Mellencamp sideman happy out of the limelight

When John Mellencamp wanted to R-O-C-K in the U-S-A, he called on Mike Wanchic to join him.

Since 1976, Mellencamp and Wanchic have been hitting the same notes. Each single and each album that sank into obscurity or erupted like a songcano, they did it together. Wanchic has been Mellecamp's chief guitar player for the past 40 years, sometimes also working as Mellencamp's backup vocalist, keyboard player, mixer, producer and always acting as his friend.

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They were a perfect combination, Wanchic told The Citizen, because Mellencamp was a born frontman, an old fashioned rock star, meanwhile Wanchic loved to walk right beside that kind of persona and never cut in on the spotlight.

"I never had a desire to have my ass to the band, as they say," said the consummate sideman.

He and Mellencamp have raised their kids together, shared their highest triumphs and deepest tragedies, both personal and professional.

They also share a sense of humour. Wanchic joked that his contract with his Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame boss was front-loaded. "I charge for the 22 hours I'm not on stage. I play for free."

Playing music is what he does all day long, and most of the night, throughout most of his life. There's a big difference between working over an instrument to make songs leap out into the world and do that on stage in front of a human mass. They are almost different ways of life, he said, and he gets to fully enjoy both, since he is privileged to have access to some of the world's best recording studios and also gets to stand on some of the world's most exhilarating stages.

"A lot of it has to do with me watching crowds," he said about what feels the most fun for him. "It's really easy to forget how important music is to people, easy to become complacent. I recall one time long ago I was leaving a stage and some dude, a motorcycle-type dude, comes up and says (dropping his voice to mimic the big, manly fan) 'hey man, I just wanna tell ya, ummm, I had a gun to my own head last week and then Check It Out came on, and I took the gun down from my head.' You've got to remember, this stuff is important to people, and music is important to me. My life is marked - as yours is, as time is - by music. There's an obligation that success brings that you've got to respect your audience, respect that these things have life well beyond me going up and playing them on stage. They may be tiresome to me, but they are not to the people who are hearing it."

Wanchic has enjoyed these perspectives from a number of musical mountains. In addition to his life's work with Mellencamp, who is renowned for diversity and breadth in his creative history, there have been scores of other artists who have called him into service. Sometimes it's as a session player, and sometimes it's to produce entire albums.

One of the pinnacle memories in that additional aspect of his career was when Bob Dylan called on him to make some music together.

"Uhhh would you repeat that one more time," Wanchic told the liaison, who was asking if he would be available. "So, dreams do come true."

So many others have put in the same call. Wanchic has played with a lot of the most notable musicians in the industry, and he has been hired to guide the recording sessions and mix-downs of everyone from The Black Crowes to Willie Nelson, James McMurtry to Deborah Vial's project AstroGin, to Vancouver's heavy metal crew Noise Therapy when his manager was the legendary Bruce Allen who set him up alongside mega-producer Bob Rock in Gastown's iconic sound factory The Warehouse.

"Once you're in the room with them, they are all, from Dylan on down, just guys. All that mystique falls away," he said. "Some of the best musicians I've ever met in my life are completely unknown, will always be unknown, have no desire to be known. Success is not the mark that you're the best. It just means you were lucky."

His combination of humility and depth of experience gets him called in as a guest lecturer on a semi-regular basis at the University of Indiana. His advice isn't always rosy to the aspiring performers, but it is always rooted in truths he has gathered from the very best.

"I tell new artists these days to draw a circle 100 miles around your house, and 200 miles around your house, and go pump it full of you," he said. "Do everything you can to try to create that buzz. What else are you going to do? Record companies don't send A&R guys out there anymore to seek out talent. Now they wait until the internet hits on the next thing."

It's not a cynical point of view, however. Despite the collapse of the music industry status quo, he gets excited about modern sounds.

"These days there is so little emphasis on musicianship," he said. "It is so easy to just sample, cut-paste, and create a track that has no real life. But I am seeing the reemergence of real players in the Steven Young Band, Kings of Leon, Cage The Elephant, bands in their 20s and 30s. I think there's a real renaissance of real players and I'm very hopeful."

Two of the younger artists he once took under his wing were right here in B.C. In 1991 he produced the self-titled debut album by Vancouver Island's Sue Medley and in 1994 he helmed the recording of Patricia Conroy's breakthrough album You Can't Resist.

"I had more fun making that record than just about any record I've ever made," he remembered. "For the Conroy sessions I hired the best Nashville players and I hired the best rock players, and I put the two together. And they were all totally geekin' over each other. I put this hybrid band together and the songs were great. I still listen to it once in awhile and think goddam, that was one of the best records I ever made.

"The Medley sessions were interesting because we hired The Goners which was a session band from Louisiana that was working with John Hiatt at the time. The guitarist was one of my heroes, Sonny Landreth, in my opinion the greatest slide guitar player alive. I was a total geek for this guy."

Both those albums won major awards and set the tone for their careers after that.

The album he is most concerned with these days is Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, the latest package by his troubadour brother John Mellencamp. They will be at CN Centre on Sunday night.

Tickets are available at the box office or online at

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