Words by David C. Obenour
Continuing their explorations through our solar system, Upper Wilds are back with Venus. Thrown off course by adventures planned and otherwise has made this three years since their last album was release. Comprised of Love Song #1-10, melody and dissonance clash together in a triumphant mix of fuzz and beats. Conceived before the pandemic, created during it and now released as we start to emerge once again – Venus is aspirational to the things that we can create when working together.
Off Shelf: Throughout COVID I have been starting all my interviews off with checking on how you’re doing. Now that we seem to be on the recovery, I still wanted to ask – how have you been holding up? The last year has definitely been odd and challenging in ways that we’re all unfamiliar with.
Dan Friel: I think that’s a great policy. I’m holding up ok. The state of the world remains terrifying, but my family got off relatively easy. I got to spend a lot of time with my 8-year-old son, making me way better at Pokemon, Magic: The Gathering, D&D, and Minecraft than I ever would have been otherwise.
OS: That said, how do you think this period has affected you as an artist? Did writing or recording Venus feel like a marked departure in any way to how you have approached an album before?
DF: I had more time to focus on music than ever before, but at a time when it seemed like the world was ending, which all had a very Twilight Zone/Monkey’s Paw feel to it. I think I’m lucky that I already had a big musical project underway, and that they were tunes that felt defiantly joyful in contrast to the gloom around them. The sadness didn’t quite seep into the songs, but the need to push back against it did.
OS: I was struck by a comment you said in our interview on Fanfare, that you didn’t feel joyous at the time but you wanted to. Was that still the reality you were still struggling with for Venus or was the dynamic different this time?
DF: If anything it was more of that.
OS: It has been three years since the last Upper Wilds album. Have you been active since that time with Jason and Jeff? How did the stars start to align for the new album?
DF: The rough timeline is that we played a bunch of shows after “Mars” came out in October ’18, then took a break while Jeff rode a motorcycle to Alaska and I made a 2019 solo album. We started work on Venus in the fall of 2019, planning to record last spring, and ended up recording everything remotely after COVID hit. There was definitely a period of feeling out how things would work remotely, but I think it gave us something positive to work towards when everything outside was extremely fucked up.
OS: There’s more of framework of indie rock present, but that aside – how do you feel playing with Jason and Jeff shapes and changes the music you play?
DF: I think their rhythm section is key to what makes this album special, notably on the first big entrance, but all throughout. I’m sometimes bad about trying to crank out song after song, and they made sure we actually thought through the details and personality that make music worth repeated listens.
OS: What excites or challenges you about the music you make together?
DF: Making rock music that doesn’t just completely suck in 2021 is probably the biggest challenge.
OS: The songs do such an amazing job of balancing structure and unhinged instrumentation. Can you talk about finding that balance of raw emotion in playing and accessibility from songwriting?
DF: Chaotic riffs and sounds are the part that comes naturally. I think of the songwriting as a life-long process of trying to communicate through all that static in my head.
OS: Named Venus, after the God of Love and with song titles Love Song #1-10, can you talk about your inspiration in the album and song titles?
DF: The band is space/spacerock themed, and we’re making a series of albums named after the planets (not the gods, specifically). Venus comes with more baggage, but also more lyrical potential, than most chunks of rock orbiting the sun. Especially after the last year, making a big, chaotic, loving, concept-album seemed appropriate. I use aspects of the planet Venus in the lyrics a bunch, but I also reference various love stories, including me and my wife, my cousin and her husband staying strong while she worked as a trucker during COVID, a couple of ’90s astronauts that hid their marriage from NASA, and the Heaven’s Gate couple that stayed behind to run the Heaven’s Gate website.
OS: Also, the last time I saw you was about four months before the pandemic hit – playing a show in Columbus, Ohio – what have you found yourself missing about performing live? Do you feel comfortable heading back out yet?
DF: That 2019 mini-tour feels so amazing in retrospect. I miss seeing those friends. I miss playing shows, I miss telling jokes while driving to shows, I miss going to shows, and it’s great to have some of it happening, responsibly, again. Upper Wilds first show this year is our outdoor record release show next month. After that we’ve got a few roadtrips booked for the fall, which I feel comfortable about, and excited. AND – we’re playing that exact same place you saw me in 2019, this October, almost exactly two years later. Can’t wait.
OS: You’ve collaborated and played with a number of exciting people over the years, did you rekindle any other relationships over the last year that you might hope to see new projects from?
DF: Not really, although I did a big project in April 2020 where I took requests on Instagram and turned some of it into a benefit EP. That wasn’t really collaborating, but giving friends and strangers exactly what they wanted felt like the best I could offer the world in that moment, and I learned a lot from it.