Cosmic Cojones: Wolfmother


BY MICHAEL G. PLUMIDES, JR.

It was Friday, April 14, 2006.  I was waiting outside the Drunken Unicorn, a little shithole of a place on Ponce de Leon, in Atlanta, that didn’t have a phone number to inquire about ordering tickets. They were available online only through their website, and early indications were the show was sold out.  I arrived around 7 p.m. just to see if anyone had an extra floating around somewhere. I had never been to the Unicorn, although I had passed by it a few times and witnessed young punk rockers in full regalia standing by the roadside, smoking cigarettes.  After asking around, I found some kids from Savannah Art School who had a single; luckily one of their buddies bailed at the last minute.   

During the performance I thought I had just witnessed the rebirth of rock ‘n’ roll when Australian three-piece Wolfmother took the stage amidst the sweaty, skinny jean-wearing, emo hair-styled fans, all crammed into the tiny venue for the band’s first appearance in the South.  I reached into my pocket to buy another beer. I had nothing but a piece of paper.  I had scribbled down a review of their EP, that I had written earlier that week on my MySpace blog, and I couldn’t wait until after the show to hand it to the lead singer and guitarist, Andrew Stockdale.

It was a bad time for me.  My ex had run off with a guy with lips tattooed on his neck; I had lost my job and dropped 20 pounds en route to a looming depression; and was partying way too much. To add insult to injury, I was studying to take – yet again – the bar exam. At the time, and in my loneliness, I found solace in blogging about my various torments. It was therapeutic. But I was also writing a few short stories on MySpace regarding my many experiences in the music business and had developed a deeply disturbed following.  At the time I really dug the stoner rock scene (also referred to as desert rock, desert doom, or stoner metal):  Fu Manchu, Clutch, Monster Magnet, Dozer, Kyuss (and early Queens of the Stone Age), as well as Orange Goblin. The stoner rock movement wasn’t something new, and had mostly gained ground in Europe, although it was a predominantly American phenomenon.

I had discovered Wolfmother by accident on Napster, of all places. Cross referencing my favorites, I stumbled upon the band’s earlier indie recordings issued on the Modular label. The demo versions of “Dimension”, and “Woman” really blew me away.  Their sound was new and yet oddly familiar combining the sludgy guitar fuzz of Blue Cheer,  a thunderous rhythm section a la AC/DC, and the shrill, squashed-testicle vocals of Geddy Lee.  Regardless, Wolfmother was the medicine I needed to wrench my soul from oblivion, and the band turned up at just the right moment.

My succinct review went something like, Imagine if Toni Iommi and the White Stripes’ bastard child rubbed up against David Bowie’s greased, naked ass, as Edgar Winter opened the back of Bowie’s head with a claw hammer, and Styx was forced at gunpoint to play ‘Equinox’ over and over into his skull, as Iggy stitched up his own wounds after a bar fight.  The result would be Wolfmother.”

When I approached Stockdale, he was a tad distracted by the leggy female who held his hand. As I read the item to him he nodded his head repeatedly, half-listening, and afterward muttered, “Thanks,” in a faded Aussie accent.  He slowly pushed the note into his pocket, and then turned his attention to the thick, doll-lipped brunette. The back of Stockdale’s head looked like a total eclipse; as he was over six feet, his signature ‘fro blotted out the red neon bar light overhead.

 It was rare that I was excited about anything in music, and to approach Stockdale to express how important his arrival was, was way out of character for me.  I had met all my heroes, and I was never much of an ogling star fucker anyway. Although Stockdale’s response seemed mildly withering, at least he kept the note, which left me more amused than disheartened.  After all, I really didn’t write it for him anyway.

Originally from Erskineville, Sydney, Wolfmother formed in 2000 as a trio. The lineup consisted of Stockdale on vocals and guitar, bassist and keyboardist Chris Ross, and drummer Myles Heskett. The first several years saw the band garage jamming for the most part, consigned to obscurity.  The Aussies pricked up their ears when the band contracted with Modular; their first two EPs, Mind’s Eye and Wolfmother, rose on the Australian singles charts, and to some notoriety. 

