Throughout the 18th century, philosophes and satirists used the noble savage in order to reveal the ‘unnatural’ vices of their contemporaries. Voltaire’s l’ingenu (the child of nature) exposes hypocrisy at every turn, whilst Rousseau’s solitary natural man is free from the chains of civilization. Encounters with actual savages made thoughtful Europeans self-conscious of what it was to be human, inspiring them with visions of mankind as ultimately malleable, nay perfectible; an idea that would eventually flower as both communism and consumerism. Concomitant with the interest in the noble savage, the sinister negative to its colourful depiction, was the obsession with homo ferus: the wild man.
The classic model is the child of indeterminate age discovered on all fours, chewing bones and devouring raw meat. Raised by wolves, with no regard for accepted decorum, the savage child generally remained stubbornly wild, no matter how much instruction he was given. The rational men of the 18th century found, to their horror, that rationality was a construct, not inherent in man. As Patrick Wolf says on the sublime new track, ‘Beastiality’: “Nature is as nature does and nature does what nature will.”
Patrick Wolf is both noble savage and wild man. His voice can be sweet and soft one minute, all howls and yelps the next. Ingenuous eyes, innocent of corruption, suddenly turn red with passion as the lines to ‘Bloodbeat’ burst out:
No need for comfort, no need for light,
I’m hunting down demons tonight,
Eat the terror, lick the spark
Uh-oh! My blood beats dark.
Like the savage, he makes his own clothes. No, not from the skins of animals, but from the neglected racks of the local charity shop. On other people, charity shop-chic is just retro fashion, but on Patrick it is a statement of intent. Tonight, at the ICA, he wore a bright yellow jumper with red stars hand painted on it over a white shirt with black polka dots. As the former was taken off, we saw that the arms of the shirt had been savagely hacked off at the shoulder.
After watching tonight’s captivating performance, I interviewed Patrick Wolf about his life, his loves, his hates and his mind’s construction.
So, who is Patrick Wolf and where did he come from?
“I was born 20 years ago, somewhere between Ireland and England, I’m not quite sure. I started playing the violin when I was 8. Everything went wrong at school, so I kind of retreated into myself. (Wimbledon is my trauma area, I went to school there until I was 14 and I didn’t have a nice time.) When I was 10, my sister got me a four-track from school. After that, I joined lots of noise bands and punk rock bands. I left home at 15 and ended up here.”
This is far from the end of the story; within those few lines are woven numerous anecdotes and myths, all part of the fascinating sheep’s clothing that conceals the Wolf. At the age of twelve, for instance, he was writing a fanzine “generally dedicated to the Pixies, the Breeders and the Amps.” Around the same time, after having listened to them on Mark Radcliffe’s nightly radio show, he wrote to Minty saying “I’m a 45 year old trapped in a 12 year old’s body. Help me! I really want an interview for my fanzine.”
Minty, for those of you who can’t remember, were led by Nicola Bowery, the wife of performance artist, Leigh Bowery. They were extreme in their art, with freakish costumes and bizarre stage shows. Their music was post-human electronica. They could not believe that they had a 12-year-old fan. They could not believe that he played the theremin. The shock-artists were shocked, so, naturally, they asked him to join their band. As Patrick relates:
“At four-thirty, I was in a maths lesson. At night, I was on stage with a man who was shitting golden eggs. 12 years old! It was genius! I’m very proud of my past.”
Tonight, Patrick played viola, accordion, and ukulele. Oh, and he pressed enter on the i-book. It is from the latter that the fractured beats and dissonant strings, which add so much character to his folktronic songs, emerge. His talent is not completely intuitive, being aided by three years of classical training in composition and arrangement at music academy. These were very much his noble savage years, exposing the hypocrisy and vacuity of post-modern posturing:
“Being intellectual about music is like being a vegan who eats meat. I really don’t understand why people want to intellectualise something that is purely about your instinct. All the time [at college] we would be intellectual about music or listen to intellectual music, which is the worst!”
Patrick warms to his theme.
“There are a hell of a lot of young composers who think: ‘I’m going to express postmodernist theory through a string quartet.’ It’s fucking ridiculous; nobody wants to listen to something about postmodern theory. There was someone at my college who did that; and, in order to make the work valid, they had to give you an essay. Even then, it’s about intellectualism; and intellectualism is about being one above somebody else. I’m really communist about music; you have to be unsnobby. Rubbish music is just rubbish music and everyone knows that. It’s all about passion and giving and sharing. It’s not about piling it away in textbooks and libraries.”
