Robert Wagner Of Little Wretches – All His Friends Are “Undesirables And Anarchists”
Hey Robert Wagner! It’s an honour to have you chit chat with us and we are really grateful to you for making time for this interview despite your busy schedule. Thank you once again, let’s begin with the interview:
What drew you to the music industry?
I’m drawn to music. I love to play it, listen to it, lay on my bed holding an LP cover in front of my face while I daydream. I’m a fan, a fanatic. I’m one of those people who can listen to The Velvet Underground song, ROCK AND ROLL—“Her life was saved by rock and roll”—and I can say, ME, TOO! They’re singing about me!
The emergence of punk rock and the DIY scene gave me the license to get involved, to think that I could step on a stage—Hey, if THEY can do it, then I can do it. I managed to find a way to get involved with writing, performing and recording, and by sheer stubbornness and tenacity, I got good at it, or at least good enough to keep doing it.
I have something to say, a story to tell, a light to shine, and my songs are the vehicles for doing so. A recording of your song allows you to reach people across time and space. People fifty or.a hundred years from now will have access to your recordings. So if you’re serious about telling your story, you find a way to make a record.
When your band makes a record, that’s when you discover there is such a thing as a music industry. And thank God there is such a thing. In another time, I’d have been painting antelopes on the walls of caves or chiseling pictures into the sides of pyramids. The music industry allows me to tell the stories and shine the light, but in the end, I’m just a caveman drawing an antelope on the wall.
Who are you inspired by?
If you pick up a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL, the book, not the poem, you’ll see a dedication page where Ginsberg mentions Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and some others now known as “the Beat Generation.”
When HOWL came out, the spotlight shone on that whole scene. Now, there’s a whole cult built up around them. They’re part of the canon, sacred cows in their own way, I suppose. But when HOWL hit for Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac had already written six or seven novels, as Ginsberg said, “published in Heaven.” ON THE ROAD. THE SUBTERRANEANS. MEXICO CITY BLUES. Ginsberg lists a bunch of the titles.
But imagine you’re Jack Kerouac. You know you’ve created something of lasting beauty, and maybe ten of your closest friends get it. Everybody else either thinks you’re crazy or simply doesn’t care at all. But you know you’ve got it. And your ten friends know you’ve got it. And finally, it gets through.
There’s an inscription at the Wright Brothers’ memorial in Kill Devil Hills about “dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.” That’s what inspires me. Jack Kerouac. The Wright Brothers. And all those artists of every form and genre out there right now pouring their hearts and souls into their work, doing the work with no promise of recognition or reward.
On a personal level, a former bandmate from The Little Wretches, Gregg Bielski, who also performs and records as SHRINKWRAP and EASY BAKE OVEN and runs a noise/ambient music label, Rorer 714, Gregg is as devoted, prolific and productive as any artist you’ll ever meet.
I went to Catholic school, you know. There’s a song that people make fun of now but it once went to number one, Dominique by The Singing Nun. Have you heard it? “Never asking for reward, he just talks about the Lord.”
I’m inspired by people who do what they do without calculating risk and reward, people possessed and driven, people on fire for what they are doing.
Please explain your creative process
The creative process for me has changed over time.
People who provide instruction in the arts talk about discipline and practice to refine technique, to hone the tools, practice and preparation. You can learn how to do X, Y and Z. You can improve how you do X, Y and Z. You can master doing X, Y and Z.
But skill and competence can’t do much without inspiration.
My creative process involves preparing myself to be open to inspiration, keeping my eyes and ears open, seeing things others don’t bother to notice, hearing things that others are filtering out.
I’m blessed insomuch as the world makes no sense to me. I’m always walking around with the feeling that everybody else knows something that has eluded me. I can be hypersensitive because I’m looking for that secret bit of knowledge that will unlock the invisible barrier that stands between me and what the rest of the world has kept hidden from me.
When inspiration strikes, for me, since I’ve been doing this for many years, it’s like a visitation from a friendly angel. I recognize the feeling, the sound inside my head, the call. When I was younger, I wrote and played all the time, every waking hour. Now, I spend a lot of time refining stuff I’ve been working on, some of it for years, some for decades. And when inspiration calls, I answer.
I’m sure that sound like a bunch of hocus pocus.
What’s an average day like for you?
If I have a show, the day revolves around being prepared for the show. If I have a rehearsal, the day revolves around being prepared for the rehearsal.
When The Little Wretches were based in a house in Castle Shannon, I’d get up pretty early, walk down the hill to a convenience store for a cup of coffee and the morning paper. I’d walk back up the hill, reading the sports, the comics and the daily horoscope—for amusement only, of course.
Then I’d hop on my ten-speed and ride out to the South Park Fairgrounds, used to be the site of the Allegheny County Fair. I’d chain my bike to a tree, go for a run up and down Corrigan Drive, then hop on the bike and pedal home. By then, our drummer Angelo George would have gotten up. He’d either have been to the store or we’d walk down to the store to pick up some cheap ingredients for lunch. George’s family were restauranteurs, so George knew how to cook.
