Cumbria Times
Weekend Edition
Jeremy Williams-Chalmers
Arts Correspondent
1:15 AM 12th February 2024

In Conversation With Vanderwolf

Acclaimed US musician Vanderwolf has announced details of his new album, The Great Bewilderment to be released on March 13, 2024, on LP, CD, and digital formats via Another Record Label. The follow-up to Vanderwolf’s 2022 debut, 12 Little Killers, The Great Bewilderment is a major rock record full of big emotions and adventurous songs.

Whereas 12 Little Killers was written and recorded during Vanderwolf’s final years in London following the break-up of his semi-legendary band Last Man Standing, The Great Bewilderment was mostly written during the pandemic, during which Max relocated from New York to Los Angeles. A very different beast of a record, we caught up with Max to learn a little more.

Photo: ©Chiara
Vanderwolf Photo: ©Chiara
The video is also a stunning piece of AI work. Who was behind the concept and execution?

With some trepidation, I'm really embracing AI across the entire record. The video promo was produced by George Panakogas, and the album art was designed by Dennis Martin. They both demonstrate that it is an essential tool for musicians who think visually, and it has allowed me to realise some visual representations of the music we made. These days, with music mostly being heard on phones in visually-based apps like Instagram, the AI revolution seemed like an essential moment to seize.

In the case of Sweep Away The Shards, I was trying to avoid predictable psychedelic imagery, which is very prevalent in AI currently. Yes, the recording features many psychedelic touchpoints—backwards guitar, etc.—but I thought, how can I introduce some story-telling? And how can I avoid cliches of psychedelic art and music-video effects? One thing that makes it stand apart from other AI videos is that I decided early on that we would try to use black and white photography and cinematography, specifically from films of 1940's Hollywood. Social media is inundated with colour, so it seemed like an alternative. The rest was about capturing the emotional quality of the song as represented in these romantic or tragic female characters that drift through the piece. George really nailed that emotional quality.

The upcoming album is The Great Bewilderment. fascinating title. Tell us more.

The Great Bewilderment is both a personal statement and a broader statement about where we are as a global society. It's a comment on the ever-increasing complexity of the world and how it has led us to a place where we feel powerless to simply comprehend, let alone effectively take action. The consequences of our inventions, technology, and breakdown of systems overwhelm us. I can't help but think about how long it's been since there was a general election in the UK. How have we come to a place in a 21st century democracy where the will of the people, after many years of Tory mismanagement and corruption, cannot express their dissatisfaction and enact change through the electoral process?

And in the US, how is it possible that a sociopathic felon and rapist—with 91 indictment accounts against him—can hold sway over electoral politics so that he can stop legislation on the so-called ''crisis on the border''? Our own sense of powerlessness and our own lack of comprehension in the face of looming threats from AI, climate disasters, and war bring on a sense of utter bewilderment. This is the age in which we live.

How typical of the album’s sound is Sweep Away The Shards?

Lyrically, many of the themes we hear in other tracks from the album can also be found here. That's just me trying to figure things out. And of course, my voice is pretty unmistakable, and I get to use the full range of it here. But musically, the song is quite unusual, as it's a cycle of major 7th chords. This song does not have a chorus or a bridge; it's simply that cycle of chords until it peaks in the final verse. So in terms of structure, this song really stands out. I love songs that do that. One of the best recordings ever is White Rabbit, which Grace Slick wrote in 1965. And while I wouldn't compare Sweep Away to White Rabbit, I do think they share that building of a musical thing into an epic crescendo.

If you had to file the album between two other releases, where would it sit?

Alphabetically, it would sit between Van Der Graaf Generator and Van Morrison, but now that I think of itit,hat's a pretty good sandwich.

I actually would not mind being in their company either. The rich complexity and drama of progressive rock levelled out by the soulfulness and spiritual questing of Van Morrison somehow make sense.

Your sound has progressed throughout your recordings; how would you say your influences have altered?

I have a voracious appetite for listening. And while music from the late 60's and early 70's are primary influences, I hear a lot of more recent influences on this record. I'm aware of some (Sufjan Stevens, Air, Elliott Smith, Jane's Addiction, Beck), but I like to hear from other people about what they're hearing. However, more influential than my listening habits are my guitar habits and practices. Those discoveries and little evolutions are hugely impactful on my songwriting.

What lessons did you learn from previous releases that you applied to this record?

The magic of a live 'take' cannot be beat. What you hear on this record is largely performed live with minimal editing and overdubs.

Drums and bass went down with guitars, vocals, and, in some cases, keyboards. Wherever possible, we accepted what was played and how. Rather than overthink, trust the moment. In Gaza, The Here & Now, and A'Comin Home, you are hearing an entire vocal take. In some cases, we thought it would be a 'scratch' vocal. But there was something magical about capturing everyone playing together in a room that is always worth keeping—and in many cases, preferable to the carefully overdubbed versions. That's what we used to call ''music."In these days of overly manufactured pop nonsense, it's a rarity.

How have your ambitions altered with each release?

They haven't. Musically, I'm still just trying to learn new things and realise them—or express them—through songwriting. It's all self-education! Very healthy.

From a professional standpoint, nothing has changed either. Except that it seems harder than ever for new artists to break through. The obstacles are immense. Streaming platforms have diminished album releases unless your name is Taylor Swift or Beyonce. Radio is almost non-existent. The music press has suffered greatly. Music venues are closing by the dozen. And let's face it, rock music is not exactly the flavour of the month. We're in this period when pop, hip-hop, and dance music dominate. It feels archaic to release a rock record. But it's what I do. I'm just trying to move this towards some kind of self-sustaining mechanism, but it's really tough.

What is your one goal with The Great Bewilderment?

These days, just getting people to listen is a huge challenge. Attention-Deficiency Disorder is now several generations deep. Just the modest ambition of people actually listening to an ''album-length'' album. It's actually 45 minutes. So a bit longer. I do hope people will buy it, of course. The vinyl is beautifully produced, and we've got plenty to sell.

Are we going to get any live shows this year?

Yes, all that is currently in the works. It's a big show involving an army of live penguins fighting AI robots in a simulated hurricane. It's going to be great.

The Great Bewilderment is released on 13 March 2024.