Sunwølf – Howling Mad Riffheads

By July 9, 2014

Music. Leeds.


‘Say kids, what do you want to listen to?’ ‘I want hardcore and ambient.’ ‘But that’s two things!’ ‘But mum, what about Sunwølf?’ ‘What, the ones with the tricky character in their name.’ ‘Yes, them. Greg Elliott interviewed them and they’re pretty full on.’ ‘Okay then… do you think they’ll forgive me for using this pastiche of a Kinder Surprise ad?’ ‘No mum, they will not…’

Talk about prolific.  Leeds two-piece Sunwølf released their debut LP Beyond The Sun two months after their formation in July 2012 and followed-up with a second, the exceptional Midnight Moon, barely six months later.  ‘‘It was a bit of a creative peak for both of us,’’ multi-instrumentalist Matt recalls wistfully over a restorative coffee, his band mate Dom being otherwise engaged on this dreary late January afternoon.  ‘‘We’re both really proactive.  It might mean we jump the gun sometimes – I’ll say to Dom that I’ve written a song and he’ll want to record an album the next week – but I’d rather be like that than one of those bands that’s been together ten years and recorded one EP.”

The duo first came together when Dom recruited Matt as a touring guitarist for Ten, the Leeds-based experimental collective which he still leads.  Though appreciative of the delicate ambience which is Ten’s stock-in-trade, Matt began to feel frustrated by its shortcomings as a live spectacle – he wanted to pursue a darker, riff-oriented sound rooted in the kind of ‘‘horrible hardcore’’ he’d cut his teeth on.  He was pleasantly surprised to find Dom receptive to the idea of a new project in which they would be equal partners, and that would attempt to mesh Ten’s avant-garde influences with a heavier approach.

The results have been compelling. The first few tracks on Midnight Moon suggest a competent post-metal band with a nice line in repetitive, hypnotic riffs – but this turns out to be only a fraction of what Sunwølf are capable of.  The structure of the album seems to be trying to fool the listener into thinking they have the band figured out, before immediately subverting those expectations.  Quickly traversing a range of styles, the two-piece prove just as at ease being folksy (‘In Earnest’) or exploring a loose, semi-improvised feel (‘Glacier River’) as they are at delivering crushing heaviosity (‘Sellanraa’).

Was this an intentional piece of misdirection? ‘‘We didn’t have a preconceived idea of the sort of music we wanted to make,’’ says Matt,  ‘‘we just let things happen. We occupy quite a weird place really, ambient, stoner – it’s hard to categorise.  We’re pretty versatile – in November last year we played two gigs in Leeds on the same night, an ambient one at the Fox and Newt then a second one to a full-on metal crowd.’’ I’m interested to know how they find straddling these different worlds, the hardcore scene in Leeds having always struck me as rather tribal.  How has this constituency in particular reacted to a band that operates only partially within the parameters of what they might expect? ‘‘It can be quite intimidating showing up to a gig like that,’’ Matt acknowledges,  ‘‘at the Fox and Newt we’d been making these ambient soundscapes and Dom had his xylophone and maracas – when we got to the second one I was like ‘leave those in the car – we’ll get lynched!’’’  He laughs.  ‘‘I suppose it is a bit of a clique – there’s that Brew Records [DIY label, late of this parish] sort of sound, which isn’t really my cup of tea.  On the whole though people have been pretty positive – we haven’t found it to be a closed shop by any means.  Ultimately we’re not interested in satisfying people’s expectations; we’re making music to please ourselves.  We’re totally selfish in that respect.’’

Perhaps Matt’s most significant undertaking with Sunwølf so far has been a four-week foray across Europe last summer, in the company of Brighton duo A Hundred Black Kites.  With apparent foresight Dom opted to stay at home, leaving the drummer from AHBK to fill-in and thereby avoiding the high-speed brush with death that overshadowed the conclusion of the tour.  As they were leaving Dresden, the party’s vehicle aquaplaned and ended up on a crash barrier on the autobahn.  ‘‘We got out and just kept looking at each other, shell-shocked,’’ Matt remembers grimly.  ‘‘It was pissing down and some of us didn’t even have shoes on.  One of the lads had to go off on a stretcher in a neck brace.  It was pretty surreal.’’  This, as it turned out though, was only the start of their troubles – the cost of recovery financially crippled both bands and left them stranded in Germany.

