Album Release: Vanderwolf, ’12 Little Killers’ – Interview


New York musician Vanderwolf released his debut album 12 Little Killers on 22nd July 2022 (Proper Music) – editor Alan Parry was fortunate to have a chat with him about his recent release and more.

I read that the album is the culmination of many years’ work – now that it’s complete and set free into the world, how do you feel about it? Is there a sense of relief? 

It’s tip of the iceberg but a solid representation of the work we created over this productive period. Side A of the album reflects a more folk and blues-based approach which infected the band profoundly for some time– and really grew out of playing so many festivals. Side B gets more into the exploratory psychedelic side of the band which I think it’s perhaps our strength. It’s interesting to me how many of the crises or challenges depicted in the songs remain and which others have dissipated. But I could comfortably go out and sing these songs today– and do. Yes after all this time I can officially endorse this product! 

You have worked closely with several stellar artists – how much of an impact has this had on your creative process, or the way you conduct yourself?

Yes – of course. You learn from your heroes when they meet or exceed your expectations – and when you are disappointed. I’m happy to say I was seldom disappointed. From Robert Wyatt you learn about kindness and decency. From Bowie you might learn about allowing putting a lid on a lot of bullshit and moving conversations forward productively. From Lee Perry you might learn about the wisdom in madness. From Patti Smith you might  learn  about persevering, working, and remaining resilient in the face of adversity. From David Gilmour one learns about integrity  and grace.  I learned too much from Daevid Allen (Gong) to even mention here. 

So for me it’s all about learning and growing. In these sorts of professional collaborations. I am there to serve the artist to help them achieve their visions– we are not equals. it’s not the same kind of collaboration you get with fellow musicians.  

I’m about to ask you to do the impossible now: can you choose your favourite track from 12 Little Killers?

Favourite tracks are impossible to choose –but I can tell you this: I hit several personal crisis points in the preparation and track sequencing for this record. I simply couldn’t make sense of the 35 or more recorded songs we had and how to assemble into a coherent and meaningful arc. I would just hit the wall and stop thinking about it for a year or more. Often I’d go back into the studio and record a few more songs thinking it was the solution. Finally, in desperation I gave the job of compiling and producing these songs into an album to my keyboardist Sam Sallon. I was really surprised when he chose ”I am Not a Mountain” as the opening track. It was just so different from anything I’d attempted. And while I didn’t necessarily agree with all his choices — it was all laid out  as a very valid statement based on all we had recorded. It had a flow and an arc. So I’ll say ”I am Not a Mountain” as an opener, and a kind of confessional sets up the album perfectly. 

Is there anything specific you like/dislike about the collaborative experience? 

Musical collaborations — which can be found across all 12 songs of ’12 Little Killers’ are far more balanced. Sam Sallon, Chris Cordoba and Chris Wyles, while not the writers of these songs, played an essential role in developing the songs, playing and interpreting and producing. It’s a very organic process with a lot of push and pull. You dont always get what you want and you need to respect that part of the process. You need to feel on equal  creative ground with your collaborators and you need to trust them. Once you’ve assembled that creative team — there’s little to fear. Its a very powerful experience and the level of creative combustion can be orgasmic. 

Where does your true passion lie – in creating and performing, or in producing concerts of others? 

My passion has always been –and remains– in creating and performing music. Producing concerts was a job I fell into by accident. I just was dangerously good at it and got very swept– up in the rewards and lifestyle it brought me. Producing concerts got me out of the US. It brought me to England and Italy and France and Japan and Poland. It brought me face to face with Jeff Beck, Julian Cope, Brian Wilson, Joana Newsom, Anohni, John Zorn, Conan Mockasin, Keith Emerson, Philip Glass and countless other inspiring artists. But it is work, it is demanding of one’s attention and time.  And the rarefied world of cool creative arts venues like Knitting Factory and The Southbank centre is no more. Priorities have shifted across the culture. Music venues and arts institutions are now so safe — so conservative and so  shackled to economic concerns that there is little that can surprise or excite in their programming. I think 2000-2015 was a particularly free time for cultural programming. Great things were possible. Since then, the stagnant corporatisation of the live music business has left us with the foul stench of a transactional-based culture. There was a time when all the music industry dickheads would go into the record label side of the business. When the record labels all collapsed, many of those people went into the live side of the industry. It’s not a nice place. It’s barely creative. It’s just a machine now. A hungry self-serving machine now — one that desperately requires constant feeding.

Previously, you have had comparisons drawn with the likes of David Bowie, Tom Waits, and Steely Dan – how do you feel about this?

David Bowie, Tom Waits, and Steely Dan – hard to complain. I do prefer more surprising comparisons though. Someone one once said, Alex Harvey– that really made me go listen to his music. Another writer made a  reference to the Decemberists so I took a listen to that. 

Do you have a favourite place to live and work? Can you be creative anywhere – or do you benefit from writing retreats? 

You can be creative anywhere but you need time. You need some space to really work, experiment, fail, re-work, grow, learn, produce. I’ve not done a real writing retreat but you know the pandemic – despite the tragic circumstances -was  very good for reclaiming creative space for many artists including myself. 

Who are you listening to/reading at the moment? 

At the moment I’m replacing a lot of albums I collected on CD in the 1990 and 2000s. My vinyl collection stopped about 1985 and everything was on CD after that. Well, I gave all my CD’s away when I moved back to the US. So I’ve been buying beloved lost albums on vinyl: Air, Flaming Lips, Beck, Mercury Rev, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Silver Jews, Sufjan Stevens, Cat Power and a little-known masterpiece by the one-off band, Cardinal. I’m currently obsessed–yet again — with Stereolab. Easily the most consistently brilliant record production of its era. So while my usual listening lands me in music from the 60’s and 70’s, it’s been great delving into the rich late 1990’s and early 2000’s. As always I am seeking new music as well and I am currently obsessed with a band called, Tonstartssbandht from Orlando, Florida. I can’t stop listening to them. There’s an artist named Daniel Ogren– who is really intriguing. New records by Jimi Tenor, Cate LeBon, Dan Deacon, Black Midi, Melt Yourself Down also have my attention. 

What was the last thing that made you laugh uncontrollably?

Laugh uncontrollably….? That’s a rare experience. I’d pay for that experience. But I made my wife laugh uncontrollably on our anniversary this past weekend so that was good. 

I have read that you have a further two albums in production, what can you tell us about them?

Here’s what’s coming up. My first LA recording– of  9 epic songs–  which features the original drummer and keyboard player of my NYC band. It’s really some of the best stuff I’ve ever recorded. I’ve also got a whole other record from the London sessions I’ll need to compile for release. They’ll be a stand-alone single called ”3/5ths in the Fire” with an amazing animated video by Alden Volney. And then I hope to re-release Last Man Standing’s False Starts and Broken Promises album which was well-received in 2008 and has never had a proper digital release. Additionally there is a 1996 album that I also hope to get on the assembly line. So we’re very busy here at Vanderwolf Industries cranking out the masterpieces. 

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