Then I’d take a nap and spend the afternoon studying, writing, practicing my guitar. I’m not one of those fluent guitarists who can think a musical idea and make it come out my fingers. I have to craft parts that are within my abilities and practice them over and over.
When evening approaches, it’s getting to be game-time. Load the truck, let’s go. This is what I’ve been waiting for all day. Ellen Hildebrand says that you will play like you practice, so we bring the same intensity and preparation to a rehearsal that we’ll bring to a show.
Now, I mostly perform solo. No truck to load. Just me and my guitar. But the layout of the day is the same. The whole day is devoted to being mentally and physically prepared.
Is there a hidden meaning in any of your music?
Every story needs a context. Every picture needs a frame. My songs are loaded with imagery related to experience, fragments from conversation, snapshots of moments. A lot of my songs are inhabited by characters, semi-fictional in that they are composites. I can take three people and combine them into one.
There is a story behind just about every line of every song. Nothing is hidden, but people see what they are looking for. I’m trying to give people a reason to want to get inside the song.
When I’m performing, I feel like the character in BLADE RUNNER, Roy, the little monologue he does, the “Tears in the Rain” speech. You can find the clip on YouTube if you haven’t watched the movie a thousand times.
Before my time is up, I want to tell you about the amazing things I’ve seen, the amazing people I’ve known, the appreciation and thankfulness I have for this gift of life. Eternity exists. God is good. Life is precious. Hidden? Why would I want to hide it?
Do you collaborate with others? What is that process?
These days, I mostly perform solo, but in my head, I’m still hearing vocal harmonies, drums, bass lines, counterpoint melodic lines in the upper register. Historically, I’ve been able to attract really good musicians. My songs are vehicles for their musicianship. I need people with a broad musical vocabulary who intuitively know what the song needs. I often use the metaphor, “bringing something to the table.” Is the musician bringing something to the table? We are presenting a feast. What are you bringing? What are you adding? Too much spice can destroy the dish. The right amount can make it delicious.
I’ve played with a few people who bring nothing to the table. They are just playing along, saying nothing, occupying space. You speak through your instrument. I speak through mine. If you ain’t got nothing to say, I don’t want you in my band.
I’ve had people ask, “What do you want?” They’ll say, “I can do this. Or I can do this. Or I can do this. What do you prefer?” And I’ll say, that’s your department. The art is in the decision-making. If I have to make the decision for you, you got on the wrong bus.
If I have the right people, all I have to say is, “Play it like you feel it.” I want my collaborators to feel a sense of investment and ownership. If I don’t like what you’re doing, I’ll ask you to try something else. But mostly, I play my part and sing my lines, and you decide for yourself what and how you are going to play. All I have to do is a little bit of conducting. Here, we drop out. Here, we pull back. Here, we build. Here, we hit a peak.
Gregg Bielski. Rosa Colucci. Jon Paul Leone. David Losi. My brother, Charles John Wagner. John Creighton. Chris Bruckhoff. Ed Heidel. Ellen Hildebrand. John Carson. Mike Madden. H.K. Hilner. David L. Mitchell. These people brought something to the table.
Please discuss how you interact with and respond to fans
I’m not sure how to answer that. I am deeply grateful to anyone who cares to listen. You said fans, as opposed to casual listeners. I don’t think I have any casual listeners.
My songs can be pretty demanding, pretty challenging. I’m throwing a lot of information at you, evoking a world of experience and emotion that might be pretty troubling or upsetting. So when the show is over, anybody who sticks around to interact with me is instantly a friend.
As a fan, I don’t feel any desire to fawn or gush over the artist. At the most, I might want to say thank you. What can I say? I bought your record. I bought a ticket to your show. Thank you for enriching my life with your music.
If my songs have been part your life, you have given me the greatest reward I can imagine. I’m the one who owes you. I am in your debt. You have affirmed my life, my work. You have given me a reason to get up and do it again tomorrow.
What is your favorite part about this line of work? Your least favorite? Why?
My favorite part about this line of work is that it is not work. It is often a struggle, a challenge, but it is an honor, a blessing to be able to do it.
My least favorite part? That’s a Pandora’s Box. As an artist, you’re working with some powerful stuff involving the mind and the soul. You have to ask yourself: Are you a Healer? Or are you a Dealer?
For a lot of listeners, music is just a decoration, just a way to set a mood or a tone. Music is like a cup of coffee, a cigarette, or a cocktail or beer. I listen to this to pick me up. I listen to that to calm me down. We live in a feel-good culture in which people are constantly medicating themselves, and music is one of the preferred drugs.
Nothing against the musical drug-dealers. Do what you do. But I’m doing something else.
