Easily mistaken at first glance as an oddball half-band – an open-mic night kind of unfinished ensemble – Albi And The Wolves typically take little more time than the obligatory count in to convincingly prove otherwise. Somehow the combination of casual electric violin-wielder, retiring hippy-haired upright bass player, and bald-but-bearded, albino acoustic guitarist frontman just… works. And work they sure do, the trio rank right up there in the hardest-working local act department. Sammy Jay Dawson chatted with Pascal Roggen, Micheal Young and Chris Dent around their folk-tastic album debut, ‘One Eye Open’.
Since getting together in Auckland in late 2014, Albi And The Wolves have barely given themselves time to lift their foot off of the gas pedal. Along with playing over 50 shows a year the zany folk trio have released three EPs, a handful of singles and videos and now have a freshly minted debut album ‘One Eye Open’ to promote.
Featuring Chris ‘Albi’ Dent (guitar, vocals), Pascal Roggen (violin, vocals), Micheal Young (double bass, vocals), the band has a simple philosophy – no limitations. Opportunities come in any shape or form, so give everything a go.
“As far as we know there’s no folk scene in Auckland,” Chris explains. “There’s a lot of folk clubs and a hell of a lot of people that enjoy the style, and there are some great folk bands too. What I think has happened is these great bands have just gotten out and started to play in venues that don’t have a folk music reputation. The reaction of which is not, ‘Oh let’s go see this folk band’, rather, ‘Oh, that band at that pub last night was amazing.’ It’s really broadened the genre’s audience here.”
Forgoing any percussion section, Albi And The Wolves pride themselves on their ability to fill the dance-floor using only string instruments. Often sharing a pub or concert bill with rock bands, it’s a self-imposed challenge that night after night helps push the band to its best.
Beyond that, it’s the combination of traditional folk styles, modern indie, soul and pop song structures that set Albi And The Wolves apart from others working the genre.
“I think with the Internet and streaming services available people’s musical tastes have broadened too,” observes Pascal, a classically trained violinist who has over the last two decades performed on stages throughout Asia, Europe and the U.K. “People don’t have the mentality of only liking a single genre of music. It’s less tribal than it used to be.”
“I think it all depends on what you label yourself too,” adds Chris. “If you choose to present yourself a certain way you run the risk of people putting you in a box. But if you tell people, this is what we do, check it out, you let people make up their own minds. Just get out and play music for music’s sake.”
Arguably the band’s defining feature is the diversity and experience of its members, each of whom found musical success long before meeting.
Micheal has previously won a Tui award with Auckland bluegrass quartet Wires & Wood. He’s a sound engineer with his own home production studio in Devonport.
Pascal’s jaw-dropping list of concert appearances and collaborations have seen him lend his talents to almost every genre imaginable. Many will know him from Miho Wada’s Jazz Orchestra. At 25, charismatic frontman Chris is the youngest of the trio. A solo folk artist in his own right, he regularly lends his hand to various side projects,
“I met Chris when he was about 14,” Micheal recalls. “I saw him play quite a few times around Auckland and was lucky enough to witness his performance and songwriting skills mature. A couple years ago we had some jams at festivals, with me playing banjo, mandolin and bass. The bass kind of stuck for this ensemble and I’ve been laying down the grooves for Albi And The Wolves ever since.”
“I met Chris and Micheal through Matt [Owens], the original banjo player in Albi And The Wolves, who has since departed the band to pursue other projects,” Pascal adds.
“We used to play in a band together and when it broke up Matt was keen to kind of reshuffle the line up and lean it towards more traditional folk, but with that twist. Not long after Chris got on board and recommended we give Michael a try.
“It’d been a long time since I’d played folk music, my first experience as a paid musician was playing Irish folk music in pubs, but my upbringing was playing classical and jazz. My mother was a piano teacher and so I learnt Suzuki method when I was three.”
When I ask Pascal to further describe his musical background Chris almost immediately cuts me off, laughing.
“You’ve opened up a can of worms there!”
Over the next 15 or so minutes Pascal goes into excruciating detail about his time studying south Indian classical music, playing Swiss folk music, Spanish-Jewish, rock, reggae, jazz, classical, African pop, hip-hop, Cuban….
“I’ve played in a crazy amount of genres because I love picking up something new from a different genre,” he explains. “If you limit yourself and cut yourself off to music you won’t think you enjoy, as a musician you’re cheatingyourself out of learning some great stuff.”
“My answer is much shorter,” Chris quips. “I like a lot of different genres but I’ve always adored traditional folk music, a singer/songwriter that’s got a great story to tell. I love rock and indie and the new wave of West Coast hip hop too.”
“I became obsessed with the guitar at the age of 18,” Micheal takes up the thread. “I was inspired by the likes of James Taylor, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Joe Walsh, Chet Atkins and the Beatles. I walked away from my career as a computer scientist to pursue a career as a recording engineer, which is the perfect job for me as I get to combine my technical and artistic expertise.
“I started Studio 27A a few years back, which is a studio I run from my own home. In 2011 an album that I engineered, produced and performed on, ‘Over The Moon’ by Wires & Wood, won the Tui award for Best Folk Album of the Year.”
Making the obvious decision to take advantage of Micheal’s talents and facilities, ‘One Eye Open’ was recorded in just one month – a time-frame the trio somehow describe as ‘stupidly long’.
We’re pretty efficient in the studio,” Chris boasts, “We don’t record the whole band, we tend to multi-track, but everything is very raw and un-edited. Pascal likes to improvise a lot, so for some songs we’re left with 15-20 different takes to sift through – but he leaves it up to us to pick which ones we like best. But we don’t go crazy on overdubs, it’s a pretty basic sound we have.”
“Writing-wise,” Pascal adds, “Albi [Chris] usually comes along with the core of a tune and we pull it apart and tighten it back together. Then we just re-arrange it till we’re all happy with it.”
They have four new songs ready to record and hope to get their next album finished in a much shorter amount of time, but just ahead lies an 18-date tour of NZ over December and January. They’ve got a heap of folk festivals to play as well as a number of pub gigs, and while it is really album promo time they’re all looking forward to the chance to road test the new songs.
“We want the next record to have 11 songs,” Chris states. “We want to walk into the studio and have a very firm idea of what we want with the finished product.
“Crazy things do happen when you record, the first track on ‘One Eye Open’, Giants In The Sky features a classical string section that starts and ends the song. That was completely on the spot while recording. We’d been trying to work out an intro and we wanted something a bit shorter, but it actually ended up about three times longer. It’s a strangely effective way to start a folk album – this massive string section which doesn’t really sound anything like traditional folk music. There’s always nice surprises in the studio, so it’s nice to be open to them.”
‘One Eye Open’ holds a nice surprise for fans of The Black Keys with a closing bluegrass-y cover of Lonely Boy.
After two years together Albi And The Wolves’ founding philosophy continues to serve them well. Determined to prove that folk is a limitless genre, they’re unique mentality has seen them collaborate with Mt. Eden Dubstep to the tune of some 800,000 YouTube views, as well as a diverse range of artists such as Strangely Arousing and Mark Laurent.
“We always like to say, if you think there’s something we couldn’t pull off, whether it be a gig line-up, a festival that usually wouldn’t receptive to our style or a song arrangement, whatever! I think our challenge is; let’s fucking do it!” Chris finishes.
“We’ve had a ridiculous amount of opportunities from people over the years to do things and there are so many people that are opening doors for artists in Auckland. I feel like a lot of people have really advocated us purely because they like the music and that’s been really crucial to our success!”