Self-effacing, hardworking and unsung, the John Mellencamp Band left its mark as one of America's great rock bands almost as an afterthought, a byproduct of their collective approach to rock 'n' roll.
Mike Wanchic: 'driven to not be denied'
NUVO: What I'd like to focus on is the period between Uh-Huh and Big Daddy, when you were really gelling as a band and coming into your own as one of the great American rock bands of that era ... What was the lineup for Uh-Huh?
Mike Wanchic: Larry Crane, myself, Toby Myers and Kenny Aronoff.
NUVO: There was a magic that started then, what happened?
Wanchic: It was the first time we had worked without an outside producer. Don Gehman has production credits on those records, so that we could tell the record company, 'This guy's co-producing our record,' but he was really an engineer . he was a collaborator, but he was by no means our producer. From that point on we were conceptualizing these records, each one on our own. The Uh-Huh record was heavily influenced by the Rolling Stones, very heavily. We were feeling our oats as a young American rock band with a lot of success at that moment, we felt we could take the liberty, hell, we even thanked the Rolling Stones on the record.
Scarecrow was a transition record between the raw rock 'n' roll of Uh-Huh and the American music of Lonesome Jubilee. There was a natural progression from Scarecrow which had certain thematic content, to adding the expanded instrumentation on Lonesome Jubilee, completing what we started with Scarecrow.
Big Daddy was certainly a melancholy record and it came at a time in John's life when he was very reflective. It was a very spontaneous record, a record that we hadn't planned to make . I was in the middle of Lake Cumberland on a houseboat when John called me. We had no intention of making a record, but he had some inspiration for a few weeks and he wrote the whole record. We just got together and put it down.
NUVO: At the same time that you were moving in the public's mind from John Cougar, a product, to John Cougar Mellencamp, the artist, what crystallized within the band to bring the live shows to their incredible peak? What was going on within the band to drive that?
Wanchic: We had consciously in our minds the idea of being the best rock band in the world, whether or not we ever would be was open to question. We went into rehearsal at a level that no one ever has. We rehearsed for six months before a major tour, it took forever. At one point we did a study of American music, we spent three months learning 90 songs of other bands. We learned them not just listening to them, but we learned every single nuance of every single song, whether it was 'ABC' by the Jackson Five or 'White Room' by Cream, 'Dancing Days' by Zeppelin, the Rascals catalog, a bunch of Motown, we made a thorough study of what we could bring back to the table. When you really analyze what makes Motown Motown, you understand the various components of what makes the music work. Of course, it's the Jamie Jamison bass part, it's a lot of four on the snare .
Certainly, no one would ever consciously go, 'I'm going to spend the next three months in my living room listening to music and analyzing it,' you just don't do that. But as a band, being paid to do that, that was our job. We picked the most interesting songs we'd never actually learned. Learning every single tiny nuance, that was fascinating, what I thought was really happening was not necessarily happening when you got down into the heart of the whole thing.
NUVO: There's a great dichotomy, the band had a roots-with-the-people populist agenda, and on the other hand there are these incredibly conscious and artful choices about how to hone what you were putting across.
Wanchic: It was a conscious choice trying to expand ourselves musically, in any fashion we knew how. We were also driven to not be denied; we'd been denied for so many years in the early days, jeered at, laughed at and made fun of, that our first taste of success sparked a defiant enthusiasm that has driven us until, pretty much last night. Above the door of the studio and above the door of the rehearsal room there's a sign that says, 'You think you're good when you walk in this room, you'll be great when you walk out.' It's an attitude. We were determined to do it on our own without the help of an opening act, during the Scarecrow, Lonesome Jubilee period we were playing two one-and-a-half hour sets. We'd take a 15-minute break in the middle.
NUVO: That's an athletic event at a very high level.
Wanchic: The stage was gigantic, it went completely across the arena floor, and we were jumping off risers, sliding all over the place, a seriously athletic endeavor. We resisted having an opening act until well into the '90s.
