Bink and you’ll miss them but if you’re free around 4pm on Saturday then Download‘s Dogtooth Stage is the place to be. New Earache signings Massive Wagons are rolling into Donington and the band caught up with HRH Mag Editor Simon Rushworth for an exclusive chat.
It’s a freezing cold Friday night as the Beast From The East makes an unwelcome return to Tyneside. The shutters are down, the gritters are out and there are even a couple of local lasses wearing coats as they bounce around the Bigg Market. It’s that chilly.
But those looking to warn their cockles and seek sanctuary from a biting wind need look no further than the city’s Think Tank? venue where a hardy group of rock and roll fans are huddled together watching the rising stars of the British live scene.
Massive Wagons face the long trek to Southampton the following day (who books these tours!) but that’s tomorrow. Tonight is all about taking the Toon on a breakneck journey through a bullish back catalogue boasting more singalong anthems than you could shake a stick at. And leading the way is the Wagons’ whirlwind Pest From The North West, Barry Mills. Not for the first time, he’s on fire.
The mercury might be dipping below zero on the streets of Newcastle but you get the feeling that frontman Mills could work up a sweat neck deep in an ice bath in the middle of the Arctic Circle. Dripping with the stuff – and liberally spraying band mates and fans in the process – his devotion to the cause is unquestionable. Midway through the band’s UK headline tour, and with Wagons’ Earache debut Full Nelson in the can, these are heady days for a bloke who started playing the bass before he realised he ‘could sing a bit’.
“I feel I’m a lot better than I was,” said the modest singer from behind his trademark beard. “You get better at anything if you stick at it don’t you? Not that I’ve had any lessons or anything. I’ve never professed to be a singer. I was a latecomer to it.”
If that’s the case then pocket rocket Mills is making up for lost time. Nobody inside Think Tank? would imagine the Wagons’ singer landed the mic by accident and as frontmen go he’s a natural. Better than that, Mills looks like he actually enjoys his job at a time when too many shoe-gazing peers prefer to be too cool for school.
“The band didn’t have a singer,” he recalled as he looked back on the Wagons’ early days. “They had a guy called Rob on bass who then met me in a boozer one night and asked if I wanted to have a go at singing. We learned a few covers Sabbath and Priest covers, played in Barry the drummer’s garage, pissed his neighbours off a lot and took it from there.
“Nobody else would have a go. I was mates with the band, I drank with them and I was like ‘I don’t really care what you fucking think to be honest, I’ll have a go’. If my singing was crap they’d just tell me to naff off anyway. I wasn’t really bothered but I went to play with them and it was good craic. So I became a singer – imagine that!”
Having chanced upon an unfamiliar role, Mills wasn’t about to drop the ball. The Wagons are fuelled by refreshing optimism, burning ambition and a brutal honesty. It’s how they roll and always has been.
“We’ve always surrounded ourselves with people we trust,” added Mills. “People who tell us how it is. We have always made a point of having people around us who will tell us if something is crap.
“Honesty is the key. The first time we jammed together with me on vocals we had a few mates down and we were like ‘look, if this is crap, just tell us it’s crap’. I wasn’t going to make a fool of myself doing this but they said it sounded ok. That was good enough for me. I like the fact that there’s room for improvement. It keeps me keen.”
Those same mates are still the go-to sounding board for all things Wagons. The band are nervously awaiting feedback on Full Nelson – due in August – but where that album is concerned the dye is cast. There’s no going back. The Wagons roll on.
“We are our own biggest critic,” explained founder member and lead guitarist Adam Thistlethwaite. “I’m very critical of what we do but I think you have to be. I will always finish an album and think the next one will be better. I have had to stop myself saying that! It’s just too much pressure!”
Nevertheless, the sentiment will be music to Earache’s ears. The label fought off stiff competition to snap up a band previously signed the Hard Rock Hell’s Off Yer Rocka Recordings and have earmarked Massive Wagons as potential saviours of the British rock and roll scene.
“It took years before we thought we could actually be a proper band,” added Mills. “Me and Adam had actually played in a cover band for a year before I joined the Wagons. It was just for fun but we had the same interests and both wanted to have a go at writing music. We actually started writing some songs for that band but nothing came of it. We put it on the backburner.”
