Cosmic Rock

Tonight on our guest is the very cool group Valentine Wolfe. Formed in 2006, Valentine Wolfe is the combined effort of Sarah Black and Braxton Ballew. Imagine Sarah Brightman being backed by Francois Rabbath blowing through a Marshall stack at midnight.  Having dubbed their music "Victorian Chamber metal", the duo have synthesized a love of metal, classical and industrial, infusing them with a Victorian sensibility that evokes the likes of Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe. Guest writer Gail Ice sat down with the duo for this very interesting interview.


     Describe your music. What genre do you consider it?


Sarah: Someone came up with the term Victorian Chamber Metal one year at DragonCon. I’m not sure who invented that, but we liked it so we kept using it. I think that was the year we did our Edgar Allan Poe album. Of course, not all our music deals with Victorian themes. And then one day recently I looked on a website that was pirating our music and they said our genre was Victorian Camera Metal. So I think we will just stick with gothic metal for now.


    How did you form? What was it that made you want to create music together?


Sarah: I met Braxton at the University of Georgia. I was getting a master’s degree in music composition and he was finishing up a doctoral degree for bass. We took an electronic music class together and he seemed as interested in the music as I was so I asked him to join a music project with me. He has been making music with me ever since!


    Who are your major influences?


Sarah: Right now I am really into Amorphis, Moonspell, Dark Tranquility, Insomnium, and other melodic death metal bands. I don’t sing like they do. And we don’t have any guitarists in our band, so I know our music doesn’t sound anything like that. But I love their lyrics and I love the elegant and lush texture that is somehow still bleak and unforgiving. My favorite singers right now are Tarja, Simone Simons from Epica, and Floor from Nightwish.


    What are your musical backgrounds? What inspired you to focus on music?


Sarah: I have always been interested in music. I was lucky that my parents encouraged that from a young age. They let me have piano lessons and I studied with a woman who emphasized music theory as well as just playing the piano. I got a pretty good foundation that way. I just can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.


    Explain your songwriting process. Do both of you write songs?


Sarah: We usually start with the lyrics. We love to take the words of older poets and authors and set those so if we have something say by Edgar Allan Poe, then that will come first. Sometimes with original material I write the lyrics, but Braxton writes such incredibly beautiful lyrics too.


    How has your music evolved since you first started?


Sarah: I think we’ve just gotten better at writing the music we hear in our heads. We’ve gotten better as our instruments and we’ve gotten better at using the different programs and gear available.


B: I’ve been saying for the past year I think we’re getting better at being in Valentine Wolfe-understanding how the parts fit together, and know what might work and what won’t. It’s cliché, but I’m always on a quest to make our music darker and heavier, and I’ve added more haunting to the list.


    What is the origin of the band's name? Have you been known by any other name?


Sarah: Valentine Wolfe is the name of a character in a Simon R. Green space opera called Deathstalker. He is dashing and elegant and a little bit dangerous. That’s how I wanted our music to sound when we first started out. I think we’ve managed to convey some of that!



    How long have you known each other? How did you meet?



B: We met in grad school at UGA in 2002. We started dating before we started the band-in fact, I think we were married before we started the band. I think being able to really delve deeply into music as a couple is something that I could never give up. One reason-if not the main reason-we’d never add another musician on a permanent basis is that the Valentine Wolfe dynamic is really our own dynamic, and we’re very protective of that.


    Do you have any favorite places to play live? Any places that were a bad experience?


Sarah: We love playing at conventions and libraries. The people that show up for those shows are always so welcoming!


B: Libraries and alternative venues, no doubt about it. And most bad experiences make for great stories, so…it’s all in how you look at it!


    Do you have a website? Where can fans purchase your music/follow you? Do you use streaming services like Spotify to release new music?


Sarah: We do have a website! And we put most of our music on Spotify and iTunes and Amazon and most of the other streaming sites as well.


    What kind of instruments do you use? Are you a fan of any specific brand of instrument or do you allow cost to affect the equipment you use?


B: Oddly, on the double bass, brands don’t seem to matter as much as finding a great luthier (setup and repair expert). I’m lucky; Gencarelli Bass Works is owned by a good friend and does amazing work. Past that, it’s mixing and matching. In terms of budget, it’s always about maximizing what you spend to serve the music-this means that sometimes, the most expensive option isn’t the best option.


I use a NS Design (Steinberger) electric upright bass, primarily for the pickups and electronics. I tried quite a few EUB’s and liked the clean signal of the NS the best. Depending on what you need to do with amplified double bass, that may not be the best option, but it was for me.


My signal is split into a Hughes and Kettner Tubemeister for distortion and effects (I LOVE delay), and then a Sansamp ParaDriver for lows and more of a “bass” sound. I found the H&K by accident; I wanted a tube amp for the high gain sounds we use, and tried one out for research-Sarah loved the sound instantly, so after a day or so, I went with it.


