As frontman and chief songwriter/lyricist for 80s/90s seminal Pittsburgh rock band, Little
Wretches, Robert Wagner rode a wave of local notoriety that led the band to the forefront of the
underground music scene. Robert Wagner continues to perform at coffeehouses and small clubs. A Master’s Degree holder, Wagner also counsels abused, neglected, traumatized and court-adjudicated youth. In 2020, Robert released the epic album, Undesirables & Anarchists, which is garnering critical acclaim and college radio attention.
Robert looks back at his more than 30 years in the business, from beginning to end, in this in-depth, exclusive interview…
Thanks for taking the time for an interview! We are honored to be speaking with such an incredible songwriter and musician. What inspired you to follow your chosen career path as a musician?
Wow. Your question has a powerful compliment embedded in it, and I thank you for that. I accept the compliment. Very cool. I’ve put a lot of effort into writing and performing, and there have been long stretches of time when I was not being recognized and I wondered, “What else can I do? Am I doing something wrong? What am I lacking?” And the truth is, you have to do the work and not look back. Focus on the work.
When I started down this path, I wasn’t sure what to expect or where it would lead. You used the word, “chosen.” And that’s an interesting word. I did CHOOSE this path. But there was also an element of inevitability. But let’s focus on the “choice” part.
Did you ever take an acting class? Uta Hagen. Stanislavsky. Method acting. You know what I’m talking about? I know, this is kind of roundabout, but this will make sense.
At the University of Pittsburgh, I started taking theater-arts classes. As electives. I thought it would help me feel more at ease on stage with my band. These actors, they really had to go through the wringer. You’d do a little role-play or improv, and the professor would watch you like a hawk and question you about every little move and gesture you made.
It’s a paradox, these actors are trying to “live the role,” to totally become the character they’re playing, totally in the moment, feeling what that character feels, smelling what that character smells, totally immersed in the moment as that character, but the paradox is that everything the actor does is a choice. And the “art” is the process of making choices. And the acting teacher hammers the acting student to make her or him aware of the choices.
A lot of us—I’m not talking about actors now, I’m talking about regular people in our daily lives—aren’t really aware of the choices we make or, even worse, we’re content to accept the choices others have made for us. You didn’t get to choose, and by the time you figure out that you had a choice, it’s too late. You can’t go back. You’re too far down the road to go back.
In my case, horrible circumstances when I was a teenager forced me to wake up and take control of the choices of my life. The negative turns into the positive.
I was abandoned for a time. Both parents gone. Neither parent to blame. A huge, unfortunate inevitability. I just had to deal with it. I was unsupervised, living alone, trying to get my butt to school, keep my grades up, and shoplifting to keep food in my belly.
When the people who are responsible for loving and caring for you abandon you, you begin to question everything they ever taught you. You’re quick to conclude that everything you’ve ever been told is a lie.
And you look around at all the happy kids with happy families, and you listen to them talk about their parties on the weekends, and who is dating who and all that, and you think, “These people may think they are happy, but they’re living a lie.”
I, on the other hand, though I hate everyone and everything and am totally miserable, have seen the light. More like seeing the dark, actually.
In that mindset, having rejected everything I’d ever been taught, I had to reinvent myself. I had to figure out how to make a life for myself.
My band is called, “The Little Wretches.” Right? You know the old hymn, “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” One of the reasons that band-name appealed to me is because I know what it means to be lost.
So let me ask you. Let’s say you’re lost. Literally. In the woods. On a trail. Or driving around in a strange city. What do you do when you are lost? Really. What do you do?
I’ll tell you what you do. You backtrack. You retrace your steps till you find the place where you weren’t lost, the place where you knew where you were.
The last time I could remember being happy was when I was immersed in music. When I was younger, music had been such a source of joy. Listening to my parents’ vinyl LPs. Singing along to the radio. Singing in church. Singing in the car with the radio on.
I went to an enormous high school, set up like a college campus with a bunch of buildings and outdoor walkways, and there were so many kids, like 1,000 kids per class, maybe 4,000 kids on campus. I could walk out and not be missed.
