By Graham Kolbeins
Originally published on Advocate.com July 02 2009 11:00 PM ET
When Patrick Wolf arrives for our meeting -- in a parking lot on the Sunset Strip -- he's surprisingly tall, sporting a modest coat of stage makeup that nicely complements his bleached-blond hair, and exuding an air of gentility and good nature that's quietly contradicted by a mischievous grin. He's the type of character whose mind works so fast, his speech can hardly keep up. Throughout our conversation, his impulsive train of thought seems to compliment his savant-like grip on the art of music.
As a master of viola, ukulele, piano, and harp (to name a few) and wielder of an incomparable 15-megaton voice, it's no surprise that music has always been at the center of Wolf's life. He took to the stage at 14 to play theremin for Minty, an avant-garde performance art group founded by the late queer legend Leigh Bowery. By 16 he was busking the streets of London with a violin, leading to the release of his first couple albums and a healthy heaping of critical praise ( NME once compared him to Prince, David Bowie, and Björk all in one breath -- it doesn't get much better than that).
Initially, Wolf took a reserved, cautious approach to publicity, toning down his look to allow the music to speak for itself. But after being picked up by Universal for his third album, The Magic Position, Wolf surprised some fans by appearing with vividly red hair -- and matching short shorts -- clinging to a merry go-round on the album's cover, thereby introducing his playfully audacious and frequently evolving sense of style to a mass audience.
Unfortunately, some critics confuse the lighthearted eye candy of his personal aesthetic for the content of his music, eager to write off Wolf as silly and campy when his music is anything but. His new album, The Bachelor, is an epic and brooding affair that boasts collaborations with Atari Teenage Riot's Alec Empire and Oscar-winning thespian Tilda Swinton. Having parted ways with Universal, which, he says, wanted him to become "the male Kylie," the album was financed with small investments from fans through a site called BandStocks, enabling Wolf to have complete creative control.
Read on to uncover the scandal, the politics, the sexuality, and the artistic inspiration that fuels Patrick Wolf.
I'm a follower of your Twitter, so I have to ask: What happened last night? You got arrested after spitting in someone's face? Just a typical day in the life of Patrick Wolf! This bouncer was being a real asshole. We were going to a goth club, and he thought we didn't look "goth enough." I just wanted to take my friends out for a drink and it was the only place open after hours. It was one of those instances when you can tell someone just hates you and they don't even know you -- they just take one look at you. I always want to challenge people like that, because I hate ghettos -- people sticking to codes of conduct and rules of identity. So I was being really, really nice for about 15 minutes, just talking to him, but he wasn't having it, and he tried to punch me. The only way I could protect myself was to spit in his face, because I don't throw punches back.
I got chased down the street, got on the tour bus and we tried to drive away, but the police were called. This bouncer had tried to beat me up and the policeman just said, "Oh, you're gay, so your spit could have HIV in it, and you could kill that man!" He was being a total dickhead -- but when he realized what he'd said, he just knew he was in big shit and he had to let me off, because he'd decided to get really homophobic. He was rubbing his gun and yelling, "Shut the fuck up!" and pulling his gun out, stuff like that. I gave him the wrong passport by accident, because I have two passports, and it went on and on and on. It was just ridiculous. It made me quite excited, actually. I guess for some people that's a sexual fantasy.
Being assaulted by the police? Yeah. But I just can't believe the police would talk to anyone like that in public. It's shocking.
In San Francisco of all places â€¦ Right. The police are often the same people who bullied you in school, who can't find a job, so they decide they're going to bully the public. It's fine. I've had my run-ins with the police before. I'm a tough boy.
That's not a bad quality to have. So how exactly did you get to work with Tilda Swinton on the album, and what was it like working with Derek Jarman's muse? Well, that was one of the most exciting things -- the Derek Jarman connection. I've always wanted to connect on an artistic level with Derek. His books were one of the most inspirational things for me as a teenager dealing with my sexuality, and he had such a strong artistic voice. You can take away all the scandal that went on in his life, and his work is the testament to a true artist, a beautiful, beautiful soul.
