BLUE BOTTLES AND COPPER COINS by The Wag | INTERVIEW
Author: Sean Manuel
This week's BlowUpRadio.com interview features a Bayshore area four-piece running 25 years' strong. That's The Wag! Actor and author Wil Wheaton says it best: "If the Beatles and the Cowsills got it on backstage at Ed Sullivan, The Wag would totally be their love child." Bassist Brian Ostering, keyboardist/percussionist/occasional guitarist Alicia Van Sant, guitarist Don Lee, and drummer/percussionist/guitarist Joshua Van Ness (supported by bongo player Arielle Strauss, guitarist Michael Brett, percussionist Ken Masson, and saxophonist/percussionist Ralph Capasso) compose The Wag and form a noteworthy songwriting corps drawing from such influences as The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Chic, and The Moody Blues. In Blue Bottles and Copper Coins, their latest album release since 2018's We Carry On, The Wag prove their experienced amelioration through ten originals and one cover showcasing their multi-lead vocal attack, pleasant melodies, and affecting harmonies. Come celebrate their 25 years of The Wag and the release of Blue Bottles and Copper Coins at Lakewood's Strand Theater (400 Clifton Ave, Lakewood, NJ 08701) Saturday, March 25th, 7-9:30pm with a bill of thrilling acts such as Palisades Park's Morningside Lane, Lisa Bouchelle, and The Wag; but first, get to know more about The Wag below.
"It's Wag Time!" Congratulations on the upcoming Blue Bottles and Copper Coins release and 25 years of The Wag. From what I found on your Kickstarter pre-sale campaign site, Don explains how the songs on this release were written over voice memos throughout the COVID pandemic. Did your separation in the lockdown engender closer collaboration on material than before? With four adept songwriters in the group, is your creative process highly-organized (a la The Beatles) or spontaneously-democratic (a la The Beach Boys)?
Alicia: I think the separation did engender closer collaboration. Rather than someone bringing an idea to rehearsal saying, "This is how this goes," it was more of a file being sent via text with "What do you think of this?" We would all give opinions, or just marinate with the song or part for a while, work on it a bit, & send it back. I think our creative process is a fluctuating combination of highly-organized & spontaneously democratic.
Brian: Thank you very much! We are super excited for our new album release and for our big 25th anniversary show coming up.
Don: The COVID lock-down(s) definitely influenced how we composed songs for this album. In the past, we as individual songwriters would present songs to the band. This was still done to a degree, but because we couldn't really get together in person, we sent audio clips to each other via text. It was also a huge increase in collaboration in songwriting. One person may have a musical idea such as a verse, send it to the group chat line, and then the others would come up with different ideas for choruses, bridges, etc. I think that even without the lockdown(s) we would have moved more in a collaborative songwriting direction, but it was the first time we shared ideas via text - and that may have influenced how a lot of the songs eventually turned out.
As far as the process for writing, basically one person would come up with an idea, share it, and then the other members may or may not add to it (we all commented whether we liked the idea or not). Generally (but not always), the new elements added to the initial idea were "auditioned" and the writer of the original part chose the new idea they liked best. Sometimes new additions were combined or altered as well. That just covers the writing. The arrangement and production of the songs is a whole different story, but generally democratic.
Mid-1960s upbeat Merseybeat-style drumming, guitar riffs, and harmonies in the Beatle-esque Lee/Ostering "Got To Let You Know" wonderfully set the stage for the album. It truly is, as written in lyric, one of "those songs full of life." In masterful fashion, the bridge shifts into the relative minor to illustrate the contemplative lyrics "I've always wondered." As this track documents a first love, tell us about one such lived experience that inspired this track.
Brian: As you can probably tell, we are all big Beatles fans. I personally love how we handled the backup harmonies in this song and how they complement the lead vocal.
Don: There was no specific person in mind for these lyrics, but more of a general feeling that most people have when they want to let someone else know that they like, love, or care about them. In most situations, those feelings are never expressed to the other person because of possible rejection, embarrassment, etc. In this song, the connection between the two people is so strong that all of those possible negative consequences don't matter and the feelings must be shared. It's better to try and fail then never try at all. The lyrics don't specifically show what the outcome will be. But luckily, in this song, we think that the response from the other person will be a positive one.