Mills’ decision to pick up the mic prompted a fresh assault on songwriting. Fast forward to 2018 and the Wagons are renowned for penning catchy rock anthems made for whipping crowds into a frenzy and soundtracking radio playlists the world over.
“Listening back to the first songs we wrote I guess they are a bit cringeworthy,” added Mills. “But at the time they don’t feel that like that. Songwriting, like singing, is something you get better at the more you do it. Or at least I hope it is!”
Thistlethwaite echoes his band mate’s sentiments and added: “I think we learned quite quickly what works, what doesn’t and what we’re about. We learned early on when to say that is enough – which is what a lot of bands struggle with. They have a great song but they feel the need to over-complicate things you know. We also learned to naff a song off if it’s not working. You know – why waste time?”
Efficiency is another of Massive Wagons’ most endearing attributes. Watch Mills race through the band’s rapid-fire set and not a minute is lost. There’s time for the banter, time for the solos and time for the heartfelt thank-yous to the two support bands. But every second counts. And every chorus matters.
“Maybe other bands have a different outlook on what they want to do,” added Mills. “We just wanted to write catchy songs. Some bands don’t, do they? Some bands write doomy or proggy stuff but it’s not about that for us. We wanted to write catchy songs for people to sing and dance to. But sometimes it seems like we’ve been bucking the trend.”
Or starting a brand new trend. As more and more people jump aboard the juggernaut that is Massive Wagons it seems as if there’s still an appreciation for balls-to-the-wall rock and roll, where entertainment is everything and little else matters. Whether Mills and Thistlethwaite have tapped into a latent scene – or created one of their own – really doesn’t matter. The word is getting out there and the word is Wagons. The hard work has finally paid off.
“It hasn’t been an easy ride,” admitted Thistlethwaite. “But I can honestly say that I’ve never thought about knocking the band on the head. Deep down it’s never crossed my mind. I don’t think I’d ever do that.”
“And what else would I do,” chipped in Mills. “There’s not a lot to do in Carnforth!”
Thistlethwaite added: “We’re just of the opinion that if other people can do it then we can do it and if all it takes is hard work that’s great. We can all work hard. Anyone can if they out their mind to it. We set targets – I don’t mind admitting that. We’ve always said that if we are not doing this by this time then it’s time to start thinking about calling it a day. But it has always been a building process for this band and we’re still growing. In the last 18 months, since the release of the last album, it’s steadily got bigger and bigger.”
“The reason we have carried on is because this band has always been on an upward trajectory,” agreed Mills. “However slow or fast we keep moving forward. For us it needs to keep getting more interesting and it needs to keep being fun and it needs to feel like we’re going somewhere. As soon as you start treading water then it just becomes a slog.”
Watch Mills wrap the Newcastle crowd in the sweaty palm of his clenched left hand and it’s impossible to conceive Massive Wagons grinding to a halt anytime soon. This is a band driven by a desire to do their very best – and sod the rest. Worthy winners of the inaugural Rising Stars gong at the 2017 HRH Awards, the infectious quintet are fuelled by an ever-present determination to outshine their past and light up the future.
“People always talk about making it,” mused Mills. “You get bands saying ‘I would love to make it’. I have never really understood exactly what that means. To make it? I’m sure it means different things to different people but to me it means being taken seriously as a band and reaching a level where your stuff is going to be there forever.
“I think we can achieve that now. Without HRH and Off Yer Rocka we wouldn’t be where we are now and we’ll be forever grateful to those guys. But Earache have been around a long time and they have a massive reputation. They are so well respected and so whatever happens to us now we have made it to a level where we are part of rock history. To be on a label like Earache is hugely significant – they have created genres and they have taken bands that were obscure and weird and made them massively popular.
“That’s what buzzes me. I’m not bothered about making money – although a bit would be nice! Essentially, I just want to leave a legacy. I want to be one of these bands in years to come that is still being written about in magazines. Long after we’ve knocked it on the head people will say here are the 10 best Massive Wagon albums you can buy. That’s the dream. That’s also quite a bit of work. But we’ve got to get to Southampton first.”
Exclusive images by HRH Mag Festivals Photographer Simon Dunkerley
*The full version of this feature first appeared in the latest issue of HRH Mag – out now!