It's March. Carrboro's Wesley Wolfe is on a train bound for a small town in Germany. He's flown halfway around the world to meet a man with whom he's been emailing only for a few weeks. The man he's meeting doesn't accept credit cards or checks, so Wolfe has $7,000 cash—the majority of his life's savings—in his pocket.
Most might call this crazy, and the ultimate point of Wolfe's journey may not do much to allay that concern: Wolfe was on that German train in search of a lathe recorder, a device that allows folks to cut their own vinyl records. The man he was buying it from is named Ulrich Sourisseau; Wolfe found him while trolling online message boards for information on making his own records. Wolfe decided that flying to Germany with a few grand in his pocket was a good idea after a demonstration of such a machine at Carrboro's All Day Records. He missed it, not even hearing about the showcase until after it had occurred.
"OK, that's the lathe recorder. Somebody went out to Germany and made it back alive," he says, re-enacting the moment when he realized what he must do.
Wolfe made it back, too. Today, he's sitting in a Carrboro coffee shop with a cappuccino and a cinnamon bun. As he speaks, he tears off pieces of the flaky pastry and dips them into his coffee. The high-sugar, high-caffeine snack befits his demeanor. He speaks quickly, rarely holding himself to one topic for long. Talk of his home recording studio quickly transitions into reminiscences of his internship at Durham's Merge Records. This leads him to recall how a Crooked Fingers LP influenced his definition of how to master a record. For Wolfe, musical thoughts rarely occur in isolation. An idea for a new song leads him to search out new recording techniques, which invariably lead him to more ideas and the need for more skills. That's the cycle that took Wolfe to Germany.
In the last two years, that curiosity pushed Wolfe, now 33, into the most productive era of his musical life. He's home-recorded two albums of hooky, lyrically rich power pop—2010's Storage and Cynics Need Love Too, released in September by Carrboro's Odessa Records. He has attained and learned to operate his lathe recorder and is using it to hand-cut every copy of the new LP. Professional record plants usually require orders in the hundreds, but this exceedingly rare move allows Wolfe to make records to order, just as tiny label owners did decades ago. Wolfe's also assembled a precise and explosive pop-rock quartet that fleshes out the stripped-back sound of his records with riff-enthused abandon.
What's more, he co-produced a forthcoming sophomore effort from labelmates Shit Horse and is currently mastering a new LP for Chapel Hill's Spider Bags. He tends bar at the Chapel Hill restaurant Lantern, too. It's all starting to make sense.
"This is the first time anybody's ever written about my stuff or cared about it," says Wolfe, explaining this recent spate of creativity. Wolfe wears a simple gray hoodie and mussed black hair. His eyes are kind but energetically anxious. "I got my first BMI check last week, and I was like, 'Oh, it takes $3,000 on a credit card to make $100 from BMI,' but I can't believe it. I'm going to frame it."
Wolfe's creativity has become more of a compulsion. Figuring out how to achieve the sounds he wants and then recording them have become the parts of his music that excite him most. He comes up with lyrical ideas and melodies and cobbles together quick recordings using his iPhone. He'll work with them for a night, but if he can't quickly figure out a sound that works, he'll abandon the idea and come back to it later. As with his conversation, Wolfe can't focus on one part of his process for long. For him, every element of his music is interconnected, and he can't really proceed unless everything fits.
This nervous energy shows through on his recordings and never more so than on Cynics. On this, his moodiest record, Wolfe coats ragged acoustic strums with dense melodic bits, often in the form of cold electronics. To counteract the somber tone, he attempts to be more tongue-in-cheek, dropping in witty turns of phrase but singing them with a melancholy tone. "I don't like to sign my name," he moans during "Sunburned & Homesick." "Please take me for my word." The minor chords and somber delivery twist the pun into a bittersweet moment. The velocity and frequency with which Wolfe throws out ideas and sounds gives the record a wonderfully frenetic feel. Planned initially as an EP, Cynics is the result of Wolfe's inability to sit still with his music.
It's surprising if not dumbfounding, then, that Wolfe's recent spurt follows nearly six years of inactivity. In 2002, he and his band, the spastic but catchy Jehovah Chang, left their home of Rockledge, Fla., in search of a more vibrant music scene. Culture in his hometown, Wolfe laughs, consists of craft fairs where people "just glue googly eyes on seashells." The band settled in Chapel Hill, but the move couldn't heal long-standing tensions within the group. One member was something of a loose cannon, earning himself a lifetime ban from the Orange County Social Club. The band's problems reached a head following a tour in 2004. After one last show in Carrboro, they returned to their practice space and had it out.
"There's no room for growth or maturity in your life when you're still 13," Wolfe says of the group's contentious dynamic. "We were 24. That's when we called it, and we'd been playing together like 10, 11 years. Mentally, and together in our group, we were still 13-year-olds. We'd known each other since we were 8. Fights would be fistfights, stuff like that. It would be very unproductive."
During their run, Jehovah Chang recorded about 100 songs, but a cocktail of inexperience and indecision left them without a proper release. Frustrated at the end, Wolfe quickly recorded an LP after the breakup, releasing Dumb Children the following December. But he became insecure about his style, a crippling problem for a consistent songwriter like Wolfe. His songs ride chugging riffs and judiciously crafted lyrics that resound with unguarded emotion. It's a winning formula, but Wolfe worried that he was falling into a rut.
Life followed: He got married and began saving for a house. He recorded things here and there, but it never led to anything serious. After playing drums with the band Caruso, he set about recording an album with their lead singer. Wolfe remembered how much he loved the process and was inspired to renew work on his own material.
"That's where a lot of [my inspiration] comes from," Wolfe says. "If I buy a new pedal that can inspire a new song right there because you're working with a new pedal or a new effect. Or if you buy a new guitar to have in the studio, you end up playing it for a little while, and there's different song fragments."
His obsession with recording, he says, also explains the tenor of his songs. Though they're often sad, he's as happy as he's ever been. Still, when he's kept himself up working until the wee hours of the morning, and he's all alone, his self-doubts and troubles re-emerge in lyrical form. These days, though, that's where they stay.