By Poppy Tohill
After having had the privilege of interviewing a number of bands now, I love that some-times the best conversations and interviews you have are the ones with the artists you know the least about. While researching the Australian indie rock band Wagons and their front man Henry Wagons, I was intrigued with what I read about them and didn't know quite what to expect from the interview. When joined on the phone from the front man himself however, what did happen was everything from great and interesting to amusing and inspirational. Covering all topics and times, we went on to have a great chat about all things Wagons- past, present & future, their upcoming shows in New Zealand and recently released album ‘Acid Rain & Sugar Cane,' to boring and uptight piano teachers and academic professors.
Recently arriving back home in Melbourne from a month long tour in Canada, a happy and cheerful Henry Wagons, joined me on the phone informing me he'd had a slow start to the morning with his family and dogs, before gearing up for a couple of hometown shows which are bound to be "big evenings, I'm very looking forward to," he stated.
Following a little more pre-interview chit-chat, we kicked things off talking about Wagons upcoming shows in New Zealand later this month. "I can't wait!" Henry gleefully beckoned. "It's like when you've just got a crush on someone and you're really excited about developing this new relationship. We're old hands at this and we Wagons have been together for fifteen years, I'm still playing in the band with some guys that I went to high school with, you know, so we've been together a long, long time, but I'm ashamed to say despite being a long term fan of New Zealand music, we've only just started going to New Zealand," he exclaimed. "In particular, the last time I went to New Zealand, I felt there was a real connection that we had. I really liked the shows and the crowds and people were lovely. We had a really good time and the crowd seemed to really get the strange calls and enjoy the random flailing that I did, and I can't wait to do it all over again," he excitedly admit.
"We've done an album just recently that we're really pleased with, and that in our long career we've never been happier with an album and it's translating to the stage really well," Henry responded, when asked what fans can expect from a live Wagons performance. "We're on the back of a month long Australian tour, followed by a pretty gruelling month long North American tour, so I can guarantee you that we know how to play the songs really well," he laughed. "We're incredibly road hardened," he continued. "I think, playing in so many different places, we're still excited enough to bring it. We're peaking at the moment and I think we're just going to be peaking right when we touch down in Auckland. So you can expect, that enthusiasm which is going to bring an immense amount of blood, sweat and tears from us. The stage is going to be a total mess and I feel incredibly sorry for whoever has to use the microphones after we've finished, because we plan to leave nothing behind. It's going to be an absolute nightmare for the cleaners afterwards, be-cause we plan to blow the roof off the joint, and leak from every pore," he exclaimed.
"We're stretching back to the late 90s here," Henry remarked when asked to give a brief history on how Wagons initially united and formed. "I discovered the power of the four track tape machine. I shifted pretty quickly to computer recording, the rudimentary equivalent of Garageband today, but the power of the multi track recording, and the idea that I could just play a few chords and then grab a bas guitar and play those same few chords, and have that same kind of build up and own orchestra of music of just me on these recordings. Back then it was cassette, so I just made a little cassette that I cut and paste myself to hand around to a few of my friends," Henry exclaimed. "That tape inspired my now bass player to join me at an open mic night in a heavy metal pub in Melbourne called Yard House on a Tuesday night in front of eight people. He played a snare drum and a symbol stand, I played a guitar and by the end of the set all of the equipment was on the floor, and we played some kind of really trashy country songs," he laughed. "But it was from that very gig that we then got invited to support one of my friends bands, and seriously, the next fifteen years is a blur," he admit. "Ever since that gig which followed the open mic night, the whole band has had a strange momentum and all the industry cogs fell into place. We got offered lots of other gigs, the record labels came, booking agents and all those industry things that you want and then we started touring overseas. Then I started to do all sorts of weird television presenting type jobs, soundtracks for movies and I just do all sorts of crazy shit, but it all started from that four track tape machine and playing that open mic night at a heavy metal pub," Henry continued. "It all started just messing around doing that stuff and ever since, it's been a crazy snowball. Now, I'm coming to New Zealand playing these awesome shows, which will be great fun!"
