Behind the Song
Feb 15. 9 min read
The Little Wretches
As Front-man and chief songwriter and 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. The Little Wretches were founded as a folk/punk band by Robert (guitar) and his brother, Chuckie (violin). The band had various lineups. Little Wrenches recorded two albums, with Angelo George playing drums and Jon Paul Leone playing guitar on a third. National press, attorneys, managers, and publicists came calling, as did life’s obligations, and the Little Wretches disbanded in the late 90s. Robert Wagner continues to perform at coffeehouses and small clubs. A Master’s Degree holder, Wagner also counsels abused, neglected, traumatized and court-adjudicated youth. He is the co-founder of The Calliope Acoustic Open Stage, an event that has lasted 15+ years. He has also recorded and released two new albums in 2020: Undesirables and Anarchists and Burning Lantern Dropped In Straw.
For fans who have never heard your music, can you pick three words to describe it?! If three words just aren't enough then tell us more!!
RED BEETS & HORSERADISH Red like the color of our blood. Beets like the life-sustaining edible roots we pull from the earth. "Ooh, but sometimes they taste like dirt." Yep, they do. A taste I've learned to love. Horseradish like a flavor that carries fire that may be too hot for some to handle. That's The Little Wretches.
What is your favorite part about being an artist? Is it songwriting, performing, recording, something else?) Tell us why.
That’s kind of like asking me what is my favorite part about breathing. It is so much a part of me, I don’t know any other way. One of the sensations that most sustains me, and the memories that I most often return to when I need sustenance, is the feeling of a oneness of spirit with the occasional person in the audience or fellow musician.
How do I explain this? The things that have made me who I am are often things you do not talk about in public, in polite society, things you mask and keep hidden. I walk around 99% of my life in a “normal” mask. In my songs, I have the liberty and responsibility to tell the truth. The Taste of Dirt. Thanks for Saving My Life. May You Never Be the Child of a Realist. These are songs that some find very moving, but they could very well wreck the party, too.
The people I wrote these songs for, I know they are out there. When I know that we have shared the spirit, that we have recognized each other through these songs, that feeling is my favorite part. Or when I’m performing for a new audience that doesn’t know me from Adam, and I watch from the stage as they all stop what they are doing and decide, “Hey, this guy is saying something I want to hear.”
It’s more than just an ego-thing. It’s a sharing of spirit.
Can you tell us what being in the recording studio is like for you?
First of all, TIME in a professional studio is exceedingly expensive, and I’ve been around since before the days of automated-mixing, back to when knobs and sliders had to be manually pushed, pulled and turned. I need to work fast, come in with a plan, and implement it. Doodling and “what if we tried this” or “I have a great idea”…That’s for rehearsals. When I get in the studio, it’s game time.
I’m a DIY artist, but I’ve spent so much time listening to bootlegs and unauthorized recordings made by fans with covert recording devices that I cannot trust my own ears. Plus, studio sound is so phenomenally good, so much better than what I am used to hearing, that it is disorienting.
I can’t have an engineer who says, “Do you prefer THIS or do you prefer THAT?” Either one sounds superior to what I am used to. I need an engineer I can trust to dial things into something resembling “industry standards.”
But the other thing I can’t stomach is when the playback doesn’t resemble what I played. That sound I’m hearing in the room when I’m recording the track? That’s the sound I want to hear on the tape. Why can’t you make my guitar sound like my guitar? Why can’t you make my voice sound like my voice?
Most time in the studio is wasted on set-up. You spend six hours getting yourself ready to record, then it’s time for the next band to come in. Nope. Once we get stuff dialed in, we’re recording it all and not stopping till the mission is accomplished.
Let’s say I’m doing a sixteen song project. I’m not recording one song at a time. I’m laying down the drums, bass and rhythm guitars on all sixteen songs in that first session. No way am I going to risk having to break down the gear and start all over again.
My formula is to get the drums, bass and electric rhythm guitars and maybe an electronic piano recorded live, maybe the amps in separate booths, but the players able to make eye-contact and follow visual cues. If time remains, double all the electric guitars with acoustic guitars before you finish, and leave with a rough mix.
Next session, lay down the lead vocals and instrumental solos. Next session after that, lay down the coloring, the background vocals, the percussion, the oohs and the aahs.
If you recorded it well, it mixes itself. Begin with the end in mind, as Stephen Covey says in the Seven Habits. People are going to like it or they are not. Your obsessive tweaks are not going to be what makes the difference. The soul and spirit of the music and performance is what is going to connect with the audience.
Okay, this a fun question. When you are not doing music, what else do you enjoy doing?
I’m a lifelong learner. My greatest love is learning about learning, understanding the process. Nobody had to teach you how to talk. Nobody had to teach you how to walk. The things that empower you and bring you freedom and fun, you learn how to do those things. Schooling can beat the love of learning out of kids in the school-setting, but in real life, all human beings are engineered by nature and God to be powerful learners.
My favorite things to learn about don’t cost me money, except maybe a tank of gas. I like to hike, to ride my bicycle on mountain roads and rails-to-trails systems. I like to exercise. There have been years of my life when I saw both the sunrise and the sunset every single day of the year.
In high school, a teacher I admired said Michelangelo was the last human being to possess all of the knowledge as yet acquired by his civilization. After him, there was simply too much information for one person to know. Well, I’ve taken that as a challenge.
A friend who is a great songwriter, Phil Harris, used to have a band called, “Experts on Everything.” I’ll never be an expert on everything, but I want that unified field theory, that theory of everything. I’m striving to know the mind of God, careful not to lean on my own understanding.
