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The Wonderful Enigma That is Wolfgang Parker

Weedhaven Laughing Academy (L-R): Alan Mauger, Matt Mees, Wolfgang Parker, Anthony Yates (Image credit: WLA)

If you’re a music fan, you probably know the name. If you’re from Ohio, you definitely know the name. The legendary architect of the swing-punk genre made a return to the Columbus scene a few years ago with a new project, titled Weedhaven Laughing Academy. It was an absolute pleasure to sit down with him and chat about life, music, and the future.

The first thing I needed to know, like most interviews, is where the name “Weedhaven Laughing Academy” came from. For all the bands we’ve covered in two-plus years of doing this, his answer might be the most preposterous one I’ve encountered. Parker informed me that he thought of the band more as an academic pursuit, in the way that they could take the knowledge they’ve gained over the years and make something artistic of it.

“Realistically,” he said, “I named the band Weedhaven Laughing Academy because we’re all old, and I didn’t want a band where we were expected to look young. We’re not the best looking bunch, and I wanted some sort of visual motif where that would play to our strengths.”

It seems like a simple reason enough on its own. Many bands find themselves pinned beneath a label attached to their name before anyone ever hears them. I feel like the name causes more intrigue than anything else, which wasn’t really Parker’s intention.

“I also wanted to remind people my age to not give up on your dreams,” he continued. “They might not be grandiose, but there are still dreams worth chasing.”

Plus, it’s easy to remember, right?

The last time I saw the man was over a decade ago, during a time where he was doing his eponymous solo act, playing shows overseas and selling out venues all over Ohio and the United States, as well. Most of those venues are now unfortunately closed, and we reflected on how things have changed in the local scenes in the past decade.

Cover of Fight Song single

“It’s so weird about how all the clubs we used to play are gone,” he lamented, “as Wolfgang Parker (solo), we came up at Bernie’s and Chelsea’s, where we used to sell out every week. Live shows just don’t sell like that anymore. Our first show with Weedhaven we had about 150 people at Spacebar. 150 used to be a pretty lame draw, but now it is more of an accomplishment.”

On a personal level, I can absolutely relate with that sentiment. Outside of Skully’s Music-Diner, the Newport Music Hall and the Alrosa Villa, almost all of the clubs and bars that I used to book and attend shows at have now either closed, been renamed/remodeled, or just been demolished. It’s something I try not to meditate on driving by Condado Tacos on High St. as I remember the many great shows I attended there. You would never know that it used to house a bustling rock club.

We talked about Turbonegro, Bon Jovi, AC/DC, and bands from our collective youth. Parker told me about how a couple of specific instances shaped his views on music over the years.

“I was obsessed with KISS when I was three years old, and that ruined my taste in music forever,” he chuckled. “I think when you start listening to music, whatever you hear first when you’re impressionable becomes your point of reference, so I didn’t get lucky in that respect.

“On the flip side,” said Parker, “when I first heard Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana) on MTV, it was like everything in my life had changed. It was as if everything I had ever listened to in the past had just sucked, and now there was a new thing to replace it. It was like they had keyed into something in my heart that caused a major tectonic shift.”

It was at this point the realization dawned that Parker had a musical mind similar to mine. We talked about what it was like to hear amazing music for the first time. I referenced Take It Easy by the Eagles, and he brought up Welcome to the Jungle by Guns’n’Roses. We talked about The Police, Rush, and a whole bunch of other classic acts that sculpted our tastes, before moving on to more serious matters. Or, perhaps less serious matters, as Parker confessed his deepest personal nugget.

Cover of Black Mass single

“I have a real need for nonsense in music,” he said. “It takes me a lot longer to wrap my head around serious music.”

Obviously that was found in the retro rock scene of swing-punk. Parker reminisced about “the MySpace days”, when he would encounter fans from all over the globe who had his records ranked in their Top 10 all-time lists. He spoke about swing, its roots in traditionalism, and how he finally found himself disenchanted in that scene.

“The thing is, my audience didn’t want change,” he confessed. “I have a lot of love for doing the traditional side of things, but by the end of it I eventually had to come to the realization that I was coming up on 40-years-old, and I just didn’t want to do that anymore.”

