Beating on a Hollow Log with a Bone: A Conversation with Indie Rock Veteran BillyDave Wammo

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By Bob Freville

In 1997 I was fishing through a used CD bin at my local record store when I came across an album with song titles like “Homage to the Ramones,” “This May Sound Kind of Weird” and “Children of the Corn Nuts.”

As a lifelong Ramones fanatic and fat little weirdo, I was immediately drawn in, both by the song titles and the wild cover of a snarling, bearded face emerging from the chest of a boy in a Batman costume. The album was Fat Headed Stranger and the artist was Wammo.

The bizarre and relentless melange of indie rock, thrashing guitar cords, wild verbosity and general dissonance had my head spinning over and over again. It got to the point where I wore my CD out from having it in constant rotation.

Alas, the Fat Headed Stranger was the last time I would hear from Wammo for quite some time. It wasn’t until years later when the Internet grew into the encyclopedic behemoth that it is today that I got another taste of the man and his maniacal brilliance.

Thanks to platforms like the once-great Morpheus and then YouTube I discovered Wammo’s other projects. As it turned out, Wammo had continued to churn out a variety of raw jams with the aid of Asylum Street Spankers, an Austin rock band that blended blues, folk and other weirdness into a humorous stew.

In 2011, they were honored with the 10th Annual Independent Music Awards’ Gospel award for God’s Favorite Band, a title whose irony couldn’t have been lost on Wammo and Co. The band released 16 albums between 1995 and 2014 before Wammo called it quits.

Since then I had gone searching for the Fat Headed Stranger on YouTube and similar sites, but the most my searches yielded were a few clips of drunken live performances, each of which made my black heart yearn for more of the man behind Faster Than the Speed of Suck.

Fortune smiled upon me when I recently punched his name into Soundcloud on a whim. My bloodshot eyes were met by a strange sobriquet…none other than BillyDave Wammo. What awaited me on his page made my fat heart swell to the point where I had to pop an extra Metroprolol with my mid-afternoon lager.

The Fat Headed Stranger was, indeed, alive and well, kicking out the jams like they raw dogged his best friend’s sister. There are so many saucy tracks that I don’t even know where to start (“Smokey & the Band Itch” obviously), but I’ll lead with this—BillyDave Wammo is muse-sick at its finest.

“I Couldn’t Be Happier” finds the songwriter losing his shit over his inability to choose a stripped down approach to crafting a simple song. In it the listener gets all of Wammo’s trademark manic energy along with a humble tribute to the musical greats of old.

“Trash” is another example of proto-Wammo weirdness with an acoustic intro spazz-out that segues into electronic Gonzo, eventually delivering some of his smoothest vocals to date.

“I Never Liked Bob Seger” recalls his debut album’s meditation on the superfluity of Charles Bukowski while “I Got Your Pipeline Right Here, Pal” evokes Beck at his early, crunchy best. It is also one of his trippiest and most savage joints since Fat Headed Stranger.

The refrain of “More me and less of you” perfectly sums up the agenda of America’s leadership. “BURN ALL COPIES” is equally weird and relevant in its send up of our times.

There is something decidedly bohemian about Wammo even while he lampoons the bohemians and the bureaucrats alike. His lyrics and spirit drip with a good-humored sarcasm that seems to betray a very authentic patriotism.

The austerity of the songwriter is evident in his choruses, especially when you crank “Smokey & the Band Itch” and he jaws about the simple things in life, like knockin’ boots with ice cream sandwiches.

Whether riffing on the golden age of blues or the syrupy sounds of Sly & The Family Stone, Wammo takes us on a thrilling trip through the Great American Songbook with attitude and humor to burn.

 

That attitude and humor is a mainstay with BillyDave, an awesome cloud that never lifts even in conversation. As I noted when we finally sat down to shoot the shit, Wammo is always fired up.

