Channeling a host of influences ranging from
the Beatles and Pink Floyd to Echo & the Bunnymen and 4AD Records, the Columbus combo is still
BY FRED MILLS
The BLURT staff put our heads (and ears) together and we
have the latest pick for our Blurt/Sonicbids “Best Kept
Secret”: it’s Wolf Ram Heart, from Columbus,
Ohio. This makes our 19th BKS selection since commencing the program of spotlighting new and
under-the-radar artists back in 2008.
The group is described in its bio thusly: “Wolf Ram Heart is
an American pop group whose members are split between the Appalachian foothills
of southeastern Ohio and the urban metropolis
This is a band bent on marrying art with popular music. Retro-futuristic best
defines their sound that straddles neo-psychedelia and dark art synthesizer
pop. The music is an all encompassing hybrid of pop’s faded echoing
sensibilities, molded into a modern space, and created in a sound that allows
these hauntings to occur and transform.”
just about nails it, and I’ll just add that the group additionally slots in
wonderfully with the contemporary dream-pop movement (Beach House et al) while retaining a visceral
originality that suggests a cinematic approach to songwriting. An eventual
liaison with Hollywood
seems all but inevitable, given the widescreen vibe and rampant eclecticism;
these folks seem to share a sensibility with veteran film scorers as diverse as
Ry Cooder, Calexico and even director David Lynch. With one album to date,
2011’s Betrayal of Hearts, and kudos
from a press chorus that includes Magnet,
Under the Radar and The Big Takeover –
one journalist rightly called it a “headphone masterpiece” – the potential for
the future seems equally wide open.
The band: David James – Vocals, Guitar, and Keyboards; Jessica
Barnes – Vocals, Bass and Keyboards; Ryan Stolte-Sawa – Vocals, Violin and
Keyboards; Eric Buford – drums and percussion; Rob Cave
– keyboards. BLURT proposed an email interview to get the full scoop, and the
offer was quickly accepted.
Meanwhile, you can visit the band at the official website or the Wolf Ram Heart
BLURT: First of all,
what is the origin of and/or meaning behind the band name? Does this refer to
the trio of demons of ancient lore and the subsequent law firm of Joss Whedon
lore? (Thank you, Google.)
DAVID JAMES: I think we have done a hell of a great
promotion for the Wolfram & Hart wiki page this past year. I’m a big Joss
Whedon fan, it’s a play on words and it just sorta fit. I suppose it’s nice
that it was drawn from something more legitimate than all the seemingly
hundreds of bands that came out with animal names in last couple of years
because it was trendy.
We always get a
least one person per show who will come up to me afterwards and ask if I’m a Buffy or Angel fan.
Tell me a little
about when and how the band came together, and some of the members’ previous
musical endeavors, backgrounds, influences, etc.
JAMES: I’m the main songwriter and I also produced and
recorded the album. Jessica, Eric and I all took part in Betrayal of Hearts while Rob and Ryan joined more recently and have
filled the voids in the live set. I met Jessica and Rob through Craigslist,
probably like most people these days. We asked Ryan to join us on violin for a
couple of shows and eventually talked her into staying, and Eric and I have
been in multiple bands together in Dayton and Columbus over the years.
Monkees, that’s what got me doing this thing. I was turned onto the show at an
early age when I was stuck in the hospital going through major surgeries as a
child. Later, through songs like “Words” or “Love Is Only
Sleeping,” I became aware of reverb and that touched me on an deep emotional
level. In my teens it was then so easy to get hooked on albums like Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper, Odessey and Oracle,
and Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Being
a child of the eighties I now find myself more and more mixing these things up
in my mind, like Phil Spector and The Cure, Echo and The Bunnymen and Scott
Walker or Donovan and Gary Numan. My lyrics could easily be traced to a
fondness for Syd Barrett and Robert Pollard.
RYAN STOLTE-SAWA: I grew up listening to all kinds of stuff –
‘60s folk like Joni and Neil Young, lots of renaissance music, and lots of ‘80s
albums with really high production values – Gypsy Kings; Steely Dan; Jennifer
Warnes’ collaboration with Leonard Cohen, “Famous Blue Raincoat” – my
childhood is full of that music. I’ve played in all kinds of orchestras and bands.
Warren Ellis is a bit of a hero for me.
