An interview with Radio Wolf

First, the bad news – Radio Wolf’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Forever isn’t out until October 31st. The good news – well, where do we start? First, there are some singles finding their way to listeners leading up to the release. Next, there’s a very good chance you’ll get addicted to the singles, and they’ll hold you over until there’s more. Finally, we’ve heard it, and it’s good. Like, really fucking good.

Oliver Blair has gone from Canada to London and back, and he’s built up quite the arsenal to his work, both for himself and in producing for other artists. But when we heard “Song on the Radio,” we felt a certain je ne sais quoi and knew we had to experience the rest of the EP. It would be misguided to say that we simply fell in love with it.

It just had that feel to it. Blair seemed to revel in taking this project to the precipice and then pulling it back right before it became too unwieldy. It was one of the many subtle aspects that intrigued us and led to us wanting to know more about the Toronto-based artist, as well as several major moments throughout the EP of course. From collaborating with various female vocalists to make the tracks happen to balancing a classic sound with modern sensibilities to how exciting of an experience it is, we had a lot to ask.

And Oliver Blair answered.

When you were 19 you moved to London. Was it music that took you there, or was it something else, and music was an extra incentive?

It was music. I felt a pull to the British sound. It was more stimulating and adventurous than what I was hearing in Canada at the time. I applied and got accepted to study at The Academy of Contemporary Music. My dual citizenship made the move easy.

Were there any artists that you got into while you were there? Anyone, whether it be in music or elsewhere in the world of arts, who influenced your direction?

I started going to an indie music venue called The Notting Hill Arts Club, which had an electro theme night. There, I became friends with the cult artists, Client, Sohodolls and Hotel Motel. Soon, we were collaborating. I would play guitar or do a remix. I also started to DJ.

The success of these collaborations inspired me to reach out to more people. I remixed songs for Ladytron, Robots In Disguise and various others. I also met Kelli Ali, the former Sneaker Pimps vocalist, and created a series of original songs with her for her album Band of Angels and one song for my Rock ’N’ Roll Forever EP. All of this helped shape my confidence as a composer/producer.

In terms of my direction though, my instinct was always to create my own fusion of electronic music and rock ’n’ roll, even before I got to London

And how did you begin creating your aesthetic while you were living there? Did you experiment with a bunch of various sounds before finding your fit, or did you know this was where you were heading pretty early on?

From early on, my two key instruments have been electric guitar and synthesizers/keyboards. Intuitively, I have always been interested in connecting the sound of rock ’n’ roll with electro. The buzz of being in London and the artists I was meeting, definitely inspired me to make a record of original works.

My first record and artist name was ‘Kindle’. Kate Holmes, from the band Client, introduced me to her husband Alan McGee and they both encouraged me to put Kindle on their independent label and perform live, which I did. But my aesthetic, as you call it, wasn’t really formed by being in any specific place. I wanted the music to connect on a universally emotional level.

That’s what rock ’n’ roll’s great contribution to music was and is – from North America, to the UK and beyond.

As you were making music as Kindle, it’s said that your live shows were quite visual as well. How was working with various elements beyond the music as a live show? Is this something you still strive to incorporate?

I’m very visually minded. I can draw and paint. I also love cinema, and my brother is a visual artist/director who I discuss ideas with. At the time, he was directing music videos for the band Client. One of his concepts featured burlesque dancers. I was on set and asked the dancers to collaborate on stage with me sometime, which they did. So with a few flashing lights and projections we created a dramatic visual experience – a kind of, Blade Runner meets Bettie Page.

At that time my sound had a romantic darkness, so it worked. Now, I’d do something different because the visual concept should always be synergistic with the sound, either as a counterpoint to it or a dynamic interpretation of it. Essentially though, now it’s the sound that’s the pure focus. I want people to enjoy these tracks as they would listening to them on a radio, or old jukebox even, without the need for visual support. I have that much faith in these songs. They hold up on their own.

What was it like producing music for other artists? Did it change how you approached your own work?

