Hi Robert! Little Wretches is a very unique name for a band. How did you
come up with it?
There are layers to it. My first band was called NO SHELTER, and the lyrics to our single, BROOKS ROBINSON’S CAMP, is a monologue delivered to us by a homeless veteran in an all-night coffeeshop off the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. We were involved in political activism, and we were consciously trying to draw attention to people in need, outsiders, the dispossessed. We subscribed to the belief that a people are to be judged by their treatment of the least among us, a religious belief, really.
NO SHELTER was kind of like an apprenticeship, a dress-rehearsal, a process of discovering what I am, my capabilities, how to and how NOT to do this music-making songwriting thing.
I started THE LITTLE WRETCHES with my brother, Chuckie. He agreed to play violin with me, and I tried to build a band around my songwriting. I had this batch of songs and a small circle of true believers. Everything was coming together, all we needed was a name.
I grew up and went to college in Pittsburgh. Every college in town had a film series. The University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie-Mellon University, Point Park University, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh—Where I lived, I could walk to a screening every night of the week, something classic.
Carnegie Museums had a series featuring the films of Francois Truffaut. The movie was THE 400 BLOWS. That’s the movie that gave us THE LITTLE WRETCHES.
The movie has subtitles, right? The story revolves around this young kid who gets involved in mischief, something my brother and I know very well, and I forget the specific scene, but I think the kids had just stolen or shoplifted something, and as they run away, their victim yells, “Come back, you little wretches! Come back, you little wretches!” And I looked over at my future bandmates and said, “That’s the name of our band—THE LITTLE WRETCHES.”
Of course, the name appealed to us because of our worldview, you know, The Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek,” “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound to save a wretch like me.”
Sorry if that’s a bit much, but that’s the story. I love the name. Sometimes, the name reminds me of who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing.
You've got a great new album out, "Undesirables and Anarchists." Tell us about the album, the recording process, the writing process, what the title means, etc.
UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS gets its title from a line in the song, “All of My Friends.” It says, “All of my friends are on somebody’s list of undesirables and anarchists / It’s not even safe to admit that you’re one of my friends.”
I was trying to write a song that evoked my world—me, my family, my friends, and our position in society, the world, eternity, groping along for purpose, as the song says, “Carving a niche between the dust and the ether / Walking in circles / Limping along /Stuck in a ditch, but I’m a Believer.” Trying to use a little humor, trying to keep it light and not too ponderous.
There is not time to tell you about the full cast of characters behind that song, but let’s just say that I’m alluding to people who, in their own ways, have learned how to weaponize their disabilities and weaknesses.
Did you ever come across the Sam Shepard play, THE TOOTH OF CRIME? It’s kind of like a generation war between a rising rock star and the king at the top, kind of like Johnny Rotten versus Elvis Presley in a rap battle. Amazing play. Fun.
I was lucky enough to be the music director and bandleader for a production of THE TOOTH OF CRIME at Pittsburgh Laboratory Theater. The founder of the company, Bill Royston, told me he saw a production in which the rising character, a character named Crow, walks with a crutch and uses the crutch in his battle with Hoss, the kingpin. Royston was talking about how people use their crutches as weapons. Once that idea manifests itself to you, you see it everywhere.
So anyhow, The Little Wretches had been on the verge of wider success on a few occasions, but each time, some cataclysmic life-event snuffed it out. I’d all but given up hope. Then the band that recorded UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS just kind of threw itself at me. John Carson, Mike Madden, Rosa Colucci, H.K. Hilner. There’s a story behind each of them becoming part of my life and part of the band.
Dave Granati, the engineer and studio-owner, from G-FORCE, an amazing band that toured with VAN HALEN, he knew as soon as he heard us how he was going to record the project.
I had this killer batch of songs that had yet to be heard by the world— woodshedded, workshopped and road-tested. We set up in the studio like we were doing a live show. Dave miked each amp, hung some overheads, and said if we could go without a headphone mix and just played like we did in our rehearsal space, he’s be ready to record as fast as we could set up.
We did the impossible, really. We nailed every single one of those songs on the first take. We were ON. Nobody does that. I’ve used the analogy of testing for your Black Belt. We’d spent our entire lives till that point acquiring the skills, and this was us putting on a clinic.
You’d think, “One take? Has to be a compromise. Nobody does that.” Listen for yourself. We did it. No compromise.
Of course, we overdubbed the vocals, some percussion, and doubled and added some guitars. It isn’t a “live” album.
Dave Granati said afterwards that he wished some younger bands he was working with could have seen us at work.
That might never happen again. And I hope UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS serves as a testament to all the people whose support and encouragement made the band possible, people who gave me food, gave me cars, kept a roof over my head, allowed me to live like a useless parasite, all in the hope that my songs would amount to something.
Any plans for a music video?
Our band takes its name from a classic film, right? We have DREAMS of a music video, but no plans. What we need is a filmmaker, a visual artist who hears our songs and recognizes a vehicle for making a sympathetic statement. I personally think the songs are cinematic. But I’m not a filmmaker.
With all that has been going on in the world as of late, what is your
take on how it has affected the music industry?
Well, I’m not going to complain about the weather. If it snows, I’m making a snowman. If it freezes, I’m skating.
I’m stunned that people have gone into shells in the USA. I don’t enjoy sitting in front of a laptop and playing to a picture of myself. I did my first live-show in what felt like an eternity a couple of weeks ago. I see people are starting to do outdoors shows.
