ERIC WAGNER "Apex Creator"

By The Great Sun Jester

Let's drop the formalities - Eric Wagner shows the same passion for new music in this interview that has been his calling card at every high point in his long career. The blunt, often sarcastic humor, withering honesty, and distinctive attitude towards life and his career stamp him with all the intangibles of the greatest front men in popular music. Wormwood Chronicles talked to Eric just before he embarked on a summer tour with Blackfinger and the man proved expansive, profane, hysterical, and thought-provoking in turns. God send us more Eric Wagners to clear away the bullshit.

WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: It's been five months since the Blackfinger album came out. How's it holding up for you in retrospect?

ERIC WAGNER: Everything's good. I haven't had much time to enjoy it, really, up until now. I went right in from recording that album to writing and then recording The Skull album. I'm pooped. {laughs] I've never made two records back to back before - I just finished writing lyrics for two records so I don't think I've got much left to say for now, as far as music goes. I need a break! So right now, we're gonna do some shows with Blackfinger and we're about to mix The Skull album. I'm done, it feels good, but I don't know what I'm going to do with myself, but it's time to enjoy what I did.

WC: If you take that break, it's well deserved. The Blackfinger album is superb from beginning to end, I can't say enough good things about it. I read a recent interview about The Skull project where you referred to "going through your past to get to the future" and I was wondering if you can expound on what that means to you?

EW: Well, I think after I left Trouble, I was kind of fed up with everything again, you know? But this is who I am, it's not what I do, so I was just writing, I love it, it's my favorite part of being in a band. There comes a time in everybody's life when you sit back and say, well, what do I want to do now? I've done a lot over the years, recording and traveling, playing and partying, I still haven't processed it all. After I started working on Blackfinger. that was cool, because it was one of my own things. I said the same thing after the Blackfinger album, you know, what am I going to do now, and then The Skull kind of happened. Sometimes, if you can't figure out where you want to go or in what direction, sometimes you have to take a couple of steps back and just go through your past to get to the future. Maybe you have to accept things, comes to terms with it, if that's a better way to put it, so you can move on.

WC: I understand that. It's re-grounding in your roots so you know what the next step is. You mentioned something there that I've heard you bring up in earlier interviews - this idea that this is who you are, not what you do, and it made me wonder if it was a problem separating the two when you were younger and that was something you had to come to as you got older?

EW: Sometimes. People, and even me, have asked me, have you ever thought about quitting? I say, hell yeah, a million times, but like I said, I can't. It's not what I do, it's who I am, and it's the only I can express myself or my feelings, what I see, what I do, and I love it. Like I said, my favorite thing about being in a band is starting on a new record because you start from nothing, you have your thoughts, and all of the sudden, you have a record finished in your hand and you're listening to it and you're like, wow, we just created that! Maybe that's what I mean more by that, I have to do things that are creative for me to be able to grow. I just can't sit and drill a hole in a piece of wood on a daily basis.

WC: It's funny you say that. I was listening to the Lid album today before making this call and it seems, lyrically, that album is much closer spiritually to the Blackfinger album than what your work with Trouble is. It's much more a reflection of you being totally free.

EW: That's possible. Especially at that time, I'd just spent eighteen years with Trouble, I joined in 1979, we didn't really have our first album until 1984, but it was eighteen years, I just thought it was time. You might be right though, you know, I was a little bit set free there and I think after I did that Lid album, I ran away totally from the music business for five years. Actually, it's Dave Grohl's fault. I came home and there's a voice on my answering machine saying, "Dude, I'm doing this record, I want you to write lyrics for it and sing on it." I thought, yeah, yeah, who's this, but it turned out to be him. I sat with a blank piece of paper in front of me for two weeks. I was really like, oh my god, I can't do this anymore, I'm done and then, boom, all of the sudden, there it was. I called Trouble, we kissed and made up, and did "Simple Mind Condition". But when I left, it was kind of the same thing. I get bored easy. I always need new things to challenge myself. I don't like getting complacent, I get bored, I just get down, it's the same old crap. I hate that, I'm always searching for the next high, the next thing to do, you know?

