New Year’s News And All Things Wu: An Interview with the Big Wu
The members of Big Wu have been playing music together since 1991 when Chris Castino, Jason Fladager, and Terry VanDeWalker met at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Jason had played bass in a thrash metal band in high-school, but never could skateboard that well. Naturally, upon his arrival at college, he hooked up with Terry the drummer and Chris the guitar player who had only fairly recently started playing guitar when he joined the Big Wu. They played together often and eventually formed the band. Along the way they picked up Andy “Padre” Miller and Al Oikari (whose last name actually means “Oh! Rock!” when translated into English from Finnish) and played all the time around Minnesota.
The Big Wu has been popular in Minnesota since their beginnings there as mainly a Dead cover band. But they have slowly found their own unique voice and style after playing so many gigs at bars and colleges over they years. They are now touring almost non-stop and have played many larger venues with capacities of thousands, especially in the Minnesota area, and regularly host their outdoor festival which they call the Family Reunion every Memorial Day Weekend. This annual first Festival of the season draws a hefty crowd (increasing to sold-out capacity for the first time this year). Their sound is a great melding of styles including rock, bluegrass, and psychedelia combined with thoughtful lyrics and pleasing harmonies that seems to appeal to a broad range of folks.
Over the years the band has kept evolving artistically and has become one of the staples on the national live music touring scene. They’ve released two studio albums and one live album on the now defunct Phoenix Records label, this past summer they played with the likes of Phil Lesh and The String Cheese Incident, and they are about to play the biggest shows of their career on December 30th and 31st at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in Minnesota [details are available at thebigwu.com]. I had a chance to speak with Chris and Jason about the year in retrospect, what was currently happening with the band, and the quickly approaching big New Year’s Eve shows.
Looking back, how was the year 2001 for the Big Wu?
Jason: Oh it was a great year. We had a ton of fun in 2001. One thing I wish we could have done was put out another studio album but as it looks right now, we are going to record in January and mix in February. Hopefully we’ll have a double-studio album out by the Spring.
What do you think about your studio work versus your live performances?
Chris: I dunno, I don’t think we’ve really discovered what we can do in the studio. We’re starting to, but Our first album (Tracking Buffalo Through the Bathtub) we just, basically, played our songs in a studio. Did a couple little effects, but not much. Then our second studio album (Folktales), we started to go, “Oh, ok. We can do other things.” So we did a couple more tricks, but not that many, really, either. It’s just a whole other thing.
Any other excitement to speak of?
Jason: We’ve really been touring hard all year and it will be good to finally put all these new songs down. But yeah, some of the highlights over the year: Filling up the food shelves in Black River Falls and having a kick ass festival [at The Big Wu Family Reunion], the Phil and Friends/SCI shows we were fortunate enough to do, and just generally having a good time. It’s grueling sometimes but definitely enjoyable. We can’t really imagine doing much else. One thing I’m really glad is that we still have all five members since we started touring. I don’t know if we’d still be playing if we lost anyone along the way. It’s kinda like "let’s keep this going" until the music is over.
What else is going on with the band?
Jason: What else…we all make about as much as your average assistant manager at KFC. Check that…maybe moved up to Manager, but still no bennies! Health insurance would be nice to have someday, especially given the deterioration rates of lazy Minnesotans. All that frigid air sprouts blubber in larger mammals. Not too good for the ticker.
Do you guys find a way to practice while touring and being on the road so much?
Chris: Sometimes, but we haven’t found out a good way to practice on the road. We just played with String Cheese, which was great. They’re an awesome band. They bring amps and drum sets so they can get in a REAL practice, which is really cool. Right now, we usually bring a couple of acoustics and like a mandolin or something, so we can at least, just, dink around.
You mentioned the shows you played with String Cheese and Phil this summer. How did those shows come about?
Jason: Basically they were nice enough to ask us to be part of the weekend. We have lots of fans in Minnesota that are also huge fans of SCI and Phil so the combo worked out great. I didn’t get to talk much to any of the artists. Most of the time I was hangin’ out with friends and doing whatever. Bill Nershi sat in on a tune and that was fun. I really enjoyed watching Chris play with SCI during their set…thought it was a nice compliment.
That is a nice compliment!
Chris: I got to MEET Phil! He said, “Good set.” And I said, “Alright! Thank you.” Also, Jimmy Herring is a really good guy, really nice. Very cool.
What were some of the highlights of the band’s year?
