The release of Blackfinger‘s self-titled debut in the coming weeks will mark the first record in 14-plus years that frontman Eric Wagner will have made without the band Trouble behind him. And where Lid‘s 1997 outing, In the Mushroom, teamed him with Danny Cavanaugh of Anathema for a one-off recording that never resulted in any shows, Blackfinger emerged earlier this year as a full-fledged band — a double-guitar five-piece with stand-up bass — making their presence felt at the Days of the Doomed fest in Wisconsin.
For that set, they were joined by former Trouble drummer Jeff “Oly” Olson and bassist Ron Holzner (currently of Retro Grave and Earthen Grave, respectively), who did guest spots performing Trouble material, so as much as Wagner has moved forward creatively after ending his tenure in one of American doom’s landmark and most influential acts, he hasn’t stubbornly refused to acknowledge his past. Rather, as Blackfinger shows in their first single, “All the Leaves are Brown,” he seems to have embraced it, while also progressing creatively on his own terms with new guitarists Rico Bianchi and Doug Hakes, bassist Ben Smith and drummer Larry Piatz.
We spoke just a few days after Thanksgiving and a few more after Blackfinger played a hometown show in Chicago (at which they were joined by Trouble guitarist Bruce Franklin), and in his trademark low-register deadpan speaking voice — a marked contrast to how he sings — Wagner discussed the evolution of Blackfinger from its nascence as a solo acoustic project into the band it is today, the recording of the album, which at the time was being mixed by Vincent Wojno, the prospects for a vinyl release, and his plans going forward.
Wagner‘s voice is one of the most storied in metal, let alone doom, but I wanted to keep the conversation as current as possible — that is, I didn’t want to veer into, “Hey dude, remember when you sang ‘The Wolf?'” — and I found that his perspective on his past and present is as unique as his melodies have been across these many years. What his future is in Blackfinger or otherwise is uncertain, but even about that uncertainty, the singer remains completely honest and open. It’s fitting that “All the Leaves are Brown” would be the first Blackfinger music from the album to make it to public ears, since the allusion Wagner makes at the end of the track to The Mamas and the Papas song “California Dreaming” is the perfect example of how up front he is when examining where he comes from and where he’s going.
Please find the complete Q&A with Wagner after the jump, and please enjoy.
It was good. Had a blast. Got a little fuzzy by the end (laughs). They don’t let me out much, so the first time out, it’s like, “Yahoo!” But I had a good time. Bruce came up and jammed a couple tunes.
Was Days of the Doomed the first Blackfinger gig?
No. We did a couple local shows – when would it have been, June? I’m looking at the poster actually, hanging on my wall. June 13, 2009. It was just a local one. The town I grew up in, we did a couple there. Every now and then we did something. Days of the Doomed was probably the first bigger show out of here.
When do you mark the band as actually starting?
Oh god. I don’t know. I’ve been working on this new album for four years, so I think about a year in, I started putting the guys together, and then I wanted them to contribute too, so I kind of went through some of their riffs and stuff and put songs together. Because I wanted them involved. So about three years. I think we rehearsed for two, just working out the songs. Rehearsing. Different arrangements. Originally we were going to go in the studio earlier, but I guess everything works out, because there would’ve been a couple tunes that wouldn’t have been on the record that I really like and they’re ending up being on. And it took us a year to record. In between there, we’d take breaks and maybe do a show just for the fun. So about three years with these guys now, I think.
Was it strange for you both bringing a new band together and figuring out how to work with a new group of people after Trouble?
It was kind of fun, actually, to tell you the truth. At first, going out there live the first time or two, it was a little weird, because I was so used to them guys being there behind me, and I’d look around like, “Wow, this is different” (laughs). But it’s been fun, putting together, starting from scratch and everything and putting the guys. We all get along, and everybody, we work together. It was a lot of fun, but yeah, it was a little strange at first. The first couple live shows. And we would do Trouble. And at Doomed fest, Oly and Ron came out, and we did four Trouble tunes also, and that was a little weird.
How do you mean?
Well, it was Oly and Ron, you know. I look over and there’s Oly and Ron, and it’s been a while. And my guys were playing guitar on it, and they did a great job. People loved it. I think we’re going to do the next [Days of the Doomed] too. I think this year it’s gonna be – it was fun last year – but this year, Blood of the Sun is playing and a couple others. It sounds like it’ll be even better this year.
Tell me about moving Blackfinger from a beginning solo project to wanting to make a band out of it and bringing people on board.
Well, after Trouble, I just kind of removed myself from everything and started writing. There was some people who wanted me to get a bunch of guests, those guys in bands equal to Trouble in our same thing there, which would’ve been cool I guess, but I wanted to sit and work and not send tapes across the country and stuff. And just be a band. I didn’t want it to be the “Eric Wagner Project” or any crap like that. I wanted it to be a band. So all the guys I got were from where I grew up, and they were in bands and stuff just around the area. We all knew each other, except maybe the bass player – I didn’t know him; the guitar player brought him along – and he came one day and never left. I tell him he’s the bass player that never left (laughs). So like I say, we just worked together and everybody had a great time, I think. I don’t know. It was a lot of fun, and them guys had some good ideas, and it wasn’t just about me. I got everybody involved, so we felt like a band. There was no arguing, no nothing.
