[MUSIC: Interview] Henry Wagons
When changing eco-friendly light bulbs, it is imperative to turn them by the porcelain base rather than gripping the spiral bulb itself. This is a lesson that Henry Wagons, outlaw country troubadour of Melbourne, learnt the hard way. Suffering from a mad bout of serious flu after a “very self-contained period of touring”, Wagons was in the process of changing one of these bulbs – the wrong way, it turned out – when it exploded in his hand. He reaches across the table of a Carlton café to show me the scar, a wicked scrawling of angry-looking pale lines across the webbing between his thumb and palm.
“The gash is big and full of broken glass, and I had the flu at the same time,” he says, rather jauntily, “and I guess I felt like every single bodily fluid that I had was coming out all at once! It was like, snot, and I was bleeding, and there was incredibly gross sweat – it was pretty much everything!” he exclaims, laughing.
It is this somewhat demented glee that typifies his work in the band that carries his name, and also his work on the new solo piece he’s in the midst of releasing. Expecting Company? is an exciting, funny, and dark series of duets with such musical luminaries as Alison Mosshart (The Kills, The Dead Weather), Patience Hodgson (The Grates), Robert Forster (The Go-Betweens) and Sophia Brous, among others; a freight-train of wicked musings on life, love and other pests.
After his losing battle with the light bulb, Wagons found himself in the studio writing songs, instead of pursuing the more sensible path of lying in bed and drinking lots of juice. “I wasn’t really in a state where I could allow my band to see me,” he admits, “and so I just started the process of writing those few weeks. I wrote seven songs, then I approached my label and said, ‘I’m doing this thing, and they seem to be duets’ – and, I reckon, partly anti-histamine-induced bouts of schizophrenia. I put the feelers out to see if they were interested, and everyone seemed quite excited. [Expecting Company?] got a life of its own from then.”
A life-long fan of duets, Wagons is fully aware of the fact that they can either be really, really brilliant – or absolute crap. Naturally, I’m curious as to what he feels makes a good duet. He hums thoughtfully, stroking his beard. “I think there’s got to be an awareness,” he says finally. “A normal song is essentially a monologue, it’s like one guy getting up on his soapbox and spewing forth, whereas a duet – there’s so much more scope and meaning. You drop a line and then you have someone else coming in and responding to that line. All of a sudden, the dynamic has changed,” he continues. “You’ve got not just a relationship between the singer and the audience, you’ve [also] got a voyeuristic relationship with the audience, watching a relationship unfold. It’s much more of an intricate thing to wield as a writer. It’s almost like you’re writing a musical; you’re actually writing a dialogue instead of a monologue, and the best duets have an understanding of that. You need that dialogue, and you need that interaction to explore. And somehow you have to have something special in that dialogue, an intricacy in the relationship of some sort.
“I’ve tried to do that where I can,” he continues. “I’ve tried to have an awareness of it; coming to duets from some strange and obtuse angle. And you know, it’s been fun!” Nowhere on Expecting Company? is the “strange and obtuse angle” more apparent than on the delightfully maniacal track ‘Unwelcome Company’, performed with the force-of-nature known as Alison Mosshart. Wagons, a friend of hers for some time, had once stayed with her in London in the house that inspired the aforementioned song. During his stay, she relayed an anecdote that appealed to his dark sense of poetry. “She told me this amazing story of this wave of pestilence that [Mosshart and Jamie Hince of The Kills] had in their home when London was building an Underground station beneath them. Their suburb basically had a plague of rats when all the Underground works forced them all to the surface. She was sleeping there, and she woke up and all the rats had been there and basically the whole house was trashed. It looked like there was a party; there were shitloads of ‘em!
“And she got pest controllers in and they laid down like 20 bits of rat bait and then she went off on tour, came back, and all the rat bait had been moved to one place in the centre of the room. And it was kind of weird, it was as if they were playing with the bait or something – but they had all died … in the house.” Wagons grins slyly, and it’s rather obvious he loves telling this story. He rubs his hands together like Christopher Lee in one of those old Hammer Horror movies and giggles menacingly. “And obviously maggots ate the rats, and then she had a plague of blowflies!”
Ironically enough, a light bulb went off over Wagons’ head. “I thought, this is perfect for three verses and three choruses… Even in the mood I was in, sick and twisted as I was writing it, it was the perfect time to write something like that. And that’s what started this album, writing that song. And knowing I wanted to sing it with Alison about her house. It’s what started this whole duets thing, really. This songwriting mojo [I found], and this muse … it’s very fragile,” he admits. “And if I find myself on this sort of plane, I find I have to surf this wave. And I found myself on this duets trip, and it had all snow-balled from that song.”
All told, Expecting Company? is another exciting chapter in Mr Wagons’ stellar and iconoclastic career, chock full of interesting collaborations with talented and vivacious musical compatriots. Through five albums with his band and now this, his first official solo recording, Wagons is growing in his songwriting acumen, and it shows. When I ask him if he still feels as if he’s learning as he goes, he agrees wholeheartedly. “Oh, big time!” he exclaims. “It’s sort of weird; I haven’t really done any recording or engineering of my own music since about 2000, really. I’ve done other bits and pieces, but never with Wagons. But now it’s gone full circle and I really wanted to get my hands dirty in that respect. I really love being in this production world again, and I definitely realise how much I’ve picked up over the last decade, and it’s been really helpful to bring those lessons – to put those lessons on tape, so to speak.
“I feel like I’m really excited about the ‘next thing’, because I’ve got so much stuff now that I’ve been through that process. Recording and making music is very similar – especially in production – to cooking. Or probably being some scientist, you know? I feel like Dr Frankenstein, twiddling knobs, adding swatches of this, adding sparkles and flavours. It seems to be a great space that my mind enjoys.”
Wagons (the band, not the man) expect to begin recording their next album this summer – and Wagons (the man, not the band) is very much looking forward to it. “I’m so excited. I involved so much of myself on this album. I had to make every decision there was in terms of arrangement and production. But I just can’t wait to have a half-baked song idea and enter the [band] room… ‘Hey guys! Help me with this!’ I just can’t wait for that process over the summer.”
What: Expecting Company? is out now on Spunk Records
With: Achoo! Bless You, Fanny Lumsden
Where: The Annandale Hotel
When: Saturday November 10