Mistaken Identity

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James Mercer

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ith three albums, a major record deal and a world tour all achieved before his twenty-fourth birthday, England's Patrick Wolf has accomplished enough in his short lifetime to make the rest of us want to throw out our TiVos. Yet despite that intimidating resume, he's a delight in conversation, wavering between shyness and overeager loquacity, and talking to him feels more akin to breathlessly chatting with your first high school crush rather than quizzing an up-and-coming indie celebrity. But indie celeb he'll be, with live performances that involve more costume changes than an entire Broadway musical (and probably more sequins). The Magic Position combines electronic danceability with British folk-pop to unbelievably catchy effect, but Wolf's somber baritone reminds you that he's not bringing sexy back any time soon. Well, maybe he is, but on his own terms, and possibly involving lots of glitter. Wolf spoke to Nerve about wardrobe malfunctions, his non-specific sexual identity, and what he doesn't want for his upcoming birthday. — Ann Emory

We have the same birthday. It's you, me, and Mike Tyson.


Debbie Harry's a day after.

So you're not even twenty-four and you've written three albums.
Well, I started when I was sixteen, so right now I feel fucking ancient. I've been living the way you live when you get out of university since I was sixteen, not twenty-three. I don't really feel that young.

When did you write your first song?
When I was about six years old, my sister and I had this Fisher-Price tape recorder and a Yamaha keyboard. But I started writing songs from my heart when I was eleven.

The Magic Position is less introspective and melancholy than Lycanthropy and Wind in the Wires. There are a lot of songs, like "Bluebells," that document a really intense, maybe even naïvely infatuated relationship.
The lyrics on Magic Position are so extroverted. With the other albums, there's no sense of a relationship with other people. This new album is climactic since I broke up with the person the album's about just days before we started mixing the songs. So there was again this period of being a solitary unit. I think while writing Magic Position, I'd also just experienced the world more. I'd been on tour, I wasn't just one person, I'd been in a band with four or five people, and it was a very communicative two years.

Touring Wind in the Wires was hard, because it was written about an extremely negative two months of my life, and it got me really depressed. I didn't feel like I was inspiring anyone. I didn't want to go on tour and make people feel like shit. I wanted to make people feel happy because they're paying money to hear music.

"I don't like that word 'ambiguous.' I like boys and girls, that's not hard to understand."

And I wanted to share how I felt.

It never seems like there's a division between your performance and your actual personality. There's no sense of a theatrical construct.
It really scares me, though. I think there's been three shows in the past four years where I've been nervous by the time I've got on to the stage itself. I'm so comfortable on stage that I could just sit there and do my nails. Much less enervating than going on a date with someone to a restaurant.

At your Hiro performance, I was at the bar when you'd taken off your shirt and underneath it was this shiny sequined top, and the guy beside me said, "I bet he does that to get girls." In the indie-rock community, male performers can be hyper-effeminate, but all the pining for girls just reiterates old hetero norms.
That's been the most annoying thing over the past four years. Obviously there are some artists who have controversial sexualities. It's great that they have used that to their advantage, like David Bowie, or Madonna. Everyone wants to believe musicians and artists are making controversial statements. And sure, there still aren't equal rights in the world, between black and white people, female and male, or gay and straight, and something always has to be said about that. There are still people being murdered over it, like those two boys kissing in Egypt. And in America, the right-wing Christians are ridiculous. I feel a responsibility as musician who likes girls and boys to be strong and to speak about these things. There are some artists now that feel that they almost have to hide what they do because they believe people will focus on personal issues and not them as an artist, but I don't agree with that.

Does anyone in your industry ever just get fed up and say, "Pick! Gay or straight?"
You get that your whole life. Especially in gay culture, if you like girls and boys then you're hiding something. Same with straight people. And the media is like an exaggerated version of the worst of society. I don't like that word "ambiguous" as well. I know David Bowie touts that, but if you ask me what I did last night, I'll tell you. If you don't, then you don't get answers, and then I'm still an enigma, and they assume I'm ambiguous. But it's just because they don't breach the subject. I like boys and girls, that's not hard to understand, but they'd rather use a stereotype when they shouldn't.

Since I was twelve years old I knew I was pretty different, and I never really felt part of a musical movement. In the same way, I don't want to be part of some sexual identity. It gives me more space to be inspired by lots of different things, you know? To be a voyeur of lots of different cultures and not have the restrictions of being part of any of them.

At Bowery Ballroom you covered Kate Bush, which I found interesting because you usually contest the constant comparisons people have made between you and her.
Nobody ever compares male musicians to females. I'm one of the first [artists] where that's happened, and I'm really proud and happy. I've been really influenced by strong, creative females. My mother is a great artist. I find a lot of times, poetically and emotionally, that women communicate a lot better. If I'm ever compared to a female musician, I'm really happy with that.

Who are the male musicians you're most often compared to?
The Smiths, which I never understand. I've never bought a Smiths album in my life. Morrissey and I both have thick eyebrows, and that's just about it.
I saw you play at Benicàssim in 2004, and the fly of your pants broke. You just took it in stride, but have you suffered from any worse wardrobe malfunctions?
They happen all the time! I buy used clothes from the thrift store and don't wash them, and they're all musty and decrepit. And then I'll put them on right before I go on stage and my pants'll split. Sometimes I'll just show up to perform with nothing to wear, so I've become really good at improvising with what I've got. When I get up on stage, I don't have any shame or embarrassment. If something splits on stage, it's for a reason.

What's up with your unicorn tattoo?
It's from an old French tapestry that I saw when I was younger in a museum, and it felt really really strong. And I chased it down, found it on a print, put it on my first record when I was seventeen, and it's on every record since then. It was a present to myself when I was about to go on tour, and I was at the end of my second record, and I'd been on the road and seen the world. And everyone had said before, "You'll never get a record out, you're crazy, how dare you leave school!" and all that stuff, and I'd achieved it, I'd done it on my own terms. It's to remind myself that I made the dream come true.
Do you have groupies?
I find that sort of offensive. If you're into the whole rock ‘n roll thing, that's fine, and fun, but my music is too personal for me to want to use it like that. I like to have conversations with people after shows. I don't need anything like groupies. That's not my scene. I almost get annoyed if anyone in my band ever does that. If I really respected somebody's work, I wouldn't really want to have sex with them — I'd rather just appreciate their music. That's how a good artist should want to communicate.

It's interesting that you want to have a strong division between respecting someone for their music and wanting to get involved with them personally.
I'm inspired by Tracy Emin's work. She takes everything from her life — be it a really traumatic experience, or a really boring experience — and turns it into her artwork. There's nothing going on behind the scenes because you get it all from her art. With me, in interviews and on stage and in the record, I've already given everything. So when I meet somebody, I hope to feel like I have nothing more to communicate.

Are you seeing anyone currently?

You recently speculated about moving to New York.
I feel very comfortable there, and I have some really good friends there. I was born in London and did as much I can there in twenty-two years. I need to change things up, throw old ideas out and start again. It would be nice to live in a different city.

What do you want for your birthday?
I don't know! When I left home at sixteen, none of my friends could afford birthday presents, so I don't really get presents. Presents is more of an American thing — like your Mother's Day thing is insane. It's really amazing, there are songs about it on the radio, disco songs about Mother's Day. No one likes Mother's Day in England. It feels really extravagant and showy instead of just another way of communicating.  


To order The Magic Position,
click here.

© 2007 Annsley Chapman & Nerve.com