Austin duo The Ghost Wolves play primordial psychobilly blues
Technically, The Ghost Wolves are a young band. Composed of married duo Carley and Jonny Wolf, the group has been around for four years and is just now readying the release of its debut, Man, Woman, Beast.
In another sense, this is a band that feels old, or at least haunted by rock ’n’ roll mythology. The duo’s music leans deeply into the mysterious forces underpinning rock ’n’ roll, invoking a dark and nightmarish atmosphere with its cackling distortion, stomping rhythms and cockeyed sneer. Using barebones instrumentation to filter a host of psychobilly and hill country blues influences into a sound that carries more weight than deceptively similar acts like The White Stripes or The Black Keys, the band somehow seems to exist apart from the myopia of the current moment. They return to The Odditorium on Wednesday, June 4.
Jonny, who plays drums and sings behind his wife, credits their deep absorption of American roots music to the fact that they both grew up listening to the blues and rockabilly nestled in their parents’ record collections. “But we also work to make sure we aren’t ‘past-urbating,’” he says. “We want to make sure we are pushing it in a new direction as much as we can.”
This involves, for the most part, meticulously crafting their sound and persona despite the limitations of a two-piece. “Carley has worked really hard at finding the biggest guitar tone she can get, and the one-string guitar [she often uses] is just huge-sounding,” says Jonny. “When she plays it, it comes across like a cannon.”
The power of Carley’s guitar parts is matched by the violence and sexuality at the heart of her lyrics, most of which introduce punk rock and feminist subversion to blues singer patriarchy. Inspired by the likes of Jessie Mae Hemphill and The Cramps’ Poison Ivy, song topics range from frying a man’s genitals for deception (“I Was Wrong”) and flipping Lolita power dynamics on their head (“Baby Fang Thang”). These are delivered with a voice that oozes sensuality as it slides from a come-hither huskiness to maniacal instability. And, although all of the songs are co-authored, Jonny admits that Carley’s personality is generally in the driver’s seat. “She’s just a complete monster of a woman. Very powerful, very strong,” he says.
Somehow, there is a subliminal attractiveness to the Ghost Wolves’ music that is easy to decipher, to the point where the band’s debut is actually coming out on Plowboy Records. That small outfit, started by the grandson of country musician Eddy Arnold, is generally more geared toward legacy releases than up-and-comers. “It’s a big deal for us, to be such a young band and to get help from guys like that,” says Jonny, citing the combo of Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome and legendary country singer Bobby Bare as the kind of aficionado reputation that the label has. “They are also just great guys with a really small operation, and it’s all about the music. The primary focus is just on quality records.”
Other evidence of the band’s appeal comes from its association with legendary broadcaster and musician BP Fallon. He played The Ghost Wolves on his radio show early on and eventually did a spoken-word guest spot on a limited-edition single during a break from rehearsing with his own band in Austin. “We were lucky that worked out,” Jonny says. “A friend of a friend owns a studio in Austin, where BP was rehearsing, and he just sort of just asked him if we could come over for a few hours and record with him.”
More than anything, though, there’s a sense of otherworldliness about The Ghost Wolves that allows them to effortlessly reach back through a roots music history shrouded in smoke. They travel around with a wolf-hybrid as a pet and cultivate a mysterious, free-spirited character, making them enigmatic at worst and, perhaps, transcendent at best.
Lucky for Asheville, Jonny says they consider the town a must-play spot on any East Coast tour they mount. “We’ve always had crowds that gave us a reason to come back,” he says. “Even if it wasn’t a gigantic crowd, they always want to dance. I think that’s a thing up there — you don’t see that everywhere.”
The Ghost Wolves with Ancient Whales and Chuck Falcon
The Odditorium, ashevilleodditorium.com
Wednesday, June 4, at 8 p.m. $5