Not Thinking, Not Rationalizing, Just Being: Dire Wolves Talk Improvised Psychic Rock [+ Exclusive S
June 18, 2019 | by Jocelyn Hoppa
With a quick scan, I realized Dire Wolves has been around, in one form or another, since at least 2009 — way before George RR Martin’s unfinished opus was turned into an HBO show (which, for what it's worth, left many of us longing for way, way more Dire Wolves).
The band is a rotating collective of sorts, and has taken different forms over the years — musicians moving in and out of the project, a testament to their freewheeling approach to art — which has accumulated a whole slew of releases over the last 10-plus years.
The main member is Jeffrey Alexander, who plays all of the guitar and Moog parts, and has been a member of Jackie O’ Motherfucker, Black Forest Black Sea, and he also ran Secret Eye Records.
For the latest incarnation of Dire Wolves and their upcoming release, Grow Towards the Light, Jeffrey’s joined by Georgia Carbone, who sings in her own invented language, Brian Lucas on bass, Sheila Bosco (Faun Fables) on drums and piano, Arjun Mendiratta (Village of Spaces) on violin, and Taralie Peterson (Spires That In the Sunset Rise) on saxophone.
The band, as a Whole, are bent on breaking free of constraints, where improvisational jamming is a vehicle transporting a larger purpose — a musical representation of the connected nature of everything. Their sound contains elements of jazz, folk, psychedelic, and various forms of "rock" that often transcends traditional song structure, guided by otherworldly instincts. A few of the Dire Wolves members took some time to answer questions I had about their history and new record, which is set to release on June 28th via Beyond Beyond is Beyond.
Their outlook on making music and approaching art is cool and free, and urges listeners to tap into the idea that everything is connected, a musical exercise is trusting the flow of life with all of its unexpected twists and turns, something generally both ominous and beautiful, but ultimately a perfect whole.
You don't want to miss a single part of this interview, but definitely be sure to check out an exclusive song premiere — "Discordant Angels" — below!
NO RECESS!: When you make mostly instrumental, improvisational music, things like album and song titles can stand to really help convey the concept to the listener.
There’s a Grateful Dead song off Workingman’s Dead titled “Dire Wolf” – Garcia has introduced this song as his “paranoid in the streets mantra” and “the zodiac” – and I’m curious to know if this song means anything to the band, and also if you could give us some background on naming the band Dire Wolves.
Brian: I didn’t realize the name Dire Wolves had any reference to the Grateful Dead until I was told a couple years ago, but I do really like Garcia’s description — maybe I’ll finally listen to the song. Personally, the only Dead I’m really into is The Dead C.
Sheila: Jeffrey is the only one qualified to talk about the Grateful Dead in an intelligent way.
Jeffrey: The 1977 Monster Manual states that Dire Wolves are neutral evil in alignment and have their own language…. 37 hit points ain’t bad either. I feel that anyone’s creative output is informed by all the music, books, visual art that they have consumed throughout their lives — it is for me anyway.
Stuff is in there somewhere. Sure, I’ll drop in song titles and other references as sort of guide posts or whatever. There was actually a Grateful Dead song title on our Paradisiacal Mind LP — well, it was a mash up with Popul Vuh. Anyway, I know that George RR Martin is a huge Dead fan, but the band name came about years before the hit TV show, we’re both just primal beacons of reversis influencia, obviously.
NR!: And likewise, what does Grow Towards the Light mean to the general mood and theme of this record?
Sheila: For me, the title is about ecstatic energy… or, simply put: follow the good vibes!
Jeffrey: Yes indeed, but also the whole record is a play on the world tree/tree of life myth. Everything is connected. The cover art and album title reflect this specifically.
NR!: What draws you to improvising music rather than writing and recording songs the traditional way?
Brian: More visceral, exciting, possibly transcendent, flexible, and less chance of getting into a rut or routine learning and repeating a set of songs. There is also nothing like traveling a collectively built sonic spaceway with the others in the group — not thinking, not rationalizing, just being. It can be a peak state at times for me. I often forget I have a body.