NUVO: Simply because you wanted to own the show?
Wanchic: We didn't want any other focus whatsoever, so that the audience could focus on nothing but us. The whole concept was to bring the eye and the ear of the listener dead center stage, no gimmicks, nothing like that.
NUVO: It's a nice segue to a Mellencamp urban legend: Wasn't there a basketball element in preparation for shows?
Wanchic: We carried our own sports locker. It had a full flag football rig, we carried our own basketball goal.
NUVO: So guys were fitting in a game when you had time? How did that work?
Wanchic: No, it was part of the routine. We'd get to the venue, have dinner, do a soundcheck and then play three-on-three basketball, shower and then go on. We'd try to get full body sweat going before we went on.
NUVO: This is far from a musical note but of grave interest to the reader: How would three-on-three basketball work? Who played with whom? Wanchic: I always played on John's team. In every sporting event, I'm always on John's team.
NUVO: What about Kenny and Toby and Larry?
Wanchic: They were always on the other team.
NUVO: So, it was you John and a crew member. Wanchic: And 90 percent of the time we won. It was always good to let us win.
NUVO: Who officiated?
Wanchic: You called your own foul; however, in the MFL [Mellencamp Football League], we had hired refs. On the road, on days off, we'd play the crew and get our asses kicked.
NUVO: I don't think MTV ever glommed onto that, did they?
Wanchic: No, they didn't, I don't think anyone ever did. In the off season in the MFL, we'd play other cities, Cincinnati's firemen championship team, we played the New York City flag football team, Jam Promotions in Chicago put together a team with the Bears starting quarterback . We played Polygram a couple times. At one point, Tommy Motolla, when he was still managing John, challenged us, he and John had a big bet on the game. Motolla showed up with a New York championship flag team, and these motherfuckers were brutal, all serious college players, semi-professional rugby players. They annihilated us, beat us 70 to nothing, the worst ass-kicking I've ever had in my life. So, then the challenge was on. At one point, Mark Gastineau was on our team.
NUVO: So who played from the band?
Wanchic: Me, John and Toby.
NUVO: What was Toby, a wide receiver?
Wanchic: Sorta; a gangly wide receiver.
NUVO: He looks like he could run if someone were chasing him.
Wanchic: Well, several husbands have chased him over the years.
NUVO: How did John bring songs to the band?
Wanchic: All John's songs came in the same fashion, acoustic guitar and vocal, as folk songs. We'd often not hear the song until right before we recorded it. Arrangements were done in the studio. Scarecrow, for instance, we heard the night before. Larry and I came up with our guitar parts and we recorded the next day. We'd put a song together and rearrange it so that it fit the mold of a rock song.
NUVO: So everybody came with his or her parts?
Wanchic: With John having the benevolent bottom line.
NUVO: He was the editor in terms of arrangements?
Wanchic: Absolutely, he's got a great sensibility for that, he really does. He's got a very sharp mind; he knows a great idea when he hears it. He's able to recognize it, take it and use it. It's one of the things I've always admired about him. The most important thing in our sessions was not to just sit there, you had to come forth with ideas.
NUVO: Scarecrow doesn't sound like a record that was labored over in any sense.
Wanchic: Definitely not, that's the beauty of a lot of those recordings. Whatever degree of urgency you hear on those records was in fact urgent.
NUVO: The studio was a pressure-filled environment?
Wanchic: Very pressure-filled. As we always said, paint fast and make mistakes, don't be afraid, don't be careful, don't be safe. We worked fast and furious; you had to be able to take the pressure of fast work and immediate performances.
NUVO: Something about all of this doesn't make the reader think of you as a fun-loving bunch, basically excessive rock band.
Wanchic: Sex and drugs you mean? Certainly there were those issues, but not to the degree of the excesses of any other band that I know. John, of course, is a complete teetotaller and always has been. Never seen him take a drink of alcohol, never seen him do a drug in his entire life. Not since day one. I've never had any substance in me onstage, ever. No alcohol, nothing.
