Interview: Wanz, Part I
Wanz is no longer popping tags, and he certainly has more than $20 in his pocket. But the Seattle-based rapper will have the legacy of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' No. 1 smash "Thrift Shop" embedded with him forever. Wanz was an unknown veteran local artist when his infectious guest turn on "Thrift Shop" propelled him into the international spotlight. It was like winning the lottery, a fiftysomething rapper plucked from obscurity and becoming part of a pop and social-media sensation that will live on forever. But the story of Wanz, or The Wanz, is much more than just Macklemore. He has serious ties to the history of Seattle rock and even has a book, #TheBookOfWanz.
Part One: His Early Days
Mikey Sutton: I’m really fascinated by the fact that you kinda got your start in Lakewood, Washington, didn’t you?
Wanz: Yeah, I got my start in Lakewood but you can call it that. My dad retired at Fort Lewis and we moved into our house on a 119th Street SW off of Military Road on Halloween 1968.
M: That’s when I was born. May 23, 1968.
W: But you know, moving to a house on Halloween - you did not know a soul and it’s Halloween. All these strangers coming through the door; my mom was tripping.
M: With masks and stuff.
W: I mean, it’s not like it would be now, people going to your door with masks but they were tripping. But yeah, like Lake Louise Elementary School, Mann Junior High, to Lakeside School, graduated ‘79 and went over to Ellensburg.
M: Oh, Ellensburg! Why did you go there?
W: Ah, because there was a mountain range between my parents and the school. I did like three summers at PLU [Pacific Lutheran University] music camp and, you know, really dug into the love of choral music. It was really nice to meet kids outside of the district and some of them, a couple of them, we’re still friends today. When I came back in the fall, that’s all I could talk about, what I learned in music camp, the music we did at music camp. I probably could have gotten into PLU. Having that behind me I probably could have gotten a scholarship if I would have applied. The director at that time loved me. He still does. I mean, even now his granddaughter hits me up every once in a while.
When I was trying to switch schools, Central Washington University kept sending me stuff. I got stuff from them like every 10 days to two weeks. I would just get stuff from them. They finally arranged a visit, and when I went over there, it’s like, wow! It’s not that far but it’s far enough. I could go to Western but, you know, that’s right up by 5. I have to be there every damn weekend. In PLU, I’d never live out of the house, but this, there’s a mountain range. And I know my mom wouldn't go over the mountains. So it was kind of a lock from the day I set foot on the Central campus. I changed. I changed my whole game, and the persona of the Wanz was born. I mean the first night I was there, there was a dance.
M: Oh, wow!
W: By the end of that preview week when all the freshmen showed up, everybody, almost everybody knew who I was.
M: Were you playing any instruments during that time?
W: At that time I was just playing. I played piano and I would sing. I wasn’t adept. I know enough on many instruments just to be dangerous, you know? I’m not a virtuoso or anything. I could be a better singer probably. Central was a five-year program and four years into it, I didn’t want to be a teacher anymore. You have to fight so hard to justify your existence to educate young kids, right? And I didn’t want to be part of that. I didn’t want to be an administrator. I want to teach kids sharps and flats, give them the joy of music that I found, and I grew up with, right? I just want to perpetuate that. So I said forget it.
I was given an opportunity to create my own major so I took some business classes, put them all in with my music class, and created an individualized study: Bachelor of Arts in Music Business. And at the same time I got to play bass, working in the biggest bar in town and bands from Seattle would come over two, three times a month, and I got to be friends with them. They would tell me about the scene in Seattle. I started coming over here, checking up the scene. It’s like, "Wow!" This is like, wow, I can make money doing this. I kinda had the fire lit under me but I'd run out of money. I had seven credits left. I went away with a cover band that I was playing with and came back. They told me your last seven credits have been revoked because you haven’t paid the balance of your tuition. I couldn’t pull any strings because all these policies were new and so I was fucking in out and hell in debt. I hung out in Ellensberg for that summer and then tried to find work over the school year. The next year, I couldn’t find a job so I moved here in ’86 in Seattle.
M: So you know musically speaking, what were your overall influences? What artists were you digging back in the day? What formed Wanz?
W: Everything that was on the radio. I grew up listening to the radio and, you know, back in the day in the late '60’s, early '70s, the format were wide open. So you can easily hear John Denver, followed up by Bobby Darin, followed up by Blood, Sweat & Tears, followed up by the Temptations followed up by, you know, name somebody. You know that, ’68 to ’74 was like the coolest time on radio, and I knew every single song on the radio, and that’s what formed everything.
