Many could be forgiven for thinking that Joe Volk had become part of the proverbial furniture of the great city of Bristol, with eighteen solid years under his belt contributing heavily to the music scene there. In fact, in 2001, Volk recounts a potential sliding door moment taking place, choosing to meet up with some of his old college crew, (George and Thomas Elgie and Will Smalley who formed the stoner rock outfit of the day, Gonga) and from that moment forward his life assumed a winding path of chance encounters, new connections and collaborations.
“Absolutely, the fork in the road was really when I met Gonga in the pub – almost any decision you make potentially has the power to take you off in any direction. Really the most powerful one for me was meeting Tom George and Will in the pub , knowing that they were going to ask me to sing in the band and going down there with the mindset to say no and then really thinking about it and realising: “what’s going to happen if you do this? You’re not going to implode on the stage,” and it wasn’t even a stage, it was a yert or something.”
It’s evident from the outset Joe Volk is someone you can find yourself whiling away hours chatting with. His immediate warmth in personality flows as he invites Cyclic to join him for a cup of tea over Skype from inside his home, where he’s located these days in of all places Berne, Switzerland. He’s visibly dismayed when he shares he’s currently sporting an injury. Nursing his left hand in a brace as it was recently operated on – his pinkie finger the single casualty of a horrific sounding bike incident which took place on the ice-laden roads of his new terrains. He’s also come to the interview after spending the few waking hours prior with his nine month old twins – Floyd and Solein. A man with as many occupations as he has stories, none least of these are his singer/songwriter solo career where he’s firming up the final stages of his latest album, Happenings and Killings. An album which he was due to tour this spring, now on hold while his finger heals and yet, his positivity continues to override.
“Yeah it means I can’t play the guitar at the moment… But it’s not the end of the world it could have been a lot worse if it was one of the other fingers – so I’m right handed, I do the chords with that hand, there are some chords that you can get further up the neck with that finger but yeah I think it should be alright. But it’s just been a bit of a pain in the ass with typing and the other work I do, two other people that I manage, having to type everything with one finger, get the children, washing up and changing nappies, just general day to day things.”
It might seem unusual to find an Englishman as established as Volk to now be living in the capital of Switzerland, but as far as Volk is concerned he’s content and categorically states that he moved to Berne for love. Married now to Swiss-native Miriam Wolf a vocalist he met via one of his many music collabs (this one with Crippled Black Phoenix) a band he was part of for a number of years throughout the mid noughties.
“There was never really an option in my brain really at least that I’d leave Bristol and always thought Miri was going to come to Bristol, but then after a while I realised that I should come here and how settled I’d become there and I thought it would be a wise decision to uproot my life and throw the dice on the table and go somewhere else and see what happened.”
He and Wolf now share the responsibility that raising twins brings and yet miraculously still manage to find time for pursuit of their individual careers. Wolf who provides vocals on a couple of the Happenings and Killings tracks is part of her own band (Unhold) as well she’s a part time lighting engineer at a local club a few nights a week while Volk is at home with the twins. Then during the daylight hours he’s busy. Filling his day by obviously making his solo record, visiting the library while also managing the burgeoning touring calendar and career of a refugee from Eastern Europe.
“He’s a virtuoso piano accordion player and he studied at this really high end music school in Hamburg and did a masters in improvisation here in Switzerland. He’s one of the first musicians I met that wasn’t through my wife and he played me the accordion and I’ve just never heard anyone manipulate the instrument in the way that he does. He’s very successful here in Switzerland and I’m now his manager for everywhere outside of Switzerland.”
Volk and Wolf also throw their energies behind hosting intermittent club nights at the same club where Wolf works. (Phew is anyone else exhausted after reading that?) A wonderfully active creative coupling who just seem to ride the wave of their crazy ‘to an outsider’s lens’ existence.
In fact as Volk speaks, there is a sense that there aren’t too many things he does these days that don’t come back to love or passion or family. He attributes the death of his father fifteen years ago to the significant realisation that he wasn’t going to pursue anything he didn’t love doing and luckily for Bristol that meant his gap year in Australia ended and he arrived back to pursue his musical career.
Volk has been fortunate to enjoy the guidance throughout his career of one person in particular. A rather influential fellow from the Bristol scene: Geoff Barrow, renowned for founding the record label Invada and part of Bristol trip hop act Portishead and now member to BEAK. This connection Volk feels is also a familial one and one that he holds and acknowledges as dear to his heart but that wouldn’t have come about if it wasn’t for the first encounter he had playing in that pub with Gonga.
“When I chose to do that, [perform with Gonga for the first time]the result was that I met Geoff and then through Geoff I met Aid [Utley] and then through Aid I recorded my album and then met Justin and Crippled Black Phoenix and through Justin [Greaves] I met Boris [Band]through Crippled Black Phoenix, I met Miriam and that’s why I’m in Berne and so really that would be… you could go further back (when I moved to Bristol) but that is really when it changed. We were just lucky with who we met and we were lucky that we met Geoff and Justin and Geoff was on hiatus from Portishead and he was just in Bristol. It’s not like any of them moved to London and started hanging out at The Groucho Club or anything they were just living in Bristol involved in the music scene there, so through him we just met a lot of musicians – he really bought us into the music scene there.”
Despite the long term connections with Invada, for this album Volk has signed to German-based label, Glitterhouse Records. A move in part to test whether he can be successful away from the Invada family but also one that was geographically motivated.
“I had two album solo deal with Invada that came to an end after the Boris EP. We had a manager at the time and we basically decided for the next record we were going to look for another label. Also, when I moved to Switzerland I’m not based in England anymore. It was really for me between Glitterhouse and Domino Records top two on my list, and Glitterhouse have been great to deal with as a label. Lucas and Jahn and Frank who does the finances and accounts they’re a super cool label to deal with, it just makes more sense, geographically their in Germany, and I’m just in Switzerland.
Regardless of the closing of the ‘living in Bristol’ chapter, it’s none too surprising that Volk remains tight with the crew back there. Composer Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow and Aid Utley all feature as collaborators on the current album and there is even some visual artist work from another heavyweight – Craig Murray (on the track Soliquay.) Volk’s even named the album with a hark back to his days djing in the Bristol clubs.
“Happenings & Killings was just a night I used to put on in Bristol – weirdly enough. I think the first night I put on as Happenings and Killings was me putting on with my friend Rasha, and the first one I did on my own I actually put on Leafcutter John who actually did a couple of tracks on the current record. I like the look of the words together Happenings and Killings (diddididi ) the syllables and phonetics, what the fuck does that mean? I kind of like them together though.”
Happenings and Killings is out now through Glitterhouse Records