Front-man of Australia's alt-country outfit Wagons, singer-songwriter Henry Wagons recently released his first full-length solo record, After What I Did Last Night... Chronicling Wagons' life from wild young man to husband and father, the album has the perfect triad of heart, humor and heft. While in the NYC doing press for the album, Wagons kindly took the time for an engaging chat about the album.
You wear many different hats: front-man of Wagons, radio show host [Double J’s Tower of Song] and television personality [in his native Australia]. And as of February 12th, with the release of After What I Did Last Night… you added another, solo-artist.
My band Wagons, we’re a bunch of big sweaty, hairy guys who have been on tour more or less since 2009, so we’re having a little bit of a break while I live my childhood dream and fulfill this bucket list item of making an album in this way [with pickup players]. I didn’t realize so many of my favorite records, whether you talk about the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, Neil Young’s Harvest or Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, were made with pick up players. Australia is very much a pop-rock culture; it’s all about more of a Lo-fi punk sensibility, you form bands in a more organic nature, like with friends you went to school with. It seems that in towns like Nashville, those kind of organic relationships are fast forwarded because there are a bunch of amazing musicians who are empathetic to the song and are ready to go at any time. They’re not the kind of session musician who wears muscle tops and does electric guitar dive bombs like Eddie Van Halen. They’re often songwriters themselves who know a good song, so to rock up and play with those like-minded types of people was a great thing to do. When we signed a new deal for my solo career at home, that afforded me the opportunity to come and do this, so I booked a flight straight away and it’s been great.
And you came to Nashville to make the album. What’s the story behind that instead of say, making it at home or in LA?
Through a series of happy coincidences and a lot of touring with Justin Townes Earle, we got a deal with Thirty Tigers, who have distributed the last few Wagons’ records. Over the past five or six years, I have been to Nashville a whole bunch overseeing the American side of things and those were good times to pick up some good whiskey drinking buddies. I managed to get a few of them leaning up against the bar so I could sit around and plot making a record. And sure enough, it happened.
The album, which was recorded in Nashville, was produced by Skylar Wilson and has some really cool players on it including lead guitarist Richie Kirkpatrick (Jessica Lea Mayfield, Langhorne Slim), drummer Jerry Pentecost (Jonny Fritz, Caitlin Rose), fiddler Josh Hedley (Justin Townes Earle, Jonny Fritz) and harmonica player Cory Younts (Old Crow Medicine Show). Were these the drinking buddies or people who you specifically sought out?
Skylar was the only one I didn’t know. I was a really long time admirer, but a first-time caller. I knew he’d done my favorite Justin Townes Earle record and my favorite Caitlin Rose record and played on Southeastern. This was a guy whose name just kept popping up; he was metaphorically stalking my thoughts without actually doing anything himself (laughing). A friend of mine had his details, so I asked if he minded if I called, and I did. Skylar is a great guy and we got along really well over this transpacific Skype call and I was like ‘I think this is really gonna happen.’ Months later I was in his room playing fifteen or so songs to him, taking apart song structures, having some emotionally heavy conversations and whittling down the songs until we had ourselves a record.
The record seems to be in a loose chronological order of things that happened in your life. Did you set out for it to be that way or did it just fall that way?
I like to think of this record as very autobiographical, going all the way from young stupid Henry to old stupid Henry (laughing). “Only Child” I wrote nearly fifteen years ago, but most of the songs are new ones that reflect on old times. It was sort of a coincidence, but turned out to be in chronological order starting with younger drunken tales and ending with a song [“Melbourne”] that’s very dear to me, about becoming a dad, my hometown and missing the people I love. It spans the gamut in that sense; hopefully, it’s a gentle bipolar journey.
This is a real enterprise so I thought if I’m actually going to do this on my own I wanted it to be an expression of myself. I can’t rely on the bluster of sweaty, hairy Australian pub rock tradition. I can’t just stomp around, so I wanted to give something of myself which inspired the songwriting to be a little more confessional than some of my other songs. When I write for the band I tend to leach their stories a lot of time or get inspired from a strange piece of street art or whatever. I wanted to honor the fact that I’m solo so I tried to channel something of myself with this record. It’s funny because while I’ve been letting open my heart a bit more, a lot of strange and funny stuff came out. I thought it would be all depressing painful emo stuff, but a lot of fun stuff came out which I guess reflects well on my life.
Definitely, it does. There’s this mix of heart and depth that I think leaves the listener with the takeaway that you are a guy who had his wild and crazy days, and who maybe still likes to be crazy, but truly loves his family.
That wasn’t an intentional concept, but I’m glad you got that out of it. My life isn’t yet complete so I don’t know how the story ends, but in the midst there are those things like a life in music which can be a chaotic world. At times it’s just the craziest situation but it also is artistic satisfaction and release and booze and bluster which is a really fun world to immerse oneself in, but the ground I always like standing on the most is back at home with my family and a good balance of the two is what I spend my life shooting for. I’m scared and excited by the prospect of a lot more touring here in the states, but luckily my family likes it here. My dad is in LA and I’ve got a lot of good friends here too, so perhaps I’ll drag the foundation with me into the booze and bluster this time.
