I see we have done two reviews about Blackwülf so far: 2014's 'Mind Traveler' and your most recent album 'Sinister Sides'. Both scored pretty high marks, yet this is the first interview we do with this band. Can you perhaps do a little bit of an introduction? Who are you guys and why have you created Blackwülf?
Blackwülf was created in a leaky basement in Oakland, California in 2012. Having played in bands prior to this for many years, I was looking to put something together that would be centered in my guitar playing wheelhouse, and where my heart has always been since I was exposed to rock growing up in the desert in Phoenix, Arizona in the 1970s: bluesy, dark and heavy rock with monster riffs that were aggressive and groove focused. I decided that I only wanted to work with friends (instead of recruiting members), and I am blessed with some super rad and very talented guys in the form of Alex Cunningham on vocals and lyrics, Dave Pankenier on drums, and Scott Peterson on the bass. Blackwülf is a “what you see is what you get” kind of band: it’s important to us to remain authentic to ourselves, our supporters, and our music. We don’t front any kind of rock star bullshit, and try to support our peers and Ripple Music labelmates, much like the DIY punk and metal movements of the early 1980s. Among other things, a primary goal for Blackwülf has always been to create the kind of old school sounds that we grew up on back in the day, and to keep the pure hard rock form alive and thriving in our increasingly digitized age.
I noticed in the documentation that came with the promo that Blackwülf is called a stoner band, and not per se a doom band. I tend to disagree with that because the whole journey through 'Sinister Sides' feels rather gloomy and hopeless. What's your take on the musical direction you are taking, and how much do you actually care about this whole pigeonholing business?
That’s a great observation. Obviously, we have very little concern nor interest in pigeonholing or defining the band’s music in an exactly specific way. In fact, when we self-released our first album in 2013 on our own RPM Music label, we were completely oblivious to the fact that there was even any interest in this kind of music; we were creating in a complete vacuum of our own imaginations. Certainly we were well aware of the high Desert scenes of Southern California and others, but we just kind of went for it…just ripped out tracks that felt good and honest for us. Originally, we wanted to release vinyl only, to do things the revered “old way” like our heroes did: bands like Blue Oyster Cult, Sabbath, Pentagram, etc. The net result is probably that Blackwülf is a band that operates in both the “stoner” and “doom” scenes; by virtue of our retro obsessions, I would tend to think we are more of the latter in terms of sonic composition.
There is so much going on this album. I was actually inspired from the first few notes on. 'Gate Of Sorrow', which must be one of the best opening tracks I have ever heard, sounds both classic and modern, and allows the listener to fall deeply into a shroud of oblivion. What inspires a song like this?
Thanks, Bart. This tune was developed later in the albums creation…we were looking for an opener song, one that would showcase Alex’s bluesy side of his vocal ranges. Scott came in with a great bass line, and I hung some notes on it that develops kind of a dark tension that releases with a series of power chords at the chorus. I am glad that you responded with a shroud of oblivion…that’s certainly the intent. With an opener song, we have found that you don’t want to give the whole plot away; you need to save some bullets for later in the album, to allow for the plot to kind of thicken and build. We have always tried to approach writing our albums with an ear for the total listener experience, and certainly track sequencing is a big part of that.
Another great song, after the much faster 'Sinister Sides', is 'Waiting On Tomorrow'. I love the bit about the rear view mirror. As an image, certainly not musically, it conjures up Anathema's 'A Fine Day To Exit'. Most of the doom I listen to is about really old stuff. I guess it is easier for instance to talk sadly about someone hanging at the gallows than it is about a love gone awry through social media. How do you incorporate modern themes into this kind of ancient music? And where do you generally get your inspiration from, lyrically?
Ha! Good point, man. Lyrically, Blackwülf is all Alex. I did have some involvement on “Waiting On Tomorrow” though. My academic background is in creative writing, I hold a BA from Arizona from their program there, so sometimes I can turn a phrase or two, but it’s really great to have Alex’s talents in the group. On “Waiting On Tomorrow”, I took a shot at writing complete lyrics as did Alex; in the end, we blended our efforts to create a sort of high and lonesome vibe, which is amplified (literally!) with a Fender Twin Reverb amp’s deep reverb and tremolo tones. I plugged a Fender Jazzmaster into the Twin and tried to mine some of the desert tones that I was exposed to when growing up and playing in the 80s desert rock band “Naked Prey”. It was particularly satisfying to bring in those older and more disparate influences onto this project.
Your question around modern lyrical themes relative to this more ancient music, is particularly relevant, good catch! This contrast is actually a subtle yet important conscious differentiator for us. While many ancient issues are as valid now in our modern times as they were previously – war, hatred, human corruption, political hypocrisy – the challenge for a songwriter becomes on how to hang these issues in their more relevant terms onto the classic rock skeleton. The result produces a cool contrast that makes for something that feels both old and new at the same time; I just wish contemporary rock radio would pick up on the fact that this is happening with so many bands like Kadavar, Ruby the Hatchet, The Hazytones, Uncle Acid, and so many others…
Speaking of inspiration, as I mentioned earlier there are some songs on this album that create an image or a feeling that might come across as negative. I'm talking about sorrow, sadness, hopelessness, and even the phrase "I have fallen into the eye of the storm" really knows how to make one feel very lonely. Why is it that you want to deal with these topics, and what do you hope the influence of it will be on the listener?
