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Pennsylania's The Morning Call: After Many Career Phases, Mature Mellencamp Making The Music He and Listeners Likes
02.20.2011 - The Morning Call By John J. Moser

Mike Wanchic, who for almost 35 years has been the guitarist for John Mellencamp's band, can explain exactly how his boss not only hit it big, but also has sustained a career that has seen him sell more than 27 million albums in the United State alone.

The first part was serendipity, Wanchic says.

"Just by great providence, it happened for us," Wanchic says in a phone interview. "We were making records and they were not happening, and no one really wanted to hear what we wanted to do. And then, what we considered pretty much our last shot at making records was [the 1982 album] 'American Fool.' "

But that record's roots-rock sound and populist message suddenly resonated with a listening public that, in the early 1980s, was looking to recover from a recession and years of perceived national weakness and doubt.

"We just continued to do what we did — even more fervently," Wanchic says. "And the way I see things working is that you continue to do what you do, and with any luck, culture will intersect with what you do. And in our case, it happened to do that … contemporary culture crossed us and all of a sudden, it was a hit."

But what sustained the career, Wanchic says, was integrity.

"From that point on, we were able to bring our audience with us and continue to evolve and our audience was accepting," he says. "I think that's what's allowed us, over the last 20 albums, to continue to mature, continue to evolve musically without losing out audience. Because our audience had grown with us."

These days, it's that very maturity that has captured the 59-year-old Mellencamp's audience.

His 2007 album "Freedom Road," a study in more mature country rock, had the highest chart debut in Mellencamp's career, at No. 5 on the Billboard albums chart. Then his 2008 disc "Life Death Love and Freedom," a stunning, often quiet examination of the things in its title, made Rolling Stone's Top 5 best albums of the year.

Last summer's Americana/folk "No Better Than This" continued to mine that vein of mortality, hope and regret.

The songs differ substantially from those of Mellencamp's 1980s commercial apex, when he had 13 Top 20 hits such as "Hurt So Good," "Pink Houses," "Small Town" and the No. 1 "Jack and Diane" and No 2 "R.O.C.K (in the U.S.A.).

Wanchic takes credit for helping persuade Mellencamp to include those last two songs on those albums.

"John's always wanted to be a legitimate songwriter," Wanchic says. "But there's an element of rock and roll that has to be fun. There has to be a fun factor in there. And I don't mean in a trivial fashion, but in a celebratory way. Both those songs are anthemic, American, celebratory songs. … I pride myself on being able to smell a hit record."

Wanchic also says it's the distance from that commercial success — Mellencamp's last Top 40 hit was 15 years ago — that now lets Mellencamp record the types of songs he wants.

"At this point in John's career, he's allowed the latitude to do what he wants, regardless of the commercial ramification," Wanchic says. "He can't buy a hit at our age, anyway. It can't happen. If you look right down the line at every great artist in our age bracket, from Paul Simon on down, there's no radio for us anymore.

"So why bother, you know? Why not just perceive your career exactly how you want to perceive it and forge your legacy in the direction that you want to take it?"

Wanchic says "the nature of writing as one matures has to alter and change."

"We're not so cavalier as we used to be, certainly. And I think all our priorities have changed, our outlooks on the world have changed. John's view of life and politics and family — we've all grown up. He really can't write from the crotch anymore like we did when we were kids," he says, laughing.

"John is just continuing, in my opinion, to evolve as a writer — as a great writer of timeless material, not unlike Dylan … when the universal human condition is being examined."

Wanchic says that for "No Better Than This," Mellencamp "wanted to do sort of a traditional record, from his love of Johnny Cash and the early records and even much earlier music than that."

That took him and the band to historic locations such as the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., the famous Sun Studios in Memphis and the Sheraton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where blues and rock pioneer Robert Johnson recorded.

Mellencamp used a 1955 portable recording machine and only one microphone and recorded in mono, the same way as the classic recordings were done.

"I think it's an exploration — a musical exploration," Wanchic says. "It's real music for real people that actually enjoy real music. It's timeless music. It has nothing to do with contemporary culture. So from our perspective, it's the only place we can go anymore."

The recording process came during breaks in Mellencamp's 2009 national tour of minor league baseball stadiums with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, which stopped at Allentown's Coca-Cola Park on July 14, 2009. The process, and the tour, was captured by film makers for the new Mellencamp documentary "It's About You."

On Mellencamp's new tour, the hourlong movie serves as the "opening act," followed by two hours of playing that not only spans Mellencamp's career, but also offers different configurations of accompaniment: Mellencamp solo, two acoustic guitars, a quieter "cocktail" quartet and the entire band for "the arena set."

"We're not going to abandon the hits, and we certainly give people a big chunk of it at the very end. But you know, it's kind of like dessert."

