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March 2011.  Henry and Dave rave. Greg Phillips officiates. Marty Williams takes photos.

Australian Musician regular columnist, rhetorician, raconteur, dandy, singer, songwriter, and musician Dave Graney has a new album  titled Rock and Roll is Where I Hide, a re-imagining of songs from Graney’s past. He’s got a book too (1001 Australian Nights) and wants to talk. Coincidentally, fellow showman and storyteller Henry Wagons has a new Wagons band album (Rumble, Shake and Tumble) in the can and is also up for a chat. AM’s Greg Phillips saves the cost of two phone calls and gets Dave and Henry together in the same room to go head to head about the creation of their new recordings.

Dave: The new record is called Rock and Roll is Where I Hide and it’s very hands off. I have done a lot of recording and mixing of our previous albums but this one was all recorded in a studio at Sound Park in Melbourne. Idge (album engineer) knows all the stuff. He is very good with the mics. Andrew Hehir is his name. Idge is his nickname. It’s a funky little rehearsal room. People lived there for a while so it has this down home quality. There are tons of room mics. We sent it to our old friend Victor Van Vugt in New York, so it was very hands off for me. I felt good to be in that situation

Henry: So was it all more or less live?

D: Yeah I wanted it like that. For example, your first album Henry, ‘Trying To Get Home’ you did back in 2002 …  those are the songs that everyone has been playing and they know them and can do them in their sleep. That sort of recording, you only get to do once. After that, you have the problem of keeping everyone focussed on the material. The ambitions of the group change. You don’t have the time sometimes to get to the demands. 
So I wanted to have that experience again of everyone knowing the material. 
In a round about way, I got the rights to my publishing back and I want to make them work again. They are songs we always play and the band had grown to play them in different ways. So we put it down in two days and sent it off to be mixed. With recording, we all stood in a circle, drums, guitar, guitar, bass, piano and knocked it down all in one take.

H: It’s a bit of a double edged sword, that whole notion of old songs verses new ones. I think the fact that you know some songs like the back of your hand, it can lead to a certain disinterest in a song, or falling into some sort of bad habit. I think with a new song, things uncover and unfold for the first time. There is something fresh.

D: We’ve done that too. The last album we did with The Coral Snakes, ‘The Devil Drives’, Clare (Dave’s wife and drummer in their band The Lurid Yellow Mist) and I kept the songs away from the band. We wanted to have that excitement of people playing it for the first time. I love records by people like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson where they all used to do each others songs, like trying on someone else’s coat. Our guitarist, Stuey Pereira gave me an album a few years ago of Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters just sitting around jamming at each others songs and shouting out jokes, and 
I  just loved it. I started to do songs like ‘Knock Yourself Out’ a couple of years ago, and shows where I just yelled out all my song titles and being a bit playful.

H: On this record I found your vocal takes were quite playful. I have seen you live and toured with you and in your live shows you definitely have a lot of gestures. You certainly haven’t held back with the new renditions on this record.

D: I was very excited about doing this record because I wanted to do a vocal performance. I felt freed up from a lot of things. Then on the first day of recording I got hit with swine flu and I was falling over. It’s like some recordings need a bit of drama and I got the drama because I tied myself into putting a record and a book out at the same time. So I had to do the recording and then, the second day of recording the band went in without me. I was laying in bed in a room, quite delirious. It was like being in a movie. I had this urgent, desperate situation. Then I went and did the vocals, but had lost a lot of my top range. I had to make the most of what I had.

H: I noticed with a lot of the tracks, there is now some jazzy piano there that wasn’t on the originals. They have a different feel. Are you worried about people having nostalgia for the old recordings? It’s like Rock and Roll Is Where I Hide has a different mood to it. I love both versions but some people get a bit nostalgic about the old ones.

D: I am not worried. When I did Rock and Roll is Where I Hide, I was probably where you are now in your career. I’d been a musician for ages. I was used to just fooling around and doing shit, and surprising people. Then when people starting giving me a bit of attention, it totally freaked me out. I’m a country person. I kind of acted tough, like I knew what was going on, but I stiffened up. I lost a lot of my free wheeling nature. On those early recordings I’m not singing out. I used to sing out a lot. When people started to look at me, my voice became very interior. So on this one I am singing out a lot more than I used to, because that is my natural way. So what number album is this for the Wagons?

