For the past 35 years, guitarist Mike Wanchic has stood right behind John Mellencamp’s side on stage and in the studio. AXS recently sat down with the veteran musician to speak about the bond with his world famous boss, insight into their musical process and a glimpse inside Mellencamp’s 23rd studio release, Plain Spoken. Catch the pair on tour together in what’s shaping up to be one of the legendary singer/songwriter’s most ambitious outings yet, running the next several months and culminating with a home state show in Indianapolis on August 4.
Mike, you’ve been with John Mellencamp for most of his career. Can you describe the bond you have and how that’s led to such longevity collaborating together?
It's definitely like a blood relationship at this point. I made my first record with John in 1976, about 10 minutes out of school both of us, and utterly naive. Over the years we've just sort of learned the art of record making, song writing and arranging. Slowly and surely...to the point that we've pretty well mastered it. John has developed, in my opinion, into one of the most important writers in America without a doubt. As I think back over the years, it's been really interesting process from John's perspective, where we would make a record and he'd hit on two great songs. Eventually that ratio started flipping the other way where there are eight great songs on an album. Now the material, in my opinion, are the best songs he's ever written in his life--fantastically crafted and insightful songs.
At this point in our career we don't really attempt to make radio records at all, it's a pointless exercise. There's a freedom inside that pointless exercise for us where we don't have to chase radio. We're able to make music for the sake of music. It hasn't always been that way, we were running for hit records like everybody else, in the very beginning. We made a number of records prior to the first hit album, American Fool, where we were just struggling along. For American Fool we were doing the same thing, but culture and what we did intersected. It was one of those moments in time when culture crosses what you're doing; there's an opportunity and the public grabbed onto it. By happenstance, we were able to kickstart this career and were able to carry it on for the last 35 years...to the point where it's no longer a necessity to chase anything but great songs, great art and great arranging. That's what we're really trying to do.
That's what makes great music--doing what you want to do instead of being forced what to do.
Absolutely, and to be candid, the record companies have never really bothered too much with us. Ever since American Foolwe've never really had any A&R input into our records. We've been able to pursue our own records, and via the success we've had, why would a record company want to f*** with it? It's been working pretty well. We're free to pursue art and music simultaneously, and we've always had fantastic support from our record labels.
How deep was your involvement in putting together John’s latest album, Plain Spoken?
The way that all these records come about is that John is a singer-songwriter not unlike a Woodie Guthrie or Pete Seeger who were pure songwriters. He comes in with an acoustic guitar and plays a song for us in folk-fashion. From there, we try to feel out what's important. [We attempt] to feel out what's in the song and try to make the arrangement around what the song is about, how it's supposed to feel as opposed to a catchy radio hook. We still have them, but the point is, that it's driven by another head now.
Everybody in our band is extremely talented and diverse. There's a wealth of influence that can come into a record because we all have varying backgrounds. Mine reaches back into Appalachian music, folk music and Motown. Our violinist has a deep background in Eastern European Gypsy music. We each bring a unique musical tapestry into our record making. We're not just stuck in elemental rock and roll with the players that we have. So, from that raw song coming in, we build up that song into a record. The arrangements are extremely well arranged before we even head into the studio. We work very hard at honing and culturing the song.
This tour is taking you to smaller venues. Do you have a preference between the intimacy of a theater versus the raw energy of an arena?
I grew up with the raw energy of the arenas and I wouldn't be telling you the truth if I said that I didn't love them. But it fit the music, the era, the attitude...it's all different at this point. We want a better experience for our listeners. We want to be able to have people actually hear the songs and put people in an environment that's comfortable and friendly. These theaters are really fun to play, they're beautiful, the artistic nature of the Fox Theater in Detroit or Atlanta; it's befitting of the music. All of these concert halls that we go to are perfectly fitting to the music that we are playing now--more insightful, thoughtful. The sets are put together for listening. Don't get me wrong, there's a ton of high energy stuff but the whole thing is built around the art of music as opposed to below the belt...at this point, that's what the music's about. It's not about from-the-crotch, it's from the heart and the head. We'll drop below the belt occasionally, but not as much.
Is there anything particular about this tour that sets it apart from the previous ones?
Definitely, I won't give it away, but there are definitely some things in this set that no one has ever seen John do. I'll just put it to you that way.
Are any of the shows being recorded for a potential live CD or DVD?
I'm sure it will be. Actually, to be candid, we run multi-track Pro Tools every night. It's not miked up the way it should be for a proper album, but all the microphones are going directly into Pro Tools every night. I can guarantee...it'd be a poor carpenter who blames his tools if they couldn't make a record out of it. We had a record called Freedom's Road and we went into a rehearsal studio, a garage, in Belmont where we make our records. It's one big room and we threw microphones on cords over amps and speakers. We put three to four mikes on the drums and we were trying to pre-arrange a record...running it into Pro Tools. We did this for a month and a half and recorded everything. Then it was time to go into the studio and John and I were talking and said, "Why in the f*** would we go into the studio? We just made the record." The feeling in that room when we were writing and arranging and then pushed go--that's what it was all about. Forget the sonics, you can work on the sonics but you can't manufacture a vibe and the vibe was already there. We made that entire record off our rehearsal room demos.
Given the short attention span of today’s fans, do you think that Mellencamp would break through as a mainstay artist if he were just starting out?
Wow. Given what we're doing right now, no. But, let me back up and rephrase...there's a whole renaissance of what we do with these young artists right now that we're seeing. Whether it's Mumford & Sons, a lot of these young artists we find are absolutely fantastic. The young neo-hippy bands are really good. Cage the Elephant is another, there's some great music out there these days. I'm really encouraged by it. I like that the model has changed now with record companies. It's not about mega-record companies controlling music. The whole internet-digital-make-your-own-record thing has changed the market. It allows anybody the chance to make a record. If you've got something to say, you can f***ing well say it, you can put it out there.
I think there's going to be more music, better music...more accessible without necessarily having the intervention of record companies. And I think that's a good, healthy thing. It allows more people to make music. I was never too worried that my doctor was well-known internationally. There are bands all over this country that are amazing and who cares if they're not known in Seattle and Miami simultaneously. They deserve to have a living and have their art seen, and have a decent living for doing so. And I think that's where music is headed.
You have a few kids. Have any of them shown an affinity for music? What would be your words of wisdom in today’s music scene?
I have one daughter who studied at Interlochen Arts Academy. She's more of an Appalachian folk singer [laughs], so needless to say that won't be pursued. I have a whole batch of young children, talking about 6-7 year olds, that are showing an affinity. It's like telling your son to pursue pro football. Probably not the best plan. I think the best advice you can give anybody going into music: if you're not willing to suffer for your music or be voluntarily poor, and know that's the way it's going to be, then don't go into the music business. Choose another way of making a living and then just enjoy your music.
Mike, it’s been great chatting with you and I appreciate all of your insight. Is there anything else you’d like to add we haven’t discussed already?
No, not particularly, but I think it should be known that the shows that we're putting out right now are fantastic, artful and high energy. Certainly worth someone's time. They are going to see things in this show that they've never seen at a John Mellencamp show, and may never see again. Through both the song choice and delivery, it's a unique opportunity to see a unique show.