IN TALKING about the pantheon of awesome old Athens bands over the years, one that’s still touring and kicking ass on a pretty much nightly basis might not be first on your lips.
But one of those great Athens names that’s still very much in the present and still melting faces all over the country belongs to The Woggles.
This quintessential garage rock quartet has preached the gospel of rowdy three-chord raunch ‘n’ roll-with-little-bit-of-soul since its inception in the late 1980s. They still amaze with the kinetic energy of their live shows, described by many attendees as akin to a religiously ecstatic experience.
In fact, The Woggles just came off a solid week of gigs at SXSW, with some reports out of Austin saying they put a lot of the much-younger acts to shame.
The Woggles are fronted by tambourine-wielding wildman Mighty Mighty Manfred, aka the Professor. Manfred is known to music aficionados all over the country as longtime DJ on SiriusXM’s “Underground Garage” channel, curated by his friend Little Steven of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
(Indeed, Manfred is one of the longest-serving DJs in the entire burgeoning field of satellite radio.)
The lone guitar spot is ably handled by “The Flesh Hammer,” formerly of Guadalcanal Diary. Dan Elektro is on drums, and Buzz Hagstrom is the bassist. Their newest record, The Big Beat, was produced by Athens recording guru David Barbe. It came out last year and is as fresh-sounding and hard-rocking as their very first EP in 1990.
In their first time back in Savannah in about 8 years, The Woggles play the Jinx on Thursday night, April 24, with longtime local sludge-rock veterans Superhorse – no stranger to sweaty garage rock shows themselves – as openers.
NOTE: This show will start at 10 p.m. sharp — a good bit earlier than the typical Jinx show.
I think it’s cool you’re always mentioned as an Athens band, even though y’all haven’t really lived in Athens for nearly 20 years.
Mighty Manfred: We were in Athens for a good ten years, before most of us moved to Atlanta by 1997, and from there to points beyond. I'm in L.A. now, Dan Elektro's in Alabama. Our connection to Athens now is we have friends and family there. It's a real welcome-home spot. I'm familiar with some of the people that play around there, but I wouldn't know who is on top of the local pecking order!
It's good to see stripped-down garage rock making such a big comeback with a young audience. But I always tell people, Dex Romweber was doing the whole crash-bang guitar+drummer duo thing in Athens years ago, long before Jack White or The Black Keys.
Manfred: And Dex is still doing it today! It speaks to the fact that music is universal and yet each person's discovery is unique to their own self. It's like how kids never come to terms with the fact that their parents must have had sex at some point. Their discovery of something is always that they're the first and only one.
We’ve had the good fortune to be just ahead and just behind that curve so that we can remain at this grassroots level. We’ve created not as much a fanbase as an extended family. It’s a base that enables us to travel around the world and entertain, but not be encumbered with the albatross of too much success (laughs).
You guys just got back from playing SXSW. The videos from that look incredible. What’s your assessment?
Manfred: Our first time at SXSW was in 1994. The local music alt-weekly in Athens, the Flagpole, nominated us to be the magazine's representative at the festival. We went and that time it was pretty great. We let Johnny Cash open for us (laughs). That was of course when Johnny Cash was sort of being reintroduced. His first record with Rick Rubin had just come out, and they wanted to introduce him to a younger audience. So we like to couch it in terms of giving Johnny Cash another shot. We allowed him to open for us (laughs).
Periodically we’ve gone back every couple of years since then. We’ve learned we get a lot more out of it when we spend the whole week in Austin playing shows, as opposed to just playing a few gigs. This year, it worked out to about one show a day the entire week. There was one day when we played two gigs!
Your SiriusXM show is great, but some of the other DJs will play things like Frankie Valli. Not that there’s anything wrong with Frankie Valli, but that doesn’t seem like “underground garage” to me.
Manfred: It's important to point out that the station does indeed represent Little Steven's vision. So in that sense what you have is an amalgam of rock 'n' roll from different genres. They are in Little Steven's mind what constitutes the best of different types, blues, rhythm 'n' blues, rockabilly, surf stuff, what we think of as '60s garage rock, contemporary sounds. It's a wide tent, and it features the best of all different offshoots.
How much of what you're doing with SiriusXM is entertainment, and how much are you trying to school people on the history of rock 'n' roll?
Manfred: We're taking them to class, and the class is recess! (laughs) It's supposed to be fun. It's a musical exercise in fun. About how all these different aspects were formulated and what they became, and how they all relate back to one another.
Woggles live shows have always been and still are legendary for their high-energy.
Manfred: We'll play a show and some younger band with younger guys will play with us. Afterward they'll say, "Don't take this the wrong way, but I can't believe you old guys keep it up like that the whole time. We wish we could be like that. Do you have any advice?"
And my advice is always: Quit. If you can’t keep up, get out of the way.
I say, you’re absolutely right. You can’t keep up with us. Just quit. Now. (laughs)
It’s like what the great drummer Buddy Rich would tell kids who would come up to him and ask how they can play like him. Buddy would say, “you can never play as good as me, so just give it up now.”
Of course there’s a whole psychology going on there, so me telling you something like that isn’t going to dissuade you, isn’t actually going to get you to quit.
I do think younger bands emphasize great live shows more than maybe ten years ago. Do you think because downloading has taken so much money out of the recording side, bands just get better at playing live because that’s really the only way to make any money now?
Manfred: I'm not sure to what degree that plays into the calculus, because those bands who didn't need to tour all the time were probably getting ripped off all along by record companies anyway (laughs). For most bands though, the only way to make ends meet is to perform.
And here you guys are touring behind a new album, The Big Beat, out in 2013. It's a fantastic record, the sound just pops.
Manfred: It's popcorn rock 'n' roll. Because it pops! That's the kernel of truth! (laughs)
Did you guys just let it go in David's studio and record whatever happened, or what?
Manfred: Before we go into the studio we usually make a point to get together in Athens, where The Flesh Hammer has got a nice house and a nice-sized basement. We'll work on songs there.
If you look through our songwriting credits you’ll see that everyone contributes. Everyone has ideas. It’s not just one great song rewritten by the same guy six different times on an album. We try and work out most things ahead of time, but if there’s a happy accident going on, that has to be pursued!
I have to ask, since some reading this will only know the name The Woggles from the 30 Rock episode parodying the kids show The Wiggles: NBC didn’t know there was a real-life kick-ass band called The Woggles? What’s up with that?
Manfred: Yeah, what is up with that? THAT'S WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DON'T TRADEMARK YOUR NAME!! (laughs) Don't worry, Jim, that's taken care of now!