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The music of Salem Wolves and the emotion that comes with it is a lot like their hometown moniker. Each year, especially in October, thousands and thousands of tourists descend on the historic city 16 miles north of Boston, armed with a bit of morbid curiosity but no real compassionate sense of what actually happened in the region 300-plus years ago. Under the flickering lights of the ghost museums and witch houses and tarot card readers is an underlying sense of pure, actual horror, a realness that is still fairly difficult to comprehend. Since forming a few years back on the outskirts of the Boston music scene, the Salem Wolves sound punches out through thin sheets of rockabilly, surf-pop, and guitar-rock, but deeper down there’s a dizzying sense of paranoia, dread, and grit; and a lyric desire to give a platform for the fuck-ups that wander the same streets but aren’t invited to the Halloween party.
This Friday (May 5), Salem Wolves release their debut album Tooth & Nail, the long-awaited long-player that follows a string of singles and an EP that all have garnered a fair bit of digital ink here at Vanyaland. And there’s good reason. The various layers of Salem Wolves are equally fascinating, from an infectious sound that dances through the graveyards of sinister pop to a historical lyrical approach that raises a glass to Salem witch trial hysteria victim Giles Corey. The band is deeply rooted in Salem’s history, but in a way just as intently reflect the craziness of what’s going on today; a rock and roll biker gang for the disenfranchised, the isolated, and the misunderstood. They’re the David against society’s Goliath, and the soundtrack in your head when you’re pretty sure there’s no chance this David will ever succeed. Because history is important and always repeats.
In advance of the Wolves two upcoming release shows, Sunday (May 7) at O’Brien’s in Allston and a homecoming May 25 gig at Salem musical hotbed Opus, Vanyaland caught up with frontman and songwriter Gray Bouchard about parallels between witch hunts three centuries ago and the ones in plain social media sight today, the crafting of Tooth & Nail, and the band’s latest single, the delicately pummeling “Brute Force.” Click play on the embed below, and fall down the upwards hallway into the mind of one of Boston’s finest modern lyricists.
Michael Marotta: Under all those hooks and choruses, there’s always a consistent raw grit to the Wolves music…
Gray Bouchard: Grit is just something we love as much as a good hook. I always think of it in the most basic form: Overdrive, pushing something harder than it’s meant to go. That’s how we approach things. We write and play these songs and ultimately we like to be tuneful, but we’re just white knuckling and taking the turns really fast. We try not to overthink or overwork things and they come out a little raw, but that’s inspiring to us. I don’t know that we’re really these crafters of noise since none of us really thinks of noise/grit as an element in and of itself, it’s just a byproduct of how we play these songs. As for the regional aspect of things, I think its that kind of utilitarian approach to grit that you can connect.
People around here like capital R “Rock” songs, but once you start overworking them you lose a little bit of the charming scrappiness. We never went into it thinking “this will be something people on the North Shore will just love,” it just reflected the kind of music and energy we liked. Deep down we all have a pop/rockist streak in us and I think that’s connected us to some people who like similar things but aren’t looking for that slick Foo Fighters version of hooky rock songs.
Salem is obviously known for its 1692 witchcraft trails, and previous Wolves tales have revisited that city’s history (resurrecting Giles Corey in “More Weight!”, for instance). Are there certain themes within the bands style, sound and lyrics that are rooted in history but are more reflective to the modern day witch hunts going on today?
The big thing that connects all our songs is that we have an eye for people who are, fundamentally, outsiders. We like to tell stories about people who feel marginalized and cast out of their communities, families, relationships and even their previous worldview. Not that we’re all “defenders of the downtrodden” or anything: A lot of the songs we write are about people who are anti-social, have a bad ‘tude and are thoroughly unpleasant, so you could probably see why people turned on them. We don’t approach the songs with this attitude that every outsider is a martyr or “too special/fragile for this world.” There’s a lot of handwringing/self-aggrandizing bullshit associated with this “I’m an outsider/introvert, society doesn’t get me, whaaaa” perspective, and it’s just not interesting to us. Seeing every outsider as a martyr flattens out the human experience.
So in Salem Wolves, we tell stories about the people who aren’t great folks but still didn’t deserve to die. It’s important to us.
