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Published: 2003/03/25
by John Zinkand

Folktales and Truths: An Interview with the Big Wu

The Big Wu has been a band since 1991. At almost twelve years old, they are becoming a seasoned young adult of the jam scene. They have grown much since their days starting out on the campus of St. Olaf College through playing hundreds of shows, visiting hundreds of cities across the country, and establishing themselves as a staple in the Minnesota music scene for more than a decade. Known for their well written songs and musical explorations including extended psychedelic jams, the band is often compared to the Grateful Dead. But the Big Wu is its own entity with its own distinctive style and flair. The band even throws its very own festival every summer which they call The Big Wu Family Reunion.

As all things age, however, they experience growing pains and go through certain necessary changes. The year of 2002 was a year of many things new for the Big Wu. The band found themselves finishing up the wresting away of the rights to their albums in court. Phoenix Records had gone belly-up, and the band finally established their own label, Bivco Records, on which they quickly re-released their albums. Then there were the changes in management and booking agents. And when it was announced that guitarist and founding member Jason Fladager had left the band, many people wondered if the Big Wu would even continue.

After many successful tours as a four piece band beginning near the end of 2002, they are showing the jamband scene that they are here to stay. The Big Wu might not be quite as big as before, but they are still a great band that is plugging away in venues all across the country. The departure of Fladager has made their sound evolve into something different out of necessity in a short space of time, but they are becoming more and more comfortable and confident as a four piece band with each gig. They toured all Winter and plan to hit the road again for extended tours this Spring and Summer, as well. I had a chance to speak with the entire band when they were in Portland to play a show at the Roseland Theater.

AO: Al Oikari, Keyboards

TV: Terry VanDeWalker, Drums

AM: Andy Miller, Bass

CC: Chris Castino, Guitar

John Zinkand: What’s new with the band?

AO: What's new is that we're touring again at the breakneck pace that we're used to. Last year we didn't tour quite as much as we usually have done. I guess that's the newest thing. We're on the road now and we're happy about it.

TV: I have a new baby, that's new.

JZ: Congratulations! I saw that on the band’s website. His name’s Bodhi?

TV: Yes. Bodhi James VanDeWalker.

JZ: And what are the band’s goals for 2003?

TV: We're talking about putting out a live record. That's one, and then maybe talking about another studio record….maybe. That's, I dunno, kinda later. The tail end of this year maybe.

JZ: And what are your thoughts on making a record after all the problems with Phoenix Records? As a band you went into debt because of them going out of business. Does that change how you feel about making albums?

TV: We got out of the trouble. I feel the same. You know, somebody's gotta pay for the album. So we went to some of our people and used our money for it since a lot of our money was still tied up in Phoenix. But we cleaned it up and now we have everything back and we have our own Bivco logo on it. It looks like it's ours again. But yeah, 2002 was a little hard for us. But we need to get a new album out so people can hear the new sound of the band as a four piece.

AO: We're probably looking at Fall or even the early part of Winter to do the recording because I think between now and the late Fall at least, we're going to be doing a lot of touring. But that's what's nice about the new tunes coming down the pike, these will be a batch that are written specifically for this line-up as opposed to relying on the two guitar attack, so we're excited to see where those songs go.

JZ: And do you feel you’re finding the cohesion yet as a new four piece band?

AO: This Winter 2003 tour is our third tour as a four piece and it's going really well so far. It's really feeling good at this point. We had a chance to develop things with the last two tours. The previous tour went really well and then we had a series of college type shows in our own home town area before this tour kicked off. So we really had a chance to try the chemistry out on some forgiving fans that have been listening to us for awhile. We're learning what works and what doesn't.