Jason: Hanging out with Jeff Austin at the Family Reunion was definitely a highlight; messing in the wigwams. Hearing Chris and Yonder Mountain String Band collaborate on "Northern Lights" was very cool.. Sector Nine is one of the greatest things I’ve discovered in a long time, just really incredible musicians and people. This summer when we played The Zoo was a highlight for me because I got my little girl Emma out for a song. She done good.
Jason: Let’s see…we stopped in Oxnard after LA this last tour and met this fella named Gene. The Colonel Gene actually. He was retired from the military and now has this great ocean vessel which he uses to entertain guests. We had just eaten at Gladstone’s in Malibu and had lobster so we were all feeling goofy in the stomach. Gene can put down scotch like no-one I’ve ever seen. He is as funny as funny can get. He took us for a ride out to an old oil rig that had sea lions living by it. One of the guys in the band had some kind of queasiness and needed restroom relief. Gene said he had two bathrooms, one for number one and one for number two. So this guy in the band had major difficulties and got #2 all clogged up. He then had to have the pleasure of speaking to Col. Gene about the incident. "What are you doin’ shittin on mah boat, BOY?!! You do that in the mornin’ after breakfast. Jeezus Christ!" That line will live on forever…I don’t know if that is a lowlight or a highlight, though.
On a different note, one of the craziest shows we played was at Summerfest in Milwaukee. It was 100 degrees and 90% humidity. I mean it was like walking around in water and sweat and nasty Midwest greasiness. The sound guys told us that the air can really jiz up the sound. I just pretty much think it was fun. We finally played the Mishwaka Amphitheatre in Colorado. Great venue with insane owners. I mean that in a good way.
So the record label you had released a few albums with, Phoenix Records, went out of business. How did this effect the band?
Jason: We aren’t really sure how everything is working out right now. Phoenix went bankrupt. We are in the courts right now battling it out and trying to resolve the old relationship.
Looking ahead to 2002, what’s the band’s game plan? Can we expect another studio release with some of the newer songs from the last few tours of 2001?
Jason: We have like 35 songs to choose from to put on an album. We’re considering doing a double album in January that might be ready for release in the Spring. We’ll see. The good thing about the label issues with Phoenix is that we’ve had time to stockpile lots of songs. I think the next album will be some of the best stuff we have to date. Lots of good songs and lots of good stuff we can take out there. It really is time to get back in the studio. We’re are all really anxious. I expect we may have a couple of live releases as well in the next year. In 2002, we’ll be touring like mad again, trying to get back to all the places we’ve been over the last two years. It’s been great. It’s great fun to meet all these crazy people who are into what we are doing.
This year is a huge year for the Big Wu and their New Year’s Eve show. How do you guys feel about playing to potentially the biggest audience you’ve ever performed in front of on this most festive evening?
Jason: It is gonna be a blast! We are doing a food drive again like we had at the last family reunion and if all calculations are correct, we could set a record if everyone brings four cans. So we’re going for it. It’s a good way to give back to our fair city Minneapolis, that has let us conduct our wicked evil ways over the last few years. Plus it will be a damn good time. So have fun and get whacked out and give a little too. Nice one-two combo. Personally, I can’t wait to hear Derek Trucks. We’ll be collaborating with All Mighty Senators on the second night. We hope to throw down some crazy shit, basically. We want this to be fun for everyone.
What was and will the work be like in setting up a New Year’s Eve show of this size compared to the NYE shows of years past?
Jason: So much that we got a promoter to help us with the setup. Sue McClean has done shows at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium before so she’ll be helping us see our way through. However, all the amenities and all the decorating will be done by us and volunteers. We’re still in the creative process of it all, but if you’ve been to Family Reunion’s or past NYE shows, you have an idea. There will be a lot of surprises in the works. We’ll probably take a couple days to get everything ready and do it right. We all want this to be a great memory, so make it so!
Your New Year’s Eve shows are by far one of the most inexpensive options for the festive annual event. How did you manage to keep the prices so low and what do you think the average patron will get for his $50 for the two night stand at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium?
Jason: Minnesota ain’t as expensive as other places and nobody in their right mind would come here end of December [because of the cold]. So we’re banking on all those people who aren’t in their right minds to be there. We are working with the City of St. Paul and Second Harvest Charities to get the word out about the shows. The Roy Wilkins Auditorium has a giant lobby where we’ll have a full-on PA, light show, and our good friends Sweet Potato Project playing. I think with Derek Trucks, Little Feat, Sam Bush, All Mighty Senators …people will get 50 bones worth for two nights. We wanna have a good time and that is about all. No need to get greedy during the holidays.
For more info on The Big Wu and where they are currently playing, check out www.thebigwu.com.