With Tilda, I wanted to make quite an English album, you know, return to my English and Irish roots and pay tribute to my island musically. So it couldn't really have been anyone else. It was just total circumstance and serendipity that brought us together. A year before recording, I'd written in my production book that for the monologues I'd very much like to have Tilda Swinton. When I was finally finishing up the vocals, Tilda happened to be doing a Q&A for Julia next door at the cinema. I had no hopes, really; I just thought I would go to Q&A and give her a CD of the songs. Extremely successful people can be very guarded, and there are many layers you have to break through in order to get to ask someone a question a lot of the time. But amazingly, the next day I woke up and she'd written me an e-mail saying, "I loved the song, let's do it. Let's go to the studio and be spontaneous." So we extended the studio for one more day, and she came in and gave me so much hope, really. I think I was quite worn out by that time, because it'd been a long record to make. I was losing focus. So to have her come in was just so unexpected and so easy and inspiring. I wish all collaborations could be like that.
As an artist whose work feels very personal, do you ever get self-conscious about writing so autobiographically? How does it feel when you meet people who think they already know you through your music? I think I found it very strange with the first album -- when you release an album, it's easy to forget that people are going to listen to it in the same way that you've listened to your favorite albums; it was a very hard thing to grasp. It's something that I've accepted now. It's one of the major parts of doing what I do, and I really appreciate it when I find people have sort of analyzed the lyrics and made their own interpretations ... because quite often people just look at the front cover and go, you know, "Fucking freak!" and throw the CD away. So when people actually engage with the whole piece of work, I like that. It's a real honor.
On "Hard Times," you sing about not giving up in the face of prolonged ignorance, fear and oppression from society at large. Are you feeling more optimistic in 2009 -- did you get swept up in the whirlwind of hope that people have created around Obama? Yeah, it's fantastic for your country, for sure. I mean, I'm very interested in how England is right now, how there's no leader. There's no Obama right now in England, no one for the public to focus their positive energy on. It's just an absolute dog's dinner. It reminds me of when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the parliament, you know? Everyone is furious at our government about all the spending they did with all our tax money.
It's a real class war going on and I find it really exciting. It's a good time for England -- people seem to think it's a depression, but I always think out of these depressions and recessions, really fantastic things come, because it makes people reassess what they value, what the most important things in life are, and a lot of the time love comes out of that, and creativity and art and respect. Even when the world thinks it's in a really good place, socially and politically, I think you've always got to have that critical sensibility where you don't just say, "Everything's good," and get out a cocktail and relax. You've got to remember there's always something to achieve, always some boundary to be broken in the world.
You don't make your bisexuality an issue in your music, but you also seem very comfortable with it and you don't shy away from addressing the subject. Even though you were comfortable enough to be on stage with Minty at 14, was there ever a time when you struggled with your sexual identity? Yeah, I mean, when you're surrounded by drag queen chat at 12 or 13, everyone's fishing out for your sexuality and trying to be supportive. It's like going into a family, it's like a house, and you have all these people to speak to, these great performance artists. I got not only personal advice but performance advice, everything, so I was being nurtured to be as free and liberated as possible from a very early age. I was very comfortable with the idea of being transgender, bisexual, lesbian, everything -- it seemed so normal. It was only when, later on, I crossed over into the pop world and suddenly had publicists in my ear saying, "Well if you're going to say this, if you're going to be like you are right now, than don't expect to sell any records, don't expect to get publicity," that suddenly all these limitations were put on me.
I had so much to think about at the age of 18, I just decided to close off and be, like, Morrissey-style: totally nonchalant about sexuality and almost sexless. I think I was young enough and innocent enough to play the Britney card, where I would say, "Oh, I don't think about sex," you know? And then when I started to experience and witness rife homophobia in the entertainment industry, I thought, Well, if no one's going to be outspoken, then I am.
