Nathan Wolf (left) and his brother Griffin rock the classroom as Pagan Athletes.
"I think of myself more as a fan thaN a musician"
Nathan Wolf is the New Face of Noise-Rock Drumming
By Clementine Moss
In Omaha, Nebraska, brothers Nathan and Griffin Wolf have been spending the pandemic holed up in the basement, writing songs for Pagan Athletes, the duo with Griffin on synthesizer and Nathan on drums. The band is a noisy, groove-laden explosion that was becoming an underground staple of the Omaha scene before house parties and rock shows took a hiatus.
Nathan’s drumming pushes the boundaries between jazz and noise rock, with a drum line background that quickens his hands, provides frenetic energy to the duo's songs, and fuels the unique sound of Pagan Athletes.
You started off playing guitar. When did you shift to drums?
I started playing guitar when I was seven or eight years old. My dad showed me a couple of chords, and left the rest for me to figure out. I didn’t really do a whole lot with that. I played talent shows in school, but I never really played guitar in a band.
I got into band in fifth grade, and I wanted to do percussion. I liked playing the bells and glockenspiel—that was fun—but doing the snare-drum stuff wasn’t fun. So I quit, and I started taking piano lessons instead. I played piano for six years, and I went back to percussion in middle school. I didn’t play the drum kit until high school. One of the people in the jazz band was graduating a semester early, and they needed another drummer to come play. That’s how I started playing drums.
Your hands are really fast.
I had drum line instructors, and they helped a lot. I learned you were supposed to play in a way that feels natural and comfortable, let the stick rebound, and manipulate the stick with your fingers. I got pretty serious about rudiments and working on speed in my senior year of high school. I’m kind of lazy about it now. Finger control is probably the only rudimental technical practice I do anymore.
So what does your current practice regimen look like?
When I do practice, I’m pretty good about playing with the metronome. However, I’ve mostly been playing along with songs. I figured, this is how a lot of the jazz greats learned to play—they just played to records over and over. I thought I'd try it, as well.
The big thing I’m trying to work on for drum set is the feel and time. I was watching a Steve Jordan video, and he said, "Just play the James Brown stuff. It’s the same drum beat for like seven minutes." I have a decent sense of time, but I’ve been working on the space between notes. That was my recent epiphany—I have to get the groove feel to good and make the song sound better.
Playing along to those early funk records is such great instruction.
There’s definitely a difference between playing in time to a metronome, and not necessarily keeping perfect time, but making it feel good. That’s the cool thing about James Brown's music. Playing to some of the Minutemen stuff is pretty helpful for that as well.
Do you like playing with a click?
It depends. It's a challenge playing the same part over and over again with a click, and getting it to feel good and natural, and not have to think about it.
How do you and Griffin go about writing the songs for Pagan Athletes?
Initially, I'd show Griffin some keyboard stuff, but he’s writing most of his parts now. Jamming is definitely a big part of it. We’re trying to make an effort to not write so many parts, and have more improvisation in the songs.
I really like the groove of the song “Jig.” I can feel that deep swing.
Thank you. I feel like I play a little on top of the beat, and my playing can be frantic. It still feels good to play that way, but I’m trying to get away from that now. I see the value in being simple, feeling good, and serving the music.
WATCH PAGAN ATHLETES!
Who are your big faves as drummers?
Tony Williams—although I can hardly play anything he does. His playing is just alien compared to everything else I’ve heard. It’s weird and floaty, but so intense. He has intent with everything he does, even though it may seem super off the cuff. I also like George Hurley [Minutemen], Dale Crover [Melvins], Todd Trainer [Shellac], Rashied Ali, and Art Blakey. Ikue Mori [DNA], as well. She was not technical, but she totally had her own thing that I feel a lot more people should have paid attention to.
What bands have influenced Pagan Athletes?
We don’t listen to a lot of the same music, so I think the only real crossover we have is Shellac—very simple rhythms, but heavy. I have no idea how Griffin comes up with some of the stuff he does, but McCoy Tyner is a big influence. He uses intervals in a particular way, and his note choice is very unique to him. Our idea was that it would be very cool to hear that in a loud rock-music context.
I like the way that you do vocals. People think the difficult thing about doing vocals while you’re drumming is the rhythm part of it, but that’s the easy part. The hard part is just being able to convey what you want to convey when you’re basically doing an athletic feat.
I definitely get that. On some songs, I initially couldn’t sing and play with Griffin. I had to spend a day or two by myself, trying to figure out where the syllables landed. In Cat Piss, I sing a lot more notes, and that’s very hard to do, because I can’t hear myself over the cymbals.
What bands are floating your boat right now?
