by Kayleigh Hughes
On a chilly September night in Canton, Ohio, the Ghost Wolves are playing to a small audience of Midwesterners, who seemingly have no idea what they’re in for, in a grungy punk-adjacent bar that is at odds with the quiet modest road along which it’s located.
This is what it looks like when one of the tightest, most energetic rock and roll bands to come out of Austin in recent years plays a show in Canton:
Jonny Wolf positions himself behind the drum kit, which is adjacent to a set of vintage Music Man HD 130 amps that have been customized with white fur to make them seem equal parts luxe and feral. Carley Wolf, in a custom handmade white denim vest, fastens a haunting white wolf mask over an extra mic stand and there it remains, all open-mouthed scowl and mean dead eyes, throughout the set.
And then they’re playing, transporting you to the haunted Southwestern Gothic wilderness of their darkest, most mesmerizing dreams, through the power of their hypnotic and hard-driving, blistering pure Texas rock and roll. Not shy at all about demanding audience interaction, Carley and Jonny scream and make you scream back. As Carley stalks the stage with furious joy, swapping guitars throughout the night, their raw-yet-practiced sound blasts through the small space and threatens to tear it down in a sexy kind of murderous vengeance.
And strangely, the floor beyond the stage never fills. As these Texan rockstars breathe life into the only semi-cool spot in Canton, Ohio, most onlookers remain still, some even wandering outside to take a smoke break. The Ghost Wolves are giving us a cowboy glam afterprom party in a Texas cemetery and the audience is unable to give back anything to equal it.
“We notice,” Jonny tells me after the show. Together, he and Carley have encountered more than a thousand different crowds across the world in their time as The Ghost Wolves, and they know the difference between a great audience and a not-so-great one. But he speaks with a wry smile, and those years of experience come through in a different way: as optimistic acceptance.
The Ghost Wolves are professionals. The indifferent crowd is the type of thing that might rattle or discourage newer performers, but Jonny and Carley cruise through and over it, buoyed by hard-earned, unshakeable confidence in who they are and what they do. They rocked; they know that, and the opinions of a handful of flip-flop-donning, BassPro-hat-wearing Cantonites are just the tiniest drop in a massive ocean of kickass.
* * * *
Earlier in the evening, before they are dominating an undeserving space, the duo speak to me for nearly an hour in the old pinball arcade attached to the bar, offering multiple times, over the dings of the old machines, to share their pizza. All bright smiles and pre-show vigor, the Ghost Wolves share their history.
Carley and Jonny, both longtime members of the Austin Americana and folk scene, met through friends in the community and became a couple while playing with separate bands–Jonny with “gypsy jazz” project The Belleville Outfit and Carley with rockabilly icon Johnny Falstaff. But touring in separate places on different schedules was tough, and eventually, Carley says, “we finally were like, why don’t we start playing together, and then we wouldn’t have to travel apart from each other all the time!”
Carley tells me how the two landed on their loud, rock and roll sound:
“After I went on tour with Johnny Falstaff, in Europe, I was watching him every night just rip on the guitar. And I got home and I put my bass in the corner. I was like, Okay, I want to do what he does. I’m done with the bass.”
So she bid her acoustic roots goodbye, sold her classical guitar, bought her first amp, “and plugged in,” as Jonny joined up on the drums.
“We wanted to get louder and kind of…meaner with our music,” Carley says with a smile. “The biggest challenge for a duo is to get the biggest sound you can get, and the fullest sound.” That’s how The Ghost Wolves landed on their two vintage Music Man amps, she tells me, and “that’s [also] why I love the duo setting. Because you can really experiment with a huge guitar sound and you’re not going to step on anyone’s toes.”
When you own your life, you get to call all the shots and construct your own identity.
“In previous projects, especially with Johnny’s experience, somebody was telling him what to do. And eventually you’re just tired of that shit! Let’s do whatever we want to do!”