I clearly remember the day that I walked off campus. That’s it. I hate this. I’m leaving. And I walked over to the mall and spent the afternoon looking at rock’n’roll magazines at the newsstand and through the vinyl record bins in a discount store.
In one of the magazines, I saw a picture of Miles Davis talking with Lou Reed at a party or at some backstage event. The caption said something like, “Jazz legend Miles Davis with underground legend Lou Reed.” Lou Reed. Hmmm. Yeah, WALK ON THE WILD SIDE. Well, maybe there’s something to this. I was more than intrigued.
See? To me, this was proof! Proof that the world had been lying to me all along. All my sucker friends were into mainstream pop, hard rock and commercial music. But Miles Davis and Lou Reed? Without ever having really heard them, I just knew these guys were the REAL thing. The other three-thousand and ninety-nine kids back on campus may have been swallowing the big lie, but I was onto the truth.
It’s so crazy to think about now. A picture in a magazine of two artists I hadn’t even heard yet.
So now there was this whole previously undiscovered universe for me to explore.
The record bin in the discount store had copies of THE WHO SELL OUT by The Who and UNICORN by Tyrannosaurus Rex. Those were the first two albums I bought. Then a compilation album by The Kinks. Next thing you know, I’m buying every album every made by Lou Reed, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan.
Was this a choice? Or was it chance? Maybe I was just lucky.
All I know is that I was lost. I was drowning. I was desperate. And rock’n’roll music gave me something to cling to. It wasn’t really a career path. It was a LIFE. It was a path to rebuilding myself from scratch. I don’t need no mother and father. I don’t need nothing. All I need is a guitar.
Was there any one event in your life that led you to record your latest project, Undesirables and Anarchists?
More like a series of events. Hopefully, people who discover UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS will do a little exploring. They’ll find that the earlier albums by The Little Wretches were not widely promoted or distributed, but they had a pretty big impact on those they reached. Our earlier albums received very high praise. And we expected that praise to lead to greater opportunity.
Before we had the time to take advantage of those opportunities, my bandmates Dave Losi and Ellen Hildebrand left the band suddenly to raise their respective families. Each had a powerful presence in the band. Losing them was pretty devastating.
But I know how to write songs. And I know how to whip a band into shape. And I’d established a track record of success that was bound to be attractive to musicians hoping to latch on to a winner.
So the first big victory was meeting Rosa Colucci. She’d previously only sung in a Gospel choir. She loved the singing of Barbra Streisand and Karen Carpenter. Rosa’d been the only White soloist in a Black Gospel choir. Rosa has a great ear. You don’t have to tell her what to sing. I play the song to her, she comes up with the perfect harmony or vocal counterpoint.
She and I started playing as an acoustic duo. Most of the old fans of the band seemed disappointed. This wasn’t what they’d come to love. But their preconceived notions aside, there was no denying that Rosa was a force. She and I began building an entirely new audience. We called ourselves The Mercenes, wanderers from the Land of Mercy.
The next big victory was the acquisition of John Carson on bass. John had returned from Los Angeles where he’d spent the previous year with his band, Robespierre. Their drummer, Ed Ussack, had also returned. Rosa and I had a duo gig lined up, and we asked John and Ed to join us for the gig. John and Ed agreed to play, and when I asked them what we should call it—this certainly wasn’t going to be The Mercenes anymore— they said they wanted to be in The Little Wretches.
So The Little Wretches lived. A new edition.
Then we were joined by H.K. Hilner, a piano genius. He had two loves—Gustav Mahler and The Rolling Stones. When he heard Rosa and I playing together, H.K. was not bashful about claiming Rosa was the best singer in the region and that the third CD by The Little Wretches was our equivalent of EXILE ON MAIN STREET.
H.K. believed in us. John Carson believed in us. H.K. signed us up for some Battle of the Bands thing, and we won some studio-time. I would have thought being in a battle of the bands was beneath us. But H.K. insisted. His enthusiasm was irresistible.
