By Gene Triplett
When a Bruce Springsteen wannabe from Indiana released his debut album in 1976, one of the five session guitarists listed on the back of the album cover was Mike Wanchic.
The singer was a pompadour-coifed pretty-boy named Johnny Cougar and the album was a forgettable affair called "Chestnut Street Incident,” full of pale imitations of the Boss and the Rolling Stones.
John Mellencamp started overcoming bad management decisions and recording under his real name in 1983. He has long since developed a voice and a style of his own, gaining hard-earned respect and admiration along the way as the working class hero of Heartland rock.
And Wanchic has been backing him all the way.
"I joined the band when I was 9, so I'm really not that old,” Mellencamp's guitarist and bandleader kidded during an interview from Jones Beach Amphitheatre in New York City, the third stop on a tour that brings them to the Ford Center in Oklahoma City tonight, with Oklahoma City-born singer/guitarist Graham Colton as the opening act.
"We met in the studio, making (Mellencamp's) very first record, 1976,” Wanchic said. "I didn't know him growing up. He grew up in Seymour, Indiana. I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. They're almost exactly equal distance from Louisville, Kentucky. We both listened to the exact same radio station all the way through junior high and high school, a gospel station in Nashville that we both listened to, unknowing to each other. So when we actually met, being of the same age, same musical background, it was a real easy fit. We could relate to one another real well. We've just kind of been fighting the tide for the last 32 years together.”
Their victory is represented by a catalog of 21 albums that have produced such hits as "Hurts So Good,” "Jack & Diane,” "Crumblin' Down” and "Pink Houses” in the early '80s, and increasingly eclectic and socially conscious anthems such as "Small Town,” "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” and "Paper in Fire” in the latter half of the decade, many of them co-produced by Mellencamp and Wanchic.
Mellencamp's latest album, a largely melancholy, spare, folk and blues-tinged meditation on "Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” marks the first time the singer and his bandleader have brought in an outside producer since the Junior Vasquez-helmed album "Mr. Happy Go Lucky” from 1996. This time, it was the venerable T Bone Burnett at the console.
"For us, it was a unique experience,” Wanchic said. "The advantage of the situation is that it allows John to not have to worry about the day-to-day production and stuff, and allowed him to be the artist, focus on what he should be focusing on and not all the minutia that goes along with making a record ... and I was able to give my counsel without having to necessarily be responsible, able to offer my opinions as opposed to trying to make things happen.”
Burnett, whose production resume includes such names as Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Delbert McClinton and Counting Crows, took the opportunity to launch a new audio format on the album. Dubbed "Code,” the technology basically allows the sound engineer to saturate the disc with more sonic density, resulting in warmer, fuller sound reminiscent of high-quality analog recordings. The Code format only plays on DVD players, so the album package contains both a standard CD and specially encoded DVD.
"So what this comes to is this is exactly the way we hear it digitally in the studio,” said Wanchic, who owns a recording facility in Bloomington, Ind.
"So that's the beauty of it. A person like yourself, when you have a good system, you'll be able to put it on the DVD player and the definition, the openness, the bottom end, you'll feel less pinch in the nose. It's suddenly, bam, it's there, it's all open, it's exactly like we hear it when we're putting it down. It's a marvelous experience.
"Because record making continues these days to be much more about trying to get the loudest CD, and they're compressed and it sounds bad. And I think that's a disservice to the public. The public has just come to accept the fact that music doesn't sound so good. This is an opportunity for people to really experience higher- level audio quality.”
Wanchic said Mellencamp and the band are doing their best to recreate the album's distinctively clear, spare sound in the live set.
"It's interesting. We're putting in some different instrumentation, using cocktail kits, which is kind of a broken down drum set,” Wanchic said. "We're kind of presenting things in a more stripped down fashion on a couple of new songs. John's doing some solo material in the set, which he hasn't done in the past. He's doing some original writer renditions of, like, the original version of ‘Minutes to Memories,' which is compelling.”
Wanchic admitted that more things than the music have changed in the 32 years he's collaborated with Mellencamp, particularly the scene backstage, where things used to be a lot wilder.
"Man, that went away a decade ago,” he said. "It's business, business. We're out here for no other reason than to deliver music to the people that have supported us — and stay healthy.”
But there's one thing that's never changed about his boss, who was nicknamed "Little Bastard” by a record company publicist early in his career.
"That's exactly right, too,” Wanchic laughed. "He's the hardest taskmaster, but you know, General Patton was also the toughest general. We play to win. There's no reason to get in the game unless you win.”
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