“I got into performing music with this band was that all composed of art students,” recalls Peter Wolf, a one-time Boston Museum School of Fine Arts student himself. “I met them at a party one night and we just started playing and I got the bug. I became so obsessed with the music and we ended up getting some live gigs that were just so immediate and so exciting, sorta like a falling-in-love-for-the-first-time kinda thing.”
The bug has driven Wolf ever since that first art-school band, the Hallucinations, earned themselves a music history foot-note by regularly opening for the Velvet Underground during the Velvets’ quasi-residency at the Boston Tea Party club. The hyper-kinetic Wolf then went on to front the J. Geils Band from 1967 to 1983 before embarking on a solo career that’s included four albums to date, including his brisk new disk, Long Line.
“Long Line‘s a lot more personal than my other solo records,” Wolf tells me during a recent phone interview. “I’m trying to dig a lot deeper emotionally than I have in the past. There’s still the woofa-goofa-mamma-toofa-loverboy-with-the-green-teeth thing, but there’s also a more retrospective, analytical aspect to the performances and in the approach I used for writing the songs.”
While Wolf handled most of the song-writing chores on Long Line, he did enlist Will Jennings and Aimee Mann for a pair of collaborations each. “I really respect her work,” Wolf says of Mann, “So I gave her a call one day and we got together and we just started working. It was simple as that. Little bit of sugar, little bit of spice. Aimee’s got a lot of ideas, so she brings a lot to the party.”
Much to his chagrin, Wolf found himself with plenty of time to contemplate all those ideas after his last album, Up to No Good was released in 1990. “There were certain legalities and problems that I had with my old record company, MCA, that kept me from moving on for a while,” he points out. “And then once all that got resolved, I had to find the right new home [Reprise], so it all took a lot longer I thought it would.”
Once the lawyers were out of his life, Wolf replaced them with a pack of Boston-based musicians (guitarists Stu Kimble and Johnny A, key-man Brian Maes, bassist Tim Archibald and drummer David Steffanelli) and hit the rock n’ road for almost a year and a half before heading into the studio. “I’ve known these guys around the New England area for years,” Wolf enthuses. “They’re really great musicians and have been in and out of a lot of bands, and I’ve worked on different projects and different film scores with them. So when I decided to go out again, they were my first choice to get behind me — because they’re very energetic players. They also understand my attack of the stage and all my solo stuff and some of the old Geils stuff, which is not as easy to play as one might think.”
Given that no-one can play J. Geils Band music quite as well as the J. Geils Band could, I ask Wolf why he left that group in 1983 just as they’d finally attained some modicum of commercial success with their twisted blues-pop party album, Freeze-Frame “To be honest with you,” Wolf explains, “it really was creative differences. It’s not a cliche. Y’know, there’s a couple of people in every band who make up the band’s creative nucleus — be it Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richard, Henley-Frey, Tyler-Perry, whatever, whoever. In the J. Geils Band it was myself and Seth Justman, and we’d each feel this song was better than that song or that song wasn’t good enough or this was the direction where we should go — and we just finally got to a point where it seemed sorta stagnant, not getting anywhere.”
“The bizarre thing was that the band thought it would be best if I pursued a solo career and they just sort of continued as the J. Geils Band. They even put out an album without me (1984’s You’re Getting Even While I’m Getting Odd, which went nowhere). So that was a really difficult, painful period, ’cause I loved the band and I was sorta like the manager and it was, y’know . . .” Wolf trails off and is quiet for a moment.
“The whole thing was just kinda schizophrenic,” he finally notes, reflectively. “People wondered why was it called the J. Geils Band instead of the Peter Wolf Band or some other name. People didn’t even know who J. was. [He was the guitarist] To this day people come up to me and say ‘Hey J.! Oh, you’re not J.? Who’s J.?’ But those are things that happen. To me, it was a great band and I put a lot of energy into it and I’m kinda proud of the accomplishments we achieved. It’s just unfortunate that we weren’t able to keep it together since we’d finally achieved some commercial acceptance after many, many, many years. It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t enjoy that.”
What Wolf’s post-Geils solo career has lacked in lucre, it’s made up for in risk-taking and stylistic experimentation. 1984’s Lights Out, as an example, found Wolf working with hip-hop demigod Michael Jonzun, while Long Line finds Wolf delivering perhaps the purest blues songs to be found in his long career in blues-based music.
“I never considered myself a bluesman,” Wolf notes, emphatically. “But I have dedicated a great amount of my life to that particular music. I learned from Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker and got to know those great bluesmen by spending many, many, many, many days and hours with them back in the ’60s — I was Muddy’s unofficial valet for a while and went on tour with John Lee Hooker once. I learned so much from all those great artists, and I finally feel like I’m starting to come into my own in getting to where my writing and performing are maybe near their level. So I hope that I’m able to continue with it, because it’s something that I love very much.”
“Y’know, last night I went to see Bruce Springsteen at an acoustic show he was doing up in Lowell, [Mass.]. We were talking afterwards about how things were different in music now, how radio had changed and how there wasn’t as much loyalty in the business anymore and how music all seems very fragmented these days. And Bruce said to me, ‘Pete, the only thing we can do is do what we do and try to turn-on audiences the grass roots way and just keep on chugging.’ It’s funny to hear that from a guy who’s coming from stadiums, but I’ve come out of arenas, too — so I guess in the end it’s really all just like what John Lee Hooker used to say: ‘If it’s in you, it’s gotta come out’. At least that’s what I feel about myself these days.”