WOLFMOTHER with DEADBOY and ELEPHANTMEN at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Tuesday (May 16). $20. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Indio, California -- In the stifling desert heat, 6,000 Coachella festival-goers are crammed into a white canopied tent the size of a hockey rink. Clouds of ganja smoke float in the still air, cutting into an already limited oxygen supply.
Suddenly, singer Andrew Stockdale emerges onto the stage and gives a shy little wave to the deafening roar that welcomes him. He flashes a confounded smile to his bandmates, drummer Myles Heskett and bassist/keyboardist Chris Ross, before cueing the opening to Dimension, the first cut from their debut and, fittingly, a song about losing your mind in the desert.
Three weeks earlier, I was sitting with Stockdale in a boardroom at the newly christened MTV studio in the Masonic Temple. Leaning back in his chair, he's wearing a faded Dark Side Of The Moon T, threadbare 60s-style striped pants and a bouncing, errant afro.
Stockdale looks like a relic from another era, and his band is the time machine. Their riff-heavy take on 70s stadium rock has led to endless Sabbath and Zeppelin comparisons that I assume at this point would be annoying for Stockdale. But with his no-worries Australian demeanour, he sees them as mutually beneficial.
"If anything, we've done a great service to those bands," smiles Stockdale. "So many bands have given them a bad name over time. We've come along and people enjoy what we're doing because it's really pure; it's from the heart, and we believe in it. Now people aren't afraid to say they love those older bands."
Shockingly, albums like Physical Graffiti or Paranoid weren't even the blueprints for Wolfmother, who only two years ago moved away from a misguided mix of funk, rock and folk. The trio spent nearly six years toiling as uncommitted Sydney musicians just jamming for kicks. But endless riffing and everyone's reluntance to assume microphone duties were leading the band nowhere.
"We never wrote a song," says Stockdale of the meandering years spent discovering their sound. "We would just turn up and start playing, but we didn't know how to write songs, and no one wanted to sing. Occasionally Chris would try, but it would be out of key or just some mumbling; it didn't seem like anyone felt comfortable doing it. So when we finally started doing shows as Wolfmother, I put my hand up and said, "I'll do it. '"
Stockdale's falsetto sounds highly accomplished for someone claiming to be a vocal novice. His voice on the radio hit Woman or epic mystical rocker White Unicorn strikes an impressive balance between a reckless wail and a tightly reined-in melodic instrument. Stockdale recalls the decisive moment when he came into his own artistically.
"I always thought my voice wasn't exciting enough because I used to sing in a low register," explains Stockdale. "It didn't really work, and I couldn't nail it. Same with the lyrics they were a bit lame. By the time I got to the stage when we started Wolfmother, I thought that if I was going to be the singer I had to come up with something. I just went for this higher register, and that seemed to get the ball rolling."
A Wolfmother handler enters the room, sheepishly reminding Stockdale of the time. In a few hours the trio will play live in front of a studio audience, broadcast to millions.
Stockdale says he doesn't mind playing on TV but dreads the interview portion. Apparently, the pressure to be funny on TV can be daunting.
As he's led away, he turns around to give me a shy little wave, right before the studio doors slam shut behind him.