How does that situation compare to the last Trouble record?
That was our, what, seventh one? Not counting Unplugged and stuff. It was just different. Everybody was set in their things, and I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just different. We were together for how long and stuff like that. I pretty much did what I wanted on my new record here, and them guys always went along with the stuff. It was my decision, where in the other guys, everybody was there so long that everybody had their input and opinion on the way things should go, and sometimes opinions differ. So the difference really was, even though I valued their opinion, I had the final say and stuff. It wasn’t like it was bad or anything, it was just I wanted to do my own thing.
How does doing Blackfinger now compare to when you did Lid?
Lid was more a project, kind of. Even though I wanted the same thing back then – just to be a band and stuff. The original Lid pooped out on me, so I got other guys. We never played. Ever. We just did that record, and then I ran away from the music business for about five years or whatever it was. Didn’t even pick up a piece of paper and pencil until Dave Grohl called me from Probot. So I blame everything on him again. At first, I didn’t even know if I could do it anymore, write anymore, but then I did it and it was fun, so I called Trouble back up, we all kissed and made up, and got back together for a new record. And that’s been – how long was Lid ago? 14 years? I guess it was time for me to do another one on my own.
It seems like your relationship with the Trouble guys is pretty good. You’re bringing Bruce up on stage and everything.
Yeah. I have no hard feelings with them or anything. I didn’t talk with Oly for a couple years after I left, but that’s when we got back – at Doomed fest and stuff – and we realized we’ve been together for so long, like brothers, why should there be any animosity? We had some great times. Whatever problems we had – like anyone does – ours wasn’t any more special than anyone’s. But the past is past, and why not be friends? We went through a lot together. Those four guys are the only ones who know what it was like to do what we did. Whatever that may be. I can talk to them and they know exactly what I mean and what it felt like and what we went through. Why not be friends? It’s fun with them guys. We would play with Ron’s band sometimes. I’ve been up with them, he comes up with me. Bruce – I think that’s the second time he’s done that. He came at our first show too and stuff, so it’s fun doing that, reminiscing, and the people seem to like it. We usually do the Blackfinger songs first, and then we’ll end with the Trouble stuff. So people are already anticipating it.
And the Blackfinger album is recorded. It’s being mixed?
It’s almost done. It’s finished recording. My friend Vinny [Wojno] in California. It’s almost finished. The first song came up on the 22nd. I wanted something. People were starting to get like, “Yeah, sure, Wagner. He’s just sitting there” (laughs), so I figured I’ll put something out first, real quick. So when it was finished, that song.
That was “All the Leaves are Brown.”
Right. The rest of it should be coming too, hopefully by the end of the year. Ben, our bass player on the record, he’s finishing the artwork for me for the CD, so everything’s just about there. Which’ll be weird. Like I said, I’ve been working on this thing for four years of my life. Now all of a sudden it’s like, “Okay, what do I do now?” Every album I’m like, “This is my last record,” and them guys were even like, “Yeah right.” Right now I’m just kind of sitting here. I’m finished with that and it doesn’t seem like it. For the first time in four years, I’m not thinking about the songs and stuff. It’s cool to hear, finally, the mixes coming in on what we did. Because it took so long a process, and you hear a song when you’re working on guitars, or I sang it four months ago and I haven’t heard it since, and now the mixes are coming in, so everything’s fresh again. We’re hearing what we did, finally. I’m excited about it. Delete the files. Defragment. Next! What’s next?
How representative of the record is “All the Leaves are Brown?”
Well, I think there’s a lot of nice variety on this record. There’s a couple slower, heavy things. There’s a couple of jams like “All the Leaves are Brown.” There’s a couple acoustic ones. There’s one that’s no guitars at all; it’s just piano and cello and a bass and drums and me singing. That’s all. It’s pretty cool. I wanted it to be a little variety, but make it so it sounds like a record. It’s heavier than Lid was, because I wanted to be a little heavier this time. I have two guitars, have that heavy rhythm behind some of the things. And plus, I wanted to play live this time, so I wanted also to do some Trouble stuff. We did a couple Lid tunes in the beginning, but not a lot of people know that stuff, so I just wanted to keep it Blackfinger, and of course I had to do some Trouble stuff. But it’s heavier. I think it’s a heavy record.
Who’s playing bass on it? Is it Ben, with the stand-up still?
