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Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Monday 11th November, 2013 11:15AM

Seminal purveyors of alt-country, Wagons, are heading to New Zealand for two dates this weekend. These shows follow the very recent release of Wagons' 'Upstairs at United' live recordings and provide a break from recording their forthcoming full length album, with Mick Harvey no less. UnderTheRadar caught up with charismatic front man Henry Wagons to discuss the aforementioned releases, whether new fatherhood will affect the band and what drew him to country music in the first place.

Hey Henry, how are you?

I’m good thank you.

What are you up to at the moment?

I’ve just finished a coffee and I’ve got a dog on my lap, and I’m recovering from a broken night’s sleep from my first child being born two weeks ago. I’m in a cocoon of domestic bliss at the moment – it’s not exactly rock ‘n’ roll but that’s what’s happening.,?p>


Thank you! I had my first little girl which is great. I have a feeling I’m going to turn into an adult contemporary artist soon.

You’ll just start solely writing ballads dedicated to your daughter, right?

Yeah I’m going to make myself vomit very soon. Nah, I want to make my kid grow up to be a little punk-y rebel – it’ll be funny. A little Punky Brewster.

Have you got a bit of time off to get to grips with father hood?

Yeah! It’s fitted in well in the sense that I’ve been in Melbourne now stationary more than I have been since 2009. We’re in the middle of making an album and I’ve blacked out the calendar a little bit to get to know this new kid, so it’s been great to hang out at home. The New Zealand gigs coming up in November will be the first touring shows we’ll do. It will be my first overseas trip as a dad which will be quite exciting. Again, not very rock ‘n’ roll haha. I don’t know how it will affect the shows exactly – perhaps the only way you will be able to tell at the shows is that I will have a vomit stain on my shoulder.

Which to be honest will probably add to your rock ‘n’ roll persona, right?

I reckon, exactly. I can pretend it’s the vomit of my drummer instead of my baby.

In the past you have toured relentlessly right? How do you think this will change the band?

It’s my job so I think the touring life will be very much a part of it. I think compared to the average accountant, lawyer or pro-golfer, even with a touring schedule in which I’m away for a few weeks, I actually get to be at home and spend quality time with my spawn quite a bit more than the average nine-to-fiver, so I don’t think it will affect things too much. I am actually doing a bit more work here than usual. I produce some other bands and do some work on TV here so I’m doing a little bit more of that at the moment. I’m dipping my big toe in a few pools and it’s great fun.

You mentioned that you guys have been writing and recording a new album?

Yes, we’re in the middle of that. The new record is being produced by Mick Harvey from The Bad Seeds. We’ve already recorded most of it and it’s been great working with him, and we’re getting the record mixed by someone I’m very excited to be working with overseas – I don’t want to say who it quite yet because it’s just being locked away as we speak and I don’t want to jinx it. The people who we are working with are blowing my mind and I’m very happy with the job we’ve done too, so I think I finally might come out with an album that I’m happy with.

It must be incredible to work with Mick Harvey - what has he brought to the table?

Well I love so many of the albums he has produced, from the Nick Cave stuff to PJ Harvey and so many things in-between. He’s got a pretty laid-back production style in that he likes to exert his influence by basically becoming a member of the band. So he is playing on every single track on the record, whether it be on keys or guitar. His voice is through the parts he plays and the comments he makes as we’re getting the song together, so he’s a very hands-on producer. He’s happy to work with us even though there are a lot of strong minds in our group, so it’s a great union I reckon. It’s coming together really well. There are a lot of songs about drinking, and a lot of songs about driving. It’s our drink-driving record in which never the two shall meet. It should come with the proviso that we advocate drinking and driving but never together.

Was there anything in particular you wanted to achieve or communicate on this album?

The way the early songs were coming together made me want to approach Mick Harvey to do it. I was first brought together with Mick when we were talking about doing a tour of New Zealand together. It didn’t end up happening because the scheduling didn’t work out but a lot of the songs have got that at-once brooding but also funny aspect that Nick Cave seems to have. He was a logical guy to approach and I’m thrilled that he was up for doing it because from what I can tell he gets approached by a lot of bands and I’m glad that we slipped through the net somehow.

