One thing you can never say about Robert Wagner of The Little Wretches, is that he’s at a loss for words. The verbose and outspoken frontman for the Pittsburgh-based indie darlings of the 80s/90s has had alot to say lately. With his music finding a larger audience than ever, thanks to international radio airplay and countless features, the singer-songwriter and guitarist finds himself unimpressed by fame and fortune. Instead, he opts for the quiet moments, alone, when he feels what God has intended for him. Read about this, the upcoming music releases he has planned and about some “skeletons in the closet” in this exclusive one and one…
CBW: Congratulations on the release of your latest single, “All Of My Friends.” What inspired you to write and record that particular song?
Robert Wagner: What inspired me to write ALL OF MY FRIENDS? Or are you asking about the stories behind it. There’s a story behind just about every line or couplet in that song. If I really broke that down for you, I don’t know if you could handle it. Are you ready for that tidal wave?
For me, a song usually begins with a lyric line or a guitar phrase, a series of chords, or maybe a bass-line. For ALL OF MY FRIENDS, I just kind of sat down, picked up my guitar, and those chords played themselves while I sang, “All of my friends turned into fanatics.”
The experiences that made me who I am have separated me from the so-called normal world. And, as they say, “birds of a feather flock together.” When you’re outside of society, you tend to connect with others who are outside of society.
I found a photo from my third birthday party. Pictured in that photo are a morphine addict and three lesbians along with me and my cousins standing around my birthday cake.
I had a lot of older cousins. I heard one of them say that my aunt and my grandmother had skeletons in their closet. They lived in the same house, by the way.
Skeletons in their closet? I wanna see those skeletons! So the next time I was at my grandmother’s house, I demanded to see the skeletons. They let me rummage through their closets, but I discovered nothing but old coats and shoes. No skeletons. And believe me, I was thorough. If there was a skeleton in there, I would have found it.
Of course, I eventually came to understand that “skeletons in the closet” is a figure of speech, and my cousins were referring to the fact that my aunt was a lesbian.
I grew up around a lot of secrets. When people keep secrets, you fill the void with stories invented in your imagination.
ALL OF MY FRIENDS alludes to but does not describe in detail the people around me who’ve found a way to blend in when they, in fact, are absolute outsiders. They’ve turned their crutches into weapons. They’ve turned their vulnerabilities into strengths.
Like I say in the song, “It’s not even safe to admit that you’re one of my friends.”
Think I’m joking? Stay tuned. The good Lord willing, all of those stories will be told.
Are you a self-taught guitarist, or did you take lessons? If you took lessons, tell us about your first guitar teacher. If not, how did you go about learning to play?
My ninth birthday present was a guitar and a guitar-lesson.
I used to take tumbling lessons on Saturday mornings. A forty-five minute lesson for a dollar. Me and some other kids from my neighborhood went to a show put on by a local dance studio, and the finale was a teenager somersaulting over something like sixteen kneeling girls. I could somersault over six kneeling girls. I never worked my way into the teens. But on my ninth birthday, my mom said, “After your lesson this morning, make sure you wash your hands, then go across the street to Victor Lawrence Music and tell them your name.”
I got off the mat, washed my hands, followed my mom’s instructions, and a guy named Walt Cooper took a guitar off the display, took me back into a little room, and gave me my first guitar-lesson.
My teachers were Walt Cooper, Dan Kent and Joe Colosimo. Joe was the guy who made the most impact. The other guys were brilliant players, but Joe was a working musician. He was the guy you called if you had a gig and needed somebody to sit in because your regular guy had to cancel.
Joe Colosimo taught me a workman like approach. Keep your pinky finger free when you make a chord so you can add notes and play a melody while holding the chord. He tuned a banjo like a guitar and used to blow people away with his banjo playing.
The sad thing is that when I saw Joe Colosimo on a trolley when I was in college, I assumed he didn’t remember me and didn’t greet him. Now, looking back, I know that he recognized me and was an elderly guy whose best days had passed him. Had I said hello to Joe, it would have meant a lot to him. Now, I know better, but I can’t go back in time and change my behavior. Joe was a great teacher, and when I could have given something back, I failed.
I’ll try to do better in the future.
Were you involved with music as a teenager? Did you play in any bands back then? How did you get started?
See, I hated everybody and everything. The cool kids who played in bands? I was jealous of them, but I wasn’t in their league.
A buddy of mine hooked me up with a dude who was in a band. I’d sawed off a piece of metal from a fence and was using it as a slide. I was listening to a lot of Mick Taylor of The Rolling Stones. I’d seen some videos of Mick Taylor playing slide with The Stones,and I used to play along with my favorite records, me playing slide guitar with a hunk of metal.