And did I mention I’m great with kids?
Who do you admire most in the music scene today and why?
I admire artists like Ian Hunter and Garland Jeffreys who’ve amassed a body of work that stands the test of time. They’ve weathered the ups and downs of the entertainment business, and their recent work, their “master” work, shall we say, is superior stuff. Ian Hunter and Garland Jeffreys.
Jonathan Richman is another one. A phenomenal body of work spanning styles and genres, but it’s always unmistakably Jonathan. And have you ever seen the movie, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER? It’s about a kid who becomes a chess champion. It opens with him reading a school report about the life of Bobby Fischer. Well, I’m searching for Michelle Shocked.
Like Bobby Fischer, Michelle Shocked has kind of gone off the social-media grid. She is, for me, the artist with the most integrity and courage. I once heard her do a show that began with a set of previously unreleased material. Talk about challenging her audience. She said some controversial things on stage, things calculated to provoke, things calculated to outrage. It got her locked out and shut down. But Michelle Shocked is to contemporary folksingers what Lenny Bruce once was to standup comedians. Drugs and censorship took down Lenny Bruce. May Michelle Shocked someday come out of wherever she is and reclaim her throne.
Can you tell us what song you've written that is the most emotional and describe the meaning behind it?
A song that will be on the next album by The Little Wretches is called TIGER PAJAMAS. It is explicitly about my younger brother, co-founder of The Little Wretches, Charles John Wagner, also known as Chuck-O, also known as Chuckie and Chaz. The song speaks for itself. I ought to just recite the lyrics for you.
Chuckie was a few years behind me. When I was growing up, I was the favored son. I could do no wrong. I was good at school, good at sports, clearly held in higher esteem than my sister. It isn’t fair. My sister told me it was hard growing up with me as a brother.
But for Chuckie, by the time he was born, our parents’ marriage was a wreck. Each was spiraling into alcohol or substance-abuse. Both were workaholics, which was good because when they were home together, they’d get drunk and try to kill each other.
It was very hard for my brother. He never knew the love and security I’d known. Yes, I LOST it, but I knew what I’d lost. He never knew the feeling of love and security.
He was a wild kid, reckless, fearless, fun-loving.
It is widely known that I am a cancer-survivor. My brother attended an alternative high school down the street from the hospital I was in. I couldn’t eat when I was on chemo, so my brother would visit me on school days and eat my hospital lunches. Well, a decade later, it turns out that he got a form of cancer similar to what I got. But after having seen what I had gone through, instead of going to a surgeon to get a biopsy, he stole two-thousand dollars from my dad and ran off to Atlantic City to go on a cocaine-binge.
He was a gifted artist, a painter, a sculptor, a poet. Through the recommendation of his high school art teacher, Chuckie was given the opportunity to enter an arts program at Carnegie-Mellon University. CMU is an elite school with an extensive “good old boy” network. He’d have been set. But he passed on the opportunity. Why? God only knows.
Chuckie played violin and sang with The Little Wretches. He could sing Patti Smith note-for-note. He’d wait till I’d leave the house, then he’d blast HORSES or RADIO ETHIOPIA or EASTER at full-volume so he could sing out.
He died in a hospital in Florida, but there was a massive snowstorm up here in Pennsylvania, so there was no way to bury him properly. PLUS, the newspapers (remember newspapers?) were on strike. So a lot of people didn’t learn of my brother’s passing till long after he was gone.
TIGER PAJAMAS doesn’t go into all that. It’s a very focused, tight portrait. Some people who have heard it have let me know it’s effective. Wait’ll you hear it. Emotional? I think you’ll find it so.
Are you working on any new material right now or what's in the works for the upcoming year?
The Little Wretches are in rehearsals to begin recording our next album, RED BEETS & HORSERADISH. There are some complications, though. I tested positive for Covid two days ago. I’m relatively asymptomatic, but I’m still locked down for another two weeks.
We can’t even hold live rehearsals. I’m running through the tunes in Zoom meetings one-on-one with Mike Madden, our drummer, and John Carson, our bassist. Rosa Colucci is going to do some singing and percussion. I have parts for strings and flutes, and hopefully, Steve Sciulli (or someone equally gifted) will be available. Gregg Bielski was working on some drum-programs, but he’s under a lot of pressure. Not sure how things will roll out.
The lockdowns and quarantines are the big variable. A lot of people are rightfully concerned about getting sick. Pray for me. I have no symptoms, but there is no guarantee any of us will wake up tomorrow.
I can’t stand sitting in front of a laptop and playing to the camera. I want to wake up in the morning thinking about where I’m playing tonight.
The material on RED BEETS & HORSERADISH is stuff I can play very well solo and also with accompanists or the full band. So I’m set to promote the album with live shows. I do not have a formal booking-agent.
At the moment, though, venues aren’t booking or they are making it clear that they are honoring LAST year’s bookings before doing anything new. Last year, I wasn’t on 115 radio stations and getting positive reviews all over the place. This year, I have something to build on.
So how can you help, you might ask? Find us. Follow us. Click like. Click share. Leave comments. Play our music for your friends. Download our stuff. Invite us to your town. I’ll play on your porch, your lawn, your stage, your yacht. Invite me to play. I’m there.
Remember what I told you. Red like the color of our blood. Beets like the life-sustaining edible roots we pull from the ground. Horseradish that burns like a fire. That’s The Little Wretches.