Seconds after pressing play on Mt. Wolf’s debut EP Life Size Ghosts, we’re quickly taken to an ethereal place where you can cosy up with clouds holding a cuppa. The South London quartet take traditional acoustic sounds and electronic elements and blend them so seamlessly, that it can’t be called anything other than dream folk.
“I think we all wanted to make textured music – songs that are raw and evocative in some way,” singer Kate Sproule explains. “At times, this translates into something dark or disturbing. I suppose that’s where the term ‘dream folk’ comes in; it nodes to the duality of an encasing sound world whilst fundamentally being music written and played on real instruments.”
Guitarist Sebastian Fox, also known as ‘Bassi,’ continues, “Yeah, we all grew up listening to different styles of music, and I guess the subconscious aim of Mt. Wolf is to marry different musical elements and soundscapes to form a hybrid of natural and electronic sounds.”
Fox and guitarist Stevie McMinn met at music college in London and began writing together. However, the formation of Mt. Wolf was a gradual process that relied more on finding people that fit what the band was trying to create than on filling spaces in the lineup. McMinn’s good friend, Kate Sproule joined the band after finishing her degree in history at Cambridge – passing on an opportunity to work at a political think tank in Berlin. After a year of songwriting, drummer Alex Mitchell, who’s also McMinn’s housemate, became the final piece to complete the band.
Once all the band members were in place, all they needed was a name. “We were all talking about how to put the sound we were creating into words,” the band recalls. “We wanted something that alluded to an escapism and otherworldliness but that also had a dark or unpredictable side. With some help from our friend, Holly, we came up with the name ‘Mt. Wolf’ as we liked the way it sounded and the mirroring of MW on paper.”
Little did they know that Mt. Wolf is a real place in the U.S. “We later found out that this was actually a place in Pennsylvania, and that made sense to us,” they explain. “Somewhere distant but also very much real. It’s all on our Bucket List to one day visit Pennsylvania and hang out with the people of Mt. Wolf.”
Coming from a variety of musical backgrounds, perhaps the one thing that each of the members admits to is playing the piano, though the guys all own up to deciding to move on to their present instruments after quickly losing interest. Sproule, who stuck with the keys into her teenage years, found songwriting was really what she enjoyed most, with McMinn’s help. However, the band makes sure to emphasise that songwriting is more of a collaborative process. “Each song starts differently, usually with one of us putting forward one idea and then others building around it,” Sproule says. “It’s a formula that requires all of us to be clear about what kind of music we want to write. Then we experiment within that.”
Fox continues with a step-by-step explanation. “A typical song might be born a bit like this: Stevie might come up with an idea on the acoustic guitar or on Logic, I might do some initial basic production, laying down a beat (consulting Alex for his drumming knowledge) and starting an initial musical backdrop. Kate would then start working her genius on the vocal melody and lyrics and record a rough version in. Then I might chop up her vocals and create some re-samples from that etc. Once the song is basically finished, we’ll start playing it live, and Al will add his own inflections on the drums for the live show. For future releases we want to record more live drums, making use of Alex’s slick style, as so far we’ve been mostly programming them.”
Having listened to Life Size Ghosts, we’re not too surprised when the band reveal their musical influences to include Bon Iver, The Knife, James Blake, Jamie XX, Four Tet and Purity Ring. However one of the band’s bigger influences was their experience of living around the English coasts and within the hustle and bustle of London. “The fact that we are all from naturally isolated places but living in a huge city where you can feel anonymous definitely reflects in the music we make,” Fox conveys. “In a way we probably can’t control. We have that imagery in our heads as we write.”
Using imagery to propel their songwriting is very much apparent in their EP’s title track. Both Sproule and McMinn found it to be an intense experience “as I wrote the acoustic guitar line in my bedroom one day when I was feeling broken-hearted and a little lost,” McMinn reveals. “It was like a healing process and it’s nice to know something positive has come out of that moment.”
Meanwhile, Sproule compared writing that song to “birthing something.”
The song’s video takes these elements (sans the birthing process) and takes viewers on a journey that leaves one considering their own position in life. “The story moves between being optimistic, telling yourself to be at peace and then the obstacles that can stand in the way,” the band explains. “Ultimately there’s a central current of never being able to get away from something, a set of regrets, that is bigger than yourself. We wanted the video to have a central symbol running through it. The flares and then the individual journeys in the video all came to embody what the song is about. We also knew we wanted to shoot on film to capture an eery, nostalgic feel.”
Unlike McMinn and Sproule’s love for “Life Size Ghosts,” Fox relished working on “Starliner” because it didn’t follow the traditional rules of composing a song. “We had a week and wanted to write an instrumental track for the EP,” he says. “We basically felt like we had free reign to compose a track that didn’t have to conform to any kind of ‘verse/chorus’ structure whatsoever. I resampled Kate’s vocal parts from a previous song that we had written and that we used to perform live. Kate and Stevie recorded some violin and acoustic guitar parts respectively, and Al gave me his drummer’s opinion on the beat that I made as the tune evolved over the week.”
Aside from their original work, the band’s cover of Usher’s ‘Climax’ spins the originally R&B track on its head and shows the band’s versatility. “Alex was listening to it one day on the radio and shouted to Stevie in the other room ‘We should cover this,’” Fox explains. “Stevie shouted back “Yeah! Good idea… You making the teas, son?”… We were then asked to perform a cover with a string quartet at a show in a Church, for the very wonderful people of The Coveryard. We wanted to reinvent a pop track and thought it could work well with Kate’s vocals and in our style. Perhaps strangely, it seemed an obvious choice.”
Apparently Mt. Wolf made a good decision in choosing this song as the track has gone viral and gained positive reviews. “It’s great to see – it could have gone the other way, you can imagine diehard R&B fans being quite protective over the song as it has become one of this year’s biggest anthems for the genre,” Sproule explains. “But covers can extend a song by adding another dimension and people listening to sounds they might otherwise not is largely what it’s about.”
“Also having Diplo share our version saying it was ’dope’ was, well, dope,” Mitchell adds.
Life Size Ghosts is available now through Two Sisters Records, and the band will perform at London’s XOYO on 28 February.