Interview: Henry Wagons & The Unwelcome Company
Words by Richard Gifford - Published on January 16, 2013
When Henry Wagons isn’t challenging the culinary world by combining the most ludicrous combinations of savoury and sweet or taking photos of his dogs, he fronts his band, The Wagons. In late September 2012, Henry got together with six internationally renowned collaborators for a solo project entitled Henry Wagons & The Unwelcome Company. Appearing on the record, entitled Expecting Company, are: Alison Mosshart (The Kills and The Dead Weather), Sophia Brous, Canada’s Jenn Grant, Robert Forster (The Go-Betweens), Patience Hodgson (The Grates) and Gossling.
What started for Wagons as a few demos he was throwing together in his bedroom, has turned into this epic EP release, which has been rewarded with his selection on the bill for St Jerome’s Laneway Festival 2013. We caught up with Henry last week to chat Laneway, what actually happens backstage, what Alison Mosshart’s like and much more…
SCENEWAVE: Henry, how’s the New Year treating you?
HENRY WAGONS: Sorry I’m just eating a cherry, not sure why I did that. Yeah mate, I’ve had a quiet couple of weeks over Christmas and New Year. I’m rejuvenated, the dogs are well warm, I’m well fed… I’m a happy man!
SW: Pumped for Laneway?
HW: Big time, really looking forward to it! I’ve got a couple of things happening before Laneway, but I’m stoked to be playing it. I feel like I’ve played every other festival this country has to offer and Laneway has always been kind of elusive. I have to say I’m very pleased that this solo project has got me on the bill.
SW: Laneway seems to have this uncanny knack of picking artists that will bloom in the coming year. Which artists are you most excited to see or hang out with?
HW: Yeah I’m really excited for Bat for Lashes, and also fellow Melbourners, Alpine and The Twerps… very excited to see and support them. It’s sort of weird for these big festival backstage areas… you sort of end up kicking a soccer ball with the strangest people. I expect that by the end I’ll have a new and unexpected favourite, and as you say they’re good at picking a bunch of unlikely heroes, so it won’t surprise me if I have a new favourite by the end.
SW: What’s it like backstage? Does everyone become best mates?
Well it seems that it’s the catering that brings everyone together, you know, everyone has to eat… There’s usually a mess hall, and I remember when my band Wagons played at BDO, we were exchanging phone numbers and kicking a soccer ball with Dizzee Rascal. Those sorts of things happen all the time. It’s quite a mixing pot, not sure what the Laneway backstage is going to look like, but there’s often a pinball machine or a set of dodgem cars that brings everyone together. Things like that help people meet, then fluids are exchanged, it’s great.
SW: How’s it all going to come together on stage?
HW: Well, I’ve got a real passion for Elvis Presley so when it came to this tour I wanted to put together a grand stage show. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a lot of the collaborators, because half of them are overseas. Pretty much all of the Aussie acts are in different states. What we did on the east coast tour, which we’re pretty fresh from, is just pick up whichever guest was in the in the same place at the same time, and if not, I’ve brought in my own back up troops, in the form of a female vocal group called The Nymphs. They’ve done a fair bit of work on Rockwiz, so if you’ve ever been drunk on your couch, watching SBS late at night, you might recognize them. They’ll be joined around by a very surf rock guitarist and the Wagons rhythm section. It’s going to be a pretty massive enterprise, so I’m really looking forward to it.
SW: How many total does that come to on stage?
HW: The number will change, so if you’re from Brisbane, we’re actually expecting a couple of surprise guests… so by the end of the afternoon you’ll see probably at least 7 or 8 people who will have been on and off stage.
SW: Where’d you get the inspiration to do a record like Expecting Company?
HW: Well I was supposed to be taking 2 months off, but I’m not particularly good at resting. I was planning for this to be a very much on the side thing and upload a bunch of the material on soundcloud, but as everything came together, we got a label and everyone who worked on it got a bit more excited than just the average Wagons record. It sort of picked up its own momentum. I did a lot of it at home on demos and more or less played [and recorded] everything myself. It was just going to be a little hobby thing and now it’s grown a life of its own. It’s all pretty much spawned from that first track, [“Unwelcome Company”], which I ended up doing with Alison Mosshart.
SW: What’s Alison Mosshart like? And how did she come into the picture with your solo project?
