Interview: Robert Wagner

Apr 20 2022

Indie folk troupe Little Wretches recently released an album intriguingly titled 'Red Beets & Horseradish'. Louder Than The Music spoke to Robert Wagner, the Frontman and Songwriter of the group, about how he started out in music and just what the album is all about!

For those who haven't heard of you before, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved in making music?

I’m a descendant of immigrants from Eastern Europe, people who risked and sacrificed everything for the possibility of opportunity and freedom. People called us “hunkies,” a term meant to demean us, but my mom taught me to be proud to be a hunky.

We hunkies are good workers. We’re good team players. We tend to be a little gullible. We were raised to believe that America is a meritocracy, that if you work hard and improve yourself, your efforts will be recognized and rewarded. We are raised to believe that education is the key to making yourself something other than a product of your environment. Education allows you to lift yourself up, then you reach back and pull others up with you. So I was raised with the expectation that my life would be purposeful.

We’re the kind of people who believe you are supposed to leave a place better than you found it.

I might add that, unfortunately, a lot of us hunkies got distracted and pacified by the high wages of industrial labor. When the industrial-era passed and the cities we’d settled in went into decline, we were like livestock waiting at the trough, and the kind farmer who takes care of us stopped showing up.

By providence, I was able to attend the University of Pittsburgh, and I was surrounded by writers, actors, activists, filmmakers, a vibrant community, shall we say. I’m the classic Renaissance Man. I want to know and explore everything about everything.

When it comes to the arts, I think the song is the most powerful form, universal and personal. As a communicator, the song gives you the biggest bang for your buck, so to speak. In addition to the literal and abstract content of the words, you have melody and rhythm and harmony and repetition.

I don’t want to be some poet in a dusty library. I don’t want to be some novelist spinning yarns that require the suspension of disbelief. I don’t want to be an actor spouting words someone else wrote and jumping through someone else’s hoops.

No, give me the power of the word wed to the power of music. Bamm!!!

On a personal level, I survived a lot of trauma in my teenage years. My family exploded through violence and drunkenness. I survived a rare form of cancer. I was seriously involved with radical, revolutionary politics. I sometimes say the Enemy hated me before I was born. He attacked my grandparents. He attacked my parents. And he’s taken many of my friends and contemporaries. I can joke and say I have more dead friends than living. For some reason, God has not allowed the Enemy to take me.

So I must have a purpose.

All I ever wanted to do was play in a band, to write songs, to move people, to touch hearts, but I didn’t know how or where to start. I thought I’d have to resign myself to being one of those dusty poets. But things turn into their opposites.

When I got cancer and was scheduled for a major surgical procedure and didn’t know if I was going to wake up in the morning, I had a little conversation with God.

Well, I’m still here, and God gave me enough of what I needed to start a band, and I’ve tried to do something with what He gave me.

I could really dig into all the gory details, but I think I’ve said enough. The rest is in the songs. All I can ask is that people take some time to listen. The songs will tell the stories.

Tell us about Little Wretches' new album 'Red Beets & Horseradish' and what the inspiration behind it was?

I loved my Hunky family when I was growing up, their accents, their Old World customs. On Easter, our family always used to have a big bowl of red beets and horseradish on the table. My mother or grandmother would make it, and they’d have to stop me from eating the whole bowl.

I was feeling kind of nostalgic a few years ago and decided to try to prepare a bowl. I couldn’t get the balance between the flavors so I looked up a recipe on the internet and discovered that the entire dish has symbolic and religious significance.

I learned that for some ethnicities like the Serbs, the red of the beets symbolizes the blood of their people, and the horseradish symbolizes the bitterness of their suffering. For Slovaks like me, the ingredients represent the Blood of our Savior and the bitterness of His suffering. And for people of Jewish heritage, the beets are merely for flavoring, but the horseradish represents the bitterness of their suffering in bondage.

Now, in the context of The Little Wretches, red beets are roots, and we play a form of roots music. Our songs also tend to be a little too potent for some listeners, so that is our horseradish. So RED BEETS & HORSERADISH is kind of what we are and what we do as a band, and what I do as a performing songwriter.

