2016 was a big year for Wil Wagner. Amidst touring on the back of The Smith Street Band’s third album Throw Me In The River, Wagner accomplished quite a few personal life goals, the majority of which you can hear in the track ‘25’ from their new album More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me.
“All of these songs came out of an incredibly difficult part of my life. The year of being 25 was really fucking rough. I had a really destructive relationship, and we were touring so much that my mental health was struggling,” Wagner says. “I was missing all these things back home and a friend of mine died. All these big sad life moments happened, but I think that song is about the good things like learning to clean up after myself, and quitting smoking and trying to get my shit together in the wake of all of this other nasty stuff.”
Opening with ‘Forrest’, a track that was written for their previous album, More Scared Of You is loud, abrasive and rough around the edges. The lyricism is honest, at times short, and talks about the demise of a relationship.
Recorded at Panoramic House in California just outside of San Francisco; the natural beauty of local wildlife and scenery made work a little hard on occasion. “It was a little hard to not just drink beers and look at the horizon. It was pretty special. I’d wake up and see families of deer frolicking out in a foggy field.”
Working with Jeff Rosenstock, who has been a long time collaborator with TSSB, the band also decided to get John Agnello and Greg Calbi to mix and master the album. “He mastered Born To Run, that’s all you need on your CV for me,” says Wagner. “I remember the moment that we asked him, someone came in and was reading his production credits and when they read Born To Run, I said ‘that’s the end of the conversation, if we can afford him, he’s going to do it’. It was amazing that he did our stuff.”
Wagner has always been open about his struggles with anxiety, which has weaved its way into his songwriting over the course of four albums, yet it holds a particular importance in the track ‘Passiona’. Wagner at times is blunt, and on this track he sings ‘I’m having panic attacks on television.’
“We did this show called Rock Palace and it’s been running since the 60s,” recalls Wagner of playing live on German TV during the Throw Me In The River European tour. “I think that it’s similar to Rage, where it has this huge late night cult following. We were three months into a tour and I was just not feeling good. My anxiety was going crazy and you have to play for a full hour on live television. I was playing this guitar that was so gaffataped that it was hard to play. Around that time, I wasn’t doing well and afterwards I was just panicking. The next night, I got halfway through the show and then I had to leave the stage halfway through our set. It was quite a stressful, scary little time. I was trying to get some solace from people back home and I wasn’t getting any from the girl I was seeing at the time.
“A chunk of that song is about playing in the middle of this field in France, with a crazy old guy who couldn’t speak any English and he gave us food and drink. The good thing about touring is you can have all these crazy, unique experiences especially touring through Europe.”
Despite limiting Wagner’s creativity, in a round-about way anxiety plays its role in the creation of his material. Helping to develop ideas as well as being used as a coping mechanism. “I’m always thinking about stuff and always working, trying to stay on top of things,” he says. “I think that my mental health leads to writing more. To me, the only remedy for when I’m feeling down or sad is to pick up a guitar and play. It’s so beneficial and cathartic to my life to be able to do that. As much as it’s a struggle sometimes, I wouldn’t swap my head for anything.”
Over the course of his career, Wagner has written predominately from personal experience. Although it can be difficult to convey emotions at times, it’s some of his most poignant lyrics that have become fan favourites worldwide. “I write very personally and find it difficult to force emotions onto the page,” he says. “That’s the blessing and curse of being a songwriter, all of your bad experiences you can analyse and get out of your system by writing, but sometimes you need to go through some stuff to write albums. It’s a double edged sword.”
Previously revealing to Mixdown that his ’76 Fernandez copy is his guitar of choice both on the road and in the studio, Wagner loves to ‘guitar safari’ whenever he’s in town. “Two things I love in guitars is P90’s and Japanese bodies. I knew before I even held it that it was mine. It’s a gorgeous guitar. It’s the original neck, but it’s really thin. It almost feels like a new Telecaster neck. It’s completely unfinished and so it’s filthy from all the touring over the years. Long after it gets beat up beyond repair, I’ll be hanging onto that for a long time to come.”
Finding the ‘dream team’ to help bring their records to life, the future of The Smith Street Band is very healthy. A positive work ethic and vibe from all involved on More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me, has created a succinct album that contains heartfelt stories and important social commentary on the music scene today. “You see a lot of bands these days that have been a band for three months and they get really big and take off like planes. Some people whose career takes off in such a crazy way don’t have lasting success.
“That’s what we’ve seen anyway. We’ll keep plugging away making music that we think is good and songs that we are really proud of.”
More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me is out now through Pool House Records/Remote Control Records.