Members: Chris Lowe (electric guitar, vocals), Eleot Reich (drums, lead vocals)
Interviewee: Eleot Reich
Occupation: Singers, Songwriters
Current release: Volk's debut album Cashville is out on Romanus.
Recommendations: The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor; On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
If you enjoyed this interview with Volk, visit their website for everything you ever wanted to know about them.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Eleot: Music was always inspirational but it wasn’t until my early twenties that I realized it could serve as a voice for me. I went to school for theatre, and by the end of it I was ready to work in a less precious culture of storytelling. I was really attracted to the challenge of telling a story in more or less three minutes. I felt like anyone could come to a concert and “get it” and feel connected. That was thrilling for me. It automatically broke down certain social and intellectual barriers.
As a songwriter, in the beginning, I was very attracted to the blues as written by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Big Mama Thornton. I loved how they sang about life in disguises, in saucy anecdotes. I grew up listening to tons of Tom Waits because he is my mother’s favorite artist. I loved his theatricality obviously, and his intentional lack of perfection. When VOLK began, I was very inspired by The Gories (who I found through deep-diving Jack White’s history in Detroit), because two of the three members had never really played their instruments beforehand. It was so completely punk and full-hearted.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Eleot: My development as a musician has always been rooted in live performance. Practicing, yes of course, but in the beginning open mics were my training ground. I still miss them sometimes. You just never know who you’re going to see.
In Berlin, we mostly played the English-leaning open mics. They taught me to be myself, and that by following what I love I will inherently attract others. Not that that is the intent, but I think it’s similar to how they say you have to love yourself before anyone else can. Other than that, our motto has always been to fail and then fail better. Nothing has been more important to our growth as a band.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Eleot: That’s a great fucking question. I actually think it tends to get in the way. But if I’m being honest, my sense of self and my creativity are constantly shifting. As an independently managed duo we wear so many hats. I’m slowly learning how to navigate them all.
I have found (this past year especially) that I need to be very intentional and precious about my writing. Not because I want to write something profound but because it simply helps me focus. I need a quiet space in solitude. But also, I am never more inspired to write than after an electric show; a show where I feel really connected to my audience, where we all transcend our every-day life and become one for a moment. I think I’m always fishing for that.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Eleot: Oh god, at first it was all technical, and that was incredibly refreshing. Learn how to play guitar, and a bit later on, learn how to play the drums. Studying my favorite songs and asking myself, what do I love about them? Right now, I am much more stuck in the philosophy of storytelling. To write from my own experience, to fantasize; what makes more sense? Chris and I know what our sound is as VOLK. We can arrange almost any song and make it our own in time. The question has evolved from, “how do we do this,” to “what do we need to say today.”
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Eleot: A lot has changed for VOLK in terms of instruments, and a lot hasn’t changed for us in terms of the recording process.
We started with two guitars and a piece of wood with a tambourine nailed to it that I used to stomp on. Now, Chris plays a Gretsch hollow-body, and I play drums on a Ludwig kit. But since the beginning we’ve always been interested in capturing something as close to our live performance as possible. We tend to only record songs we’ve spent months playing in front of an audience. The song will inevitably change. We love that, and we want to capture it in its lived context.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Eleot: Other than learning to play the drums, our most profound evolution as a band was when Chris started broadening his tone by connecting his bass amp and guitar amp with split signals. Basically enough low thump to move the song but plenty of mids and screeching highs to make people listen. It allowed us to sound like a four person band. I think from that moment on we’ve really stepped into our own. It’s a crucial part of our sonic identity.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Eleot: VOLK is rooted in total collaboration. Chris and I could not be more different. It’s our bloodline as a band to find a way to co-create. To us, that’s the beauty of the whole effort. Even if someone has written a complete song, the melody, chords, lyrics, and so on, what the other person adds once it’s arranged is crucial. We never give individual songwriting credits for that reason. Whatever is eventually recorded and released is deemed a product of VOLK.
In terms of creative preferences, they are constantly changing. Sometimes we share soundbites of ideas, sometimes the whole shabang. We know nothing is complete until it has made it past our rehearsal room and into the club. And even then, it has a ways to go!
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Eleot: Chris and I have spent the past year working our Nashville jobs in the midst of our musical career, due to the pandemic. That has been insane, to the say the least. But we’re grateful to be able to use it to invest in VOLK. We both have long weekdays at work, but we carve out our evenings for creation and rehearsal when we can. In our world, nothing is separate.
I’ve learnt how to juggle out of necessity. It can help to cut out the preciousness of creating. Sitting down in our garage/rehearsal space with a clear intention set demands our total attention and I love that. There’s less focus on failure and more focus on making.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Eleot: When we opened for Charley Crockett in June of 2019, it was like a sign from above that what we had created was working. We had some die-hard country fans in the palm of our hands. We could play our smasher “Honey Bee” and cover Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Snake Farm” in the same set. They dug it. It was like fulfilling some kind of country-punk prophecy. So often we’re stuck in this weird liminal area, where we’re too rock for country, and we’re too country for rock. That night, we were just perfect.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Eleot: Personally, the flow for me is stronger when I’m writing with clear intentions. Whether that has to do with what the person in the song wants, or what I want, it’s all the same to me. However, what I think a song is about almost certainly shifts. And that’s the magic. I can’t squeeze the song to make it better.
For me, my songs need to have an organic development. I can always tell when I’m pushing a song too far. Some days I think the best thing you can do for your writing is take a walk.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Eleot: I think if we can intellectually let go of the “worth” of music, we can let it have its way with us. Music is vibration. It literally moves us whether we want it to or not. Music already brings us together. I’m interested in its ability to create impossible communities that may have otherwise not existed.
I actually think music can help build the revolution my country needs. We are so beyond healing. The kind of damage the USA has afflicted upon BIPOC, no one can heal from.
But we can uproot it. Punk speaks truth. Punk testifies. Punk breaks open new possibilities. Punk plants new seeds. VOLK strives towards cowpunk, because it believes in a radically different future.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Eleot: I don’t think it’s ever right to culturally appropriate. There’s no justification for it. I think it has to be wrapped up in one’s identity. We chose VOLK as our band name for a multitude of reasons. I understand its most popular historical root in genocidal language in Germany, and as a part of my own heritage (my father’s family immigrated to America from Bochum in the 50s) and I want to uproot that. We say it stands for “folk” and “voltage.”
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Eleot: I’ve been lucky enough to meet someone who hears in color. I think it speaks to the versatility of our senses that we have numbed down through our increased use of technology. Being in nature certainly heightens my own senses. The wind holds energy. The sun is alive. In the end, I think they remind us that we are all of one energy. While performing on stage, I strive to somehow connect all our energies into something greater than we were before.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Eleot: I want to make art that is vulnerable, self-aware, political, and sweaty. I don’t want perfection. That isn’t real. That isn’t life. My approach is to share my humanity with others in the hopes that they connect with it.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Eleot: Of course, I can’t write about this. But perhaps if you came to a VOLK show you would know the answer.