H: This is number five. It’s to be called Rumble, Shake and Tumble, but I feel like .. you know, Screech from Saved By The Bell or Jason Priestley. I feel like I went through puberty in public. In my musical infancy, I wasn’t backward in putting my stuff down and putting it out there. I was lucky enough to get a record label and people interested in the band, but we hadn’t been playing for long. So I feel like I am making better music now, and with the renewed interest, in the last record and this one, I feel like it’s a re-birth. I guess, unlike you, I am feeling the gaze on me for the first time, I am becoming an egomaniac idiot (laughs). I am shouting even louder and my vocal performances are becoming more over the top than ever before. But I think it’s  also the fact that this record is inspired by a lot of those brash ‘vegassy’ performers. It’s inspired by a couple of different eras. I’m getting into some of the really old country stuff like Hank Williams and George Jones.

D: So you weren’t into it before?

H: Not so much

D: Why did you get into country music? Wagons is a funny group because none of you are very country.

H: No. I’ve always said that, especially in the early days. Now that we have done our share of regional touring, but it’s pretty lame isn’t it! Our country experience is mostly from visiting dives in Hamilton. The only experience we have of farming communities is drinking beer at bar.

D: But the country music though?

wagonsgraney2H: I got into it because my parents listened to it on their record player. Then I had a break from it, a gap, and then someone gave me some Johnny Cash recordings. The later American Recordings got me into that dark country thing. My palette of country music has been growing since then. I liked a bit of Merle Haggard and even a little Tom Jones and Rod Stewart. As an amalgamation, I thought it would be fun to make some music like that, not thinking anyone would be interested. I just passed it around to my friends and it just had the momentum to keep going, and here I am today .. and it’s all undoing! (laughs)

D: So if you were in a pub trivia quiz on country music in a room full of guys in Miller shirts and cowboy hats, would you come first or last?

H: Is this quiz about MY music?

D: No, all about the Grand Ol Opry and Nashville and stuff.

AM mag changes the subject: If I could just reel things back in about the Wagons album Henry … When you sat down to think about the new album, what were the factors which needed to be considered?

H: There wasn’t anything intentional which guided this. It’s been a huge period of change for Wagons. We’re doing international touring for the first time. We are doing hard yards in Australia too. The last two years have been a huge upheaval for me both personally and musically. The album is called Rumble, Shake and Tumble and I feel like I have been in this washing machine. It’s schizophrenic this record. It touches on both heavy and happy extremes that I have been having to encounter. It’s a mixture of a turbulent time in my life, combined with going to America and playing with the likes of Justin Townes Earl and experiencing new music from a whole bunch of influences.

D: At some point, when you did Draw Blood and the album after that, they weren’t quite matching your live shows. They were personal slow songs but the live shows were quite upbeat. Then on the last album Good Town you seemed to wake up or have really bouncy songs on your record too.

H: I think it is a real art being able to capture a live performance on an album.

D: A lot of Australian music history has been just  that, great live acts that can’t get it happening in the studio for one reason or another. I don’t know whether it’s them thinking about it enough or getting freaked out.

H: It requires a lot of thought. With the CD as a listening medium, there are a lot less essential experiences. When it’s live you have sound bouncing off the walls and you’ve got a visual.When you only have audio to deal with, it requires thought and more bells and whistles. A little bit more conscious effort to try and capture the experience. I know there is a tradition of live albums being really shit or manufactured to try to capture that live essence. It’s really hard.

AM mag: The Wagons’ single Downlow has a really big acoustic sound. How did you go about creating that?

H: Dave will hate me for mentioning this, but I am actually a fan of the whole Jeff Lynne style of production. I’m an ELO fan. I love the Travelling Wilburys. I really like that 80s FM rock sound. It’s  been a secret passion of mine. I have decided after the past couple of records, to give up pretending I have any musical secrets. As I was saying, in that infancy I was trying to hide certain musical passions because I thought they were daggy or not cool. So I have released those shackles and I am happy to stand on top of a moving train carriage, like something they filmed on “Handle Me With Care’. It’s been a  dream to capture that sound.

D: Eighties is all about clarity and isolating everything

H: It can be pretty sterile. Downlow, the single has that element in it the most. The other songs hark back to the 50s or 60s or even 70s more. So this song is our tribute to one of my favourite eras in music. That LA, high production sound. This is the second album we have worked with Cornell Wilczek , a fellow Jeff Lynne fan. He’s mostly an electronic musician. He’s known as Qua and is a favourite of Triple Js. He makes very intricate and amazing electronic stuff. His studio looks like a series of ten hi tech Japanese hotel rooms. It’s full of shiney white surfaces and white columns and fluorescent lights, straight out of whatever the sequel to Bladerunner would have been. I’m more used to recording at a studio where you struggle to find a clean cup, but this is the opposite. So it was the perfect place to feel at home pulling this hi tech, hi-fi sound. The secret to Downlow sounding so huge is that there were about eight passes. We used about eight acoustic guitars to get the scope of the Jeff Lynne sound.

