Tim Woulfe has been taking a tip from his unconscious. Just as the sleeping mind gleans images from memory and gives them new life in dreams, Woulfe’s recently self-released album, The Sleep Cycles, resuscitates recordings from the places he’s been to. Musique concrète pieces occasionally achieve a delicate seamlessness—they let disparate sounds from myriad sources flatten and coalesce, giving rise to distinct senses of place. Keeping with this ethos, Woulfe has spun whole worlds. And from these worlds emerge songs with unflinching pop melodies and intimate lyrics.
Woulfe has issued one prior full-length and an extended compilation of his own on Apollonian Sound (which is home also to recent releases by Fraternal Twin and Sitcom, among others), but The Sleep Cycles is the most thematically driven. It’s also the most labor-intensive; he spent most of this past summer in his home state of Rhode Island, writing and recording, and then completed the album in Olympia with drummer Mike Ditrio, who also mastered the album. It was mostly a solitary endeavor, influenced by his proximity to the water and the woods (he spent a lot of time protecting his dogs from coyotes) and, consequently, his interior life.
The Sleep Cycles was also part of an effort to cope with a bad bout of insomnia. Turns out it was sometimes too effective—he recalls listening to the masters on the bus home from work at five o’clock and almost dozing off. Now that he’s moved to Philadelphia, he’s sleeping much better. Woulfe currently resides in Mt. Airy, a neighborhood of Northwest Philadelphia that’s accessible by regional rail. So I make plans to meet him there, and after passing through a long stretch of abandoned warehouses, I reach a place that felt far removed from the city, a neighborhood of old, spacious Victorian and Tudor-style houses shrouded in trees.
There, Woulfe and his partner Nora Einbender-Luks, who co-runs the label Apollonian Sound with him and their friend Elaiza Santos (of 100% and Crying), live in neighboring houses. The three of us spend the evening together making a dinner of yakisoba and vegetables and sifting through Woulfe’s record collection. It’s as eclectic as his own work, which he describes to me as “somewhere between ambient music, dance music, and Pacific Northwest folky stuff.” To which Nora says, laughing, “That’s what you say when people ask.”
Woulfe replies, “Whenever someone asks me I say something different, and it makes me just want to play rockabilly or something so I can say, like, ‘Oh, I just play far-out rockabilly.’”
Sitting on his bed in the cozy basement apartment, Woulfe tells me that he intended for The Sleep Cycles to narrate the course of one night’s sleep. The record begins, “Lying in bed / Looking out the window and trying to fall asleep.” The opening track is a lullabye of sorts, with white noise beneath soothing vocals. From here each song moves us through the sleep cycle, which includes a series of dreams. Woulfe’s voice is sometimes far off, sometimes close, always working in careful interplay with some other element of the song.
“Slipping Into It” pairs gorgeous, muted keyboard lines with Ditrio’s off-kilter percussion, which calls to mind Phil Elverum’s drumming on records like The Microphones‘ Mount Eerie, a record that Woulfe says taught him to record. And then “Riptide” is the first dream, “the one where you get lost,” and it takes us underwater. “I grew up on the water,” Woulfe says, “so that’s the most important thing to me—and kind of the only thing I don’t like about Philadelphia. There’s no ocean. But I can deal with that. Returning to Rhode Island from Brooklyn, I just went to the water every day. I would go swimming as much as possible, and go to the beach as much as possible, and that’s where I’m happiest.” Water is at the heart of the record, permeating everything, seeping between songs via field recordings of crashing waves and making its way into the lyrics. It’s crept into Woulfe’s subconscious.
On the heels of “Riptide” is the second dream, “Gentle Century”, which Woulfe says recalls him remembering one of his old songs in a dream “and getting it completely wrong, mixing it up with other songs. Another song is quoted on that. It’s weird memories of my own music coming up and getting warped.” There’s a pervasive unrest that continues when, in the following song, Woulfe narrates a darker dream—a night terror—the inspiration for which came from a startling waking experience. “There’s a spot in Rhode Island underneath this huge bridge, and you can go down on a full moon and sit by the water, and it’s really beautiful. It ends at the water and there’s a circle where you can turn around and drive back up. One time I was there and this car just sped down and then turned around and sped right back up, and almost hit me and my friends.”
He leads us out of the nightmare that they narrowly escaped, and the album closes on “Be Clarity”, which feels like stepping out of the house and into the sun after a tumultuous night. “I just get so tired at 2pm each day / So I walk down to the water / Throw myself into the bay,” Woulfe sings over the sway of light cymbals and billowing instrumentation, in what might be a more serene reprise to “Riptide”. So many of Woulfe’s lyrics are remarkably simple, and all the more affecting for this reason. At times it’s like he’s speaking directly to us, a source of comfort.
“If I can’t live in that brilliant light / I will carry with me that state of mind, deeper clarity,” he pledges steadily to the accompaniment of Rachel Gordon (of Nine of Swords and Baby Mollusk) and Einbender-Luks. Writing the song, Woulfe had in mind something John Waters said in an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous. “[Waters] stayed in Baltimore his whole life, and he was talking about how much more interesting everything would be if everyone stayed where they grew up.” Waters pictured a world in which, “If you wanted to go on Letterman you would have to go to Indiana or something like that, instead of just going to New York or L.A.”
