Wolfie (1996-2000) was RJ Porter (drums), Amanda Lyons (keyboards, vocals), Joe Ziemba (bass, guitar, vocals), Mike Downey (guitar, bass, vocals).
RJ, Joe and I previously played as a trio in Slackjawed. We began to add keyboards into our songs and wanted a fourth member to play keyboards live. When Amanda joined we changed our name to Wolfie.
Garages and Basements
Honestly, Wolfie was the result of a lot of hard work. Joe, RJ and I had been making music together and separately for a few years in high school. As time went on we realized we wanted a bit more. We wanted to release 7″s and go on tour. We wanted to maybe find a record label that would help us with these things. We played in garages and basements for our friends, which was great, but we knew there was a next step. Our chance came when Joe and RJ went to college at University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana and were greeted with a healthy local music scene.
I would drive down and we’d see bands like Braid and Sarge play to packed crowds. With Joe and RJ living in Champaign-Urbana they were able to meet local bands and people putting on shows and get us in the mix by passing around our demo.
We ended up on a show with Braid. They were/are an amazing band doing everything right and were great to look up to; not to mention extremely supportive and kind. Although our styles were far from similar we became quick friends and eventually Todd Bell from Braid released our debut 7″ on his label Grand Theft Autumn. At this point we became a somewhat constant locally playing lots of house parties and DIY venues and fulfilled the then-seemingly unreachable dream of swindling an opening slot at the Blind Pig in downtown Champaign. We scribbled down names of out of town show promoters from Braid and Sarge and got on the phone. After playing around the Midwest a bit hacking our brand of pop the opportunity to release our first full length with Mud Records came. Then came bigger local shows and the chance to tour.
I Bought a Van
At this point I made one of smartest decisions I’ve ever made in my life: I sold my car and bought a van. We did our first tours in the first half of 1998. They were a lot like I imagine other bands’ first tours: humbling. But we wanted more.
Our debut full length, Awful Mess Mystery, captured us at our most stripped down and to the point. We built upon what we had started on the “Don’t Turn it Off” 7″ and focused on everything concise and snappy.
In the summer of 1998 we were invited to play the Athens Summer Music Extravaganza (aka The Kindercore Pop Fest) in Athens, GA. Want to talk about feeling loved? We were greeted by people who were excited to see us. We played with amazing bands; it was an exciting and important night for us. Looking back I believe that one single show opened up a ton of doors for us as a band and gave us some confidence we most likely needed.
1999 saw the release of Where’s Wolfie; a record we put a ton of work into bypassing the chance to record in a studio and using our budget to buy an 8 track to do it ourselves. What I feel we ended up with was a solid collection of songs showcasing Joe and my differing styles more clearly than the possibly more cohesive Awful Mess Mystery. Dare to say this was us maturing on tape.
We stayed active and played out frequently throughout most of 1999. We did, what I would consider, a successful tour that summer in support of Where’s Wolfie. The Wolfie, and the Coat and Hat EP followed and broke most of previous rules we had set up for ourselves. The guitars, at times, were brought up front and the song structures/instrumentation more advanced. When I think back to that EP I remember it as “This is us right now, take it or leave it but we are really proud of these songs”.
By 2000 when we started recording our 3rd album I was beginning to distance myself from the rest of the band. My heart wasn’t in it as much as it needed to be in order to not sell the rest of the band short. I felt I had given my best to the band and parted ways with Wolfie in 2000 and started The National Splits and The New Constitution. Wolfie continued on, releasing Tall Dark Hill on March Records in 2001.
We didn’t necessarily fit in with the mid-late 90’s Midwestern music scene. We tended to be the odd band out on a lot of bills in terms of genre. We were grateful to just get on stage and do our thing. We somehow found our little niche in the middle of it all and I would say that there was no template for what a Wolfie fan was. We came from the land of huge guitars and complex songwriting and emotional and/or aggressive vocals. We played with those bands and we were friends with those bands and then we went and made our own music which was completely different. What we did really latch onto was a DIY ethic that many other bands at the time pushed forward: Recording our own stuff, booking our own tours, making the most out of what we had on a small budget and just keeping the band busy every second we possibly could.
“…a revelation, for whatever tiny portion of listeners ‘gets it.'”
Now I wouldn’t normally mention bad reviews because that’s just part of the game, but because of the scope the Pitchfork reviews are going to follow us around and will come up on searches for the band forever. So let me say a couple things about it. There was a writer at Pitchfork in Chicago that tried to call us out numerous times; that we didn’t know how to play our instruments, sing or write a song; that we were basically a joke – release after release. A lot of people read those reviews. Then, in 2005 Pitchfork published their Twee As Fuck article and included us in a list of genre-defining bands. A lot of people read that too. I don’t know how big of a part we played in it all (tiny at best), but there are 2 sides to every story. Whatever the case, we sure had a great time with this band. I can look back and positively say we were extremely focused and did everything in our powers to make a lot of great things happen in a relatively short amount of time.
Wolfie: “Hey It’s Finally Yay” (1998)
Twee, yeah, but then again: These four kids play like they think they’re out-rocking AC/DC– with cheapy instruments in a mid-Illinois garage. They’re also just bursting with joy, from the boy/girl vocals (chirpy deadpan versus bratty drawl) to the keyboard leads and tambourine-shaking buildups. Something in the combination of carefree melody, garage-pure setup, and hyper-energetic “rock”– along with this combo’s sharp songwriting skills– make this stuff a revelation, for whatever tiny portion of listeners “gets” it.
Look for: Awful Mess Mystery, one of– if you ask me– the best records of the nineties.
– Pitchfork, Nitsuh Abebe from “Twee as Fuck: The Story of Indie Pop“, 2005