AM mag: The same guitar?

H: No. I played my Cole Clark, which I really like on a few of the takes. Then one of the guys at the studio had a Harmony guitar which apparently… controversially … was unveiled that it was played on ‘Stairway To Heaven, so I strummed that a few times. Also there was a Takemine. All of those were used along with some hollow body Harmony electric guitars. It was a real effort to get it sounding so big. Cornell who produced the record, also had a number of different mic placements. He grew up in the analogue world but uses the digital realm. When he has an amp, he’ll put a couple of mics close and use it in stereo but then have one right back, and one even further back. So he has all of these channels and natural ways of opening and closing space. I think he has captured a real sense of grand space, hinting at some of the Los Angeles echo chambers that may or may not have been used by Roy Orbison. It’s just that he is artificially constructing it in the confines of a Japanese hotel room!

There are other tracks which are more intimate where we went for a more Beatles style recording, where the acoustic guitar wasn’t recorded in that standard methodology of the stereo pair … one mic over the soundhole and one up the neck a little bit. We intentionally recorded it mono, just a little bit back, trying to capture a sixties thing. There’s quite a broad spectrum of production styles from a lot of the different eras I like.

D: So Henry is 80s and I am 50s! What about the mastering. It’s always the most pleasant because, it’s like … nothing!

H: I sit there wondering about mistakes we have or have not made, whether it’s too late to go back.

D: Some people do vocals at the mastering stage.

H: We had a bad mastering job done on an album a couple of records ago and it sounded like all of our great work had been thrust under a doona. So we had to get it mastered again, but I love all of that stuff. You know, I’m a nerd. I wear glasses. I love that shit!

AM mag: What about your gear Dave?

D: I have a fetish for cheap equipment. I lot of the people I loved as kid, like Hound Dog Taylor and that. They would play the roughest shit. And people here that I love like Matt Walker. He plays a funny old guitar called a Rock Axe that he plugs into a Peavey amp that he his mum bought him when he was fourteen. But Matt’s fingers make it sound beautiful. I have the Ibanez Talman, a beautiful gold guitar .. semi acoustic. I love the super clean sounds.

H: It does look very ZZ Top like it should have one of those attachments where any minute, you could spin it around like a helicopter.

D: I like to play my guitar high up. I play it through a Fender M80 combo with 1×12 speaker. It’s everything a guitar player hates, it’s got red knobs. It’s got a super clean sound and it’s very loud and it’s lighter than my guitar. I also play a  12 string electric OLP which is a Chinese made version of a Musicman guitar. Our guitarist Stuey plays a left handed solid body Rickenbacker through a small Laney valve amp. Our bass player Stu Thomas plays a Fender bass, as well as a Burns baritone bass. He likes to get that clunky 60s sound.

Clare plays her Black Gretsch kit which she has had since 1983 in London and has always recorded with. The kit has been augmented with a  deep Brady snare for added whomp. The only things we overdubbed were background vocals. I re-did about five vocals at my home studio and sent them to Victor in NYC. I used a Rode  NT2 for songs with a closer intimate approach and a Shure SM58 for the bawlin’, screaming raveups. Both mics put through a  single channel Joe Meek box. For EQ, a little compression and drive. It was a  pretty unconscious session. I mean we knew it so well that there was no second guessing. Only the start of one song we changed a little on the spot, as we recorded it. No editing in the mastering. I refer to it as my “3rd debut”.

AM mag: In your book Dave, you discuss the tour you did together. Would you recommend the rock and roll lifestyle to the kids out there?

H: It wasn’t very rock and roll. Dave had a bag of apples between the seats. On the solo tour that Dave and I did, Dave’s stage wear at the time was usually leather pants, black mesh singlet and a black leather beret.

D: Marlon Brando look but occasionally people would mistake it for Village People!

H: So to see Dave pull into the local fish and chip shop after a gig in a small country town in his stage get up … it’s like … are you looking for kicks Dave? It was an amazing sight. You definitely held your head high.

Dave Graney and the Lurid Yellow Mist’s ‘Rock and Roll is Where I Hide’ is out April 15. 
The book 1001 Australian Nights is out April 4.
Wagons album ‘Rumble, Shake and Tumble’ is out May 6th.