Sheila: I like the discipline of learning/writing songs but improv has an experimentation element that is exciting and hard to resist. And it doesn't hurt playing with good musicians! Improv is all about the people you are playing with.
Jeffrey: Improvising is absolutely the most satisfying thing about playing music. Totally listening, absorbed in the moment, and especially when the sounds take your own playing in unexpected new directions — it’s so exciting!
NR!: What are other outlets besides music that inform contributing members of Dire Wolves to this type of cosmic free rock?
Brian: I’m an artist and poet — I’ve published a couple books and occasionally exhibit my paintings. Lots of reading, too (sound anthropology, esoterica, poetry, et al).
Sheila: Screaming in dark rooms. Laughing into bubbling brooks. Breathing into windy trees.
Jeffrey: That sounds nice.
NR!: I see you (Jeffrey) toured around with the Grateful Dead during the 80s, and that plus a general Bay Area spiritual force is certainly present throughout… Who are some musicians or bands that influence the current lineup?
Brian: I don’t have a rock solid set of musical influences. Don Cherry, Ashtray Navigations, The Fall, Sun Ra, 1979/80 era Talking Heads, CAN, Art Ensemble of Chicago, This Heat, African Head Charge are personal inspirations. For me, any “Bay Area spiritual force” must include Terry Riley, Fifty Foot Hose, Glenn Spearman, and Chrome.
Sheila: The Beatles (Ringo Starr), Gong (all of their drummers!!), early Pink Floyd (Nick Mason), Moody Blues, A Clockwork Orange soundtrack... And Karen Carpenter was a huge influence too, as she is the one who inspired me to take up drums after seeing her do a drum solo on TV when I was a kid (she was an unbelievable drummer, folks!).
Jeffrey: Lately I’ve been only listening to reggae and jazz, but it’s all in there.
NR!: The band’s discography is a genuine rabbit hole of releases to get lost in. About 15 or so EPs, bootlegs, and tapes with various musicians, split efforts with other bands, and there are titles under Jeffrey Alexander, the Dire Wolves Absolutely Perfect Brothers Band, just Dire Wolves (sure I’m forgetting some). It’s this document of drifters and drifting into various forms just by some shift in trajectory or imagination. Can you speak to the meandering journey you’ve been on with this band overall?
Brian: It certainly has meandered in the five years of my involvement. I think a core group has coalesced, which I think provides a solid “sound” and definitely strengthens the playing. People who join in have to know how to vibe and give themselves up to the Whole, otherwise it can drift into egoistic, navel-gazing noodling.
Jeffrey: It’s been more than 10 years, with various loose collections of players, but this current vibe is so very strong. We live in four different states, but that doesn’t matter. Always press record!
Sheila: I must give Jeffrey a huge amount of props here because he is such a good sound engineer and quickly and simply makes really great recordings and mixes. And there is also a part of it where we just really love playing and come up with a lot of material!
NR!: This is the first release without Lau Nau on main vocals. Here we have Georgia Carbone, who sings in her own invented language. We’d love to know more about Georgia, who is a visual artist and musician focused on “philosophical images of energetic space”?
Georgia: I am a visual artist who finished an MFA at the California College of the Arts in 2010. My research explores energetic realities (“spiritual/psychological/emotional”), my work incorporates sound improvisation and ritual, as well as images. I performed and exhibited around the Bay Area until 2018 and then moved to northern New Mexico with my husband.
Sheila: We have been so lucky — to have singers like Lau Nau with her magical tapestries and then Georgia with her amazing soulful calls and melodies.
NR!: And for the invented language, does Georgia or any of you know exactly what she is singing about? Or is it more of a channeling which translates into vocal soundscapes?
Georgia: The content of the vocal expression is determined by what is happening in the moment. The language is spontaneous and immediate, it doesn’t have any set structure or translation. The meaning is inspired by what I am feeling from my musical collaborators and from the audience. The vocals, like the instrumentation, are conversational.
Sheila: Georgia's singing is so unique… it is somewhere between an instrument and beautiful poetry. The same way I know what the guitar or bass or violin is saying, I know what Georgia is saying.
