You could never, by any stretch of the imagination, accuse Patrick Wolf of a lack of effort, invention and drive. In the nine years since he emerged blinking onto the scene as a quixotic, blonde wonderboy armed with a treasure chest packed full with the weird and the wonderful, he has crafted no less than five albums and two EP’s; each one a significant variation and progression on the musical themes of its predecessor. His new album Lupercalia, due out on 20th June on Hideout Records is no exception to this rule, presenting and unfolding as Wolf’s most mature and coherent work to date: marrying his odd eccentricities to a mature sense of pop awareness and, most strikingly of all, a sheer and unrestrained joy that has often been missing from his previous records. Setting out on a brief UK tour to promote the record’s forthcoming release, Drowned in Sound was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to meet up with Patrick as his tour bus pulled into an oddly sunny Manchester. And we were especially grateful for the time considering that, as he’d been suffering from a sore throat for a few days, all press had been provisionally cancelled. But thanks to a couple of kind interventions from Patrick’s tour manager and a bit of hasty rescheduling, we soon found ourselves in a small, glitter-coated room backstage at Manchester University’s Student Union to chat with Patrick about the story behind the albums gestation, the impact of his own life on the themes of the record and the time when he wanted to be a little more like Taio Cruz…
Hello Patrick! Hope you’re feeling a bit better. How is the voice?
It’s fine thanks! I’m just glad I got to see the Chinese doctor and they gave me some good Chinese throat medicine so it’s hopefully better now!
Glad to hear it! How is the tour going so far?
It’s good. It’s been a celebratory tour in a way. Certainly other tours have been quite hard to work through musically. I think, the last album there was a lot of pent-up aggression and a lot of problems. In the lyrics, there weren’t really any resolutions so to repeat those stories again and again every night was quite heavy on my heart. But this is a lot more of a celebration of life and so I think my band and I, we feel a lot more positive about the world at the end of the show.
Actually, that leads nicely onto my next question. Having listened to the record, I’ve found it remarkably joyous. I mean, there’s always been joy in your records but in a way, it’s always been somewhat tempered. But with this one (Lupercalia), it’s a thoroughly positive, confident record. Does that reflect on how you’re feeling in yourself at the moment?
Mmmm… I think it’s showing the world my best side and the good things that I want to share with the world and more. A little less of my dirty laundry and more of the things I find inspirational in the world. I mean, I did write a lot more confessionally…. there was a lot darker material. And the challenge I think, when putting the album together was that I didn’t want to kind of ruin the party….I mean, it’s not even a party, it’s just trying to keep a constantly optimistic view of the world. And also on my depression or troubles: trying to take the optimistic view on these things. And I had a wonderful therapist as well, a psychotherapist who really helped me stop focusing so much on the negative opinion about me as a musician, or the things that went wrong in my adolescence. And to just grow up and say “You’re 27 years old…stop giving a shit what everyone thinks and stop living in the past and look to the future”. And I think all that work I did on myself has come through, that confidence and that’s what I want to share now: the things I’ve learned in the last year. That optimism.
Do you ever shield that side of yourself from your lyrics and your songs? Or is it always very open? Do you ever try to keep any sort of emotional distance?
I think the moment I feel that distance from my work I feel like I need to stop my writing and just be human for a bit. I think all these songs have come from blind confessional moments at four in the morning or just, being away from the studio, or from friends, or record companies…anything. Just these moments when I have to open up the laptop and sing without even setting up a studio, just to document exactly my thought process at that time.
And with tours, you go back over old material, almost dragging up ghosts from the past. Is that difficult at all?
No. I mean, there are some songs I rule out singing for a good five years or so, songs I connect to a time in my life that I’ve worked through; paid a lot of money to work through. Mentally and emotionally. And they’re still up there for people to hear on record and get what they want to out of those songs. But I’ve chosen songs that relate to this album. And every tour I’ve done, I always pick five or six songs from the back catalogue that I would say would relate if I was to put them on a compilation album and reinvent them around the new production. So it’s almost like making a live album, but a compilation of the songs that work thematically to the record you’ve just made.
Musically, Lupercalia sounds totally different to the last record, which sounded completely different to the one before that and so on. Do you think very consciously about that in the studio: that idea of trying to do something different from before? Or is it a natural progression?
I think it’s less about thinking before I create something. What happens is that if I hear something that I feel I’ve done before or there’s a lyric that I feel could have just been a B-Side or an extra thought from another album, then I have to get rid of it. There was a really huge song that was produced with a big brass band that it was all about Santa Monica Pier and losing my voice. And it was a song that sounded like it could have been a big radio single or a hit single but it sounded to me like the missing third track from The Magic Position. And I just thought “that’s lazy” so it just sits on a hard drive somewhere in the studio. I don’t know, maybe I’ll reinvent it. But it is important, as you go on with albums that you don’t want to be a stuck record. So maybe it’s just more an instinct not to repeat myself.
