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Slow Hands, Heavy Hearts: An Interview with Windhand Drummer Ryan Wolfe

Windhand Band Photo
Photo credit: Joey Wharton

Slow and steady wins the race — well, usually. Sometimes this aphorism fails to hold up in the real world, but when it comes to the doom titans Windhand, it’s never been truer. As they’ve methodically built up a fanbase over the decade-plus since their inception, they’ve dealt out a lethargic, uncompromising brand of doom metal that’s both trend-bucking and trend-setting. There’s no one “breakthrough” moment with Windhand, only a continuous stream of recognition and a series of increasingly evolved releases with which to stake their claim in the crowded battlefields of modern doom metal.

You can generally pick out a “Windhand riff” in the wild fairly easily: they’re morose, winding, and built to last. Expressed through hard, obscuring fuzz, the stoner-ified anthems never dwell too long on overdone phrasings or tired rhythms; even slotted in for lengthy repetition, I don’t find myself getting tired of these jam cornerstones. Two of the opening tracks from past albums — “Orchard” from Soma and “Two Urns” from Grief’s Infernal Flower — pack hooks that seem similar when they first hit your ear, but the way they each push and pull against the rest of the band proves to be entirely different. In both songs, Dorthia Cortrell’s soul-piercing vocals, which float above the load-bearing guitars, nestle into the rhythmic stream and interlock with the instruments to generate a band-wide undulating groove.

Their last album Eternal Return was more of the same, but, perhaps, better: the production symbiotically reinforced the cyclical, cyclopean guitarwork and delivered a sound capable of completely enveloping listeners — and damn, ain’t that a great snare tone? Working with Jack Endino, who also produced albums for legendary grunge acts like Nirvana and Mudhoney, proved successful for the group, creating an album that stepped up the artfulness without removing the hypnotic pull. Inducing a head-nodding, trance-inducing state has always been the band’s singular focus — there’s nary a “fast part” to be found in Windhand’s discography, and certainly no tricks or gimmicks to dilute the heaviness within. There’s only long-standing tradition: low, slow, and doomed, and that even shines through in the acoustic-driven tracks like “Pilgrim’s Rest.”

Given that a measured tempo is a critical component of the Windhand formula, the lynchpin of the well-oiled machine has to be their drummer, Ryan Wolfe, who’s played on all recorded material. It’s possible to overlook his role at first: Windhand is not a band with 20-minute drum solos or intricate polyrhythms, after all, instead favoring huge, steady grooves that might not draw attention initially. As you get hours into their discography, however, the impeccable tethering of the earth-shifting riffs to the drumming makes its mark: every kick, every snare, is exactly where it needs to be, and any note not played is damn best left that way.

As a drummer myself, let me also say this: it is not easy to play slow. In the clutches of adrenaline, your brain doesn’t want to wait around to pause between notes. It wants to hit things now and will do its best to get its way. Live and on recordings, Wolfe demonstrates rock-steady patience that tempers his sheer velocity — know that it does not come easily.

I recently had the chance to speak with Wolfe and discuss all things Windhand, ranging from their experiences traversing ever-increasing popularity, the aftermath of unfortunate events last year, and the perfect snare tone — check out the interview below.

Windhand Band Photo
Photo Credit: Joey Wharton

Years ago, I saw you guys at the Ultra Lounge in Chicago, in 2013, and that place was packed — but now you’re playing venues that are like ten times as big and headlining festivals. What has it been like going from being well-known in the underground scene to being one of the biggest names in doom?

A little shocking and flattering all at the time — I don’t think that we were really focused on doing that, it’s just something that kind of happened, so I think that we’re, you know, just like you, wondering how and why we are, too [laughs].

It’s cool, I’m privileged, you know? It’s a nice thing to have happened to you — you have to really appreciate it too.

On the March portion of your upcoming tour, you’re traveling with labelmates Devil Master, which is a pretty sweet double header. In the past, you stated that you like being the odd man out of a bill, so what do you think fans will make of this pairing?

It is cool to not hear the same band three times in a row, and they definitely have the same vibe in the sense that we’re all dirge-ing through it. I know a lot of people are pretty hot on this band right now, and enjoy them a lot. We just caught them, actually: they came through town with High on Fire on their tour, we got to catch them live. I enjoyed it, so I think it’ll be a good mix.