WC: I remember seeing a lot of the set lists from the "Simple Mind Condition" tour and seeing you talk about how you felt things were a little bit stagnant, like some of the songs were getting played too much and you wanted to do other stuff. I thought "Simple Mind Condition" was a strong album and it didn't seem like a lot of it was played live.

EW: Some guys didn't want to do it. They wanted to rely on the popular ones. I remember I was all the time like, hey, let's do this song, we haven't done it in twenty years and they'd be like, nah, nobody wants to hear that. I'm like, bullshit, but I want to hear it and that's kind of how The Skull started, in a way. We did some of the old stuff and we haven't done that stuff in I don't know how long, and that was the premise The Skull was built on - to do the old shit. To do the songs that those guys didn't do when I was with them and still don't do. I always remember this one guy, I can't remember his name anymore, but he was from the Baltimore/D.C. area and he always said to us, I think he might have been on our road crew for a while, but he said, "The people want to see you play as heavy as you can."

WC: I would agree with that.

EW: When we were putting together The Skull, I always brought that up - do the heavy shit, man! People dig that stuff, it might not seem like it at times, but they do. The people want to see us play as heavy as we can and when we pulled out "The Last Judgment", I don't know, man, that's some pretty heavy shit!

WC:I think a lot of those songs are "new" songs again to people, in some ways. They seem very fresh because it's been so long since they've been touched.

EW: Well, and even that song we were doing in Portland, "Sometime Yesterday Mourning", we were looking for... where I come from, when  I grew up we had singles, 45's with an A and B side, that's why the cd looks like that. We're like, let's make it look like an old 45, you know, just because. [laughs] I thought it was cool, you know, nobody's doing that! So we said, let's remake "The Last Judgment". It was actually the 30th anniversary for that song last October. I remember walking into the studio to do my vocals and the guys were playing the original one and I'm like, turn that shit off! [laughs]I mean, it's a great song, but it was recorded in 1983 in some dude's house, you know, and it sounded like, but now with our technology and everything, making it new, it was completely different. I didn't want to do it exactly like that, I wanted to do it the way I felt about it now.

WC: Yeah, reinterpret it.

EW: I think we did. It was fun doing it, it's fun playing it, we probably hadn't done that song in 25 years and it was great pulling that baby out.

WC: That steers me to another question I wanted to ask that covers both the Blackfinger album and the upcoming Skull album. I think your lyrics are an important strength of anything you've done and, usually, the underrated part. I think you're a great singer, you've always played with a great band behind you, and that goes without saying. I thought that, particularly on the Blackfinger album, there's this constant collision between a conversational tone that your writing has and this kind of poetic sensibility that comes in. It's hard to gauge reading or listening to it how much work it takes to get that tone, so I was wondering how much you rework lyrics during the recording process?

 EW: I think it's a constant thing. The Blackfinger album was a little different than The Skull because we had a year or so to go into rehearsal and I had plenty of time to tweak the thing and write, but with The Skull, we didn't have that luxury as when I went into the studio was the first time I'd sang those songs with the band. We got together for pre-production, but everyone lives somewhere different. With Blackfinger, we all live in the same area, so we just got together a couple of times a week and worked the songs out and I got to sing it with them. And even when you're singing in the studio, because it's different than live, sometimes words or phrasing doesn't work as good as they did when they were in your head, on your computer, at your desk, or wherever. So I think I'm always open minded like that, changing things on the fly sometimes, even if it's little, little things. Paying attention to the details is what makes a record great. So, yeah, I'm constantly scratching out words and trying different ones in the studio, I've got the candles on, I do a couple of one hitters and stuff, that's when sometimes the best shit comes out, you know?

WC:That leads me to another question. It's kind of political, but what do you think about marijuana legalization and did you ever imagine you'd see the day it started happening?

