Together in Full Boogie: The Big Wu/God Johnson’s Jason Fladager
The equation is this: The Big Wu + Big Wu Family = sum greater than its parts. The Big Wu has a deep catalog rich with solid songwriting and a supportive extended family. Their initial CD Tracking Buffalo Through the Bathtub sounds as good today as it did in 1999. They followed up this debut with several studio and live CD's, multiple tours around the country, and a wonderful regional festival called The Big Wu Family Reunion.
Jason Fladager (guitar/vocals) played in The Big Wu until 2002 when he decided to switch gears, leave the Big Wu, get healthy, and get his proverbial sh!t together. In turn, the Wu changed gears and focused on a new 4 piece sound – double guitar leads were gone, "Jason" tunes were mostly out of the repertoire and keyboard player Al Oikari turned on his vocal microphone and ramped up his multi-instrumentality. Over the past few years, Wu performances have dwindled, to occasional at best and Family Reunions have been shelved.
As for Fladager [who served as an original columnist at Jambands.com], when he found his ground in Minneapolis, he also found some new folks with whom to play music. With God Johnson, he has reprised his position on guitar and vocals, brought his Wu tunes with him, and developed more original material. Along with Fladager, The Johnson's thick, funky sound is comprised of the dual keyboard/vocal attack of Tim Carrow (formerly of Sweet Potato Project) and Scott Roerick, Royce Rock on the drums, and Jimmy Rogers on bass. Consistent touring outside the region is one facet Jason wanted to leave behind when he left the Wu, therefore GJ plays mostly in and around the Twin Cities with the occasional foray to Fargo, Duluth, and many fine cities in Wisconsin.
Discussion of The Big Wu and God Johnson often happens simultaneously, as Jason has been sitting-in with the Wu more frequently. Thanksgiving 2008 at the Cabooze in Minneapolis was the 2nd annual Wu-Giving, featuring 2 sets of 5-piece Wu and a full Thanksgiving meal [http://www.archive.org/details/wu2008-11-27.flac16].
A special event on the horizon is the resurrection of a previous tradition: Wu Year's Eve. The Big Wu, God Johnson, Hyentyte, Absolute Gruv all will appear at Trocaderos in Minneapolis. For an economical $15 bucks. There will be no less than two stages, midnight balloon-drop, the option to purchase VIP tickets for champagne, table service, music by Chris Castino and The Feeling along with local guitar magician Dean McGraw.
Fladager touches on this event as well as what’s on the horizon for both The Wu and God Johnson, in the following interview.
RG- I’m interested in hearing about what is your favorite New Year’s Eve performance.
JF- As a performer, my favorite New Year's experience was at Wu Years 2001, Roy Wilkins Auditorium St. Paul. Chris was singing "Imagine" and the entire audience was peaking and singing together loudly "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." I'm grateful for this meaningful experienced I shared together with a few thousand people. It was a very powerful moment and probably the highlight of my musical life. Big exploratory jams and jaw dropping guitar wizardry are really awesome, but I'm a sucker for simple melody and lyrics.
RG- How do you approach your heavy improv? When you go into a performance, are you personally thinking,"I really want to jam-out on (insert song title here)" or do you and your band members discuss in advance "Today we’re going to try and go out there on (insert song title here)?"
JF- The success of the show depends on a number of factors, not the least of which for me is how I spent my entire day. I can't speak for the other guys, but often times if I started the day off with a good workout at the gym in the morning, a nice bike ride around the lake, some meaningful time with family, and wrapped it up with a nice dinner and good wine…I'm primed for good music coming out of me all night long. Also, connecting with the guys in your band before show is really important…whether it be telling dirty jokes or asking’ “How's life going for ya?”I really think the more "force" you put into structuring how music is going to go, the less effective it was actually be. I think if you spent a good couple of months rehearsing the material…you'll be ready for showtime. The magic stuff always comes when you aren't "trying to play music," you just are. Like the Dead used to say, "The music played the band." Trey used to say he felt like he wasn't playing anything, he was just "transmitting." I get that when everyone is firing on all cylinders. The best shows and the best jams are when you’re not "trying" or thinking about it. It just is happening.
It appears to me as I get older and apply less force, the more I get out of the performance. It used to be that a lot of factors would have to be happening for those peak shows. Now, I worry less about if those things will be there, and just go into it assuming they're there already.
Lastly, as I get older I stopped wondering "when I was going to make it" and just know that I've already made it. All my high school rock n’ roll fantasies have already come true, so it's all gravy from here on out.
