In addition to outtakes, were there any songs that you’d written and recorded that didn’t make the final cut?
I’d have to think about that, but there probably at least two or a couple. But bands tend to use those later. I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you there were some sparkling gems that got left off like some people have. I think we unanimously chose the best stuff for the record.
What do you remember about the writing and recording of the closing track, “I Wish I Felt Nothing?”
Leo LeBlanc was playing pedal steel with us at that time. Leo was a fascinating character and he wasn’t well at that point. He was sick. He actually passed just as the record was coming out. He was a legend out of Nashville who played with John Prine. Inside of L.A., I don’t know what his name meant, but we played with him and we knew, we investigated and we learned that he was extremely well-known and respected in Nashville.
He was such a special character for us. He was obviously a bit older than we were, and he’d kind of been there and done that with almost everything. He only wanted to play music if it was hassle-free. He played shows with us, when we were playing played clubs, and he never wanted to be paid. He was hoping we would just pay for his bus fare, because he was legally blind and he would take his pedal steel on the bus. And he was hoping we would give him the buck for the bus and maybe have a six-pack of beer for him. He didn’t want to be involved in anything beyond that. Anything beyond that got complicated.
His background was country music, but he was a wild player. It wasn’t really traditional country music but it had its background in country music. That song was maybe a tip of the hat for Leo at the time, to have something that he could really be showcased on.
You guys have done so much great work subsequent to Bringing Down The Horse. Does it frustrate you at all that some of your later albums didn’t have the chance to get the same kind of exposure?
It’s not frustrating. I think all bands can really hope for is to keep working. It’s 20 years later and we’re still a working band with a lot of opportunity and a really strong name out there. Beyond that, I don’t think I have the constitution to do what it would take to make that happen each year anyhow, to be honest.
There’s a lot of pluses of Bringing Down The Horse. My recollection of it is nearly all positive. But as far as what you personally have to go through to sustain that kind of success, I don’t know that I have it in me year after year. There are certainly people that I watch them do it year after year and I’m amazed that you want to do this year after year.
I don’t mean make the records. I mean after you make the records, the work you gotta do, which a lot of it is humiliating, a lot of it is necessary to be a successful act. I don’t know that I can do it each year. I don’t know that I want to make records that fit into that category each year either. So I’m not surprised and I wasn’t turned off by the band not being able to reproduce that kind of success too quickly afterward. I though it was pretty cosmic that it happened to begin with and I don’t really know many groups that get the chance to do that multiple times.
Cosmic is a great word for it. It does really seem like a magic moment that you guys captured in the studio back then.
I think we knew that. You know we had a lot of defeat with the band’s first record. Some guys in the group had to be replaced or some left. Rami Jaffe, Greg Richling, and myself were left, which was a quality problem. We had to re-juggle the band, but we felt that we had a real opportunity here. We had people that were working with the group that were really excited.
I think we did catch lightning in a bottle. I think it’s easy to say that afterward. When songs connect, it’s easy to put the pieces together backward and say you were grabbing on to something. But I think we could feel something special was happening at the time.
I remember, being finished, the record company at the time only released “6th Avenue Heartache” as a single first because they felt that’s all that they had. If they thought that could have been a different single down the line, I’m sure they would have put something else out first. I remember people being startled that the song had gotten traction and they realized that there was an opportunity for a second single.
But nobody really discussed “One Headlight” that much when we were making the record in the studio. When everyone was finished, there wasn’t any talk of that doing anything. I really wanted that to be a single because I was extremely proud of the song. I wouldn’t know what would be a radio song or not. I just thought the song had every one of the elements that we were focusing on, I thought it was one of the stronger songs I had written, and I just liked the song a lot. I like listening to it.
That was motivation. I was just stoked that that song was going to get released, period. That wasn’t in the discussion, which is kind of funny, because it overshadowed “6th Avenue Heartache” by quite a bit, but it was only released second because there was a first. I don’t think anybody was expecting to really get to a second.
I think they’ll tell you different now, the people who were involved. My recollection is that it was all about “6th Avenue Heartache.”
They’ll all say now, “No, we wanted ‘One Headlight’ the whole time.”
Yeah, someone will tell you that, but again, this is one of those fascinating situations where I’m one of the few if maybe the only person that was there the whole time. Members of the band came and went during the recording of it. Different players came in while we were there. Some people were there some days, some days they weren’t there, but, as the singer and the writer, I had to be there every day. So if you were going to believe anybody, I would expect it’d be me.
You mentioned some of the guest players on the album, Mike Campbell, Gary Louris, many more, and yet you guys as a band were able to maintain your identity well. What was that process like with the guest players coming in for certain tracks?
Well, that stuff was all organic. There was really never any real concocted plan there. At that point in The Wallflowers, there wasn’t really somebody stepping up to sing background vocals. And I’ve never been a tremendous fan of the singer singing background vocals to himself. I don’t like the way that sounds. I prefer it to be somebody else’s voice. And the guys that were in the group at the time weren’t experienced singers or they weren’t ready to or didn’t want to.
So Gary Louris was a friend of mine at that point; he came in and sang. Stephen Bruton was a terrific singer. He was an old friend of T-Bone Burnett’s. I think they grew up together, and Stephen had a terrific voice.
He’s on “I Wish I Felt Nothing,” right?
I think he sings on “Three Marlenas” and “God Don’t Make Lonely Girls.” You’re right about “I Wish I Felt Nothing,” maybe something else in there too.
And you mentioned Mike Campbell. There are a few guitar players on the record. The band’s original guitar player, he left the group just as we were starting to make the record. So there were spots to be filled.
Again it goes back to the magic surrounding the album. With 16 years of separation from it now, do you have the perspective to look back at Bringing Down The Horse and appreciate it, almost as a fan, for the success it had and what it means to so many people?
I have nothing but appreciation for it. I don’t know that bands have the opportunity to have songs like that at this point. And I think bands go through a moment right afterward where they get frustrated and they don’t want people coming just to hear those songs. But as you march along, you realize it doesn’t really matter when they come from. If you’ve got songs in your back pocket that, not only do your fans know, but the guy working the concession stand knows it too or the guy that took the tickets in the parking lot knows the songs also, you know you can only have gratitude for that, because not everybody gets the opportunity.
It’s a gift. It’s absolutely a gift. When I sing them each night, the reaction I see just confirms that, that those songs hold a special spot for people.
Finally, with how strong the new single is, it seems like The Wallflowers still have a lot of desire to be a major player on the music scene, as fractured as it may be these days. Are you guys still as hungry as you were when you made Bringing Down The Horse or is it a different feeling?
It’s definitely a different kind of feeling. I mean, people’s lives are different. When we made that record, no one had anything else in our lives but The Wallflowers to tend to. And the reality is that just changes. You’re talking about people in their early 40’s now; your life is different. Your life dictates how creative you can and you’re going to be, how much time you actually dedicate to traveling. All those things get more complicated later.
But when you’re 23 years old or 24 years old, no one’s got anything going on. They need 200 bucks for rent and the whole world is available. So, in that way, yeah, a lot of things are different.
But things are better than ever, actually, because the band has such a terrific appreciation for being able to have a band and an opportunity like this. Rock and roll and bands are for kids, really. It’s a young person’s game. So if you’re able to have one at this age that really works and it really has places to grow and go, you learn to appreciate that and your investment becomes even greater. It doesn’t have maybe the rambunctious quality it could have when you were starting. You don’t start great groups in your 40’s. You don’t.