For future tours, do you have any bucket-list bands you’d like to tour with?

Yeah [laughs] , I mean, it would just be weird, odd, obscure bands. There’s a guy here in town, named Nickelus F, he does hip-hop, and he likes to play with like hardcore bands. Same thing with Lil Ugly Mane, so, it would be something along those lines, something just like totally off the wall and just totally random.

You’re playing Psycho Las Vegas later this year, which is kind of along those lines. I mean, Ulver’s on the bill, Emperor’s on the bill, and a bunch of stuff I honestly don’t know that well — that’s kind of out there.

Yeah, seems like they’ve been mixing it up a whole bunch. Just like we’re about to play a festival in Columbus in March, and we’re playing direct support to the Oh Sees [Melted Music Fest (cancelled as of 3/13 due to statewide mandate)]. It’s stuff like that that’s kind of cool and weird to do, but it’s really fun. It’s nice to get out of your element, I guess you’d say.

Has your experience been different when playing variety-style festivals versus the big, heavy doom-focused ones? Like, is the crowd energy different?

Yeah, we played Sonic Blast, just this past summer, and we played out of — it’s in this old military fortress, except it’s public, and it’s in this enclave in this weird little area. And the band before us – we played last on the stage — it was so packed, and you couldn’t walk through it, and people were going crazy,and I was like, “Oh, fuck, we gotta play next? Is anyone here to see us?” But it turned out really well, it was a good reception.

We played some other festivals in Europe, and the crowd was nice, but I don’t know what they thought of us, cause it was like crab-core bands playing before us, and then we play, and then Midnight played after us. So we both were like “Alright! Good luck, have fun!” But it turned out well, it’s Europe — they like a lot of stuff in Europe.

That’s an interesting lineup, alright.

Yeah [laughs].

Windhand at Warsaw
Photo Credit: Kate Hoos

So last year in November, you guys unfortunately had some gear stolen in Houston — sorry to hear about that, by the way — how has the response been from the community?

Overwhelming — yeah, a lot of people reached out. It was really cool. Unfortunately, it happened — it’s just one of those things, and we appreciated all the help. The main thing we wanted to do was try to get our gear back, and — I mean, it’s so fucked up, the whole situation. The next day we found the guy selling it already, and people were telling us and he got freaked out, and he’s been in and out, online and offline. We’ve tracked down most of the gear, and it was pretty wild just having to deal with the cops and having to tell them, multiple times, “No, this is who it is, this is where it’s at,” and then, for the fourth time, “Oh, well, did you fill out a police report?” It’s like, “Yeah, we did, and for the fourth time we’ll do it again!” It was pretty wild.

We got a lot of emails, and people have reached out to us — somebody said they had posted up a picture of the guy and his friend on a message board saying to look out for these dudes. Apparently, one of the dudes in the photo wrote him and was like, “Hey man, I want you to stop saying this stuff about me and my friend, and can you take our photo down?”

So they sent us the message and we wrote back: “Tell him, just give our shit back — we don’t care, we just want our shit back. We don’t want to do anything more than that — no charges pressed, nothing. We just want our gear, let’s move on.”

So did you track any of it down?

Yeah, so most of it has been recovered, luckily. We’re still looking for a few items — it’s been a sticky situation just ’cause of some of the stuff we can’t talk about, and I guess they’ve got a warrant out for his arrest. It’s really hard dealing with the cops via e-mail — the dude’s told us he’s got like 200 other cases that he’s working on, so we get information here and there. We don’t get much, but they’re still looking for the dude, quote unquote, they’re still looking for some more gear, quote unquote, but who knows? But most of the gear has gotten retrieved and it’s being held, we’ve just got to pick it up or get it sent to us.

Well, it’s not the worst way it could have ended, but I’m sorry you had to go through all that.

Yeah, it’s one of those things — I’m 42, I’ve been playing and going on tour since I was 15, knock on wood — that was the first time that’s ever happened to me. Something was very shoddy about it. We definitely were cased and we were tracked; the footage shows we were followed from the venue.