RG- The Big Wu was the first band to play the first Bonnaroo, I think it was 2pm and was 100 degrees. Can you describe the best and the worst memories from that experience?
JF- Well, the worst experience was sitting in that traffic for 8 hours with my brother in the Wu cargo van. I was unaware there was a band entrance so literally we showed up about 2 hours before we were going to go on, set up the stage and just went for it. I remember I walked on stage and looked out at the biggest crowd I'd ever seen in my life. On the way down, in the other van, Chris had re-written the lyrics to “Kangaroo” and he attempted to "sing" the names of all the bands performing at Bonnaroo. I'd love to hear a copy of that sometime cause I think he did a pretty good job [Author’s Note: http://www.archive.org/details/wu2002-06-21.mbho.shnf].
The greatest thing was looking out and seeing all these people not only from Minnesota, but the West, East, and South who all knew the lyrics to our songs and were cheering us on. I think at that point I realized just how much of an impact we had nationally in the music world at the time. At that point, I thought wow…maybe all my high school rock-n-roll fantasies had come true. The festival itself was HOT. It was blazing hot all weekend. I remember some great performances, but mainly I remember hanging out with all the friends I had made from the road. I remember seeing Trey and Phil do an interview backstage. I think I met them, I'm not sure. I also think right after Bonnaroo, the Big Wu started to wear down for me. Playing all those shows and touring together over the years had taken their toll. We used to be great friends and now we barely talked to each other. I think busting yourself day after day and not being very sensible about taking care of ourselves had worn us out. For me, shortly after Bonnaroo it was time to call it. As much as I loved playing in the Wu and being part of this amazing thing, I need to get out. I had damaged myself, hurt my friends and family, and got pretty low chasing this thing I loved so much. I really want to stress how much I loved Big Wu, so saying goodbye was both very necessary and very difficult.
RG- Recently you’ve stepped up your involvement with the Big Wu. At Trocaderos, will you play with the Wu as well as God Johnson?
JF- Yes. We are doing full Big Wu rehersals and GJ rehersals to make sure we're ready. The next three weeks I'll be between my basement and our rehearsal space. I'll be on stage most of the night performing. I am totally confident all the bands are going to come out and rage it hard for NYE. Creating an event you'll talk about for a long time is the goal.
RG- Can you talk about what you have up your sleeves for Wu Year’s Eve?
JF- Yes. We are going all out and trying to top the spectacles WYE shows of the past. We hired an event planning and a set designer and are going with a "Zodiac" theme. It’s the "Year of the Bull" so we'll be tying that in somehow. Trocadero's has been totally accommodating to all our creative desires. We have three levels of music going on and four bands, DJ's, balloon drop, and general party mania. We tried really hard to keep the ticket price low [15.00] so that as many people as possible could come and have a really affordable time on NYE. Our friend Dean McGraw will be there and most likely adding his guitar wizardry with some of the bands. It's going to be off the hook.
Also, I do some development work with the non-profit "VEGA PRODUCTIONS". We are hosting an instrument drive. Basically you trade in your old (in good condition) high school band instrument and we give you a ticket to the show PLUS private access to the 3rd floor "Boardroom" where you'll get kegs of Summit, appetizers, private bar, observation deck, and special music by Castino and the Feelin', Dean McGraw, and DJ Drewski til' 2am. Either a 90 dollar donation to Vega or an instrument gift gets you the Super-VIP. Email Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Only 90 spaces available for this and we've got about 50 donors thus far…which rules!
RG- I’d love to hear your thoughts on a few songs. First up, Red Sky” Tracking Buffalo Through the Bathtub
JF- Chris Castino wrote this Wu classic while driving back from the Seattle Grateful Dead shows in 1995. I (barely) remember Chris, Terry, myself and a few other cohorts decided to make those shows. I think we missed night one, but went to the next two night and got to see a “Scarlet”>”Fire” and “Help”>”Slip”>”Franklins.” I think that was my first real exposure to that whole scene. I remember looking around the venue and feeling connected to everyone and everything that was going on. I wanted that vibe all the time. What adventurers we were back then! We all were seeking something more than what we were used to in our Midwestern suburban school culture. Amazing time. The song to me just goes to show how gifted a songwriter Castino really is. Ever since we started the Big Wu I've had a deep admiration for Chris as both an amazing guitar player and musician, but especially as a songwriter and lyricist. His ability to put melodies together maybe his greatest strength. Certainly the crazy kids from Aberdeen loved that tune and we loved playing it for them every time we visited.