And so that’s what the Ghost Wolves have done. They’ve built a life they don’t want to run away from, torn apart the book of rules and become a duo who doesn’t break the rules because there are no rules to break.
“She doesn’t tell me what to do, I don’t tell her what to do.”
As thrilling as it may have been, taking total control of their own musical expression, it wasn’t effortless.
In the beginning, Jonny remembers, “We would get in big fights. I’d be telling her ‘turn your guitar up, turn your guitar down!’ I had to realize that you just have to stop and just let the person you’re working with be themselves, in their own space. And that’s the most beautiful thing as a band.”
He continues, “This is our rebellion against everybody fucking telling us what to do. We’re doing everything that would get us fired in every other band!”
Carley jumps in. “Way too loud! Way too full!”
“Rock and roll is rebellion music,” Jonny tells me. It’s a sentiment that’s been expressed, often in those exact words, surely a few hundred thousand times in the past seventy years. But there’s a reason people keep making rebellious rock and roll; everybody’s rebellion is a little different, which keeps the music vital and alive. Jonny and Carley feel the weight and influence of musical tradition deeply, in a way that feels distinctly Texan.
American history is dark, but the history of the American Southwest is even darker, and I have always felt that this fact lends most residents a deeper awareness of the ever-present influence of the dead. It’s easier in the wild expanse of Texas, a land that seems infinite when you’re living it in and is still difficult to fully comprehend even at a distance, to sink into the deep and the dark, seduced more than coerced.
As Jonny puts it, “Texas is a magical place. It’s its own thing. That’s what attracted me to Texas. The culture is so deep there. It’s different.” While Jonny, who grew up in Connecticut, is still a few years out from calling himself a Texas local, Carley’s family has long, strong roots in Texas.
“I’m a Texan, through and through,” she says, having grown up in Fredericksburg.
Jonny asks her how many generations back her family has lived in Texas.
“Umm, I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure?!” He turns to me. “Her grandpa was a Texas Ranger, rode on horseback! Badass. He didn’t carry handcuffs because he carried a huge gun. And no one would run from him.”
Carley jumps in. ”Because he was a good shot!”
An even bigger family influence on Carley and Jonny has been their wolf dogs, which Carley’s dad has been breeding for over thirty years.
“Our whole band is based off of our dog,” Jonny says. “That’s the whole thing. It’s really true. Our dogs are why we have the band.” They joyfully show me a picture of Winter [Winter died this past December] and tell stories of Polar, Timber, and Star. The dogs are gorgeous and haunting and lovable. If ever there was a solid argument for how dogs can make your life more beautiful and your outlook brighter, it’s the Ghost Wolves family. Go look at their smiling Instagram pictures and see what I mean.
Naturally, I also ask the Ghost Wolves about how Texas history has influenced their music, and more specifically if they’ve been inspired by ‘60s horror films that songs like “Baby Fang Thang” and “Dangerous Moves” evoke with ease.
“I think we’re into people who were into that,” Johnny says and laughs. “You know what I mean. Like I can’t name you one ‘60s horror film but The Cramps is a band we love and they probably love that stuff.” In fact, the two stopped at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–“It’s free if you’re a band. You just show them a CD with you on it!” they tell me delightedly–and were somewhat disappointed to find that “they had like two Cramps things in the whole place.”
Still, “at least they’re in there,” Jonny acknowledges.
I decide that a discussion of the Cramps is the ideal time to tell the Ghost Wolves that I went to www.horrorfilmhistory.com to find the horror subgenre that I thought best represented their music. In my research, I came across a caption for ‘60s movies that was titled “bad girls and blood freaks.”
Carley and Jonny’s response: a shared “YES!”
“That’s so cool,” says Carley.
“We definitely have a girl power thing,” Jonny says. “[With] rock and roll, who wants to go see four guys playing rock and roll anymore? Not me! I’d rather see some badass chick.”