An online appeal for help was launched and complete strangers immediately began buying band merchandise and sending messages of support.  ‘‘I was totally blown away by it,’’ says Matt,  ‘‘it almost went viral at one point.  We had all these do-gooders in the US who were like [adopts fake American accent] ‘Oh my God, we have to help out these guys from England’.  Interest in the band went up a hundredfold.’’  There was even some rather lurid coverage in the Yorkshire Evening Post, mention of which draws a derisory snort from Matt.  ‘‘Bloody vultures.  Who knew all we had to do [for them to pay attention to us] was be in a car crash?’’

Cometh the hour, cometh the tour driver – in this case a heroic figure named Olly – although he didn’t give the best first impression.  ‘‘I called him up and he was in Berlin, shitfaced,’’ Matt recalls, laughing,  ‘‘bearing in mind what had just happened to us!’’  Nevertheless Olly came good in the end, showing up the next day to drive Sunwølf and their tourmates home.  ‘‘It turned out he had a gap in his schedule and where he lived was flooded, so it was either fill sandbags for a week or take us back,’’ Matt explains.  ‘‘It was a four-day round trip and he didn’t want any money for it.  It restores your faith in people.’’

You might think such an ordeal would dampen one’s enthusiasm for touring, but apparently not.  ‘‘I’d definitely [go back],’’ Matt tells me,  ‘‘people seem to get us more in Europe and you’re treated so well.  In the UK promoters can be a bit ‘Get on, get off, see you later’, whereas in Europe they’ll hang out, get to know you a little bit, and, by the time you leave, you’re friends.  We’d like to tour here but it costs a fortune – you get paid fuck all, you have to buy your own food, find a place to stay.  Everything’s such a hassle.  One time we weren’t even paid enough to get out of the car park.  When it’s not a career thing – when you’re not trying to get ‘exposure’ – it becomes more important for it to be a positive experience, even if there’s more dogs than people at the gig.’’

Sunwølf have just released their third album, ‘Beholden To Nothing And No One’.  Along with this came a different way of working, says Matt.  ‘‘I used a lot of archived stuff, so to speak, on the first two albums – so I was a bit like ‘Shit, what next?’  I thought Midnight Moon was really strong and I wanted this one to be better.  We’re more organised, more calculated now – we’re demo-ed a lot, so by the time we got to the studio we were laying things down rather than starting from scratch.’’

One thing that’s certain is that Sunwølf will continue to defy simple classification.  They’re determined to evolve, to be an amorphous project unbound by the strictures of genre – with a singular goal of making interesting, engaging music.  Their status as a two-piece is actually more of a logistical choice than an aesthetic one: ‘‘I like the simplicity of there just being two of us,’’ explains Matt,  ‘‘one phone call and everything’s sorted.  I’ve been in a band with five other guys and it was a ball ache – and that was when I was eighteen.  I’m a bit of a control freak – I know Dom and I are singing from the same hymn sheet, but if we brought in anyone else they’d need to do exactly what I say!’’  He laughs.

At the same time, their restless creativity – not to mention a somewhat puritanical streak – may force the adoption of a different approach.  ‘‘I’d love to tour with live strings,’’ admits Matt,  ‘‘Dom and I play a few instruments each and you run out of limbs after a while.  Triggering so many things off a sampler feels like a compromise’’.  As some of the more melodious tracks on Midnight Moon suggest, the duo are also increasingly interested in the ‘art’ of songwriting – Matt is considering singing lessons, although he leaves open the possibility of bringing in an outside vocalist.

There’s just enough time before we part ways to ask about that rather Scandinavian looking name – an invocation perhaps of the elemental sweep of Norse mythology, mirroring Sunwølf’s own grand musical ambitions?  ‘‘No, we just thought it was cool,’’ says Matt, with a mischievous grin,  ‘‘I like the idea of so many people struggling to find it on the keyboard.’’

Beholden To Nothing And No One is available now.

Greg Elliott

Originally written for Vibrations



Filed under: Music