Interview: Henry Wagons Talks Australia, Vinyl and Elvis Presley
Even though he's one of the most influential people in Melbourne, Australia, Henry Wagons is a music fan first and foremost. When he's not touring Down Under with his enduring -- and endearing -- honky-tonk or hosting Tower of Song, a national Americana radio show in his homeland, he's finding any excuse to make a trip to the states to visit his friends and recordingmates. Fortunately, those excuses are becoming easier and easier to make.
While out on the road celebrating the release of his debut solo full-length LP, After What I Did Last Night ..., Wagons took some time to meet up with The Boot at Ground Central, a coffee shop in Midtown Manhattan known to spin a record or two during business hours.
"I've been playing in this floorboard-shattering, sweaty, Australian, raucous, messy rock and country band for a long time, but it's always been on the bucket list to go to Nashville and record," Wagons tells The Boot. "We've traveled through there so many times, and so many of my favorite albums come from there, whether it was Neil Young's Harvest or Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde."
Like many who visit Nashville, Wagons has a hard time putting his finger on what it is that makes the town so special -- but that didn't stop him from "waiting for this chance to go over to Nashville and record and live out the dream." And once Wagons landed in Nashville, it didn't take long for him to "live out the dream" with producer Skylar Wilson.
"I spent two days straight with Sklyar, just piano and guitar. We were strategizing and thinking through the songs, and he was charting them out on the spot," Wagons recalls. "It was an intricate, amazing process. We had great conversations -- I've been waiting for someone to care that much. I was in the mood to hand over my songs to someone I could trust and to make an impression on a scene and a culture I admire so much."
Once Wagons and Wilson worked through the songs, the band came in and began rehearsals. The reaction from his American bandmates -- guitarist Richie Kirkpatrick, drummer Jerry Pentecost, fiddler Josh Younts and harmonica player Cory Younts -- was, as Wagons says, a bit of a surprise.
"I was just like, 'Let's practice, let's get this thing right.' They weren't used to that; they were used to just coming in and recording right away," he says. "That was a great combination of forces, and by the end, they were like, 'We should rehearse all the time!'"
That process in Nashville didn't come to Wagons overnight, however. Through touring with the likes of Justin Townes Earle and Those Darlins -- two artists Wagons specifically thanks for the opportunity to get plugged into the North American scene -- he fell in love with the city. And after getting his foot in the door, Wagons let his tentacles out and sunk in his hooks all over the place.
"I'd go and play a few shows on the West Coast with Justin, and then I'd go to SXSW, and then Canadian Music Week," Wagons explains. "All of a sudden I had this infrastructure and team in the states, all on the back of playing those shows; I struck up a relationship with Six Shooter Records in Canada and Thirty Tigers in Nashville."
You can tell a real musician by how little they actually talk about what they do.
Once plugged in, Wagons felt like he fit into the scene in Nashville. He admits that it's a pretty diverse community, but he's fond of the assorted spirits that inhabit the town.
"People are spending all their time writing songs but don't spend much time talking about it. All those people are obsessed with music, but they're more excited to talk about their favorite whiskey than songcraft," he says with a chuckle. "You can tell a real musician by how little they actually talk about what they do. There is a lot more doing than there is hot air, and as a result, I've spent a huge amount of time drinking whiskey and making good friends."
It doesn't hurt that Wagons travels with a huge, shiny belt buckle emblazoned with an "H" either.
"If I wear a belt buckle big enough, I can walk around wherever I want," he notes. "It's the key to the city."
This wasn't Wagons' first experience recording in Nashville; in fact, it was just a couple of years ago that he lugged his musical equipment to the famed United Record Pressing plant on Chestnut Street, to record the ninth volume of Upstairs at United.
"That was one of the best recording days of my life, and it's inspired me ever since," he says as he reflects on the experience. "That whole series, that process, it's direct live-to-tape, and then straight to lacquer -- there is no digital realm whatsoever. That album is really special, and I've been chasing that ever since."
Fortunately for Wagons and vinyl fans alike, he did everything he could to mimic the experience for the new album.
"The process we used, the musicians we used, everyone reveres decades past," he explains. "It was recorded in a way that stands up to vinyl -- it's almost the way it was meant to be."
For Wagons, that passion for vinyl isn't merely a part of the recording process; it's part of his life.