The diverse show fits Wanchic, who has been with Mellencamp through all of his career stages: the original Johnny Cougar, the John Cougar of "American Fool," the John "Cougar" Mellencamp of his 12-million selling late 1980s albums, up to his current rock elder-statesman role.

"A lot of it is shared experiences," says Wanchic, who met Mellencamp in 1976 at a Bloomington, Ind., studio where he was an intern when Mellencamp came in to record demos. "We're the same age, we grew up very close to one another. We grew up listening to the same music … and I think those things have just allowed us to forge a brotherhood that was able to survive."

Wanchic says he's helped Mellencamp by offering "my honest counsel and my musical ideas … I know how John thinks, and he knows musically how I think. And I think those two things have just allowed us to learn to trust each other over the years and to honor each others' opinion."

Although, he says with a laugh, "I've been fired a half-dozen times already."

That raises the question of the recent dissolution of Mellencamp's marriage to Boyertown-native Elaine Irwin after 18 years of marriage.

"He's a great dad, he's been a great husband to Elaine," says Wanchic, who last month became a grandfather. "But sometimes things run their course, you know? And I'm not really prepared to say what it is because I don't really know."

But Wanchic says "the upside of it is that he had refocused completely on the music and what we do. You know, our life has been built around making music and playing music. And at this point in our lives, I think that has kind of been refocused and that's what we're out here doing. That's what we do."

Lehigh Valley Music Blog By John J. Moser

Mike Wanchic, who for almost 35 years has been the guitarist for John Mellencamp’s band, can explain exactly how his boss not only hit it big, but also has sustained a career for those 31/2 decades that has seen him sell more than 27 million albums in the United State alone.

The first part was serendipity, Wanchic says. The roots rock sound and populist message of 1982’s “American Fool” happened to resonate with a listening public that, in the early 1980s, was looking to recover from a recession and years of perceived national weakness and doubt.

But what sustained the career, Wanchic says, was integrity.

Now, almost 30 years after that commercial peak, Mellencamp is out on tour to support his latest disc, “No Better Than This,” which he recorded in historic locations such as the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., the famous Sun Studios in Memphis and the Sheraton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where blues and rock pioneer Robert Johnson recorded.

Mellencamp used a 1955 portable recording machine and only one microphone and recorded in mono, the same way as the classic recordings were done. The recording process came during breaks in Mellencamp’s 2009 national tour of minor league baseball stadiums with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, which stopped at Allentown’s Coca-Cola Park on July 14, 2009.

The process, and the tour, was captured by film makers for the new Mellencamp documentary “It’s About You,” which will be the “opening act” for his current tour.

In a recent telephone interview to promote Mellencamp’s stop Monday at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, Wanchic talked about his career with Mellencamp and where it has brought them.

Here's a transcript of the call:

LEHIGH VALLEY MUSIC: There are a few things I want to cover, but I want to make sure I talk about the film “It’s About You.” The only thing I know about it I saw online and in the trailer. Does it include scenes from the minor league baseball stadiums?

WANCHIC: “Oh yeah, lots of them.”

And it really makes me wonder – you guys played Allentown on that tour and I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, our stadium may show up.’

“You know, I don’t know which ones they are, ‘cause it’s usually stage shots. So it’s a little difficult to say, but you guys got as good a shot as anybody else [Laughs]. ‘Cause Kurt Marcus, he shot every single show.”

JOHN MELLENCAMP AND BAND, 7 p.m. Monday, Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets, Philadelphia. Tickets $48.50 to $130. Info: www.academyofmusic.org, 215-893-1999.

You know, I have to tell you – that show, I was there. And when I wrote the review, I actually said that you guys hit the home run – in a baseball park – hit the home run. I mean, I liked Dylan, but I thought you guys were the best act there.

“Thanks.”

Anyway, do you know what the idea was behind using the film as sort of the opening act at the shows you’re doing now?

Mellencamp at Allentown's Coca-Cola Park in 2009

“Well, I think we’re trying to really sort of expand off of our normal base of hit records and give people a little more insight into what is involved in what we do on music and on a daily basis, and I think that really kind of also opens the eyes of the listener and the concert-goer ahead of the event. I think it’s a better set-up. It actually gives you some context for the show that you’re about to see. ‘Cause the show itself is put together so differently than any tour we’ve ever done. This tour is strictly about music. It’s not a whistles and bells. It’s not shooting fish in a barrel with hit records. It is songs that we really feel are great songs. And that’s why it’s in a theater environment – so people can actually sit down and feel good about it, and not have to stand up the entire time. There’s points in the show where standing up is great, there’s points were there are long stretches where you want to sit down and actually listen to the songs that are being played.