The dude kind of scoffed at me. He had a huge amp. I had a ten-watt amp. He said his amp probably wouldn’t be big enough to gig with. He treated me like an upstart, which is what I was.
But I’ll promise you this: I’m still playing, and he’s not.
I came away from that experience believing that I’d have to be a writer. I wasn’t cut out to be a real musician, but I could write as well as anybody who walks the earth.
When I went to college, that itself being a miraculous thing, my roommate was an incredible musician, the most powerful musician I’ve ever met. He died young. He and I started a band called NO SHELTER. We released a song called BROOKS ROBINSON’S CAMP. If there’s a more powerful song from the punk-era, show me.
Punk rock gave me a license to get on stage.
How would you describe your brand of music to someone who has never heard of Little Wretches?
A reviewer said we play “the kind of music to win a jaded-girl’s heart.” You jaded? Turn to The Little Wretches.
Look, we’re not about hair styles and clothes. We have “a thing,” a thing you can get into. I can only hope you hear enough till you connect, because once you connect, you’ll find yourself buying or downloading more and more from our catalogue.
Like John Lennon? Like Neil Young? Like Lou Reed? Like Michelle Shocked? The Kinks?
I don’t know. I call us, “Musical portraits and cinematography of the soul.” But that sounds kind of pompous.
How would you describe a Little Wretches fan?
You’re going to make me cry. You’ve got me reminiscing about fans of The Little Wretches who no longer walk this earth. Our fans run the gamut from crack-addicts to former crack-addicts to VP’s of major companies to teachers of at-risk teens to dudes who work in warehouses to welfare-mothers to painters and writers and other musicians.
My target-audience is described in the writings of the prophet Isaiah, “The lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned that I may be able to speak a word in season to him that is weary.”
You weary? You might find The Little Wretches a source of renewed strength.
What gives you the most joy when you are on stage?
I experience joy when a person who is not in the venue specifically to hear me—a person who is in the middle of a conversation or just returning to their table after going to the bar to buy a drink—and that person looks up, forgets about whatever they were thinking about or doing and tunes in to my song.
It’s happened a thousand times.
“Who is this guy and why should I give a crap about him? What did he just say? What? Hey, wait, this guy is really good.”
Turning haters into lovers. That’s what it’s all about.
Tell us about your best performance you’ve ever had? How about the worst?
See, there is no way you can possibly appreciate this. But I went to a music conference, and one of the hosts of a workshop proposed that genius emerges from community. He talked about the Impressionists, the Dadaists, the Surrealists, the Cubists, how the synergy of their work allowed individuals in their respective communities to win acclaim and attention. After the first artist breaks through to wider acclaim and public recognition, other artists are discovered and break through, too.
So I came back from this conference thinking that I had to get something started in my hometown, something to cultivate community.
I convinced a long-standing songwriters’ circle to move from a private venue in the basement of a library to a public venue in a busy bar. Right? My argument was that their work was too good and too valuable to be kept in private.
But in this public venue, there was a lot of distraction, background noise, a lot of people who had absolutely no interest in the music. In fact, a lot of people might have preferred that NO live music be present because our music was a distraction from their personal conversations.
Under such difficult circumstances, I couldn’t expect these songwriters to compete with all the background noise, so I opened the shows. In “show biz,” the opener is like a sacrificial lamb. You’re there to “warm up,” to get the audience ready for the featured performers. Ain’t nobody listening to you, fool.
So anyhow, I stepped up and did my little three or four song set. Of course, I’m used to this challenge. I’m not going to shrink. I step up and do my thing, and when I step off the stage, Sam Flesher (may he rest in peace), who was like the dean of songwriters at the time in this region, he shakes my hand and says, “May you always be as strong as you are at this moment.”
You probably don’t get it, do you? But in Sam’s eyes, and I admired Sam Flesher tremendously, I had just exhibited a level of strength most people will never know. If you don’t get it, I can’t explain it. I guess that’s why I write songs instead of essays.
As for my worst performance, I’ve had a few. There have been times when I held back, when instead of hitting people with the stuff that makes me unique, I performed safe material, middle of the road material, stuff that would blend right into the background. I mean, if that’s what you’re going to do, why bother?
You’ve got your moment. Seize it. Afraid of offending people? Screw them! Maybe they need to be offended.
Go hard. Don’t back down.
What is the highlight of your music career, so far?
See, this whole business revolves around fame and numbers. How many sales? How many dollars?
