For more than 40 years, John Mellencamp has looked over his left shoulder on stage to see a familiar face, that of guitarist Mike Wanchic.
Actually, familiarity is a theme that runs through Mellencamp’s band, as many of the musicians have been with him 20 years or longer.
“The whole band has pretty much had a chance to mature with him and ripen into this wonderful musical machine you can’t get by just hiring new players every tour or to record in the studio,” said Wanchic, in a recent interview with Black Press.
Mellencamp is nearing the end of his Sad Clowns & Hillbillies two-year global tour, with a concert swing across Canada from Sept. 26 to Nov. 14 including a show in Kelowna on Nov. 10 at Prospera Place.
Mellencamp is no stranger to the Okanagan having performed in Kelowna and Penticton in past years, and Wanchic says he personally can’t wait to get back.
“The Okanagan is so beautiful, that whole side of the Rockies is just incredible. I’m actually bringing my wife up for that part of the tour,” he said. “For me, I’ve checked your part of the country out extensively over the years, I had a former manager who lived there and I’ve made records at Bryan Adams’ recording studio in Vancouver.”
Wanchic, like Mellencamp and many of his bandmates, hails from Indiana, and they follow the singer’s lead in bringing a mid-west U.S. work ethic to their music craft, which he defines as creating something new everyday.
“I think we had the opportunity to develop the way we did because we weren’t living in a vacuum. We were not living in Hollywood like a lot of other bands in the ’80s and doing the scene with the big hair and fancy pants and sh*t like that.
“We grew up devoid of that stuff so we were able to focus on our music, explore other musical influences like the banjo and violin, and mix those instruments in with our rock’n’roll sound.”
Wanchic described the Mellencamp songwriting method as him coming to the band with a song he’d play on an acoustic guitar, and the band takes his lyrics and works out the musical score.
“We turn it into something much bigger and artful version of what John has played for us and we do what’s best to serve the song,” he said.
Like many of his fans, Wanchic strongly identifies with Mellencamp’s songwriting themes of family and aging in life. “Those songs resonate with me because like John, I have five kids of my own,” he said. “Those themes in his songs mean something to all of us.
“We used to joke when we were younger, in our 30s and big-ass rock stars, we’d look at each other and hope we’d make it to 40. Then we thought it would be damn nice to make it to 50. Now we just want to keep playing until we can’t do it anymore.”
He cites Check It Out as one of his favourites and feels the song Minutes To Memories from the Scarecrow album in 1985 is perhaps the best song Mellencamp has ever written.
“Bob Dylan has said that Longest Day is one of the greatest songs he’s ever heard so when someone like Dylan says that, that says a lot about that song as well.”
Wanchic says he never tires of playing Mellencamp’s hits because of the reaction from the audience and the boundless enthusiasm the 66-year-old brings to each performance.
“Our audience is our legacy and we owe everything to them so you have to deliver and you have to be grateful to have that audience. John believes that and so do we. They helped put some of my kids through college and do everything I’ve been able to do in this business. We don’t want to be complacent and just keep live off our laurels.”
With the influence of technology in the recording studio, Wanchic has even greater pause to realize how fortunate he is to still earn a living as a guitar player.
“I was talking to a musician friend of mine who lives in Los Angeles and he was telling me about going to a birthday party in Beverley Hills. There were rappers, rap music producers and hip hop performers there. He got to chatting with some of those guys and came to the realization that not one of them actually played an instrument. They relied on computer loops and samples to write music.”
But he still remains optimistic the era of the garage band, playing instruments together and honing their skill as musicians won’t die.
“I think there is going to be a renaissance of people playing live with real instruments because it is an art form,” he said.