Like his fellow Melbourne, Australia native Nick Cave, Henry Wagons understands how to evoke the dark heart of Americana better than most U.S.-born country musicians these days it seems. So when it came time for him to break away from his longtime band Wagons and venture into solo territory, the decision to record his excellent new full-length, After What I Did Last Night… in Nashville was indeed a natural one.
To produce the album, Wagons brought on Skylar Wilson, best known for his work with Justin Townes Earle and Caitlin Rose as well as Wanda Jackson’s 2012 comeback LP Unfinished Business, who assembled a white-hot session band for the singer led by Langhorne Slim guitarist Richie Kirkpatrick and augmented by members of both Rose’s and Earle’s respective groups and Cory Younts of Old Crow Medicine Show on harmonica. While ramshackle and rough in its own way, this follow-up to his 2012 debut EP, Expecting Company?, is punctuated more by the deeply personal tone Wagons takes in his songwriting here, balancing rowdier moments like “Cowboy in Krakow” and “Only Sane Motherfucker” with heartfelt odes to family and friends on songs like “As Long As I Breathe,” “Only Child” and “Melbourne.” This is a record not so much about the character Wagons made up for himself to portray on stage as the man behind it, and ranks amongst the finest work he’s done yet.
On June 10, Wagons takes his solo act to Bonnaroo, performing on the same day a reunited LCD Soundsystem will be headlining. Expect the same level of energy on the sunny side of the show once he hits the stage.
Paste had the chance to catch up with Wagons in Brooklyn over the winter to speak about his journey to Nashville to record After What I Did Last Night…, the Outback and the progressive state of modern commercial country over a couple of nice pints of Stella.
: What inspired you to record in Nashville?
Henry Wagons: It’s a dream of mine. It’s a bucket list thing. Whether it is Neil Young’s Harvest or Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde or Nashville Skyline, it’s always been a destination for me as a music fan. In Australia, we’re brought up in such a remote culture, where the band is all organic. Meaning you play with your high school friends. It’s more of a lo-fi organic friendship thing and you play with these same guys all your life. When I was growing up through the ‘80s into the ‘90s, it was like the session player got a bad name. It seemed more about the whole L.A.-showing off-Van Halen type thing. But some of the greatest albums ever made—we’re talking Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys—were made with session players.
: So it must have been cool to finally get to play with great musicians like the ones you appear with on After What I Did Last Night…?
Wagons: I’m in a band with big, sweaty, hairy, floor-shattering, beer-drinking Australians, right. And we’ve been through the South a number of times. We’ve come to Nashville a bunch. And I came to realize in my travels was that there are still some amazing session players still out there, and they’re not just showing off. They’re actually empathetic to the song. They punctuate the song. And they’re ready to do it. So that made me realize how all these great albums were created, and inspired me to do it. I realized I had an opportunity to make it happen and I wanted to take it off my list. I love the guys I grew up with, but as part of being a songwriter and an artist you want to try different things. And now that my band is on a temporary break, I realized I had to take this opportunity and run with it.
: Did recording in Nashville pique your interest in exploring other famous American cities for your next project?
Wagons: That may be the next move. We talked about Neil Young’s Harvest before; I think it’s one of the most schizophrenic records there is. There’s a live track from UCLA. There are a few tracks from Nashville. And I love how all the different recording spaces engage the ear and make Harvest really interesting to listen to. You don’t know where the fuck you are. It’s like choose your own adventure [laughs].
: The Henry Wagons sound, it seems, is more Western than Country. One can only surmise the intercontinental appeal could be the topographic similarities between the American Badlands and the Australian Outback, perhaps? You can also see it in the collaborations between filmmaker John Hillcoat and Nick Cave.
Wagons: Country music is big in Australia, especially in the more rural areas. If you go out into the deep country, it’s got a bit of a checkered history, a mixed history. Country music is big among the indigenous cultures, because that’s what the white prosecutors were playing. They were playing country music, your Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. There was a legendary Australian named Slim Dusty who was like our Hank Williams. Then, on the other side of the coin, you have your Wilco and Ryan Adams inspired alt-country movement, and that’s huge in the city of Melbourne. Sydney, too.
: North America and Australia are quite alike in that they are both colonized lands with wide open spaces.
Wagons: Australia, still to this day, has a Wild West. The west of the country is full of one-horse mining towns. It’s got one supermarket, one pub and a bunch of rednecks.
: Like Straw Dogs?
Wagons: Yeah, man! That’s still around. That’s the Australian frontier, and there hasn’t been enough written about it in comparison to the American Wild West. And you’re right, both do share a kindred spirit. Nick Cave has been so great about telling Australia’s story through music, film and his writing. Nick’s really into the Southern Gothic thing and is also a massive Johnny Cash fan, so I think he too realizes the parallels. It’s an easy link to make as an Australian. It’s the same stuff that’s drawn me to it as well, these mythologies.
: It seems like mainstream country is veering closer towards Johnny Cash’s end of the spectrum once again, don’t you think?
Wagons: Well, I hold hope [laughs]. Once upon a time it seemed like this bro country plastic shit was taking over. But with the success of Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, I think people are just sick of it and there’s a movement towards this more authentic sensibility. For a while I was listening to country stations in the United States and it reminded me more of Britney Spears than it did Merle Haggard. There were like these literal pop music affectations like what’s going on [laughs]. But with these new artists, you’re actually hearing acoustics. You’re actually hearing mandolin. And there’s been more of a sense of transparency in what you’re gonna hear on the radio and what you’re gonna see live, and it’s all just feeding into one another. The authentic’s coming back in a major way.