NUVO: That may be a rock record for someone of your longevity who is not in recovery.
Wanchic: Our stage was so aggressive, you couldn't really be high. You had to watch yourself, you could get hurt up there. I knocked John unconscious once onstage, whirling around with my guitar, knocking him in the head.
I don't want to make it sound like it was all work. I can tell you, when you're in the studio in those days with us, and it was working, it was the most incredible high in the world. Because, we were moving and we were successful and we knew what we were doing was going to be heard. We would just go for the throat. Yeah, there was a lot of stress, John was a very urgent person, very demanding. That's ultimately and finally what brought us to be one of America's great rock bands, an incredible discipline that most bands don't have.
Kenny Aronoff: 'I stayed, and watched and learned'
NUVO: When did you join the band?
Kenny Aronoff: In 1980, I joined for Nothing Matters and What if It Did? I was in the band for about five weeks, then we went out to make the record.
NUVO: Did you end up playing on the record?
Aronoff: Yes, I did. I ended up playing percussion [not drums]. Basically, I went out there and in about one hour I was off the record, done. (laughter)
NUVO: That had to be a turning point, what happened?
Aronoff: I didn't last very long . The producer, Steve Cropper, wanted to get the record done real fast because he had to go on tour with the Blues Brothers. The most immediate thing that you get when you record is drums, and my equipment and my sound were completely off. I ended up sticking around, though; it was a pivotal moment in my career. John said, 'Well, cool, go back home, we'll finish the record and probably go on tour,' but I stayed, and watched and learned from the other drummers. I opted to stay for a month and it was a very humbling experience for me. I had never failed at anything before. Had I not stayed, who knows what my future would have been.
NUVO: Uh-Huh was the record that you did very quickly?
Aronoff: Yeah, John had converted a little shack in Brownstown. Basically, it was on a pig farm. His sister had gotten married and they had this little shack of a house. John offered to fix it up with drywall if we could record there.
NUVO: Did it work out?
Aronoff: We left them the place. The drywall was up, but we were pretty reckless in there, too; we were pretty wild. I remember for entertainment, we made Wanchic run around wearing a piece of foam while we shot at him holding Roman candles in our hands. There he was, going back and forth between the trees while we'd light these things and shoot at him. Like amateur SCUD missiles.
NUVO: Everyone remembers the recording process as being incredibly quick and pressure-filled. You'd already had your moment of truth when you were bounced from Nothing Matters and What if It Did? Did this leave you better prepared?
Aronoff: Well, I wasn't naive. I knew what would happen if you couldn't cut it. Your job was not just to be prepared and play your instrument. You had to constantly come up with ideas for everybody else's inspiration. It's as though we were each mini producers and arrangers. To work for John Mellencamp, if you couldn't relate to his drive, you'd quit. I saw people come and go. John was like a football player and a football coach. He was a hard worker, extremely disciplined, very, very hard on himself and everyone else. Most of the guys in the core of the band had played sports and been in competitive situations, and knew what it was to work your asses off. It wasn't marshmallows and graham crackers in that bunch. It was like Marines meets football players meets artists, all rolled into one.
Larry Crane: 'Mom didn't ever like John too much'
NUVO: The first band you worked with John Mellencamp in was Trash, is that correct?
Larry Crane: Well, it's the most publicized. We formed that band Trash when I was 16 years old . it would have been '72. I'd just gotten my driver's license, so nobody had to pick me up for rehearsal.
NUVO: What were you playing?
Crane: John had a couple of songs that he had eked out. We did some New York Dolls, 'Search and Destroy' by Iggy Pop. We did some David Bowie songs. We were really offbeat for that time. Everyone else was playing Allman Brothers and Crosby, Stills & Nash. John didn't like that stuff; it wasn't his cup of tea. We always liked Iggy. John really liked Lou Reed. He was such a small town hillbilly - anything that was remotely urban he loved. Same way kids today. You hear farm kids listening to urban angst rap. When John was younger, all the young white kids with their Bass Weejuns were listening to James Brown. John liked anything urban, anything that was just the opposite of Seymour, Ind.