The Ghost Wolves aesthetic, inspired not just by the Cramps but also Gun Club and the Chrome Cranks, both of whom are namechecked during the conversation, fits so well with the “badass chick” image that the Alamo Drafthouse used a song of theirs in an opening montage of “bad girls” movies. The song was “Dangerous Moves,” which Jonny describes as “sort of like an old blues song but it’s reversed so the woman’s talking about murdering her man when the man cheats.”
“All these scenes of like these evil women being so badass,” Carley exclaims, “and our song behind it. Like whoa!”
Carley and Jonny are both passionate supporters of Austin institutions like the Drafthouse, and are eager to talk about some of the projects they feel are contributing to the growth and cultivation of a healthy music scene in the city.
The two acknowledge that the city is experiencing growing pains, but enthusiastically cite Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM) and Black Fret as examples of significant and influential organizations in Austin working to establish resources and infrastructure for musicians.
Carley calls HAAM “amazing” and points to how if “people weren’t there supporting that and donating, helping support that, then we wouldn’t have [HAAM] and that’s really important.”
Jonny adds that Black Fret, whose members vote and award local musicians with monetary grants to continue their art, is “a great thing for musicians in Austin.”
“There are also,” Carley notes of Austin, “so many gigs. And that’s great for bands who are trying to make a living.”
Jonny explains, “People don’t realize that. They’re like, oh man, Austin is so horrible. Try going…you know there’s one club here [in Canton]. You know what I mean. And it’s not a big city, but just think about that. Knoxville, Tennessee, there’s like three clubs. We see it. We go everywhere. Even the cities that are music towns like Asheville there’s twenty clubs.”
“Not even that many,” Carley adds.
By contrast, Jonny explains, “Austin’s got like two hundred.”
In addition to their steady stream of live shows, The Ghost Wolves are also excited to talk about their other current projects. They have a Bandcamp subscription service containing “all of our back catalog, and then unreleased stuff, all sorts of demos and recordings that were never released.”
“We also have a monthly mystery club,” Carley tells me, “where I send out an original art print and it has a download of an unreleased song. Every month we’re having to create content for this thing and it’s keeping us really busy and really active and it’s really exciting.” In addition to designing the art prints, Carley, along with her mother, designs and handcrafts all of the band’s original outfits as well as the clothes that they sell at each performance. You can buy a custom vest, wolf purse, or commemorative “WINTER THE GREATEST” pin in honor of Winter’s recent passing.
* * * *
The Ghost Wolves headed off to Europe not long after this Canton show, Texas gangster troubadours of darkness, bringing classic American rebellion music across the Atlantic. You can see some spectacular photos of that tour, as well as more photos of their wonderful canine family, on their Instagram. They’ll be back to Europe again this coming April, but not before playing a set of must-see gigs at South by Southwest 2016.
Coming up this summer, they’ll be releasing a new album entitled TEXA$ PLATINUM (“because it’s expensive,” Jonny jokes) on an as-yet-unconfirmed label, but in the meantime you can hear raucus single “I Got Money” on a split 7” (with a song from Indiana band Brother O’ Brother on the other side), which will be released this Spring via Fonoflo Records.
Nothing, however, beats seeing Carley and Jonny Wolf play, Cantonites be damned. Maybe Canton’s not the right city for the Ghost Wolves. Every city should be though. I have heard tell through the Ovrld grapevine that Austin itself has been delivering some meager and unengaged crowds to Carley and Jonny recently, and all I can say is that that needs to be remedied. The Ghost Wolves have been consistently putting on some of the fiercest, most refreshing shows around town and if you have the chance to see them raise some hell, you better take it. They will shred smash bang wail into your heart.
You can catch Ghost Wolves all through SXSW this year. Check their page for info.
Kayleigh Hughes is an editor, freelance writer, and overthinker. In addition to contributing to Ovrld, Kayleigh is the film editor at Loser City and contributor to Pitchfork. Talk to her about literally anything–she doesn’t have that many friends–on twitter or via email.