On select dates at buzzing basements, lounges and venues around Omaha, a pair of athletes leads a workout routine.
It’s a rather innovative technique — the exercise mandates attendees flail their limbs like madmen and crash into their friends until the entire congregation is moshing in unison. The workout music, performed live by the athletic hosts, pushes the raucous crew of fitness nuts to toil themselves into puddles of sweat.
Brothers Griffin and Nathan Wolf are the minds behind this fitness sensation — they make up Pagan Athletes, a noise-rock band whose sound is built on oddity, dissonance, brotherhood, mosh pits, harshness, Death Grips and the relentless pursuit of jazz.
Griffin is a 17-year-old junior at Westside High School, and Nathan is 19 and a freshman studying special education at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Both are involved in their schools’ jazz programs and still manage to pick up shifts at La Casa Pizzaria and Jimmy John’s respectively.
Each brother spends his free time dabbling in other instruments, but they play their personal paramount instruments in the band. Griffin heads the keyboard and Nathan mans the drum kit. Griffin has been taking piano lessons since fifth grade, and Nathan taught himself to play drums before he began taking lessons about a year ago. The pair got serious about blending their musical talents about two years ago, Griffin said, and played their first gig at Almost Music record shop for Record Store Day in April 2018. Since then, the band has dug itself into Omaha’s underground music scene, playing at DIY venues such as Lucy’s Pub, POP20 and Drips coffee shop.
The duo’s taste in unconventional musical noise traces its genesis back to Nathan’s middle school experience, where he met Omaha rapper Rosalita.
“I think the very first day of middle school, I sat next to him and we started talking about music and he told me about Death Grips, and I listened to it and I f***ing hated it for the next two years until I finally liked it,” Nathan said. “Of course I didn’t have anyone to talk about that music with, so I just dumped it all on Griffin.”
Griffin agreed the influx of experimental noise-rap was fundamental in establishing the dirty sounds of Pagan Athletes.
“I don’t listen to Death Grips as much anymore, but that’s the gateway, that’s the guardian right there. You gotta get through them to get into everything else,” Griffin said.
Nathan’s weapon of choice, a miniature Casio keyboard, was serendipitously pulled from the heaps of antiques and quirky gifts at The Imaginarium in Omaha’s Old Market. The instrument, now the foundation of Pagan Athletes, was listed for $30, but was haggled down to a cool $20. When ran through a Boss Blues Driver and Digitech Whammy effect pedal and propelled through an Acoustic bass amp, the little device emits a gargantuan sound.
It’s a sound too gargantuan for most jazz orchestras, but Griffin said his jazz piano experience still plays a large role in his songwriting process. He cited artists like saxophonist John Coltrane and pianist McCoy Tyner as inspirations, but he doesn’t constrain himself to classical songwriting techniques.
“Literally I just put my hands on the keyboard and I see what notes I picked and I try to make something out of it,” Griffin said. “I’m not joking. That’s how some of our songs came to be.”
While both brothers maintained they are passionate about traditional jazz music, they agreed the songs they create and perform together offer a more rewarding experience.
”Sometimes the in-the-moment stuff with jazz can be satisfying, but I think just overall, Pagan Athletes just quenches my thirst way more,” Griffin said.
Griffin joked about sharing a telepathic connection with his brother, but Nathan maintained that sometimes they share unspoken connections when playing together. After some thought, Griffin agreed, but didn’t chalk the bond up to pure brotherhood.
“I don’t think it’s just because we’re brothers, I think it’s just because we know each other so well, and it's like we know where to go in the music — if we’re doing an improvised thing, just how to get from one point to another. I think it’s also just having similar taste in music and having similar music ideas,” Griffin said.
For the first of The Daily Nebraskan’s Press Play series, Pagan Athletes set up in the office on Feb.15 to capture a few songs. For the record, the office’s fax machines are in perfect condition — all beeps and boops are courtesy of the $20 Casio.