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Howling at the Moon

“Will the wolf survive?” asked Los Lobos in 1984, and we still ponder that query 21 years later. At long last, we may have an answer: “Yes, but mostly in small clubs.” There are less than 300,000 wolves on the face of the planet and a mere 70,000 in all of North America. The upside, however, is that at least 70 of these are indie-rock bands. All things considered, this is not a great time to be a wolf. But it is a wonderful time for wolf rock. There’s the Canadian art-rock band Wolf Parade. There’s the Japanese garage band Guitar Wolf, and they sometimes cover “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney have combined to become Superwolf. Wolf Eyes are a noise band who make music about things that are on fire. Australia offers the psych rock of Wolfmother. There’s also a Bay Area hip-hop DJ named Peanut Butter Wolf (a concept I would classify as “furry and delicious”), and there’s a Brooklyn group who refer to themselves as Animal Collective (a concept I would classify as “close enough”). The world of rock has never been this wolf-saturated; I realize Howlin’ Wolf influenced the Stones, and I recall Duran Duran experiencing a hunger similar to that of a wolf. But those were anomalies; this is a movement. We have entered the Golden Era of the Rock Wolf. But why has this happened? What do these bands have in common? What is the unifying lupine element?

Well, there is none.

These artists have nothing else in common, beyond that they’re not commercially successful (it should be noted that a song on Queens of the Stone Age’s Lullabies to Paralyze is titled “Someone’s in the Wolf,” and that album will probably outsell all other wolf music combined). On the surface, this trend appears to be happenstance. But then I started thinking about something Teenage Wasteland author and metal scholar Donna Gaines told me when I interviewed her in 1998. We were talking about the school shootings in Springfield, Oregon, and Jonesboro, Arkansas, and I asked if it was possible that the two incidents were merely an isolated coincidence. She laughed and said, “No sociologist would see anything like this as isolated.” In sociology, there are no coincidences, even if the relationship between the involved parties isn’t abundantly clear. And, of course, 12 kids were murdered at Columbine less than a year later, so Gaines looked like a genius.

This being the case, I am trying to view these wolf bands through the eyes of a sociologist; this is not easy, as I don’t know anything about sociology. Perhaps Malcolm Gladwell could spot some sort of “wolfish tipping point” in the phenomenon, but that theory doesn’t seem to apply to this particular scenario. The key question is not “Why are so many bands suddenly being named after wolves?” The key question, I suspect, is more abstract: “Why is any band named after anything?”

People who like music have wasted a chunk of their lives thinking up names for bands that do not exist. Sometimes this actually pays off; Billy Corgan supposedly came up with the name Smashing Pumpkins before he met any members of the group. The logic behind this practice is almost always the same: The band-name creator feels either (a) “This particular word sounds cool,” or (b) “This collection of words sounds cool when spoken in sequence.” Groups will often ascribe some larger significance to a band name’s origin (especially when interviewed by fledgling college journalists), but the reality is that artists usually just pick words they like. This is what makes the current wolf pack compelling. It’s not interesting that an inordinate number of modern bands include the word wolf in their name; what’s interesting is that so many unconnected musicians (in wholly disparate scenes and often in different countries) have simultaneously decided that wolf is an especially cool word. For some reason (and I can’t pretend to know why), the current generation of indie rockers appreciates wolf culture more than any generation before it. And it’s not like the wolves have changed. It’s not as if a bunch of wolves got Strokes haircuts and started a record label in Berlin. Nobody rebranded the wolf; they’re still focused on melodramatic howling and wearing sheep’s clothing. Wolves don’t need cred. Wolves don’t care about noise rock.

No sociologist would see anything like this as isolated.