Don's "Better Off That Way" pulls the listener into a Chic-like soundscape separate from the prior album tracks and compels further attention via a contrasting Delaney & Bonnie/early Eric Clapton-style gospel rock chorus. (Don) Explain the song's throughline and the decision to, like in an epic, hop genres section-to-section.
Don: The very interesting thing about this song is that the chorus melody actually came from another song we were working on. The first song we collaborated in the songwriting on this album was "Tomorrow Is Waiting". The melody and lyrics for the already-established chord pattern of that chorus were originally suggested and accepted. But a few days later, another idea for that song's chorus was presented and used instead. So the original unused segment was turned into another song with a completely different chord pattern - same melody and lyrics with some slight alterations to fit the new pattern.
As far as "genre hopping," that's a good way to keep interest and movement in a song. I personally like songs that go somewhere or take you on a journey - both musically and lyrically. I don't think it was a conscious decision to use different musical genres in this song. But it's good to have separation between verses, choruses, and bridges - while, of course, trying to make those transitions sound smooth. We're all influenced by many different music styles and like a wide variety of music. Those influences will seep into the songs whether we're trying or not. I guess this song is a great example of that because, although it wasn't even thought about when writing the song, I love Chic and Nile Rogers guitar playing. I didn't even think of a comparison until you mentioned it, but now I definitely hear some Chic influence.
The track "Fill It With Love" is the sole track to have songwriter credits for all main Wag members. Members sharing lead assignments in the track as if singing around a campfire clearly communicate the warm, communal message. Who contributed each section to the complete product?
Joshua: I got the ball rolling with this one. I remember I wrote a bunch of verses that all resolved to the hook "fill it with love". Had this just been a Joshua Van Ness song, it would've ended up being a minute and a half long! My instincts told me that this was one that I need to let go of and let the band do what it does best: write and sing about togetherness. I didn't know what they were going to do with it, but I knew that they would know what to do with it.
Alicia: I contributed the bridge lyrics: "The greatest gift we have is how we spend our time; just give the best of you, and everything will work out fine." My strengths usually lie more in writing harmonies than in lyrics, but that bridge almost wrote itself.
Brian: I wrote the music and melody to the bridge that Alicia sings, and the lyrics to one of the verses.
Don: The writing of the song was initiated with some feel good verses by Joshua. I added the 2 slightly more melancholy bridges to respond to those verses.
The Van Ness track "Me and the Ghost" cements another thrilling redirection on Blue Bottles and Copper Coins. The intro reminds me of Motown while the verses hint at Bruce Springsteen and the choruses a modern pop sound. This is another example of epic-style writing. (Joshua) What artists/songs were you listening to at the time you were writing this song?
Joshua: The ingredients/influences that you've picked up on here are interesting and probably accurate. However, I can't say that I was really listening to anything that pushed me in this direction. This song is an example of what happens when an idea just comes to you quickly and powerfully. I didn't write it as much as it just kind of came out of me. I'm very thankful to have used this song with The Wag because although I have the sole writing credit, the band really shaped the sonic landscape of this one. The version that ended up on the album is truly the result of the band workshopping it for a while.
"Breath by Breath" features an interesting percussion texture with the maiden inclusion of a drum pad in lieu of a live drum kit. The instrumentation leaves space for Alicia's lovely Karen Carpenter-esque vocal delivery to shine, building to a rousing chorus crescendo and solo. When did the drum pad arrangement choice occur in the creative process?
Joshua: This was another song that came to me quickly. So much so that I felt like I was racing to capture the idea before I would forget it or move on to something else. So, in order to help me get the ideas out of my head and onto a demo recording, I just created a quick two-bar loop. Really it was just to keep time. The original intention wasn't to use the electronic sound. However, by the time I was done tracking the demo, I had fallen in love with the starkness of the loop. It's cold and electronic and yet at the same time almost has a heartbeat like quality to it. I was also aware that The Wag had never really done anything like this. I get very excited by the idea of pushing this band into uncharted territories. Luckily, my bandmates felt the same way!