“I really love Rhode Island, and all my dreams pretty much take place in Rhode Island, but there isn’t much of a place there for me, at least right now. So it’s mainly about remembering why I love Rhode Island, and remembering what’s most important to me, wherever I end up. When I was in Brooklyn, I didn’t have anything that I loved, and it was really hard for me to be there. [It’s important] trying to find a place where I can be near friends and be able to get a job but still have access to the things that I really love. All those songs take place in Rhode Island, and ‘Be Clarity’ is wherever I wake up.”
Landscape is at the core of The Sleep Cycles; just as dreams gather material from everything in memory, the songs cull their sound material from places Woulfe has visited across the country. Woulfe got into the habit of taking field recordings and listening to them through his headphones as a calming technique. Now it’s a habit. At the end of “(Outside Unfolding)”—a track of rolling synths and pacing drums—amid moving water a voice exclaims, “Here we are at Dragon’s Mouth! Mud volcano…” He took this recording at Yellowstone, of a woman who was documenting her own experience there on tape. Woulfe discounts nothing for material. Everything has its place in the mix, including, in the first track, “a squirrel that was either in heat or in pain—I’m pretty sure she was in heat. She was in a trellis outside my parents’ front door, just crying. That’s the weird screech on that one.” In addition, he’s made sounds of his own, just by playing with items in his vicinity. These slip into the record every now and then, in order to reflect the familiar feeling of lying down in bed and suddenly hearing the outside world more acutely. “When everything’s quiet, everything else gets amplified.”
The spirit of the record ultimately seems deeply in touch with the spirit of the original musique concrète composers—attending to disparate sounds and giving them new life, making a new environment of them. Woulfe integrates the sounds of the places he’s experienced into songs that otherwise would function alone as simple pop or folk tunes. He tells me that his interest in incorporating field recordings was inspired in part by “Footprints in the Snow” by Disco Inferno, which brings a simple repeated piano melody into play with a rousing pool of sounds that elevate it to a different atmosphere.
Actually, Woulfe cites a whole trove of influences. There’s Mount Eerie and things much further afield—all of which are worth noting due to the sheer amount of stock that Woulfe places in them. As he says, “Every song is a huge playpen of influences, just a bunch of tiny versions of my favorite musicians playing around with each other.” He shares with me a “Sleeper’s Digest Mix” that he put together at the outset of making the album. The songs on the mix range from electronic productions with danceable beats (this Vito Ricci track; John Moran’s take on Arthur Russell) to Smog’s sweet and folky duet “Driving” with pummeling drums.
He plays us the 1983 track “Mon Amour” by Alvi & the Alviettes, an entrancing minor-key song of haunting vocals over the sound of streaming water and that fades into a dance song for about twenty seconds before leading out, and the immediacy and strangeness of it feels appropriately channeled into his own music. Also included in the Sleeper’s Digest is a track by French artist Colleen, who Woulfe calls a personal hero and to whom the third song on the album is indebted. She plays the viola da gamba, a Baroque period viola, “but she does dub recording techniques with it and sings over it,” he says. “It’s some of the best music.”
Though a good portion of the music was made before his time, Woulfe notes he’s been especially affected by contemporaries Julie Doiron, Flashlight O, Blood Orange, and Caethua, and by his peers from college. Just last winter he graduated from SUNY Purchase, where he started Apollonian Sound in his sophomore year. Originally he was going to call the label Dichotomy, based on the Nietzschian idea of the Apollonian and Dionysian, and it would include “Apollonian releases, which would be really clean and poppy, and then Dionysian releases, which would be really noisy and abrasive.” Laughing, he tells me he ultimately dismissed the idea since he couldn’t bring himself to run a label called Dichotomy, but kept Apollonian Sound, on which he released his first record, a one-sided 7-inch of the lead single from his 2013 debut LP.
There’s emphasis on being alone with oneself and the natural world on The Sleep Cycles, but Apollonian Sound is hardly a solitary effort, and Woulfe has devoted much of his time to connecting with other people. Though recently on somewhat of a hiatus, the label has grown considerably since its inception three years ago, and both Einbender-Luks and Elaiza Santos have become integral to the project. The trio have since devoted a fraction of their time to putting out thoughtful records by friends and people whose music they admire, and significantly, a portion of the proceeds benefit charity.
Woulfe mentions he doesn’t presently have plans to release this album on tape, but fortunately it’s the sort of record that will stick in the mind long after it’s been played, even long after it’s apparently been forgotten. It creates an undercurrent that carries. Woulfe affirms in the final song, “Even if it’s unfamiliar skies, I will move as one with that state of mind, let it billow around me.” While these words are a reminder to the rest of us to be present and bring the things we love with us, they’re also an avowal of what’s so special about Woulfe’s work: in the end, you can take it with you.