I have a hard time finding “pop violin” artists I
admire, so it’s been really rewarding to get to know his work with the Bad
JESSICA BARNES: My childhood soundtrack was singing along
with the Beatles, Monkees, and Michael Jackson cassettes. As I grew older, I
embraced music from the Pixies, Velvet Underground, and David Bowie. Working on
Betrayal of Hearts made me return to
those early influences with a new ear, particularly to Paul McCartney’s
phenomenal bass playing. It challenged me to create bass lines that weave
together movement and presence.
Betrayal Of Hearts took a year to record, and you self-recorded it
on your big farm. How do you feel those two elements informed the evolution of
JAMES: Being able to work in the country without a clock or
any pressure in silent and beautiful surroundings equaled much emotional and
creative freedom. When you record in a professional studio you almost always
have to make compromises. This was the first time I had the chance to do
everything the way I wanted without other hands interfering with the vision. At
the same time, it can be a double-edged sword because you have too much time
and you can find it hard to let things go and say they are done.
“4AD” and “dream-pop” have been used several times in
reviews or descriptions of you and
the album. Possibly not so coincidentally, those are also terms cropping up
elsewhere these days, such as with bands like Beach House. Fair? Accurate? Helpful?
JAMES: I think it’s valid. We are a hard band to categorize
and that’s entirely on purpose. The approach in my mind was to create pop songs
the way the Beatles used to do it. “Penny
Lane” vs. “Strawberry Fields,” “We Can Work It Out”
vs. “Paperback Writer.” True diversity – not just the lazy same song, same
sound or same formula over and over again. I really have to get out of my head
sometimes and be someone else to do that. When you hear the record I hope you
can tell that someone put the time in to create something special. 4AD was
known for their mood and atmosphere and I think everything we do happens within
those parameters, so I can easily see the comparisons and it’s always
Describe the band
live. How do audiences respond to you? Do you have to have racks and racks of
gear to reproduce your sound for the stage? Massive light show?
JAMES: Visually, I think we run into the same issues that
most other bands of similar genres have run into since the early days of Pink
Floyd. Going out for the night to a club and seeing a band that makes you too
glazed over and relaxed is a problem. You have to counter that with something
stimulating to keep people engaged. Putting lights or projections on stage
usually works for us. I always enjoyed seeing bands like Broadcast integrate in
the visual aspects to their live set.
always a challenge for us to reproduce what you hear on Betrayal of Hearts. Some songs may have up to 35 layers of
different instruments or sounds on each. At first we were using a laptop on stage with some backing tracks but after
awhile it felt too rigid and stale. Then eventually we got lucky and found a
keyboardist who could cover so many bases in the sound that we did away with it
all and now we enjoy the experience much more. Honestly, I use to really hate
it. In the end it’s just art and you wouldn’t expect a painter to go around
city to city in front of a crowd every night, painting that picture exactly the
same. It just can’t be done – who would want to?
STOLTE-SAWA: Wolf Ram Heart stands apart from a lot of other
pop projects I’ve been in because it’s more about creating atmosphere than
performing songs. In that respect it’s a lot like an orchestra, where there’s a
lot of demand for big waves of strings to support the other melodies, so I draw
on that part of my repertoire. There’s a lot of room to move around, so I do a
lot of improvising on-stage, which is fun.
Biggest milestone or
success to date?
JAMES: Last March during SXSW our record leaked online and
we got to see this huge flood of activity around it that I’ve never experienced
before. We saw some people from Europe and Russia posting links on music blogs
about it, Last.fm lighting up with plays all over the world from people
downloading it – it was all happily overwhelming. It was nice, all I wanted was
someone to hear it.
I have no
delusions, I know I’ll probably never make any real money doing this now.
That’s not what I’m in it for, so at that leak point I was already squared
away; now it’s all plus. I saw us on a few German and Russian year-end 2011
lists last year which was fun and funny.
What are some of the
more significant aspects of the Columbus
music scene? Can a working musician make a living being based there?
JAMES: I don’t really follow the music scene in Columbus much anymore
because me and Jessica both live in the country now. I think of us more like
the wise sage that floats into town on occasion and asks for change. If there
were ways to make a living in Columbus
doing music, I would be scared to see what that would entail. Probably
something to do with weddings or playing Nickelback covers to a crowd of drunk OSU
students during pledge week!
Lastly, what’s on the
horizon for the band?
JAMES: We are playing the NXNE Festival June 13th and 17th in Canada
and currently we’re in preproduction for the next record that will be out
sometime in 2013. Betrayal of Hearts seems to still be gaining momentum so we’ll keep promoting it till the end of
the year. We hope to have a vinyl release of the album out in the near future.