Interview with THE WIGGINS

“ALL I HAVE TO DO IS PUSH A BUTTON”
An interview with Jon Read aka The Wiggins

photo by TENSE

Jon Read is an artist and a musician.  With his band, the Wiggins, he makes the kind of music that they’ll play on oldies stations fifty years from now after the plug gets pulled, the blood gets spilled, the power returns, and people get back to partying like they party right now.  The Wiggins’ music is a loud, hissing mix of idiosyncratic garage and punk, surf-rock, blues, and country run deep with blown-out bass lines taken from carny rides and gangster rap, burnt-out guitar licks, and a voice coming from somewhere between Son House and a juvenile delinquent getting whipped with a fraying wire.  Think Big Black, Pere Ubu, Billy Childish, and Devo.  Damaged stuff: you can wreck your brain on it.  He’s a surly entertainer, known for quitting songs midway, cutting sets in half, leaving his audiences begging for more in a storm of lacerating guitar feedback.  Despite this abuse, or because of it, people go wild at Wiggins’ shows.  They jack their backs and flout their inhibitions.

But he himself is more low-key. Onstage, he plays against the type of the local musician. He doesn’t dress the part, doesn’t look the part, and his only concession to tradition is a pair of sunglasses. Off-stage he keeps a low-profile and he rarely does interviews about his music. In the near ten years since he started the band in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, (he moved to Houston in early 2003,) the Wiggins has only released a handful of recordings.  For a week or two the Wiggins will be everywhere and the next six months he’s back underground.  But now Wiggins Season is here; he’s got a new seven-inch single coming out on Needless Records and a show at Sound Exchange to prove it. I walked a few miles in fluke freezing weather to ask him where he’s coming from.

TK: What brought you to Houston. Why’d you leave a rusting city like Cleveland for a rotting city like this one?

JR: Houston seemed like it had an art scene better than Cleveland and a better music scene.  At the time Cleveland was stagnant; there was a lot of indie-pop.  Down here there were no rules. I don’t really identify with noise so much, but there was definitely freedom to that and people were into that when I moved here, but now it has changed and become a lot more like Cleveland was then.  The whole art scene seemed much more outsider, much more Mexican-influenced, South American influenced, not so self-conscious as it is now.

TK: You make some fucked-up paintings too. Do you think of your art and music as being related?

JR: What I paint is primitive and medieval. I try and think of approaching music the same way, a scaled-down post-apocalyptic sound.  Music pays a bit more. Hopefully, I’ll be able to unite them somehow.

TK: Then tell me what you’re going for with your sound:

JR:  I think it really comes from the way I first started really getting to music in the Eighties. I’d listen to Prince and Madonna on my walkman, way too loud, and those tape recorders batteries would die, and the music would be distorted and way too slow.  After a while it just sounded like the way that things should sound. It’s one of those things… you’re just wanting people to experience the same thing that you’ve experienced and show people the world the way that you want it to be.

I identify with the Shaggs and their ploughing-through approach.  In the sense of making music that is beyond your ability and forcing yourself to do it.  I also like Otis Redding because he had the best band playing with him, but he had no real musical background and just ploughed through it. Some of the arrangements are weird, some of the vocals are strange, and he has a certain oddness to him even as a legend.  Fine Young Cannibals led me ultimately into a minor amateur soul fetish. Roland Gift has such a freakish voice, and especially on the first record it almost doesn’t work at times, but it’s so cool because it is so alien. I connect with Desmond Dekker, Toots and the Maytals… their alien pop. I’m really not a very obsessive music collector.

What I listen to now and what I play are not the same.  I know my influences but I want this to be my own work and not to fall into a genre.  I do cut myself off.  I like live music, so I see a lot of bands, but I do cut myself off. I’ve never really liked musical movements in general. They always seem to lose the spirit really quickly.  My mom can describe what a punk is.  It’s not aggressive. It’s like a Catholic mass… just a ritual.  People act a certain way.  The whole music world is in such chaos, why would you want to put yourself through that.

I’m not really into the craft of music, the proficiency, it’s cool to see people that are really fucking good, and I admire that to a point, but I don’t think it makes much of a difference. At the same time I don’t like people playing shitty on purpose.  If I was in a band where I just played guitar I could probably do some cooler shit, but singing and playing guitar at the same time, having to carry a whole band, I’m doing the best I can.

TK: You know enough people here, musicians must want to play with you, why do you keep on as a one man band?

JR: I’m working around limitations.  I’m definitely going for a sound at this point.  I know how I want music to be.  I mean, I’m creating the world in my image.  When I left Cleveland I had a band that was easy to work with and generally nice to be around, and that’s cool, but at the same time,  I can practice anytime I want.  I don’t have to worry about band-mates wanting to be writers or people feeling somehow neglected.  I don’t have to worry about any of that.  In the beginning, it took a long time to work it out musically, that I could play by myself and keep the same presence as another band and not really be a gimmick.

Another thing is that the music is simple and repetitive.  It’s all about rhythm.  A lot of people think they have perfect rhythm, but they don’t… it’s hard without the rhythm… I really need that Booker T and the MG’s feel.

Volume plays a big part- just getting myself in a field of that, to get something to feed energy from without a band.  It is hard for me to perform without that.  I’ve probably got really bad hearing by this point too. If I could hear what a normal person hears like… (laughing)

video by Tina Forbis

TK: What about your recordings? From last year’s the “Feed the Ghost” on Dull Knife, to the songs on this new single, and the stuff I’ve heard for your upcoming Dull Knife album, you seem to be getting slower and weirder on record.

JR: Recordings are not the same as what people have the attention-span for live. I can do a lot more in the studio at this point in the game.
I try and adapt the songs for live stuff if I really like them and sometimes they’ll come off more abrasive because of the spirit of the stage.

TK: What about your live shows?  What do you make of your reputation for bad behavior– needling crowds, cutting out early, putting out the whole Charles Grodin/Tony Clifton vibe?

JR: I don’t think of myself as Charles Grodin.  You don’t even know anything about Charles Grodin.  Watching Midnight Run in 1987 doesn’t cut it.

Antagonizing the audience, the whole stage thing, people think it’s some conscious change in persona but I think a lot of it is awkwardness.  The sunglasses help my nervousness about being onstage.  I usually have my eyes closed a lot anyway. It’s just easier.  I’m not someone who was born into this. I’m not a rock star. By the time I’m playing I’m drunk, or maybe not drunk, but I’ve been there at the club way too long or I’m really nervous, but its just fun to play with the audience and most of the time people really get it. I don’t really do jokes anymore.  I don’t talk too much. Lately I’ve only left the stage because I was done.  I think sometimes I’ve done it for fun and just to be a dick.  I know there are times when I really wanted to be an asshole. Having anyone control your fate always sucks and ultimately an audience does.  You have to give them credit, I’ve had some really cool audiences, but I don’t like people in my space. When people think they can come up and join the show, that’s bothered me.

TK: You seldom play a song straight…

JR: With the live show… it’s about working through a song– through a feeling or the spirit or the beat of a song.  I’m taking a song that’s pre-programmed and tearing it apart in public.  The song is an organic thing every time. Sometimes I can manipulate a song by stopping playing guitar or rapping the vocals or just following the bass-line, but I’m just trying to get to a holy ghost.

If the song is not working… that’s one of the things about playing by yourself, you’re playing a set and everything’s going really well and all of a sudden you hit this song, and it’s really not working.  All I have to do is push a button and then push another button and there’s another song. Hopefully that one will work.

the Wiggins

excerpts from this interview were originally published in the Houston Press.

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