Kings Go Forth frontman Black Wolf is not shy about his aspirations. Like Sharon Jones, another 50+-year-old, high-energy vocalist who achieved success later in life, Black Wolf’s been waiting a while for his due. Now it’s time. In 2004, the singer linked up with Milwaukee record shop owner and consummate cratedigger Andy Noble, who assembled the 10-piece Kings Go Forth band in 2007 and released the ubiquitously-admired The Outsiders Are Back¸ a compilation of the group’s previous work, last year.
Recorded on the cheap for $2,000 using vintage equipment — “Why would you go to a restaurant with a $35 entrée when the $5 place down the street has so much better food?”, says Noble — the group’s ardent devotion to, and devout knowledge of, the history of funk and soul is evident. Onstage, the band’s intense, frenetic live show already made them standouts at last year’s South By Southwest festival. But for Black Wolf, a former Pentecostal child preacher, you’re just a part of his extended ministry.
You just returned from a European tour. What’s the reception like there versus the U.S.?
To tell you the truth, man, it seems like I could go on stage and sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and people would start hollering. I ain’t that good looking so I don’t know what the deal is. They treated us pretty good everywhere, but I would say I did feel like an alien sometimes overseas. Every time I moved forward towards the crowd, they moved back and vice versa. I told my keyboardist, “I really don’t see a problem. I might scare chicks onstage and off.” But some of them were all over me once they get onstage. It’s such a high-energy performance that it might seem alien to them in their own interpretation of it.
Is it hard to maintain that night after night?
One girl came up to me – and I don’t know if I’m getting older or the girls are getting stronger – but she was hugging me and I’m too proud to admit my back is hurting when a fine chick is hugging me. Somebody else comes in and kisses my hand; some people were kissing the floor. I was like, “Man, I gotta get out of here.”
There seems to be a dichotomy between your on-stage and off-stage personality. You’ve mentioned before how you’re a bit of a loner offstage. How do you explain the difference?
[Long pause] I’m a tailor. I make all my own clothes. As a tailor, I spend a lot of time alone in the shop and sometimes, for years, it would be Thanksgiving and all the family’s around and I would take that advantage to go to the shop and catch up on work. I used to go to the shop sometimes and I wouldn’t talk to anybody for hours. And I’m used to that.
Is that why you don’t do many interviews?
Some of them you gotta do, but to tell you the truth, 95% of the time, I don’t. One time the chick was just so fine, I just had to do the interview. And if it’s two of them, I’ll go, “Ehhh, I think I’ll do this one.” That’s a part of the business I forgot about – the interviews, the popularity. I’ll go out now in Milwaukee and try to disguise myself and certain people come up to me and say “Black Wolf.” I go, “How you know it’s me?!” I’m not flamboyant. I always think about in interviews how many times people said that one damn wrong thing. And every time I do one, that’s more of a chance for me to say that one damn wrong thing.
Wait. Can we go back to you making all your own clothes?
[Laughs] I try to not get too wild, ’cause I sometimes get crazy with it. Everybody in my family sews; my dad did leather work. It’s a tradition in my family. I’m a designer. I was in show business for a while so I went to “sew business.” But I’ve had about four suits and some leather stuff stolen from me on the road. I should be a little more careful with how exotic I get with it. The girls come to the show with wolf rings on.
So your life now is just a swirl of groupies?
[Long pause] Some weird stuff be happening on stage, man. I was on stage somewhere on the East Coast and the girls kept reaching and reaching and reaching for me. I used to go out in the audience, but now it’s getting a little injury dangerous. Man, these young girls are getting strong; I’m 6 foot something, 200 something pounds and they bounce me around like a beach ball. I came back on stage once and my hips were sore.
I was 220 pounds when we went to Europe; I came back 195. So we work hard onstage. I sometimes lose seven pounds a night. So I’m dripping with sweat — the girls are reaching out — I wiped the sweat off my face and one girl held my hand and wiped my sweat all through her hair. It scared the hell out of me. My daughter is older than some of these chicks. [Laughs]
What do you think when you hear the band described as “funk revivalists”?
I have over 1,300 songs in my library. In terms of categorization, people just have to say what they think it is. So whatever they think it is, I roll with it. But you know how I know this isn’t just a funk/soul group?
‘Cause I was there. [Laughs] This group is nothing like that.
What’s the biggest difference?
There’s a ceremonial atmosphere to this group. In performing in funk and soul groups, it wasn’t with this kind of intensity. [Kings Go Forth] remind me more of church. I was a child preacher and it reminded me more of that kind of delivery. I do all forms of music. I can look at certain groups and know if they’re really into what they’re playing. Bon Jovi is into what he’s playing. I don’t even know if you could categorize us a funk/soul group; Kings reminds me of where funk and soul was heading.
You played in your first band The Essentials from age 13 to 29. What did you bring over into Kings Go Forth?
The Essentials are more like a brotherhood than a group. The brotherhood is never broken. One woman I know, she was my girlfriend when I was 14. By the time we were 16, she was another member’s girlfriend. By the time we were 35, a third member married her. It’s a family atmosphere and I brought a lot of that into this group. These are mostly kids in this group. So I’m trying to get them to understand that that kind of loyalty makes better music. You can run a business like this, that, or the other but when you got that loyalty, appreciation and commitment for each other, now we can talk about making some music.
You’re playing with guys 25 years younger than you. Has the age difference affected the vibe of the group?
Well, I have to slap them around sometimes [Laughs]. I realize a lot of these cats are musicians in the making. I remember where I was psychologically when I was their age and I did take that into consideration in working with younger musicians. You gotta let the youth come through. Now, the next Black Wolf is probably five-years-old in a church somewhere scaring the hell out of people like I was.
Sometimes, when I’m playing with Kings Go Forth, I can see people getting the Holy Ghost. The audience don’t know that, but I know that. I relate to that church energy a lot. It’s almost like I’m in a trance when I’m onstage. It’s like, “Okay, we didn’t kill each other. Let’s go do the ceremony.” That’s what the show is like. I’ve done shows in Austin where my body locked afterwards. Now, I’m realizing that some muscles I forgot about are starting out. These kids’ll kill me.
Would you consider yourself a competitive person?
Yeah, I’ve always been competitive and I think that kind of drives me and gives me the opportunity to make history. Sometimes I think about the dues I’ve paid and I think, “That’d be kind of cool to have the ‘Number One Soul Singer’ title under your belt.” That always hits my mind before I go on stage: every gig is another opportunity to make history and I always tell myself, “I don’t know if they’ll like it, but they’re never going to forget it.”
Kings Go Forth play Southpaw on February 19th and SOBs on February 21st. The Outsiders Are Back is out now.