Thematically and symbolically, RED BEETS & HORSERADISH became the unifying force behind the songs on this album. The project began with the songs DUQUESNE, a song about my grandmother, Marie Boronkay, and IT’S ALL BETWEEN ME & GOD, a song from the point of view of someone who’s outlived all of his friends and family and is now wrestling with God over the losses.

From there, I was able to build a group of songs that work together like scenes in a movie. Each song stands on its own, but as a collection, it’s really powerful. Cinematic.

On the surface, the songs seem to be about sick people, old people, crazy people, and people who are alone, but those are merely the characters. Look at what the characters do and say. Look at how they respond to their situations. They have resilience. Grit. An indomitable spirit. They do not quit. They grapple with God. They have, as the Wright Brothers say, “dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.”

Which is your favorite track on the album and why?

That’s a little like asking a mother to choose her favorite child. I love DUQUESNE because it tells the story of my grandmother. I love TIGER PAJAMAS because it tells the story of my little brother, Charles J. Wagner, may he rest in peace. NOTHING WAS GIVEN TO ME is my father. OLD LILLIAN’S STORY is an elderly and impoverished lady who used to live next door. WALKED ALONG is a woman battling mental illness and spending her days walking and talking to herself.

But I really enjoy playing and listening to PALMS & CROSSES. It is so catchy and energetic. It’s the kind of song you can put on repeat. You can hear it five or six times in a row and not get tired of it. Plus, it’s about that period of time between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. When you’ve lost everything but life goes on, don’t forget that tomorrow will decide what yesterday means. It’s all about the Resurrection.

What message would you like people to take from your music?

Eternity exists. Life is precious, but sometimes hard. All things work together for Good. Fight the Good Fight. Run the race. Am I stringing together a bunch of cliches?

The theme song of The Little Wretches, the cornerstone of our catalogue, might be BORN WITH A GIFT. You’ve been given the gift of life. Share it. Amplify it. Multiply it.

I have a little bit of an axe to grind with people in the world of Christian music. I’ve heard people say-people who play on their church’s praise-and-worship team or sing in the choir-that music should point the way to Jesus. To them, there is sacred music and secular music, and they’ve determined that my music is secular, and that upsets me.

I do not work within a cloister. I go into the world and do battle with the world. I write with precision, authenticity and elegance about God’s imagers in this world and, by doing so, I am pointing to Jesus. I do not parrot Scripture. I try to do what the authors of Scripture did. I am not a propagandist for God. God doesn’t need propagandists.

I had a dream recently in which I awoke with the words, “Do your work where you are.”

Maybe that’s my message. Wherever you are, whatever talents you have been blessed with, try your hardest and do everything you do as if you are doing it personally for Jesus. Do your job. Don’t worry, God will do His.

How would you describe your style of music and what are your influences?

Well, I used to balk when people said we were “folk-rock,” but I’ve grudgingly come to accept that description. I’m influenced by the “rock poets,” Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, Lou Reed. And real literary poets like Sam Shepard, August Wilson, Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill. And the old weird world that emerges from traditional folk music. I think Bob Dylan said, “Mystery is fact.” I love lyricists whose imagery is not obscure but is mysterious, imagery that points to spirit and to the Divine.

As a performing songwriter, I admire Jonathan Richman, Peter Himmelman and Michelle Shocked. Watching them and listening to them provided a model for how to present what I do, how to establish rapport with the audience.

Jonathan Richman said something like, “We have to learn how to play like it’s raining outside and all of our toys are broken.” We have to PLAY. We have to CREATE. We have to IMAGINE.

So I work with the people and tools available to me. Often, it’s me, my guitar, my folkie harmonica-rack, simple chords, steady beats, nice melodies, and lyrics that will hit you like a freight train.

If you could work with any songwriter, who would it be and why?

I don’t mean to be evasive, but playwrights work with directors. Poets work with publishers. Songwriters work with producers.

I dig that Rodgers had Hammerstein. Lennon and McCartney. Tommy Boyce had Bobby Hart. Carole King had Gerry Goffin. I suppose I’m more like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, George Harrison.

