Michael Wolfe

Sure, our latest feature is a bit more “experienced” than several of the artists we’ve featured here on PEV… but Michael Wolfe is using that knowledge to his full-blown advantage. Simply put – he might answer our inquiry about his sound and inspiration for music better than anybody. We’ve seen some extremely talented, yet raw and “inexperienced” artists really wrestle with this question in the past, but Wolfe (along with his Wolfe Gang) nails it when laying down what makes him stand out:

“I guess I have a certain BEAT in my head...it's sort of a rock&roll beat with some R&B and the bamboula and meringue and rumba and calypso and reggae, and country,  and western swing and jazz and second-line, and zydeco and funk and soul and blues in it, whatever the song needs, but I know this beat, and it's MY BEAT, and I can change up in many different ways, and play the same song in different ways, and all these different beats are still MY BEAT.”

Yes, that’s a run-on sentence at its finest, but you get the point. Wolfe knows how to make a song all his own – all original. His latest record, “Read the Fine Print” represents this mantra, and the sound is bigger than ever. Wolfe gives the description on how the album came together, “At first I was thinking we'd keep it simple… but my drummer said, ‘Why don't we make a killer studio album?’ So that's what we did – it's got sax, keys, percussion, fiddle, female backup singer, various guitar tracks, all layered over the live rhythm tracks with their urgent immediacy.” Good stuff. The buzz is building for “Read the Fine Print”, so check it out. There’s a whole lot more to get into, so keep reading for the answers to the XXQ’s.


XXQs: Michael Wolfe

PEV: Not one to set yourself in a certain category, please describe your unique sound?


Michael Wolfe (MW): We call it "Organic Free-Range Music." That is to say, we don't set limits on what we play except that it has to feel "organic" to us--- not plastic or metallic or phoney or poisonous or made by machines or artificial. It has to feel real and non-formulaic. We don't play music to try to show how "bad" we are. We don't play rap, hip-hop, metal, punk, or disco. We do work in styles and genres that we feel are organic: roots music, Americana, rock&roll, r&b, blues, zydeco, reggae, jazz, swing, soul, folk, and funk, but even when we are covering some great classic song, we never just copy it; we make it our own.

PEV: Calling North Carolina home, what kind of music were you into growing up? Was anyone your main influence?

MW: I've lived in NC since 1993, but I grew up in Mississippi, and started playing music in Louisiana, so my music was fully formed by the time I moved to NC.

PEV: Having played in the business for a good time now, what was it like for you when you first started out?

MW: I played just by myself in the proverbial woodshed at first, trying to get my fingers to work right, and then just jammed with friends, before I ever got on a stage.

It was hard starting out playing in front of people because I was very erratically talented. I was good on some songs and I sucked on others. Fortunately, I always had fans who liked what I was doing at least some of the time, so I never sucked so bad I felt I had to give it up! In most of my early bands, we were all pretty immature and egotistical and all of us wanted to be the leader! There was always drama and shifting alliances and band politics. But after many broken-up bands, I started to find my footing as a bandleader.

PEV: With that, what can fans expect from a live The Wolfe Gang show?

MW:  I start out most shows on acoustic guitar, and switch to electric for the second set, or later in the set if it's a one-set festival gig. But we are always intense and urgent. Even our laid-back mellow songs still have a sense of urgency. We mean it. We aren't playing to be background music. We want to connect with and move the audience. We want people to remember us and our songs. We want to touch your soul.

PEV: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you step on stage?

MW: "MAN, this is fun!"

PEV: How is working as a solo artist different than that of The Wolfe Gang?

MW: I have worked as a solo artist many times, but it is not as much fun as playing with a band... particularly this band! You don't get to play off the instruments that aren't there...or hear them. I like to hear the bass and drums!

PEV: What was the underlining inspiration for your music? Where do get your best ideas for songs?

MW: I guess I have a certain beat in my head...it's sort of a rock n' roll beat with some R&B and the bamboula and meringue and rhumba and calypso and reggae, and country,  and western swing and jazz and second-line, and zydeco and funk and soul and blues in it, whatever the song needs, but I know this beat, and it's my beat. And I can change up in many different ways, and play the same song in different ways, and all these different beats are still my beat. Does that make any sense?