NUVO: Where could you guys play in Seymour?
Crane: We never played Seymour, we hardly played out at all. Some promoter in Indianapolis had booked Kiss into a little theater in downtown Indy. Still showing movies there . they were going to show the movie Woodstock and then Kiss would come play. A weird combination. In between the booking and the date, Kiss had been on Midnight Special and it had launched them. So they were canceling all their little dates, so the promoter is stuck with the date, tickets sold and he's looking for a band that wears makeup: We're it, in about a five state area. All these people are all hyped up to see Kiss, the promoter hadn't bothered to tell them that Kiss wasn't gonna be there, out we walk, with our little guitars and makeup, the crowd wasn't very happy .
By the time I got out of high school it was obvious that this wasn't going anywhere. I just wanted to get out of town. So I hooked up with a country band based out of Columbia, Mo., ended up in a little motel in Olathe, Kan., no phones in the rooms. So once a week I'd call Mom and let her know I'm alive. She says, 'That Mellencamp boy keeps calling here, he wants something.' Mom didn't ever like John too much. So I told her I'd wait for 10 minutes, have John call me at the payphone. Phone rings, it's John; he told me all about the Johnny Cougar thing, how he had a record deal. It sounded fairly goofy, but it was better than what I was doing .
NUVO: Uh-Huh was the first record you made in Indiana with the lineup in this interview.
Crane: John's sister had this house in Crane Hill, Ind., and we brought mobile equipment and put it in the house. Now, the first record we made there was the Mitch Ryder record [Never Kick a Sleeping Dog]; we did that record before we did Uh-Huh.
NUVO: So the Mitch Ryder record was the shakedown cruise.
Crane: That's right.
NUVO: So when it was time to make Scarecrow .
Crane: We knew we couldn't repeat ourselves, that we had to change our sound. I changed my approach to the guitar. I went from Gibson guitars to playing a Fender Telecaster, started listening to all the guys who played rhythm guitar on Telecasters - Willy Nile, Keith Richards - and figured out what they were doing. It changed our core guitar sound. In recording, John always had a good idea of how he wanted the arrangements to go. It was my job to interpret that into musical terms. He'd say, 'I want it to feel like that,' then I'd go through this brain process and say, 'Take the guitar and do this, the drums will do this here,' and it would make that sound that he was hearing. NUVO: All the other band members have talked about the long hours and the incredible discipline involved, yet you haven't mentioned it.
Crane: It wasn't that big a deal to me. We'd worked together for so long, I was used to long hours; that was just how we did things.
NUVO: So that was normal for you?
Crane: It was normal for me to have a guitar strapped on for 18 hours; ask my chiropractor. He always asks me, 'Are you sure you didn't deliver mail all your life?'
NUVO: Once you started making records in Indiana, the band was isolated from outside influences. Did that matter?
Crane: When we went to record a record in L.A. or Miami, I could just feel the energy scatter a little bit. There's something to be said for isolation. The reason I learned to play guitar was because I was bored all the time. My guitar students used to ask me, 'How many hours a day do you practice?' I'd tell them, 'I never practice, but I play eight hours a day.' It's nice when you're doing that. You're escaping - diving head first into it and becoming obsessed; that's all you've got. It's not like you're gonna be distracted by some big movie premiere [in Indiana]. What are you gonna do, go down to Brock's and get you a piece of pie? That's gonna be the big deal of the day.
