Who's Afraid of Patrick Wolf?
FROM CHILD PRODIGY TO KNIFE-WIELDING, GENRE-BUSTING, BULLY-BAITING CHAMELEON, PATRICK WOLF HAS NEVER TAKEN THE EASY ROUTE. AS HE EDGES CLOSER TO THE MAINSTREAM, PIPPA BROOKS ASKS: IS THE MAINSTREAM READY FOR PATRICK WOLF?
Patrick Wolf is an artist who wears his heart bravely on his sleeve: his self-creation is an ongoing evolution entirely of his own making. There are no stylists, there's no 'media training', just a strong desire to express, experiment and create something true, that doesn't repeat itself and stands the test of time. At 28, having released album number 5, Lupercalia, Wolf's heroic trajectory represents a world of musical influences and collaborations from digital hardcore to folk, Marianne Faithful to Tilda Swinton. Sometimes his diversifications have left fans and critics bewildered and even resentful, defying categorisation isn't playing the game and 'the game' is about staying comfortably in your box.
I first noticed Patrick when he was practically still a child. At 12 and 13 he would swagger past the doormen at The Garage in Islington, all fur coat and attitude, my band Posh were on the indie circuit at the time and Patrick would show up at gigs and at festivals with his sister Jo. He stood out; still childlike and shy but burning with a desire to be part of a music scene that had wrenched him from his classical background. It wasn't long before he took to the stage himself, his sister would press 'play' on the 4-track and he would play his car boot sale musical finds, though he cringes about his musical output from those days, there was a discernible drive and ambition for someone of such a young age. This bravado saw him join music collective Minty at fourteen - fourteen! - and start to perform and collaborate with the characters he met on that Offset scene. That he was 'different' isn't really in question, as a child his day-to-day pursuits had been considerably more erudite than most: "Thinking about it now, I was singing Catholic evensong three nights a week and I was being classically trained on the violin. I guess other young boys were kicking a football about!"
I met Patrick for our interview on a cold, wet January night. Sipping sloe gin made by his Dad and comfort-eating his auntie's Christmas pudding, the house was full of spicy fumes and banter. Curled up in an armchair 'found on the street', in the cosily-lit, tapestry peppered love nest he shares with his boyfriend William, Patrick reminisces with a smile about growing up and finding his way and his voice, although the journey has clearly been difficult at times. If you were bullied, as Patrick was by his contemporaries, you have to find a way to turn the hate back on itself, make it a positive. Learning to toughen up in the playground must have helped him hit the London scene with the fairly aggressive verve which was characteristic of his youth. Running with the Kashpoint (Matthew Glamorre's early noughties club) crowd, where everyone was a performer - even if it was only on the dance floor - meant you had to fight to stand out. "I've bumped into a lot of people from my Disco Monster days, people I had fist fights with, who were sworn enemies, from different tribes - it was daggers at dawn! - suddenly six years later you're in a bar and you're laughing about that time. I love that I had all those moments, it was fun to have that kind of history with those people." It's funny to think about Patrick raging around London in those days when right now he seems so at peace with himself. "I'm just not that kind of person anymore I don't think. I think empathy is really important now. When you're bullied at school you're told it's because they're jealous, and you have to think about that now, if you hate somebody maybe it's because they have something that you secretly want."
The musical manifestation of this youthful aggression was the band Maison Crimineaux he formed with Fanny Paul Clinton. "It was 2001, I had a lot of time on my hands and was making lots of demos. I had so much ambition. We didn't like London at all but we were stuck here. Everything was so zhuzhy and there were no nightclubs we wanted to go to, it was all members clubs. I was working in Camden Market sewing on buttons stuck in this little room like a seamstress, living on £30 or £40 a week…Fanny had a performance coming up at [early noughties club] Show Off and he commissioned me two days beforehand to compose some music for it. Fanny was a performance artist and wanted to cause trouble. His show was called KFC and he bought six boxes of fried chicken to throw at the audience! We had so much fun that we made a band of it."
