It’s do or die. The world as you know it has gone into ‘sleep’ mode. Your planned year of touring has gone up in smoke. On top of all that you have family to support. What do you do?
If you’re Massive Wagons, you press on with your album release as planned and throw everything you’ve got at it. If you’re that band’s Adam Thistlethwaite, you chuck in your day job while you’re at it.
“Yeah, don’t ask me to come and rewire your house or anything,” the guitarist and former electrician says with a chuckle. “It’s kind of been heading that way for a few years. My passion wasn’t in it. This is my passion. I believe in what we do and I believe we can be successful.”
With an unexpected abundance of at-home time on their hands, Massive Wagons have thrown themselves into things they’ve been “threatening to do for years”, like firing up a Patreon page, editing YouTube videos and generally upping the ante of their online operation. So far, they tell us, it seems to be paying off.
“For a jobless man I’ve never been so busy,” says singer Baz Mills, talking to us with Thistlethwaite from their new, dedicated band HQ.
The genial, generously moustached frontman has been juggling Wagons duties with “full-time daddy day care” for Lyla, his three-year-old daughter with partner/manager Terri. Accordingly, the business of running a band under lockdown has been mixed with picture painting and Disney films.
All the while, the world has been drip-fed tastes of Massive Wagons’ fifth album, House Of Noise. First single In It Together was a huge bear hug of Wildhearts-meets-The Darkness gusto that felt like an anthem for the times – even though it was actually written about Mills meeting his hero Ginger Wildheart backstage, when the Wagons supported him on tour.
As a whole the new record sits somewhere between 2016’s Welcome To The World and 2018’s Top 20 Full Nelson albums, mixing the raw heaviness of the former with the megawatt tunes and hooks of the latter. It was also their first proper experience of working with producers, Colin Richardson and Chris Clancy (Slipknot, Machine Head, Fear Factory). It’s the sound of a band finally able to make exactly the record they want.
“Absolutely,” Mills says. “It’s the first time we’ve been able to give the songs the treatment they deserve. With the other albums there were always money constraints, time constraints. This time we’ve had a full arsenal and gone at it with everything we can.”
House Of Noise is a slick step into the big boys league, and also bottles tastes of their live history. You’ll be aware of recent highlights, like last year’s arena shows with Lynyrd Skynyrd (on the back of Full Nelson).
Such milestones don’t happen overnight, though. Before any of the successes there were the first gigs, the tearaway years spent hurtling back and forth across the country in a Transit van, the less salubrious elements of their first tour abroad… the stuff that really builds a rock’n’roll band. Let’s take a look back at those days.
Once upon a time in Carnforth
Perched at the north-east end of Morecambe Bay in Lancashire, Carnforth is a small town built on its railway and ironworks history. It’s surrounded by picturesque hills and Areas Of Outstanding Natural Beauty, making it popular with cyclists and walkers. So far, so placid.
Beneath all that, however, something noisier was brewing in the late 80s and 90s. As children the Wagons-to-be were inadvertently united by rock’n’roll, thanks to their relatives playing in local country and punk bands. Their families were even in the same groups at times, and Adam and younger brother Alex, Wagons drummer, played in bands all through school.
Nothing really took hold, though, until they started hanging out at The Pub in nearby Lancaster. Every Friday and Saturday night their rock-friendly boozer of choice would host bands from across the county. Then in their early 20s the fledgling Wagons would convene after work to drink and watch covers groups, drawn to the place due to its reputation for hosting good music, and a landlord and landlady who paid the musicians well.
By this point Baz – still yet to play or sing himself – had come out of the Royal Air Force, and picked up the bass guitar “just for something to do”.
“As soon as we’d finished work, I was round at Baz’s house on the tinnies, watching videos and off to the pub to watch bands,” Adam recalls. “We used to go to pubs and just… I’m not saying we had a problem or anything, but we drank a lot and it was just good times.”
Pub gigs led to trips to Manchester to soak up big names including Motörhead, UFO and Thunder, which led to picking up on newer groups like Airbourne – and the light-bulb realisation that rock’n’roll still had legs in the 21st century.
“We went to watch Airbourne, and it was like: ‘These guys are the soundtrack to the life we were living at the time’ and ‘We’ve gotta form a band and start writing music,’” says Mills. “Which is why all our early songs sound like really bad Airbourne rip-offs.”