There are so many people that are still in the closet after six, seven years in the industry -- they're the total slags of London and then they go do interviews where they're talking about how they want to get married and they fancy this girl or that girl, and I just think it's so unfair, because then there become no role models for the younger generation. They're left with these canned representations on TV and not real people to be inspired by. I thought it'd be quite exciting to be -- not a role model, I'm more the opposite of a role model -- but to show that you can be strong, you can be successful, you can be supercreative, and you don't have to follow any rules. You can make yourself your own person, and I guess it's what I'm trying to do every day. I'm still exploring myself in terms of my level of confidence and my personal comfort level with privacy and public and all those things.
Putting this album out by myself is one of the best decisions I've ever made, because you have to understand -- at Universal they didn't want me to be known as a gay artist, because they thought it would cut out 50% of records sales or something like that.
That's appalling. It is appalling. But now in the gay media I find myself getting five-star reviews, and in the music media I'll get three and a half. There is great support within the gay media for queer artists to be successful and do good things ... but I'm sure some straight reviewers take on board the fact that I'm gay and remove a star or two on the review, prefixing everything with "he's camp, quirky, flamboyant, kooky." Why don't they just say gay? Spit it out, motherfucker! It's all so subversive, because political correctness has silenced a lot of people and forced them to be subtle with their insults. It's much more subliminal now, homophobia, but it's still there. I don't like to play the victim card, but when you work so hard your whole life to be successful and to get your work across to a mass audience, it's frustrating.
I want my music to be listened to by everyone from an American football player to a truck driver to a grandma to a 16-year-old kid to a drag queen. But what the media does is it compartmentalizes you and tries to place you in a niche. That's my battle, and it's a hard one to fight.
That leads me to something else I'm curious about: Who were your own queer heroes and role models, growing up and even now? Since I've become quite comfortable with everything in the last few years, I'm not as scared of things I once saw as camp, myself. I really appreciate Paris Is Burning and The Naked Civil Servant and things that when I was younger and a bit more punk, I would have been like, "Fuck that bullshit!" and gone back to listening to my punk music and industrial music.
Growing up, I guess my heroes were the people I got to know in London: the performance artists, the drag queens, the hard-core queers like Leigh Bowery who were breaking down the idea of ghettos and trying to bring more respect for sexuality to the public -- that was very exciting for me. John Waters was really exciting to me as a teenager too. I was more of a rebel punk. I belonged more to the queer youth than glow sticks and ecstasy and stuff like that.
I have a lot more respect and awareness now of how there was a time when it was illegal to kiss your boyfriend or to sleep with another man, and all the pressures that were put on people trying to stay free. Quentin Crisp was really brave to do what he did in the world he was living in.
Probably because of your frequent references to traveling and your history of busking the streets, I tend to picture you as a restless vagabond who's in a constant state of Rimbaudesque exploration -- do you really live a life of nomadic romance? You mention Rimbaud -- I mean yeah, for sure. I fell in love with Arthur Rimbaud about a year and a half ago. I think he was my long-lost lover I never got to meet. He wrote such beautiful, beautiful words. When I first discovered his work, my friend Edward and I, we thought we were Rimbaud and Verlaine, for a long time.
I do see myself as something of a wanderer. Travel is 85% of my life. I have no fixed abode, just various motels, hotels, and now living on a bus. I tell my band they're going to have to start getting into gypsy culture, because we live like gypsies on tour. The road is something I love. I just let go. If my phone doesn't work, I don't care. I'll just stare out the window and see where I end up. Making friends in different cities is hard -- you have to cram all your friendships into one day. I've met some wonderful people around the world and they're all in my heart.
I did get a chance to take some time off last year. I met William, my boyfriend, and we became really, really domestic. I never used to cook, and I would survive on soup for like a week, just continually reheating it -- I didn't know how to look after myself. But with William, I started making chicken, and we were acting like husband and wife, and it was really fun. And I was the wife, I guess.
On the title track, "The Bachelor," you sing about never marrying at all.
Well, it's more of a question than a statement. I can actually see how it could now be like, a Proposition 8 protest song. Because the bachelor's saying, "I'll never be married," and he obviously wants to get married, but he can't. So that either comes down to romantic failure or wanting to sleep around the rest of your life or not really committing to love -- or it could be that there's some general restriction in the fact that you want to get married. So it could easily be read on that level as well.