I saw a few of their shows; on one occasion, Patrick pulled the chair out from under a man who was sitting with his back to the stage, and on another the management literally pulled the plug on the sound after only a few minutes. "Our goal after a couple of shows was to be thrown out of a venue within 2 songs but still get paid. We wanted to cause a bad reaction but it wasn't through bad music; our aesthetic was baroque harpsichord music, Diamanda Gallas samples and white noise. We were really obsessed with Atari Teenage Riot and we wanted all the people standing there with their fancy cocktails to feel sick and angry. We wanted to challenge people." And they did. A formidable duo, they would make an impact just walking through the door of a club dripping in diamenté, second-hand furs and home-made clothes, when they were coming at you with a microphone it was a challenging experience, too much, in fact for the world to be ready for, but a brilliant moment in London nightlife as well as in the evolution of Patrick Wolf: "It was great to have that adolescent moment as a band. I really needed to go though Maison Crimineaux with Fanny, I needed to have that “Fuck You” time."
Despite the punk aesthetic of Maison Crimineaux, the classical element has never been far away from everything musical Patrick touches. A live performance sees him crisscrossing the stage, sitting at an organ for one song, thrashing like a dervish on his viola, strumming the ukelele or even seated at his harp; the virtuoso element of his talent should never be played down. Like Dolly Parton - who blew me away in concert as she effortlessly switched between the banjo, guitar, harmonica or autoharp - you feel that he could make a beautiful sound come out of any musical instrument. While Dolly comes from a country music tradition, a lot of Patrick's music is influenced by folk music and his Cornish and Irish roots. Add to that the unmistakable voice and the stories he tells and the fact that music seems to be his driving life-force as opposed to just a chosen career and you have an artist whose five albums to date must only be the tip of the creative iceberg. It's interesting that his love of music is what he ends up equating to a 'first romance': "You know, the first thing I fell in love with was electronic instruments! That was my first romance with something. In 1997 there weren't really any magazines about them, the internet was there but not like today so information about Moog synthesisers, thermions, any electronic or analogue synthesizers from the 70s – and remember in the 90s the 70s were still thought of as kind of cheesy and associated with Prog Rock, not vintage and cool as they're thought of now - so I had to order stuff through PO Box addresses. You would scour Loot every few weeks. I had a Pulp calendar and every couple of months I wrote “Find a Moog! Buy a Moog!”! It was so exotic, so from another planet, the sound, and because of the lack of information or even the lack of some kind of forum..…so my first crush was this escapism through music. Maybe if I was 12 years old now I where information is so much more freely available wouldn't find so much fantasy in it."
Patrick recorded his first album, Lycanthropy in 2003. His debutis like "my Dorian Gray" and he has had a love/hate relationship with the record throughout his career. Not least because "I always think it's scary that there arepeople think there's this Patrick Wolf that I created back then which I'm straying away from in some way. It was made at a time in my life when things happened that I never want to go through again, the state of mind I was in at the time...you'd have to be mentally retarded to still want to be reliving those things at 28."
Certainly, the waif-like, elfin figure who sang songs with a heavy heart hit home with a hardcore of fans who "went to my music because they were crying on the bus on the way home from school." With Wind In The Wires, Patrick was keen to distance himself from that first album, even saying he wished he'd never recorded it, although now he can see that there wouldn't have been the second without going through making the first. But he feels keenly a sense of a certain group of fans who don't want him to change "It has a lot to do with youth obsession and not wanting someone to grown old [amazing he can say this even at the tender age of 28!] - I'm not going to go back to wearing hot pants! I'm just growing my first beard! It's taken 4 weeks to get to this but I just feel I've come of age in the last year as a singer and performer. There are always people want you to stay what you were at the start. My mission statement at the beginning was: if you're going to stick around with my music be prepared for lots of different faces and sounds. I mean, it's not a new concept; think of Bowie or Kate Bush or PJ Harvey. I think because there's youth attached to my early records and we live in a very youth-obsessed society and people are always looking for the first signs of ageing….I can't wait to get into my 30s and 40s and see what music I'm making!"
For someone who changes his appearance quite drastically very often, at least with every album, there is something of a statement in his "first beard" that we are very excited to be documenting to accompany this article! There have been other important physical moments in Patrick's history which are significant like when his voice broke; the choirboy was gone. His voice as it had been disappeared and so he had to search for one. That was also the moment he "discovered punk, rock n roll, New Wave. Hitting puberty was a really important, really exciting time…I kind of grew away from everybody, everyone at school. It was around '97 and that was when I started going to see live bands for the first time." It was also the moment he became brave, the fact that he was never asked his age as he barged in to gigs is significant, as is the way he carried himself at that young age.