TV: It's a new band, kind of, and it takes time. Of course we're going to go through some growing pains. Certainly we started out at a higher level and we already had a canon of songs this band played, but I do feel like some songs or some shows or some portions of sets sound like we haven't really played that much together. You can't really fake it all the time. So it will be fun to see how that changes as the music gets tighter because it really can get a lot tighter. People come up to me and say, "It's so tight!" And I'm thinking, wow, because I think it can be even better. But it's kind of fun, though. In a way it's like a new band, there's that new feeling of discovering different things. But the cohesion, to say if we're there yet? I'm not sure. I think that's going to be some of the journey of our next phase, to get to that point.

JZ: Did you ever predetermine any songs you would definitely not be playing as a four piece?

AO: It's been open to debate and right now the consensus is that we're not [going to be playing songs Jason wrote]. It doesn't meant that we're never going to, but right now that's the way it is. Jason's rehearsing with his new band, God Johnson, and they sound really good.

JZ: Since Jason left are you finding that you need to play certain songs differently? Are there any major changes you’ve been making to adjust?

TV: I'd like to say that there are songs that we don't play. I don't know though, I try to go through all of them and I think we've pretty much touched on all of them. I'm not sure if any of them seem impossible for us to do. Certainly, like in the song Save Our Ship, we had to work out some new things, so those rehearsals before the first tour we did [as a four piece band] were kind of a strange time. But I think we've played all of 'em. Al has definitely had to work on harmonies. Because the Chris, Terry, Jason kind of 1-3-5 chord, you know, one third of it is gone. So that's changed a lot. The harmony, the Big Wu harmony sound, has changed. But it's good because Al's got good range and he's a good singer.

JZ: Were you singing as much before Al? I don’t seem to recall it.

TV: He sang like real high parts sometimes or…

AO: I never sang. Every now and then. Jason always sang low and that's the tough thing. I think it's tougher to nail the low harmony than the high harmony. With a high harmony you can kind of push the air, you can hear it up over the top, and it's natural in that it's one you can just slide up a third above whatever is going on. So, to be able to tuck in underneath and push enough air to really feel what's going on with that lower harmony and keeping your intonation, it's tough. And I can't think verbiage and play music at the same time, I admire people who do, but I can't do it. Two different sides of my brain or something. But a lot of what we're doing, to me, it seems very lyric intensive. I remember singing with previous bands in the past and there weren't as many lyrics. But when you have a couple of English majors in the band like this one, you don't get off as easy with the lyrics. When you couple that with doing Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan covers, which as you know are very lyric intensive, it can be sensory overload for me.

JZ: Was there ever any thought in regards to adding another permanent member to the band?

AM: In the great Big Wu "think of it but never getting around to doing it way," sure. We thought about it, maybe, sometimes, not all the time. No two people thought it at the same time.

JZ: So it was just a briefly-passing thought?

CC: I'm still thinking about it. Al and I talked about it one time and we were saying that we may not need a guitar player, necessarily. Maybe someone that could play a keyboard or a percussionist. We're taking our time, though. I think it's good to play with just the four, then we know, then we start to realize where those things need to get filled in, just by playing out.

JZ: What has the hardcore Wu fans’ reaction to the change typically been like?

AM: It's almost all positive. For me, until we got to the Colorado/Texas tour in December of 2002, it wasn't quite as comfortable for me playing as a four piece because you have to relearn how to interact. Not that the notes change, it's just how you play 'em. That was my favorite tour so far as a complete tour. I thought the band played great and that we really bonded in a new and different way. I really enjoyed it. And my motto is "This band can play." I'm really happy about it. Every accomplishment casts a shadow of doubt behind it, but after that tour, I'm fine. And if we get another person that's fine too. But I'm ok with how this band plays.

