An interview with Robert Wagner, songwriter, musician, and frontman of Little Wretches
As frontman and chief songwriter/lyricist for 80s/90s seminal Pittsburgh rock band, Little Wretches, Robert Wagner rode a wave of local notoriety that led the band to the forefront of the underground music scene. He has also recorded and released two new albums in 2020: Undesirables and Anarchists and Burning Lantern Dropped In Straw. The former spawned an iTunes chart-topping single and received airplay on over 115 North American AM/FM radio stations.
1 In Music: Hi Robert, and thank you so much for giving us a bit of your time. Tell us a little more about you and your band Little Wretches. What is unique about you and your music?
Robert Wagner [RW]: Did you ever go to a party that has a sign-up list for who is going to bring what? I always want to be able to bring something that nobody else is going to bring. What could I possibly bring that is unique, especially given all the talent out there? Well, the music of The Little Wretches will introduce you to people you’ve never met, people you will love and care about, people that you will not meet except through our songs. Our songs are portraits and landscapes and parables. You will someday wake up from a dream, asking yourself where you first encountered that person in your dreams, and you’ll have an “AHA” moment–That was a character from a song by The Little Wretches. You’ll find yourself humming, and “AHA,” that’s a melody from The Little Wretches.
1 In Music: So, what or who shaped you and your music to become what you have ust described and who supports you?
RW: There’s a line in one of our songs, “I am what I’ve been through.”
We descend from people who risked and sacrificed everything to leave their homes, cross the ocean, and seek opportunity in America. We descend from immigrants–Hunkies and Dagos and Polaks. We were taught to believe that we are supposed to do something with our lives, to make something of ourselves, to reach, to climb, and to reach back and pull others up with us. I made the mistake of telling my grandmother I wanted to be happy. “HAPPY?,” she said. “Cows in a pasture are happy. Do you want to be a cow? God gave you talent. If you don’t do something with it, your life is a waste.” Or something like that. I’m paraphrasing. Maybe being overly dramatic. But we’re The Little Wretches, as in “blessed are the meek,” as in, “how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” Get it?
1 In Music: I like your grandmother and how you came to name your band! But give us the missing link here… How did you get from your gran’s wisdom to choosing to make music professionally?
RW: Things turn into their opposites. I ALWAYS wanted to play music. When I was in my late teens, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. The night before my big surgery, I had a little conversation with God. I said that if I lived, I would NEVER do anything other than what I want to do. I would never SAY anything that I did not believe in. As it turned out, the punk music scene had just gotten off the ground in my hometown, and punk gave people like me license to get up on stage and gave us a couple of years to tread water and discover what we’re good at. What I’m good at is teaching through stories and telling stories through songs.
1 In Music: So, you are into punk music. What other type of music do you listen to?
RW: I listen to everything except popular music on the radio. I discover an artist and then dive deeply and get everything they ever recorded: Skip James, Muddy Waters, John Coltrane, Johnny Cash. Woody Guthrie. Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi. Lou Reed. Patti Smith. Emmylou Harris. Frank Lowe. George Harrison. Of course, as a songwriter with an ear for storytelling, I study Ray Davies of The Kinks, Pete Townshend of The Who, Phil Ochs, people like that. Michelle Shocked and Jonathan Richman, they are the artists that gave me the template for what I do live.
1 In Music: Who, to you, is the most undervalued music artist?
RW: Undervalued? Undervalued by whom? Some who come to mind are John Cale, Mick Ronson, and Leon Russell. Ian Hunter and Garland Jeffreys. See? They are known and loved by those who know them. I wish they were better known, but they’ve had a huge impact on music. And as I said earlier, Michelle Shocked, Jonathan Richman, and I’ll add Peter Himmelman.
1 In Music: How do you prepare for your performances?: I spend the whole day in preparation. I need to exercise to prepare my lungs and tighten up my vocal cords. I need to run through some of the figures and changes on my guitar. I keep my spirit open to inspiration. There is a balance between giving people what they want and giving them something they don’t already have. What am I bringing to the table that is not already there? What knowledge and experience can I share that is not already common knowledge? This is kind of weird, kind of religious, I suppose, but there’s something in the Bible where disciples are sent out, and they ask, “What are we supposed to say?” Don’t worry. When it’s time for you to speak, the words will be given to you. That’s what I want to do.
I want to prepare, but I want what happens to be be spontaneous.
1 In Music: What do you do when you don’t do music (creative or otherwise) and that you are passionate about?
RW: I have a Master’s degree in Instruction and Learning. I hate schooling, but I love learning. I work with at-risk and court-adjudicated teens. I am very interested in alternative education–homeschooling, unschooling, free schools, democratic schools, self-directed learning. I also work with kids on the autism spectrum. They say, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” The magic and miracle of communication really comes alive when you are communicating with someone on the autism spectrum. I also love the outdoors. What the heck? I’m a Renaissance Person. I’m on a quest for the Unified Field Theory, the mind of God. I’m a fanatic, I guess.
1 In Music: Success to you is…?
RW: Success is getting in front of people who’ve never heard me before and watching them drop their conversations, set down their drinks, turn and face the stage, and tune in to my songs.
1 In Music: What do you wish you were told when you started out and that you think would help anyone who starts out?
RW: There is no blueprint. I wish I’d had some entrepreneurial skills. I wish I’d understood how to “network” and how to build relationships. But there are two kinds of people who try to help you: those who push you to be a realist, to modify what you do, to cut off your edges so that you’ll fit in. And then there are those who encourage you to cultivate what makes you unique and outstanding. I’m a working class kid. People from the working class are terrified of ending up with nothing. They’re very good at doing their jobs and following orders.
I wish my people had just understood that I’m not cut out to fit in.
I’m a Little Wretch, and that is that.
1 In Music: Any upcoming projects?
RW: We’re recording a collection of songs called RED BEETS & HORSERADISH. Red like the color of our blood. Beets like the earthy roots we eat. Horseradish like the powerful flavor that might be a little too strong for a lot of people. These songs are really good, and they’re the kind of thing you’re not going to get from anybody other than The Little Wretches.
1 In Music: Thank you so much for your time and candor. Tell us where we can find your music?
RW: The Little Wretches are all over YouTube, with hours and hours of live footage. We’re on all the streaming and downloading sources. Look up The Little Wretches on Facebook. Visit our website, www.littlewretches.com. I’m working out of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Kinda weird. I’m outside of Philly, but my partners are outside of Pittsburgh. I bleed Black and Gold.