There are not a whole lot of plays, novels or poems written in collaboration. I DO appreciate the folk process where you have license to take something traditional and put your own experience into it. But aside from that, I don’t have the urge to work with other songwriters.

That being said, my former bandmate in The Little Wretches, Dave Losi, my collaboration with him was something special. We didn’t sit down to write songs together so much as we made music together and songs came out of it. I’d have lyrics that would suit his melodies or chord-changes. He’d have a fragment, I’d have a fragment, and we could sometimes complete each other’s idea.

I participated in a group that assembled to write a song, and the group was presided over by a highly successful country music dude. He basically determined a theme and a song structure, and members of the group sat there and brainstormed the cliches that popped into their heads.

I get how formula works. I get how you can’t hit people with too much new information at once. But if all you are doing is telling people what they already know and telling people what they want to hear, why not just sell drugs for a living?

Sorry, but I digress.

How would you define success in your career as an artist?

Thank you for specifying success “as an artist.” In our contemporary culture, things are measured quantitatively. How many sales? How many streams? How many downloads? How much revenue was generated? How many shows have you performed in the past year? How much airplay did your latest release generate? Who sponsored you? Who invested in you?

I spoke earlier about trying to write with authenticity, precision and elegance, trying to honor my father and mother and those whose sacrifices made it possible for me to have a guitar and write songs, trying to celebrate and document the lives of people, places and events that have been part of my life.

I’m in a business driven by the holy grail of the “hit song,” but that’s not my path. A friend with prophetic gifts told me that I am a scribe. I am the guy who watches and listens and writes it all down.

Given the nature of the business I’m in, the business does not make it easy for me to encounter like-minded people. I assume most people who share my artistic sensibilities gave up long ago or write songs and poems as a hobby.

So success as an artist, for me, is when I have those moments when I feel I’ve pleased God. It’s a very personal and private thing. I have no idea where my songs and my performances fit in God’s plan. When a voice speaks to you, how do you know if it is from God or a deceiving spirit? See what I’m saying?

Success, for me, is continuing to Fight the Good Fight.

What is your favorite album of all time?

I have different favorites for different reasons, and I think I’m cheating because my three favorite albums are double-albums, you know, vinyl LP’s with four sides. I like Bob Dylan’s BLONDE ON BLONDE, The Rolling Stones’ EXILE ON MAIN STREET, and The Beatles’ THE BEATLES, aka THE WHITE ALBUM.

Before you kick me out of the club for embracing “secular music,” give me a chance to plead my case. Listen to those aforementioned albums through the filter of the Twenty-Third Psalm. Imagine that Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles are like the poet Virgil in Dante’s THE INFERNO. Imagine that they are walking you through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. You fear no evil, right?

Yes, all the way back in the Book of Genesis, God warned his people of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Yes, if you are unarmed and not all prayed up, you may encounter deceptions and temptations that you are not equipped to understand or resist. But stay in your lane, my brothers and sisters. Do your jobs, my brothers and sisters. Do not put blinders on your children. Do not put blinders on yourselves.

Take a page from Dante. Take a page from King David. Take a page from Jesus.

You need to understand that you are already walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. You can’t run from it. You can’t hide from it. But “Thou are with me.”

Get it?

You're stuck on an island, it's hot, you only have enough battery life left to listen to one song on your phone. What track is it?

That’s easy. I’d listen to Bob Dylan’s EVERY GRAIN OF SAND.

What does the next year hold for you?

I’m not sure. Professionally, I’ve been trying to position myself so that I can wake up in the morning thinking about where I am playing tonight. I have NOT heretofore been embraced by the Christian community, so I’m not being invited to play at church coffeehouses. This year’s CREATION FEST hasn’t asked me to play.

I’m still in the wilderness, and it’s hostile out here.

I am praying that my path leads to a wider audience and a broader platform. I am praying that a powerful booking agency gets behind me and puts me “on the road.”

Till then, I’m not even the kid with a sling and stones. I’m still the shepherd boy who isn’t allowed to join the battle. The Philistines have crossed the line and are taking our land, step by step. Please, let me on the battlefield.

I pray that in the coming year, I’m able to record another album, perform with increasing frequency, and His will be done, no more, no less.

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