Fame doesn’t impress me. Fame is an illusion. Imagine being remembered for something that you never really intended. Think of that song by Eric Burdon and The Animals, “DON’T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD.”
I have a song that’s going to be on the album we’re currently recording. The song is called “It’s All Between Me and God.” I’m sorry, but the highlights of my music career are a whole lot of moments between me and God, moments when I understood that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing exactly what I was meant to do.
These moments, they can be a distraction. I can get choked up with emotion. I’ll have to concentrate to simply get my voice to work.
On one of the songs we’re working on, the bass player commented that he didn’t like the way I sang a particular line. He thought I should give it a more powerful delivery. The truth is, I’d given it a dispassionate delivery because if I let my emotions get involved, I’d have been unable to sing at all. But I instantly understood what he meant, so I did another take of the song.
Of course, the song is still unfinished, but when I listen to the rough mix, I can hear my voice cracking. I was on the verge of tears.
The song at the cornerstone of The Little Wretches’ catalogue is BORN WITH A GIFT.
Find BORN WITH A GIFT. Listen to BORN WITH A GIFT. There are moments when I just kind of know, again, it’s between me and God, but I just kind of know that I am honoring my gift.
May you have that feeling. Till then, I probably sound like I’m talking a bunch of spiritual hocus focus. But it’s not hocus focus. It’s very real. You were born with a gift. Use it.
What does Robert Wagner like to do when he’s not making music?
I like the outdoors. I like to hike, to explore. Here’s the bad news. Compared to extreme athletes, I’m a wimp. But compared to the average person, I’m an extremist.
When I go hiking with friends, I often feel like I’m on a leash. They tire so quickly. They shy away from hardship and fatigue. So I spend a lot of time out on the trails alone. And that is NOT a smart thing to do.
Alone? What if you fall? What if you have an encounter with a wild animal? What if you lose the trail and get lost?
I had a high school teacher who taught us that Michelangelo was probably the last person who ever lived who possessed the entire body of knowledge known to mankind at the time. After Michelangelo, there was simply too much information for any individual to be able to process it all.
But I want to be like Michelangelo. I want to know. I want to learn, I want to understand.
When I was younger, I wanted to read at least one new book every week, see one play every week, and so on.
I read an interview with Allen Ginsberg where Ginsberg said he wanted to become a saint. He wanted enlightenment, holiness. I don’t know. I guess I’m a nutcase, but I, too, want enlightenment and holiness. I want to be a true Renaissance person.
And, of course, I have a master’s degree in Instruction and Learning. I am very interested in the free school movement, the democratic school movement, schools like The Circle School in Harrisburg, The Philly Free School, The Sudbury Valley School.
What is up next for you in 2021?
The lineup of the band that recorded UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS is working on a collection of songs called RED BEETS & HORSERADISH. Roots. Earthy. Organic. Spicy. That’s taking longer than I’d hoped.
I also had a live acoustic concert re-mastered. It was originally called SONGS FROM THE LAND OF UNIMARTS, PIT BULLS + KARAOKE MACHINES.” It was recorded straight to disc at a major art gallery called The Mattress Factory. Installation art. They call it, “Art you can get into,” because you walk into a room, and the entire room is the exhibit. Anyhow, The Mattress Factory allowed me to record a concert there in a room with such perfect acoustics that we didn’t even use amplification.
I sang and played guitar and harmonica, and I was accompanies by a true little wretch, David Maund. Dave was a symphony-quality cellist till he had a bicycle accident and shattered his wrist. To my ear, he was still an incredible cellist, but he moved from the region. I’d lost all contact with him.
A week or so before I did the concert, Dave rolled into town. His cello had been stolen, but someone felt sorry for him and gave him a violin. He played the violin like a cello, upright, mounted in a belt-pouch. He plays no single-notes. Every thing he plays is a double-stop, a partial chord.
So he and I did this amazing concert together, and I’m in the process of preparing the concert for release through The Orchard Enterprises, a subsidiary of Sony. It’ll be everywhere, Apple, Amazon, Spotify, YouTube. everywhere.
Look, this concert-album is as authentic as it gets. If you don’t like it, you don’t like what I do. It is a DOCUMENT. It is ME.
And then when RED BEETS is finished, look out.
I have two goals. I want to wake up in the morning, thinking about where I’m playing tonight. And I want to be in the conversation when people talk about great American songwriters. Steve Earle? Ray Wylie Hubbard? I want in. I want people to say, “Did you ever hear The Little Wretches? That Wagner dude, he’s got something to say.”
So there you have it. I’ve talked a good game. Now, I have to deliver.
Thanks Robert! We appreciate the time…