Nobody can complain that Minneapolis jam band veterans The Big Wu aren’t a hard-working band. In their first ten years of existence, bassist Andy Miller claims they travelled over 500,000 miles to perform over fifteen hundred shows. “That’s not flying, either”, he adds. “I’m not flying to Japan and padding the stats.”
All of this traveling came with a cost, however, which wasn’t helped by a myriad of business problems that has always hampered the band’s progress. It’s not easy, for example, to have a record release party without the record, which happened in 1997 with their first album, Tracking Buffalo Through the Bathtub. Their second album, Folktales, also quickly disappeared when their record label filed for bankruptcy shortly after it was released.
Miller says that problems like this led to the band being over a hundred grand in debt, and by 2006 “we were just burned out. We loved doing what we were doing, and we could function and make payroll, but legal bills and these other bills were just adding up. Then gas started getting expensive. Receipts were going down but the overhead was going up.”
So The Big Wu took a couple of years off, but in 2009 came back as strong as ever, which Miller credits to the addition of the man who actually booked their first gig back in 1992. “Mark (Grundhoeffer) owns like five companies that are all focused on the music business. He started taking care of the business stuff for us, and he’s an excellent guitar player. He’s an excellent fit for the band, and he’s an even better human being.”
Reenergized, The Big Wu has also returned to writing new material and hopes to have a new album out later this year. Listen to some of their new tunes when they appear at The District on February 8.
Q: What inspired you to become a musician?
A: Most of my family is musical. A lot of people play. But there’s two main things. My uncle is a minor country western star. His name is Johnny Western, and he wrote a song called “The Ballad of Paladin”, the theme song for the TV show, “Have Gun, Will Travel”. I grew up with my uncle. He’s Mr. Cool, and played with everybody. He had guitars and a black leather jacket. Then my older brother, John, played bass. I used to sneak into his dorm room and play his black Rickenbacker bass when he went to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. I had been playing upright bass since fifth grade, and for Christmas in 1986, when I was in the eighth grade, he gave me that black Rickenbacker. I still have it. I’ll never sell that bass.
Q: Before Big Wu, were you in other bands?
A: Of course. I played in a country band on the weekends for money. I had to play “Achy Breaky Heart” four times a night. Remember line dancing? I used to joke about it kind of being like “dancefloor fascism”.
Q: I never understood line dancing. Why would you want to do the exact same thing as 50 other people?
A: Because if you’re told exactly what to do, then you can’t look like a fool because you stand out from the crowd. You get to be a fool with the crowd. That’s the charm, my man.
Q: How did you end up in Big Wu?
A: I grew up in Northfield, and was living in Northfield. I had actually played with Terry VanDeWalker, the drummer. I met him one night. He came and sat in. I was playing in a band of guys from Northfield, and we were your human karaoke machine. If you’d come up and sing, we’d buy you a drink. Terry came up, and I had never met this guy. He sang Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire”, and he was this weird bald dude with no shirt on bouncing around the stage. I asked him his name, and he told me his weird, long Dutch name. I went over to St. Olaf College, and just started asking around if anybody had seen this bald guy named Terry “Vandehoovie”. It took me ten minutes before I was told he lived on the first floor of this building. I knocked on his door and said, “I want to be in a band with you”. That was in ‘91. About a year later, The Big Wu played their first show on that same stage in Northfield in a bar owned by Mark Grundhoeffer, a family member of the current Big Wu guitarist’s family. It’s a small world. So I actually watched the first Big Wu show. It was Valentine’s Day, and my girlfriend was back in Korea. I had nothing to do, so I watched the first Big Wu show. Fast forward to 1995. I was just starting at St. Olaf, and a couple of them were just getting ready to graduate. Other people had graduated and moved on. They were done coming down to Northfield to play Grateful Dead covers. They would play the old Northfield Theater, this old movie theater turned into a big bar with a stage, and 400 chicks would come in. All of the hot St. Olaf chicks would be down there, drunk and boogieing away. I’d watch the band, and they were really good, but they were just jamming on two chords. I was just thinking this looked so much easier, and you get so much more bang for your buck, than playing this technical metal I was doing with some friends. So I wanted to be in Big Wu because I like hot St. Olaf chicks looking at me. That seemed to me to be a good idea. So that’s how I got in. I loosely kept in contact with Terry, and it happened to be the right time.