When asked to describe Wagons' sound, Henry's response (although not what I expected, was priceless and by far the best response I have ever had from an artist when answering this question) was "It sounds like a cross between Elvis when he was really fat, Johnny Cash when he was about to die and Roy Orbison's glasses," he seriously stated before breaking into a laugh. "It's definitely something in-between, like if all of those dudes got really drunk and frisky and had a child, it would be me," he declared.
"Good question!" Henry beckoned when asked what he thinks he'd be doing now if he wasn't a musician. "In the early days I never really saw myself as a musician. I was study-ing to be an academic," he confessed. "I was studying philosophy. I would probably be more of a wanker than I already am now to be honest. I'm already a wanker, and I would have been an even bigger one," he laughed. "Probably being some kind of professor sipping a fine Shiraz, having some sort of existential dinner party discussion in Pennsylvania. It's strange, sliding doors you never know," he went on. "It's just all about the way life takes you. I mean, I was totally on track to continue my studies when I got an offer for a record deal with Spunk Records who still put out our records, and I found that the parties in music and rock and roll were much better than those aforementioned academic parties," he pointed out, laughing.
Being told the day before by a Wagons fan that Henry can play a lot of instruments, I went on to ask if this was true and also asked what is one instrument he wishes he could be very good at playing. "I can play a lot of them badly, but kind of good enough to impress people who can't play them," he laughed. "It's that whole lo-fi multi tracking approach that really got me into making music," he exclaimed. "When I first learnt guitar, learning a couple of Bob Dylan songs or ‘Wish You Were Here' by Pink Floyd, you don't need more than three chords really, and as soon as I started learning those, you can learn those same three chords on the bass and beat out a bit on the drums, then you're kind of your own band. Now many years later, having done that a lot, and spending my life doing that I've gotten a little better at those instruments, as well as picking up a few keyboard skills. I've done a lot of production work as well," he continued. "I feel like I'm best at engineering and production more so than the bigger player or anything, but I certainly try my hand at everything and love it," he concluded.
"That's a really good question!" Henry repeated twice over, as he tried to think of an answer in terms of what instrument he'd love to be really good at playing, before bursting out his answer, "Piano! I often wish I was a lot better at piano," he admits. "Guitar is my number one instrument and I can play piano a little bit, like the basic pop chords, and mess around, but I feel like the more I learn about music, the more I believe the piano is kind of the key stone instrument to unlocking all the theory and more advanced side of music, and I am often really jealous of people that have a fundamental understanding and skill on the piano," he truthfully confessed.
After admitting that I learnt piano for 11 years, but wishing I had practiced more and was better than I actually am, we went on to talk about boring, up tight piano teachers and the idea of finding a fun way to teach and learn piano. This then lead to us devising a plan where Wagons admitted he is going to get better at piano over the years and him and I will do a duelling piano show together, where by he will also become ‘the cool piano teacher guy' that everyone wants as their teacher.
Before completely loosing track and contriving too many marvellous plans, I changed the topic to ‘Acid Rain & Sugar Cane,' Wagons new album.
"Kind of," Henry replied when asked if there was a story behind the album name. "A lot of albums are named after a song on the record, and I kind of don't like doing that, because it draws too much attention to that one song," he explained. "I've got a bit of a history of choosing a lyric or some more hidden words, to name albums after," he admits. "That's what it is on this album, so the songs on the album are a bit of a roller coaster ride, they kind of go through quite a few different moods and peaks and drops, sometimes within the one song. It's kind of an album about a journey we've been on over the years, after the lights go out. We meet these new people, we get taken into strange houses, into strange bars and random parties, stay up late and sometimes those kind of things and late night journeys can lead to lifetime friendships and other times its just ‘get me the hell outta here kind of thing," he went on. "The songs kind of reflect that kind of journey and when I was looking through the lyrics, acid rain & sugar cane kind of reflected the ups and the downs, the strange twists and turns, it just seemed to represent that in one little phrase, and it's just a piece of a lyric from the second song on the album called ‘Hundred Years or Six Foot Down."
