When a band like The Wolves of Chernobyl describes their music as “Post Apocalyptic Folk/Weirdgrass,” it makes you curious about how it might sound. This is the creation of Tyler Nafe (vocals), Jon Seals (banjo), Michael Hauser (guitar, vocals), Ben Jobe (bass), Sean Fung-a-fat (drums), Victoria Olivares (vocals) and Dan Williams (mandolin, horns, accordion). These musicians have created something that is captivating, not just with their songs but also with their live performances too.
Nafe sat down with IBG to answer some question about the band. This is what he had to say:
Indie Band Guru: How did you all come together and is there a story behind the name?
Tyler: I was coming out of a project and a marriage at roughly the same time. I had spent years filtering my personal pain through song and I wanted to try a different way to do songwriting.
I’d watched this documentary called “Radioactive Wolves” about the resurgence of the black wolf in the Chernobyl fallout zone, and I took this metaphor away that in the darkest of times there is the potential to adapt and thrive. I folded that into the idea of writing folk songs written after the apocalypse.
It felt like apocalyptic thinking weighed on people; whether it was a nuclear holocaust, zombie apocalypse, celestial, religious, or environmental it seemed all over the zeitgeist. In the world of Days’ End (the world of The Wolves), that all went down essentially.
The first iteration of The Wolves was different with four vocalists and very sparse instrumentation. Those relationships fell apart, and I was left with commitments to meet, so I sought out talented or good people without much concern for what their style or instrument was. Had I found a strong toy pianist and glockenspiel player, that would’ve been The Wolves. So we adapted and thrived. Our banjo player encouraged me to keep it alive in his way, I found a drummer at a wedding and with him came our other vocalist. Through them, we found our upright bass player. Our guitarist I ran into at a grocery store; we’d grown up together in bands as kids, and after trying out a lot of people, he was the fit. Our utility guy was a friend who’s longtime band was dissolving, and he came in to add elements that were both intuitive, like mandolin and mold breaking.
So The Wolves of Chernobyl is a tongue in cheek look at existential anxiety that turned into a real look at my problems through the lens of this fictional character. There is a narrative and a story for these characters we portray that has evolved as the band has evolved. I think we became the concept at some point.
Which musicians have helped to influence your music and it’s sound?
As a writer, I got back into music because of “The Hazards of Love” by The Decemberists. That way of storytelling changed my thinking and led me away from that pure bloodletting style of songwriting eventually. As a young man, I was greatly influenced by TOOL and other ’90s alternative acts. In my later years it was Coheed and Cambria and Circa Survive, then I loped back towards ’70s rock and ’80s pop.
Jon on banjo listens to Justin Townes Earle and Stringbean, Sean learned drums from reggae and punk, Victoria loved Gwen Stefani, Ben had been in big swing bands and country western outfits, and wedding bands, and he’ll listen to it all. Mike’s guitar owes something to his pop punk roots, but also prog rock ideas. Dan loves ska, and ’90s pop alt and he and I sometimes play games related to these bands. There is tension in all this, but it’s the tension on the string that when released plays a note.
You have recently released the album Eschatologies, can you tell us a little about it?
Eschatologies is all about the endings of things. It was meant to tell one large story, a problem we may redress in an Eschatologies special edition, in which the narrative is laid out in order. Thematically the songs stick together while bringing you very different types of songs while still sounding like a Wolves song. Most of the songs tell their own story and have their own morality.
“The Dragon of Round Rock” is about coveting the wrong things and dying alone in a bunker for it. “Persuasive Bullet” says that even in an advanced society power ultimately emanates from those who can apply force or violence, while continuing the tale of these lovers who try to escape their past. “w/half a disease” is about falling in love with someone in their manic phase and realizing that your rock is unstable, and that people aren’t even what they believe themselves to be. “This Terrible It’ is about how much I hate the cold and love shown through mercy killing, while also forwarding the narrative. Our “hero’s” friends die in that snow.
“Beloved Bones” is a song people contextualize for themselves so I am reluctant to talk about. It is about grief, holding on to grief, and letting go and building on the past. It also makes other statements about that, that’s mine to know. “All We’re Offered” is about taking care of each other, and it’s come to speak to me about the fleeting nature of that comfort. Love it while you got it. “Safe Harbor” is about knowing you are the threat to someone, but feeling safety with them where you don’t elsewhere. They are unattainable and were briefly attained. Those words exchanged still have a resonance.
“Clumsy Tongue” is about the lies in storytelling that actually tell a better truth. “Small Enough to Fit In Your Pocket” is a song that begs to be relevant after being left behind. “We Lucky Few” does a lot to build the world and worldview of the project; it’s the most Wolves song on the record from where I sit. “Eschatology” is a song about dreams lost, the lies in our prophecies, and being excluded from helping the people you love. All throughout the songs are about the endings of things big and small.
The band has been gaining an impressive reputation for your live shows. What can people expect when coming to see you perform?
I think our live performances are all about energy. In some shows, they have the fire of a revival service and sometimes it’s just circus theatrics, but when we do both it is electric. I think there is also the sense that with so much going on, the audience is wondering when the wheels are going to come off, and when they don’t, they’re a little stunned.
But as we develop more into the characters and give more to that side of things, I think it’ll frame the ideas behind the songs better. You’d think people wouldn’t get it, but folks are way nerdier about pop culture than any time in my reckoning. They get it. But we have to be the choir leaders and give the audience their cue that it’s alright to dance, sing out at us, cry, laugh, mosh, whatever. Let them know that here they’re free.
Talking about performing live, which is the bands favourite song to play at shows.
It depends on the night, but most consistently it’s “The Dragon of Round Rock” for its big intros and tribal outro. I’m usually up high by then. “We Lucky Few” is so raucous by the end and is so emblematic of us that it is fun. “Small Enough to Fit In Your Pocket” can be beautiful when the crowd sings it back, especially if they feel it the way they do. Lately some newer stuff like “Fresh Meat,” a song about cannibal ghouls, or this song “Numbers Lie Too” bring a ton of energy to the party and those are great live songs to perform, as the lyrics often dictate motion.
What are the future plans/goals for you and your music?
The current idea is to create EPs in the form of story arcs that tell one specific story and generally are consistent in musical style. We have five of those planned out. One of those might be wrapped up in the Eschatologies special edition format. But we’ll be looking to crowdfund these arcs that follow the four horseman analogs after the worst has already happened. We tell those stories and show off the different versions of what The Wolves can do, but in such way that it allows people to pick and choose.
I’m interested in expanding access to the fictional universe through podcasts and graphic novels, but that’s meant to enhance the songs. We’re looking to do a music video very soon and are preparing for a U.S. tour in 2019 to support those arcs. We’d love to get overseas; our British friends tell us Europe would love what we’re up to, and I’d like to see that for myself.
The Wolves of Chernobyl are not just a band, they are a musical experience.
During the interview, it was clear to see how important stories are to the band. This is one of the standout elements from their latest album Eschatologies. They are beautifully told by Nafe who is supported at times by Hauser and Olivares. The emotion and the range they bring makes these songs even more captivating. “Beloved Bones” shows off this magic at work.
Another element that makes The Wolves of Chernobyl stand out is their music. They bring a big sound which varies in tempo, which helps to keep the listener engaged. “Small Enough To Fit in Your Pocket” is a great example of this as you can hear a party like atmosphere. It also features some sublime work on the banjo by Seals. Not only that but as it slows down towards the end, you get treated to some more sublime vocals.
Overall, Eschatologies is a flawless album crafted by the love for the art. From a band, who love what they do.