I know when you did the last album: The Bachelor, the original plan you had was for it to come out as a two-part piece with the second being titled The Conqueror. But obviously, as time has gone by, that never happened and here we are with Lupercalia. Why was that plan changed? And how many songs have survived to this record?
Well, I think what I was thinking with The Bachelor, I was going to follow it up with a bit more fighting talk in a way. And going to work with Alec (Empire); that was amazing…he was kind-of like an older brother or somebody at school in the year above you who’s seen you being bullied and he was going “Right: this is how you deal your aggression…this is how you fight”. And we’d start work at midnight every night and just go through….sometimes it was less about the music we were making than about my development as a human: Alec was my psychotherapist at that point in time! So The Conqueror was meant to be after The Bachelor and be all about winning. But then I felt like it was too much for me as an artist: like maybe it was too much ego and too much armour. And it was getting more visual and more live: it was becoming like a front and like I wasn’t letting any emotion in. And I didn’t feel sympathetic or empathetic with the world or with my emotions. I didn’t feel in communication with myself at all. And so I just went back to square one really. I was going to make an extremely personal relationship about my relationship and the person I feel genuine true love for in the world (Patrick recently announced plans for a civil partnership with his long-term partner William Charles Pollock). But I didn’t want any puns either. Y’know…William…William the Conqueror! And it was my best friend John Jenkinson who’s heard all my records and just said “What, you’re going to make a pun out of this person that’s shown you so much love? ”. And so I decided to strip it back.
And then I met Buffy Sainte-Marie at her concert and I started to do my work with Patti Smith and it gave me a huge wake-up call to get back to the fiddle, forget your brain and just be a musician and improvise. I listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell; thought about songwriting and less about pop music and telling a narrative within three minute pop songs. And I just really went back to doing a lot of soul-searching and introspection. And it’s good to sacrifice something you know: ten songs. And if you feel that’s not what you want to be for three years in public then you have to make a decision. And so I’m very happy that I did. I don’t think I’d be able to do it right now; I wouldn’t be mentally in the place to do The Conqueror.
In what way?
Well, it started out…erm…I kind-of wanted to join in with Taio Cruz, all those kind of people! I mean, Kiss FM is the only thing that gets me out of the house in the morning. It’s unbearable to listen to sometimes but it gets me into the shower and out of the house. And I don’t know whether that was just brainwashing me slowly, that I thought everything had to be Auto-tuned and about Ferraris and Grey Goose. And so accidentally, I started write a few songs like that, went to LA to produce them. And I just came back, took a long look in the mirror and just thought “What the fuck are you doing? ” So yeah, some good work came out of that, but I think it was more about knowing what I didn’t want to do next.
On the new record, one of the main things that struck me was that whereas it’s still got that typical oddly eclectic quality, it potentially sounds like the most commercially viable record you’ve made, in terms of envisaging it being played on the radio. How would you feel about that? If all of a sudden there was this massive breakthrough?
Well, I know what the music industry has turned into in the last 10 years…it’s coming up to 2012 and that’ll be 10 years on since my first EP. And that was a really innocent time with Capitol K: he had just made a little bit of money from a remix and he had £400 and just said “Right, you’ve got these songs you’ve been making and borrowing time in my studio: let’s make a little 1000 only EP ” and you were excited if you could get it sold anywhere. So slowly, I’ve seen the industry change a lot and now radio play is so, so, so important. And so of course, it means a lot to me now when I get spot-played with (Nick) Grimshaw; it really means that there are people who care for my work and understand and love it. And I understand that a lot of urban music and beats have taken over so a lot of it is now club music and….gym music, that’s what I call it: workout music.
And I understand my music is different - very, very different. So it’s interesting if it does get played alongside that work…and just two days ago ‘The City’ got A-Listed at Radio 2. And I’ve never been A-Listed for anything in my life; I’ve never won a cup!! (Laughs) So this is exciting. I don’t know… once I’ve finished the album, it’s out of my hands and any appreciation is really great. I’m not one of those people that’s really cool and is like: “I don’t want to be played on the radio”. It’s like Nico’s biography; it was called ‘Songs They Never Play on the Radio’. And I think it’s shocking: on my radio station she would be A-List all the time; ‘Desertshore’ would be A-List. So I think it can be subversive when music we don’t expect does get played on things like Radio 2 or Radio 1. I mean, I remember a life-changing moment for me was hearing Bjork’s ‘Army of Me’ driving back from school in the back of my dad’s car. And I’d never heard a bassline like that in my life. So those moments are exciting. And without things like Top of the Pops or record stores on the street as much as they used to be, then it’s important. Radio has really become so important.
Would you want to ever be a really big star? I mean, tabloid, in everyone’s knowledge and consciousness?