Toby Myers: 'Our hands were clean'
Toby Myers: My first gig in the band was Saturday Night Live. It was amazing. Later that year, we had the opportunity to open for the Who on their tour of 45 or 50 shows. I was so into the Who, I was telling John, 'We've got to do the whole thing, it'll be great.' He said, 'Why don't we do three and see how it goes.' The first show we did was in Boulder, Colo., at the football stadium: 50,000 people. They did NOT want to see us. Who fans did not want to see us; they were throwing shit like crazy. Mike [Wanchic] and the guys who'd toured England extensively were used to this. They'd been spit on; this was nothing new. But I couldn't believe it.
The next one was the Jack Murphy stadium in San Diego and it rocked like a motherfucker that night. Third night was sold out, a full moon on Halloween, 55,000 people in Sun Devil stadium in Tempe, Ariz. It was rockin' and I was diggin' it.
I turned and looked and in the middle of the stage, John was flat out, lying there unconscious. Some dude in the crowd had thrown a whiskey bottle and knocked him out. We were four songs into our five-song set, almost done. When John came to, we got in a huddle and he said, 'Let's get the fuck off this stage.' John got his head sutured up and found a hard hat. We came back on the stage and played 'Hurt So Good,' but before we did, John invited the guy who threw the bottle to come up to the stage to meet us. I don't think it would have been a very pleasant meeting .
NUVO: You were always a star in Indiana. I remember when I was in grade school, sneaking into the Nora Teen Barn and watching you play in The Urge.
Myers: That was a special time, 1969 . they let us rehearse out there in exchange for a gig once a month. I was a guy who just tried to be in the best bands at the time. That put you in the public eye.
NUVO: Out of everyone in this interview, weren't you the last to join the Mellencamp band?
Myers: I was doing Roadmaster. Pure Funk morphed into Roadmaster in '76, when we changed singers from Benrubi to McNally. McNally and John quit the band after we lost our record deal in 1980. We had to go back to playing bars. I was playing Oscar's in Bloomington. When I walked in that night, the club owner said, 'Man, there's some heavyweights here to check you out.' It was Larry [Crane] and Mike [Wanchic]. Mike came up to me after the gig and asked me if I wanted to join the band. They were aware of the deal with Roadmaster and that's how I got the gig. Roadmaster was a pretty high profile gig in Indiana at the time.
NUVO: Did you have a mellower introduction into working in the Mellencamp Band than Kenny's?
Myers: I always had an easy time with John. We never crossed wires that badly. He gave me a lot of latitude when it came to making up bass parts. He seemed to like my bass parts, and that made me feel good. John and I grew up listening to the same radio stations, we grew up in the same era, we're both Libras, we both like the same shit.
When Lisa Germano joined the band, the first night she walked into the studio was absolutely amazing, because she was playing in the Little Nashville Opry House band with Kenny. Kenny brought her over . it must have been after one of the performances because she had one of those little 1950s-looking cowgirl outfits on, with cowboy boots. She just looked like a million dollars; my jaw hit the floor. I developed this crush on her that I had the entire time she was in the band.
We did this huge live gig for television out at the Universal Studios in L.A. They had this gigantic bash afterward with all these people packed in - not formal but dressy because it was all music industry stuff. Lisa and I went together, had a couple of glasses of wine, we're feeling good. We see this big plate of barbecued ribs go by and we just dive in. Pretty soon, we're covered with barbecue sauce, just a mess, and we hadn't thought to get any napkins.
This place is packed, we can't move. Lisa says, 'What are we gonna do?' I said, 'Just lay your hands down at your side and let nature take its course,' and in five minutes, our hands were clean.
John Mellencamp is not doing interviews for his current tour. Lisa Germano was not available either, but fans should know that she has a new release, Lullaby for Liquid Pig, on Ineffable, to be released in 2003. Larry Crane also has a new disc upcoming, available at larrycrane.net. Fans who want to appreciate the incredible productivity of these musicians should go to allmusic.com and search by artist.
John Cascella, keyboard player for that era of the band, died in 1993. There is a playground in Indianapolis named in his honor: Rhodius Park. The most comprehensive discography of his recorded work may be found by entering John Cascella on the Yahoo.com main page.