It’s tough to call Knoxville alt-rock quintet Wolf at the Door a “supergroup,” especially when the band hasn’t even released a full-length album and hasn’t played many shows outside Knoxville. But with their newly revamped lineup and the cinematic ease of their music, they fit the bill almost by default. Led by vocalist/lyricist/Cold Hands drummer Gene Priest, Wolf at the Door specializes in moody, emotional epics that soar skyward in waves of guitar effects and piano.
The band’s origin can be traced back to late 2010, when guitarist Brian Woodruff and pianist Derek Jones served as Priest’s backing band, the Cardinal Sins. When Woodruff and Jones started bringing in their own material, the group re-emerged as a fully collaborative band, landing gigs as a trio at Pilot Light and the Square Room. Tracks like the spacious ballad “Just Like Being Born” showed a band with big aspirations (and a sound that recalled early Radiohead, just as their name refers to a song from Hail to the Thief), but Wolf at the Door quickly realized they needed to expand, literally, in order to expand sonically. To fix this problem, the group added drummer Nathan Gilleran and bassist Henry Gibson (Cold Hands, ex-Royal Bangs).
“When it was just a three-piece, there was a lot of space for those three instruments to live in,” Priest says. “That’s why the older stuff was kind of slow and sparse and what-not. And now the newer stuff we’ve been writing has a lot more going on in general, so we’ve kind of gotten to the crossroads of so much new writing to where we’re wondering what to do at this point.”
Wolf at the Door is a band in transition. The band’s in-progress full-length debut, American Castles, has been a long time coming, and the addition of Gilleran and Gibson has not only changed the band’s sound, it has also made them more confident and excited about what they’re doing.
“We started recording, but at the same time, during the process of getting into the studio, we added two new people, which expanded our sound tremendously,” Priest says. “And we kind of want to display that, and maybe at this point, it would be smarter to just release an EP than do a full-length, since we’ve written so many new songs that are better.”
“It’s a tricky question,” Woodruff adds. “We don’t know exactly what we’re doing. We have a large amount of material recorded at Rock Snob, but we’re not exactly sure what we’re going to do with it at the moment. We have the capability to record it another way with more time and more nakedness involved, so that’s a possibility.”
One thing’s for sure: Wolf at the Door has made giant leaps in songwriting with their newest material. Seeds of their new direction are displayed on the recently released Weary Bones EP—the cathartic title track, which, with its guitar-delay ripples and emphatic emo chanting, sounds like a seamless blend of Sunny Day Real Estate and early U2. But American Castles, judging by the “very rough” early mix, sounds even more thrilling, aided in no small part by the band’s newly instated muscle. The interlude leading into quirky sing-along “Black Eyes Black Heart” finds Gilleran nearly destroying his kit in a prog-rock frenzy; Gibson adds a smoky postpunk thump to “Head-On Collision,” in which Woodruff erupts into OK Computer-styled guitar seizures.
The long gestation of American Castles is due mostly to the band’s gradual reinvention of itself, but the sad truth is that recording a studio album isn’t cheap, especially for a group of guys who work 9-to-5s at used bookstores and pizza joints. Even worse, their Kickstarter campaign fell just short of their target goal.
“We failed at it,” Priest says. “We were $400 short. It was really close, but not close enough. We didn’t get any money, and we still haven’t finished our album. We’re still doing it, though. It’s still kinda happening—in process, just not as fast as if we had gotten a bunch of money. Kickstarter really would have allowed us to get that record out way faster, so without it, we’re having to do it on our own, which is pretty tough for most bands.”
But in spite of these obstacles, Wolf at the Door finds itself in the creative home stretch, ready to test out new material in a live setting. Like Royal Bangs and Superdrag before them, they have undeniable potential to break out from the Knoxville scene—though this emerging quintet can’t even decide if they’re a part of the scene in the first place.
“It’s kinda weird,” Woodruff says. “At a lot of the places we play, it’s either country-fried rock bands or punk bands or complete weirdness. I think we’re kind of weird in the scene—I don’t think there’s a whole lot of bands doing what we’re doing.”
Gibson’s not so sure.
“I feel like it’s not really that different,” he says. “I think it’s pretty normal, but for this area, it’s not, I guess.”
“I don’t even know how to classify what we do,” Priest says. “I don’t know how we fit in. But I think our stuff is accessible enough that a lot of people can enjoy it and take something from it.”