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Wolf Eyes’ Nate Young on scoring the apocalypse for Balenciaga

The DIY noise legend tells us about his unlikely and unnerving collaboration with one of the world’s biggest fashion houses.

February 24, 2020
Wolf Eyes’ Nate Young on scoring the apocalypse for Balenciaga

Around the release of their unnerving 2017 LP Undertow, Wolf Eyes spoke in interviews about the influence that cataclysmic political events were exerting on their music. The album had been recorded before Donald Trump became President, but Wolf Eyes — the Michigan-based duo of Nate Young and John Olson (a.k.a. Inzane Johnny) — had been soundtracking the apocalyptic sentiments of the election's aftermath for their entire two-decade career to that point. "You can feel it in the air these days, man," Olson told THUMP at the the time. "There's just an undertow of dread."

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Almost four years on that same pervasive dread still lingers, and Wolf Eyes are still approaching it in new and challenging ways. But the latest project to bear their name was surprising even by their standards. Luxury fashion house Balenciaga's 2020 Summer campaign rollout continued last week with an uncanny four-minute video that played with deep fakes, fake news, and the apocalypse. Wolf Eyes were credited with its menacing soundtrack (though the music was composed entirely by Young this time).

The video itself is the work of Will Benedict, an artist and filmmaker who has collaborated with Wolf Eyes frequently over the past few years and delights in probing at his viewer's discomforts. It's a news broadcast set at the dawn of the singularity, in which rolling headlines ask, troublingly, "WHERE IS THE WATER GOING?" tell us that there are "NO MORE TRAFFIC JAMS!" and then declare "CAMPAIGNING BEGINS" as a series of almost identical-looking political pundits sound off silently and without emotion. Young's score is muted by Wolf Eyes' standards, but no less menacing for it. Built off of the title music for news bulletins like the BBC's, it foregrounds a creepily repetitive piano and injects screeches and squeals, which occasionally fill in for the anchors and pundits babbling soundlessly on the screen.

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Young spoke to The FADER about how the project came together, fashion's relationship with art, and the strange feeling of being a DIY musician working with one of the world's most famously luxurious brands.

The FADER: The Balenciaga video blew up pretty quickly. Were you surprised?
Nate Young: I kind of knew it was going to just because of their popularity in general, but I didn't know it was going to resonate so much with people. I worked with Will a lot over the past couple of years and as we were making this video it just felt like we were doing our routine, working on a project. I was very surprised that this one particular video resonated so much.

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When did they get in touch to commission you for this?
They moved really fast. They got at me in December, I believe, and they wanted a version a couple of weeks later. I was pretty surprised how fast everything was moving. I had a storyboard to work with but that was it. As far as the tempo and the cuts were concerned, I was kind of in the dark. If it wasn't for the fact that I've worked with Will extensively, it would've been really difficult to meet those deadlines. But working with Will, it’s second nature at this point.

Were you given any concepts or markers to play with?
If you're familiar with any of Will's other work, there's a recurring character who in some videos plays an alien — an illegal alien, no less. A lot of Will's work in general deals with current issues and the apocalyptic end and doom that we're all feeling, of course. And our music kind of fits right in there with that eerie, scary, post-apocalyptic vibe.

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After Undertow, you acknowledged that your music was playing into the despair that people were feeling at the time. Knowing that, and playing with those themes again, how different is the approach with commercial work?
This was the first commercial work we'd ever been commissioned for. I don't think it's too strange for either of us to be in sort of a commercial situation, but maybe this is a special situation with Balenciaga where it really does fit in well. After the fact I read more about the house, and the guy in charge, Demna [Gvasalia, Creative Director], he’s notorious for doing viral stunts. It’s super avant-garde, super out there.

Had you ever considered that the world of fashion would grapple with these themes?
Not really. It's funny, I was reading a quote the other day that said most people who are recognized historically are from affluent backgrounds. That kind of makes sense, but it's bugging me too. I don't come from an affluent background, but it's interesting to see that where there is a lot of money, there is time to make art. You can make it for yourself and you don't have to be held accountable. That's what's interesting about this video — I feel like we got away with something. I always feel that when a large amount of people check out our subversive, bizarre music and Will's art, people kind of understand it, even though it's putting a mirror up to a lot of the horrible things that are going on in the world: wealth, excess, all that is just right there.

I'm torn. It's interesting to see fine art being created and created really well in the fashion world, but it's alarming that it is an [exclusive] sort of club. But I'm not going to complain about anything at this point. I'm just thrilled that it turned out well and this collaboration was received well by people. We come from DIY, and we can still practice this do-it-yourself integrity. It's interesting to work with people who have a lot of money and to see them really big risks out there.

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I AM A PROBLEM from Berlin Biennale on Vimeo.

You say you feel like you’re getting away with something… When you're making a piece like this, do you think about the impact that it might have? Do you think about trying to elicit a certain response?
Not entirely, no. Doing any sort of score for a film or video art, I'm always worried that my music is going to be too distracting, too intense, or too dense with sound and emotion. For this one I was a little worried. As we were moving forward I was like, I hope this isn't going to be too distracting from the message that Will is trying to get out there. The funny thing is, the message is there, but at the end of the day you're just selling sunglasses. It's twisted, really. You're selling $3,000 puffer jackets, which are amazing pieces if you look at them as some sort of art.

One thing that struck me about this video is that it’s very unnerving, but it’s also quite funny — is that a difficult balance to strike?
I mean that's another part of Wolf Eyes. You have Inzane Johnny on one end and then you have me have another. With us there’s always been that stark contrast. With most great art — and "great art" is a hard term to use too, but still — there is some sort of levity to it, and we've always had that. Even if you can't see it or you can't see it immediately, it's there. This is a good example: the scrolling factoids at the bottom of the video, took me for four or five like watches before I really noticed it. And they changed over the couple of weeks that he was sending me versions — endlessly hilarious. His work always has a touch of humor in it.

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Wolf Eyes’ Nate Young on scoring the apocalypse for Balenciaga