Interview: Wagons

Friday 29 August 2014

Interview: Wagons
Henry Wagons is the bandleader of Wagons, an alt-country band out of Melbourne that knows a thing or two about putting on high-energy, chaotic rock n roll shows. Their latest album, Acid Rain and Sugar Cain, was produced by the legendary Mick Harvey (Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds), and sees the band returning to Auckland for two shows this weekend. Eventfinda caught up with him on the eve of his shows at Auckland’s Tuning Fork and the Leigh Sawmill.

What can you remember about the last time you were in New Zealand?
We were really well looked after, both on and off the stage. It’s just one of those things where, it’s not always you’ll go to a place where you feel like there’s kindred spirits, but we felt we were treated much much better than we deserved over there in New Zealand and we can’t wait to soak up the attention all over again.

So you were treated like the rock stars that you are then?
Yeah, well it wasn’t so much rock star treatment, but the treatment of a kind and gentle and loving grandmother. We were well fed, watered, loved and cradled. That to me is the pinnacle. When I say grandma it sounds like I’m calling everyone in New Zealand old, but I was just trying to think of something that was the most kind, caring, loving and warm feeling. My stomach is full of gently flapping butterflies thinking of coming to New Zealand again. I’m not just saying that. We’ve actually just come back from Canada and I think the people are similarly in tune. I think there’s something about being kind of tiny western culture, cultural bastions, but also with controlled populations and beautiful landscapes that make us all epic people.

I’ve actually heard that comparison before, I wondered if it was about being in the shadow of a bigger, brother nation, like we are to Australia, and Canada is to the states.
Yeah, it kind of is like that and Australia has got that relationship with other countries too. The whole big brother/tall poppy syndrome that keeps us all humble maybe, who knows. But I like it anyway. I really like playing gigs in countries where everyone is incredibly similar, but there’s also other thrills to playing a festival in say, Vietnam, which we’ve also done, where it’s just total culture shock. Both ends of the spectrum are really really exciting and interesting. Whether it’s just everyone totally on the same wave length, or people totally not on the same wave length, and they often make for the best gigs. I hope there is a smattering of both ends of the spectrum at these gigs we’re playing in Auckland.

I guess you’re in a pretty privileged position in your job as a touring musician to interact with a whole bunch of different cultures around the world...
Big time. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I’m doing it. I’m eternally thankful, and shocked, to be quite honest, that this is my life now. It’s incredible. I kind of never aspired to do it. Music and creativity in general was just something really fun that I did that just naturally came out of every pore for me, I just liked doing it as a hobby. The fact that it is has over taken every aspect of my life is really great.

So when you started the band, you didn’t have any huge aspirations about what you wanted to achieve with it? 
I had none. I wanted to be a philosophy academic; I attended the nerdiest meetings and was incredibly passionate about becoming a wanker, really. I’ve become a wanker of another sort now, as a musician. 

What do you think it is that has kept the band together after all of these years?
I want to high school with three or four of them and I know so many intimate details about them, too many to be comfortable in myself with. We’ve toured in confined conditions for so long. We’re still friends, we’re not demanding Kings of Leon-style separate limos to and from the venue. I think that would actually be a horrible existence. I actually really love all of my guys, still. Part of it, I think, is having fun. It’s a really important thing and when you’re not having fun with it, there’s not much point in doing it. 

There’s been a kind of strange momentum and there’s always been a shining light on the horizon that keeps us excited for some reason or another, be it a festival or recording or a soundtrack, or some sort of strange thing that we’ve been asked to do that keeps everyone excited. And when we’re not, like when I’m off doing something else, the rest of my guys are all otherwise occupied in all sorts of creative and interesting ways. We come together and part ways like a piano accordion. It’s a relatively low-maintenance band. We rehearse up when we’ve got a series of shows or we come together and record or we drift apart a little bit and come back together. It’s always good to see them.

I think also another secret is the fact that the band isn’t a democracy, and I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn. But, one of the reasons so many bands fall apart is when there’s no chain of command or there’s no one who makes the final decisions. Because actually the subject matter in music is so esoteric and every decision you make has got more grey areas than solid answers. If the power in the band is evenly distributed it can just draw arguments and chaos, because there is no right answer. In Wagons I happen to have been given this arbitrary throne. Everyone really puts in their two cents and I’m not saying that my band doesn’t have an incredible amount to do with the sound of our band, but generally I get the final say on how things go and as long as everyone feels like they’ve been listened to before they’re shut down, everyone’s happy.

Is there a bit of pressure that comes with that position on the throne?
No. I’m excited and thrilled by it. I kind of thrive on expectation. The idea that someone is actually interested in my creative output is a real privilege. I just really get off on the idea that people are waiting in anyway to hear what we’ve come up with, so it’s a real motivating factor.