Q: Minneapolis is known primarily for garage rock and Prince. How did the band fit in with the rest of local scene?
A: For our band it didn’t take long. Number one, there’s always been some kind of Grateful Dead band in Minneapolis. Always. For thirty years. That was going on when we started coming up in 1995. The day that Jerry Garcia died in 1995, there was a big memorial in Loring Park. There was an open mic night at a bar that was close. We made up fliers and handed them out, saying that if you liked the Grateful Dead you should join us at this bar. No cover. Let’s play some Dead tunes and get together. The place was totally packed, and six months later we started playing every Tuesday night at the Terminal Bar. We started that in January, 1996. We played every Tuesday until The Cabooze picked us up that fall. We didn’t waste any time. It was a healthy mix of playing lots of Dead. We probably knew 150 Dead songs at one time that we could pull out at any moment, but it’s also when (guitarist/vocalist) Chris Castino started writing originals. It helped that the originals were pretty good tunes. I’ve been in bands that sounded good with covers, but when we started writing our own songs they were shit.
Q: Those bands had First Avenue. You guys had The Cabooze. How important is that club to the band’s history?
A: Essential. We moved to every Wednesday night, and we owned that spot for three years. We started touring out more, so we relinquished some Wednesdays. It was in ‘99 that we decided that we were all going full-time. We had a tour opening for The Samples, so we got this big-ass tour bus. That’s the way to go. That is a great way to travel. Seriously, I would know. I counted it up one time, and you’re talking to a guy who has a half-million miles on the road. That’s not flying, either. I’m not flying to Japan and padding the stats. 1500 shows and over a half-million miles. The difference between a white Ford Econoline van and a tour bus is like the difference between a pinball machine and an arcade.
Q: Why did the band take a break for couple of years?
A: We burned ourselves out. A half-million miles and 1500 shows. We took a lot of stuff on the chin with some record stuff, and that played into damaging the band’s morale. Our career was just held in court in New York. We couldn’t sign with anybody. I partied with every major label backstage in New York, and all I could tell them is that my (stuff) was in bankruptcy court in New York. If you want to make stuff disappear, you put it in bankruptcy court in New York. That’s where they file it all, and they do it on purpose. We were just burned out. At one point, we were over a hundred grand in debt. We loved doing what we were doing, and we could function and make payroll, but legal bills and these other bills were just adding up. Then gas started getting expensive. Receipts were going down but the overhead was going up. Basically, we played until we had it down to a manageable chunk. Plus, it was all in my name, so I had to keep a high morale. Some of the other guys were just tired of it all.
Q: What brought you back?
A: I never thought the band was through. However, the resurrection of making the band come alive again started when we tried to bring back Jason (Fladager) on guitar in 2009. We’re all friends, but it just didn’t work out. That’s how we got hooked up again with Mark Grundhoeffer. He’s not our “new” member, as he’s now been with us for over three years. Mark has an agency. He’s a promoter, and also owns a printing company. He owns like five companies that all focused on the music business. He started taking care of the business stuff for us, which is huge because I used to do all of the business stuff and I was burned out. I really don’t want to spend a million hours on QuickBooks. Mark takes care of it, and he’s an excellent guitar player. He’s an excellent fit for the band, and he’s an even better human being. He’s a joy to be around. We’re not known for actually talking together. I don’t call (keyboardist) Al (Oikari) to shoot the crap. It’s nothing person. I’ve just spent a half-million miles on the road with him. I know how he smells. It’s closer than most people really want to be with each other. Having Mark around really got the band going again in 2010, because he’s very ambitious, upbeat, and positive. That is contagious. He got everybody else in the band excited to play, and we started writing new songs again. And the songs are good, which was a huge boost. All of us except for Mark are above 40, and let me tell you, man, when you’re over 40 a fully functioning rock band is great to have. It doesn’t really get better. I don’t have to race cars. I don’t have to skydive. I have a rock band, and I’m really grateful for what I have. We still enjoy what we do, and we’re just hitting stride on how good we could have always been. Technically, proficiently, and listening to each other. I think our chemistry right now, and our proficiency in what we do, is higher than it’s ever been. It’s fun, and I look forward to when we play.