After the fact, you released a bunch of demos and rare stuff on Bandcamp to try and recoup funds. Did you have any personal favorites among that material, or was there anything with an interesting history in there?

You know what, I honestly don’t even know what we ended up putting up. I can’t watch myself play live, and I can’t listen to certain stuff about myself. I just refuse to listen to it — I was like, “Okay, whatever you guys want to do, I’m okay with.” I really don’t know what we put up, so I’m the wrong person to ask [laughs].

I do know that there was a version of “Forest Clouds” that we put up, and I think that was the version that we put on the split with Salem’s Pot, that was very limited, and it was different from what we recorded for Grief’s Infernal Flower, and I know a lot of people have preferred that version over what we put on the album. [Editor’s note: The compilation album that contained this song has been unlisted on Bandcamp, so if you didn’t buy it already, you’re currently out of luck!]

Going back to Eternal Return, I did love the drum sound on that, so I hope you listened to that after it came out because I love how the snare sounds on there.

I’m actually very proud of that whole experience, and just that whole record itself I’m pretty proud of. We didn’t have long to figure it out, but we worked really fast and quickly to get what I wanted and he [Jack Endino] found it, and it was pretty cool. That’s a lot of credit to Jack for getting the sound that I just kind of quickly tried to describe. So, Jack Endino was the mastermind behind that.

Did you have a sound in mind when you went in?

For the most part, yeah – drum-wise, I had something in my head that I wanted. You know, it’s all place and time and equipment, and luckily, when you record like that, most of that wasn’t our gear, because we flew out, but that snare was my snare. So I had it tuned in a way that I thought was good, and as soon as we started to record it, he immediately told me — you gotta change that head, this isn’t gonna work. And as soon as we changed the head, the snare came alive, and it was right there. Great, let’s do it – and we took off.

Was that your Black Beauty snare, or something else?

No, that actually was a Copper Phonic that I used on the album, which luckily was in my road case and not sitting out. That’s [the Black Beauty was] the one that they grabbed: it was sitting out on top of the guitars and mics and stuff that that guy grabbed.

What head did you switch to, or what did Jack tell you to put on there?

I changed it to the Aquarian Hi Energy head. It’s unreal — it’s super durable, and it lasts forever. Outside of recording purposes, you can play that head forever and it still sounds amazing — but obviously, in the studio when you get under certain conditions you can obviously tell, hey, that’s a dead head, you need to change it. But that head is amazing, it’s really cool — very durable.

Good to know. I play the drums too, so I’m always looking for new heads to put on snares that don’t suck.

Yeah, try it out — a buddy of mine told me about it years back, and ever since then I switched to it, I’ve always used it. I think Dave Grohl plays that head, and Vinny Paul played it as well, if I’m not mistaken.

I think your drumming is a big part of what makes Windhand so heavy, and I feel like your playing really controls the tempo and the energy of the songs. Do you have a philosophy you follow with your drumming — less is more, as heavy as possible, something like that?

I guess when I was younger and more ambitious, I would try to get in the way, drum-wise, and then it just kind of got to the point — I used to play faster in other bands, but with this band, no one’s there really to see me, or hear me — it’s a lot of Garrett’s guitar work and Dorthia’s vocals, so I try to subtly make myself present with a little bit, here and there [laughs].

Windhand’s tour dates are scheduled as listed below; however, stay in tune with the band via Facebook for updates regarding possible show postponements or cancelations due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.

— Mar 18-21 w/ Devil Master —

Mar 18 Harrisonburg, VA @ The Golden Pony
Mar 19 Philadelphia, PA @ Underground Arts
Mar 20 Brooklyn, NY @ Saint Vitus
Mar 21 Brooklyn, NY @ Saint Vitus

— May 29 – June 04 w/ Serial Hawk —

May 28 Seattle, WA @ Northwest Terror Fest
May 29 Vancouver, BC @ The Venue
May 31 Oakland, CA @ Starline Social Club
Jun 01 Los Angeles, CA @ Jewels Catch One
Jun 02 Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
Jun 03 Albuquerque, NM @ Sister
Jun 04 Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theater

Aug 15-16 Las Vegas, NV Psycho Las Vegas

Sep 03-06 Cookeville, TN Muddy Roots Festival

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