When Kate Sproule started Mt. Wolf in 2011 with her childhood friend Stevie McMinn and his college mates, she’d hardly sung a note. Still, she was so committed to pursuing music that she turned down her first post-college job offer to stick with the band. It’s a risk that seems to have paid off: Mt. Wolf’s delicate indie rock stands out among London’s current sound sculptors, savvily blending bass music, folktronic and indie R&B. Only two EPs into their career, Mt. Wolf have already established a signature sound that’s organic and soothing even while Sproule’s lyrics tackle emotionally-abusive relationships and the drabness of 9-to-5 life.
Marissa G. Muller spoke with Sproule about the darkness underlying their Hypolight EP, the far-out space where it was recorded, and how it felt to receive props from Diplo for their cover of Usher’s “Climax.”
On bringing together their knowledge of different genres:
I’d never been in a band before, but my brothers were always handing me amazing records like Radiohead, Jeff Buckley and Massive Attack. I had formal training, [both] classically and in jazz piano and violin, and I did a bit of vocal [training] at university. I had a classical choral scholarship at Cambridge, so I sang quite intensively. I’m sort of still obsessed with vocal harmony and the range that you use in classical; it’s rare in mainstream pop music. I had to learn how to let go of all that training, but there are definitely undercurrents of it. The guys all used to play in guitar bands. Our drummer played heavy rock and Stevie took me along to see him. It was so loud, I had to put my headphones in. So we’ve tamed that side [of him] since we’ve become Mt. Wolf.
On rebelling from her classical roots:
My mom and dad were very musical people. They met when they were classical singers in London, so that was quite an influence growing up. The school at which I trained was well known in the UK, and quite intense. We were made to practice extensively, and it was quite a rigid classical music regime. By the end, I had grown tired of that and wanted to be a bit more expressive and write my own music rather than interpreting other people’s compositions. There’s a definite catharsis I found in writing something from scratch that I didn’t find with the more formal stuff. I guess Mt. Wolf is a rebellion from that; letting go and doing what you want is quite freeing when you’ve trained extensively. This was the first time I’d ventured into actually making three-minute, four-minute songs.
On differentiating their music from London’s sounds right now:
London has just exploded electronically over the last few years. As much as I think it’s really interesting to draw influence from what’s going on in London right now, we like to keep our own methods.
We like to draw on lots of different stuff and play around with it. Our songs are very structured in a lot of ways, and they come across more like a band’s than some of the more sprawling electronic compositions. When we play live, we play everything live. We don’t need any kind of backing track or decks. So for us, it’s more a case of picking from different things that we like. Our sound is very sample [based]. Rather than using synths and programmed sounds, we try to manipulate acoustic recordings. We’ll have a guitar line or a vocal line that is sung in, and then we chop it up. We can play around with it in Logic, play around with it electronically, reverse it, sample it again, and make a rhythm out of it. So we’re basically trying to recycle acoustic sounds to create the soundscape that you hear.
The story behind the title of the Hypolight EP:
I got a bit obsessed with the idea of the space that’s created just beneath light, where it’s almost darkest. I thought of a street lamp, and how you get that dark space just under the glare of the street lamp, and what that meant across a number of themes. The EP sort of muses on how to break free from that really dark space. So it’s quite solemn and it’s quite somber. I always find it interesting and surprising when listeners get a lot of positivity from our songs, or find them quite relaxing. For me, these songs are the inner workings of something dark and difficult. It’s quite emotional for me, and almost disturbing. So it’s funny when people say they find it relaxing, because I find it quite the opposite. Musically, it’s more confident than our first EP but it’s a lot more fragile, in terms of [the] darkness and sadness it talks about.
On their melancholic lyrics:
I get obsessed with imagery that weaves its way in and out of my life. “Veins,” for example, I wrote quickly in the confines of an office space looking over the City of London — all the busy people dressed in black wandering around. It’s basically a song about trying to break out of something, a place or a feeling that you don’t want to be, and thinking about how to get somewhere else. “Shapeshift” is about the feeling that you’re being held in an emotional place, trying to get away from something or someone that’s not allowing you to break out. That song is an emotional tussle — you know you should be getting away, but so many natural instincts make you want to stay. The whole EP is about lyrically trying to break into new, happier ground.
How their cover of “Climax” came about:
We were asked to do this show last summer in London, a really great project called The Coveryard. A girl I went to university with gets together an orchestra and then invites an artist to come along and have their songs reworked or perform covers. So she asked us to do [Massive Attack's] “Teardrop” — which was also amazing — and then we chose to do “Climax.” At first I was a bit skeptical of doing the song, I couldn’t quite hear how it would sound. But I think it translated pretty well [and] we brought kind of a new dimension to it. We were pretty amazed to see that Diplo mentioned it on his Facebook wall and seemed to enjoy it. So that was a big comfort to us, that we hadn’t totally ruined someone’s song.
On the studio space where they recorded the EP:
Bassie, who produces all the stuff, has a studio down in the countryside in Dorset. We went down there in January and recorded it in front of this huge bay window that overlooks the English countryside, and it was just beautiful. There’s nothing for miles; just green hills. It was a great place to do it [and] encapsulated that disturbing and isolated headspace on the record.
On the meaning of their name:
There’s a song on the first EP, Life Size Ghosts called “Cry Wolf,” which we wrote before we named the band. We found the wolf imagery quite alluring. It’s a dangerous creature, but [it also] has this mysterious element. We liked the idea that [Mt. Wolf] might be somewhere that doesn’t really exist and is ethereal but also has this element of darkness and potential danger. When we actually found out that it was a real place, it made sense to us because our music sounds celestial and otherworldly but at the same time the subject matter is pretty down-to-earth and grounded in real time and a real place. Obviously it’s not anything new in terms of band names — quite a lot of wolves out there.