By Kelsey Simpkins
For a band comprised of two guys with a highly compatible musical and personal chemistry, one could think the name Wingman was chosen with great purpose. Yet like the manner in which they met, for Con Davison and Dan Stewart, there has always been more chance than fate at hand in how Wingman came to be. And oh how grateful I am that chance has ruled the day. Their debut release, Honcho, out June 10, 2016, is poised to rival the best releases this year both locally and nationally. Infused with the simple ease of great songwriting, multi-instrumentalist mentalities, and the product of top of the line production, Wingman’s Honcho demonstrates the true power of what an indie rock duo can do.
“Let’s have it be us”
Davison and Stewart met through playing in Minneapolis’ Ancient Mariner (project of Gabriel Jorgensen) only in the last few years.
“But we weren’t working on any of this stuff, this didn’t exist,” Davison explains, motioning to Wingman’s practice space. “And while in Ancient Mariner… in October 2014, I went to Colorado to record four tunes that were going to just be me. Went, did that, and was going to mix it myself, do all this crap. And I ended up just hating all the tunes. It’s a miserable experience.
“The songs were great, and I showed them to Dan, and Dan was like ‘these are really really cool.’ Didn’t know what to do with it, and then me and Dan just started sitting and hashing out ideas on these tunes… finished them up. And through that process, there’s a very clear – we worked really well together on those two – it was like ‘why don’t we make this a thing, put a name on it’ – and have it be, let’s not have it be me… let’s have it be us.”
“Then after that we really started writing,” Stewart confirms.
“That was the catalyst.”
So in February of 2015, a month or two before their first single, “Drunk World,” was released, Wingman was born. The name was picked randomly and adopted, but it is aptly fitting; watching Davison and Stewart interact, as they finish each other’s thoughts, it’s apparent they reside on the same wavelength.
The two traded a “thousand phone memo things,” as Stewart puts it, and by June 2015, they had released another single, “Gunman.” These two tunes – except for “My Path, My God” on Honcho – were the last remnants of Davison’s fruitless recording session in Colorado.
This debut LP then, only took one year to write, mix, master, produce, and physically assemble. One calendar year is an amazingly short period of time to accomplish a complete album these days. Davison attributes it to the fact that, except for the carry-over of his first four tunes, “Everything else has been unbelievably collaborative. All the stuff I wrote by myself was good, but the stuff with Dan is so much better. We balance each other out.”
And while they looked for other band members to round out the ensemble, committed persons never stuck around to fit the bill. “We’re really stoked on the duo thing and never being ‘a band.’ We’ve embraced that, but it wasn’t intentional,” Davison points out. Yet as the two look at each other, they agree, “It’s fitting.”
Their release show at Icehouse will be their second gig ever as Wingman, having only previously played Turf Club as an opener the other month. They will be joined by professional musicians Levi Stugelmeyer and Steve Bosmans on drums and guitar, who are doing it in part because they like the album so much.
For the making of Honcho, Davison and Stewart teamed up with the best of the best: Brett Bullion, who mixed, and Huntley Miller, who mastered it.
“We tracked and engineering and did everything ourselves,” Steward casually explains, “and then we packaged it all up and sent it off to Brett Bullion.”
So how does a mostly unknown band get in touch with top tier Minneapolis talents? You Google them, apparently.
“Right when I moved here, I googled ‘Minneapolis recording engineer’ and Bullion was like, search number five,” Davison jokingly recalls. “I remember listening, he had assistant engineered on a Now, Now track, and that Now, Now record’s great… And he did Tungsten’s record. Really really liked everything I heard, so I said ‘I know what I want, I’ll go hang out with him.’ And then went to go, just sit at his studio and we talked a few hours… We tried to work together a bunch of times, timing never worked out… Every two or three months we hang out, and ‘What are we gonna do? When are we going to do a record?!’ I’m like, ‘I’m trying, working on it!’ That was another, just missed interaction that finally worked out.”
Bullion is known for his work with Bad Bad Hats, John Mark Nelson, Polica, Holidae, and much, much more. Stewart adds: “He was the only guy we thought about really, after having half worked with him… so many times. Just the right kind of guy.”
Late in the Game
Most of the initial songs they wrote together last spring didn’t make it on the record, except for “Giant Microphone.” Then Davison was gone over the summer, and they had a big demo weekend in the fall of 2015.
“Everything else is kind of fairly late in the year that we’ve been together, in the second six months,” Stewart reveals.
So not only is Wingman the band quite new, this album’s tunes are crisp as they come. As someone who gets annoyed when a local radio station proclaims they play “new music,” and most songs aired are two years old, Wingman provides fresh fodder for the ears that is true to its timing.
The key to this quick turnaround is the tight center around which Davison and Stewart spin. Going back and forth constantly with ideas, Davison and Stewart draw heavily on rhythm section experience (drums and bass) to form a solid construction over which melodies and harmonies and lyrics can form. Whereas many bands’ songs emanate from a lead vocalist, these two share duties of head honcho – but good luck telling them apart. Like their mindsets and musical skills, Davison and Stewart’s vocal timbres align as ideal compliments.
“Con’s usually the spark of the idea guy,” Stewart elaborates, “Then we bring it together, and I’m the cut the fat guy, throw out the junk and keep the good. He’s a mass producer, there’s plenty for me to be like, ‘I’m on board with that, that’s a great idea,’ and then we’ll work on it. Otherwise it’ll just go in your pile of stuff that doesn’t go anywhere yet.”