Bob Freville: So first things first, I fell skull over skater shoes for your album “Fat Headed Stranger” when I was a teenager and it’s one CD that was on such constant spin that it literally scratched itself up, as if to tell me to take a break from your particular brand of madness. Would you say the spirit of that first album is a through line in all of your music to date? I feel like your Soundcloud track “Trash” is definitely cut from that same cloth.

BillyDave: First of all, thank you for listening to my work. In this age where everything everyone creates (or even anti-creates) is so instantly accessible, it means a lot that anyone is paying attention to what I do. The roots of “Trash” date back to my old band, Clang, that performed around Austin in the late ‘80s.

Don’t look for any recordings. We cut a 4-track demo once but I don’t think you can find it anywhere online. There was another band called Clang that showed up later. Maybe they have some recordings you could listen to and think of me.

As far as Fat Headed Stranger being a “through line” for all of my music, I don’t have the foggiest notion. Making that record was such a strange experience. The head of the record label was constantly and aggressively trying to edit my writing throughout that process. I love that record but I had to make quite a few compromises and cut some of the songs and/or poems that I thought truly belonged there. That doesn’t take anything away from the finished product, I still dig that album.

Obviously you were part of the 90s music scene in Austin, a place that’s still recognized as an aural hub today. When did you decide to leave that scene and why? I understand you live in Pittsburgh now.

I left Austin in 2011 because my wife (at the time) had a business in Pittsburgh and my band had broken up. Now she and I are split but my daughter lives here, so here I stay.

How does the music scene in PA differ from Texas? Is it better or worse in any ways?

There is no local music scene in Pittsburgh, as compared to Austin. It’s pretty much impossible to make a living in this town as a musician, unless you work for the symphony. It’s very much a sports town. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some cool bands from this town, it’s just that most of them aren’t getting paid shit.

I knew you as Wammo back in the day, but now you go by BillyDave Wammo. Was there a conscious rationale behind the name expansion?

Yes, there was…

Another of your more recent tracks that stands out to me is “I Couldn’t Be Happier.” It seems to be the one Wammo song, save for your Batman tribute from years ago, that really serves as a tribute to the musical greats of yesteryear. How did this song come about? I’m very curious to know more about your creative process, especially as it concerns a song that’s so self-deprecating about that process.

I belong to an online songwriting group, we get a prompt once a week and we use that prompt in a song. It’s a lot of fun. That piece came from the prompt, “looking for a fight,” plus you got extra credit that week if you screamed. I recorded all of the vocals for that piece in my car.

I was in a CVS parking lot when I got the email containing the prompt, so I improvised all of the vocals right then and there, sitting in the driver’s seat. The funny thing was, there was a cop standing outside the drugstore. He was looking right at me while I was screaming like a maniac into my phone. I thought I might get busted for being a lunatic. He looked rather concerned.

Some of your newer stuff is a little darker and more savage than your earlier work. I’m thinking of “I Got Your Pipeline Right Here, Pal” and “BURN ALL COPIES.” Is that just symptomatic of the age we’re living in or was it a choice you made to mix things up?

Everything I create is a reflection of where I am at a specific moment. I don’t do a lot of editing. I make choices on the fly. Pretty much everything I do stems from improv. I am very much a “lightning in the bottle” kind of guy. Burn All Copies came from a collaboration I did with my buddy, Bruce Salmon, who played guitar in Clang. He’s the one who got me into the songwriting group, then we collaborated on “Burn All Copies” for that group. See how things come full circle?

I know you’re big on impromptu performances, having caught a couple of your live gigs on YouTube. And your music has always smacked of a certain spontaneity, but you also strike me as a dude who’s way too smart for that not to be at least a little bit artifice. Do you really sort of riff and freestyle or does your music take time to incubate?

First of all, fuck you for making me look up the definition of “artifice.” This is the part of the interview where I would write “LOL”, if I did that sort of thing.

I improvise a lot. When I actually write things down, the words usually come to me in a flurry. I very rarely edit my work. Usually I am taking dictation from some twisted voice in my brain. As far as writing music goes, I have quite a few different processes. Sometimes I’ll get an idea and sing it into the voice memo app on my phone. Sometimes I’ll open up GarageBand, record something real quick and set it aside for later. Other times I’ll start and not stop until the deed is done.

