Actual Wolf perfects a rootless roots rock with 'Faded Days'

Eric Pollard

Eric Pollard Jack Torrey

It took Eric Pollard some rambling before he found his voice.

The vagabond musician left his hometown of Grand Rapids for Nashville in 2011 following a felony arrest for marijuana distribution. After those charges were reduced, he scooted off to Oakland, where he lives now, making music as the frontman of his rootsy indie band, Actual Wolf.

The band started as a side project while Pollard played drums in Alan Sparhawk’s Retribution Gospel Choir, but Actual Wolf is now Pollard’s primary focus, reborn as the road-weary lovechild of interstates and Rand McNally. In the years since leaving Minnesota, Pollard has roamed the U.S. collecting a band of fellow vision-seekers along the way.

In June, Actual Wolf released their second full-length, Faded Days, on St. Paul’s Red House Records. To bring his dusty American dream to fruition, Pollard brought in several Minnesotans—Jeremy Hanson (Tapes ’n Tapes, Tungsten), Jake Hanson (Gramma’s Boyfriend, 12 Rods), and Steve Garrington (Low)—along with Nashville pedal steel guitarist Ditch Kurtz. That band will gather again at the Turf Club on September 15 to launch the vinyl version of the record.

“A lot of the tracks of Faded Days, I stumbled into them,” Pollard says. “I wrote them all over the country. I wrote ‘Faded Days’ out here when I was on probation, and that was the catalyst for me to write the record.”

The title track came in a sudden rush to Pollard. In the past, he says, he’s indulged his tendency to overwrite, but the songs on Faded Days are markedly simpler than those on Actual Wolf’s 2015 record, Itasca. The opening song, “This City Is an Ocean,” consists of only five chanted words, and the revelatory “Faded Days” is nearly as spare.

Pollard thanks Sparhawk for teaching him that songwriting is editing, and he’s absorbed his former bandmate’s intense focus on effective language into his own work. Taking Sparhawk’s advice, he trimmed “Only Man” down from a 20-verse folk epic to a clean five-minute ballad of unobstructed love.

On the other side of the spectrum, Pollard has also picked up some tips from Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon singer Mark Kozelek, who he toured with in 2014. Kozelek’s stream-of-consciousness confessional style taught Pollard to keep his writing honest and unadorned.

“As you evolve and grow as a songwriter and write more songs, you learn to simplify your tunes to make them more effective,” Pollard says. “[Sparhawk and Kozelek are] two of the greatest living songwriters, and history will vindicate them. They do what all great, timeless songwriters do. They’re conversational. They feel like they’re talking to you. That was always in the back of my mind during Faded Days.”

Part of stripping back Actual Wolf for Pollard was refining the archetypes he relies on to communicate his message. He’s always styled Actual Wolf as a romantic desperado, an outlaw, and his felony charge still helps sell that image. But on Faded Days, he’s rounded out his persona, drawing from the work of Stephen Stills, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, and, most unapologetically, Neil Young.

The crowning statement on Faded Days is the third song, “Baby Please,” a tune that feels vintage yet immediate. On first listen it’s somewhat disorienting. You question your own memories, wondering if you’d heard it once on some staticky radio as a kid in your dad’s pickup, but its nuances set it apart from the musical recollections of your FM youth.

“It’s what I feel and what comes out of my head when I pick up a guitar,” Pollard says, adding that he double checks for infringement any time he writes something too similar to the greats. “I’m a northern dude from the Iron Range who loves the cold and loves to smoke dope and loves to play rock ’n’ roll. I dunno, man. To me, that’s the true essence of rock ’n’ roll.”

Pollard’s familiarity with past singer-songwriters hasn’t shackled him, though—in fact, it’s liberated him. With so many cultural bellwethers settled comfortably in his subconscious, Pollard has found a way to speak universally and personally in the same breath.

“Baby Please,” for instance, is Pollard’s translation of the Supremes’ classic “Where Did Our Love Go,” and on “Be My Love (American Hips),” Actual Wolf transforms the harmonious wonder of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” into a Western stomp with a synth line arpeggiating right down the middle.

“I was trying to write those two songs, and all of a sudden these two other songs came out,” Pollard says. “The way I do it is I do full demos. I might redo a song four or five times and just continually chip away at it. Simplify, and simplify the message.”

Pollard has never sounded more confident. He’s even so bold as to dig back into his own discography, emptying out his musical glove box to deliver new, livelier versions of “Kerosene & Spark” (originally from 2013’s Actual Wolf EP) and “Smothering Love” (originally from Itasca).

“I always go re-record two songs from a previous album on an album,” Pollard says of the exercise. “Like, ‘Kerosene & Spark,’ when we played it like we originally did, it just didn’t have the same vibe, but when we opened it up and put some guitar in it, people really liked it. ‘Smothering Love’ was recorded at like 2 or 3 in the morning, and everyone but me was super drunk and tired. I’d always heard both with a different vibe, so I wanted to recapture it.”

Much of Pollard’s growth has come through this idea of recapturing. He’s recaptured his freedom, and with it his love for wandering. He’s revisited his influences—from Sparhawk to Springsteen—and as a result his songwriting has transcended its antecedents. The music of Faded Days feels elemental, as though it’s appeared as naturally as the dirt kicked up in wind tunnels on I-90 in Montana.

Actual Wolf
With: Kid Dakota and Dosh
Where: Turf Club
When: 8 p.m. Fri. Sept. 15
Tickets: $10/$12; more info here