Instead, we like to write about people who have made unsavory decisions and isolated themselves or found themselves in bad places. “From The Vault” and “I Saw Hell” are really about that. “More Weight!” took the story of Giles Corey and retold it in a way we could connect to and that was faithful to the facts: Giles Corey, by all accounts, was a nasty, grimy old sonovabitch. He beat a field hand for stealing some apples so badly the dude died a week later. People around Ye Olde Salem hated his curmudgeonly ass. At the same time, does that mean he deserved to be dragged from his home and executed?
That’s how our songs connect to the World As It Is Today. We live in a world where conflict is everywhere because people are everywhere. We’re in each other’s heads, on each other’s feeds, in each other’s ears. We have communities that seek to normalize almost any behavior, any idea, no matter how seemingly aberrant or abhorrent. And there’s a part of us that is fascinated by this aberrance. It earns you something: If you’re a nasty, unpleasant son of a bitch, the war that goes on when you’re staring up at the ceiling, drunk and high and sweating and the bed is rocking under you and your head is throbbing, thinking to yourself “Why do I do this? Why am I broken like this?” reflects that life.
At the same time, there are people who aren’t content to let living like an animal instead of a man be its own reward. They’re the people who want to kick in your doors with big black boots. They’re the people who can’t abide conflict and outsiders among them: They seek to dictate your life, round them up, quantify them, then eventually exterminate them. That all might sound hyperbolic, but half of this band comes from Jewish families, so it’s fucking patronizing to say this kind of stuff doesn’t happen, couldn’t happen. It happened in Salem in 1692, it happened in Europe in 1941 and it happens in countries all over the world to this day. It happens in the U.S. every day when young people of color are executed by police and we have endless debates where words like “thugs” are tossed around, where people point to petty crimes and figure out if an officer “felt scared or threatened” — as though talking back to a police officer, not obeying order or stealing a candy bar are crimes worthy of capital punishment. If anything, it’s only scaled up over the years, gotten more normalized. It’s fundamental to our human nature: We fear and despise outsiders, and some people (particularly insecure despots) execute them. So in Salem Wolves, we tell stories about the people who aren’t great folks but still didn’t deserve to die. It’s important to us.
“Brute Force” packs a wallop, tell us about this song. Certain terms really jump off the lyric sheet: Murder, crucify, noose, mercy.
“Brute Force” has a story: It was one of the last songs we wrote for the record and to this day we’ve never played it live (that might change soon). The music was mostly written but lyrics took awhile to take shape. The very first line actually came from my mother and this line:
It’s from some kooky beat poetry thing she dug up in an antique book she found, but that’s about all the context I got for it. She gave me a challenge to write a song with that as a line, so I did (thanks Mom!). That got me thinking about the idea of a love that consumes people, that tears you apart. The desire to be totally obliterated by the person you love — and in “Brute Force”, the loved wants to obliterate you, too, ya filthy animal you. I think its a feeling that is both liberating and humiliating. From there, the song just turned into this exploration of a love affair between two people who have this savage chemistry but are disgusted by what is brings out in each other. It’s S&M done very wrong. It’s rotten, it’s ugly, it’s nasty and the singer can’t quite give it up.
“Brute Force” also references the LP’s title — what is the album’s title rooted in?
That’s where Tooth & Nail comes in. It’s that desire to fight, to dig claws in deeper in a way that might only make things worse rather than just letting it go. You kick against the pricks, the That felt very fitting for the record.
Salem has become a very trendy destination, and we’ve even turned our coverage attention up there for a spotlight on Opus and Koto. How do the locals feel about this?
Oh, you don’t say? I think that it’d depend on who you ask. No one I know is complaining about how trendy it’s become. I think a lot of people are glad to see the winds blowing for Salem in the direction of “trendy” rather than “cheesy/kitschy.” Call me a yuppie, but it’s nice to see the local economy flourishing and the city becoming a cultural (especially musical) destination that isn’t tied to a cereal box representation of mass hysteria. I think Salem has hung on to its funky character as things change and still attracts the oddballs. So it’s OK in my book.
SALEM WOLVES + ATLANTIC THRILLS + TODAY JUNIOR :: Sunday, May 7 at O’Brien’s Pub, 3 Harvard Ave. in Allston, MA :: 8 p.m., 21-plus, $8 :: Facebook event page :: Advance tickets :: Featured photo by Scott Murry