Your most recent release is a live vinyl release that you recorded in Nashville right?

It actually hasn’t come out yet, but it’s about to drop, as they say. It’s an analog-nostalgia-wet-dream basically. I did a solo EP of duets and I was touring that in the States, and we got that album pressed on speckled coloured vinyl at a record-pressing plant in Nashville called United Records. They’ve got this exclusive series called ‘Upstairs at United’ and they invited us to do it because they seemed to dig the record. It’s basically this incredible room with this incredibly history. In the fifties when all the Motown stuff was sweeping the pool at the Grammy Awards there was still Apartheid going on in America, and in Nashville if you were black you couldn’t book a hotel room. So United Records built this suite above their record-pressing plant (where there were pressing Motown records) and they would invite all of these incredible black artists to play and stay there, because they couldn’t stay anywhere else. We recorded in this room, and they bring in this guy - from an amazing studio called 'Welcome to 1979' – in, and he brings in a bunch of equipment. He doesn’t use any equipment newer than that date, so it’s all old stuff recorded straight to tape on this incredible equipment. It’s a two-track live mix and he even mic-ed up the stairwell as a reverb chamber, which is exactly the way they did it back in the Motown days. From that two-track tape it went straight to heavy 12” vinyl running at 45RPM and it’s these seven tracks of these immaculately recorded live songs, and it was incredibly exciting. I did it back in March and it really informed the record we’re doing at the moment, where we’re keeping a lot of the live takes that we did.

You recorded the aforementioned record in Nashville and from that, as well as other interviews I’ve read with you, you seem to have a strong connection to that lineage of music. What drew you to that music and sound?

Yeah, it’s kind of strange, isn’t it? Growing up my parents would listen to some of that kind of stuff, in that my dad likes Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins and my mum kind of liked Elvis and Tom Jones – those daggy, glitzy Vegas guys, which I have come to love as well. When I first started getting into music I hated all of that stuff. In Melbourne I was listening to the community radio stations as a teenager and I used to love the New Zealand bands on the Flying Nun label – The 3D’s and Straightjacket Fits and Bailterspace. Those crazy nineties bands like The Dead C, that crazy noise band. I loved all of that stuff and really got into the nineties indie bands as well, and I always found myself leaning towards country-ish songs played by indie bands, like ‘Range Life’ by Pavement, for example. That led me to explore country a bit and then my now-drummer gave me the first 'Johnny Cash American Recordings' album and that unlocked the vault all the way back to the sort of outlaw country stuff of the fifties, sixties and seventies that I really love now. That’s my entire musical history in real time. Sorry about that.

No it's great. When you started creating the music that you did, was there a place for it in the Australian music scene, or were you outsiders?

I think that was part of our secret to success in and around Melbourne. We started so long ago now and there wasn’t too much alt-country in Melbourne then and I like to think we helped lay the foundation for that a little bit. People came to see us because there wasn’t too much of that music going around back then. Lucky for us we’ve managed to ride a bit of a wave of popularity in that kind of music and the snowball has gotten bigger and bigger and now it has consumed my life – I’m in a very happy avalanche.

There is a kind of gothic country that is unique to Australia, right?

I can totally see what you mean, there is an Australian-ness to it, that stretches back to the eighties and that wide open road kind of vibe. It is a wild west landscape here in Australia so maybe there’s something to be said that the horizon inspired by this sound. There’s a very rich tradition of straight country music here in Australia too, especially if you head into the outback and into the indigenous communities. Country music is incredibly popular. It is part of the cultural landscape and it’s definitely immersed in the inner-urban hipster scene as well.

What are your plans for the next year?

The record will come out in March or April next year. We’ve got that Nashville thing coming out in November. That’s the plan so far. Presuming there is no calamity of any sort I’m looking forward to unleashing the beast on everyone, I’m really excited about it.


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