Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Henry Wagons – Interview by Samson McDougall
Henry Wagons exudes a natural charm, a gregarious larrikinism; on stage or in person he is instantly likeable, a born performer. His band, Wagons, operates as an extension of this personality. Somehow he’s managed to surround himself with the right mix of mates and musicians to deliver this little piece of himself, and themselves, through the media of country music. The sum of it all is a heaving meat party. Their shows are famously wild, unhinged and unbridled affairs. You can’t help but be swept into the open sweat-soaked arms of this band; drawn into the panting bosom of the beast. All they ask in return is that you love them like they love you... and they most undoubtedly do. You can tell.
Having been forced into guitar lessons at an early age, Wagons didn’t practice and claims in those early years he “Never really took it up”. The instrument gathered dust through his adolescence and was not revisited until he started university. Looking back on the past ten years – which have included five album releases, numerous national and (recent) international tours, awards and ultimately resulted in his existence now as a full-time professional musician – it’s frightening to think that all of this stemmed from what was realistically a happy accident. With an instrument gathering cobwebs for all those years, it was only a matter of time before it was going to be played, or discarded. “I did an arts degree because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” he says. “A philosophy degree only has 12 contact hours so there’s plenty of time to do other things in between. I had to do something, so I picked the guitar up again. I never stopped.”
There is very little about Wagons, bar his fortuitous nomenclature, which rings of country. To describe him, you’d lean towards words like urbane or cultured – he hosts an arts segment on the ABC for God’s sake – you could take it as far as saying sophisticated. That’s not to say that country folk can’t or don’t express such qualities, but Wagons exists and seems to belong in an urban setting, his fingernails are clean so to speak. It’s unsurprising then that his initial forays into creating music came in the form of rock bands (a hard-rock outfit called Breaking The Law of particular comic value).
Witness Wagons play and you’ll understand he was destined for a life in the limelight. His profile leaking off of stages and into the wider cultural consciousness through his recent forays into media reinforces this. Armed with a solid base knowledge of music handed down by parents he describes as “open minded and supportive” of his pursuits, there is no question in his mind he’s following the good path. “My Nan always talks to me about how she wants me to give up music and get a real job,” he says. “I go and visit her every week when I’m in town. She says ‘doing music makes you tired’. I think doing five gigs in five days is nothing like working in a television factory like she did five days a week. I get the feeling she would’ve had to’ve coped with more industrial strength noise and more hard labour than I do, so five gigs in five days doesn’t bother me. It’s a pretty cruisy job.
“Being in front of the camera, I get a very similar creative rush as I do on stage. It sort of stretches the same muscles, having to do stuff on the fly and play with words, it’s all exciting stuff. But music is my passion and my number one go-to for stretching the creative muscles. When it comes down to it I’m just an attention seeking only child, so by any means [if] I can get people looking at me and giving me their attention, I’m happy for it.”
Equal to the providence that saw Señoir Wagons return to his instrument, his entry into the realm of the pastoral stemmed from circumstance rather than design. “Wagons [the band] came along at a pivotal moment,” he continues. “I only knew about five or six guitar chords and my drummer gave me an American Recordings Johnny Cash record. I was reading a Cormac McCarthy novel at the time and had just seen Dead Man, the Johnny Depp/Jim Jarmusch film at the cinema. That combination, that triad is what made me make some fucked-up country music.
“I never really thought about it, at the time it was just a fun thing to do, but ever since it’s had this weird kind of momentum which has accelerated over the last couple of years. It’s always had enough of a gathering snowball effect to keep going for the ten years I’ve been playing in the band.”
This snowballing has forced the Wagons machine from the comfort of their inner-city environs and thrust them into the countryside – forcing them to front up with their self-deprecating brand of alternative country in the beating heart of the scene. It brings about some interesting questions in terms of audience: who is it that listens to Wagons? On what levels are listeners engaging with the earnestness of some of the songs, while rolling with the relative comedy of others? And, most importantly, how can they be sure when the joking’s done and the ‘real’ country’s begun?
“In the early days of Wagons, the most country we’d get would be a suburban barbeque – we didn’t swing too far from a foccacia and a latte,” he concedes. “Because we were so Melbourne-centric, there were concerns that what we did wouldn’t really translate. But I found that with each new frontier there’s more similarities than differences. There’s an odd similarity in playing in the country and playing in town. Sure, after 2am differences start to emerge but ultimately what it comes down to is a bunch of people getting together on a Saturday night that like watching live music and getting pissed, who are in for a good time and if there’s a band there that can deliver it, then they will have a good time.
“The further out of the capital cities we go, there’s a higher likelihood of having an amazing night. In the capital cites, whether in Australia or in the US, you pretty much know how it’s going to go: you’ll be playing in a civilised bar, sure there’ll be a couple of shit-faced people but you pretty much know how they’re gonna behave. When you get out into the sticks, there’s always a bit of an edge to it, you never know quite how it’s going to go. It can be really fun and an amazing time or it can be an absolute heartbreaking nightmare where everyone is just crumbled and cruel. Either way it leads to an amazing evening.”
This attitude in conjunction with the self-assuredness of the show plays no small part in winning listeners over from urban clubs to festival stages and country halls. To have the balls to remove yourself from your comforts and ‘put out’ in strange environments agrees with the universal concept of fortune befriending the bold. There’s something very human about testing yourself, pushing the bounds of what’s attainable for those brazen enough to dare; Wagons encapsulates and translates these concepts with precision. “Everyone in the band likes, as Dave Graney calls it, ‘rude music’,” he continues. “It doesn’t mean swearing or violence, but music that isn’t timid or mild mannered. Whether it’s Si [‘the Philanthropist’ Francis]’s passion for brutal hip hop or Mark [Dawson]’s love of Otis Redding, everyone in the band likes big and brash music, so we like to put on a big show. It can be a surprise when people turn up to their corner bar and get a bunch a dickheads pretending like they’re headlining Woodstock, [but] it’s entertaining and it more or less works.”
This belief that anyone can have a crack; that if you love it, you should chase it; and that the reward should be weighed in the connection with audience and the energy that brings, is a large part of what sets Wagons apart. Their appeal is broad: making everyman music with a sense of humour and self-derision. It’s a very Australian concept, and it seems the further they stray from the capital cities, the further they are prepared, and expected, to push the envelope into the ‘rude’.
“There’s some kind of parallel universe between Bunbury Western Australia and some shitty bar in New York or London. It’s the same guy with long curly hair and a trench coat that doesn’t really say much but comes up and talks to you in a quiet voice after the show and you think, ‘I talked to that guy eight years ago at a bar in Brunswick’. It’s a parallel existence that these creative people and music lovers have, and I’m coming up against it and enjoying the company of these people wherever I go. I was originally worried about when I’d tease the crowd or berate someone or make fun of some things, but the further out you go, the more people love to hang shit on their friends. I don’t think I can control what I do enough to change it from place to place. I can’t help but be a smart arse.”