EW: I don't understand why it's not legal, there's so many benefits to it. It makes me feel better. I hate taking their pills and stuff, it always makes me feel like shit, so if I'm not feeling well, something's up, or something like that, I take a couple of one hits. I don't smoke like I used to when I was a kid, you know, you wake up, get blasted, and you don't do much all day long. Now I use it more for when I need it instead of when I want it. Like I said, I don't really understand why it's illegal in the first place. I can drink alcohol, people can get drunk and kill people, I can smoke cigarettes and kill myself, but weed has so many benefits mentally and physically and that's illegal. I don't get it. It's a good thing, I think, especially for people sick with cancer and all of that stuff, I think it's a great thing.

WC: Here's another Trouble question for you. The first time I heard Trouble was after the self-titled album came out. For me and my friends, Headbanger's Ball was a wasteland every time it was on, but when "At The End Of My Daze" came out, the first time I saw that video, it blew my mind. I thought, oh my god, there's hope yet. [laughs] I was a fan from that moment on and it's never changed. One thing I always remember from those days was reading about how the band had a rabid following, critical respect, great songwriting, and people always talk about it being one of the great neglected bands of its era, that Trouble never quite broke through to that next level. You may disagree with that assessment totally, but what do you think happened?

EW: I know, I've heard that stuff all the time, why, why didn't you guys break through, and all that shit. I don't know if I can really answer that question, I have no idea. Maybe all these new bands, this doom thing... see, Trouble was always first generation from Sabbath, we never went out and said we're going to be a doom band, a rock band, or anything like that, we just played when we first got together. We were Sabbath, we were Priest, Lizzy, The Beatles, Floyd, and all that shit we grew up listening to. So, like every band, you start a band to pretend you're your heroes, but when the next generation after us, I see these guys all the time mention Trouble as one of their influences, or even people who, lyrically, come up to me and say you helped me out, so success, I think it depends on how you look at it or measure it a lot of times. Success is always measured by monetary rewards, but on the other hand, to be an influence on people's lives, or how they do things, or help them through difficult times, is also a form of success. It's very flattering. For a while, I was like, whoa, I'm just a dude from Illinois, really, I helped you out like that? Maybe that's why I'm really here. Maybe I don't get monetary rewards for this, maybe I get a robe and slippers.

WC: What you say sounds like hard-won wisdom. I'm just guessing at this, but it had to be frustrating, you guys worked your asses off, and came close to that proverbial brass ring. You're right though that it's a misconception people have that so often, for so many, it's about monetary rewards. It's like I tell my wife all the time - if we raise decent people, all of that other stuff doesn't matter.

EW: I think the main things I've learned, and it took me a long time to learn this, that you aren't always supposed to get what you want, but you always get what you need. I think if you just ask for what you need, you'll be rewarded with things you need and you never have to worry about it. But the problem is the want thing and with the tv, the computer, flashing diamond rings and Cadillac's in your face all the time, it makes it hard for everybody. It was frustrating, but you come to terms with that kind of shit, that's why I said to you, it's not what I do, it's who I am. That's when I learned that because I sat there for a couple of years not writing, anything, and I was depressed about it. It's the thing that gets me highest - writing a song and then having people come up and say, damn, dude, that really got to me. It would be nice to pay the bills too! [laughs]

WC: I appreciate what you're saying there - it's about passion. If you don't have it a passion to do it, you're never going to be very good anyway and you're not going to touch people or entertain them because they're never going to believe it.

EW: I'll tell you, if I was doing this for money, I don't think I'd be sitting here talking to you anymore. [laughs] Right now, at this point I mean, thirty years later.

WC:You know, in the music business, with all its accompanying issues, there's always stories about causalities, people who died too young, wrecked their lives, their health. What do you think kept you from joining that list? Why did you make it and so many other people didn't?