"I think so," was the honest response from Henry when asked if he thinks ‘Acid Rain & Sugar Cane' is quite different from the bands previous releases. "It's hard for me to say. It's definitely more electric. There's a lot more electric instruments and big guitars, being a bit more of a rock album compared to our previous albums. It's kind of a big and ballsy, brash and heavily orchestrated extravaganza of a record and I don't think we've been quite as ambitious with the production as we ever have before on our records. So yeah, I think it definitely could be stated as bigger and bolder than we've ever been before, which is really exciting."
In between releasing ‘Rumble Shake and Tumble,' Wagons fifth studio album and the recent, ‘Acid Rain & Sugar Cane,' Henry also released a solo record titled, ‘Expecting Company.' Asking about this album, he went on to explain where the inspiration for this project came from. "It was sort of random," he began. "I wasn't planning on it really. We'd been touring ‘Rumble Shake and Tumble' a lot and I was supposed to be having a few months off after that, and in that time I was just putting together these solo songs and duets. I've been recording with a band for many years and I was kind of hiding myself in the studio getting back to the days of when I first started music and tracking everything myself and playing everything myself and just sort of being like Dr Frankenstein building this monster from nothing. But for me I got really lonely, and music is so collaborative," he went on, adding, "You know music first started around campfires ceremonially. It is a public thing, that essentially you do at parties or gatherings, it's so public, so I was alone in the studio but I had a thirst for company, so a lot of the songs turned out being duets because I just wanted some company," he laughed. "So I dragged a number of other people in to sing the songs and that was a really fun kind of process to go through," he concluded.
"I totally see the new Wagons record as an extension of ‘Expecting Company," Henry said when asked if he learnt anything from the solo project that could be applied to the new Wagons record. "Previously to that solo record, the band stuff was a bit more acoustic and a bit more kind of laid back, but that solo record was kind of more rockier and I wanted to carry that over into the Wagons album, so in a weird way I do see the Wagons album as a full realisation of what I was going for on the solo record," he explained. "So instead of having to fumble through all the stuff, I felt I had a big and bold rhythm section of 6 ft 4' hairy dudes playing with. Everyone in my band is massive," he added, "so they sometimes play their instruments really hard and fast, so they helped me get that massive sound that's on the album."
It must have been pretty amazing having Mick Harvey produce ‘Acid Rain & Sugar Cane', I slipped into the conversation next. "Big time!" Henry exclaimed. "His work speaks for itself. I love the PJ Harvey albums that he's worked on and he was the brains behind Nick Cave's best work, like his right hand man, and musical director, so to have someone whose had such a wealth of experience, his genius commenting on my songs was off the hook and amazing. So yeah, I had a really good time having him to bounce off, it was great," he continued.
Following this, Henry went on to explain what the band initially wanted to achieve and communicate through the album. "After releasing my solo record I had a lot of people asking me if Wagons had split up, ‘it's like no, no, no, no, no," he remarked. "The solo record was just a momentary sort of diversion I guess, and an intentional diversion from the band," he added. "I guess as a response to the solo record and people thinking that the band was splitting up, it's like ‘no, I want to bring the band back and I want them to be totally brutal and full force and talk about all those crazy experiences that we've had on the road over the years. So it's definitely an announcement that the band is back. It's a big and brutal record and a very fun one too," he exclaimed.
Next we went on to talk about the bands songwriting process, as Henry went on to fill me in on how a Wagons song is written and created. "It's always different. I mean in the past I've always been a bit of a dictator, but I opened up the creative process a bit more with this record. I always write the lyrics though, that's all me," he admits, "but I opened up the music more, and it was the band who entirely wrote the music for this record, while I just sat there writing and singing out the lyrics over top of whatever they were playing. That's a first for the band too," he declared. "Songs like ‘Chase The Eclipse,' my drummer came up with the chorus and my bass player came out with the bridge, and that again is quite a bit more collaborative then I've ever been before, so it was exciting to have a bit more of an open creative process compared to me just walking in with chord charts. So that was a lot of fun," he continued.