“So that’s sort of the nature of the entire program being put together with the film and then leading into what we’re doing. I think it all ties up very nicely.”

Sounds like a good show. I’m really anxious to see it.

“It’s a long thing, ‘cause it’s an hour show and then we play two.”

Oh, really? The film’s an hour long?

“Yeah. It’s one hour and then we play for two hours.”


I’m assuming a good chunk of the show is retrospective.

Crowd at Allentown's Coca-Cola Park

“Well, yeah, and a lot of it is very current. What was done is we really have gone and we have looked deep into our material and gone, ‘Well, you know, this was a really good song and we were never really able to play this song. And so, yes, on a retrospective level, some of that is in there. Songs like ‘Jackie Brown,’ which we haven’t really been able to perform for many years. And then there’s songs like ‘Longest Day’ and ‘Save Some Time’ from the new records that are just absolutely fantastic songs, and in an arena environment and big rock show environment, you could never get away with playing.”

In fact, one of the complaints — not mine — about the set you guys played here, I think you played like three songs from [the 2008 disc] “Life Death Love and Freedom” and I loved it, I’m blown away by that album. But people were expecting to hear the hits at a stadium show.

“Well, exactly. And so the environment partially dictates the kind of show you have to put together. Hits are desired to do nothing but theaters on this go-round, because once again, it alerts the concert-goer that this – and we’re very up-front about it – this is a different kind of show. This is an opportunity to get with us after a 30-year career and listen to not only what you want to hear, but what we want to play.”

I like that whole concept.

“From a musical perspective, it’s incredibly diverse. The show starts out with a quartet of two guitars, a cocktail kit and upright bass and vocal. And we move from there into all kinds of different configurations, from John being solo to two acoustic guitars to the entire band ensemble with upright basses and tambourines and violins and accordions. And the eventually into what we would call the arena set. You know, we’re not going to abandon the hits, and we certainly give people a big chunk of it at the very end. But you know, it’s kind of like dessert.”

[Laughs] Good way to put it. I want to talk a little bit just about the musical space that John is in right now. Like I said, I loved the last album and this one, and there’s clearly – to me, at least – a perspective that his musical life is changing again, different. I don’t know what you’d call it, introspective or whatever. But clearly he’s looking at things or writing about things that are on a more serious level.

“I think the nature of writing as one matures has to alter and change. It’s no longer … we’re not so cavalier as we used to be, certainly. And I think all our priorities have changed, our outlooks on the world have changed. John’s view of life and politics and family – we’ve all grown up, you know? He really can’t write from the crotch anymore like we did when we were kids. [Laughs]

“John is just continuing, in my opinion, to evolve as a writer – as a great writer of timeless material. Not unlike Dylan, where there is no, you can’t really put a time reference on the writing. To me, that’s what allows a song to live forever. When the universal human condition is being examined.”

When I reviewed, “Life, Death, Love, Freedom,” that’s one of the things I said. I think these songs are song of John’s best-written songs ever.

“Absolutely, no question about it.”

And you know what. I’m willing to accept that maybe I’m at a point in life where I’m looking at songs differently, too. But for some reason these songs really spoke to me, and I think him speaking about himself is really reaching some people out here like me.

“Absolutely. Once again, I agree 100 percent with you and I think that’s why this material is the kind of thing that actually deserves to be heard. And at this point in our career, and any great artist in this age group, record sales are really not happening. So how do you reach your constituents? And in our case, it’s go out and play the music live and perform it. Because that’s really the nature of music, is performance. It’s a performance art. And I think that’s something that can’t be ignored and forgotten.”

As I prepared for this interview, I refreshed my memory on your time with John and it reminded me that, when you talk about changes, you’ve basically been with him through all of his changes, right? You were with him when he was still Johnny Cougar.

“Yes, I was – 1976.”

So tell me about your 30-odd years with John Mellencamp. How have things evolved, and how have things changed, and what’s it been like?

“ Man [laughs]. Well, I think we started out with very lofty goals to start with. We wanted to be rock stars when we were kids. And that was everybody’s goal in the music business – to get the big record deal, to be the big success. And just by great providence, it happened for us. And the funny thing is – the way things work in this world, in my opinion, we did one thing, and that’s pretty much all we knew. We had our limitations, we worked well within them and we were making records and they were no happening, and no one really wanted to hear what we wanted to do. And then, what we considered pretty much our last shot at making records was [1982’s] ‘American Fool.’ And once again, we just continued to do what we did – even more fervently. And the way I see things working in that you continue to do what you do, and with any luck, culture will intersect what you do. And in our case, it happened to do that.”

I think you hit that nail right on the head.

“Because we weren’t doing anything different – but culture crossed us. Contemporary culture crossed us and all of a sudden, it was a hit.”

I agree. If you look at the times when that album came out, it was perfect for those times.

