Music > Interview
Oct 31st 2012 | Steve BellTweet
Henry Wagons might be heading down the solo road but he’s certainly not travelling alone. He tells Steve Bell about adding inspiration to injury.
Usually when the frontman of a band launches their first solo foray it's the culmination of some deep-seated ambition or lingering resentment, but in the case of Henry Wagons – usually found out the front of Melbourne's venerated dark country exponents Wagons – his debut solo venture emanated from a mixture of self-inflicted injury and fevered inspiration. The resulting mini-album of duets, Expecting Company?, finds him indulging in lyrical back-and-forth with an array of high-profile and (as is often the way with such matters) predominantly female vocalists, but the whole project stemmed from the unlikeliest of foreign sources.
“I wasn't planning it, and still to this day Wagons have got very firm plans locked away to record a new album this summer, so in a way this was a weird spanner in the works,” the affable singer-songwriter recalls of the project. “I was going to have two months off after a long period of touring overseas, and I was steeling myself to just get through the tour, but as soon as I got home I got sick with the flu. I tried to stay out of bed and keep myself going – I'm not a very good patient, I'm constantly in denial – and I tried to do some stuff around the house; I tried to change this light bulb and gashed my hand. It was the worst cut I've had in my life – even including my illustrious AFL career at school I never had an injury this bad. I'm not looking for sympathy but it was shit – just really annoying – and basically I felt really disgusting, so I channelled all of that energy into my home studio. I couldn't really play guitar properly so I wrote a lot of songs on the keys and just channelled different voices.
“Basically the thing that started the whole snowball was that song I wrote with Alison [Mosshart – The Kills] earlier in the year, Unwelcome Company, which stemmed from this story she told me. Basically there was a new underground station being built under her house in East London and all of the works made the sewer rats from under the ground rise to the surface, so the whole suburb was inundated with these huge black rats. She was literally sleeping and she heard hundreds of rats in her house, and she woke up the next morning and it looked like they'd had a party – the place was trashed, it was really intense. A field mouse does not do this, so she got a pest controller to put in rat bait before she went on tour, and she came back a few days later and all of the pellets of rat bait had been moved into the middle of the floor and eaten in some bizarre Blair Witch parody. Then the rats went off and died somewhere and stank the joint out for days with a putrid odour, and then the rats were eaten by maggots which led to a massive plague of blowflies in her house! She came home and noticed it was dark so she looked up to her skylight and it was covered in blowflies – she had this amazing moment when she took the fly-spray to it and was covered in a downpour of dead flies, like a bad '80s horror movie. It was pretty intense, and when she told me I was like, 'This has to be a song! It fits perfectly into three verses'.
“So in that state I was in, being sick and incapacitated, I thought, 'This is a perfect time to write this song!' I felt totally gross, it was perfect. That was always going to be a duet and Alison was always up for doing the song, and that made the whole concept snowball. I really got into the style of writing duets, being able to not only give a monologue but also the extra interaction that duets create. A normal song with one voice is someone getting up on a soapbox and leading you on some emotional or political (or whatever) monologue, but in duet it's a little more voyeuristic – the relationship with the audience is different. It's like listening in on a conversation, and it's this interesting dynamic that I got off on, so out of nowhere I had this spurt of songwriting enthusiasm which created these seven songs. I'm not that prolific, and this was kind of a unique and different space, so I thought it deserved a different and self-contained little moment.”
Once the concept was in place, Wagons took to the task with enthusiasm, drafting in an array of predominantly local talent such as Gossling and Sophia Brous to bring the duets to life.
“The Alison song was the instigator and it gave me momentum to write the other ones, and I found that at the infancy of each song someone – the other voice – came to mind almost straight away,” he tells. “So all of the other songs were written with the other people in mind. I think all of the other people on the record – with the exception of Robert Forster – I've toured with and befriended over the years, and they all have very particular presences and voices. I tried to fit them into the songs in obtuse ways – I don't think you'd immediately think of [The Grates'] Patience Hodgson on a song that sounds like A Hangman's Work Is Never Done, but I wanted someone that exudes a fragility – I wanted her to be scared of the hangman and subservient and fearful. She's nothing like that in real life – she's a real dynamo with a really bright personality, one of those people that lights up the room – but I wanted an edge of fearfulness, but also that feeling that she could beat that guy up if she wanted. She got that across really well.”
The only moment on the album where Wagons doesn't have a vocal foil is the final number Marylou Two, a reworking of the final track from Wagons' last album, Rumble, Shake And Tumble.
“I wanted it to sound so lonely – it's the only song without anyone else playing,” Wagons reflects. “I worked on a feeling that I had in the aftermath of the last Wagons album where I'd really wished that the outro was a whole song – and a couple of other people said the same – and it was during this period that I wrote it. I thought that it was really strange that the only song that came together in this time of writing duets that wasn't a duet was this song about being alone in your bedroom, so I thought it was a perfect ending to it all – you've got these six full-sounding, epic duets and then the last song is an epilogue after the show's over, everyone's gone and I'm alone. It just seemed a fitting end to all the girls having left.”
Henry Wagons will be playing the following shows:
Saturday 3 November - Harvester Moon Cafe, Bellarine VIC
Monday 5 November - Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne VIC
Thursday 8 November - Transit Bar, Canberra ACT
Friday 9 November - Clarendon Guesthouse, Katoomba NSW
Saturday 10 November - Annandale Hotel, Sydney NSW
Thursday 15 November - Lismore City Bowling Club, Lismore NSW
Friday 16 November - Old Museum, Brisbane QLD
Thursday 27 to Sunday 30 December - Woodford Folk Festival, Woodfordia QLD
Friday 1 February - Laneway Festival, RNA Showgrounds QLD
Saturday 2 February - Laneway Festival, Sydney College of the Arts NSW
Saturday 9 February - Laneway Festival, Perth Cultural Centre WA
The Boltons Album Launch
The Boltons have been around since 2010, when Tom Bolton recorded his third album (produced by renowned acoustic folk-roots legend, Nick Charles) and got together a bunch of players for the launch concerts at Northcote Uniting Church and also The Caravan Club in Oakleigh.
Since then, these excellent musicians have come back out on stage time and again to deliver adventurous, idiosyncratic, eclectic performances of deliciously indeterminate genre – folk, pop, call it whatever you like – always characterised by good will, high quality musicianship, and intense improvisational energy.
With Nick Charles again producing (and with the help of a fine selection of additional players) The Boltons been working with Tom to record another album of strong originals and rarely heard covers, to be launched on Saturday 24 March 2018 at Thornbury Theatre.
Photo ID is essential, acceptable ID is a current and valid Australian Photo Drivers Licence or Passport.* Children under 18 are permitted if accompanied by a parent or guardian* Intoxicated persons will not be admitted.* The promoter reserves the right to refuse
admission to any person *