(Thinks) I like big stages. Y’know, I’ve gone from playing cafes for my dinner to four people, to playing in Hyde Park. I’ve experienced quite a lot supporting artists and I’d love for the rest of my life to be able to tour whenever I want and to always be on the road if I choose to be for ten years. And as long as I always put on a show from the bottom of my heart then I hope that’ll always be there. But publicity, and public perception and all that, it’s totally out of my hands. So I don’t know. But I’ve always liked with Kate Bush, that as a fan, you’ve got this whole period where she’s on all these big children’s programmes like Razzmatazz and she’s doing phone-ins about Babooshka and telling the story to little eight-year old kids: that’s really exciting! So any moment of just trying to do something subversive….but then I’m very happy to be near my audience and my fanbase as well. But with five albums and this long, and hopefully a lot longer to go then I hope there’ll be a lot more ups and downs. So we’ll see!
Speaking of the big stages, I’d watched you several times throughout your career with these big, powerful flamboyant songs. But it was only at the Leeds Festival in 2009 when you came out with a Flying V guitar and a full gold outfit on….
And I just remember thinking “Yes, I get it…do it!!” Really? That was the point where everyone around me was going “He’s gone fucking crazy!!! ” (Laughs)
I thought the same thing when I saw you The Big Chill last year, you just looked so much more confident and expressive on stage. Is that something you’ve been more conscious of yourself?
I think it’s come full circle. Because before the first EP and then the shows for the first album, back then I didn’t have a band; it was just a laptop, an organ and anything I could fit into a suitcase. And it was a very small one-man band show and a lot of technical faults at every song. And I was very shy back then I think, and the songs were so introverted that they didn’t really lend themselves to belting it out. And I was so young that I didn’t really know how to sing, I’d never trained for it. But before then I’d been in a band called Maison Crimineaux and the whole thing then was all about “burn down the venue” and “pull the plug on the soundsystem” and just make a big show. And it suddenly disappeared; all that confidence. Because I was just desperately trying to make these songs that were so private, public. And I think since Wind in the Wires, it almost seems like a slow stepping out of the bedroom: out of your own private life into a bit more of a sharing, confidence-based thing. But I think that Leeds/Reading thing, the one you saw was kind-of the pinnacle! There was a month where it was gold lame, hair extensions down to the knees. I don’t know, sometimes this monster takes over. And it might happen again. Y’know, I sit here in a cardigan right now but there are definite Jekyll and Hyde moments within my last nine, ten years!
I loved it!
(Laughing) I’m really shy actually. I mean, when the taxi came past the front door here and there were people waiting outside…I mean, people find it hard to believe but I get terribly shy and just want to run under the bus, run backstage. But the moment I’m on stage it’s just…WAAAAAH! But that’s why I like my double life: I’m like Hannah Montana!!!”
I recall seeing a tweet from you the other day about you visiting the W.B. Yeats museum in Ireland. How much do you think consciously about putting poetry in lyrics, or is that something you have to strike a careful balance with?
Well, I’ve always written in big notebooks: writing three pages of words around one subject or one thing that I’m trying to sort out in my life and trying to whittle it down into three stanzas. I mean, there weren’t a lot of choruses to a lot of my early work and I think that came from writing out of a more abstract space. So I think that my beginning as a lyricist was actually poetry and writing short stories. And then I wrote more and more songs and structures. But I think I will always return to that space. And we’re sitting here talking about how an album that we’re saying is more accessible and commercial. And it is certainly the most expensive record I’ve ever made. But you have got to be prepared that maybe the next record, I might just want to get in a car…drive through Ireland and….well, I’m not going to give away what I’m going to do next! (Laughs)
That’s fair enough!
But I’ve always found that with one extreme comes the other with the next album. So I always say to my audience: “Enjoy it while it’s still here because it’ll be very different in two years time”
So what are your upcoming plans for the summer then? I know you’re playing Bestival…
Yes, Bestival. And Reading and Leeds again. And then lots of European Festivals…I don’t know, it’s all been confirmed in the last week or so. I mean, the album comes out at the beginning of summer so I don’t know…hopefully an appearance on Loose Women?! The Alan Titchmarsh Show, y’know?! But it’s still only first-single time. There’s another single, then the album comes out. And I’m with a label that I think are very interested in the long-term life of my record, rather then another label I’ve been on where it was literally just “get it out and forget about it”. And touch wood, I’m with people that I really trust and believe in a long-term plan for my music. So it’s not about the hard-sell straight up.
And so, we conclude the interview there to give Patrick ample time to rest before the show, but not until he takes me to meet the band for a photo, following him up a shaking, swaying, rickety ladder backstage at Manchester University as I fear an unsightly, untimely death in the line of Drowned in Sound duty! At the show that night, it’s notable that Patrick looks profoundly relaxed: engaged and indulging in his songs with a genuine freedom and contentment that I haven’t witnessed before. His music seems happy, he seems happy. You get the impression that Wolf is in a productive and positive place, both musically and personally. Reconciled with his most coherent and open record yet, this might just be his time to truly shine as he has promised to for so many years. Long may it continue…
Lupercalia is out on 20th June on Hideout Records.