Producing for other artists feels very natural to me. I just really enjoy collaborating with people. It didn’t so much change my approach as make me appreciate the creative camaraderie that making music with someone else brings, instead of being alone and coming up with all of the ideas all of the time. Having a partner or team next to you, contributing ideas and aiming for the same goal makes the sparks fly.

So what brought you back to Toronto? Would you say being back in Canada changed your approach as an artist or in the songs you create?

I was born in Montreal and grew up mostly in Toronto. I just felt that it was time to return and enjoy the experience again. Canada is a very open place compared to the UK, especially London, where it can feel claustrophobic both physically and creatively, as it’s so trend driven.

I have a bigger sense of space here; space to expand and grow in new directions. I’m still all about trying to craft great songs with great sound though, wherever I live. I’m after a kind of lyrical and sonic universality.

With Rock ‘n’ Roll Forever, which we love for a variety of reasons, what was the methodology behind that creation, especially the various singers? Were those tracks specifically for them?

My approach was collaborative right from day one. I wanted to work with these specific singers with the aim of creating an EP of terrific synergy, even though each song delivers a different vocal style. Each song was crafted with a vocalist in mind – Marika Gauci and Kelli Ali actually wrote the lyrics to theirs. The lyrical themes, my particular guitar sound, synths, and production style unify everything to create a sonic whole.

“Song on the Radio” seems to capture a specific moment in time so well. Is there a story behind the track, or is it about anything specific?

It was co-written with singer Marika Gauci from the band Hotel Motel. She loves 80s pop anthems and the new wave romantic sound, so we stylistically incorporated that into the production. It’s a kind of retrofuturistic love note to the 80s.

The song is about the simple desire we have to hear a great song on the radio that makes us want to sing along and dance. The song also expresses what it’s like to be a musician, longing to be played on the radio and appreciated by a large audience.

The title track is pretty immense, but it never feels overpowering or crushing. How do you find your blend of temperance and balance? I’m sure it has to be tempting to think about going “amps to 11” sometimes.

Thanks for seeing that. I think that nuance and subtlety in a song is always more powerful than bombast. The great rock ’n’ roll songs I heard growing up had these qualities – they drew you in rather than push you away. Creating the sound for this particular track meant augmenting my lyrics and Sarah Blackwood’s naturally haunting vocal style with a synergistic sonic tone and tempo. The result is steady-driving but not ‘overpowering’. My instinct is never to go over the top. It always feels forced and wrong.

With “Heartbreaker Automatic,” you go a little more electronic – was it difficult to balance these different sounds and aesthetics into one cohesive body of work for the EP? I know you’re the producer on the project, but did you have any outside advice on how to steer things?

A song has to be true to itself, so we let the development of each one determine its own course, rather than shoehorn it into a predetermined sound. Yes, there’s more emphasis on the electro sound in this one because Kelli and myself continue to work naturally in that style together.

Her voice and my guitar playing have very rock ’n’ roll attitude, so that’s a unifying element. After rough mixing all four songs I found a sound synergy beginning to emerge. Further mixing, including added guitar and synth moves, continued to bring it all closer together.

Finally, having my friend and ace producer Robert Harder do the final mix, resulted in a coherent body of songs, without losing the integrity of each one’s lyrical and sonic story.

You end with “Runaway Girl,” which is slightly darker sonically and lyrically, but it also has a certain glow to it. As Radio Wolf continues, do you see yourself maybe exploring more of these darker paths, or are you going to let the growth in your sound to happen more organically?

If a song’s emotional thrust calls for a darker tone, so be it. It’s a sound that has suited me. But I usually let things happen organically. There’s a lot of intuition involved. I’d never do a ‘dark’ style just for the sake of it. I’d hate to be predictable. For my sound to have a ‘glow to it’ though, that’s a purpose for sure.

Looking forward, what do you have in store? Any shows, more collaborations, working on a full length, etc.?

I’m launching a DJ night at Halloween to accompany the release of the Rock ’N’ Roll Forever EP. I’m planning a live show for the future with collaborators and remixes. I also have a full-length record planned for next year. Holly Dodson from Parallels will be a collaborator, plus a few others who will be announced later. I also want to produce other artists who I feel have a unique sound that needs getting down right.

12.10.2017 / By Joey Smith