A couple of weeks ago, we showcased the fascinating career of Johnny Angel Wendell. John released a new album, IT!!, on October 25th. The album is available for download here: http://johnnyangelwendell.bandcamp.com/ ) Here is the firat single.
Here are some more of the highlights from our hour long conversation with the Los Angeles-based, Boston-bred artist.
Are these rumors about you being in finance before you became a musician have any truth to them?
Yes they are true. It was a family brokerage so it was easy to get into. It wasn’t like I was trying to get a job at Merril Lynch. I didn’t want to go back to college so I wanted to see what it would be like to try it. The stockbroker is a glorified salesman and I’m not the kind of person that could cold call people and suggest they spend thousands of dollars on a piece of paper that I can’t verify or back its actual worth.
What kind of music did you listen to before you started playing in The Thrills?
Disco and ‘60s rock.
Disco? Isn’t that the antithesis of punk?
Actually no, I thought that they were both very similar. They’re both very simple and repetitive and rhythmically obstinate. Disco is marching band music and kind of mindless in it’s own way, so is punk rock.
I’ve been reading a lot about your original band, be it The Thrills or City Thrills. How did the band form and eventually disintegrate?
Back then, it didn’t cost a lot to go check out bands and be in the scene. There was this woman in the music scene in Boston that ran a little basement record store named Barbara Kitson and she was really, really nasty, obnoxious and opinionated. I had really no use for her and the feeling was mutual. One morning a few friends and I were going to jam, so we got in the car to head to the suburbs and she was with them since she wanted to tag along and sing, since she fancied herself as a singer. Of course, once we got there, we didn’t know how to play, except for one common song: “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Barbara started singing and she was just fantastic. We played our first gig in December of 1977 and drew 36 people. I think our first set was 15 songs and was 29 minutes. We loved all groups, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Who and the New York Dolls, The Ramones, though I took a lot of shit for being a fan of Moby Grape, Jefferson Airplane and The Byrds. Due to my tastes, our music sort of swung, combined with a New York-y attitude, it made us weird.
The problems we faced were that our music sometimes didn’t fit the music of the era. We were deemed way too rough for a major label and were very difficult to deal with at showcases. We had drug and alcohol issues too but we persevered and soldiered on. We tried different things like lightening our sound and be more pop, then got harder again and that didn’t work.
We moved to New York in 1982 when the recession was real bad then and nobody could work or get any money and the direness of the situation broke the band up. I was the only one who lived below 14th Street and everyone else lived uptown and when you keep hearing you’re too square, it wears on you after a while. I said “it’s been 5 years, it’s been fun, let’s call it a day.” And we did.
What about The Blackjacks?
I moved back to Boston and I started the band as the singer. It was much more a rock band, not as punkish or melodic. It was more old-fashioned, like a Rolling Stones or New York Dolls, Gun Club with unusual topics for songs. We played very fast and I didn’t like the fashion of the time in 1983. I didn’t like flannel shirts and baggy jeans and hated this sense of style. So we started dressing very glamishly. We had a second guitar player and became more suburbanized and thus more successful than Thrills ever were. Then we ran into the same problems where it wasn’t quite rough enough, intellectual enough or commercial enough to not stumble along. So it just muddled along until I realized I did as much as I could do in the northeast, saved up $500, bought a $100 car and moved to California on July 7, 1989. I finished the set and got up and literally left, not exactly the smart move, but I did it. I wanted to vanish and disappear.
Any success upon moving to Los Angeles?
Yes! I wasn’t weird or exceptional enough for people to come see me in New York. But the second gig I did when I moved out here, we ended up landing a demo deal with Atlantic Records and I couldn’t believe it was that fucking easy.
How did that turn out?
It didn’t work out so well, though we did get money from them. We made a terrible demo, which didn’t happen on purpose but I’m just not capable of doing things other people’s way and exactly to their specifications.
Why/how did you end up recording music after several decades on the shelf?
Well, I gave up because it felt like after such a long time chasing music, I began to realize it didn’t love me back. Would you chase the same girl after so many years if she kept saying no?
Exactly! After the economy tanked again, I had a lot of time on my hands and had nothing to do, so for whatever reason, and I couldn’t tell you what it was, I picked up a guitar again and had melodies and ideas, but the songs were like nothing I’d ever done before. I wasn’t making up songs for a band, so they didn’t have to be fast or have shouted, repetitive choruses. The songs were for me and my pleasure. They felt like a song a grownup would write. They flow, are sweet and touch people.
What was the writing process like?
Seven of the twelve were written over a span of a few months by myself, which is a lot for short period of time. I had lots of parts of songs that had good parts, but weren’t good songs. But when I snapped the different parts together, they worked. It was like I was collaborated with myself and I started writing tons of them. I played all the bass and guitars, did all the singing. I brought in other people do their parts and they did a great job.
All my old friends back east were doing this Kickstarter thing. I figured why not do this? Get all this music out before I died. I wanted to raise $5k and I ended up raising $8k and couldn’t believe it and being the old socialist I am, the project went from nine songs to twelve. The project is done and is unlike anything I ever did. As I told my friend, they can’t stop us now. Record companies are going away so it’s up to the public to decide. If I was so motivated, I could take all 12 of my songs and post all of them on Facebook for free. But on the other hand, did 6,400 people hear me all over the world in the ‘80s? Not unless they sought me out.
Does it seem more refreshing or natural that this is the sound that came out of you at this point in your life?
I wouldn’t say that this was something I always wanted to do, but rather it was something I wanted to do recently and decided to do it. I can’t imagine how it would have been received 25 or 30 years ago, but I would have never done it. I wouldn’t have written songs about my children, because I never had them, or a wife for that matter! My taste in music has also changed where I don’t really like a thing that sounds inhumane, like it’s intended to reflect on the ugliness of human nature. I think you can make songs that are nasty, but it has to have a more organic feel. The idea of tuning your guitar down to C Sharp and barking like a Cookie Monster, I’m not that kind of person.