Above: Li’l Wally Jagiello with The Polkaholics. Photo credits: Dick Blau.
Demystified is a new series where Mystery Street Recording Company has an in-depth discussion with some of the artists who have recorded at our facility over the years. If you’ve spent any amount of time playing or seeing shows in the Chicago area, if you haven’t already seen The Polkaholics, chances are you’ve at least seen a Polkaholics sticker stuck to the wall. The group was founded in 1997 by Don Hedeker, formerly of seminal Chicago new wave band Algebra Suicide, and since then, they have been making audiences dance, smile and drink (not necessarily in that order) with a joyous blend of punk rock and polka. In 2009, the band embarked on its most ambitious project, Wally, a polka rock opera based on the life of Chicago polka pioneer Li’l Wally Jagiello, recorded right here at Mystery Street. Demystified talked with Don about Wally and the band’s history in its 20th year; below is an edited transcript.
A: I didn’t grow up into polka, like some of the traditional people in the city had, but I got into it about 20 years ago. I was playing in Algebra Suicide in the 80′s. We used to play at Phyllis’ Musical Inn all the time, and I knew nothing about the history of that street. Apparently, Division Street between Ashland and Western was called Polish Broadway in the 50′s, and it was lined with bars that had polka bands. And that’s where Little Wally made his mark, on that street. So when I was writing him these letters, I told him we were playing on Polish Broadway, and he wrote back saying “you should arrange a show, and I’ll make an appearance!”
At thrift stores, I just saw these records and I was kind of curious about it. It was like, “wow, these people look so happy!” And at that time, there was sort of like a shoegazing movement in rock. The kind of rock music I’ve always enjoyed is the stuff that’s really out there, like glam rock and punk rock. Just stuff where the people are trying to entertain the audience, basically. So I started buying these polka records, and it connected to me with the kind of rock music I liked, because it was DIY. None of these records were on major labels or anything, the artists put them out themselves. And I soon came to realize that Little Wally was like the Muddy Waters of polka music. He’s hugely influential in polka, and his records were just amazing. So I started writing him fan letters, and we played a few shows with him before he passed away.
Q: And he was semi-retired in Florida at this point?
A: Yeah, he retired to Florida pretty early, in the late 60′s. He would come to Chicago about once a year, play at some banquet hall like the White Eagle out in Niles. So in 1999, we set up this show at Zakoipane Lounge, which is on Division there, and the idea was the Polkaholics were going to be his backing band. I thought, “wow, his vocal with our way of playing polka would be super cool. It would give us so much legitimacy right there!” That’s what I thought anyway.
So I picked him up at the airport. We were going to have a practice that day, and then we were going to have the show the next night. At practice, as soon as we start the first song, he yells “no, no, no, no, no!” He was kind of a control freak; he basically neutered us. He said “what’s wrong with your guitar?” I said “it’s distortion.” “I don’t want that!”
Q: He kind of sounds like Chuck Berry – an old school dude who’s got his own way of doing things. He just rolls into town for a show, and you have to follow his lead.
A: It was very much like that movie, “Hail Hail Rock & Roll” – except I’m not Keith Richards! We spent that whole summer trying to learn as many of his songs as we possibly could, and then at that practice he changed the key on everything. It was just a waste of time! So we do the show the next night, and I can’t even tell you how pumped up I was for that show – opening for little Wally was like a dream come true. As we were playing our set, he was at the bar and all these people were buying him shots. So by the time he comes on, he was just tanked! So it was quite an an event, but musically, it wasn’t all that great, really.
So after that happened, I had this crazy idea of “let’s do a polka rock opera about Wally!” It’s sort of chronological in the songs. “Son Of A Gun” is when he’s first born, then “Caldwell Woods” is sort of how he made his mark in the beginning. Caldwell Woods is at Devon and Milwaukee, and on Sundays they would have polka bands playing out there in the afternoon. He was just 10 years old, and there was a polka band out there, and he was singing on the side of the stage and they invited him up – like the Michael Jackson of polka or something – and that’s how it started for him. He would go to these Sunday picnics, and then he started playing in bars at the age of 14. He wasn’t legal, let’s put it that way!
So this guy’s story is unbelievable. He was this child star, and a super hustler. He was first signed to Columbia. He put out two 78′s, but he didn’t like the way they sounded because they brought in their own musicians and just had him singing. He didn’t like that at all, so he said “fuck you, I’m gonna start my own thing!” So he started his own label, Jay Jay Records, started recording with his own band and became a great success. That’s the part of him that really intrigued me. He’s just so punk rock!