The first gig
After a year of going nowhere with Ace Face, a local indie covers band, Mills and Adam Thistlethwaite broke away to start a new, heavier group, taking bassist and truck driver Adam ‘Bowz’ Bouskill with them. In 2009 they played their first gig, at the Carnforth British Legion, choosing the name Massive Wagons at the last minute because they needed something to go on the gig poster. More used to ex-servicemen gatherings, charity raffles and Weight Watchers meetings, it made a successful albeit unlikely rock venue.
“Our close friends and family were rock fans so they all loved it,” Baz explains. “But most of the people were just there for the buffet and the cheap beer. But when you start playing AC/DC that doesn’t matter, you just find the whole room dancing, whether they like rock music or not.”
Still, this being their first gig, not surprisingly they were nervous. “I grabbed the mic stand with both hands and I don’t think I let go,” the singer remembers. “I was confident singing, it was just everything else. I didn’t know what to do. I had both hands welded to the mic stand and just stood there. And it was just covers at this point: AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, all the usuals.”
The Northern ‘Wild West’
From there the band started playing covers sets every weekend, laying waste to rowdy audiences all over Cumbria, Yorkshire and beyond. By this point gigging was an integral part of their lives. The five of them would get off work on a Friday and drive straight off into the night to play twohour sets in pubs, bars and biker rallies all over the country. And then they’d be gigging again on Saturday and Sunday. Earnings were modest but not insignificant, and they invested it in T-shirts, a proper van and more.
“It was a lot of fun,” Adam says. “I mean, it was bloody hard work. When it came to playing we took it very seriously, we didn’t take that as a joke.”
“We were all passionate about it,” Mills adds, “we just liked to have a drink and a laugh, which sat perfectly with hanging around together. You’d get in the van on a Friday night and drive off and it was just a good laugh. It was exhausting though.”
What drove you on for so long?
“Being as green as the grass and just wanting to get somewhere with the band,” Mills replies. “We were so driven about getting somewhere that we just played everything that was offered, really. But that’s where your hard-core fan base comes from ten years later. We’ve still got people who came to see us on day one coming to our shows, signing up to [Patreon page] Wagons World or buying merch.”
Most people were just there for the buffet and the cheap beer
Inevitably the boozer circuit wasn’t without its hazards. One night at a local spot with “a bit of a reputation”, everything kicked off when one inebriated punter made a grab for Mills’s mic.
“I didn’t wanna get in a fight,” he reasons, “so I just shoved him as hard as I could, He was leathered, and he went absolutely flying. It was like something out The Matrix. I thought: ‘I have not pushed him that hard,’ but he went flying, both feet came off the floor and he landed about half way down the room. And then all his relations stood up and went to see him on the floor, and I thought: ‘Oh my god, we’re not gonna get out of here alive.’”
“Nah, it weren’t that,” Adam chips in. “You pushed him, just as some caring member of the community got up to come grab him, so she went over on her arse…
“It got a bit shouty and screamy then,” he continues. “Instantly there’s, like, pints being thrown across the room.”
Dealing with hecklers
“We’ve encountered a fair bit of verbal grief over the years,” Adam acknowledges, “but I think any band that’s been around for a while deals with that. Our way to deal with it has always just been to laugh it off. You can’t take things personally when you’re going round to pubs and boozers.”
“If you’re gonna put yourself in that situation in a room full of drunk people, you’ve gotta expect it and learn how to deal with it,” Baz says.” “I remember doing a Halloween gig one year in Lancaster, and I was in drag,”
Adam recalls thoughtfully. “It don’t come scarier than that…”
“She [Classic Rock]’s got the picture of me in that dress [backstage on tour with Ginger, a few years later, p76],” Baz mutters. “It’s a recurring thing for us, isn’t it?”
Adam says, laughing. “I was dressed up as a woman – a very attractive woman, I’ll add. We turn up and we’re setting the gear up, and this guy in this pub did not like it, didn’t take kindly to it at all. That got close to being physical. He was deeply offended that I was dressed as a woman, for whatever reason.”
“He failed to realise it was fucking Halloween…” Baz says, rolling his eyes. “Maybe he was attracted to you and he didn’t like that part of himself?” “I think that’s what I said, actually. That might have provoked things a little bit. But I make quite a sexy woman, I can’t help that.”
