Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Albi & The Wolves push the parameters

The trio that refers to themselves as Albi & The Wolves could best be described as a band wholly guided by their instincts. Known in their native New Zealand for their energetic performances, verve, and variety, they make a point of pushing the parameters as far as their string band sound can take them. 

Relying solely on acoustic guitar, double bass, electric violin, and voices, they propel their music with a firm stomp and shout. The band — Chris Dent (otherwise known as “Albi”), Pascal Roggen, and Micheal Young — bring their individual influences into the mix, resulting in a remarkable reputation that continues propelling them forward. It also helped them garner a win for 2018‘s Best Folk Artist award at the New Zealand Music Awards. Now, on the heels of their debut album One Eye Open, their new single This Is War, is gaining them further notice, an upbeat entry that focuses on the difficulties dealing with a toxic relationship fraught with frustration and recrimination. It’s also the title track of their recently released sophomore set.

Clearly, Albi & The Wolves have found their own niche within the realms of grassicana, but they’re reticent to limit their sound to any decided definition.

“That (grassicana) sounds like the best description of what we are trying to do,” Dent replies when the comparison is made. “I think that because we come from a little island, there are less restrictions on what we’re allowed to do. As a result, we have subconsciously cherrypicked different elements of both bluegrass and grassicana simply by making the music we wanted to make, and we hope that the result is uniquely our own. Thanks for the new tag… we might just try to make that a new thing!”

Dent’s early influences came about practically by osmosis. It all began with the artists he encountered during his frequent visits to the Auckland Folk Festival. 

“From a young age, I was captivated by songs, and the way some artists were able to perfectly intertwine great stories and music into their sets,” he recalls. “Adam McGrath, a kiwi songwriter, is the master of this and I admire him very much. His shows are like musical sermons. It’s rather special. When I grew up and moved to the city, I was introduced to hip hop and indie rock, so now I’m influenced by a lot of different things. Currently I like Anderson Peak for his amazing stage performances and musicianship, Lake Street Drive for such impeccable vocal performances, and the Steeldrivers for making some of the catchiest bluegrass songs in history. I discovered those artists by exploring music with various bandmates as we drove between cities.”

The band first coalesced at the beginning of the decade at a bar in Kingsland, Auckland, which became the place they would rendezvous to scope their sound. 

“I knew Micheal and a former bandmate, Matt Owens, knew Pascal,” Dent recalls. “So in 2014, we climbed into Micheal’s ute and traveled around the country, playing bars and the occasional folk club. We’d play long sets that would last around three hours, and in those, we’d throw in our few original songs. By the end of that summer we knew we had something special with the four of us, but as the years went on, people started moving in different directions, Matt left us sometime in 2016. Now we are a completely different band, and as the sound develops, so does our songwriting and our live show, which we think is getting better and better. We tour here and have a great fan base, but it’s been hard work and we have played almost anywhere and everywhere to get it.” 

Dent says that the band members’ individual tastes still place an indelible influence on their sound. “For me, I was brought up in a very white family going to folk festivals and listening to a wide variety of older styles of music, so playing in a string band feels natural to me,” he muses. “The thing is, aside from artists like Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan, Americana, folk, or country music is not common here. So unless you fall into it, you may not even know much about it. Micheal grew up in the States, so he’s been around this style of music his whole life. Pascal grew up with a classical background and had never attended a folk festival before playing in this band. So we were like his introduction to the genre. I don’t think there are many common threads between what you’d hear in New Zealand and what you’d hear in our genre of music at all.” 

Even so, despite the difficulties, Dent says that their audiences have been reacting well to their sound.

“Because what we are doing is not all that common in New Zealand, people are usually cautious when they first see us… especially if they haven’t before. By the end of an evening, we have mostly everybody on our side. To make our introduction, we have some great stories to tell across the sets, and if that doesn’t work, then we’ll just make people dance for a couple of hours to win them over. It is rather gratifying when we travel to Australia, where we have had nothing but overwhelming encouragement for what we are doing and the songs we make. It’s a different market but people seem to like us there.”

Inevitably, the band seem to tap a universal consciousness, and Dent insists that that’s helped forge a common connection. 

“It’s honest, heartfelt, and sometimes so damn groovy too,” Dent declares. “I think it’s the combination of great stories, lyrics, and musicianship that make it accessible to almost everyone who wants to feel a little or engage with music on a deeper level. I think mainstream music today is becoming so heavily produced that people are turning to alternative genres with a little more soul. It’s why I think this type of music will never really die.” 

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.