The 2018 Battle of the Bands at Westside High School was supposed to go on like normal.
Bands from around the school would take the stage during the winter formal to play inoffensive pop and rock standards — “Careless Whisper,” “Eleanor Rigby,” maybe a tribute to school heroes 311. Familiar stuff to gain the audience’s favor.
Brothers Nathan and Griffin Wolf didn’t expect to win anybody over.
They took the stage in button-up T-shirts and slacks to perform a pair of originals; Nathan behind the provided jazz drum kit and Griffin behind his faithful Casiotone MT-46 keyboard. From there, they burst into a stretch of Nathan’s relentless jazz-punk percussion and Griffin’s off-the-wall keyboard riffs like the arpeggiated voice of a dying robot.
Of the songs the duo — named Pagan Athletes — could have played, they chose one of their most dissonant and the one that borders on free jazz, with multiple starts and stops and a haunted interpolation of John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things.”
“I kind of knew going in, we were gonna go up on stage and play some really fucked up shit,” Griffin says.
“I don’t think anybody fucking got it,” Nathan says.
But what did they expect? A high percentage of music listeners would listen to Pagan Athletes’ music, grimace and quickly shut it off.
In the three years since the Battle of the Bands, Pagan Athletes’ approach hasn’t changed materially, but its audience has. The brothers have found an underground Omaha crowd to whom their chaotic noise rock is palatable, even danceable. And they’ll release their self-titled debut LP to that crowd this Friday at OutrSpaces in Little Bohemia.
Figure out the rest
Griffin and Nathan were born into a family where music was not obligatory, but would’ve been nearly inescapable. Their parents were major players in the Omaha punk scene in the ’80s and ’90s — their father John Wolf played in bands like Cellophane Ceiling and Bad Luck Charm and brought numerous esteemed punk groups to town, among them The Jesus Lizard, Bad Brains and Nirvana.
Nathan was quick to connect with his parents’ musical background. He grew up listening to post-hardcore bands like Shellac and music from as far away as the Japanese punk scene. His favorite band to this day is Thee Michelle Gun Elephant, a prolific-but-defunct Tokyo punk blues band whose music video DVD he would watch on repeat as a kid.
“I was just kind of obsessed with them,” he says.
He asked his dad to show him how to play one of the band’s songs on guitar, to which John Wolf said, “Okay, I’m gonna show you like five chords and one scale, and you’re gonna figure out the rest.”
Nathan’s parents noticed he had promise as a musician one morning when he had been playing a skateboarding video game and taught himself how to play the riff from a song on the soundtrack, the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant.”
“He’s standing there with his guitar, ‘I figured it out, Dad!’ I figured it out!” John says. “And I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ Okay, the kid’s got an ear.”
Griffin, younger by two years, was a slower convert. He reluctantly took piano lessons starting in fifth grade and toyed with electronic music on his computer after getting into vaporwave in middle school. He played in his middle school jazz band, too, which taught him music theory and piano chords. But he says he ended up hating it. Too structured.
It took his brother’s insistence that they start a band for Griffin to eventually find a passion for music. But even that didn’t reel him in immediately.
“When we started doing music together, there was a lot of pushback because I didn’t want to do it at first, to be honest,” Griffin says.
But Nathan had a vision, even if it was a little blurry, and it involved his drums and the Casio keyboard they’d scored at the Old Market Imaginarium years earlier for about $20. In his early high school years, his musical exploration led him to New York no wave music (his mom wasn’t a fan of the “shrill” records he would play around the house) and bands like DNA and Mars, whose music, he notes, was intense while still being intentionally anticlimactic.
That, he decided, was what he wanted his band to be like.
“But Griffin did not want to do that,” Nathan says. He was more into electronic music and hip-hop than the style Nathan was shooting for.
“I just kept saying, ‘Let’s just keep trying weird stuff and just jam.’ It was a long process of convincing him to like it, and convincing myself to like it, too.”
Those jam sessions have fused into a sound that’s unlike any in the Omaha scene, and few in music at large. Nathan plays drums and Griffin plays the keyboard, and they play a style of frenetic noise rock with caustic drumming that often mirrors Griffin’s rapid-but-rhythmic keyboard lines. There’s no guitar or bass in the band, but the keyboard fills both roles, all while one of the brothers shouts over the top.
The next best thing
The Wolf family are big fans of Steve Albini (producer for Pixies, Nirvana, The Breeders). They admire his production style and the bands he plays in, particularly Shellac. When most families would take a family vacation to Disneyland or Yellowstone, Nathan says the Wolfs went to Minneapolis in 2016 to see Shellac play at First Avenue.
And when Pagan Athletes was searching for a producer who could create the raw, in-the-room feeling of an Albini record without paying the man himself, they found Omaha-based producer Bryce Hotz, who has worked with Omaha bands like Super Moon and Eric in Outerspace.
“It said (on Hotz’ website) he’d been mentored under Steve Albini, and it was like, ‘Oh, yep, there we go,’” Griffin says.
Hotz said he and the band tracked the album in a day and a half at his Archetype Recordings studio in north central Omaha, and each track was recorded in about one or two takes to capture Pagan Athletes’ live sound.
“If a band has good-sounding instruments that suit their style, tuned well, and can perform their well-arranged music flawlessly,” Hotz says, “I don’t really have to do much besides set up mics in the right spot and capture it faithfully, and then balance the levels and tones to their liking.”
The resulting LP is sparse, with minimal overdubbing or layering, clearing room for Nathan’s bombastic drums and Griffin’s lurching keyboard notes to make all the impact. It bustles along through its 10 tracks, barely leaving time for a listener to comprehend what’s happening from song to song.
“I was really impressed by both their raw chops on their instruments and the composition of the songs,” Hotz says. “I don’t hear a lot of music that has that sort of energy anymore.”
Two sides of punk
Today, the Wolf brothers are students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha — Nathan a junior with a jazz studies major and Griffin a freshman studying sociology. They live at their parents’ house in central Omaha — it’s a quick drive to UNO’s campus, and in the basement is where Pagan Athletes continue to conspire. Their practice space is a tiny room painted bright orange, with just enough room for a two-piece. Their dad’s extensive instrument collection doesn’t hurt to have around either.
If they were to alter their environment, it could disrupt their chemistry as a duo. They say there’s an intangible relationship when they’re playing together that lets them feed off each other and change course during a portion of a song.
“I don’t think a lot of rock bands have that level of interplay or that level of communication where you can change your idea as you’re playing it,” Griffin says.
They are brothers after all, and of course that relationship extends beyond playing music together. They enjoy similar video games, similar memes, similar anime, which features prominently in the branding for Pagan Athletes’ album release show. They’re not taking things too seriously, but they acknowledge that it’s important for them to create a specific impact in their songs: to marry the spontaneity of improvisation with the predictable structure of a well-composed song.
“I hate to get all philosophical, but it’s like dialectics, you know? Where it’s chaos and structure,” Griffin says. “Those two things cannot exist without each other in Pagan Athletes.”
Pagan Athletes’ album release show is Friday, Nov. 5 at OutrSpaces, featuring Verb The Noun, Ben Eisenberger and Kyle Jessen.