What is the worst gig you can remember? Please describe if you can.

Dude. There are so many. Listen to “Gig From Hell” by my old band, Asylum Street Spankers. I wrote a major chunk of that piece. https://youtu.be/kyDndwALGMg

As a fan of your diss tracks where you take people like Bukowski and Bob Seger down a peg, I’d love to know who you think would win in a cage match – Hunter S. Thompson or Ted Nugent?

My friend and fellow poet, Danny Solis and I used to play that game all of the time. “Who would win in a fight between Godzilla and 50 foot tall Shelley Winters?” As far as Gonzo vs. The Nuge goes, it really depends on what they are allowed to bring into the cage. If firearms are allowed, it’s pretty much a dead heat. If they are armed with only a pen, I’ll take Thompson by a mile.

As far as “diss tracks” go, I usually don’t give a hard time to anyone who’s work I don’t respect in some form or another. Sure, I might give Bob Seger some grief but I also dig some of his songs. I really took the piss out of Billy Idol on Fat Headed Stranger but that’s because it was the punk rock thing to do. In my generation, it was uncool to express admiration for any artist that made obvious moves to gain commercial success.

Don’t get me wrong, that first Generation X album kicks ass. It still holds up as a great rock ‘n’ roll album. I just couldn’t say that after Billy became a solo hit on Mtv. Check out the Gen X album, BBC in Concert (11 May 1978). Man, they sound like cousins of The Damned.

I can talk about it now but there was a time in Austin where everyone was so punk rock, anything you were excited about was treated with disdain by your peers. You couldn’t say, “I love Black Flag” or “I hate Black Flag” or even, “Fuck Black Flag.” You could only say, “Black Flag.”

You’re one of the most colorfully literate rock songwriters I can think of. Would you say literature is as important as music? Should millennials be grabbing an eBook of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” instead of downloading Yeezy’s new album on iTunes?

I haven’t read that book and I’ve never heard that artist’s music, so I am at an extreme disadvantage to that comparison. That being said, both music and literature are equally important. There really is no way to measure one against the other. They flow together and fight and make love and piss each other off and make up again.

There has always been someone trying to get attention by pounding rhythm on an instrument and there has always been someone trying to get attention with whatever verbal bullshit they can come up with. You know there had to be a caveman, who was trying to get a cavewoman to sniff him out by grunting whatever syllables he could muster and at the same time, there was another guy beating on a hollow log with a bone, vying for the attention of the same cavewoman. Of course, it might have been the guy painting on the cave walls that ended up winning her burning glance.

Are ice cream sandwiches really one of life’s simple pleasures? Are they enough to sustain life?

I don’t know if one can live on ice cream sandwiches alone and I don’t think I want to try but they certainly are a wonderful invention.

What would you say your proudest moment as an artist has been?

That’s a tough one. Once I brought a child into the world, I experienced pride in a different way. There are so many incredible moments I have experienced as an artist, it’s difficult to say which has affected me the deepest. Some that come to mind are: coming 0.2 of a point from winning the first National Poetry Slam I ever attended, finishing the two-year recording process that became Faster Than The Speed Of Suck and receiving an award for a drawing I made in second grade called, “The Meanest Man In The World.”

What have you got going on right now? Are you putting out another album or doing any interesting collabs at the moment?

I’m doing a lot of acting at the moment. I just finished a play here in Pittsburgh and I will fly out to LA to do a TV show in January. It’s really difficult for independent musicians to make a living nowadays. Music is essentially free but that’s not gonna stop me from making it. I play and write music every day and probably will continue until I die or go deaf.

I make a lot of visual art but I try to keep that out of the public eye most of the time. It’s really personal to me, which strikes me as funny. I have no problem making an ass of myself or bearing my soul on stage but when I paint, it’s usually just for me.

Thanks for flappin’ jaws with the Motorist, BillyDave. I’m diggin’ the new stuff, brother!

Thank you for listening.

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