M: Did you grow up on Pat O’ Day and stuff like that? [Editor's note: O' Day pioneered rock & roll radio in Seattle with KJR 950 AM in Seattle. He is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.]
W: No! I mean, I was listening to the AM radio. I did not know anything about Pat O’ Day until I moved here. And you know, like, two years after I moved here it’s been when KYYX started and that’s when I got my first taste of O’ Day. Even now up to this day, it’s like, I understand more about the power of radio because he is connected to that lineage of like American Graffiti, that movie?
M: Of Wolfman Jack.
W: Yeah, Wolfman Jack and all that other stuff. I mean it used to be the personalities that kids listen to. And you know, even certain bands of the day only wanted certain DJs to play their records because of the following that the DJs had. But then, you know, it became more corporate and now it’s crazy destroyed. It’s crazy.
M: Oh, it is destroyed, you know, I mean, one of my good friends is Marco Collins. [Editor's note: Collins was a highly influential DJ and Music Director at 107.7 The End in Seattle, breaking alternative artists such as Nirvana, Beck, and Weezer into the mainstream. Like O' Day, he is also in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.]
W: Oh okay, he’s a good friend of mine, too.
M: I’ve known him for 26 years. I was involved in his movie [The Glamour & The Squalor] as well.
M: But during the '90s he was our Wolfman Jack of that decade.
M: Everybody listened to Marco.
W: Everybody listened to Marco. I used to visit Marco, you know, I used to visit Marco when he was PD at The End 107.7, about twice a month. You know, here’s my tape of my band, we’re playing here. He would never come out to see us, and he didn’t figure all this out until "Thrift Shop" was really big and he was doing Jet City Stream [defunct online radio station]. We just connected on Facebook but he still hadn't put it together until I’m sitting across the table from him doing the interview. We’re like two-thirds in the interview and I mentioned something about some show at Sit and Spin and he said “you were at that show” and I went “Yeah!” His face changed, he sat back in his chair, and he goes “I know you!” And I went “I know you know me, dude"! It was hilarious!
M: I was one of the co-owners of Jet City Stream.
W: Oh, okay. Yeah, yeah. So I used to visit him there.
M: But what's funny about Marco is that I used to call him on the phone back in 1991. Actually, I called him on his first night on the air and after a couple of calls he memorized my voice. The interesting part is I’ve known him since ‘91, but we did not meet in person until 2008. But he remembered me the whole time as the guy who called and he was like, "I can't shake you!"
W: That’s why I love his movie, The Glamour and The Squalor, because it is so important for people to understand how that happened here. I mean, you know, I moved here, I was working at Tower Records before that all happened. When, you know, the big bands in town were the Young Fresh Fellows and…
M: The Posies?
W: The Posies haven’t even hit yet, you know.
M: I heard you went further back than that.
W: I’m going back the late '80’s when I had a band. It was the Rangehoods, and the Cowboys were still kicking it. You know, all the bands that had really had their hit in the mid-'80s, early to mid-'80s - they were just starting to, starting to fall off and the new bands really hadn’t started yet. The Alice in Chains of the world, Shotgun Mama, Second Coming, the First Thought, and Silly Rabbit. They hadn’t really honed their teeth yet, developed. I mean, all that didn’t happen until like ’89, '90, and then, you know, all hell broke loose.
M: I moved up here in ’87, after being in the Philippines for three years. When I got back, the first thing I saw at the airport was an issue of The Rocket that had Soundgarden on the cover. It's 1987, and I already knew the Seattle scene. Back then it was very underground. Pure Joy, the Walkabouts, Green River, Weather Theatre, bands like that.
W: The Dynette Set.
M: The Dynette Set! Oh man, you're really taking me back.
W: Yeah, man! You stay alive long enough you learn things. Just saying, just saying. But what was really funny is I see all that stuff, I mean, you were talking about Soundgarden earlier. Bumbershoot ’88. And I was standing outside the auditorium because it was too freaking loud in there.
W: I was like “what the hell is that?” you know. A year and a half later it’s like they are ghosts. I mean, I used to see these guys on a weekly basis down on First Avenue at the Vogue.
Part II is coming soon.
(Special thanks to Fatima An for the transcription.)