Not so much a mid-life crisis perhaps, but an awakening. In fact, the only reason that the Wolfgang Parker solo act was put to rest after a dozen years was the abrupt exit of their former drummer, which left the remaining members reeling.

“We had already written a few new songs, and suddenly we had nowhere to go with it,” he explained, “but I had been doing that project for over ten years, and our sound had changed so much over time that I honestly felt like, by then, I was just the singer in a Wolfgang Parker cover act.”

Enter drummer Matt Mees, formerly of Razorbliss and Columbus rock titans The Godz. Parker said he was referred to Mees by a mutual friend, and after a brief audition period he was named a full-time member, along with Anthony Yates (guitar, theremin) and holdover Alan Mauger on guitar. Parker says that the four of them are more of a democratic act, where they write songs together rather than just himself doing the majority of the work.

“In reality, it’s still a nebulous thing,” confides Parker. “I was really grateful for a second shot at making music so I could get over my own inconsistencies… what I like to call my musical schizophrenia.

Weedhaven Laughing Academy at Comfest 2016

“Essentially, Weedhaven is a divorce for me from everything I’ve ever done. I approach EVERYTHING differently now,” he added.

When I asked him how he would categorize the band, Parker hesitated. He admitted that the group had given up on trying to refine a definite sound so they don’t have to follow a specific set of rules. The most important thing for the quartet was that they weren’t going to live by anyone else’s expectations anymore.

“In 25 years, the main thing that I have learned is that music is NOT something that gives back – if you have ANY expectations, you’re going to be disappointed,” he declared. “With Weedhaven, we’re not looking for a record contract, or to sell a million records. We’ve been fortunate enough to have been given that second chance and we just want to make our own music and enjoy it.”

You could tell that he had spent a lot of time thinking about times past, present and future. After all, this was a man who had done more than I could ever dream of doing in terms of being a musician, yet he felt that he never really caught his biggest break in life until he started writing children’s mystery books, titled Crime Cats.

“I started Crime Cats as a way to keep writing after I was done with the solo act,” he said. “In the last four years, I’ve sold over 9,000 books. Hell, if those were hard-copy CDs, I’d be selling out the Newport two nights in a row!

“I saw a report that there were over half a million self-published books every year in America, and of that, less than five percent of them ever sell more than 150 copies. I made that the bar for myself, and once people started buying them it really just took off from there,” he finished.

Parker had a sly smile creep across his face as he explained to me that he had now done over 200 book signings, and at almost every single one he has people come up to him that recognize him from his previous musical life.

“To their kids, I’m the Crime Cats guy, writing mysteries based in Clintonville… but to the parents I’m Wolfgang Parker, falling off the stage,” he laughed. “It’s just amazing knowing that the memory is still there and I can STILL express myself towards a totally different audience as well.”

Cover of Close The Book single

Parker says that these days, he devotes himself much more to the writing and puts a minimal effort into the band. It’s not for a lack of seriousness, he explains, but more for a desire for enjoyment in music.

“It’s a damned shame when you work really hard at something, you grow it and then you lose sight of your ability to enjoy it due to expectations,” he said, referring to his former solo act. “When I was in my 20’s I hated myself, and so I created a stage name and tried to be someone else, just for validation. The more popular that group got, the more I was disgusted with myself. The Weedhaven project is much more a vehicle of self-exploration and expression.”

As far as expression goes, Parker told me of their two most recent singles, Black Mass and Close The Book. It was a curious writing clash, where the first ended up sounding like a cross somewhere between The Cars and Danzig, and the second was more along the lines of The Police. Talk about musical schizophrenia!

“I don’t really have a specific sound for the band,” he explained. “The only thing that has been consistent are the lyrical themes. I write about the choices we have to make in the face of conformity. I feel that as an older artist, it’s my job to forewarn the younger generation about the things I’ve experienced.”

Believe me, this is something you definitely want to hear for yourself. The music is certainly tight, with all of the tracks they’ve released on their Bandcamp page. Their next show is this Saturday over at the Shrunken Head opening for Daymare, and I’ll be on site for a review, as well.

Weedhaven Laughing Academy – Close The Book

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