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Former Belleville Outfit drummer finds a new direction with the Ghost Wolves

Peter Mongillo
Jonathan Konya, late of Austin's Belleville Outfit, and Carley Wolf team up professionally for a duo they've dubbed Ghost Wolves. They took inspiration for their name not from their dog, Winter, but from an arctic wolf hybrid that lived on the guitarist's family farm.

In January, Jonathan Konya and Carley Wolf traveled to a lakeside cabin in East Texas to play music together. Tucked away near the town of Normangee, the place was isolated, 18 miles from the nearest grocery store, with eagles and other birds the only neighbors. It was ideal for getting away from the distractions of the city and for rehearsing.

"It's more of a summer community, so there was nobody out there," Konya says. "We could just turn up as loud as we wanted. We got a PA and a bunch of gear and just set up shop."

The two musicians — Konya is a drummer and Wolf plays the guitar, among other things — had been dating for a few years but hadn't spent much time performing together, in part because Konya was busy as a member of Austin Americana group the Belleville Outfit. While they were away, Konya received a call that the band, which he co-founded while at school in New Orleans, was breaking up after three years. Vocalist/violinist Phoebe Hunt was leaving to pursue a solo career, and the other members decided not to find a replacement. It didn't come as a complete surprise to Konya — they had been drifting apart — but it was difficult to deal with nonetheless.

"It brings up a lot of emotions, something that you've been in the thick of for so long," he says. "It was like a relationship ending; you go through the depression and denial and all of that stuff."

As upsetting as it was, the end of his band also meant that he and Wolf could focus more on their own music. They worked for 12 hours each day, listening to albums, trying to write songs and figuring out what kind of sound the new band would have. Among other things, Konya and Wolf share a love for older American fare, including traditional mountain music and anything else one might find on recordings made by Alan and John Lomax.

Despite their traditional tastes, they returned to Austin after a month in the woods with something more forceful and electric on their hands. They called the new band, a two piece guitar-and-drums duo, the Ghost Wolves, named for an arctic wolf-dog hybrid that lived on Wolf's family farm in the Hill Country. The resulting album, "In Ya Neck!," which is available online now (physical copies will be released in the fall) is still rooted in Americana, but with a sound much louder and closer to more contemporary rock groups such as the White Stripes. With a similar two-tone fashion sense, Konya and Wolf don't shy away from the comparison.

Wolf, who has focused on acoustic music for much of her life, had been wanting to go louder for some time. Born into a musical family in Fredericksburg, she learned the piano as a child. Her father taught her to play the guitar, and she started her first band when she was 12. Throughout her childhood she continued learning different instruments and studied music at Texas State in San Marcos. There, for her senior thesis, she made a documentary about her family's musical heritage, which stretches back to her great-grandmother in Guadalajara, a composer and teacher who ran a fine arts school.

"I was trying to see what I could find out about music through the bloodline," she says. "I tried to answer if it was a learned thing, or something you're born with, but really it was more of an exploration of my heritage and where my love for music comes from."

After graduating from college, Wolf was ready to put her acoustic past behind her. Part of that desire to plug in comes from time spent with Houston rockabilly musician Johnny Falstaff, with whom she has played the upright bass on and off since she was 15.

"I really wanted to branch out into something more electric," Wolf says. "I was really inspired by the honky-tonk guitar playing, really rocking out so hard."

Aside from the Ghost Wolves' psychedelic blues covers of traditional folk songs such as "Jack-a-Roe," one vestige of her quieter musical past that remains is her finger-picking guitar style. Though not terribly common among rock musicians, it allows Wolf to compensate for the band's lack of a bassist.

The challenge of producing a big sound with only two people is something that affects Konya's playing as well. In addition to laying on the kick drum pretty heavily, he incorporates shakers and other percussion. It's far from his work with the Belleville Outfit, which often found him playing in a fairly restrained, conservative style.

"It makes us work harder as a duo to get on stage and try to be louder than a four-piece rock band," Konya says.

This isn't the first time Konya has branched out to different styles of playing. Like Wolf, Konya, who was born in Connecticut, grew up playing music. He was encouraged by his father, who was a professional musician for a time. He played drums in the school orchestra and in rock bands through high school before moving to New Orleans. He studied music at Loyola University with New Orleans jazz drummer Johnny Vidocavich, who has performed with Dr. John, George Porter Jr. and many others. While there, he also began playing music with Rob Teter and Connor Forsyth. The three formed the Belleville Outfit and relocated to Austin after Phoebe Hunt, Marshall Hood and Jeff Brown joined the band. He has also played with musicians as diverse as Junior Brown and Black Flag founder Greg Ginn.

For the time being, he and Wolf are committed to the Ghost Wolves. In a couple weeks, they're heading north to play a residency in New York through September. Then they're back in Austin for a record release party later in the fall. Their live show is a bit of a spectacle, with Wolf, dressed all in white with a matching Warhol-esque wig, jumping around the stage as she plays. Konya is chatty between songs, making jokes and pushing the record. It's not your typical Austin act, but being themselves is something in which they take pride.

"For me when I see a band, I want to them to sound good but I want to be convinced that that's who they are," Konya says. "We just want to create our little world and just live it. If other people want to come into it, they're welcome to."

pmongillo@statesman.com