Music News

That '70s Sound

"Just standing in front of an amp as though you're being bathed in fuzzy volume is quite a nice feeling," says bassist/organist Chris Ross of Australia's latest gift to heaviosity, a stoner-rock trio from Sydney called Wolfmother.

It makes him laugh to hear such seeming nonsense leave his mouth, but he's not kidding — unlike, say, The Darkness, who appear to be approaching "old" and "heavy" from a safe, ironic distance.

"We're like, 'This is not ironic. This is fucking cool,'" Ross says. "When we first started jamming, the three of us would be set up, and Myles [Heskett] would be in one corner with his drums, and Andrew [Stockdale] would be in one corner with his amp, and I'd be in the other, and I used to love to go and stand right in the middle of the room — you know, where all the sound is just on top of you? Yeah, that was great."

The three members of Wolfmother — front man Andrew Stockdale bringing the thundering riffs and squealing feedback on guitar, Myles Heskett pounding out the beat, and Ross — spent nearly four years jamming in their practice space before they got it in their heads to face a paying audience.

"We'd just hang out and jam for ages," Ross says. "And eventually, we decided to do a show, which meant we had to write some songs first. I was kind of digging jamming, but I just really enjoyed being put on the spot and the pressure of having to perform right there and then. So once we did one show, all three of us were like, 'Yeah, let's do more.'"

Having actual songs to play was a bonus for Ross. Before they started writing, they'd do "all this awesome stuff," he says. "But it would take two hours to get all these awesome ideas out, and I just wanted to know when we were gonna begin and end and stuff like that."

By then, the band had gravitated toward a brand of bluesy, psychedelic heaviness that's frequently compared to such '70s icons as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. "After our first show, people would say, 'Oh, man, you guys, you've got this huge, like, Sabbath sound,'" Ross says. "And I'd be like, 'No fucking way. You kidding me? That's fucking awesome!' It was, like, the highest compliment."

After hitting the streets of Australia with their first self-titled album, though, a certain segment of the rock press started using what was once a compliment to beat up on the band. "Some journalists turned it around," Ross says, "as if it was some kind of a derogatory thing. And I was just like, 'What? Oh, you think it's a bad thing.' It's not like we're trying to be a covers band or trying to plagiarize anyone. At all. When we get together, we totally create stuff honestly and openly, the three of us. We don't sit down and methodically analyze some song and try to re-create it. It just comes from the three of us playing together. It's what comes out."

And, as luck would have it, people have apparently been waiting for it.

By the time the record hit the streets here in the States on Interscope, Wolfmother had developed enough of a buzz to hit the Billboard charts at No. 22, despite sounding like nothing that's charted that high in the States since, well, the early '70s — unless you count the White Stripes, more a case of something Ross calls "same vibe, different sound."

As to how they came to sound this way, Ross says, "We had to move out of the house where we had all this gear set up into a temporary space where we'd just taken some guitars and drums, and that was when we really started focusing on trying to play one instrument each and just trying to get the most out of that instrument. Then, Myles got me to bring the organ in as well, because we were really getting into playing with distortion and keyboards. And that's kind of when the sound started to come about — lots of fuzzy distortion, big grooves, tripped-out parts, big epic riffs."

What really made it all fall into place, though, was when Stockdale found his inner Robert Plant. As Ross recalls, "We'd jammed for ages and we'd all just sort of muck around and sing different bits, and Andrew always sang more quietly and in a lower register. But when we got the setup in the temporary jam room, they had so much volume in there, he just started fucking belting it out to get over the volume of what we were playing, and we were all just kind of taken aback. He was all, like, 'Oh, you like that?' Me and Myles were both like, 'Fuck yeah, that's cool.' He was just kind of competing with the volume, and it just came out like that. And we were like, 'If you can do that, do that, 'cause it's cool.'"

As to whether he thinks all those nagging '70s comparisons are fair, Ross says, "I definitely hear that. But I also hear a lot more. I often wonder if it's because, being a musician, you're really in tune with a lot of the subtleties that make up music. To someone who perhaps is not that interested in music, maybe it does sound a lot like that. When I listen to it, I can hear a lot of our other influences as well. I mean, the single we've got at the moment, 'The Joker and the Thief,' that track in particular doesn't sound '70s at all to me. It's kind of like a metal song. I really hear it in some tracks, because obviously that's what was kind of influencing us on some tracks. But other songs, not so much."

As to where they'd like to take that sound on album number two, they haven't had much time to think about it. They've been too busy bringing this one to the people, from buzz-affirming sets at festivals like South by Southwest, Lollapalooza, and Coachella, to the headlining tour that brings them to Tempe on Friday.

"We're touring and playing our music to a lot of people who haven't heard it before," Ross says. "And I honestly think a lot of what we do is in the live performance. Not to downplay the record at all. I love it. But it's live music, for us, really. It's great to listen to songs at home, but to come and see a live band and see what kind of weird dynamics happen during the show and what journeys it can go on, that's when it's really a fucking experience."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ed Masley