Was one of the moments of momentum the idea of working with Mick Harvey on an album?
Yeah. Working with Mick was amazing. I was kind of ready to relinquish a fair degree of control to a producer that we all trusted and loved. We had a few sessions getting some songs together without a producer and sort of just writing. The songs that were coming out were kind of strange and dark - more so than usual. When we were tossing around ideas about who to get to produce, Mick (who we knew was now living in Melbourne and had quit the Bad Seeds so he wasn’t touring as much),  we thought he might be available. I almost toured New Zealand with him actually, so we had some sort of relationship with him. It didn’t work out, but that’s how we kind of met.

That would have been an incredible tour. 
It would have been so good. I had a scheduling problem, it really sucked. I then asked him to produce a month later over a Facebook message, and next thing you know we’re having a coffee and he’s up for it. That was really great, because I gather he’s quite picky about who he works with, and it’s not necessarily based on merit or success. Basically he looks at a project in front of him and judges whether he has something to offer, whether he can contribute in any way. Some pretty legendary music people actually have come up to him and he’s heard their music or the demos and been like, ‘I can’t do anything, this is just complete, I can’t offer anything to this, it already sounds good, and what am I going to do?’ We must have not had our shit together just enough for him to feel like he could contribute, so I am very thankful for that. I am very thankful for being not good enough for him to turn down.

That’s such a legendary name to have on the album and in the producer’s seat.
His production style (and it’s the same with Nick Cave and with PJ Harvey), he feels is at the inception of the songs, so he’ll hop on an instrument. So basically he plays on every single song and he feels he has most to offer as kind of joining the band and as the arrangements are coming together, he is part of the discussion in the same way everyone else in the band is and he is fumbling through the parts and learning the parts as everyone else is, that’s just how he operates. 

It’s pretty amazing to say, ask about, ‘Hey, how often have you found you keep the first vocal take of what you’re actually putting down?’ and Mick will sit down and say, ‘Well, who are you talking about? Nick, or Polly?’ You know, this weight of experience. I remember him putting his arms around the neck of my guitarist and teaching him a Birthday Party lick, or him playing piano on one of our songs and it sounding kind of Bad Seeds-y. These are some of those tricks that naturally ooze from him. They were few and far between, he was so capable of morphing himself into our sound, it’s not just anyone that can sit in with a bunch of guys who have known each other since high school and blend in with the music, but he could. There were these moments that reminded us of his cultural legacy.

So when you’re touring with this album does it also feel like you’re touring with the spirit of Mick Harvey as well since he played instruments or contributed ideas to every song on the album?
Well yeah, he had a lot to do with the sound of the album for sure, but in a way the album was recorded live so much so that a lot of his parts were more textural parts than lead parts. He was a vibes guy. He played a lot of background keys. He played drums on a couple of songs, he played guitar on a couple too, but his parts were more just him immersing himself in the song, as opposed to stealing the song, if you know what I mean. 

How would you describe the vibes of Wagons, with or without Mick Harvey?
I think it’s like if fat Elvis got drunk with a depressed Roy Orbison at Johnny Cash’s funeral and decided to celebrate instead of commiserate his loss, and then plant a bomb in the chapel… that explosion would be the opening chord of our music.

You have a real talent of telling stories through songs and lyrics as well and I read a lot about how there are certain American novelists who have influenced your writing style. Are you able to elaborate on what books you enjoy reading and what authors you turn to for inspiration?
There were three influences that propelled me as a 18-year-old to start Wagons and it was Dead Man, the Jim Jarmusch movie starring Johnny Depp, the Johnny Cash album Solitary Man and The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy. All of them are definitely poetic and that psychedelic Western-type stuff. They were all new to me and all impacted me within a few months and I was surrounded all of sudden by this theme, this atmosphere that I really got into and started reading Zane Grey Westerns from the Second World War era. I got into those and that inspired the setting of the scene and I feel like we have been gravitating around that kind of theme ever since, that triad of influences.

I think now we’re approaching it through the Lee Hazlewood angle. We’ve approached it acoustically in the past with the Johnny Cash thing. Next thing might be the cascading fat that tumbles over Elvis’ belt, a bit more of a funk aspect. It’s all of that putrid psychedelic Wild West that fascinates me. 

In terms of other authors, I really like that kind of trippy strange playfulness that authors like John Fowles. I really got into Murakami for a little while. I am a creature of habit. All of these are authors, whether it’s Cormack McCarthy or Murakami or Fowles, they’re prone to strange journeys that make absolutely no sense and I think I can relate on some very basic level. At any moment in time I’m very prone to making a left hand turn and wandering the streets for days and I think I like that in my literature as well. A journey of self-discovery (to put it crudely) going astray or going wild is quite a powerful thing.