While they take the music seriously, the laid back demeanor of these two makes it seem all too easy. Stewart explained that “Much” came about while he was up at a cabin, and, “I wrote down these words, whatever.” He showed them to Davison, “And he was like ‘here’s a kick ass melody for these words.’”
They’re both big Beatles fans, and went to the recent Paul McCartney show together. Other modern likes include David Bazan, The Shins, and Delta Spirit – all fantastic songwriters, like Wingman themselves. Stewart praises James Mercer’s (The Shins) melodies for being consistently “non-conventional but memorable,” and I’d say the exact same for their own result, Honcho.
“Being the boss”
Honcho – now that’s a word you don’t go around hearing, or using, every day. Perhaps that’s what makes it both uniquely curious and memorable.
While throwing around possible titles, they initially thought it might be a good band name. Getting down to it, however, “A lot of the tracks on the record… talk about essentially, crappy situations and like, taking control of said crappy situations,” Davison explains. “So there’s the tune about getting some money stolen from you, and then there’s the tune about being really anxious and dealing with it. There’s a lot of more cryptic things, but end of the day… taking control of said situation whether that’s something in your own noggin or an actual physical thing.”
“Being the boss,” Stewart summarizes, “Of that thing that you’re dealing with.”
And the horse on the album art?
“They’re bossy,” Stewart says, and Davison laughs. Alluding to Weezer, he jokes: “Maybe one day it will be referred to as ‘the horse album.”
Davison gets more honest, expanding on the concept of taking control: “Dan and I both have been in projects where we aren’t doing all the things that we want to do musically, and so that’s another thing, too. This is one hundred percent everything that me and Dan want to hear. And we’re just playing that. And writing about the same thing.”
“This is the first project that I’ve been a part of that I am not only a supporting character. Honestly, I’ve only ever just played bass in groups,” Stewart admits. “And I’ve contributed to the writing… but I was never the main guy. So that, too, is taking a lot more ownership for this project, way more than I ever have. So the whole boss, head honcho thing, really sits well for the whole way that this has gone for me, especially.”
Their first single off the album, “Giant Microphone,” could be the poster child for this motto. “I’ll fight it, I’ll fight it, no hands and no knives and no guns,” Davison airs confidently in the chorus. He explains it’s about a situation in a previous year that left him frustrated and in a big of a pickle. Yet his reaction through the song was, “Okay, this happened, this sucks, I’m going to figure this situation out myself, and deal with it.”
Honestly, what better way than to voice your anger than to decide, “I’ll write a pop song about it”?
The other tunes are what Stewart would describe as vignettes, “writing about being bummed,” or whatever moody indie rockers supposedly do in their free time.
“The simpler the better”
Honcho, while jam-packed with complicated embellishments that please and delight the ear, is easy to listen to, implying the songs happened naturally. In a way, the end product reflects the beginning of the band: it was just meant to come together.
Davison has a similar motto: “The simpler the better.”
“The big thing that we’re stoked on is that none of the tunes on the record were hard to make. To write. Anytime me and Dan work on a song, that’s like 4 hours, song’s done, cool that’s a great song – “
“ – whether we use it or not – we’ll finish it,” Stewart chimes in. “There’s definitely something for those people who fight with their songs while they write them or whatever, but our formula is – I mean we bang out heads against the ones we like you know – but if we don’t like it, we don’t work on it. So we have to both be seeing where it’s going.”
“End of the day, me and Dan always want to make simple music that we really like.” Davison explains, “Sometimes there’s something really powerful about, you sit down, you pick up a guitar, you write something that’s a very simple jam. The simpler the better.”
“It’s definitely our best way to get things out. To each his own.”
Stewart also highlights that, “There were a few, we were like, that song just existed, it fell down onto our heads. And we… loved it so much.”
“It’s like there’s this ether of songs, you stick your net up at the right time,” Davison mimics with his hands, “and you get something, and you’re like ‘dope, that’s mine!’”
And while they have enough material to do another record, the plans is to hang out on this “for a minute,” and explore other show opportunities, touring, and becoming more of a live band.
“It’s super new for us as a live project,” Davison acknowledges. “Currently, we thrive as sitting in the studio and hashing out an idea. Creating music to listen to we’re really good at right now… But I think we both would like to explore actually going on a tour, and all of that.”
Stewart continues: “We’ve played them in the studio a thousand times, but playing them for people, seeing how we act…”
“…and how the songs, studio songs, how they actually work live. It’s challenging. So now, everything we’re writing, all the tunes we have going forward…” Davison ponders, “Can this be played exactly like the recording live without any extra embellishment from somebody else?”
“Making sure we can accurately transfer, as much as possible… There’s always things that happen in the studio that are those magic moments… but no one will ever hear it except for when they put headphones on,” Stewart concedes.
Loving a band’s music live as well as recorded is a marker of quality in today’s industry. If it can be performed as well, or better, than the version you hear at home, you know they’re legit. Plus, you often end up with fans for life, who will keep coming back for more.
Stewart concludes, “That’s important to our sound.”
And I have no doubts about Wingman’s abilities on stage – or the success that should deservedly follow.
Come see Wingman play live! They are joined at their release show (tonight) by three-piece Tungsten, described by Wingman as “awesome” and having “Weezer-Bazan vibes.” Then the official release of debut LP Honcho is June 10, 2016. Buy it here!
Wingman Honcho Release Show
Icehouse, June 9, 2016 at 10 PM
$8 / $10 door