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Experimental Rock Group Wolf Eyes Throws "Psycho Jazz Weekend"

The influential Detroit, Mich. trio returns to the Bay Area for five shows, including an elaborate Halloween party, at the urging of local promoter James Decker.


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Wolf Eyes relish provocation. - PHOTO BY ALIVIA ZIVICH
  • Photo by Alivia Zivich
  • Wolf Eyes relish provocation.

One night this past March, the influential experimental rock group Wolf Eyes took the stage at the Independent in San Francisco. James Decker, a friend of the band who was putting them up that night, was perusing merchandise and turned to face the stage while holding a record — which club security regarded as attempted theft and prompted them to call the cops. "Back at the house, they went, 'Where were you?'" Decker said. "I was like, 'Oh, I got 86ed.'"

The incident prompted talk of Wolf Eyes returning to play one of Decker's shows at the Peacock Lounge in the Lower Haight, where he regularly books noise and experimental music lineups of a strange stripe more common nowadays in Oakland. That plan ballooned into five shows: four in San Francisco, plus a secret one in Oakland, at various small and unusual venues from Oct. 25 to 29. They're calling it "Psycho Jazz Weekend."

"The idea is small rooms with more locals, and we'll do three unique sets," Wolf Eyes founder Nate Young said in a phone call. "When I talked to James, I said I wanted really young, new acts, and really old acts — age diversity, diversity in general. And he got it."

Restless and prolific, Wolf Eyes formed in Detroit, Mich., more than 20 years ago, and, though recent releases are more composed, the band has probably inspired more noise and scrappy avant-garde outfits than any single, still-going group in the country. Wolf Eyes still relish provocation; the band's takeover of Third Man Records' social media lost Jack White's label thousands of followers. They're also conflicted about the trappings of popularity.

Young said Wolf Eyes, which has released records on Sub Pop and Third Man, is in a phase of rejecting traditional music-industry fixtures such as booking agents and legacy indie labels — "middlemen," he calls them — and instead, dealing directly with underground figures such as Decker. "We played a gig through an agency not too long ago and the catering budget was $300," Young said. "Somewhere along the line someone made that absurd demand and it became standard, but it's just wasteful and kind of bizarre."

Meanwhile, at an Oakland warehouse that, for years, has hosted word-of-mouth Halloween parties, Decker was showing off some props that will be used for Wolf Eyes' set. "Here, the stage will be framed by tusks from a mammoth skull," he said, gesturing toward some half-painted, cardboard sculptures. "It's climate-disaster themed. You're not sure if it's a past or future ice age."

Decker, 49, moved to San Francisco in 2001 and soon started booking at long-running Mission District arts space The Lab as well as an underground venue in West Oakland. The sort of shows he likes — intimate encounters with strange and often harsh electronic music — have gravitated toward Oakland, but Decker has in recent years helmed regular nights in small San Francisco venues such as Second Act and the Peacock Lounge.

He's always handing out fliers, typically oblong rectangles teeming with text; he cuts them individually with craft scissors for wavy edges. The cover at his shows is modest, usually $5 with a NOTAFLOF, or no-one-turned-away-for-lack-of-funds, policy, and he works the door himself. He said he loses money as if it's obvious. (A longtime schoolteacher, he now works for a textbook publisher.)

The Wolf Eyes gigs, though higher-profile and a little costlier than usual, will likely retain the homespun feel of Decker's productions. And the programming, as far as local openers each night, is typically great: Main support on Wednesday, Oct. 25, at the Peacock Lounge is the mightily expressive noise-rock outfit SBSM. Friday, Oct. 27, at Seismic Retrofitters features the cracked reggaetón duo Las Sucias, a quartet led by storied percussionist William Winant, and the beguiling performance-art duo Oracle Plus.

That show also includes a comedy matinee, headlined by Wolf Eyes as "Wolf Home Companion" — a sort of musical standup act based on their internet radio show of the same name. "The bit is basically absurd tour nightmare stories, the things we tell each other in the van, but set to music," Young said. "It's kind of comedy, kind of tragedy."

And the Halloween gig Saturday, Oct. 29, looks to be a waking nightmare. The night Decker and I talked, he was painting obelisk-shaped cardboard. "Yeah, the ice-crystals take two coats," he said. "They'll be hanging from the ceiling." He was rushing to finish so he could focus on hosting Wolf Eyes again. "Everything's homemade. There's nothing you can't do with cardboard, except snow." He rushed to add, "But we'll have snow."

The Wolf Eyes shows in San Francisco will likely draw Oaklanders, but Decker lamented that people in the East Bay seem less and less inclined to go to experimental music shows in San Francisco, let alone book them. "To me it's the same city with a big bridge," he said, walking through the ice cave. "People say it's a half-hour away. Well, in LA a carton of milk is a half-hour away."