AO: With the amount of time spent on the road, chemistry is a big deal with this band. I think when you're on the road for the long periods of time we're on the road, it really magnifies a lot of emotions, a lot of idiosyncrasies, and I think we'd have to be very very careful about who we choose to go on the road with us. I don't think we'd have the luxury of being able to try them at home for awhile first to get a comfort level. It wouldn't necessarily be a person from our home territory. The chemistry's real important with this band, I mean these four people, Jason excluded, have been playing since mid '96 or so, and that's a chemistry you really don't want to mess with. We've gone through some transitions and I think it's important for the four of us to get solid. It's causing Chris and I to listen to each other more critically because we need to reevaluate the assignments. And, actually, without Jason in there, it's easier for us to hear each other, ironically. There's not so much competing in the mid range mush area. We look at each and other and sometimes we both grab the same hole and sometimes we both lay back simultaneously waiting for the other one to take it. We just have to develop those instincts.

TV: I just wanted to say, ironically enough, we had a touring schedule already. We were in this position where we kind of had to do it as a four piece. Promoters were calling us saying, "Well, we heard that your band broke up." They had no idea. So we had about two weeks until a scheduled tour after Jason departed. We had some pressure. We didn't want to cancel a tour. If we wouldn't have had a tour for maybe four or five months, which is rare for us, then we may have had a chance to look at some one closer [as a prospective new member]. The promoter's calling us and asking us if we want them to book shows because all they heard was that the lead singer quit and now they're freaking out. And we couldn't just cancel those shows or we would be on the bad side of a lot of different people when trying to get back to those places.

JZ: Are any of the guys in the band pursuing side projects?

AO: Yeah, I'll be doing a side project near the end of March and beginning of April. I'll be playing in a band with Willy Waldman, Rob Wasserman, Vinnie [Amico] from moe., or maybe [Stephen] Perkins from Jane's Addiction, and a couple of other guys. Just a handful of stress release gigs.

CC: I guess I've got an exclusive for you since I haven't even told these guys. I think I'm going to record a record with the mandolin player from Yonder Mountain String Band, Jeff Austin. I sat in with Yonder Mountain a couple times now. The Big Wu has March off so I've got the time. It seems like this is temporary, but sort of on going. We would play more bluegrass type stuff. We don't have a name or anything, though.

JZ: This is the first stop you’ve made in the Pacific Northwest in close to a year. In years past you’ve been making the rounds much more frequently. Are there plans for more frequent touring in 2003?

AO: Our manager assures us we will be out here three times this year if not four. Same with the east coast. We didn't tour that much last summer since we were going through a lot of changes. We changed the manager, changed the booking agent, we were trying to finalize this two year court case that was going on with our former record label, personnel change… So, a combination of things. It was a very strange one, but hopefully a year that will allow us to, you know, grow from. But we're completely back now.

JZ: I noticed this past New Year’s Eve, for example, that you guys opened for moe. in Chicago instead of playing your own gig in Minnesota as is usually the case.

AO: We did have options. We didn't get a chance last Fall to do a major Chicago show. We like to get over there more and we were kind of kicking ourselves that we hadn't been able to score a Chicago gig in our travels last Fall. We were talking about trying to play in Chicago right after the New Year on January 8th or 9th, just to make sure that we got there. moe. approached us with this offer and it was fairly intriguing. It was nice that we didn't have to take on any of the risk involved, just go in there and play and hopefully some bonding would happen, and hopefully we could work with them sometime in the future.

JZ: What are your plans for the rest of Spring and Summer?

AM: Tour! And then the Big Wu Family Reunion. That's the big event on the horizon.

JZ: Your annual Festival, sure. What’s the weather usually like for your festival?

AO: Well, there's no snow, it's almost June. You might run into a little rain or a little coolness at night. You just bring a couple of extra layers and make sure you have an extra change of clothes in case you have something that's wet. It's not going to rain the whole weekend, it's never done that, if it rains at all. It can get downright hot during the day and will get cooler at night so you just throw on another layer.

JZ: What do you guys think of all the bigger, seemingly more corporate festivals that seem to be popping up more and more?

