There are musical partnerships people know – Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Plant and Page. Then there are the ones people should. Bowie and Ronson, Osborne and Rhodes. Mellencamp and Wanchic is in this mix.
Guitarist Mike Wanchic has been with John Mellencamp since the Johnny Cougar days, the John Cougar Mellencamp days, the Big Daddy days, and the Sad Clowns and Hillbillies era. Wanchik has been there since the beginning.
“When we started in 1976 we didn’t know (anything). We made some bad records, and were just starting out as players and writers,” he says ahead of the Sad Clowns and Hillbillies tour stop in Mile Zero this weekend.
“In 1979 we were playing clubs to no one - we rolled into the studio thinking, ‘well, we’ve made some bad records, this is probably the last one,’ and we went in by ourselves.”
Wanchic says the process has been as important as the final product. Makes sense, if you’re a writer and contributing.
“We did think the process was important. The record people were telling us the songs were no good – that we needed horns and blue-eyed soul. John said no, and threw the guy out of the studio.”
Turns out John, Mike and the others at the time were on the right track. Or tracks as it were. The record has a pair of number one hit songs on it, and contained the biggest single of the year on the album in 1982.
Throughout much of the 1980s, Mellencamp was there in the musical stratosphere with Springsteen, Jackson, Lionel, Collins, and Madge.
“We were never part of the scene. We stayed in Indiana and never really ever rubbed shoulders – we kept coming back to our hometown.”
Wanchic and Mellencamp’s relationship public-wise is not dissimilar to Mick Ronson with Bowie, or Chester Thompson in Genesis.
“We started as lads out of school. I get that we have hoards following us, but when the tour is over each time, John still has the same face that people recognize.”
He says the mantra at the Mellencamp band level is simple – no repeats.
“The trick is to not rest on your laurels and don’t repeat.”
The Mellencamp band is a two-guitar band – a big left and a big right. Foundation and an anchor, if you will.
He says advice in the studio is the same, but different.
“The trick is to listen to each other, but don’t be attached to your part at the time. We’ve got a great team with great players that are a selfless unit to serve songs and audience.”
Looking back over a four-decade catalogue, Wanchic has some highlights.
“I got caught thinking about Lonesome Jubilee the other day and thought, man that is a great record.”
Chances are, bands or solo acts won’t get 23 albums in over 40 years. There are all kinds of reasons for this. Record deals. Talent. The patience of record executives, musicians, and the public.
“These days bands don’t get to 23 albums – now it’s repeat repeat repeat and they’re shown the door. It’s about no dilution – the object is always push and assume the audience is smarter than that – offer them something more than the just standard– the idea is to have a trajectory that does not repeat,” he says.
“That’s what we did for Jubilee –we started in with more traditional instruments like dobrows and dulcimers, we drag them out and drag out new sounds, then we put them away and go another direction.”
See the Dance Naked album - Mellencamp assembled his crew and hammered out a collection of three minute radio friendly songs after record company claimed his previous album Human Wheels didn’t “fit the format”. Dance Naked took about two weeks to record and hit less than a year after Human Wheels was released, selling similar numbers.
Wanchic says set list building gets harder each year out with more material.
“We can’t solve every song every fan wants to hear, but we have a set list that ticks all the boxes, the hits, the deeper cuts, the new stuff, band and audience favourites, with as many nods to albums as we can.”
He says at the end of the day the secret to good music is simple.
“Music is memory.”
John Mellencamp plays the Encana Events Centre November 3.