Coming of age should be the moment you spread your wings but in a sense Patrick had already been flexing his freedom for years. "The moment I turned 18 it just got boring." I know what he means, I gave up smoking the moment I turned 16 and it was legal! Patrick left home at 16 and lived a fairly hand to mouth existence, busking and making demos before Capitol K released his first album. "When you're 18 or 19 of course you're going to set yourself up with quotes that haunt you when you're 28 or 29. I've had so much shit from people because I don't subscribe to the traditional way of being or looking or speaking that I 'should' as a singer songwriter. I rarely get taken seriously in the press as a producer or songwriter because I think they're bewildered by the packaging or the video or the things that I say." His videos have seen Patrick on all fours wearing nothing but a harness writhing in the shadows and being choked by a whip in Vulture…but also cavorting on a perfect beach with a cast of good looking extras in The City that wouldn't look out of place skipping behind Elton John in "I'm Still Standing". So there's an element of the press that don't 'get' him, or can't get beyond what they see. "I'm like Katie Price: Love me or hate me!"
It's interesting that with the new album, Lupercalia he's broken Radio 2, so lots of people are coming to his music for the first time. An uplifting, romantic and irresistibly euphoric album, it's his most commercial album since 2005's Magic Position but "is much more about calmness or peace. I feel like I've reached a new emotional platform. Some of the other albums are about a lack of love or emotional stability thematically and this album is a big slap in the face to all of those. A lot of artists like to hide their meaning in enigma, or a very British sarcasm or cynicism and I'm not like that at all, I'm not about being mysterious. " It's no secret that with William, who he plans to marry this year, he's found Big Love and someone to share his life with. There's often been a sense that he's "been alone for too many of the great moments in my life" ( Blackdown from The Bachelor). Not any more.
One of the great elements of a live show by Patrick Wolf is that, totally without being preachy, he'll talk about artists like Derek Jarman or impart a little musical knowledge. I saw him give abrilliant tirade at the Roundhouse a few months ago against c*nts like Duran Duran who ruined the saxophone's punk image with smug solos. Even more wonderful was the fact that his Dad then came centre stage and tore up his sax like newspaper to further prove the point! Patrick doesn't dumb down. If he wants to talk about a book he loves or an artist who has influenced him he respects his audience's intelligence enough to share it with them. There's such a shocking amount of dumbing down in the music industry today and that makes him all the more unique as an artist. During our conversation he introduced me to a philosopher named Joseph Campbell who helped him through his teens, "The Joseph Campbell Companion was the book that changed my way of thinking about my future and the things that I could do with, sometimes, the little I had in life. It's a compilation of some of the best and maybe more uncomplicated quotes from his theoretical writings. His famous book is Hero With a Thousand Faces and his big theme was to follow your bliss. His tip was freedom - if there's something you need to do in your life, however preposterous it might seem, imagine this big canyon and don't be afraid to jump. I've never bought a 'self-help' book, I'm really averse to all that Oprah, Tyra Banks stuff. I bought it from Watkins book store off Charing Cross Road, when I was about 16 and I told my parents I was taking a teaching course two days a week but I was actually just bumming around. This book really helped me on my journey, leaving home, making music, making the leap. I still have it it, a really dog-eared copy, I haven't needed to dip into it for a few years but over the next year it might help me kind of reassess my 'mission statement.'"