“It just happened to intersect. And at that point, our career was born and blossomed. And from that point on, we were able to bring our audience with us and continue to evolve and our audience was accepting. I think that’s what’s allowed us, over the last 20 albums, to continue to mature, continue to evolve musically without losing out audience. Because our audience had grown with us.”

I read that you actually were among the people that persuaded him to keep “Jack and Diane” on “American Fool.”

“That’s true.”

And also R.O.C.K. (In the U.S.A.) on [1985’s album] “Scarecrow.”

“Absolutely. Well, John’s always wanted to be a legitimate songwriter. But there’s an element of rock and roll that has to be fun. There has to be a fun factor in there. And I don’t mean in a trivial fashion, but in a celebratory way. Both those songs are anthemic, American, celebratory songs.”

And I read, as a person interested in music, how artists such as Dylan don’t see the big hits. They’re so focused on the songwriting.

“Absolutely. Well, the thing is, I pride myself on being able to smell a hit records.”

In your work in producing and as a band leader, how much influence do you think you had in John’s songs over the years?

“Well, all I can do is offer my honest counsel, and my musical ideas. I am not a lyricist, never claimed to be. I am a musician and a hook writer and to me, the two things actually are absolutely married. I know how John thinks, and he knows musically how I think. And I think those two things have just allowed us to learn to trust each other over the years and to honor each others’ opinion.”

The concept behind “No Better Than This” – the recording in the historic places and the use of the instruments the way you guys did – how did that evolve? Is that something you went into the making of the album with?

“Yeah, absolutely. John wanted to do sort of a traditional record, from his love of Johnny Cash and the early records and even much earlier music than that. I think it’s an exploration – a musical exploration. Once again, I think at this point in John’s career, he’s allowed the latitude to do what he wants -- irregardless of the commercial ramification. He can’t buy a hit at our age, anyway. It can’t happen. If you look right down the line at every great artist in our age bracket, from Paul Simon on down, there’s no radio for us anymore. So why bother, you know? Why not just perceive your career exactly how you want to perceive it and forge your legacy in the direction that you want to take it. Irregardless of any kind of commerciality.”

I saw John perform on Letterman and, again, it just sort of blew me away. But you’re right – you put that on the radio, it’s not going to work. But you got an audience like me that’s like, all of a sudden we’re in love with this music.

“Yeah, well, it’s real music, you know? It’s real music for real people that actually enjoy real music. It’s timeless music. It has nothing to do with contemporary culture. So from our perspective, it’s the only place we can go anymore.”

To what do you attribute the fact that you and John have been able to work together more than 30 years?

“Oh, a lot of it is shared experiences. We’re the same age, we grew up very close to one another. We grew up listening to the same music. We had parallel experiences, even though I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky and he grew up in Seymour, Indiana, we listened to the same radio station growing up, out of Louisville, Kentucky. We had very similar music language when we met one another. A lot of shared experience and I think those things have just allowed us to forge a brotherhood that was able to survive.”

When you guys came through Allentown, I interviewed one of Willie Nelson’s players who had a long history with Willie, and I asked him the same question and he said, ‘I just think he hadn’t gotten around to firing me yet’ [Laughs]

“[Laughs] Well, I’ve been fired a half-dozen times already.”

[Laughs] Well, you know what? If it’s a great relationship, that type of tension better have shown itself at some point, you know?

“Oh, absolutely [Laughs]. There’s no question about it. Yeah, no question about it. That’s just part of real life. But you know, then you have to look at the greater good.”

Yeah, yeah. You know, I can’t let the interview go by without asking about John’s personal life. Does the fact that his marriage is ending, does that play into where he’s at at all?

“I think what it is doing right now is it’s really creating a focus on his music. Because ultimately and finally, that’s what he’s got. And that’s what he is – he’s a great songwriter. He’s a great dad, he’s been a great husband to Elaine. But sometimes things run their course, you know? And I’m not really prepared to say what it is because I don’t really know. But the upside of it is that he had refocused completely on the music and what we do. You know, our life has been built around making music and playing music. And at this point in our lives, I think that has kind of been refocused and that’s what we’re out here doing. We have a lot of shows booked, which we normally don’t do. Let’s go out and let’s play music. That’s what we do, that’s what I am, you know? At 59 years old, I’m not going to be changing much.”

[Laughs] How is John? As far as health-wise, he’s doing well?

“Yeah, oh, very well. He’s on [an exercise machine] 45 minutes every day and he works hard.”

Those were the questions I had. Anything I missed?

“The thing I would stress to people is that this show is about music. This is a presentation that we’re gifting people that is not what they have known from us in the past. It’s a much broader musical experience, and I think any true fan will find this very enriching – and revealing about what we do musically.”


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