A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to catch Retribution Gospel Choir at the now defunct The Grapes. Not only were they a fierce live monster, they all were very approachable people. Then I saw Low a year later and lo and behold, the beast behind the drums was on keys. Fast forward to a sampler I downloaded out of pure curiosity from a label called Chaperone Records, which included an Americana tinged band called Actual Wolf which I instantly dug.
30 seconds later, I realise the guy behind Actual Wolf is Eric Pollard, whom I’ve seen in both Retribution Gospel Choir and Low. Thanks to the wonders of social media, I catch up with Eric Pollard in a small apartment in Austin during SXSW 2014 and we talk about life, music and catharsis. Dressed mostly in black, like any modern cowboy should, we talked for a good half an hour.
Here’s the verbose gist:
Where does the name Actual Wolf come from?
Actual Wolf is a name that my friends from Northern Minnesota gave me. They always used to talk about spirit animals and said I was a wolf. I was driving in this truck with this friend and he came up with the concept that there were too many wolf bands when I was recording my demos for this and came with the concept of me being “actual wolf”, putting all the “wolf” bands to shame.
You started this as a solo project after working with Retribution Gospel Choir and Low. What pushed you towards saying “I want to do this!”?
Well, I always written songs but I fell on some hard times, legally, and I really needed an outlet for that sort of thing. As a result of my legal issues I was required to work at music full time. Touring schedules for Retribution Gospel Choir and Low aren’t a full time schedule, there are big breaks. I had to create a way I could work all the time and Actual Wolf was that outlet. I guess pressure made me do it!
So, it’s quite cathartic?
Which was the first instrument you picked? I’ve seen you destroy the drums live with Retribution Gospel Choir, then keys with Low and now acoustic guitar.
I took piano lessons when I was ten and that went on for five years. In that timeframe I started picking up drums, it all snowballed and I picked up guitar and bass.
You released two EPs and then you released an album. What made you say “right, stop it with the EPs, let’s go for an album”?
The EPs came about because I had some ideas and I needed them out of my head just for my own sanity. All of a sudden my mind, ah, writing became very fluid in that process of doing that. I became sober and my mind was firing, working really well. I just started writing, had all these words and ideas stored in my head for years and came out in a flood and suddenly had all this songs. I thought “I need a band” and then thought “I need to make an album”. It’s been a natural progression, but sped up. It hasn’t even been two years. It has happened really fast, I love that but there’s an added amount of pressure.
So, it’s been meteoric, to say the least.
You’ve re-recorded a few songs for the album, right?
Yes, re-recorded ‘Hydrant eyes’ from Lightning and the Wolf and ‘Time’, which was from Actual Wolf USA. We re-did that one in more of a 70s country feel. People used to do that. They used to put a single or an EP and it was letting people know “hey, this is the kind of music that’s coming up on our full record.”
Like a teaser?
Yes! That’s why we did that. I already have the next two and a half records recorded. If we put another EP out, it will have stuff that’ll be in the next record. We’ll keep in the same direction. So we got two albums and an EP.
You’ve mentioned 70s country. Personally, I think it’s a genre that is like a treasure chest ready to be plundered. Any particular bands you like from that era?
Well, they are not particularly country, but I love Neil Young & Crazy Horse, The Band, Bob Dylan, you know, that The Rolling Thunder Revue era. As far as country, Waylon Jennings was really doing well. Willie Nelson’s band and also the Outlaws band. J J Cale as well, who was a huge influence of mine. There was a real organic feel to that kind of country and that kind of rock and roll that made it really timeless and identifiable with for everyone, not a certain subset of people. That’s why some of those songs are timeless and still get played on radio.
They speak for everyone; it’s hard not to identify with them.
It’s very salt of the earth, working class music. It’s tough times and it’s easy to identify with!
I got a question about two songs in your catalogue, a little bit about their history and what are they about. So first one is ‘Hollow Heel’.
‘Hollow heel’ is a funny one. I’m really into poetry and wordplay, so ‘Hollow Heel’ is an attempt to make a nonsense poem. It’s all about cadence. If you look at the lyrics, they make zero sense. There’s no greater message besides “revolution / rock and roll” which I stick at the end. I was watching a show on smugglers and they were talking about people hollowing the heels of boots, so I thought this idea about this and its greater impact on society. I was really pushing myself to write a really great song that people would like the cadence, almost like hip hop, except it makes less sense, no other message than “revolution / rock & roll”.
Like a punchline! Great. So the other song I wanted to ask you about is ‘Hydrant eyes’, which I love.