 Wolfmother recorded their first full-length release in the summer of 2005, helmed by David Sardy, an eclectic-minded producer who’d overseen the likes of Slayer, Jet, Oasis, and the Dandy Warhols.  With this release there was a slight departure from the swirly, stoner rock sound of Kyuss’ hard-edged desert psychedelia – no doubt in hopes of appealing to a broader audience, leaning more toward the taste of alt-rockers eating up the Raconteurs and Kings of Leon. The self-titled album was recorded at the legendary Cherokee in Los Angeles and released on Interscope/Universal in October with re-recordings of “Dimension”, and “Woman” along with new songs such as “White Unicorn” and “Joker and the Thief.” Wolfmother was received with much ado and critical acclaim, alongside biting criticism, some pundits asserting that the band was “too derivative of ‘70s rock.” Wolfmother sold more than 5 million units and toured steadily for the next two years, performing at high profile festivals such as SXSW, Lollapalooza, Sasquatch, and Coachella. In 2007, Wolfmother received a Grammy for “Best Hard Rock Performance,” citing the song “Woman.”

 By 2008, there was already some turmoil growing within the three-piece band.  Young men touring nonstop together, playing night after night and traveling in tight quarters, could curdle anyone’s milk.  Perhaps the band’s overnight success, coupled with their surfacing constantly on T.V. in computer ads, sports bumpers, video games and movies, had worn thin. I’ve seen it all before.  Occasionally stardom comes too much, too soon for a young band.  Perhaps some ego thrown in for good measure may have contributed to the rift.  After all, Stockdale was the center of the attention, with his wild hair and stage theatrics, but it’s THE BAND who writes the music. These were blokes Stockdale had played with for eight years and Ross and Heskett had been reduced to wallpaper. The question that remained was, “Are his band mates expendable, and moreso, are they replaceable?”

 While on the road in The States, Chris Ross’ wife had a child in Australia so the tour ended abruptly, much to Stockdale’s chagrin. Ross returned to Sydney. Understandably, a man far away from his family for months on end, occasionally has to make a choice between the dreams of youth, and the duties of maturity.  The band’s mounting success and subsequent dilemmas were probably a bit much for the Aussie trio.  Wolfmother was Stockdale’s family and the triumvirate was teetering on divorce. 

 After Wolfmother’s jet-ride to rock stardom coupled with two years of solid touring, both Heskett and Ross had their fill and the pair packed it in for the Queensland, only to perform at one-off shows here and there over the course of the next year. By August of 2008, Heskett and Ross had announced they would depart from the band permanently, due to “irreconcilable differences.”  The two had probably made more money than they could spend, anyway. Stockdale vowed to press on; he would find new bandmates to replace the others, and so he did. 

 The news had me a little sketchy.  Would Andrew Stockdale be able to “party on” Wayne and Garth-style, and keep the momentum going?  Without missing a beat, it seems; by January of 2009, Stockdale had already picked Wolfmother’s replacements: session players Aiden Nemeth on guitar, Ian Peres on bass/keyboards and Dave Atkins on drums. The band was now officially a four-piece.

Fast forward to Halloween weekend, 2009. It is now the year of the Cosmic Egg.

 While Wolfmother was playing the Voodoo Fest in New Orleans on the 31st, my girlfriend and I went out as Lemmy Kilmister and Lita Ford to an overwhelming response, making appearances at a few spots around Charlotte. The rain was torrential.  Soaked all the while, she and I debated those dark days of years past when parents and teachers would tell children mythical tales of razor blades in candy apples, and other urban legend spook stories to strike fear into the gullible hearts of trick or treaters. I queried, “What kind of assholes would take the time to make candy apples with razor blades in them anyway, other than say, the Manson Family?”

 By Tuesday, I had already shaved my chops, and with both of us still recovering from the weekend, we managed to pick ourselves up off the couch to make the Wolfmother show at the Fillmore-Charlotte, with opening acts Heartless Bastards and thenewno2.

 Upon entering the room, we caught the last few songs of George Harrison’s only son Dhani Harrison’s band, thenewno2.  I could tell the crowd wanted to like them out of respect for George. But it seemed that thenewno2 barely knew their own songs, and their youthful sloppiness was a trifle bothersome as the unseasoned quintet played through their new and expensive equipment, without a nick or ding. I overheard someone in the crowd say something or another about “paying your dues” and how the thenewno2 haven’t paid theirs. Nevertheless, thenewno2 are green; fledglings if you will, leaving Dhani Harrison with some pretty big shoes to fill and needing more time in the practice space.

 Anyway, I had been hearing a good bit about the Heartless Bastards, and stuck around to hear most of their set.  The band is touring to support their latest entitled, The Mountain and were recently profiled at BLURT. I sensed echoes of the Pretenders, P.J. Harvey and early Smashing Pumpkins in the Bastards’ guitar-fueled alt-rock. Formed in 2003, years of playing tiny clubs have finally paid off for the Dayton, Ohio quartet.  With their no-nonsense brand of Patti Smith meets Concrete Blonde influenced garage pop, Heartless Bastards were well received by the crowd of 800 or so. 

