John Mellencamp with Mike Wanchic and Dane Clark on drums
Mike Wanchic has been playing with John Mellencamp for 34 years now. There are two tales, as to how they met. The first is that Wanchic was lip-syncing to Wayne Newton and the Captain and Tennille in a club where Mellencamp took notice of him. The other more plausible story is they met at Gilfoy's recording school where John was making some demos. When asked which story was true, Wanchic laughed. "No, we met at Gilfoy's. I was feeling a little surly one day and made the other one up. Gilfoy was the drummer for Mancini and had a really nice studio and it was the only place I could find that would take on an intern." He explained how he came to be working at Gilfoy's. "Back then there were no schools with recording or audio engineering programs. You had to intern and apprentice. I just annoyed Jack Gilfoy until he gave me an internship. It [producing records] has always been my other love. It' s no longer my main thrust, as selling records is not what it used to be."
In addition to being a talented audio engineer and producer, Wanchic is a well-rounded musician and plays a variety of instruments including: electric and acoustic guitars (including Dobro), keyboards, dulcimer, accordion, mandolin, banjo, and he does vocals. He credits his talent to his parents. "Thank my mother," he laughed. "She enrolled me in ballet and piano. And my father; he was the director of the U.S. Narcotics hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, a heroin addiction facility. When I grew up in the '60s that's where the greatest jazz musicians in the world were, in rehab. My dad was in charge of the music there. There was a full jazz band and a full Latin jazz band. My guitar teachers were spectacular. I started out playing bass and now I am basically a string instrument player plus piano. Our other guitar player, Andy York, plays everything too. Our set requires all kinds of instruments, from 12-string to mandolin to 6-string guitar. I'll play bongos if they want me too."
Wanchic is also the band's musical director and co-produces several of their albums. "We work in a very organized fashion where everyone pretty much knows their rolls," said Wanchic. "John and I have co-produced a number of records together. Given the number of years we have worked together, we've got this trust. I trust his intuition and he trusts my input. I've come up with hook lines I thought were genius and John didn't like them. Someone has to maintain the vision from beginning to end and keep everyone as directed as possible."
Trust and intuition have made this band one of the best out there. "I had Sting walk up to me and say "Good God, what a band!"" said Wanchic. "And it is a remarkable band with depth of talent. It's a very humble band with no egos. There are no rock stars in this band." Wanchic pauses and laughs," except John. No, don't print that it's not true. There's no room for egos in this business. It doesn't contribute to making good records. This band is very professional. This is art and a business. Alcohol and drugs don't come into play. When you have bands with great cohesion you don't need that. On our worst day, we are great. Our band comes up with beautiful arrangements during practice and then perfects them and rehearses ad nauseam. Everyone in the band has a great work ethic. The show is based around a broad breadth of our material, based on the best songs we've ever had, not just the hits."
When Wanchic recalls how he's seen other bands work, he gets a little annoyed. "It's amazing how sloppy some people can be," he exclaims. "Musicians can be heady little jerk offs some time and insist their parts are the best parts. You have to work together and come up with fresh new stuff. It is the biggest challenge as you continue to make records. You can't just continue to play the hits and continue to thrive. Artistically you will die inside."
Wanchic shared a couple of the bands mantras. One is "Practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect." The other is a sign posted over the studio door that says "You may think you are good when you walk into this room but you'll be great when you walk out."
Wanchic carries those attitudes with them whatever he is doing. He's worked behind the scenes with Willie Nelson and the Black Crowes and he's played with greats like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and Bob Dylan. When asked how he maintained his own style while doing such a variety of things, he had this to say.
"A good arrangement is a good arrangement. A well-designed song is a well-designed song. I even did a record with a band from Vancouver called Noise Therapy. They were an extremely heavy band, and it was a great experience. The truth of the matter is you have to have a chorus and a hook. It doesn’t matter if it is Bluegrass or Agrometal. They are things common to all types of music from country to rock. So many commonalities in music aren't genre specific. Every time I step out it brings something back into the fold."
That stepping out and coming back in is what keeps Wanchic on his toes music wise. "After making 20 records, the hardest part is not cannibalizing yourself. I come up with something and Andy will say "Oh, I think you did that in 1982."
Fresh and new or old and loved, the Mellencamp tour will be well received across Canada. "There is a lot more enthusiasm in Canadian audience compared to American ones," Wanchic said. "Canada and Australia were and are, our consistently strong areas. We show up in Canada in the middle of winter and we fill the venues."
The No Better than This tour was designed so the bands would be playing smaller venues, like the South Okanagan Event Centre. Wanchic said that fits in with the bands attitude towards their fans. "This whole tour has been nothing but theatres in the U.S. and Europe. We want to give people a good music environment to listen to things."
When asked what the best part about being Mike Wanchic was, you could almost hear the smile creeping onto his face. "Being a daddy," he said and then paused for a moment. "I have my second wave of children now. I have a three-year-old, a four-year-old, a fifteen-year-old and two adult daughters. My focus now is more about family and being home. Being part of a family is the best part. It's my absolute favourite part of my life. Things have changed. I've had enough of the other stuff. I was cavalier long enough. It takes a lot to get me out of the house now."
And out of the house he will be as he, John Mellencamp and the rest of the band start off the Canadian portion of the No Better than This tour in Penticton on June 14.