Still Always Almost There

I just got a call from Syracuse, New York, circa 1993 via Des Moines, Iowa, circa now.

I’m at 29 stories above Times Square at The MTV working the Grammys. This is typically our second busiest night of the year (second to our own Video Music Awards).

Jon Locker is in his basement in East Des Moines mastering the second volume of my “Besides” CD, which means he’s listening to songs I recorded when I was in my early twenties. He said he’d been particularly digging my “Always Almost There” recordings from way back in 1993. “It’s so warm and the drums are kinda soft. It almost sounds like a ’70s record,” he said. “Like it’s analogue or something.”

It was analogue! None of this digital ProTools stuff. Producer Steve Feldman and I recorded it on two inch analogue tape. It was the first and only time in my career in which I recorded to two inch. What difference does it make? Well, it just sounds different: warmer, deeper, smoother — like an LP vs. a CD.

It was a fun summer. I had just graduated Syracuse, so I was scared stiff (as evidenced by heart-on-my-sleeve lyrics like “It’s the springtime of my life / And I’m fearin’ for it”). Steve had just won a Syracuse Area Music Award — a SAMMY — for Producer of the Year, and my band, Smokey Junglefrog, had been nomintaed for Alternative Band of the Year. So in a small town like Syracuse, he would say, “Hey, let’s call that horn player from The Bedouins!” Forty-five minutes later, dude was there playin’ his horn. The record ended up being one of those Santana-like situations. Nearly every musician in town made an appearence, from The Barefoot Gravedigger’s Jill Lippencott on drums, to The Mind’s Eye’s Karen Savoca on vocals, to, well, Bedouins’ horn player AJ Mann.

Some days, Steve was on fire with ideas. Others, I couldn’t pry him off the couch. Once, when I finally got him downstairs all pasty and pale, he actually said to me, “Do you have any pills or anything?” I didn’t, so we pulled out a bottle of Makers Mark, and started drinking — at 10:30 in the morning. An hour later, he was asleep on the couch, and I was tracking electric guitars by myself. Good times. And a good record. The local press even said so (for the first and last time in my career). New Times critic Allen Czelusniak (who would later go on to rip me a new one for “Out Of Your Head”) wrote that “‘Always Almost There’ is as much a sonic statement as a personal one from Wagner… it is a mature work from a talented musician who has come to terms with himself as an artist.”

Unfortunately, CD replication cost way too much in 1993, so I duplicated 50 cassettes, and called it a day. Thirteen years later, it’s on its way to a few more ears.

I’m not in a terrible hurry with the “Besides” project. It’ll come out when it’s done. And Jon’s got a lot going on between playing bass for The Nadas, producing the next Josh Davis record, working with — get this — Dana Carvey (yes, that Dana carvey), and opening a studio in Des Moines with longtime pal (and former Nada) Tony Bonenkamp.

Talking with him about songs and sounds made me want to fly out for a long weekend and record a new CD (pills or none).

Maybe next year.

This year’s about cleanin’ out the closet, and makin’ room for some new stuff.

Which reminds me: I’m returning to Rockwood Music Hall on Sunday, March 25th at seven o’clock (exactly two years to the day from when Abbi picked me up at that very venue). Expect some new stuff then, for sure.

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