The singer-songwriter can cut quite a lonely figure, and collaborations must be a welcome spark of inspiration. They don't come much more inspiring than Patti Smith, with whom Patrick has played live on nine occasions. Of course I want Patrick to tell me his Patti story: how they met, who said what, where…
"It was at a Dylan Thomas poetry festival in Wales. I was invited to play in the tiny front room of Dylan Thomas' boat house. I stayed for the whole festival, Patti was supposed to play the next day. " I'm on the edge of my seat and Patrick loves telling this story…"All my instruments were in the lobby of the hotel and she had just arrived and she put a call out to ask if anyone had a spare Dylan Thomas poetry book and I had one, in fact it was the one which my grandmother left me in her will. I went to the staircase and she was standing there at the top of the stairs and she said, “Whose instruments are those?” and of course I said “Mine” and she said, “Can you play them?” “Yeah” and she was like, “Great, let's do a show.” She said what's your name and I said “Patrick” and she was just like, “I'm Patti.” It was so great. So she taught me four songs in her bedroom and the next day we played in the boathouse and again that night in the Town Hall. It was all really improvised and nobody really knew what they were doing. I think we'd both gone there because we just wanted to be in the boat house, we hadn't really prepared anything. I just love that! So many musicians are so precious.You try to do a duet with some people it's so complicated. I think from the old Offset days I'm really spontaneous. It's so thrilling to make spontaneous music or art or whatever. I haven't met anybody like her in the music industry ever who is so exactly how I want to be. She's timeless, ageless. She turned up with no tour support, wandered through the village with her camera taking photos, falling into conversation with people. She lives with her heart and eyes open. The last few shows I got to play with Lenny Kaye and all the old band. On the last show I did back-up vocals for People Have The Power and Ghost Dance!" While I gather myself after the fabulousness of that story I reflect that it says so much not just about Patti Smith's lack of pretension, also, Patrick's fearlessness. Not just to perform on the same stage. To improvise, no rehearsal, just get up there and hold your own. With. Patti. Smith. Incredible.
Strong women have featured large on an inspirational level for Patrick. Recently, as a leveller, Patrick was reflecting on the ten years since his first EP. One artist who he refers to constantly is Joni Mitchell….what had she produced in the first ten years of her career? "I looked at Joni and she'd done ten albums whereas I've done five. It made me feel very lazy. Pretty much everything she's been through in her career helps me make the next step. Her work is timeless, classic, it exists outside of the music industry. She doesn't need any of that stuff like chart positions and fame."
I love the contradictions that are evident and played out throughout Patricks work: the desire to 'vanish' and be 'outside of the industry' pitched against constant image changes and a desire for attention. It's what makes him so interesting, endearing and exciting. His fierce intelligence and musicality when teamed with the unpredictability of the next source of inspiration mean you can never and should never second guess his next move. And why would you want to? Artists like this don't come along very often, but with five albums down and no hint of flagging, Patrick's only just beginning….
THE WYLDE QUESTIONNAIRE: PATRICK WOLF
Do you collect anything?
Tapestries. I've got 7 or 8 now. I've got a really bad version of Gainsborough's Blue Boy. I love that people spend like, a year making these things and then they end up in a charity shop.
First record you ever bought?
I bought 3 tapes – Faith No More Digging Your Grave which came with a sew on patch which I put on my pencil case. All good...but then in the same week I bought Pet Shop Boys Go West and Erasure. I love that Erasure was balanced out by Faith No More!
Would you ever have plastic surgery?
Yeah, I've got quite a big face so there's lots I could do with it! I have this trash side that would be fascinated by what would happen if I had a chin lift or liposuction but then the stubborn side...I'll have to wait and see.
Do you worry about going bald?
The moment I go bald I'll just get five pudding bowl wigs in yellow or red or whatever...
Do you get nervous before a gig?
If it's over 2000 people I start to feel it's a lot of a bigger deal and worry that I might not have the energy to be social and pull out the clown, the person who makes conversation.
Most memorable gig?
The most spectacular I think was at the London Palladium. It had a revolving stage, 4 different backdrops, a folk section, an industrial section, it was all really choreographed.
Is Jerusalem the only song you've ever covered?
I've done 2 Nico songs, I sometimes do live versions of a Kate Bush song but generally I don't want to re-record the hits of other people. Nico I always played to my friends and they'd be like “who's this moaning old man!”(laughs), so I decided to record them in my voice then they might listen to them.
Who's your hero?
Joni Mitchell is totally my hero. As a producer, songwriter and character.
Favourite mainstream movie?
I go to romantic comedies. For me to see the Sex and the City film is really important because it's an hour and a half of not thinking about music because I'm too confused by what's going on onscreen! It's like a holiday for me.
Favourite childhood movies?
Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, The Goonies. I was a huge Jurassic Park fan, I wrote to Steven Spielberg asking him to put me in Jurassic Park 2 but I never got a reply.
Would you like to be a parent?
I'd love to be a father. I've got my music teacher streak in me. I'd love to. I think William and me are kind of stable enough to bring someone up to do something in the world.