NR!: This record was recorded over two days, and every note is improvised. How did you record this album to give it a warm, deep but also live sound? Are there any studio setup tricks you use to capture the magic as it’s happening?
Jeffrey: Well, not every note. There were some overdubs. We all set up in a circle at Santo studio in Oakland with their amazing selection of microphones, engineered by Zachary Watkins.
Brian: We recorded enough music that weekend for what has become two albums, Paradisiacal Mind and Grow Towards the Light. Maybe there’s a possible third album there, too? The rhythm section’s framework for “I Control the Weather” was already in place, and there’s a chord progression on “Discordant Angels,” but other than that it’s all improvised just like our other releases. As for deep and warm — it was an unexpectedly tragic weekend on a personal level for us and we channeled that grief into a lot of the music that day. Music is the healing force of the universe.
Sheila: A huge part of our magic is we truly like to hang out and play music together.
NR!: Given there’s guitar, moog, bass, drums, piano, violin, and saxophone found on Grow Towards the Light, do you just inherently trust the musicians and the process of jamming your way into something cohesive while recording? Is there any plan involved at all?
Brian: Taralie’s saxophone parts were recorded in Madison, Wisconsin!
I think we all know exactly and perfectly what to do — it’s a floating anarchy of sorts. We’ve developed a sort of psychic connection — there’s definitely a form of musical telepathy involved. I think we redefine “cohesive” — the Whole doesn’t have to “make sense” for it to be understood. It’s like a completely new, next-level being that’s been molded; and sometimes it approaches sounding like a conventional song, such as with “Spacetime Rider.”
Very little planning other than picking a key to play in. Maybe a vague descriptor or story to put us in the mood. Of course, once the music takes off the map often falls by the wayside. Our music leans towards the episodic — peaks, valleys, thickets, open skies. The music has its own mind, its own universe and language with its own internal logic. We are just the facilitators. Psychic rock, indeed.
Sheila: Sometimes we do plan. As in, we set the mood and talk about instrumentation and the path of the song. For overdubs on the pieces for this record, everyone had the chance to speak up and play if they thought an area could use a certain overdub. And it all worked together. Of course, having Taralie do sax overdubs was the complete icing on the cake!
Jeffrey: Psychic rock > psych rock
NR!: Everyone loves a good stuck in a jam that ain’t cutting the mustard story… any kind of funny live moments that went awry to share with us? On the flip side, when everything is connected, that must feel all the more amazing...
Brian: Funny live moments happen all the time!
The only time I can think of things going somewhat awry is when we opened for Acid Mothers Temple in San Francisco. As soon as Jeffrey and I started playing we realized we were out of tune with each other. We didn’t get a sound check from what I recall. Somehow we got through our 30-minute set, which an audience member later likened to the band Gong. So, it wasn’t that upsetting in the end.
Jeffrey: I forgot about that! I started playing very angular, almost new wave — definitely open seas, haha. Nobody gets a soundcheck when they open for Acid Mothers. Or space on the merch table.
Sheila: At last year's Outsound New Music Summit in San Francisco we were in a total quiet lull of a piece, and I for some reason started playing harmonica and it really stuck out. I think I thought it would be more subtle than it was, haha. Anyway, Brian started to do an "elf dance" and me and Jeffrey looked at each other totally trying not to crack up. Jeffrey started playing a wind instrument with me and it actually fell into this beautiful, strange piece, but it is amazing sometimes how we get there. Elf Dance.
NR!: One of the best things about Dire Wolves is you are free of so many constraints, and the resulting music is a wonderful thing to revel in. At the end of the day, what do you hope the listener gains from Growing Towards the Light?
Sheila: I humbly hope the listener enjoys it and that it inspires them in some way.
Jeffrey: Maybe some kids will put on side two and make out.
Brian: Hopefully the listener will be transported out of the mundane and into an unfamiliar, maybe unsettling but ultimately benevolent environment and revel in and celebrate the loosening of said constraints. Let’s abolish the laws that constrict the imagination!
Pre-oder Dire Wolves' Grow Towards the Light at their Bandcamp page, and listen to an exclusive song premiere for "Discordant Angels" here: