Local power-pop heroes The Wigs, who left Milwaukee for Los Angeles in the early 1980s, return to town for a combination reunion show and CD release party Saturday night at Shank Hall.
The band's 1981 record "File Under: Pop Vocal," a steady seller on eBay and other fan sites, has been remixed on a CD that will include two previously unreleased songs. Original members Jim Cushinery, Marty Ross, Bobby Tews and Bob Pachner will reunite for the Shank show to play tunes from the CD as well as the movie "My Chauffeur," which featured eight Wigs songs and the band's first on-screen appearance.
We chatted with Cushinery via e-mail about the band's history, the record and the upcoming gig.
OnMilwaukee.com: Some of our readers will remember seeing your gigs back in the early 1980s. Others weren't born yet. Can you recap the band's history?
Jim Cushinery: The Wigs proper -- Jim Cushinery, Marty Ross, Bobby Tews and Bob Pachner -- played their first show in February 1980 at Marquette University. In 1981, Bob Pachner left the band shortly before we recorded "File Under: Pop Vocal" ("FUPV"). The record topped the college radio and local sales charts, but we just weren't getting any traction on the scale to which we aspired, so we decided to hang it up. Our farewell show on July 4, 1982 broke an attendance record at Summerfest's rock stage.
Bobby and I moved to L.A. and Marty followed shortly after. It was a definite leap into the big leagues. Our competition in the clubs included Los Lobos, Jane's Addiction, Guns & Roses and Motley Crue. The toughest part was that the power pop scene was dying. We made the choice to add Val McCallum on lead guitar, and I switched to bass. For better or worse, that had a massive impact on the band's dynamic. It was around that time we did the film "My Chauffeur" and signed on with a management company that turned out to be owned by Stanley Polley, the notorious manager of Badfinger.
CBS Records put us in the studio with an up and coming producer. They were not sure of the results, so they sent us back to the studio, this time with Rick Springfield's producer and Prince's engineer. This time, the label was thrilled with the results, but unfortunately, as we were mixing the tracks, CBS called a "Black Friday" and the people on our A&R team got the axe, so there was no one left at the label to champion our cause. We were rather unceremoniously dropped.
There was pretty much no place for us to go, so Marty pursued an acting career with a part on the "New Monkees" television show and that was that. There was no acrimony between us regarding Marty's decision. We all wanted to be successful and understood how precious opportunities are. If anything killed The Wigs, it was that we didn't believe strongly enough in our own taste and talent to not follow the massive amounts of horrible advice we were getting from all sides.
OMC: How would you describe the Milwaukee music scene in the early 1980s? Who were the big stars? When you guys were coming up, who were you excited to go see and what clubs were you pumped about playing?
JC: I gather from the musicians I know in Milwaukee that (that) time may be the last era of a truly great music scene in town. There were a lot of bands making some very inventive music -- The Haskels, The Oil Tasters, and Youth In Asia. The Shivvers, Yipes and (Chicago's) Off Broadway were all terrific pop bands and there some very talented traditional rock bands like Arroyo, White Lie and Bad Boy. That was a pretty diverse scene and The Wigs did our best to pluck fans from all genres. Teddy's (now Shank Hall) was our home. Playing The Palms was always exciting, because it usually meant an opening slot for a touring act. The Starship was depressing, but we enjoyed it. Zak's was always fun.
OMC: When you moved to L.A., what did the band think when the Femmes and BoDeans achieved a measure of success. Was there a sense of "Milwaukee pride?" or was it a sense of "That should have been us"?
JC: A measure? They killed. There were actually six bands that got signed to major labels from Milwaukee within two years of us leaving town. We were thrilled for them. The Wigs never bought into local rivalry. I will say that at first we thought it was ironic, but there were probably 50 bands that didn't get deals. Our success or failure had nothing to do with anyone else's. The real irony came when the BoDeans' label turned us down flat,
without even hearing a song, because we were from Milwaukee and they had "already signed a band from there."
OMC: What was it like recording "File Under: Pop Vocal?"
JC: It was intense, wonderful. We were at Madison Street Studios in Waupun 24/7 -- slept on the floor. It's funny looking back at all the people who tried to guide our career, Nick Kuzulka, who produced "FUPV" was probably the only person who actually understood us. We worked with some people who apparently had no idea what band they were dealing with, the choices they made.
OMC: How did the "My Chauffeur" thing come about? What are your two favorite stories from that experience?
JC: The director, David Beaird, approached us after our show at what is now the Viper Room in Hollywood. We pretty much blew him off, because we were constantly getting approached by people who wanted to use our music for no money. But he came to our next show and brought the film's producer with him, so it seemed pretty legit. I have two favorite memories: David fell in love with The Wigs and decided to use eight of our songs in the soundtrack.
They edited the film around some demos that we didn't have the right to license and I got summoned to the office of the chairman of Crown Pictures. I had a nasty flu and a temperature of 102 when I walked in and faced a battery of lawyers and a very unhappy producer. That was my first taste of real business in Hollywood. I went home and vomited. Then, when the film was released, there was a big controversy because "our little film that could" surprised everyone and beat out "The Color Purple" at the box office. That probably got the film more press than it otherwise would have. But in all the reviews, no matter how much they may have slammed the film, everyone gave The Wigs the thumbs up.
Marty did the "New Monkees" for one season and has had a successful career writing music for television shows, including "Nash Bridges." I've been bouncing between film and music -- was with a band on Interscope called Fisher (the most downloaded band on the Internet at one point) and probably achieved my biggest notoriety singing the theme songs for the "Power Rangers."
Bobby Tews returned to Milwaukee and played drums with a faith-based bluegrass band called Blue Grace. Val McCallum is a very much in-demand session guitarist and Bob Pachner is a doctor.
The Internet is probably responsible for the remix of "FUPV." Once people could locate us, the requests started pouring in. There have been discussions about The Wigs on IMDB.com, Audities and other pop music sites. It's a real source of pride for us that if you can find a good copy of "FUPV," it will set you back around $400.
Once we decided to issue a CD, Marty and I fell into the idea of remixing the record from the original two-inch tapes. That gave us the opportunity to right a couple wrongs that had been nagging at us the past 27 years, and finally stand up for our own choices. This project has been five years in the making and there has been little to no compromise involved.
Though we made changes, we kept true to our original vision, which was no easy task, given that we have 20-plus years of experience under our belts. It would have been very easy to re-record all the parts and make them sound "today," but we made the conscious decision to rediscover the head space we were in back then. Some fans may not like the changes we made to 'their' record, but they will have to understand that this is now the record we always intended to put out back then, including two tracks that were left off the original vinyl pressing -- our first brush with bad advice.
The best offshoot of this whole project is that Marty and I have had a blast doing the work, especially the last few weeks as we've been sliding into home. We've come to a place where the things between us that were originally endearing and became irritating, are now endearing again.
OMC: What kind of show can people expect at Shank Hall?
JC: God willing, one of our good ones. We will play all of "FUPV," plus a selection of " My Chauffeur" tracks and a few other goodies, ending up with what is sure to be a fun train wreck as we devolve into our alter-band-ego, The Merkins, which features members of Arroyo and anyone else we can con into jumping up on stage with us.
OMC: Sounds like it's going to be a pretty happy reunion...
JC: Let me stress that we are far from bitter. No, The Wigs did not hit the goal we set for ourselves, but we had set that goal as high as possible.
Having gone through the major label machine, we're all too aware of the enormous role that luck plays in success. Far better artists than The Wigs failed, so we don't harbor any ill will toward the universe.
I am frequently reminded of the successes we did have when musician friends listen to my stories with a tinge of envy. We did something that touched people firmly enough that 27 years later, there is still demand for what we put out in the world. Can't ask for much better than that.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.