But for me, personally, the lockdown-response to the pandemic has leveled the playing field. I want to wake up in the morning thinking about where I’m playing tonight. Right now, nobody is performing live. So that’s how it goes.
Wreck at the Indy 500. Circle the track a few times under the caution flag and restart the race. Go.
I’ve got this great album, but the people who recorded it with me are in no position to tour. I, however, can perform almost every one of those songs solo, me and my guitar. The songs hold up across genres.
As for the political climate, I’m opposed to censorship. What’s that classic rock song by YES? “Don’t surround yourself with yourself.” I’m opposed to tribalism. I refuse to be stuck in a box. I refuse to be judged by my skin color, my class background, my ethnic heritage.
In the words of Bobby Darin, “I just want to be someone known to you as me, and I will bet my life you want the same.”
I’m an old DIY punk-rocker. I don’t need a music industry. Give me straw, I build with straw. Give me sticks, I build with sticks. Give me mud, I’ll take my straw and sticks, mix ‘em with the mud and make bricks. Take my guitar, I’ll rap. Shut my mouth, I’ll dance. I’m going to say what I’ve got to say to whoever will listen in any setting made available to me.
Have you ever been to South Africa? Where have you traveled in the
world, and where is your favorite place?
Closest I’ve ever been to South Africa was a house outside of Pittsburgh owned by Gary Anderson, once the kicker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, our American football team. He was from South Africa ,and his rooms and halls were adorned with artwork and artifacts from South Africa.
But no, I’ve never been to the real South Africa. Put me in contact with somebody who can set up a tour for me, and I’m there.
I’ve mostly traveled the USA. I’ve got some Jack Kerouac in me. I once jumped in a truck with a buddy, and we drove from Pittsburgh to San Francisco in forty-three hours. Made the return trip in forty-one.
There’s a natural area in West Virginia called The Canaan Valley, a place that as recent as a hundred years ago was so densely forested that it hadn’t been completely explored, winters sometimes so severe that the snowfall is immeasurable. In the Canaan Valley, you’ll find several amazing wilderness-areas: Seneca Rocks, Spruce Nob, Dolly Sods, and Blackwater Falls.
Internationally, I love London. Shakespeare. Ray Davies. Pete Townshend. The Sex Pistols. The Clash. Winston Churchill.
Here’s a cool London story. A group of us went to London just for fun, planned on seeing all the museums, Westminster Abbey, Churchill’s wartime bunker. I wanted to see some of the places I’d heard about in songs by The Kinks, The Stones, The Who, Waterloo Bridge, Carnaby Street, all that Mods and Rockers stuff.
A buddy and I went to a legendary punk club, I think it was called the Hope and Anchor. All the seminal the bands from 1977 are said to have played there. We saw an up-and-coming band with a guy who tried to break his guitar like Pete Townshend. Not too good. Bought a CD from the headliners, a band with a frantic Keith Moon-style drummer.
When we left the club, we discovered that the subway trains in London do not run overnight. We were stranded. Rather than hail a taxi, we walked all the way across London to the bed and breakfast where we were staying. We had no map. No GPS. All we had was a subway map. We arrived at 6 AM.
I don’t think you could do that in a city like New York or Detroit. Sooner or later, you’d unwittingly walk into some kind of danger. And I’m sure London has some dangerous spots. But we were two broad-shouldered Yanks, kind of brash and stupid, and by the grace of God, we made it safely to the angry arms of our worried spouses.
Any plans to tour, or is it mainly a studio project?
I hope to tour as a solo-artist. Low-to-no overhead. I can rough it. Like I said earlier, I’ve got some Jack Kerouac in me. But my bandmates have families. We’re a working class band, not in the romantic Bruce Springsteen and Tom Joad sense, but real work-to-feed-your-family working class. My bandmates are in no position to tour. I’m the front man. I’m the guy with the mouth and the guitar. I’m good to go.
In the states right now, though, nobody is booking. I’m ready.
What is most important to you: sales/streams, critical praise, industry
Whatever introduces new listeners to my catalogue is what’s important to me.
What is important to me is the synergy of critical praise, industry recognition and bookings. THE LITTLE WRETCHES have “a thing.” I think that anybody who buys or downloads one of our albums will eventually end up getting six or seven others.
If you could work with one musician, dead or alive, who would that be
That’s tough. See, at heart, I’m a teacher. I teach through stories. And I tell stories through songs. I’d want to work with a musician who could help to bring the songs alive. I think of musicians who’ve also served as producers and session-men. Leon Russell. Mick Ronson. John Cale.
John Cale produced Patti Smith, The Stooges, Jonathan Richman, Nico.
And Mick Ronson? He produced timeless recordings with Bowie. Lou Reed. Ian Hunter. John Mellencamp. David Johansen. Morrissey.
And did you hear Elton John induct Leon Russell into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Did you hear Leon’s litany of credits?
One? Mick Ronson.
Any parting words for our readers?
I wish I could introduce you to all the amazing and beautiful people whose lives gave my songs a reason to exist. I wish I could bring them to life for you. I wish I could hang out with you, sit in your living room and play my songs for you and your friends.
I hope I’ve said something that makes you want to explore the catalogue of The Little Wretches and that somehow our songs help you think about people with more compassion. Eternity exists. God is good. Life is precious. You were born with a gift. Honor it.
Thank you for taking the time Robert! Best of luck!