Mike Madden, the drummer, had played with The Little Wretches on and off for years. He couldn’t tour, so every time we went to promote a new album, Mike would have to opt out. But the soundman at a club called The Decade, a club that had hosted the likes of The Pretenders, U2, and The Police, once asked us, “Where’d you find that drummer? He’s the best drummer to come through here in months.” Mike was THAT strong on drums.
So I had a band of relatively unknown musicians, but this band was a self-selected supergroup. They wanted to be in The Little Wretches.
How blessed was I?
I had the songs. I had the band. I had the studio experience. Good seeds. Good soil. UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS just sprouted like an apple tree in the middle of the woods. It just grew. And the fruit could have fallen to the ground, uneaten, but we’ve been very fortunate that people have been finding it.
“What’s this? The Little Wretches? Undesirables & Anarchists? I wonder what it sounds like? Hey, this is good. I like this.”
As for album’s title, I had a friend and mentor in college, Professor David B. Houston from the Economics Department of The University of Pittsburgh. He is said to have developed the calculations and computations that formed the basis of the insurance industry when he was at the University of Pennsylvania as a much younger man. I don’t know. But he became a Marxist and was part of a lot of radical activities.
Dave Houston sent away for his FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. When he finally received the file, it was a mile thick and heavily blacked out. He said the file had reports on conversations he’d had at dinner in restaurants with close friends. So…That’s kind of creepy, isn’t it? The FBI recording dinner conversations?
Hmmm. As the song says, “All of my friends are on somebody’s list of undesirables and anarchists / It’s not even safe to admit that you’re one of my friends.” Every line in every song has a deeper story behind it, but let’s allow the songs to speak for themselves.
Who has been your single biggest influence, musically?
You probably want me to name an artist. See, I can’t do that.
My biggest influence was listening to vinyl LPs and 7” singles with my cousins. Our parents had all kinds of records. Ed Ames singing “They Call the Wind Mariah” and “John Henry.” The Mills Brothers singing “Cab Driver.” A saxophone-driven instrumental called “The Atcheson Topeka and the Santa Fe Rock.” The Beatles’ White Album. Variety shows on television like Sonny and Cher, Ed Sullivan, The Smothers Brothers, Laugh In, Hee Haw, The Glen Campbell Show, The Johnny Cash Show, Lawrence Welk, Andy Williams, Soul Train, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, The Midnight Special.
Movie soundtracks. American Graffiti. Easy Rider. The Sound of Music. South Pacific. Hair. Jesus Christ Superstar.
Whatever common thread holds all that music together, that’s my biggest influence.
How about personally? Who influences you in your daily life?
I’m afraid this is going to sound kind of heavy.
Did you ever hear the Jim Carroll song, People Who Died? Each line is about another of his friends who died. But it is a triumphant song.
I’m going to list the names of former bandmates who died, people who devoted hours, weeks, days, months and years of their lives to helping me make this music but are no longer here on earth with us. I started The Little Wretches with my brother, Charles John Wagner. Chuckie died. John Creighton. Ed Heidel. David L. Mitchell. Jon Paul Leone. Don Polito. Dale Nelson. Friend and fan, David Allen Flynn.
There is a deep and beautiful story to go with each of those names. My indebtedness to them. My gratitude for them. My gratitude that I am still here, writing songs, making music. The spirits of my departed bandmates influence me every day. I’m not just living for me. I want to achieve the success they hoped for, tell the stories they didn’t get a chance to tell. When I join them in eternity, I want them to be able to say I didn’t let them down.
Tell us about the album, the recording process for it, and what you hope your fans will get from it?
I spoke earlier about how the band came together. It’s insane. Making UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS was the perfect storm of talent and preparation. We’d been playing these songs live. The songs had been woodshedded, workshopped and road-tested.
Dave Granati, the engineer, knows rock’n’roll, and he knew intuitively what we were supposed to sound like. We were supposed to sound like The Little Wretches. That thing we do? Get it on tape. The album will produce itself. Nothing to it.
