IT’S 11am and Henry Wagons is getting ready to start work, even though it’s his day off.
“I’m not very good at resting,” he says. “Even now, on the coast, in my bed, I’m still talking to you.”
It’s this work ethic, coupled with a laddish charm and penchant for ragged Americana that the self-styled benevolent dictator of Wagons has made the basis of the Victorian group’s sixth record, Acid Rain and Sugar Cane.
“It’s our first one in a few years and it was incredibly fun to make,” he says. “It took a long time, but I think all of us are happy with the final result. It was long, loud and pleasurable, and I think that comes across in the record. I’m a proud father and very excited for it to get out there.”
Despite the three-year period since the band’s last record, Rumble, Shake and Tumble, Wagons says getting back with the group was just like riding the proverbial bike.
“The main core of the group all went to high school together,” he says. “They’re the people I like playing with the most. It’s like being an amoeba floating around in the plasma, drifting away from the mothership, then locking into the bacterial network again and pumping out the virus and the disease like nobody’s business. Maybe that’s a strange analogy! With the solo record [2013’s Expecting Company?] I had to make every single decision and more or less play everything as well, so I was looking forward to creating a collaborative record again. This record is more collaborative than any we’ve done before; I really leant on the guys. It was good to have more hairy, loud men to aid the cause.”
A reassessment of their approach to recording led Wagons to work out how to allow the band to play to its strengths.
“I had a very particular aesthetic and way I wanted to record the album,” he says. “I wanted to really capture the live element that we’ve got together. Studio environments can make communication difficult when you’re all wearing headphones and listening to separate mixes between separate glass panels. All too often in the studio I’ll be in a vocal booth with an acoustic guitar, I’ll finish the song and there’ll be 30 seconds of total silence where we’re all glancing at each other through our respective vacuum chambers, wondering how it went and gesturing through mime. You’ll hear a crackly producer from three metres back going ‘that was good, maybe do it one more time!’ We’ll be like ‘what the fuck’s going on here?’ So to cut a long story short, I wanted to record in an environment where we’re all in the one room. I’d kind of been listening to the Bob Dylan and The Band record The Basement Tapes, where you can really hear that they’re all recording in one room, kind of shit-faced. It’s not so much the most high-fidelity recording, à la Sting or Pink Floyd. They were there to have a good time and the actual recording is almost an afterthought. I basically ended up recording it at a place I got on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, where I have basically loaded in all the vintage gear I’ve collected over the years and set up a studio space. It sounds live, because most of the songs we are all playing together in one room. My vocals come through a PA system in the same room as where the drums are, and it creates this space that I think you can hear in the record. Instead of some elaborate setup, where you’re recording the drums with 20 microphones, the ambience actually comes through the vocal microphone, which is placed six metres away. All the instruments bleed into each other as if we’re on the stage, and it’s a very exciting way to record. I don’t think the fidelity has suffered from it at all. We recorded with a whole bunch of gear I’ve acquired over the years, inspired by Elvis’s late ’70s stage setup in Vegas, so we’ve got a lot of fun old gear.”
Despite the familiarity felt within the band, outside help was enlisted from an esteemed source.
“We were able to take our time,” Wagons says. “We weren’t spending our record advance on studio time, where the clock is ticking every day. What it meant is that we could spend money on recording with people we respect. We had Mick Harvey, the former Bad Seed; he’s done amazing production work with PJ Harvey and did the Serge Gainsbourg stuff. So, instead of spending a thousand dollars a day on some hot-shit national studio or going into Sing Sing or whatever, we were able to bring in geniuses around us; these people we really revered. It took a long time to record, but at our own leisure we’d get together and have four-day getaways. I even had a baby in the middle of the recording process, so it basically came together across six months at our own pace. We were able to just press record when it was all ready to go. The record is quite a trip, quite a journey and the songs take unexpected twists and turns a lot of the time. We were enjoying ourselves too much; we didn’t want to just shit out a three-minute song each time. Mick Harvey’s production style is to join the band, essentially, so he’d be playing drums, keys or percussion on every single song on the record. We had all this money left over to pay to get it mixed at Ocean Way Studios in Los Angeles by the guy who did Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, who have some of the most epic sounding records of recent times. I wanted a dose of that on our record, and he has made it sound incredibly full and incredibly live. It just wanted the average way of blowing your record advance; we were very considered and spent it in a way that made us have a whole lot of fun that translates onto the record. I’d do it again in the same way in a heartbeat.”
While every Wagons album release is an event in itself, the live Wagons experience is on another level.
“The album has a lot of horns and female backing vocals,” Wagons says. “For the big capital city shows, that’s going to be represented on-stage. We’re in the midst of rehearsing the new show as we speak. Because the songs are so live on the album, that energy is transferring well to the live stage. There are going to be a lot of really fun new elements to the show. As it is, I love to interact with the crowd and get amongst it, and this show is definitely going to be no different to that; it’s going to be very loud and very fun.”
ACID RAIN AND SUGAR CANE IS OUT MAY 16. WAGONS’ TOUR OF AUSTRALIA BEGINS IN ADELAIDE MAY 22.