Tuesday, June 28, 2011
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.”
Christian Bland of psychedelic rockers The Black Angels is not one to complain about the pressures and drag of being a touring musician. As we speak he’s excited to be gearing up for a flight to Spain, which will see his band playing Primavera Sound festival for the first time. Though, until now, strangers to Spain, The Black Angels are no strangers to festivals. Hailing from Austin, Texas – home of the annual industry showcase South By Southwest – The Black Angels have played, amongst others, no less than two All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and SXSW. It’s unsurprising really, given the natural association of the festival psyche and psychedelic music in general, but Bland puts the band’s natural leanings to festival stages down to a commonality of mind between musicians and audience.
“It’s great because they’re big gatherings,” he says. “When you have a big gathering of like-minded people it makes it all the more powerful. All Tomorrow’s Parties, they’re really awesome, something we’re really in to. We played at the one in Camber Sands England, which is like a beach holiday place that’s abandoned the rest of the year, and we played the one in Kutsher’s in upper-state New York, which is an old country club and straight out of The Twilight Zone.”
In moving from Florida to Austin in 2002, Bland set himself the task of finding the right people, in what he believed to be the right place, to form and band. Initially hooking up with childhood friend Alex Maas, the pair experimented with upwards of thirty local musicians over two years before discovering Stephanie Bailey. With the benefits of hindsight, the process obviously paid dividends, but Bland maintains that he had faith in the quality of the town to relinquish the players he was looking for eventually. “After living here for about two months I got in touch with Alex,” Bland continues. “We’d grown up together since I was about 11, so we’d done all sorts of creative stuff but never played music together. It was two years before we finally found Stephanie and once she joined it really started to take off.
“There’s a band playing every night of the week here so when we’re home we’re always goin’ downtown and checking out friend’s bands. There’s a real good thing happening here right now. There’s a lot of music that’s up my alley right here in Austin. SXSW has a major influence. When our friend’s bands come down for SXSW they always say, man we’re movin’ to Austin. They get the bug.”
With access to a huge range of local and international artists in Austin every March, Bland decided it would make sense to hold a celebration of the psychedelic acts that were visiting. Thus a new festival, Psych Fest Austin, was spawned and, as Bland explains, what started as an excuse to hang out with their touring friends and other like-minded musicians rapidly grew into a three-day extravaganza of all things psychedelic. “It’s continually grown,” he says. “We started Psych Fest the weekend before SXSW in March 2008. The idea was first to see which of our friend’s bands were coming for SXSW and ask them if they could come a couple of days early and play at our festival. The first one was just a Saturday then the next year it grew into three days. We’ve started to fly bands in who are leaving before SXSW. This last year we did it at this old abandoned power plant here in Austin and it was really awesome. It was maybe double the capacity of the last year. It’s just been a gathering of all of our friends and is really one of my favourite times of year these days.”
Bland credits his initial interest in psychedelic music with his first experience of hearing the space-age ‘60s-inspired jams of Brian Jonestown Massacre. “Once I discovered them,” he continues, “it opened doors to discovering bands like The Warlocks or Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – they were the centre point for where it started for me. I started playing guitar when I was like 21or something and they just inspired me. My Mum and Dad listened to the oldies stations when I was young and that’s the music I fell in love with. So when I heard Brian Jonestown Massacre, they sounded like that old stuff in the modern day and I just thought man I wanna be a part of that.”
Sharing a stage with BJM’s Anton Newcombe in 2006 was an obvious highlight for a band that have, through extensive touring and festival appearances, been allowed to rub shoulders with many of their heroes and contemporaries. In playing as the backing band in 2008 For legendary psych God Roky Erikson though, The Black Angels were to not only able to fulfil a dream of backing one of the band’s biggest influences, but also play an integral role in Erikson revisiting a painful yet incredibly productive and influential period of his life. “One of the reasons I wanted to move to Austin was [Erikson’s former band] the 13th Floor Elevators,” Bland continues. “Getting to play with him was surreal, it was crazy. Alex and I had seen him play a couple of times around Austin and after we saw him we’d say, man I wish he’d just played a couple more 13th Floor Elevators songs. So when we got to back him as a band our goal was to get him to do the first five songs off their first album.”
Bland explains that though Erikson would regularly perform some of these songs, they figured the others were too painful for him to revisit. What they discovered when practising with Erikson prior to their shows, were far more pragmatic reasons for him avoiding the material. “I didn’t know if he’d like to revisit that time of his life because it was rough,” Bland continues. “That was when they were taking all the LSD and he got caught with one marijuana joint and they were gonna throw him in jail for a long time, like five years, or he could go to the mental institute for like two years. So he went to the metal institute and they gave him electro-shock therapy. It really screwed him up. It’s crazy, for one joint, what a waste.
“We realised that the reason he didn’t do [the songs] was that he didn’t remember how to play them. So we invited him over to our house and Nate Ryan and I would sit down with an acoustic guitar, a music stand and the words in front of him and re-teach him his songs. It was pretty challenging at first because he was so frustrated that he couldn’t remember the songs but he just kept plugging away at it. We knew that in the recesses of his mind he must’ve known them because he’s sung them hundreds of times. Eventually it just started to click and he was playing them and lo and behold we got to do the first five songs of the album while we were playing with him in his backing band.”