I too love ‘Hydrant eyes’! I was playing guitar and came up with that lick and I thought “wow, I need to write a song that has this lick.” So ‘Hydrant Eyes’, I wanted to make a love song about a girl who is crying and she cries so much that her eyes are like fire hydrants. She is in love with this guy and she loves him and he loves her but they are unable to take things to the next level because the person she loves respects her and cares about her but he is incapable of loving her. It’s a poem about why her eyes are shedding water like a fire hydrant. It’s her realisation that this person she loves and who she is with is someone who is unable to love anyone or care about anyone. There’s respect, and he cares for her. They’ll be together forever, but he’ll never love her.
Aw, man. Sounds familiar…
I spent a great deal of time in my life trying to convince women not to be in a relationship with me, so a lot of my poetry, which eventually becomes songs, tends to reflect me talking some woman not to be in a relationship with me.
Do you do open mics or readings?
No, I just love poetry. I do readings occasionally on radio shows and sometimes submit a poem to a radio show. I really love American poetry, probably because it’s in my language. That’s very American of me. I got into poetry in college, which is very, c’mon, I got into poetry in college! I just started reading and writing poetry and I happened to get in bands with Alan Sparhawk, who is a great writer and he can get huge ideas across very simply. As far as poetry is concerned, I’m good friends and play with Mark Kozelek and he is a master of poetry. He is a master lyricist, no one writes like him.
Absolutely agree with you.
He put out a book of his lyrics, a poetry book and I was looking at it because we had to go on a tour and I didn’t understood how deep his stuff goes, how poetic it is. Poetry is a very big part of my life.
Besides Mark Kozelek, someone else?
Well, Robert Frost and he is not a poet but I love Bukowski. I love that kind of working man’s poetry. The guys who don’t write about longing, love and lust. I like the guys who write about getting down and dirty, the real side of things, you know? Billy Collins, poet laureate, that’s another. I love Mark Kozelek’s lyrics but don’t tell him that!
You moved to Nashville, right? How is Nashville right now for Country?
Nashville for everything! Nashville is a city on the up and up. It’s fantastic; there are all kinds of music being represented there right now. Lots of people are moving there and a lot happening right now. My one complaint is that the triple A radio stations are, in my opinion, being held hostage by the Music Industry and they are not being able to express themselves as well as they should be able to. I believe that besides WSM, which is an amazing institution in America, Nashville radio is being held by corporate interests. Other than that, Nashville is awesome: great food, great climate, amazing people and cheap rent!
You are on Chaperone Records, how has been your experience?
Chaperone is great! You just met Bob (Monahan) briefly, but Bob and I are the wandering Chaperone Records tradeshow! We are very good friends from way back and our experience has been amazing. He also works with Retribution Gospel Choir and the label is up and coming and everyone should go to the website and buy albums! We put unique music, local Duluth music and no one has really done that. Alan tried with Chairkickers but he was so busy with Low that I think that everything fell wayside whereas Bob can do it fulltime.
You are quite active on Twitter.
That is true!
In this corporate dominated media, what are your feelings on Twitter as a tool for independent artists?
Twitter has helped me tremendously. I personally feel that between Twitter and Instagram you can meet anybody you want, you can do business with anyone you want and you make things happen without a middleman. Twitter gives that direct connection between artists and interviewers, like we did for this. You can say “hey, meet me here” and you say “cool”. It’s amazing and it’s probably one of the biggest social media inventions ever so far. I don’t know how to top that. Snapchat I guess it’s quite popular right now, but I’m not young enough to understand how to work it. I got Alan from Low into Twitter and he feels the same way. 140 characters make you go straight to the point.
I love ‘Kokomo’!
I love Kokomo too, but, if you were there as Actual Wolf, which song would you cover?
I’ve talked about this with Josh Modell, I’ve emailed him several times to get me to do an Undercover.
We’ll do a campaign.
I want to bring a loop station and I want to do ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ by Bobby McFerrin. I want to do it a cappella and sing all the parts. So put that out there: “Actual Wolf – ‘Don’t Worry Be happy’ for AV Undercover.”
I’ll do so. So do you think 2014 is the year of Actual Wolf?
I’ve made that claim a bunch! As long as I keep working and don’t burn out. SXSW has been a good brain break, oddly enough. I think if I just keep working hard and keep writing tunes and the band keeps making good music, we’ll make 2014 the year of the Wolf!
Here’s hoping. Thank you very much!
Words : Sam J. Valdés López