"Vinyl is very important to me. In this era of music, where everyone is either streaming or downloading, the actual music is just in the air now. It's literally nothing, there's nothing to hold, there is no product whatsoever," he says. "So if you actually have something of your own, you might as well make it a beast. Vinyl feels like this old-school antique; it's this true trinket, it's an amazing thing to hold. It's a validation of the project, too, because it's not just released in the ether."
Even for a young Wagons growing up in Australia, vinyl played a significant role in shaping who he is today.
"It started with Johnny Cash," he remembers. "It started with the first American Recordings from Johnny Cash. My now-bass player, Mark Dawson, gave me Solitary Man, and that was the gateway to me rediscovering my parents' record collection. My dad was always into Marty Robbins, my mum was into Elvis and Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, Neil Diamond ... I had completely rebelled against their musical tastes, but somehow Johnny Cash acted as a gateway to rediscovering those records, and I loved it."
Vinyl feels like this old-school antique; it's this true trinket, it's an amazing thing to hold. It's a validation of the project, too, because it's not just released in the ether.
Beyond just being a fan, Cash and Presley are a big part of how Wagons approaches his own music -- and a big part of how critics draw comparisons when writing about him.
"I never get it when people get upset about comparisons," he laughingly says. "These comparisons are incredibly flattering. So many of those guys that I'm compared to are actually guys I like and I'm inspired by, so I feel like I'm doing my job, you know?"
Besides Presley and Cash, Wagons often draws comparisons to Elvis Costello, Nick Cave and Lee Hazlewood -- or, as he puts it, "guys from decades past who have a little bit of flair."
Those influences weren't accidental. In addition to the impact his parents' record collection had on him, Wagons never felt all that connected to the indie rock scene of the '90s, even though he enjoyed listening to the music.
"I wasn't brought up with the great American songbook," he says. "When I was growing up in the '90s, I loved music and always wanted to see bands ... I was seeing a lot of indie culture and shoegaze stuff, but I'd go home and listen to Elvis and watch him on the VHS. There was a disconnect from what I was seeing in the clubs, which was usually just guys screwing with their guitar pedals on the floor, finishing their songs and looking at their feet. Then there's Elvis, then there's Johnny Cash, these incredibly big performers. That looked really fun, and that's what I wanted to do, and I came to kneel at the feet of Waylon Jennings and all of the original outlaw legends."
So, Wagons set out to create this kind of music that he loved, and because of that (and his radio show), he discovered a vibrant scene in his homeland.
"There's a huge community devoted to this music, this sort of twang that is indefinable," he explains. "There are great artists down there that are covering all aspects of this indefinable genre."
Who are such artists? Wagons is quick to turn his attention to New Zealand and, with quite a bit of passion, call out Marlon Williams.
"He's one of my favorites right now," Wagons says. "He is almost like an Elvis Presley-type singer. He sings like a choirboy, but he does incredibly dark and twisted tunes. His small town has produced some amazing performers well beyond its population."
"There is a huge, thriving scene," he notes, "big enough that it has inspired a radio show about it all, and I'm, thankfully, at the helm."
His immersion in the culture has no doubt guided Wagons' own songwriting process, both in things he appreciates and things he doesn't quite understand.
"That sort of tongue-in-cheek thing that I knew Dylan had, that I know Johnny Cash had, that I saw recently at a Bobby Bare show in Nashville, I feel like it's been lost a bit in modern-day country and Americana," he admits. "Everyone is so serious a lot of the time."
I like to think of it as a journey, a really personal journey, full of ups and downs and highs and lows ... It's a journey between young and stupid Henry all the way through old, stupid Henry ... and everything in between.
That's not to say that Wagons' own songs are a joke. It's easy to find him getting personal on After What I Did Last Night ...
"I wanted to write good songs and make great music -- serious, heavyweight songwriting that could lead to a brighter side as well," he says. "Because it's a solo record, I wanted to sort of harness some of those stories that I had going on in my life. I like to think of it as a journey, a really personal journey, full of ups and downs and highs and lows."
From the opening track, "Cold Burger, Cold Fries," through the beautiful closing tune, "Melbourne," Wagons succeeds at taking his listeners on an unforgettable excursion. As he sips his coffee in New York City, he humbly tells us, "It's a journey between young and stupid Henry all the way through old, stupid Henry ... and everything in between."
After What I Did Last Night ... was released on Feb. 12 via Goldview / Metropolitan Groove Merchants. You can grab the album -- and stay up-to-date with everything happening in Wagons' world -- at his official website.
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