I discovered this band Silkworm, which was the successor to Neil Young in a way—at least, that’s how I see them. Their drummer, Michael Dahlquist, played very simply. He never overplayed and was super in the pocket. Unfortunately, he died about 15 years ago. But I’ve been trying to recreate the feel he had—that hard-hitting, Bonham-esque stuff.
It’s funny how simplicity can be the highest plane sometimes. What people leave out, rather than put in, can be where the magic lies.
Are there particular patterns you’re aspiring to be able to play?
I guess for aspirations I’d say the [Bernard] Purdie shuffle. I can play it, but I'm still working on having it feel effortless. I really have to think when playing it. For the past two years, I've also been trying to learn this thing Tony Williams does on the Miles Davis album, E.S.P. When he plays the hi-hat, he'll do two hits. He'll like splash it with the foot, and then hit it again with his left hand while it's ringing out — all while keeping time with his right hand. It's just ridiculous. It sounds like an explosion.
One of the things that has always been difficult for me is to swing at very high speeds—that “Whole Lotta Rosie” [AC/DC] kind of stuff. My wrist locks up, and it’s really hard to keep it feeling good.
It’s a lot easier to play that kind of stuff on the ride cymbal. There’s more rebound. On the hi-hat, it’s all about finger control.
I noticed your hi-hat is really low. Mine is probably too high. You’re probably not wasting as much energy.
That was the idea. I noticed Elvin Jones had his pretty low, and I thought, "That would probably make it easier on yourself."
What drums are you playing?
It's a 1965 Slingerland kit. I definitely like smaller drums, because I can tune them high and they sing pretty well, but they’ll sound just as good with a lower tension. The snare is a Ludwig Acrolite.
When you think about your career at this point, are there particular things you’d like to see happen?
I’d like to record with Steve Albini. That’s the big one. Once I’ve done that, I’ve made it. I don’t really care about anything else. I always joke it’s my dream to have him turn to me in the studio, and say, "So Nate, how do the drums sound?"
Anything else you want to say about playing drums?
I think if everyone knew how to play drums, it would help everyone a lot. I've found musicians play more musically when they know how to play even a little bit of drums.
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Nathan Wolf’s 7 Inspirational Albums
Double Nickels on the Dime, Minutemen 
George Hurley totally does his own thing. It’s not quite fusion, and it's not quite punk drumming. He is playing what fits the mood of the music, and he has a really good loose, in-the-moment feel. Plus, it's like 45 songs in 80 minutes, so you get a lot of variety.
E.S.P., Miles Davis 
Tony Williams playing is so different from anything else at that time. The timekeeping is really loose, but not in a way that hurts the music. There's a great drum solo on “Agitation” that has this really cool, breathing, and pulsing quality. It's very impressive and inspiring to listen to. Tony refuses to play the clichéd jazz stuff. He avoids using the hi-hat to keep time, treating it more as another voice while he's improvising.
At Action Park, Shellac 
Everything Todd Trainer plays is very loud and simple, but stylistically unique, because of how much negative space he uses. It feels really good. The guitar and bass might be a little rhythmically complicated—at least for rock music—but Trainer still plays stuff that's pretty straight-forward. It just rocks out. Less is more.
A Taste of DNA, DNA 
What Ikue Mori is doing is so bizarre—some of it, I can't figure out. It's drumming more for texture rather than time, and there are no cymbals besides hi-hats. The band has some ambient, soundscape stuff going on, and she plays into that a whole lot. She's not necessarily playing a drum beat, she's playing lines that respond to what the bass is playing. It still makes musical sense, and it's as satisfying to hear as more traditional playing.
Rumble, Thee Michelle Gun Elephant 
This garage punk band from Japan is very inspired by the Who and blues. My dad was really into them around the time I was born, so I think this was the first music I was interested in. I listened to thee album recently, and it still holds up. Kazuyuki Kuhara is a solid rock drummer who is influenced by jazz, blues, and funk. He plays the crap out of the drums, and while he respects the tradition of Western music, he does it in his own, more extreme way.
Sang Phat Editor, U.S. Maple 
Drummer Pat Samson is kind of like Ikue Mori, because I can't describe the way he plays. This is such a bizarre band. The first time I heard them, I just didn't get it at all, and I never wanted to hear it again. The music reminds me of Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart, if it was made crazier by today's standards. Pat's drumming is so elastic. He plays very freely, and he'll either go way outside of where the time is, or he'll leave a lot of negative space. For example, he'll start playing a beat, stop for a measure, and start again. He refuses to play anything that makes sense, but it helps the music.
“Live” at the Village Vanguard Again!, John Coltrane 
Rashied Ali is so good, so natural, and so free in everything he does. I like the way he communicates with the band. This record is cool, because it's pretty much just “My Favorite Things” and “Naima.”