He admonishes those who believe that electronic music begins and ends with Kraftwerk
“I’ve never listened to a Kraftwerk album in my life. There are so many more exciting things happening . . . Electronic music comes from the fact that Leon Theremin invented the first ever electronic instrument. Back in 1900! This guy is a genius. And Stockhausen is not an intellectual; he makes music from the heart and from the spirit. So do Berlioz and Boulez. These people write from the heart. They’re not talking about trying to get one up in society or get women or more palaces or get to be the King’s composer.”
This last comment, so very welcome in the world of music after years listening to the rapacious comments of bling-bling rappers and puffed-up rockers, gives us a small glimpse of Patrick Wolf’s integrity.
Lyrically, he wanders from the confessional to the mythological and back again. Indeed, in his case, the confessional is the mythological. Almost every episode, whether invented or not, seeks to obtain archetypal form. Take the poetic dissection of London’s social problems:
Sundark on darker streets. It’s violent times for weary feet.
Carjackers and bullet showers, a yellow sign, too many fools in power.
Or, the everything flows/anything goes attitude of ‘Don’t Say No’:
A thousand miles above our heads
They are weaving
Giant currents around the sun
If you’re brave enough you’ll just let it happen
If you’re brave enough you’ll just succumb.
I ask him whether these lines were representative of his thought? He looked uncomfortable, as if to say: ‘you must not try to pin me down with my own words. I am an artist.’ Before actually saying:
“If I write one song it’s not the philosophy for my whole life. Every day is one particular point; ten hours later, my mind is of another completely different opinion. That song is specifically about spiritual ecstacism, about when you’re really feeling something.”
Feeling is important to Patrick Wolf. When I talked to him about the trajectory of his life so far, he said:
“My life is like a big circle, a circle I’ve gone around about 10,000 times. ‘Cos the thing about a circle is that you get lots of highs and lots of lows.”
What highs have you had recently?
“I get most excited when I’m out. One of my thrills this summer was going to Richmond Park for the day, getting drunk by myself and going to the forest. I was lying on grass listening to Czechoslovakian-Spanish guitar music. That was great.”
Did you see the deer?
“I started chasing the deer.”
And what about the low points? The rock bottoms?
“I don’t know. Rock bottoms are also the real high points in a way. Like ‘Bloodbeat’ is about experiencing terror as something really excellent, really passionate, really wonderful, experiencing sadness as . . . . The meaning of life is just to be living, if you’re really upset and really terrified it’s much better than just sitting in front of the TV.”
Knowledge, for Patrick Wolf, is not about systems and classification; it is not about splitting music and people into a thousand convenient pigeonholes. Recently he has been reading Joseph Campbell, the genial enumerator and analyst of comparative mythology:
“He’s an American philosopher. He’s definitely not an intellectual. It’s almost like having a conversation with a really wise man, but wise in terms of being wise about life, not about fucking genres. He has this theory called ‘follow your bliss,’ which is that, if you follow your bliss, then you’ll get to where you want to be. And where you want to be is here, now. It’s almost like a self-help book, but written with so much passion and beauty.
“He has this thing called the mono-myth where he creates a template for the hero’s path. With every hero from Hercules to the soldier in the Tinder-Box [a Hans Christian Andersen tale], charting the hero’s downfall to his rise. He writes it as an allegory for somebody who really wants to do something with their life. And I really take comfort in that at the moment.”
I ask Patrick to list the things that he loves, which throws him. The question is too vague:
“There are so many things I love. I like . . . dinosaurs. I went to the Natural History Museum recently to see them. I love Humanity. Humanity and dinosaurs. When I was there, I went in the Darwin centre. They have every creature that has ever existed all lined up cases of formaldehyde. So, Humanity, the Natural History Museum, dinosaurs and things in formaldehyde, as long as they’re not by Damien Hirst.”
And what does he hate?
“I hate dishonest people, intellectualism in music and art, dandyism, fashion, but I don’t hate style, I hate fashion. Fashion is about what is happening right now and I don’t care for that. I don’t believe in tradition. I hate folk music traditionalists, they’re like people who buy those puddle lane china models of a house: it’s all about nostalgia. But I don’t like talking about the things I hate.”
Finally, what is difference between your internal make-up and your external appearance?
“There’s not much difference, it’s just as messy. I have no care for fashion, I wear whatever I want, and I think that what I wear reflects how I feel that day and how I want to feel.”
Patrick Wolf is a noble savage, exploding shallow dogma, and a wild man, instinctively seeking out those feelings and emotions beyond contemporary decorum. He is determined, he knows what he has to do and, more importantly, he has integrity. The hero’s path is filled with threats and dangers, but if anyone can come out on the other side victorious, it is him.