Then of course came the question of what his favourite song on the album is. "Hmmm, it sort of changes, but I think, ‘Why Do You Always Cry,' the first single," he remarked. "We were tossing up on what to release first as a single and I'm so glad we always decided on that song," Henry continued. "It's definitely my favourite, I think. It's quite a strange song, and the chord structure is quite convoluted, but somehow it all fits together and I'm really happy with the drama of that song," he concluded.
After gaining great success from their five previous albums, I asked if the stress of producing ‘another great' album ever got to the band when working on ‘Acid Rain & Sugar Cane.' "Nah, it's the opposite for me," Henry began explaining. "The idea of people out there being at all interested in what I'm doing next creatively, it's such a luxury that people give a shit about what's about to come out of my mind, it's just intensely luxurious," he went on. "It's like ‘oh my god, this is amazing,' you know. The idea that people are anticipating what I am going to do keeps me really motivated and excited to do stuff, and the idea that I can speak to an audience. It really is a fun process, so I actually get revved up by expectation. Thankfully I don't think I've disappointed too many people yet, I'm sure it's around the corner," he laughed before truthfully adding, "and I'm sure when it comes I'll probably be devastated, but as it stands, I'm really excited to have a whole crowd of people waiting and anticipating what I'm going to do and it really drives me to make better music."
Next I played the advice card, as Henry went on to give some great advice for younger musicians who are wanting to form a band and become successful in the music industry. "Concentrate on having fun first and foremost," he clearly stated. "Because people often get obsessed with all of the behind the scenes stuff being what makes you successful, such as the industry cogs and that kind of stuff, but I feel like if you've got a great show, you're making great music and people are coming to see it then all the behind the scenes industry based aspects will fall into place. So I think as an artist, don't be too worried about anything other than making great music and great art, and I promise if you do it for long enough and you're great enough, everything else will fall into place for you," he exclaimed. "Then the worst case scenario is, you're having fun," he added. "If it doesn't all work out, then at least you're having fun. You can tell a band that's striving for big success and fame, it comes out in their music, and I feel that one of the reasons that we (Wagons) were picked up on is that people can see we're just having a great time, doing what we do and that's kind of engaging to watch," he concluded.
Halfway through Henry explaining the differences and similarities between the New Zealand and Australian music industries, a phone began to ring as he started laughing and explained to me, "I think the people for my next interview are ringing me right now." After noticing that we'd gone at least fifteen minutes over time already I informed him I was on the last question, as he said, "You know what, I'm going to finish this answer, they'll ring back," (So to the next interviewer, I don't know who you are but if you're reading this, sorry for holding him up, and thanks to Henry for being such a trooper and a laugh to interview!) As he went on- "You know what. I don't really know. I haven't really had too many interactions with the New Zealand industry. When I've talked to people like you and I've gone in for radio interviews and at all the venues, people have been incredibly lovely. There's a certain transparency between the good people that I've worked with in New Zealand and the good people I've worked with in Australia. There's just a bunch of enthusiastic, like minded people that like to go to bars and pubs on a weekend and get shit faced, have a good time and like listening to great music, so yeah I haven't found there to be too many differences between the two countries from what I can tell, but perhaps I'll gain more insight from this trip and I can dish some dirt out next time we talk," he laughed.
Quickly slipping in one final quick question before his phone began ringing for his next interview once more, Henry went on to admit that he is a great fan of New Zealand music. "Yes growing up in particular when I was first getting into music I loved a lot of Flying Nun kind of acts," he responded. "I was obsessed with the 3Ds for a while, another band called Outer Space and Straightjacket Fits. But yeah, I have a great respect for New Zealand Music and that whole Flying Nun scene and coming to New Zealand now I'm looking for-ward to seeing some great new New Zealand music too, because it's been too long since I've been really into a New Zealand band, so hopefully I'll be put onto some really cool new stuff," he quickly concluded before we bid our goodbyes and he raced straight onto his next interview.
August 29th: Tuning Fork, Auckland
August 30th: Leigh Sawmill, Leigh
Tickets via Under The Radar & Real Groovy