Q: I like the fact that there’s so many local references on the songs – it gives Wally a very authentically Chicago flavor.
A: When I was growing up listening to the British Invasion bands, they would sing about England and it seemed so cool, so exotic. Chicago doesn’t seem that exotic, but you should sing about what you know, and so that’s what we did. I grew up around Caldwell Woods, so I went there many many times before knowing it was important in polka history. In fact, after we picked Wally up from the airport that time, we drove over to Caldwell Woods and took some photos there. It was him back at his old stomping grounds.
Q: Rock operas, as well as concept albums and even musicals like Hamilton, all seem to function on several levels simultaneously. They have to have compelling stories as well as being enjoyable to listen to. And you had to make both a great polka album and a great rock album. How did you go about crafting the songs so that they reflected this balance between genres, along with telling a story and flowing well as an album?
A: It sort of gave a direction for the songs. I was thinking about different aspects of his life and and how they might translate to a story, to a song. The music for “I Miss Chicago Again,” is basically Li’l Wally’s biggest hit, “I Wish I Was Single Again.” We sort of used his music and then created a different narrative over it. Same with “Zakopane Waltz.” That’s a song about when we played with him, but it’s also the music for another big song of his, “The Lucky Stomp Waltz.” And the very end is when he died, and “King of Happiness” was trying to summarize things. Having this idea of doing this polka rock opera kind of dictated, you know, “I need a song for this period of his life.”
It was a lot of fun, and working with Joe and Mickey at Mystery Street, they just facilitated it big time and made it a lot better than it would have been anywhere else. They knew what we were going for real quick. What was great about Mystery Street was if we had some crazy idea – and we had a lot of crazy ideas – they were facilitators of those crazy ideas, as opposed to saying “you can’t do that!” They went with us, big time, and I think that makes it that much more interesting.
Q: How did you first find out about Mystery Street?
A: We were practicing there when it was Blue Room, before Joe took it over. We just liked the space and the attitude and everything about it, and so we just recorded a few things there as well. In fact, we’ve recorded everything since the third CD over there – I think we recorded Polka Uber Alles there, but we had an external engineer, Scott Ramsayer, do that one.
Q: I assume that Wally was a Pro Tools recording?
A: Yeah. I don’t think The Polkaholics have ever recorded to tape actually. The first one was on ADAT. The great thing about recording with Pro Tools it gives you a lot of flexibility, no doubt about it. The bad thing is that you can wind up with 20 tracks that you now have to mix and edit. In the old days, when we would record to tape, you did a lot of editing before recording, whereas with recording onto the computer, a lot of times bands go in and put down everything and you spend so much time editing. We’re a little bit more on the side of doing things ahead of time and not having to spend a billion hours editing. Especially with what we’re doing, it’s not about perfection, it’s about the whole feeling of the thing, and that’s way more important than hitting the note perfectly.
Q: Were there any rock operas that were particularly influential when writing or recording Wally?
A: We tried to merge some aspects of Wally’s music with The Who. On some of those songs like “Division Street,” “Teacher” –
Q: “Sea And Sand” even shares the name with a track on Quadrophenia.
A: Precisely! We all had this notion of “What would it sound like if The Who played polka music?”
Q: What was your approach for recording guitar on Wally?
A: What I would do often is play my live sound, and then go back and do the same thing using a beefier kind of sound to bring those together. And again, I was trying to get a Pete Townshend kind of sound. There are some songs, like the solo on “Son Of A Gun,” where I worked it out ahead of time, but some of the stuff is on-the-spot. Over the years, I’ve had this experience where the first time you play something, you can’t recreate that. It’s got that kind of energy, the spark, all that. So I think some of the stuff we went in with that idea, to not have everything nailed down ahead of time to give us some flexibility there.
Q: How much say did you have during mixing and mastering?
A: I think the way we did it was we said, “you go ahead and do a first pass, and then we’ll add input as we go.” It’s good to give people flexibility, it brings out the best in them, I think. If you’re just dictating everything, that limits creativity. So we gave Joe and Mickey a bit of a free rein on things, because they know what they’re doing and they have cool ideas. They have ideas I would never come up with, so why would I want to limit that?
The Polkaholics will be celebrating their 20th anniversary with a show at Phyllis’ Musical Inn on November 25th at 9pm. For more information about the band, visit their website at http://polkaholics.wixsite.com/polkaholics.