I'll hear a little musical phrase, just a lick, or sometimes a whole stanza, and then some words will come to go with it. I'll try to play it on guitar and maybe I can make it work, and then it will become a song...or not! Maybe I have to file it away and revisit it later. Sometimes, I'll get frustrated with a tune and quit working on it and pick it up much later and find that my unconscious mind or ear has resolved the problems and worked it out for me.  Everyday life, things in the news, personal relationships, dreams, memories...all can become songs. (I literally dreamed the instrumental on the CD, "Irish Dream Song."

PEV: Tell us about your latest release, “Read The Fine Print”. What can fans expect from this work?

MW: We recorded it live-in-the-studio with the three-piece core of the band. Most of the songs are first-take rhythm tracks. On some I played acoustic guitar, some electric. We recorded 22 songs and decided to use the 14 on the album. We brought in some other great players to fatten up the sound, and then I listened and tweaked, listened and tweaked, listened and tweaked, for six months, before I finally called myself through. At first I was thinking we'd keep it simple and just show what we could do as a three-piece, (and I may do that sometime) but my drummer said, "Why don't we make a killer studio album?"

So that's what we did---it's got sax, keys, percussion, fiddle, female backup singer, various guitar tracks, , all layered over the live rhythm tracks with their urgent immediacy.

And as I said, I have a certain beat in my head and in my right hand, and the drummer, Gene Carmen, syncs his snare with my right hand, and if you listen to the CD enough times, you'll become familiar with my beat. All the songs have different rhythms, and no two are alike, but the rhythm section and I know how to lock in on our certain beat, and put it in the pocket, and it's there throughout as a subtle unifying force. All the songs sound different, and they don't really sound like anybody else, but they all sound like us!

PEV: Do you ever find yourself getting writer’s block and if so, how do you get over that?

MW: Oh yes, and the only way to get over it is to sit down with the acoustic guitar and play until either your fingers bleed or you've got a song...or both!

PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about Michael Wolfe?

MW: That I'm an "Old Guy." I'm one of the first baby boomers...born in 1946!  Okay, leave that out if you think your audience will stop reading in horror!  How about this: I once steered a cargo ship through the Panama Canal.

PEV: What one word best describes Michael Wolfe?

MW: "Old"...no. "Grizzled"...no. "Gnarly"... "Funky?" "Contradictory?" "Persistent?" "Unlikely?" "Ironic?" "Delusional?" Ok, got it. CREATIVE. Let's go with that.

PEV: Is there one area you wish you could travel around and play that you have not yet?

MW: Europe! I've been there several times but not as a band on tour. My wife and I lived in Swansea, Wales, UK for six months in 2002. She had a visiting professorship at the University of South Wales.

After I'd been in town for two weeks I'd put together a five-piece band! We called it Wolfe Gang UK and we played a fair number of pub gigs, and would've played more except that my wife and I were off traveling around the Continent many weekends.

(I now regret I didn't record with those guys. The drummer, Jed Woodhouse, with whom I bonded immediately, now plays in the British band "The Real Tuesday Weld.")

PEV: What can we find you doing in your spare time, aside from playing/writing music?

MW: Reading, gardening, swimming in the Atlantic or at the Y.

PEV: If you weren’t playing music now what do you think you would be doing as your career?

MW: Well, to tell the unglamorous truth, I don't yet have an actual career playing music. I've never been successful enough to make a living playing music. I've always just had a lot of fun playing music, and made enough money to support my music habit. What I have done as a career is to work as a small-business-owner: I'm a painting contractor. It's not what you'd call fun, although, as LaoTzu said, "Work that has been completed is satisfying," and I was successful at it until the bottom dropped out of the housing market.

So then I said to my band, both of whom are carpenters whose work has also been slow, well it's now or never on this music pipe dream of ours... let's pull out all the stops and show 'em what we can do!

PEV: So, what is next for Michael Wolfe?

MW: We're jamming and practicing and playing a few gigs around Willmington (nothing unusual there) and waiting to see what happens next with the CD. So far, response has been very encouraging! The fact that I am writing this interview to you is proof of that.

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