RG- “Half Past One?” [Still unrecorded]
JF- I remember showing the band this song in the basement of the Wetlands Preserve in New York City. It was just a little ditty I wrote that I thought would be fun and relevant to most people who came to see us play. I'm not sure it's much more than just a fun song to get your hoe-down on.
RG- “Drama” [God Johnson’s debut Multiples
JF- I wrote this tune about the relationship between a parent and a child and how those people often are so different even though they are in the same family. I found myself being quite the drama queen back in my Wu days and the drama I created putting extra strain on the band. So, these days I try to avoid it as much as possible. Given my taste for theater, it's often a challenge. Drama comes and we deal with it I guess. I love it and I hate it.
RG- “Recipes” [Big Wu’s Spring Reverb
JF- My favorite line from this is "She went out to lay the night." I think as far as quirkiness and interesting chord changes go, this was my best attempt at a song. "All these lines, sung to you and to me…" I think I was young and trying to understand that "my way" of doing things was just as good as anyone else's way of doing things. I was also trying to comment on how there ain't much time on the Earth and we need to fill it up with events and meaningful interactions. I remember Jon Carter from Island Records in LA flew in to Minneapolis to check out Spring Reverb and he commented on how he liked this one. I love the evil sounding toy piano in this tune. I actually played that part (laughs).
RG- “Two Person Chair” [Big Wu’s Folktales
JF- This song meant a lot to me because I always loved it after the line, "Hey now, Is everybody here?" and the crowd erupted in a Big Wu kinda cheer. For me this song was what it was all about in Big Wu world. This band had some great songwriters and some decent players, but this band simply would not have been were it not for the "family" that raised us up in this world. From the Family Reunions to the little 20 person shows we did in El Paso Texas, it was the family that kept this band going. I think we as band members really need to continually recognize that they community of people who came to our shows, talked about us online, traded our music, travelled with us to here and there…were "The Big Wu." The band was really a testament to community and all of us being together in full boogie!
RG- God Johnson has been performing numerous event/ musical costume shows, including most recently Led Zeppelin’s IV. I assume the musical costume shows were influenced in some way by Phish. How would you describe Phish’s influence on you, not only considering the musical costume concept, but their influence on you as a musician in total?
JF- We enjoy doing the GJ event shows because it’s like going to school. We really dive into the projects. It gives us as musicians a chance to do a serious study of a musical body of work, from the staging to the intricate details of the drum fills, to the vocal stylings. I would compare it to an orchestra studying a particular composer. Only we're examining rock versus classical.
For us, it presents a deeper understanding of just how unbelievably talented bands like the Talking Heads or Led Zeppelin are. They really were legends. For the audience is pure fun to see if we can actually pull it off. I have to say, the Led Zeppelin IV event show was an amazing experience and done really well. I never thought in my wildest dreams I'd get to play the “Stairway to Heaven” solo in its entirety for a crowd of people.
As for Phish, I've seen quite a few shows and have a real appreciation for their music. I'm looking forward to summer tour and maybe catching a few shows. Hopefully they are revitalized and ready to rock out. Separately, they are all incredibly talented musicians, but what they create together is pretty amazing.
RG- What does 2009 hold for God Johnson?
JF- GJ is going to go into the studio are work on a 5 song CD to be available in the Spring. We have some great tunes that we want to work hard on producing. We also have been having so much fun doing our GJ Event shows. On Valentine's Day we're doing a cover of Appetite for Destruction by Guns 'n' Roses. Nothing says Valentine's Day better than Axl Rose. God Johnson will continue to play around the Midwest and at a festival near you. This band rocks hard. All of us love playing shows together and we're love to rage a show for people.
RG- What about the Big Wu?
JF- 2009 is going to be a rebirth of the Big Wu. We are going to play a few more shows. You'll see changes to the website, more Wu's Letters from band members, more songs available for download right from the site. I think all of us in the Big Wu have become better players and performers. We had a great show on Thanksgiving at the Cabooze. Just like I was back in the Wu days, I'm all about creating events that are fun and bring people together in full boogie. I think we all are wired to get a little bent once in a while, get our groove on, and have fun with friends and family.
We've all grown up a bit and become better players. When the band gets together we all enjoy being together and having fun with the music. I think we approach the songs and put a different spin on them these days. We've got some great covers. Chris and Terry's vocals are sounding seasoned and better than ever. Chris sang the song "Trouble" the other night and practically shredded everyone to pieces at the Cabooze. It's great to be back and we're excited to kick off 2009 with a hell-a-New Year Eve performance. Thanks to all the friends and family that have been on this crazy ride with us for over 16 years!!!