Lost weekends at Hard Rock Hell
With hindsight, it’s a strange thing that two Haven Holiday Parks in North Wales should have become sites for rock’n’roll carnage. But that’s exactly what’s happened with the Hard Rock Hell festival series, in which fully amped rock sets rattle the walls of rooms more accustomed to bingo and karaoke nights.
For Massive Wagons these gloriously surreal breaks of denim-clad excess, round-the-clock music and Toblerone-shaped chalets were “lost weekends”. By this point they’d had the similarly surreal-but-rewarding experience of playing 10pm-3am rock festivals in Ibiza (as well as hosting an abundance of stag and hen dos, and being the summer capital of the rave scene, the Spanish island was home of the band’s label at the time, Off Yer Rocka), so they were ready for the stranger side of 21st-century high-voltage rock.
“Strange place, strange times…” Mills says with a grin. “Brilliant though. We had the odd situation one year of going on after Black Label Society. They had them as the headliner, and then we were an after-the-headliner party band at half-one in the morning. It was odd because we were waiting backstage, Black Label were still playing, and they just came running off stage, all five of them, and we’re stood there with our guitars, ready to go on.
“They all come off all sweaty and nodding, and Zakk Wylde comes running off going: ‘Nice one, guys. Have a good one!’ and he’s straight out the door, straight into a car, straight to the airport or wherever he’s going.”
Grass-roots support for ‘the new wave of classic rock’ is greater than ever, buoyed by festivals like Hard Rock Hell, Steelhouse and others. Why do they think that is?
“Rock and metal fans love discovering and championing new bands,” Mills suggests. “They love having a badge. They want something new. For a lot of them it’s throwing them back to when they were just discovering Iron Maiden and AC/DC. Like at Stone Deaf, the one-day event, it takes them right back.”
Arenas with Skynyrd, blood-splattered bunks in Hamburg
This was it. The big one that proved what years of slogging it out in a van and having a Top 20 album can still lead to, even now. While being dropped into life as arena rockers was a steep learning curve, when Classic Rock met Massive Wagons at Wembley last year, where they were supporting Lynyrd Skynyrd and Status Quo, they seemed ready for it.
“I think that’s the years of experience,” Adam says. “It is different in a lot of ways, but the principle of performance is the same. You’ve still gotta play songs and grab people’s attention. In many ways it’s harder to do that in a pub for a dozen people who don’t really want you to be playing than it is to an arena full of people who are hungry for music.”
Then came their first German tour, this time supporting Thunder, and another set of life experiences.
“The shows were all fantastic, the crowds were fantastic,” Mills say. “But nine of us in a Transit van for thirteen days?” he adds, with a look of fear. “It absolutely stank, it was horrible.”
The principle of performance is the same [in an arena]. You’ve still got to play songs and grab people’s attention
To save money they chose the cheapest hostels to stay in, one in Hamburg taking the notion of budget digs to new depths.
“It was like a shipping container that had been cut in half,” Mills recalls. “There was a Romanian fella sitting there drinking vodka at about one o’clock in the afternoon. The whole building stank of boiled cabbages. We found our room, and there were twenty to thirty people in some of these rooms. You’d walk past open doors and there’d be guys in there with Bunsen burners and mess tins cooking… I don’t wanna know what’s going on.”
When they walked into their room, they found it was full of bunk beds and had blood splattered on the ceiling.
“Our drum tech went and got a big shovel,” Adam remembers, half-laughing, “and he said: ‘That’s going by the door, because if anyone wants to come in this room we don’t want them to.’ But then on the other end of the scale we had a great day off in Nuremberg. That was a beautiful town.”
The best is yet to come?
“We’re planning ahead that it will be business as usual next year, and if it isn’t we’ll reevaluate and go from there,” Adam says simply, and you believe they’ll do just that.
Perhaps that’s the real secret to Massive Wagons’ success. They’ve drawn from every experience, however unglamorous or plain grim, and filtered it into their songs and show. As they relate in one recent YouTube video, they’ve discovered that “the best way to learn is to make mistakes”, and are now keen to share that insight. “We’ve made ’em all so you don’t have to!”
Their tone is tongue-in-cheek, though. After all, without the rough edges acquired from mishaps and bumpy rides along the road, what life does a rock’n’roll band – or indeed any of us – really have?
Wembley is the journey itself… Or something like that.
Louder – Massive Wagons: booze, blood, and the British Legion
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August 19, 2020