Yeah, it’s Ben. You know what’s funny? A couple years, he came with his regular bass, and then all of a sudden in the middle of recording the album, he brings the stand-up with the bow on it. I’m like, “What the hell is that, dude?” And he started playing it and I thought it was incredible, so I had him do it on a couple songs. Then he opened his big mouth and he said, “I have an electric one.” And he fought me on it. I said, “That is cool, dude. You’re going out live next time and you’re playing that stand-up. And if it ain’t cool and nobody likes it, you don’t have to do it again, but just do it once for me.” And I think it’s cool. He sounds good doing it. It fits him. So he keeps his mouth shut now. He just does it (laughs). Some dude at Doomed fest came up to him and goes, “Dude, you’re the future of rock,” so we make fun of him now a little bit. This one show we played, there’s a few bass players, and they’re all mad, like jealous. Because it’s not easy to do that. He plays in a jazz trio with it, so that’s who he is. There’s a couple bass players who were, “Meh,” because it’s not easy to do that. You can’t just pick it up and play it. And it’s fretless on top of it. He’s played that like that from the beginning that he started learning. I think it’s pretty cool.
What are the plans for the actual release? When is it going to be out?
Well that’s a good question. Hmm. No date set or nothing. Like I said, it’s not quite finished being mixed, but I’m hoping to have it up for downloads by the end of the year, and the same with some hard copy. I kind of just signed a distribution deal. I was sick of the normal record company thing, and I thought I’d give it a try, just being my own, in a way. And I wasn’t even gonna make CDs at first, just put them up for download, but I know a lot of people – especially in this kind of music – they still like it. I still like it. I was mad when they changed from vinyl. The big, nice record covers, and it opens up and stuff. That was part of the fun of getting a new record, was checking out everything. So I’m gonna make some, and it’ll be available through certain outlets.
Will you do a vinyl?
Down the road, I want to, yeah. One thing at a time (laughs). Let’s get this done and up for downloads, and then the hard copy, and maybe next year sometime in the spring or something, we’ll do some vinyl hopefully. I want one (laughs).
That cover’s pretty good. I can see it on a record sleeve.
Will you do more shows? Do you want to play out regularly?
Yeah, we want to. Like I said, we’ll do the next Days fest. We’ll see what happens with the record. If people are digging it and they want to see us, we’ll go do stuff. It would be kind of fun anyway, getting out of here for a little bit. So we’ll just see what happens. It all depends on how the record’s received.
I know you’re still embroiled in this one, but have you given any thought to what’s next?
(Laughs) Um, I don’t know. It’s like, I always say I’ve had enough, but it’s not really what I do, it’s who I am, writing down my thoughts sometimes is the only way I can express how I feel, so it’s kind of I need to. I don’t really know what it is yet, I’m kind of living it right now. If there is a “next,” we’ll see what happens. It’ll all appear one day, what to do. If this one does good, then we’ll do another one, probably. I don’t know yet what the future holds. It’s a little early yet to tell. There’s always gonna be people who are gonna be not even willing to listen in a way, they just want me to go back into Trouble and do that, and not give it a chance, for something a little different.
A band like Trouble too, that was around for so long, people have their expectations.
Yeah, what it should be. But see, this sounds like me. With Trouble, Bruce wrote most of the music and stuff, so it’s gonna be different, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s people that… I’m sure they’re going through the same thing right now with their singer that it’s not the same, and well, it isn’t, but that doesn’t mean that it’s good or not. People should take it for what it is. I’m sure Sabbath went through that when Ozzy left. I was one of them. “Dio?” Heaven and Hell and everything was a good record, but I grew up listening to Ozzy with Sabbath, so it took me a minute. At first, I absolutely hated it, but when I started really listening to it, it was a great record. It was just different.
Are you nervous at all about how Blackfinger will be received on that level?
I don’t know if “nervous” is the right way to put it, but you know what? I don’t know, dude. I care what people think and all that, but really, I just had to do this for myself. And I enjoyed doing it, and I had fun doing it, and I think it’s a good record, and I’m just happy that I got the chance to do it. Hopefully people like it. But I can’t really worry about that, or try to write for them or be like, “Well, this ain’t as much like Trouble, we gotta get as close as we can.” That wouldn’t be me at this moment. I’d be trying to recreate something, and it would never live up to it. It’s impossible.
I’m glad I got to hear “All the Leaves are Brown” before we spoke. That’s why I asked how representative of the album it was, because I’m just trying to get a feel for what it will sound like.
I just wanted the first one to be more of a jam, you know? A little taste, instead of something a little more artistic or whatever the word you want to use is. Self-indulgent crap (laughs). This is like, “Here it is, a nice little three-minute song, here you go.” A little taste. But it does not necessarily represent the whole record. There’s a lot of different places it goes.
Well then I hope the rest of the mixes turn out alright.
So far they sound great. I’m so glad that [Wojno]’s doing this for me. I didn’t have the heart to mix it anymore. I needed fresh ears. I needed a different perspective on it. I was married to it for so long, it was hard for me to be objective on it anymore. Because I’d heard each song a billion times, you know. So it was nice to give it to somebody else to mix for a change. And Vinny, me and him have done – god, he did Plastic with us. He did Plastic, he did Lid, he did Simple Mind, he mixed the Unplugged, so I’ve been working with him for a long time, so he’s just part of the team that over the years… He’s one of my best friends too. He knows me, and I don’t have no worries that he’s gonna do something that I’m not gonna like.Blackfinger, Chicago, Dark Star Records, Illinois