Black Wolf and the Thief Gives Voice to Dark Thoughts on New Album

WARREN, Ohio – Valley-based rock band Black Wolf and the Thief explore the darkness on their new album.

In the first 10 minutes, the lyrics delve into the phoniness of social media, the emptiness of unrequited love, and dark thoughts that never go away.

It’s what you would expect from an album titled, “The Darkness Around Us Is Deep.”

But because this is Black Wolf and the Thief, it’s also melodic, theatrical, moody and enthralling. In short, it’s anything but depressing.

As always, the album features the beautiful, expressive and stylish vocals of Carolyn Colley. Each song realizes its full potential thanks to full-bodied arrangements that utilize piano and horns, vocal harmonies, and even sound effects.

The songs are a collaborative effort of the husband-wife team of Carolyn and Clay Colley, (keyboards) with drummer Brian Messina. Black Wolf and the Thief will perform an album-release show at 7 p.m. Saturday at Modern Methods Brewing in Warren. 

In this exchange, Clay Colley discussed the making of the new album.

QUESTION: What set you on such a thoughtful and somber path in creating these new songs?

ANSWER: We actually have been finding it pretty funny just how much darker this album is from our first (2019’s “The Pioneer”), both in the way it sounds and looks. I think all three of us agree this album feels much more authentic to us as individuals and as a group.  We all have pretty dark musical influences – Pink Floyd, Nirvana, Evanescence – and I think there are hints of this darkness on our first album in songs like “Ferris Wheel,” “Illumination” and “Low Tide,” but we really unleashed the beast with this one. “Dark Thoughts” was the first song we wrote for this album, and we were originally planning on naming the album that, so we knew it was going to be heading in that direction. All of the songs were written about some pretty heavy personal experiences, and as we continued working on the album the heavy life experiences just kept coming, so we just really leaned into that darkness.

QUESTION: The opening song, “Followers,” is an indictment of social media culture. It points out how some people cultivate an online persona, building an image of their “perfect” life with “pretty pictures.” The looped soundbite of an ad for a service offering “1,000 followers in one week” at the beginning prepares the listener for the song’s incisive message. What inspired it?

ANSWER:  It’s so easy to get sucked into mindlessly scrolling on social media and accidentally fall into the comparison trap. Everything is so in your face, it’s hard not to wind up worrying about whether what you’re doing is “cool” enough. It’s a very modern version of keeping up with the Joneses. The constant barrage of “cooler,” “better,” “prettier” is exhausting. The soundbites represent the hypnotic, inescapable presence of social media, wearing us down.

QUESTION:  This album was a long time in the making. It has a lot of ingredients – including some jazzy and soulful saxophone – and there is great attention to arrangement that makes each song the most it can be. Can you elaborate on the recording process?

ANSWER: We have a tendency to take a pretty long time recording, for no particular reason. Our first full-length album, “The Pioneer,” was about five years in the making when we released it in 2019; this one we started later that year and finished up this past summer.

The songwriting, creative process and personnel were totally different between the two records. While we did a lot of writing and decision-making in the studio for our first album, we had been performing all but one of the songs on “Darkness” for six months before we pushed the record button. And we were a different band by then. Our current drummer, Brian Messina, had just joined the group and we were gigging a lot, so we had a lot of opportunity to workshop the songs in a live setting and let each band member’s personality affect each tune.

This album definitely has the edge it does because we let each song grow and evolve before we laid it down. It also gave each song a pretty distinct personality, which made a lot of arranging decisions super easy. For example, our song “Never Meant 2 Make It Right” has always been the song we invite local musician friends to jam on when we play it live, and so when we recorded it, we brought in a horn section, Tim Harker on tenor sax, and our friends the Labra Brothers to sing backup to really give it that party vibe it has when it’s live. “Followers” is a song about social media and the internet, so we put a ton of beeps and boops and synth sounds on it. “Money Left Over” is an R&B inspired bop, so we added [Hammond B3 organ] and backup vocals.

QUESTION: What other musicians played a role in recording the album?

ANSWER: Because we knew what we wanted from the beginning, the initial recording process flew by. Then [the pandemic] happened. While that was a challenging time for all of us, it did give us a really cool opportunity.

Our original drummer, Bryan Teeters, was working as a drum tech for the country band Old Dominion and had been furloughed when the shutdown happened. The band had been renting a really nice old studio in Nashville for rehearsals, but obviously didn’t need it if they weren’t going to be touring. So, they let Bryan use it for the two days they had left on their lease to record.

 He called me and asked if I had anything I needed drums for. We had already laid everything down, but I thought, “why not?” and sent him two songs from “Darkness” I thought he would sound good on, plus like four other song ideas. And he recorded everything in less than 48 hours.

The two drum takes from the record, “Unrequited” and “Gone,” that he sent were so amazing that we had to use them. Being able to include our original drummer formed a nice little bridge between album one and album two.

The pandemic also gave us time to think about the parts that we hadn’t had time to record before everything shut down, particularly the song “Dark Thoughts.” It’s a wailing song that features a super long solo when we play it live, and I have this Rhodes patch, run through a wah pedal, so I make my keyboard sound just like a guitar.

People have been fooled many times by this to think we have a guitarist. While that is a cool effect in a live setting, I didn’t see much point in having a keyboard solo that sounded just like a guitar on a recording.

 Since the song is about depression and anxiety stalking a person like a monster, I thought what we needed was some classic horror movie strings. We hired a string quartet, I did some arranging, and I think we can safely say we’re one of the only bands to have a Bartok-inspired string quartet solo in the middle of one of our songs.

The coolest song on this album has to be “Unrequited,” the one song we have never performed live, and the first song we ever wrote together.

Almost 10 years ago, when we first started writing, we had a guitarist, a different drummer, and a completely different vision of what we were as a band. “Unrequited” was a song we started writing and then abandoned because we couldn’t figure out the second half, and it stayed on the shelf until we recorded this.

It’s a surprisingly heavy song for us, so we brought in John Anthony from The Vindys to work his guitar magic and it turned out incredible. It’s definitely our favorite one, which is so crazy because our album release party on Saturday will be the first time it is ever played live.

QUESTION: Tell me about the cover art. It is kind of disturbing, but it fits the mood. Who did it?

ANSWER:   We love collaborating with other artists! Our first album’s cover art was done by Warren artist Aaron Chine. We had him listen to “The Pioneer” and create what he felt, and we loved the final product, so we knew we wanted to do that for our second album, too. 

Cameron Ulam, an old friend of Carolyn’s from high school, did all the watercolor paintings for “The Darkness.” As the songs for this album started coming together, we agreed that her macabre style would be the perfect fit for the sound. Slightly disturbing paintings just felt right for an album full of songs inspired by some pretty disturbing feelings. Her paintings are not just on the cover, but also throughout the wordbook. You can check out more of her nightmare-inspired paintings on her Instagram account, @darkwatercolor.

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