If I find something that works and saves my sanity, I don’t mind spending money. Generally, though, I try to squeeze all the mileage I can out of what I have. With tech these days, you don’t have to spend a lot.


In terms of advice, as basic as it sounds, I say get an instrument that you can’t wait to pick up and play, and again, realize that may not be the most expensive option.


    Can you offer any advice to up and coming bands?


Sarah: The internet is changing a lot of the ways that people make and consume music. It’s changing pretty quickly so sometimes I think that up and coming bands will have to give the advice to me and not the other way around! haha!


B: It’s really difficult-more than people think, so if you’re up onstage on any level, respect. I’d say in terms of being practical, play softer-or play big, not loud. I’ve come to think of volume as the enemy. If you focus on playing together, the volume will be there. Dynamics are good. Contrast is good. Realize this a lifelong process. I still kind of think of us as up and coming, and I’ve learned that never really goes away. Even Kirk Hammett has said Metallica hasn’t ever quite made the album they wanted to make, they just get closer every time. So be kind to yourself.


    How often do you rehearse?


Sarah: We are married and we live together so we are lucky that we can rehearse whenever it is convenient for us. It is really nice that we don’t have to schedule it as rigorously and that maybe helps us be a little more free and open in rehearsals.


B: that is nice. We rehearse kind of in clumps, in that in the run up to something, we’ll rehearse more. For me, it’s not how much, it’s how, and I usually try to have a specific goal in mind for each rehearsal.




What has been your biggest challenge as a band? How do you deal with those challenges? Have you overcome them?


Sarah: Mental health is the biggest challenge that we face as a band. It is really important to take good care of yourself. Know your limits and set boundaries for yourself. Ask for help when you need it.


B: For me, I fall into the little traps of expectation, that is, while it’s fine that the world/our audiences/other people will always have preconceived notions, I tend to let that sabotage my thinking. Or, putting it another way, things to tend to work the best when we prioritize our own tastes first, then invite people along with us.


    What level of success do you wish to accomplish?


B: I think that can be a bit of a tricky question. In many ways, the band is far more successful than I’d ever dreamed. I’d like to have the majority of our income come from the band. That said, our music pays for itself, which is huge. Our music has reached people in countries we have never set foot in. And, most importantly, our music defines our purpose and keeps us living a life that’s meaningful for us. We cannot imagine a life without music, particularly, this music. And almost everything past that (making it our sole source of income, playing across the country/in other countries/alternative venues and immersive events) is just so we can do more of what means the most to us.


    You've played clubs, libraries and conventions. Are there any venues you would love to play?


Sarah: Braxton really wants to play in a cemetery someday!


B: If anything, that sentiment is slightly understated. Live from the mausoleum!


    Are there any bands that you would like to collaborate with?


Sarah: We are so lucky that we have already been able to do some fun collaborations! We have collaborated with Mikey Mason and Antler Hill Arts.


B: We have great musical friends. The only thing generally stopping us from pursuing more collaborations is the need to sleep. But if we were to name some big dream collaborations, I’d say Insomnium, Epica, Amorphis, and Moonspell keep getting attention in the studio. There’s tons of bands we’d love to play with, no question.



    Do you have any upcoming shows or new music releases?


Sarah: We had three new releases in 2018. It was a very prolific year for us! All three of those are on our website and all the other download and streaming places online. I don’t think we will put out quite so much material in 2019, but then again, if we get inspired, we’ll have to do something about it!



    When you aren't making music, what do you do in your spare time?


Sarah: I love reading and watching horror movies.


B: I love reading and watching horror movies with Sarah. I’m also into single player video games, because I’m a filthy casual. We also love visiting anything old and haunting, so walks through cemeteries and forests are always on the list.


    What is the hardest part about being in a band?


 B: You really have to become a time management expert, and not let “feeling like it” enter the picture. This is easier said than done. Mental health is a huge variable; one of the challenges is that there’s always something you could be doing/working/emailing/being productive, but you need to know when to shut it down for a bit. Again, for me, that’s easier said than done.


I also believe there are realities we need to acknowledge (economics, for starters) that, in many ways, make being a die-hard music fan by far the saner, happier option. So you need to be hyper focused on what you’re wanting to do. And related to that: the world is not divided into superstars and failures. While it’s a lifelong challenge, I think the relentless drive to get back up and get back to it really will take you far. I’d be lying if I said I never thought about quitting, but at the end of the day, I’ve learned I simply cannot stop.


Photo credits:

1st photo of Braxton and Sarah together by Kevin McGee

2nd photo, the Valentine Wolfe logo by Neil Lee Griffin

3rd photo by Egregore Designs.