Am I deluding myself? All I can say is music saved my life. Music has the power to save lives. And I’m a medicine-maker. How you use it is up to you.
Have you ever dealt with performance anxiety?
I get butterflies. But mostly, I know that I have something to say, and I’ve been preparing my entire life to say it. My anxiety comes AFTER the show. I was living for that moment, for that time on stage, and now that time is over. How sad. What do I do now?
Tell me about your favorite performance venues
Are you asking about the qualities of the ideal venue? Or are you asking about specific places? I could tell you some stories about actual venues.
I came up playing in a lot of punk clubs with p.a. systems set up for hardcore bands with vocalists that screamed. Me, with my conversational singing voice—audiences couldn’t understand a word I was saying. You come off stage and people say, “I couldn’t hear you.” What? And you waited till AFTER the show to make me aware of that?
And what about the sound person? Are they hard-of-hearing? They allowed me to play an entire set with the vocals muddy and buried? What’s that tell you? It tells you THEY DON’T CARE. They assume you’re like every other band coming through: YOU AIN’T GOING NOWHERE.
Well, I DO care. And I AM going somewhere.
The more you climb the ladder, the more you realize that SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE CARE. They understand that all business depends on the customer, and you have to give the customer a good value and a reason to return. If the customer feels valued and appreciated, they might come back.
This might shock you if you’re not part of the business. A lot of small “showcase” clubs with studio-quality sound, they ain’t paying you. You’re selling tickets. You are an entrepreneur trying to turn a profit, and the venue is part of your overhead. Money comes off the top to pay their sound person. Want lights? They’ll turn them on, but you have to pay to have someone run them. Want access to the dressing room? That’ll cost you. They are totally mercenary. Some of these places won’t even give you a complimentary drink.
The best venues make you feel welcome and supported. They booked you because they want to be able to say they supported and encouraged you. They believe in you and want to you to know that. Whatever you want, it’s yours. Whatever you need, consider it done. You’re on a first-name basis. They greet you when you arrive and thank you when it’s time to load out.
It’s the art of hospitality. It’s an attitude, a belief-system. When I’m performing, I want to feel like a guest in your home, and I’m in your living room playing for your closest friends. You’re not my customer; you are my friend.
MOONDOG’S and THE STARLITE LOUNGE and any other festival or event run by Ron “Moondog” Esser, that’s going to be a place where you are treated well. There’s a club in Wilmington, Delaware called THE ODDITY BAR. Great beer selections, all kinds of sci-fi and spooky decor, classic sci-fi and B-movies playing on the television screens—Pat McCutcheon runs it, and his staff his friendly, encouraging and supportive.
There was a place in a small town in Western Pennsylvania run by a campus cop from the University of Pittsburgh. His name was Jesse Long. Mr. Long invited us down to play. Such a rickety joint that our p.a. system blew their fuses. Rickety old place, a shot and a beer type place with a pool table and a juke box. But when we showed up, they asked us what we wanted to drink. Some of the girls with the drummer ordered some kind of la-de-da cocktails, and Mr. Long sent one of his waitresses out to the liquor store to pick up the ingredients.
As it turns out, I ended up working with Mr. Long’s nephew, also named Jesse. Jesse told me a story about the night his uncle booked Ray Charles. Jesse said Ray had a drug-problem and missed the gig. He showed up at closing time, and Mr. Long took a swing at him. He said Ray Charles ducked. Jesse said this was proof that Ray Charles could see!
What advice would you have for someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Footsteps? Footsteps lead somewhere. MY footsteps? If you’re following in my footsteps, that means you are going to be doing this for the rest of your life, trying to create something that will last.
A good sheet-metal worker doesn’t get to put his name on his work, but his work will stand as long as the building he is working on stands. A good cement worker can build a wall or lay a sidewalk that will be there a hundred or two hundred years from now.
As a writer and musician, I understand that I am on a playing field in which the game is driven by the pursuit of fame and the “hit record.” But that is not the game I am playing. We may play on the same field, but we are playing different games.
In the music business, I try to walk through doors that open for me. I might pound on doors that won’t open or move on to the next door. I try to find my way around obstacles. But I don’t want to make the mistake of forgetting that I write songs for the same reason Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson wrote poetry.
When I was a young person dreaming about this life, I wanted to know how and where to start, how and where to get in the door. Where’s the door? What do I have to do to get in? I have no footsteps to follow. I have no hand reaching down to pull me up. I am ON THE OUTSIDE.
Do the work and don’t look back. Ellen Hildebrand, a bandmate in The Little Wretches, quotes Abraham Lincoln, “I will prepare, and perhaps my chance will come.” When your chance comes, be prepared.
In the meantime, use the tools and materials at your disposal to create what you are able to create. Today’s technology allows any kid with a good lap top to produce a Grammy-quality or Oscar-quality product. But whatever you have to work with, do the work.
Write the poetry. Write the songs. Put your shoulder to the plow and don’t look back.