The sensible musician

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Author: Eric Butterman

Orlando, Florida, was a magical kingdom for Dennis Wolfe ’92. Not because of the nearby Disney World opening its gates just a year after his birth but because this was where music came into his life. At 5 he learned to play the piano. At 6, violin. And, at 7, the instrument that would take him the furthest and make his neighbors the angriest: drums.

His career has followed a beat. Steady, clear, moving to the crescendo. And he doesn’t follow the stereotype — the dreamer who saw the music and little else. No, he saw that, and the ending, and walked out just in time for a different number.

Those are the breaks

The music industry was very different around the millennium. This was the age of CDs costing as much as $16.99 and people paying it, albeit begrudgingly. This is the world Wolfe entered into when he moved to Los Angeles in 1998 and later joined The Exies, an alt-rock band named after a term used by Beatle John Lennon to refer to art students who called themselves “the existentialists.”

However, when the group went national, signing with Arista in 2000, Napster had come along and changed everything. Music could, at least temporarily, be freely downloaded by the masses.

For The Exies, the odds of big-time album sales became that much steeper.

But into the studio they went. They knew the benchmark: 500,000 units — a gold record. Anything less would be a disappointment.

It was.

Unlike some bands, the Exies weren’t immediately dropped by their label. The group would get at least one more crack. “I really felt the second album was fantastic,” the 41-year-old Wolfe says of Inertia. “We did it with Nick Raskulinecz, who had done the prior two Foo Fighters albums, and we made it at Grandmaster Recorders at Sunset and Cahuenga [in Los Angeles].”

Friday barbecues in L.A. had band members partying with Nine Inch Nails and Dave Grohl, frontman of The Foo Fighters. The Exies were hot, too. “Ugly,” the video off of their third album, Head for the Door, “tore up the charts to No. 6 on active rock charts,” says Wolfe. “In a 14-month cycle we played Letterman, round two culminated with us on Mötley Crüe Carnival of Sins tour. It was Sum 41 and Silvertide on that tour, too — that was when that record was over.”

Despite an album the band could be proud of, it still fell short of gold. There wouldn’t be another album with a major label. It was either go indie or go home.

Wolfe, surprisingly, chose the latter.

“You see what happens to these bands most of the time,” he says. “I had done it. I’d been in a band. I experienced being with a major label. What would it be about now? I was around 30, I got to move on.”

He didn’t stray far from his previous occupation. He walked into Capitol Records in Los Angeles as an A&R (artist and repertoire) associate, now helping to develop musicians. But would it feel strange to do a job without fans, to live the straight life? “I had a regular Joe office job at IBM for five years,” he says. “At least I didn’t have to wear a suit this time — when I got the record deal with Virgin [formerly Arista], I was temping for Capitol, so I was already going there on a day-job basis. It was like a return to my roots but with more respect. I had a two-album touring experience and people saw me differently — they wouldn’t have been given me that opportunity if I didn’t have that experience.”

His greatest moment came when he was promoted to the head of the department in less than three years, with other producers reporting to him. “The four producers all had franchise artists assigned to them, so they were in charge of directing all efforts for those artists, whether it was a new reissue, compilation, box set, vinyl release, digital download, ringtone or whatever,” Wolfe says. “We had 70 franchise artists that we actively managed, from The Beatles and The Beach Boys all the way up to Radiohead and The Smashing Pumpkins.”

His job, Wolfe explains, “was to produce projects for the artists assigned to me, ensure there was an even workload across the other producers, and provide overall leadership and management support to the team. I ran meetings, conducted performance reviews and made sure everyone was on the same page.”

But while Wolfe’s title improved, sales didn’t. “It was happening to everybody, though,” he says. “The record companies didn’t know how to react.”

The companies were fighting over the cost of singles, says Wolfe, “saying they shouldn’t sell for less than $1.29, even if it’s something really old. You’re not selling a Billy Squier hit from the past for the same as the new Katy Perry.”

Part of the reason they were avoiding the change, Wolfe believed, was incentive. “All the people who were in charge, they’re all making bank, fat-cat salaries and dependent on the old model to keep their lifestyle afloat — so why would they make a bunch of changes? They just figured, ‘We sue everyone downloading and take down Napster.’ But the thing is, it’s not exactly good business to, uh, sue your customers.”

Eventually, stubbornness gave way to music singles that could be downloaded, most for less than a dollar. It was a necessity for a sustainable business model, although it could mean the eventual death of the album. But for Wolfe, his greatest accomplishment may have been helping to give life to one.

Now smile

The Beach Boys’ Smile was always rumored to be the greatest album never finished, maybe the rock ’n’ roll era’s version of Mozart’s “Requiem.” Smile was partially created by Beach Boy chief songwriter Brian Wilson but always put on hold for various reasons. There couldn’t be agreement among the personalities involved — the Beach Boys didn’t exactly love each other every second — and Wilson, as documented, struggled with many a demon. Or sometimes it was the record company that just didn’t have the interest in what the undertaking would require.

But finally the pieces came together in the summer of 2010 and, as Wolfe puts it, he was fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time. “It’s like someone finally said, ‘Hey, let do this,’ and everyone else happened to be ready, too,” he says. Now the hope was that no one would change his mind and that it wouldn’t fall apart. And that they would choose the right parts. After all, there were countless hours of recordings to pick from.

Here’s where Wolfe felt his most confident.

“I honestly didn’t feel scared about screwing it up,” he says. “I knew I’d make good choices. Bands try things out in the studio, and they sound awful sometimes. You experiment, never know what it’s going to be. I know that, I can tell the difference.” And, along with producers, Wolfe was proven right. The Smile Sessions was named in 2011 as Rolling Stone’s reissue of the year, and Wolfe had the biggest feather in the cap of his career.

Sometimes his job wasn’t quite as romantic. Take Pink Floyd’s reissue of Dark Side of the Moon and the band’s insistence that the U.S. and U.K. versions sound identical, down to the most minute of sounds.

“What we put these two manufacturing plants through to get the CDs to sound as identical as possible was insane,” he recalls. “We take a pressing of Dark Side of the Moon from the U.S. plant and then the European plant goes to a mic suite at Capitol, loads it into a digital workstation so they exactly lined up each one and switch back and forth, doing a three-man blind test. You don’t tell the guy which one they’re listening to, you just ask, ‘Is this one better? Is the bass better? Is the stereo field wider? Narrower?’ Round after round of things like that.”

Wolfe walks

That takes us to our final number. The exit. Wolfe saw that as Capitol was in the process of being bought by Universal in 2011, changes were coming. Firings, layoffs, adjustments. Wolfe believes he understood what some others didn’t. “You have to know when it’s time,” he says. “I was thrown a party, got good wishes, and I moved on.”

That’s not to say he didn’t take that trusty feather in his cap with him when he officially left in January of this year, negotiating to continue working with the Beach Boys as a consulting producer. The result has been contributing to projects which include a 50-year retrospective package, minivinyl reissues for Japan and a six-disc box set.

And he’s taking his time to think about the next step. How that band he used to party with, Nine Inch Nails, now has a lead singer working on scoring movies. How there’s a profitable world outside of music altogether.

And he still drums — but just don’t expect him to join another band.

“I will always be a drummer, I will have a set of drums in my garage and will always go to shows and be a consumer of new music. That’s an integral part of who I am,” he says. “I made a living doing that and that’s not going away.” He then manages a laugh before adding, “But my days of schlepping gear across town, and small gigs and smoky towns, those days are over . . . and they should be.”


Eric Butterman previously profiled Regis Philbin and Anne Heaton for this magazine. Contact him at ericbutterman@yahoo.com.


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