Q&A with Max Vanderwolf, a combustible song-writer with multiple past lives spews forth your next melodic trip

"I miss the context. I miss how small the music scene was in 1966-70. I miss the close-knit communities that thrived without the internet, without the media. I miss the sense of discovery music fans had before the algorithms started to force-feed us ''discoveries''.  I think there's loads of great music and musicians out there today. Always interesting new bands in the US, UK, Europe and elsewhere. But I miss great songwriting combined with colorful and far-reaching experimentation."

Vanderwolf: Music Visions, Melodic Trips

Vanderwolf has released his new single, leading with the A side “When The Fire Grows Cold”, a piano-led cinematic nightmare-lullaby co-sung by the legendary musician-activist, Robert Wyatt. The B side is “Extinction!”, a 7-minute Balkan-brass psychedelic fantasy featuring the late, great Daevid Allen’s glissando guitar solo and the wonderful Terry Edwards (PJ Harvey, Lydia Lunch, Tindersticks) on saxophone. These two epic tracks capture the polarities of Vanderwolf’s vision: one song precise and quietly disturbing and one sprawling and transcendent. As well as being a musician with a long and storied history (most notably as vocalist with semi-legendary London band Last Man Standing, whose sole album in 2007 received plaudits from Mojo and Uncut), Max Vanderwolf has a hugely successful career as a music programmer and concert producer, working for some of the worlds’ most celebrated clubs and concert venues.

(Photo: Max Vanderwolf)

These include New York’s legendary Knitting Factory and London’s internationally-renowned Royal Festival Hall, where for 9 years he produced the Meltdown Festival working closely with David Bowie, Patti Smith, Jarvis Cocker, Massive Attack and Ornette Coleman. It was while working on Meltdown that Vanderwolf forged his friendship with Robert Wyatt. “When The Fire Grows Cold”, which features co-producer Sam Sallon on piano, is lifted by what Wyatt referred to as a “peasant-chorus”. Award-winning video director Alden Volney also depicted the “peasant chorus” in the accompanying video for the song. Max Vanderwolf has recorded more than 11 albums under his own name and as part of various bands. Many more went unreleased. Under his name, or various pseudonyms, he has also appeared on festival bills performing with various other musicians’ projects, his own bands and small orchestras. His new album titled "12 Little Killers" will be released this summer.

Interview by Michael Limnios             Special Thanks: Billy James (Glass Onyon PR)

How has the UK counterculture music scene influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Well, it depends what you mean by the ''Counter Culture'' scene. The UK music scene is one where the Counter-Culture, through cooptation, ambition and hopefully quality, becomes the mainstream. In fact, its quite ''farm system'' now and its responsible for a huge amount of UK income-generation. Even today unusual artists like Black Midi, Comet is Coming, Snapped Ankles continue to make in-roads in the border culture from their various corners of the counterculture. And this goes all the way back to Soft Machine and Pink Floyd...or the Beatles at the Cavern Club and the Stones busting out of Richmond. However I would say, true Counter-Culture is best represented by ideas that run against the grain of capitalism and environmental degradation. The Extinction Rebellion is the real Counter-Culture.

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? Where does your creative drive come from?

I do my best to never describe my sound. I leave that to the journalists. Each track song comes with its own set of objectives, challenges, and emotional or intellectual baggage. I hear things in my head, or on my guitar, and I am driven to make them real. I want to see them materialized as fact. I'm driven largely by harmonic ideas... obsessively so.

Why do you think that Robert Wyatt and Daevid Allen’s music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I would like to think that is true. But I fear that Wyatt and Allen were both so original, so true to their artistic selves, that their legacy will be less than assured. Their work is less promoted and their legacy of  work cultivated as we see with some of the artists of their generation. It doesnt help that Soft Machine and Gong went on to be less interesting faceless entities with ever-changing lineups.

"I do my best to never describe my sound. I leave that to the journalists. Each track song comes with its own set of objectives, challenges, and emotional or intellectual baggage. I hear things in my head, or on my guitar, and I am driven to make them real. I want to see them materialized as fact. I'm driven largely by harmonic ideas... obsessively so." (Photo: Max Vanderwolf)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I've had so many wonderful meetings. And quite a few difficult ones. Its quite difficult to pick one.

Are there any memories from the Meltdown Festival, Knitting Factory and Ornette Coleman which you’d like to share with us?

Ornette was a soft-spoken gentle man who loved his suits and played by his own rules. Each Meltdown is different, and each Meltdown director takes a unique approach. Ornette would not be in position to choose new bands or new artists. He and Denardo, his drummer/son, allowed me to assemble a cast of musicians whose love for his music comprised a powerful statement. Patti Smith, Flea, Master Musicians of Jajouka, James Blood Ulmer, Mike Patton, The Roots. These artists came into the festival with a sense of duty. A sense of tribute. And that sensibility permeated the entire week of concerts. It was an outpouring of love. One of the days we watched the Ornette Coleman documentary in which Ornette at one point says, something like:  there's something about being an artist that when you do something, people don’t question it. They just say, that's him being him. That night Charlie Haden performed in the Royal Festival Hall and his encore was to include Ornette. But Ornette, just being him, decided not to show up for Charlie's encore. Charlie was visibly shook-up about it and confused. It was terribly sad to see him with so much love in his heart and how on the verge of tears.  But that was Ornette. He did it his way-- and if that meant it was sometimes at the expense of others so be it. A few nights later, Ornette and Charlie were on that same stage as a trio with Denardo performing on Ornette's headline show. The encore was a searing version of ''Lonely Woman'' it was a lifetime music highlight.         (Photo: Max Vanderwolf)

"I would like to think that is true. But I fear that Wyatt and Allen were both so original, so true to their artistic selves, that their legacy will be less than assured. Their work is less promoted and their legacy of  work cultivated as we see with some of the artists of their generation. It doesnt help that Soft Machine and Gong went on to be less interesting faceless entities with ever-changing lineups."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

I miss the context. I miss how small the music scene was in 1966-70. I miss the close-knit communities that thrived without the internet, without the media. I miss the sense of discovery music fans had before the algorithms started to force-feed us ''discoveries''.  I think there's loads of great music and musicians out there today. Always interesting new bands in the US, UK, Europe and elsewhere. But I miss great songwriting combined with colorful and far-reaching experimentation.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

When I write music, or record music, I am responding to a set of circumstances -- usually harmonic circumstances that elicit an emotional reaction in me. I assume, and hope, it is powerful enough that others too will have a similar sense of it. Each song has its own qualities -- even on this new release, the orchestral fury of Extinction is a long way from the fragility of When the Fire Grows Cold. They are connected thematically but in terms of their affect on people it is 2 different reactions I hope to provoke. The next album of 12 songs which will be released in July will also ask listeners to reach far and wide with their ears.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Do what you absolutely must do. In other words, there's no time to please others. Follow your own obsessions and your own love. Whether it be the love of another artists music or the love for a particular way of making music or a particular kind of music. Love will lead the way. And in the end, you'll be surrounded by things that are a reflection of love. Material gains, if they come at all, are fleeting. Most likely, if they do come it all, it will be because of the love and necessity of your work.

Vanderwolf - Home

(Photo: Max Vanderwolf)

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