All fans of "Pepper Era" Beatles (including the live rendition of "A Day In The Life" The Wag performs) will thoroughly enjoy a psychedelic surprise in the Lee/Ostering "Sweet Summer Nights." Give us all the details on how this vamp occurred.
Brian: I wrote a scaling-down chord structure for the part that I sing. We decided to use that for the ending. From there, we built upon it by layering instruments and different parts. It was a lot of fun!
Don: This was one of the earliest of our song collaborations for this album. It was a cold Friday night in January and there were no gigs due to a recent post-holiday COVID surge - so obviously, we were all in our separate homes. Brian sent us all a voice memo of him playing the descending riff on piano and singing what basically became the chorus. I came up with the first verse and pre-chorus and sent it back to the group chat later that night. Everyone liked it and said to go with it, so I completed the next set of those sections and added an instrumental bridge the next day. It was a rare occasion for us that the basic song was completed so quickly.
When we finally were able to rehearse it as a band in person, it was suggested by Joshua to ride out the chorus at the end by just adding weird sounds and other noises to do something that was different than most of our previous songs. I believe it is our longest fade on record. And unlike songs on previous albums - but a few on this new album - as opposed to one person singing lead each respective song, we used the "Sly & The Family Stone" method of having multiple vocalists switch off between different sections of the song.
Tell us about The Wag's 25th Anniversary/Album Release Show!
Brian: The big show will take place on Saturday, 3/25 at 7 pm. Tickets are available at www.strand.org. This show will feature our entire new album, songs from The Wag's 25 year career, and a bunch of our favorite cover songs. Our opening acts will be Morningside Lane and Lisa Bouchelle.
Morningside Lane was established in Palisades Park, New Jersey in 2009 and has since enjoyed domestic and international recognition with their innovative spin on the fresh, energetic "Jersey Sound".
The music of Lisa Bouchelle encompasses a wide variety of genres, including Americana, pop, singer-songwriter, classic rock, gospel, and more.
Where can people keep up-to-date/interact with The Wag?
Brian: Here are the important Wag links:
Would you like to tease any future Wag developments?
Brian: Sure! We will be heading to England at the end of June for a fun mini tour. We have a few shows lined up already and we are really looking forward to it!
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Brian: If you'd like to find out more about what's happening with our band, please join our mailing list and follow us on social media.
Don: Come to our album release show on March 25th (and any other show you can make it to), get the album, have fun, and enrich your life!
Artist Bio: Got songs? Got harmonies? Got fun and unbridled enthusiasm? Then you've got The Wag! Hailing from the Bayshore area of New Jersey, this 4-piece unit has been entertaining and moving audiences for 25 years, but still sounds as fresh as it did on Day One! With 4 alternating lead vocalists, catchy melodies, and sophisticated harmonies, they will take you on a journey of pop/rock delight!
The Wag has opened for many national acts over the years (Rick Springfield, Jason Mraz, Ben Folds, The Motels, and Jefferson Starship, just to name a few) and has taken part in regional and international tours, including England, Canada, and Japan.
The Wag performs some of the catchiest original songs around, and has an extensive list of cover songs. They are available for any type of situation, whether it be coffee house, private party, house concert, festival, or theater show. Whatever the event, if you want a fun, exciting, family-friendly band, then you want The Wag!
The Wag celebrates 25 years as a performing and recording band with the release of their long-awaited album, Blue Bottles and Copper Coins. The official album release will be held at the Strand Theater in Lakewood, NJ on Saturday, March 25, 2023!
About the Author: Sean Manuel is a Senior enrolled in New Jersey City University's Honors Program. A Music Business major, Sean specializes in the piano and bass guitar. Outside of academia, Sean performs in and manages the Bayonne indie-pop group BreakTime: a four-piece writing modern pop tunes with generous vintage allusions to artists such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Are you interested in their music? Follow BreakTime @breaktimelivenj and stream their releases on all platforms.