Dave used mostly overhead microphones on the drums, and we set the band up like a live show. Just set up and play the core parts of the songs, everybody standing in the room together, making eye-contact. We recorded without headphones. I mouthed the lyrics to help us nail the cues.
You’ve heard it, right? Every song on there is a first-take. That means we performed it perfectly on the first attempt. I’m sorry, but NOBODY does that. If they do, it usually sounds like quality was compromised. But this album is without compromise. I don’t think there is a note that I would want to re-do.
We were ninjas. We were Green Berets. We were Navy Seals. We prepped but were not over-prepped. We had the perfect balance of preparation and spontaneity. Play within your abilities, but hold nothing back.
We overdubbed the vocals, some percussion parts, and I doubled most of the guitar parts. And Dave Granati didn’t have to fuss too much to mix it.
What do I hope our fans will get from it?
I hope our fans come away energized, revitalized and inspired. Eternity exists. Life is precious. While we have the time, while we have the opportunity, let’s go. Get it. Hit it. Fear not. Speak the truth. Get off the track, here comes the train, and the train is us.
I don’t know. I love this album. I don’t know how you could hear it and NOT love it.
What’s most important to you: Sales/streams, Awards, or Critical Praise?
What’s important to me is feeding the fire, spreading the fire.
What’s important to me is The Little Wretches doing for a listener what music did for me when I was a lost and desperate kid in need of a reason to live. What’s important to me is that the kid who feels like he or she is drowning can grab onto our music like a life raft. What’s important to me is that the person who feels anonymous, invisible and without worth hears one of our songs and says, “I am not alone.”
I’m blessed in that I’ve received some small acclaim for our previous albums, but I know that critical praise does not necessarily lead to sales or streams. I can’t allow myself to be distracted by any of that.
What’s important to me is anything that introduces NEW listeners to our songs, giving venues a reason to want to book me, writers a reason to want to write about us, and radio a reason to want to play us. Anything that gives people who haven’t heard us a chance to hear us is what is important to me.
What do you enjoy doing, outside of the spotlight? Any hobbies?
Would it be too pretentious to call myself a Renaissance person?
I follow alternative education—Free Schooling, Un-schooling, Home Schooling, a movement known as Democratic Schooling.
I love going to museums. I love the outdoors, hiking, bicycling. You’ll find me at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary pretty regularly.
What is next for you? Any new releases, singles or videos coming up?
That’s hard to say. This Covid-thing, this lockdown, these quarantine efforts, to some extent, they’ve leveled the playing field. I want to lay the groundwork so that I can perform to a new audience every night of the week, not through a laptop or some Zoom meeting, but LIVE and IN PERSON.
What has been your biggest musical accomplishment of the past year?
Well, it looks like UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS is getting some attention. My biggest accomplishment has more to do with the business side of things than the music. I had a portion of The Little Wretches’ back catalogue remastered and released.
Do you ever get stage fright? Any place you’d love to perform that you haven’t?
I get butterflies, but not stage fright. There were times when I was younger when I felt pressure to put on some kind of show, and I wasn’t sure how to do that.
At the top of our conversation, I was talking about actors and the theater arts. Actors hate to be on stage with animals and they hate to be on stage with children. Why? Because children and animals are perfectly natural and without pretense, and without even trying, they upstage the actors. Everybody in the audience watches the animals and the children.
When I’m on stage, I want to be like an animal or a child. I want you to look at me and listen to me because of what I am, not because of something I’m pretending to be.
I’d like to do a house-concert for the President of the United States. Just me and my guitar and maybe thirty or forty listeners. Intimate. Playing songs, telling some of the stories behind them.
How about some parting words for your fans?
The thing I want to say is THANK YOU, and the only way I know how to say it is to try to validate the support they’ve given me by being true to the vision and to see the mission through to its conclusion. I’ve spent many an hour performing for the spiders in the corner of my bedroom, dreaming of the day I’d be in the room with a live audience. I can only thank people for being there to listen.