If It Makes You Happy

In college we believed that if we made a good record, people would find it. The music industry would come knockin’.

Smokey Junglefrog met its first producer at a campus coffeehouse. As we broke down our equipment from another raucous set of Pixies, REM, and Alarm covers, a short, black-haired guy in red flannel approached. “You guys were great. Would you be interested in recording a few songs?

His name — I kid you not — was Tony Rockanova. We called him Tony Rock.

Tony Rock, God bless him, spent that long winter locked in a studio at the Newhouse School of Public Communications with me, Fish, Pabs, and Jame. He thought we were demoing three songs for his senior thesis. We had our sights on a full LP: ten tunes. Multitracked.

Smokey Junglefrog released it debut record, “Crumble,” as finals gripped the Syracuse campus. Days later, we would scatter for summer break. The record languished.

But it got us gigs. And in Syracuse, when you’re a remotely talented and original alternative rock band, you’re gonna’ get your shot. And we did. And we killed it. We played a quiet Tuesday early the next semester at the local hard rock club, The Lost Horizon. It was a sweaty, dingy old house just moments from collapse or fire. There was a strip club in the back. We loved it. And they loved Smokey Junglefrog: the gragarious frontman, the shaggy-haired guitar player, bass player wearing slippers (and playing anything but the root), and the spot-on, cheeseball drummer. We wom an opening slot for local faves Dracula Jones. Then The Samples. Then The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

We recorded “Au Gratin” at Steve Feldman’s Penguin Studios in November. (Steve would later go on to engineer the first Queens of the Stone Age record, and my fourth solo LP, “Crash Site”). No other campus band made it off campus. We toured the Northeast. We opened for our heroes, Chucklehead, who hung out and jammed with us in our living room. We walked into Chuck’s on Tuesday nights (“Cup Night”) expecting to be recognized. We were written up in The Syracuse New Times. We were nominated for a Syracuse Area Music Award.

We graduated.

I recorded my first solo release, “Always Almost There” (don’t look for it, it’s out of print), a few days after graduation. There was bad blood in the band. Some felt the workload wasn’t equitable. Some felt the finances weren’t equitable. Some felt the appreciation wasn’t equitable. I had a lot to get off my chest. I left Syracuse for good as The Post-Standard printed the following: “Wagner thinks he’s always almost there. He might be closer than he thinks.”

Twelve years and seven albums later, I remain always almost there.

I had a drink tonight with my friend Elisa. She’s a singer/songwriter too. We have radically different back stories, but we share two things: we’re both musicians with day jobs, and we’re more than a little frustrated with how it’s all turned out.

Elisa sent her CD to hundreds of college and independent radio stations. Her music video played on repeat for five months on the CBS Jumbotron in Times Square. She was a features artist on Amazon for weeks. The result? A blip in record sales.

What does it take?

A few years ago, I sat on the 52d floor of Sony, Manhattan spread out below, and been told, “I just don’t know what to do with your music.” The next year, David Gray, John Mayer, Howie Day, Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson, and Gavin Degraw all hit big. Every label had to have their singer/songwriter.

What does it take?

We had a good time tonight. I conceded that I crave the validation and adoration that comes from an audience. “How much do you need?” she asked, presciently. “How much is enough?” And I admitted that part of my motivation to continue releasing records and performing shows is so that people don’t think I’m a quitter. “It’s so great that you’ve stuck with it,” they say.

But at the end of the day, at the conclusion of the first Thursday Night Margarita Club, we agreed that we do it because we have to. Like breathing. And we walked out of the place laughing and smiling. Which is a pretty good reason to do anything at all.

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