I once thought Toronto was the Austin of Canada. While it is home to North By Northeast and to a slew of musical talent, Montreal is where I have found most of my favorite Canadian bands: The Arcade Fire, The Dears and Parlovr. The next musical discovery for me from The Great White North is a three-piece band called We Are Wolves.
We Are Wolves has been together for about a decade. They had no intention of taking anything to any next level, to the point that they didn’t have a name for themselves until two years in. They’re three art school friends who barely knew how to play their instruments or compose a song when they started. A decade later, after a debut album on Fat Possum Records and doing their first major tour with Trail of Dead, the electro post-punk trio’s stock is finally taking off past being a blogger band. With the recent release of their best album to date, Invisible Violence, they should take off worldwide.
I spoke with the band about the infamous t-shirt that brought about their band’s name, singing in Spanish, touring with Trail of Dead and schooled them on which animals were metal and which ones were indie.
With a name like We Are Wolves, how come you aren’t a metal band? Don’t you know that the metal-heads have the rights to “wolves”? Indie bands can use bears, rabbits and deer.
Alexander Ortiz (vocals/bass): I have heard that before. I think because I have all these tattoos people ask me the name of my band. I say “We Are Wolves.” Then they ask if it is a pretty heavy or hardcore band. After, I tell them, “No, it’s pretty gay.”
That’s hilarious. Do they just look at you funny after you tell them that?
Alexander: Yeah, but I use that word a lot, but not in a bad way. Not that there is anything wrong with Vince [referring to keyboard player].
Either way, “wolves” bands are supposed to wear black t-shirts. You’re violating the code, fellas. Seriously though, didn’t you guys name your band after something you saw on a t-shirt?
Alexander: Yeah, we were looking for a band name and the t-shirt I had on at the time wasn’t black. It was gay blue, super-bright and not metal at all. It had the word “We Are Wolves” written in white and had the wolves like spitting fire or something.
Do you guys still have that shirt, or better yet, sell that shirt?
Vincent Levesque (keys): We just found the stencil for it the other day. We should totally sell it, huh?
Alexander: The funny thing is I did a t-shirt with another name on it before. I think it was called “Arena Rock.” It was really bad. I went to a friend with it and I was hoping he’d ask me about it so I could say to him “I don’t know, do you like that name?” After seeing the face he made and hearing his comments, I knew it wasn’t a good idea.
How did you guys come together as a band?
Vincent: In Quebec, we have a school in between high school and university. I guess it is kind of a college. It is mandatory. We met there in what is called CÉGEP.
Alexander: Vincent and I were at art school in CÉGEP. I was doing some video stuff one day and the teacher told me I should check out Antonin’s videos because it was the same kind of aesthetics. At one point I was looking for a bass amp and that same teacher knew a guy who was selling a bass amp. It was also Antonin. So I talked to him about buying his bass amp and jamming with Vincent and I. We had always talked about forming a primitive rock band, something like The Cramps.
Hearing you talk about how you met and how you really couldn’t play your instruments well early on, it is surprising to me that you didn’t’ start out as a punk rock band.
Alexander: Yeah, we just wanted to do something a little different than punk.
At what point did you guys realize that you were good enough to be doing this professionally?
Alexander: We never said that about ourselves. A friend of ours said that to us.
Antonin: A friend of ours was working at a bike-repair shop and he thought the band was really interesting. He wanted to change his life because of us. He wanted to manage us, and even told us he didn’t know anything about managing but he was willing to try. He started writing emails, returning phone calls and returning emails. Next thing we knew, we were recording the exact amount of songs we knew how to play, which all ended up on the first record. That record was eventually released by Fat Possum. He orchestrated the whole thing. Now, he is actually working full time at managing and started his own company.
Wow. That’s a really good friend. What’s his name or the name of his company?
Vincent: His name is Alex Bolieu and the company is Alex Bolieu Management.
Alexander: We all learned together. We learned how to be a band, about being part of a big musical system. For us, it was just another art project or another thing to do on the side from our regular lives.
Vincent: Alex ended up changing our lives. We are all old friends, and it’s really cool to see how it happened.
Fat Possum is a very well-respected indie label that people would sell their soul to get on. You got on early but then left. What happened?
Vincent: I think we just ended up doing our time. I think it was a contract thing. We had the option once it was done, I believe. At the same time we had a discussion with a Montreal label. To be honest, the communication with a Mississippi label was not easy. Fat Possum is like a one-man thing.
So basically a hometown label in Montreal made everything easier logistically is what you’re saying?
Vincent: It’s nice because we come from the same background. We can just drop by the office if we need to.
Alexander: You can take your bike there and actually talk to the person who works with vinyl or the CD. It’s way easier than sending an email and hoping he understands what you meant. I think it was both easier for him and for us to just part ways. There wasn’t any bad blood or anything, but it was just easier.
While we are on the subject of you guys getting started, your first tour was with Trail of Dead and International Noise Conspiracy. How surreal was that for you?
Antonin: That tour was our first Canada-United States tour ever. I think it was about five years ago. We were lucky, huh? To have that be our first tour was great. Around two years later we opened for The Gossip. It was all thanks to saying yes to our first opportunity with Trail of Dead and International Noise Conspiracy.
Alexander: I think we were just fascinated by the idea of actually leaving town and going somewhere with our music. It just happened like that for us.
Vincent: At that point, we weren’t planning to do anything with the band outside of having fun. We were just going to keep on going to school.
Tell me something about the new album, Invisible Violence. The first thing that caught my interest was that the first track, “Paloma,” is actually in Spanish. That was a cool surprise coming from what I saw was a French-Canadian band.
Alexander: Well, my family is from Colombia. I was born in Montreal, but all my family is from Colombia. I was born with that Colombian influenced upbringing. I recently had a little girl and I named her “Paloma.” That song came to me when I was playing something to just put her to bed so she could sleep. I was singing those words to her and it just kind of became a complete song.
How did you guys (Antonin and Vincent) react when he brought this to you as a potential song for Invisible Violence?
Vincent: It was a good song. We went for it. We had been talking about doing a song in Spanish for like six years.
Alexander: Even in our previous albums, we have Spanish song titles but they are instrumental songs. It’s weird too because not too many bands like us sing in Spanish. Eventually we might do a special, all-Spanish album. We could do it with mariachis like The Bronx.
What else about Invisible Violence is different from your previous releases?
Vincent: They are quite different. There is more beauty in the details. It’s more melodic.
Alexander: We’re supposed to say it is more mature, right? I mean we are older, right? I will say we play better now than we used to. We have better structure and better ideas for songs.
Vincent: You have to know that when we started we didn’t have any idea of how to play or create songs. I was a drummer and now I play keyboards. We started from zero. It took us several years to learn to play music together and to build songs that sounded like what we always wanted to play.
I’m glad to see you released the album on vinyl as well. There’s nothing like vinyl, and to art students like yourselves, or former I should say, I imagine you appreciate the album art and liner notes.
Alexander: For sure. The visuals are going to influence how you perceive and understand the music. It is going to give you a whole spectrum or what you are about as an artist. I remember looking at a Beastie Boys record and I spent a lot of time looking at the inside cover. I looked at all the pictures on this collage they did for that record. It was amazing. Looking at that and listening to the record, I was sure those guys were like funny dudes, intelligent, and I imaged different things about who they were. That is what I would like for our records to do for people.