Q: You’ve played with a ton of great artists over the years. Name one or two that really stands out?
A: One of them is Butch Trucks, one of the drummers for the Allman Brothers. He’s a short little wiry dude. He’s an older gentleman, and he has some miles on him. First off, when you meet him backstage he’s very funny. He’s very articulate. He can sum some wisdom up in four words that would take you five years to learn. Then onstage, Terry got up to sing an Allman Brothers tune, and Butch took over on drums. If you look at him move, it’s like a wave-kind of motion. It’s so smooth. It’s like watching Tai Chi or something, but he would drum so hard! It’s amazing how this guy can whack a drum. He pulls tone out of the drum, and he’s so consistent. When you’re playing with him, you know you’re playing. Another one is Stephen Perkins, the drummer for Jane’s Addiction. That guy’s phenomenal. I love playing with that guy.
Q: D.I.Y. bands used to have to rely on word of mouth to promote shows and record releases. Does the rise of social media make self-promotion easier?
A: Yeah, it’s everything. It’s the keys to the kingdom. Think about what if Frank Zappa had the internet, Facebook, and Twitter. He called his Barking Pumpkin Records his cottage industry. That guy did pretty well for someone who was his own boss most of the time. Now think of what he could have done with instant uploads of shows. Two hours after his show, boom, you could download Frank Zappa’s tour of Germany. As long as you’re playing well, because this can backfire. Trust me on this. If you’re playing well, word of internet mouth is fast and powerful, and can do you all sorts of favors. My uncle Johnny, the country guy, gave me some words of advice, and it’s the same advice that has worked for hundreds of years. Try to have some talent. Try to have some luck. More importantly, be very, very nice to everyone you meet. I’ve been very nice to people for twenty years, and they’re warm back to the Big Wu, whether it is backstage, on the internet, or at a show. It’s a manifestation of what you’re doing anyways.
Q: Are there plans for a new album?
A: We’ve been writing songs, and there are plans for a new album. We haven’t released an album since 2004, so there will be a ten year gap between albums. I love where we’re going with this. I’m excited about the songs. They’re very Big Wu at the core. Last summer, Megadeth came out with a new album, and it was clear that (Dave Mustaine) wanted a Grammy or become a pop star. Meanwhile, Van Halen and Black Sabbath both put out albums, and they’re both excellent albums for what they are. It sounds exactly like a Black Sabbath record, and the same with the Van Halen album. The first song was a little goofy, but there were eleven other tunes that were so in that sweet spot between Diver Down and Fair Warning. That’s when you really think about how you missed that band. David Lee Roth is pure entertainment. That guy is doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing with his life. That’s what I want this Big Wu album to be like. I want people to hear it and think it sounds exactly like the Big Wu. I believe that it is the best of what we could ask for. I don’t need to sell a million copies of it to be happy.
Q: What else is planned for 2014?
A: Besides the record, we have Big Wu Family Reunion #14 in August. Mark and I have already been discussing visual themes for the event. We always bring in a well-known band that everybody loves, like a Keller Williams or Leftover Salmon. We’ve been tossing ideas back and forth. Big Wu is also heading back to Harmony Park. We’ve done reunions there before, but Mark’s company is now going to be running some events there. I’m looking forward to Big Wu playing there more than we have been previously. We’re also talking about going to Alaska, and as soon as the album comes out we’ll be talking about going to Japan. We’ve also been going to Colorado at least three times a year, and we’re just killing it there. There’s also the consolidation of towns that we’re kind working on again, such as St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, and Sioux Falls.
Q: When will the album be released?
A: I would probably guess in August for the Family Reunion. I probably should say something like April, knowing damn well it’s not going to be out but would feel pressure to get it done by August. I probably just sealed my own fate. It probably won’t come out until Wu Year’s Eve. It’s not for lack of songs. We have an abundance of material.