Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Wanchic Has Been Lead Guitarist For Mellencamp For 30 years

Never let it be said that a person cannot juggle sports and the arts, especially during one's younger years.

Mike Wanchic is one of the great examples.

After all, Wanchic is known primarily as a good friend, career adviser, recent co-producer and, most important, lead guitarist for John Mellencamp for more than 30 years.

He also stays in shape during the current Dylan-Mellencamp-Nelson tour with a rigorous biking program each morning, mapping routes to ride with Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson's harmonica player.

Bob Dylan, Mellencamp, Nelson and the Wiyos will perform in concert Saturday at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock.

Wanchic also played college football for his college team at DePauw University.

He explained during a recent telephone interview that his interests were split 50-50 between sports and the arts while growing up.

"My mom was deeply supportive of the arts," noted Wanchic after a morning phone chat with family. "I remember being that little boy who had to take piano lessons. I also sang in the choir, and she even enrolled me in ballet for a time."

On the other hand, Wanchic added that his dad (Nick Wanchic) "was a well-known athlete, a star at the University of Kentucky who played for Bear Bryant."

"So I grew up with a split appreciation."

Still, he said, "Both demand creativity. I might be trying to create an opening on the field, or trying to come up with a new guitar part. And you have to know how to compete in the music business if you want to succeed. You definitely cannot be passive and endure."

But it was Wanchic's father who helped him grow as a musician, thanks to his work after college as the director of a federal heroin addiction facility in Kentucky.

Wanchic would end up taking up guitar at age 13. Yet he had an early opportunity to talk with many of music's greats.

He explained, "It seemed like all of the country's great jazz musicians, Gene Krupa and all the beboppers, were sent to that facility, either when they were busted or when their (drug) habits just got out of control. I grew up going out to my dad's hospital and watching bands kick ass.

"You'd see the best players from New York crowded into a cigarette smoke-filled (hospital) room, playing straight up bebop jazz."

Wanchic added, "I was so young back then. I remember one of my favorites being Bill Jennings. He was an old black man (actually, Jennings was born in 1919), but he was such an amazing jazz guitar player."

Not amazing enough to keep Wanchic interested in jazz over rock 'n' roll though.

"Hey, I saw the Beatles and that was the end of that," he said. "I was into rock bands."

His introduction to Mellencamp arrived in two stages.

When he graduated from DePaux University in Greencastle, Ind., his first inclination was to study to become an audio engineer, and he began working at Jack Gilfoy's studio in Bloomington, Ind.

Wanchic said, "Gilfoy's was the highest rated music school in the world. He played percussion for people like Henry Mancini and Johnny Mathis. By 1976, he was operating a state-of-the-art studio.

"It was the first place to teach audio engineering, and I badgered him for an internship.

"As it turned out, John (Mellencamp) came in to make some demos, and I played better guitar than the guy he was using. John would come back late at night and I added some replacement parts for him. That was the first time we met."

In 1978, Mellencamp was headed out on tour with Robin Trower, one of Wanchic's "heroes." He accepted Mellencamp's invitation to join the band, and they've worked together ever since.

Wanchic said that the two "shared a similar musical language from the start."

They grew up in different towns, listening to the same black gospel radio station located at a point between their home towns. Both enjoyed Motown in junior high; a few years later Wanchic drifted toward The Grateful Dead while Mellencamp liked Hendrix.

"We remained respectful of each other and we didn't ever have any major personality differences," the guitarist added.

"The one thing I still love about this band," he said, "is that we are all highly disciplined. We are a well-oiled, rehearsed machine. I know a lot of bands that go on stage unprepared, and we don't have to worry about that. Thus, the only thing I worry about is just participating in the moment."

Indeed, the Mellencamp band has earned rave reviews for years for being one of rock's tighter ensembles.

Improvisation is not something the band is known for, with Wanchic comparing Mellencamp's musicians to actors on Broadway who would "not think of changing one of the lines in 'Les Miserables.' "

Wanchic said the "cumulative tools" he developed - such as being a player, an arranger and a band leader - all led to him taking production duties.

On top of that, he's played big brother more than once, and he said, "It's like Dylan told us: You gotta serve somebody."

Mellencamp did not want to include his recordings of "Jack and Diane" and "R.O.C.K. in the USA" on albums "American Fool" and "Scarecrow" in 1978 and 1982, respectively.

Wanchic said, "John wants to be regarded as a serious songwriter, and he thought those were both just joke songs."

Wanchic was among those who convinced Mellencamp that the songs could become hits ... which they did.

That said, he remains extremely loyal to Mellencamp, who had to fight "very bad management" during the first years of his career, back when he was being sold as "Johnny Cougar" and was not allowed to record under his real name.

Wanchic loves the idea of the playing field being labeled nowadays, saying, "We may see the demise of the rock star. But who cares? The world doesn't need more rock stars, but it always will need good music. ... Now musicians can even craft a business for themselves; they can earn enough to raise a family or buy a house."

Describing Mellencamp as an employer, Wanchic says, "He is an absolute taskmaster all the way. But then, I suffer from the same disease. A great rock band needs a benevolent dictator as its leader. That's John.

"I feel the same way as a producer. Records made in democratic situations usually suck."

On the other hand, said Wanchic, Mellencamp "will listen to anyone who has an idea to make things better."

No one ever has had to mention the importance of conditioning twice to Wanchic.

He explained, "You're talking to one of the biggest fanatics. I ride with Mickey. I weight train three times a week. I'm on a sports diet and have a sports trainer. I am drinking a protein drink right now, and my vitamin tray is ridiculous.

"John works out every day. In fact, yesterday every person in the band, down to the violinist, were all in the workout room.

"I will not be a casualty to this business. No way."

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