Before Wolfmother came on, I was a little apprehensive. I was worried that Stockdale’s “I wanna do my thing” aesthetic would overshadow the music, and three hired guns weren’t going to change that fact.  Like I said, I’ve seen it all before.

 I remember when Interscope released Helmet’s second album Betty in 1994, the followup to their highly successful and critically acclaimed Meantime album released in 1992. Helmet had the biggest signing bonus to date for an indie band, scooped up from Amphetamine Reptile for one million plus.  But due to bouts of creative conflict with founder Paige Hamilton, guitarist Pete Mengede left the band in 1993 and was replaced by Rob Echeverria of Biohazard.  Bassist Henry Bogdan and drummer John Stanier, longtime Helmet members, would go next, finding little room on the tour bus for the size of Hamilton’s inflated ego. Helmet would start strong, and slowly spin into a downward spiral, and break up in 1998.  Helmet was “the thinking man’s metal band” but only sold 275,000 copies of their sophomore effort.  Paige Hamilton was the centerpiece of Helmet, but without the other key players, his band was lost in subsequent mediocre releases and the band eventually split up. Similarly, I thought of Wolfmother as “the thinking man’s retro-rock band.”  My concern was whether or not Stockdale and his new lineup would suffer the same fate as his precursors.

Performing songs from Wolfmother as well as the new Cosmic Egg (named after a position a yoga instructor suggested to Stockdale’s class) the quartet did not disappoint.  The band was heavy, groovy, and energetic, playing the older songs almost as enthusiastically as the new ones. Stockdale struck poses for me and the other professional photographers (them with their gear and me with my Canon Power Shot Digital – I’m sure they were laughing at me, but with my digicam I took the lead photo on this page). Wolfmother banged out songs early in the set like “Dimension”, “California Queen” and “New Moon Rising” off of Egg, and the Grammy-winning “Woman” sending the crowd into a frenzy.  Musically, by adding the second guitar (played ably by Nemeth), the new incarnation of Wolfmother conjured a wall of hypnotic sound, one which also gave Stockdale more freedom to entertain the audience.    

The band continued to mesmerize the crowd with songs like “White Feather” and “10,000 Feet” off the new release by exploring some different roots.  I heard Iggy, Bowie, Zeppelin, Queen and Beatles influences, but also select hints of more contemporaneous bands like Soundgarden, and The Cult. Stockdale is a clever guitarist, and he plays technically as well as chunky, stealing a riff here and squirreling it away until the right moment, then unleashing it on the crowd not yet familiar with his Cosmic cojones.  The new material on record is ballsy but well produced; it’s crunchy and melodic, slick and more layered than the previous material. Live, the band is captivating. Stockdale summoned the crowd to dance and rejoice in his energy, “and oh how they danced, the little people of Stonehenge.”  Atkins, the new drummer, even looked a bit like Joe “Mama” Besser, the green globule’s replacement in the film, Spinal Tap, and boy is he a basher. Bassist and keyboardist Peres is solid, with a matching ‘fro to go with Stockdale’s. The band played a few more from Cosmic Egg; “Pilgrim,” a Chuck Berry meets Badfinger boogie, and “Phoenix,” which probably reflects the band’s new direction moreso than the others, all the while expressing their newfound originality.  The band encored with crowd pleaser “Joker and the Thief.” 

With this show, the four Aussies played as Wolfmother, and not as Andrew Stockdale and three session musicians; and in doing so, put all of my speculation to rest. As a quartet the members of Wolfmother complement each other, and I think no one left disappointed. The new release has plenty of solid material for a sophomore effort, and in many ways, Cosmic is an exceptional album, possibly even more so than their debut. Interestingly, while watching college football this weekend, I noticed that “New Moon Rising” from the band’s latest, popped up as bumper music on ESPN.  

Onstage, Stockdale appeared to be as snug as a wolf pup suckling on his mum’s teat;  He, Nemeth, Peres and Atkins play music comfortably with each other. And by combining the elements that made Wolfmother a phenomenon in the first place, with brilliantly placed power chords and operatic vocals, the band has managed to make the new material fresh.  Andrew Stockdale and his new counterparts have come to a workable understanding: There’s room in Stockdale’s Cosmic Egg for everyone, but this time around there’s no question who’s driving.

Photos by Michael Plumides

Michael G. Plumides, Jr. is Author of Kill the Music, available on Amazon.com

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