guns weren’t going to change that fact.  Like I said, I’ve seen it all before.

 

I remember when Interscope released Helmet’s second album Betty in 1994, the followup to their
highly successful and critically acclaimed Meantime album released in 1992. Helmet had the biggest signing bonus to date for an
indie band, scooped up from Amphetamine Reptile for one million plus.  But due to bouts of creative conflict with founder
Paige Hamilton, guitarist Pete Mengede left the band in 1993 and was replaced
by Rob Echeverria of Biohazard.  Bassist
Henry Bogdan and drummer John Stanier, longtime Helmet members, would go next,
finding little room on the tour bus for the size of Hamilton’s inflated ego. Helmet would start
strong, and slowly spin into a downward spiral, and break up in 1998.  Helmet was “the thinking man’s metal band” but
only sold 275,000 copies of their sophomore effort.  Paige Hamilton was the centerpiece of Helmet,
but without the other key players, his band was lost in subsequent mediocre
releases and the band eventually split up. Similarly, I thought of Wolfmother
as “the thinking man’s retro-rock band.” 
My concern was whether or not Stockdale and his new lineup would suffer
the same fate as his precursors.

 

Performing songs from Wolfmother as well as the new Cosmic Egg (named
after a position a yoga instructor suggested to Stockdale’s class) the quartet
did not disappoint.  The band was heavy, groovy,
and energetic, playing the older songs almost as enthusiastically as the new
ones. Stockdale struck poses for me and the other professional photographers
(them with their gear and me with my Canon Power Shot Digital – I’m sure they
were laughing at me, but with my digicam I took the lead photo on this page). Wolfmother
banged out songs early in the set like “Dimension”, “California Queen” and “New
Moon Rising” off of Egg, and the
Grammy-winning “Woman” sending the
crowd into a frenzy.  Musically, by
adding the second guitar (played ably by Nemeth), the new incarnation of Wolfmother
conjured a wall of hypnotic sound, one which also gave Stockdale more freedom
to entertain the audience.    

 

The band continued to mesmerize the crowd with songs like
“White Feather” and “10,000 Feet” off the new release by exploring some
different roots.  I heard Iggy, Bowie, Zeppelin,
Queen and Beatles influences, but also select hints of more contemporaneous
bands like Soundgarden, and The Cult. Stockdale is a clever guitarist, and he
plays technically as well as chunky, stealing a riff here and squirreling it
away until the right moment, then unleashing it on the crowd not yet familiar
with his Cosmic cojones.  The new material on record is ballsy but well
produced; it’s crunchy and melodic, slick and more layered than the previous
material. Live, the band is captivating. Stockdale summoned the crowd to dance
and rejoice in his energy, “and oh how they danced, the little people of Stonehenge.”  Atkins,
the new drummer, even looked a bit like Joe “Mama” Besser, the green globule’s
replacement in the film, Spinal Tap,
and boy is he a basher. Bassist and keyboardist Peres is solid, with a matching
‘fro to go with Stockdale’s. The band played a few more from Cosmic Egg; “Pilgrim,” a Chuck Berry
meets Badfinger boogie, and “Phoenix,”
which probably reflects the band’s new direction moreso than the others, all
the while expressing their newfound originality.  The band encored with crowd pleaser “Joker and
the Thief.” 

 

With this show, the four Aussies played as Wolfmother, and
not as Andrew Stockdale and three session musicians; and in doing so, put all
of my speculation to rest. As a quartet the members of Wolfmother complement
each other, and I think no one left disappointed. The new release has plenty of
solid material for a sophomore effort, and in many ways, Cosmic is an exceptional album, possibly even more so than their
debut. Interestingly, while watching college football this weekend, I noticed
that “New Moon Rising” from the band’s latest, popped up as bumper music on
ESPN.  

 

Onstage, Stockdale appeared to be as snug as a wolf pup
suckling on his mum’s teat; Stockdale, Nemeth, Peres and Atkins play music comfortably
with each other. And by combining the elements that made Wolfmother a
phenomenon in the first place, with brilliantly placed power chords and
operatic vocals, the band has managed to make the new material fresh.  Andrew Stockdale and his new counterparts have
come to a workable understanding: There’s room in Stockdale’s Cosmic Egg for everyone, but this time
around there’s no question who’s driving.

 

[Photo Credit: Michael Plumides]

 

Michael G. Plumides,
Jr. is Author of
Kill the Music, available on Amazon.com, and also BLURT’s Marketing and Social Networking
Editor.

 

 

 

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