AM: Well, we throw our own festival and we do it, by and large, without any corporate sponsorship. And it's a huge, huge undertaking and gigantic risk. I thought the Bonnaroo people did most of their corporate stuff tastefully. It was stuff that you could interact with. The Gateway tent made it possible to listen to the music that was there and get engaged with what's going on around you. And there's always the choice to not go to Gateway Village, you can always stay at your tent. Festivals are huge undertakings. There's a lot of responsibilities, a lot of liabilities…and they're expensive. To have six stages with that quality of production is amazing. I mean, we played on the "small stage" to six thousand people through a gigantic PA and that stuff's not free. Just imagine the insurance on that nightmare. They pulled it off and everyone had a good time. Sometimes you gotta take some of the cheese with your fun, but it made it happen and that's important.

JZ: Do you think these big festivals are opening up the scene by exposing the music to more people?

CC: I don't think anyone at Bonnaroo had not ever been to a Phish concert or some other big jamband show or seen the Dead. I think maybe there should be a tour instead of a stationary festival. Get a bunch of bands together and cruise 'em around. They set everything up for that one show so well. They could have used all that work they did and all the sponsorships they got to keep the Big Wu.

(laughter from room)

JZ: Any Big Wu Family Reunion details you can share?

AM: So far it looks like Particle will play, moe., maybe the Sub-Dudes. But the family reunion is based on the idea that we would throw a festival the way we wanted it to be. The attraction for us was getting bands that we played with over the year. They are all great bands, whether you've heard of them or not is irrelevant. When you do hear them, you will probably really enjoy them. I'm looking forward to our festival being a continuation of that spirit. A lot of the bands we get are bands that nobody has heard of at the time that we bring them in – while they are still younger in their development like Yonder Mountain String Band was when we had them. Bands that people should hear. Particle last year played a late night show on the small stage and they knocked 'em dead. They came back to Minneapolis a few times, they threw great shows, and a bunch of people came back to hear them.

JZ: So you see a part of your festival as helping good smaller bands to get a bigger audience in the Minnesota area?

AM: Well, it would be great to have Phil Lesh, but, you know, that's seventy five thousand dollars. And we don't really play with him.

AO: The very first reunion was actually just a get together at a place when we were about to transition from a local band to a sometimes on the road band. It was kind of a fund raiser. And it was also an appreciation thing to throw a party, a camping thing, some kegs of beer, a little bonfire down by the lake…just to say thank you to all the people that supported us up to that point. Subsequent reunions were going out and bringing some of these other bands that we were working with on the road, this place that they helped us afford to get to with that first reunion. Now that we're on the road, we're bringing all these bands back to throw a party in appreciation for our local crowd. We're still doing that, running into amazing musicians, amazing bands, and we like to take them home and share them for awhile.

CC: It's a small festival. The Big Wu Family Reunion is a small deal. And I don't mean that in a negative way. I just mean that it is physically small, we get the bands to come… We're not going to have, like Andy said, that one band, you know, that plays for thirty thousand people. But that in no way means that the quality of the bands that we get is less. The fact that it's small makes being at the festival so fun. The vibe we have is so tucked away and so great. I wish people knew what the environment of our little campground is like. It's so nice. There's no trouble. There's no busts and shit. It's just really nice. About five thousand people capacity, it hold a little more or a little less…

AO: We always spend a ton of money on the sound system, too. I'd stack up our sound system against any festivals that are running in the country, outside of the super humungous ones. The sound quality is always very good and I think a lot of the bands that come there to play for the first time that may be a little skeptical since it is a small festival are blown away by the staging and production. They all want to come back. We give them a good ninety minutes to two hours to play so they're not slammed up there for forty five minutes and then having to run off the stage. So they get a chance to develop a little bit.

AM: The spirit of the reunion is really a springboard for bringing great music to people who really like listening to music. The simple premise of our festival is to give you everything you want and cut out all the shit. Simple. Great back stage area, bar none, hands down, a great PA, camping without cops. All we ask you to do is pick up your garbage. It's a pretty simple formula. Oh yeah, and great music too.

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