Speaking of booze and bluster, there are some songs which give the sense of some wild escapades, like “King Hit” and “Cowboy in Krakow.”
“Cowboy in Krakow” is part real life, part flight of fancy. Last year I went to Krakow with my mother who recently found out that she has a brother in Poland who she never met. My mom is 70 and her brother is 75 so her dad had a son before WWII and then had a new family after the war, which apparently happened a fair bit. My mom always wanted to meet him and I promised I’d go with her, so we set off with the blessing of the wife and child [Wagons has a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter]. So we went and had a great time in Krakow and that inspired the song. A lot of time the truth is in the inception of the song, and it needs to be fleshed out with flights of fancy or that sort of thing, but in general the vibe is always straight from the heart.
After What I Did Last Night… is eclectic, unique and incredibly cool. And along with that heart and depth, it has humor, which I love, but you don’t often hear in many contemporary songs.
Yeah, you know in a way the whole thing kicked off a year or two ago after I saw a Bobby Bare Sr. gig at the Bluebird. His lyrics and smart-ass qualities really appealed to me and it started this snowball into letting some of that smart aleck in me fly in my lyrics. There’s so much seriousness with confessional singer-songwriters at the moment and when I sat down and tried to get confessional it seemed silly to block out the fun moments. So in my fessing up for my solo record, it’s just not sad and sorry stare at your shoes kind of stuff, it’s a full roller coaster ride.
When I look back at some of my favorite concert footage, which tends to be from decades ago, you’ll have the Rat Pack playing drunk, but then Dean Martin will have this beautiful crooning, serious song, yet still have this playfulness. Then you have Cash impersonating Elvis Presley, sort of almost a vaudeville piece of showmanship and Dylan too, he’s one of funniest guys; there’s this humorous element in the songwriting greats that seems just to be bypassed now. Like if you add a wise crack or make funny observations you can sometimes get thrown away as a novelty, but I think it’s an important part of serious songwriting to bring it all into that milieu.
Yeah, I agree and definitely appreciate the humor.
Switching gears a bit, After What I Did Last Night is pulled from a line in “Cold Burger, Cold Fries.” Why did you choose that for the album title?
That’s always what I’ve done on all of my albums with the band or otherwise. I’ve picked a line that’s somewhat evocative and thematic. After What I Did Last Night hinted at the next chapter type thing as a bit of insight into what happens to me and what I think about when the stage lights are off; whether it be literally in the moments after the show when I’m drinking, or me getting home to a hotel room or home to my family. It’s what my life’s like after the bluster.
And the gold jacket on the cover? Is that your trademark?
It is for this album (laughing). I really like the visual. I see being a musician as a 360 enterprise, I love the fact that it’s an all-encompassing project. Part of what made me start the whole Wagons thing was a reaction against when I grew up, with so much of the indie lo-fi sensibility, which is great and I loved, but people would show up wearing a t-shirt and stare at their shoes the whole time and when they’d applaud they seemed a little miserable, like dude ‘I’ve come out to watch you, give me something here.’ I’d go to that sort of gig back home and check my mom’s Elvis Live in Concert VHS and there’d be this disconnect, like, ‘Why can’t there be something like that in the pub scene in Australia?’ Nothing was giving me that and I wanted to have a go at it. I wanted to jump around and be a nutcase on stage. And ever since I had that thought and played my first open mic doing these kinds of songs in Collingwood it’s had a strange momentum, it resonated and now I’m here having never felt like I was pushing shit uphill.
So the gold jacket is part of the extravagance of a concert like this, it’s a big show that is hopefully musically and dynamically interesting and entertaining. Just spectacular. The coat on the cover is me hanging it up, knocking off for the day, sort of what my life is like after I take my jacket off after the show. It’s what I will wear on stage and who I will be for a lot of these shows. On the last tour, I wore a sequined snow leopard jacket, so this is the upgrade, the next phase.
Currently, you’re in the states for press. Will you be back to tour?
I haven’t been playing this time at all, I’ve been hanging out and talking, which I like to do as you might have guessed (laughing). I will be back to do a fully-fledged tour at some point between mid-July to mid-August with some Canadian festivals, club festivals and maybe some American ones. It will be sort of the official launch tour of this album over here.
Since Wagons is on a break, who will you be bringing with you in terms of a band?
A lot of the band I recorded with in Nashville will come out on the road. All those guys can be pretty busy, but we’ve locked in a couple of them. Then I might bring someone from Australia or LA, but whoever it is, I can guarantee you they’ll be strange, interesting, and amazing…..that’s sort of the combo I like the most.
Being exposed to a lot of music as the host of a radio show, is there anyone you recommend that we should check out?
I was just sifting through new music, so I’ll tell you a couple. One release worth checking out from near where I’m from, “just across the ditch” in New Zealand is one of my favorite artists who vaguely fits into the Americana thing, a guy called Marlon Williams. He’s an incredible singer and a very poignant, deep and strange songwriter and I think he’s got huge things ahead of him. He’s really worth listening to. And just in the days before I left I got a great album called Wolves from American Aquarium. I’d see BJ Barnham in lists and I saw he has a solo record coming out, but I never followed it up and put two and two together. American Aquarium never plays Australia, I just found their latest in these tentacles I had out and it was excitingly good.
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