HW: She’s very worldly, I’ve been a friend of hers for quite a while and we’ve always talked about playing together. When I was staying at her place in East London, she was telling me about this intense pest problem she had, where basically, rats were forced into her home after a new underground station was built beneath her house and they were all forced to rise to the surface like the Michael Jackson “Thriller” video. Then the rats were followed by a plague of maggots, followed by a plague of locusts… it was pretty biblical and it fit perfectly into three verses. After a big evening, we talked about turning it into a song, and sure enough a few months later, I was sick at home, feeling disgusting on my break, and I remembered her disgusting story. I called her and asked her, “Is this the time? Lets do it.” When she said she had the weekend free, I was on a plane to London the next day to record her vocal track.
SW: Was the way you came up with most of the songs by working directly with the collaborator or did you approach them and say, “Look, I’ve written this tune, can you sing this part for me?”
HW: I pretty much wrote and recorded all the songs previously, except for the Robert Forster track, where he wrote all the words that he sang. I kind of wanted his magic, stage-like abilities on the track. Everyone else I had a sort of path in mind and thankfully all the people I asked said yes, more or less trusting me and were happy to sing my words.
SW: Did you get any knock backs?
HW: I’ve got the A cast haha… if this is ever a stage musical, I think I’ll be able to charge at least 15 bucks for it. All of the people except for Robert Forster, I’d already met, so I was able to call on the favours of a few friends. As the songs were developing, a Wizard of Oz-like specter came in front of me, you know… someones face would appear on the horizon and it was like, this is perfect for Gossling, perfect for Sophie Bruce, etc. And then I sort of just sent off an email, you know I’m a pretty low maintenance kind of guy, I said, “look if we’re in the same place and same time, ill come to you, ill record you and then we’re done.” It sort of came together pretty easily.
SW: In an era where it’s all the rage to sing high, is it refreshing and inspiring to see bands like The National getting so much attention? Is this a future trend do you think?
HW: Well, I don’t know… I’m a career musician, and it’s working for me. I’m not sure if it’s a point of difference, a fad or upcoming fashion, but for whatever reason people seem interested to come and see my stuff. All I can do is thank my mum and dad for a hefty pair of balls! I guess people are into voices that are fragile and broken; that tend to hit your soul a bit more. People are into different kinds of voices at different times, and hopefully Wagons’ or Henry Wagons’ music can fill the niche when they’re about to eat a pork roast, play some tennis with their girlfriend or even walk the dog, who knows.
SW: What’s the funniest/weirdest thing a fan has done to you?
HW: Oh well there are plenty – we seem to attract the weird. If you follow me on facebook or twitter, you’ll know that I’m food obsessed and dog obsessed, so every strange gesture that is made tends to come from one of those. Someone at a gig in Tasmania brought me a freshly baked batch of bacon, egg and choc chip scones, which were ridiculous. Another one in Katoomba, around Christmas time, someone made me a custom Christmas stocking where each patchwork of the quilt reflected a different Wagons song. Basically they’re the things that come to mind. But that’s the amazing thing about being on the road: the people you meet, where they tell you to go, how they tell it to you.
SW: Favourite food?
HW: It changes, whenever I visit a town, I’ll ask what the local delicacy is. Usually the weirder the better for me. In Portland, Oregon my favourite food is a bacon and maple donut – it has maple syrup icing and then two rashers of bacon on it.
SW: Are you the Ron Swanson of the music world? The guy from Parks and Recreation who orders a Turf n Turf?
HW: Um … I’d say I’m more the guy with the steak, where if someone says, “here’s some marshmallow sauce”, then I’m there. All sorts of weird and wonderful combinations… I especially love America’s obsession with sweet and savoury combinations that make peoples’ stomachs turn.
SW: Which tracks are in your Hottest 100 this year?
HW: My song of the year is definitely “Sleeping Ute” by Grizzly Bear. It’s such an amazing track, it sounds like a Chinese orchestra. Also Willie Nelson’s track with his son, called “Just Breathe”, is an epic ballad.
Catch Henry Wagons and The Unwelcome Company at Laneway Festival in a couple of weeks! Tickets are onsale now from http://brisbane.lanewayfestival.com.au/buy for only $120! Check out the lineup here.