Behind The Song: “Thrift Shop,” with Hook Singer Wanz

In 2012, if you turned to anyone on your left or right and asked, “Have you heard the new song, ‘Thrift Shop’?” It’s likely one or both would have emphatically said, “Yes! It’s great!” The song was a giant, ubiquitous hit, winning multiple Grammy Awards and on February 2, 2013, in its sixteenth week, “Thrift Shop” hit No.1 on Billboard.

“Thrift Shop,” which came out nine years ago today, on August 27, 2012, was a definite smash. It was written by Seattle’s Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and features the deep voice of Michael “Wanz” Wansley, a longtime veteran of the Emerald City music scene. While they didn’t know each other before, they’re in the history books now permanently together.

Wanz, who is today a regular at Seattle Mariners games, singing the National Anthem, remembers the day he went in to record the track’s hook. From call to completion, it took maybe three hours. Since then, those three hours have gone on to generate billions of streams and likely millions of dollars.

We caught up with Wanz to talk about “Thrift Shop,” the accompanying lavish music video, and how the world flipped upside down for him in 2012.

American Songwriter: What was your music career like in Seattle prior to the 2010s?

Wanz: So, I’d been in band after band from ’86 until 2011-2012 and, you know, there was really no traction, even after bands like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam got their shot—and these were guys I hung out with all the time —them getting their shot did not do anything but cause me to be more determined.

But around 2009, I didn’t see anybody who looked or sounded like me out there in the game. So, I kind of just said, “Okay, that’s not my path.”

AS: That was a few years before you got the call from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. What did you do from 2009-2012, or so?

Wanz: I mean, I dug myself out of a huge depression. Because ever since six years old, I’d been told I was really good and I was going to be famous and people really liked to hear me sing and I was successful at it in almost every idiom I’d ever attempted. So, by the time 2008-2009 came along, I was depressed because I didn’t see a path for me.

It was like, “Wow…” I started collecting recording gear and started to teach myself how to do it. Writing on the side and posting on Facebook. I was playing in a blue-eyed soul band, playing bass with a couple of guys I knew. It was fun and that was great. Then I got a call one May evening in 2012 and that changed everything.

AS: And what was that call like, what was the ask? Did you have to go to the studio immediately in some mad dash?

Wanz: I was laying in bed watching Nightline, surfing Facebook on my laptop when my phone rang. It was a guy that I had done hook work within the early 2000s and he never called. He usually only texted or emailed. So, I thought something was wrong.

He asks me, “Are you down for a session?” And I said, “I’m always down for a session.” He said, “Well, Ryan Lewis, a producer friend of mine, called and he’s looking for a singer who sounds like Nate Dogg, so I called you.” 45 minutes later I was in the car heading down to the studio. And about 20 minutes of that and I walked in and I was introduced to Ben [a.k.a. Macklemore] and Ryan.

We tried to get acquainted but they’d never heard of me. I had never heard of them. Of course, I was a little butt heard because I’d been doing music in the town for a couple of decades by then [Laughs]. So, it was cool. Ryan played the track and Ben had a Steno pad and he was reading me the words. I was getting the vibe. And the first thing that came out of my mouth is what you hear on the record.

AS: Really!?

Wanz: Yup! They put me in the booth and we went through the chorus a couple of times and went through, like, this is the way the bridge goes, boom-boom-boom. I spent maybe 45 minutes in the booth and they were cutting me a check and I went home. And nobody thought anything of it.

AS: Where did the chorus and the words themselves come from?

Wanz: Ben already had the chorus and he was feeding the words to me, right? He would feed them to me in a rhythm. So, listening to the track and hearing what he’s saying, the first thing that popped out of my head was, [Sings melodic-boisterously] “I’m gonna pop some tags! Only got $20 in my pocket!” And he said, “Yeah, like that!’ So, we refined that, boom and it was done!

Chemistry, it’s a thing. This is why I say, “Lightening in a bottle is pretty hard to reproduce.” Because, if the beat would have been different, if Ryan hadn’t have done the beat, if Ben hadn’t had said the words the same way, if it had been any other singer, everything would have been different. But it was us meeting at that time at that moment and that’s what happened!

AS: After the demo from that first night, when did you hear the song done for the first time and what did you think?

Wanz: I didn’t hear—well, let’s see. I went and did that session and I didn’t hear from them again for a month. I was walking into work one day and Ryan asked me if I wanted to be a part of the video. And I said, “Sure.” They sent their manager down to get me and took me to Leroy’s to get the suit and we filmed it up at The Unicorn [in Seattle].

The next day he was like, “We’re filming on a boat!” And I didn’t know if that was going to be a ferry or a big houseboat. Turns out it was a sport boat and we were filming on Lake Washington. That’s where they got the kneeboard scene. Then Ryan was giving me a ride up to [the neighborhood] of Northgate to catch a bus home and in his car was the first time I heard it.

For me, it was earthshattering because he had, like, a million watts inside a Jeep Cherokee. And when the beat finally dropped and the sub kicked in, my innards were moving. And wen my voice came on — I’d never sounded like that before. Ever.

AS: Wow.

Wanz: I’d done more than a few recordings by then but I’d never sounded like that before. He played it a couple of times and I got really excited, like, “Wow! That’s really cool!” But to tell you the truth, nothing for me really, really changed until the day that the video dropped.

I’m sitting at work and I’m hitting refresh on the YouTube page and I’m watching the numbers go! And I’m not used to that kind of thing. I didn’t really know. So, it was at that point that I went to YouTube and watched a couple of other videos. I watched “Otherside,” “My Oh My”—it turns out I was at the [Seattle Mariners] game where he performed “My Oh My” live. But it didn’t really hit me who this guy was.

The last video I looked at was “Victory Lap” and it had all this live footage of people jumping off of shit, you know, in the crowd. One of the images was him standing at the front of the stage at The Key [Arena; now Climate Pledge Arena] and it was sold out, it was Bumbershoot [music festival]. I saw that and leaned back in my chair and said, “Uh oh, that’s not good!” [Laughs]

AS: Why do you think the song did so well and how did that success especially change your life?

Wanz: Because at the time—you know, no one really does—well, very few people do the research to figure out what else is poppin’ right then. He was different. Looking at “Victory Lap,” it’s a bunch of footage of them on the road for most of 2011 and playing small venues. He cultivated things, right? Being as personable as he was and as creative as their videos were and as energetic as their shows were—I remember sitting at my desk, watching a YouTube video that a friend of mine sent me from a festival in Chicago.

This was from somebody in the crowd, and when the song started playing, they were all over it, before it even got to the first verse. They loved it. Seeing the comments, I was like, “Oh man!” So, between that and— I’d never been on the road before. So, we did Portland and it’s like, “Wow, I can actually do this.” The next night, we’re at WaMu Theater [in Seattle] with 7,500 people and I’d never been in front of 7,500 people before. Flames on stage, big freaking monitors. That was it.

But I’ll tell you, when the tour went to the Fillmore in San Francisco, and I’m standing on that floor in that building, remembering when I was lying on my floor as a kid, listening to concerts on AM radio from that place, it broke me. That’s when it became real. It broke me. I cried. That was when I made the decision that I was going to— you know, I’d never been on the road before. I didn’t have any savings.

I walked away from a full-time job with stock options and insurance and the whole nine yards. Because I told my boss, I said, “You know, at my age, I don’t think an opportunity like this is ever going to come again. So, I have to stay out here [on tour].” And I did. And every single dream that I had since I can remember came true in two-and-a-half years. Every single one of them. I got the statues to prove it.

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