Maybe you’ve seen them around town. Perhaps you’ve noticed them over beers at an open mic at the Alaskan, or while dancing with friends at Rockwell. Maybe you saw them open for Harrison B. over the weekend at the Rendezvous. It seems the Wool Pullers, an unassuming boy-girl folk-rock duo, have snuck up on Juneau, and, all over town, people have been taking notice. In their denim and flannel, murmuring hellos into the mic, they’re not flashy — because they don’t need to be. Liz Snyder and Alex Kotlarsz, the brains behind the guitars, offer a vocal one-two punch that speaks for itself.
Sweet, soaring harmony and not-so-sweet guitar are the duo’s trademark. They play original music that defies categorization, and they like it that way. Years of going through phases, playing with others and by themselves and learning what they like is all poured into the songs they write, and has taught them they have a good thing going, they said.
Kotlarsz, 23, said he loves the uncertain way friends have reacted to their sound.
“I want people to be like, ‘I don’t know what to call that,’” he said.
A chance meeting at a party in April 2012 launched the pair’s friendship. Kotlarsz saw Snyder playing a couple songs for the crowd and was drawn to her unusual and captivating voice, he said. He introduced himself and the two hit it off instantly. They started playing together regularly in December.
“We were blown away by each other’s talents,” he said.
“His style was so different from my style and that makes it into something that’s not like anyone else,” agreed Snyder, 25.
By now they’ve played about 50 shows together, said Kotlarsz, including the HomeSkillet Festival in Sitka, the Alaska Folk Festival and KRNN’s “Dynamic Duos” concert. They also had a summer-long gig at the Gold Creek Salmon Bake, playing seven-hour shifts Thursdays and Fridays.
“It got us playing together a lot more,” Snyder said. “We got to know each other a lot better.”
Kotlarsz and Snyder’s band name stems from similarities they noticed in the songs they wrote.
“The main underlying theme was manipulation, deception, someone pulling the wool over someone’s eyes, pulling the wool on and off of our eyes,” Kotlarsz said. “We’re trying to keep that theme alive.”
The two met for practice at Studio 154 on Franklin Street on Oct. 17, sitting across from each other in the half-lit, grungy lobby of the well-used space. Archaeological layers of band posters and stickers plastered the walls, a reminder of Juneau’s vibrant music history. Meanwhile, Snyder and Kotlarsz tuned up to write the next chapter.
“Do you have a pick?” Kotlarsz asked Snyder as he got situated on a stool.
“I just found like 10 of them in the dryer; they were all stuck in the cracks and stuff,” she replied, digging one out of the pocket of her black jeans.
While practicing “Inside Passage,” a new song they’ve played live only a few times, the pair passed lead vocals back and forth with acrobatic ease. Snyder’s wavering, fragile-sounding croon would break suddenly into powerful but controlled blasts. Kotlarsz’s voice rasped with a raw emotion mirrored on his face. Both are masters of dynamics, storing just as much impact in each syllable at pianissimo as at fortissimo. And they can both hit the high notes.
Snyder, who grew up in Juneau, said she’s always gotten comments on her unique vocal style, but it took her years to figure out what she was capable of. When she was about 14, she was in a punk, “yelling-singing” phase, she said. Then she heard singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom.
“I started experimenting with my voice just to see what exactly I could do,” Snyder said. “I had no idea I could do that.”
People always try to compare her vocals to other artists (“I’ve gotten Bjork before.”), but the truth is, “anyone’s voice I can imitate,” she said.
“It’s been an evolution,” Snyder said. “My voice has changed a lot since I first started singing, with whatever I’ve been listening to.”
About a month ago, the Wool Pullers finished their first EP, now available on Soundcloud. The two captured the six songs on a clunky 16-track recorder Snyder got as a gift from her dad when she was 16, the same one she used to conduct musical experiments growing up. They were a little skeptical about using the equipment to cut their first release together, but decided to work with what they had.
“I looked at her and said, ‘OK, let’s do this,’” Kotlarsz said. The sound quality of the resulting EP might be rough around the edges, but it leaves room for improvement, he said. “You hear the evolution better that way.”
The next logical step is a full-length album, Snyder said. To fill it out, the two began writing music together a few weeks ago — a first for them. Until now, all the material they’ve performed and recorded had been written individually and later tweaked to fit both players.
Instead of slowing the songwriting process, which can be difficult enough solo, working together has created a kind of artistic synergy, they said. They can finish songs faster and truly enjoy working with one another.
“Out of all of them they’re probably my favorite songs,” Kotlarsz said. “I always wanted to be a good collaborator.”
The key to their dynamic lies in the yin and yang of their music-writing sensibilities, Snyder said. Kotlarsz — a self-professed metal head from Seattle — is obsessed with the minutiae of intricate riffs and key changes. For Snyder, there’s beauty in simplicity.
“I’m like the voice of reason: ‘Let’s simplify this,’” she said. “I like super simple guitar. I’ll make my voice my instrument.”
Together, they create a sound that blends yet showcases their individual strengths. This includes their differing lyrical styles, said Kotlarsz.
Snyder is “a lot more specific with her stuff; she likes to get right to the point,” he said. “I like to keep people thinking.”
Kotlarsz’s interest in music grew out of a love for grunge at a young age. When he was 13, he worked up the courage to ask his stepfather if he could borrow one of his guitars.
“He said, ‘Yeah, don’t break it,’” Kotlarsz said.
He was hooked at 16 after attempting to woo a girl he liked with his budding guitar skills. It worked.
“I thought, ‘That was awesome, I’m going to keep doing this,’” he said.
He’s happy to be in Juneau now, making waves in the relatively small music scene, he said. Snyder and he agreed it’s easier to get noticed in a town like Juneau, which craves new talent.
“Places like this do need music, and they need people to make this happen,” Kotlarsz said.
For now, writing, playing and recording together are all the two have in mind; no grandiose plans for world domination yet. Back in the studio, the last chord of “Inside Passage” twangs and fades into silence. Kotlarsz opens his eyes.
“Sweet, we’ve got that one down,” he said.
To hear the Wool Pullers’ EP, visit soundcloud.com/thewoolpullers.
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.