EW: I have no idea, dude. I should be. For a while there, during our heyday, during the early 90's on Def American, I really don't know how I made it out of there. Maybe all we're talking about here, about being an influence and stuff, the hope that you can if you really want to make it out. If you really want to survive, there's hope if you really want it. You just gotta keep doing it, you've got to keep going, and I'm not just talking about music, I'm talking about life in general, you've just got to keep plugging away and doing it. We're only here for a short time, there's only ten rules, and everything was put on this planet for us to enjoy, so quit fucking around and have a good time and be cool because we're all gonna see each other again one day because I do think it's full circle and we're all going back to the place we came from. I think it's pretty simple and people make it complicated.

WC:I think that's true. I spend every day trying to simplify it in my own head and I think that's what you do if you care about what you do. I wanted to get back to talking about The Skull album. Everything I've read sounds like things are going bang on in the studio. What's your estimation of the product we're going to get here at the end?

EW: It's fucking heavy, dude. The record is heavy and it's starting to freak me out a little bit because I've been receiving songs since about a year ago when we first started to say, okay, let's do a record. People started sending me ideas and music and now I listened to this morning and all the music is recorded right now. It's heavier than shit, man. [laughs] I don't even know how to explain it. It's different than the Blackfinger album. At least from my standpoint, the Blackfinger album was more personal, my lyrics and stuff, whereas this one is more like I used to do in the old days with Trouble, not so much quoting Bible quotes, stuff like that... I was raised Catholic, not that I am anymore, all the metal back then was talking about stuff like that. I just didn't want to go on the other side because I wasn't raised that way. You know, all these bands like Slayer and Venom and shit like that, it's great if you want to talk like that, but I know damn well you don't believe it. I couldn't write like that, so now I think I'm just looking at writing from the standpoint of that it's just how a person would talk, using the word God or whatever, like come on, help me, people always use that word at one time or another. So I think I'm directing more, I mean it's personal like always, what I see, what I feel, what I hear, what I think, how far I've come, the road you've traveled and hopefully, like always, people can relate to it.

WC:What you were saying a few moments ago about God... one of my favorite songs from the Blackfinger album is "Why God?" and I think in this day and age when God has become a bit of a pejorative, people get their backs up anytime you start mentioning it, you don't have to be a Christian, you could be a stone cold atheist and still get something out of that song. If you can bring that to any kind of music, I don't know how anyone could quibble with that.

EW: [laughs] I'm not preaching in that song, I'm just asking a question. And like you said, even if you don't believe or whatever word you want to use, people have said something like that. Why god did you do this now, you know what I mean? It was just a question, a form of expression, whatever you want to call it.

WC: It's honest. Totally honest.

EW: Yeah, why are we here? I was asking, I know why, but I was asking why do I feel this? Now that I'm here, why do I feel alone? Is there something more? I know there's something more, I know this isn't it, you just have that feeling inside. Everything is so perfect, how we live, breathe, and see. The colors, and the sky, and the this and that, so it's like, holy cow, if you're just dead and gone, then what's the point of all this shit?

WC: Yeah, man, those are essential question everybody faces.

EW: I think so. If you just die and cease to exist and don't remember anything, then what the hell was the point of all this shit?

WC: So you've got some shows coming up with Blackfinger, I was wondering what kind of live set people can expect at those gigs?

EW: We're going to do a lot of the new record and I'll probably do some Trouble stuff. A lot of people would be disappointed if I didn't. That's pretty much it right there. When we first got together, we did a couple of Lid tunes and I did the Probot song too, actually a couple of times. So it depends on what the people are wanting. We'll do most of the record and those Trouble tunes, but I don't think any Lid right now. I'm working on something to re-release that right now. Maybe after that happens I'll throw one in again.

WC:That's some great news about that re-release. Would there be any kind of leftovers from those sessions that might make it onto the album?

EW: No, there's nothing, I don't have anything. I don't even know where the tapes are, to be honest with you, or even how to go about it. I had it remastered and it's been since, what, 97, so just to remaster it and re-release it again. Now that I've got crap happening again like Blackfinger and The Skull, here's this again, listen to it!

WC:It's a great album. It really holds up and it's still fresh today. That title song, I want to punch the roof of my car sometimes hearing those opening lines. I'm going to wrap this up, but I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

 EW: It's been my pleasure.