This album is a testimony to some tough times during this period. Everything from personal relationship issues to a devastating election result here in the US inspired us to confront our collective disappointments and frustrations. Blackwülf has never been shy when dealing with political or human issues in our material; we faced a few things head on with our music this time out. The political fraudster that is our current president has hijacked our democracy in America and embarrasses us on so many levels. His continued hypocrisy and woeful underestimation of the basic good of our people forced us to attack him with our music. I don’t think that our response is “negative”; in fact, it’s positive. We are engaged in an active war against his criminal machine, and are expressing ourselves assertively and openly. Our hope is that the listener will also feel similarly.
Just out of curiosity, can you tell us what you think is the saddest thing ever a band can sing about? I mean, your personal opinion. As a point of reference (opinions are divided, so this will be a personal answer anyhow), I was at an interview with My Dying Bride and they were talking about their band's name. It would originally have been 'My Dying Child', but after some discussion they settled on 'Bride' instead of 'Child'. As someone who has had quite a few romantic failures, some of which were just brilliant, I can relate to their decision very well. So what is your take on this?
While I’m not quite sure what the saddest thing to sing about is, I can say that I am convinced that it’s good to have an emotional response to art and music. It confirms that we are sensitive to the world outside of ourselves and that we have empathy and are functioning as whole human beings. It affirms emotional intelligence, which is a core attribute for musicians and artists of all types. It’s particularly amazing that the power of sound itself can tap into emotions like sadness, melancholy, disappointment, and rage. The instrumental side of music can use minor keys to evoke these feelings; certain note scales can reach into the soul. Lyrically, the picture we paint with words on top of these sounds can amplify the emotional response. At the end of the day, for me, metaphor and melody are the ingredients of true magick…
When I listen to this album I am hearing a lot of different influences from a lot of different bands. I like it when that happens, especially when a band, like you do, manages to do so and still maintain their own, unique sound. You even did a cover, which is always a risky thing to do in the world of metal. Why did you choose to do a cover, and why this one in particular? What is the influence of Cream on you as a band?
Cream is seen by many as one of the first heavy rock bands; their instrumental core matches our own instrumental core of guitar/bass/drums. The timeless riff of “Sunshine of Your Love” is iconic and so it seemed natural for us to give it our treatment, with a more metal updated sound. Other bands have covered the song since like forever, and we just thought it would be a good fit for our riff-centric universe. We tend to attract listeners who enjoy the classic rock side of things as well, and thought that it would be a cool tribute song for that style. The riff has kind of an innocence to it, it’s in every guitar players riff bag, and we liked that familiarity aspect too. Having Geof O’Keefe lay down some super fat leads on the track really was bitchin. He is such a fine player, and his bluesy and bloopy style on the track was his own distinctive and amazing nod to Clapton’s “mother” tone. Gibsons forever!
Talking about bands, if you read my review of 'Sinister Sides' you might have noticed how I was talking about the band Gun and how some of the songs on your album remind me of the guitarsound they have on for instance the song 'Race With The Devil'. I'm genuinly interested when I ask if you have ever heard of this band and, if so, if that influence was a conscious decision or just coincidence?
I did read it. Appreciated your review very much. You lost me with the whole “worm and chicken” thing though. I thought at the time that maybe you were writing the review from the Bulldog. Ha! All joking aside, I have heard of Gun, but never listened to them, now my curiosity is up. I will check them out soon… I love hearing about new bands!!
Geof O'Keefe from Pentagram has joined you in making this record and will also be joining you on tour! That's a really great addition to any line-up. Can you tell us how this cooperation has come into existence? (And at what precise moment can we hear him playing the gong?)
To be exact, he plays the gong on the second and fourth crash of the breakdown section of “Sinister Sides”. It was a such a blast watching the original drummer from Pentagram play killer leads on a few tracks of our album and even contribute some gong crashes! Geof is an amazing guitarist and a really genuine, down to earth guy. What started with an unexpected exchange of interest between him and Blackwülf, morphed into a friendship, and then seemed totally natural in involving him on our album project. He was a complete professional, very prepared and well-rehearsed. Geof shared a bunch of great stories with us about old concerts that he attended in the day: Hendrix, Zeppelin’s first tour, the Jeff Beck Group, the Faces, etc. He’s a genuine doom legend, and is the most stand-up guy you could ever meet. We are really looking forward to doing the record release shows with him both in San Francisco on February 24 and in Austin on March 14 and our official South By Southwest Official Ripple Music Showcase on March 16 and in San Antonio, Texas on March 17. We are super stoked to rock out with everyone at these shows!
Thanks so much for such a great album and taking the time to answer these questions. Is there anything else you would like to add? Don't be shy, this could be anything about Blackwülf, 'Sinister Sides', future plans and tour, etc.
Thanks for your interest in the band, Bart! Thanks to Lords of Metal for their excellent work as usual. Blackwülf is really looking forward to our appearance on May 6 at the Black Heart at London Desertfest 2018. We’d love to get a chance to see some of our friends from Holland and elsewhere at that show. European rock fans are some of the best fans in the world, and we are really stoked out to be over on that side of the pond! Doom on!