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Meet WANZ, The 53-Year-Old Former Software Tester Who You Know As The Singer In Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”

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Wanz left work at his software testing job to sing the hook you have all come to know and love, “I’m gonna pop some tags, only got $20 in my pocket…” A story about never giving up, because you never really know when it’s your time.

You’ve probably watched the famous video “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore. If you haven’t, or if you just want to see it again, it’s currently the #14th most watched video on YouTube in the entire world.

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to hang out with Michael Wansley, better known as WANZ. During that time, I came to learn that he was an underground musician who had thought his chance at the big-time was well behind him. This truly inspiring interview will give you a peek into the wonderful person and story that is Wanz.

JACK REYNOLDS: What are your thoughts about this screenshot?
YouTube_Mobile_Wanz

WANZ: Hahaha, the screen shot that happens at 2:53 seconds into the “Thrift Shop” video?  Let’s just say, that’s the world’s introduction to Wanz!  It always makes me smile, and looking back on the last 2 years, the most incredible journey of my life. I’m quite grateful, humble and thankful for everything!

JACK REYNOLDS: For those that don’t know, what was your performing history like?

WANZ: After moving [to Seattle] in 1986 as a member of a pop/punk/rock cover band from Ellensburg named Boys Will Be Boys, I got a job at the now extinct Tower Records-U. Dist.  After about a month, that band broke-up, and I formed Bag O’Nasty with Damon Logan, Chris Friel and Michel Wenke (RIP) but we never got much traction.  By ’89, I had formed another group called Life Ring.  We were between Living Colour and The Red Hot Chili Peppers…powerful, funky and different! For reasons that still escape me, we couldn’t draw an audience.  Folks were more into this new thing that was labeled ‘grunge’ and after about 5 years, we called it quits.

I had a short stint with my old friends Steve Pearson (The Heats, The Rangehoods, British Racing Green), Steve Aliment (The Yanks(from SF), No Cheese Please) and Steve Kathan (Paul Rogers) called The Fighting Cocks, but grunge had the world by the balls and straight club rock wasn’t cuttin’ it. Long about ’98, I got a call to front another band which became The Ghetto Monks.  A fun, quirky funk/rock band that was embraced by Mike Gastineau and Dave Grosby of Sports Radio AM 950 fame.  Before we knew it, we were their ‘house band’ providing them with music which they played during their weekday show!  After a couple of CDs and 6 years, we called it quits.

During and after The Monks, I would occasionally sit in with The Rangehoods — I sang in an R&B cover band called Gruuvbox, but was mostly getting into recording at home on my computer.  I was helping raise a family, working as a contracted tester at Microsoft and just writing songs hoping to find that next opportunity, which didn’t come till 2007 when I was asked to play bass in The Robert Stewart Band with David Cameron (Life Ring), Robert Stewart (Paisley Sin, The Fiasco) and Cameron Williams (The Fiasco).  This ‘blue-eyed’ soul band played little places on the east-side mainly till about 2012 when I got the call to tour with Macklemore.

JACK REYNOLDS: What did your life look like / what have you been up to over the years leading up to this?

WANZ: I had always been around the clubs in town either playing or attending shows. I knew many of the promoters, club bookers, radio personalities…but could never seem to get that ‘right’ gig or connect with that ‘right’ person who could/would help my musical aspirations build.  Since grade school, I’d been told by friends that I was gonna be famous one day, and I believed them till about 2008.

My life was kinda in the toilet.  I’d left a long term relationship, wasn’t very close to my kids, hadn’t been successful going from a tester to some kind of computer programmer and music wasn’t happening.  I started believing this little voice inside telling me, “there’s no such thing as an old pop-star.”  …meaning the chances of becoming famous like my friends in Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden or Candlebox were slim to none.  Music had always been the essence of my life and without it, without that sense of purpose to become a star, I was emotionally lost. Depression set in and lasted about 6-8 months.  Thank God I had gotten sober in 1999, else I’m not sure I’d be here today. One evening on MySpace, a drummer friend of mine reminded me of why I did music in the first place.  He reminded me that my love of music was more important than being famous for it.  I began writing songs again.  I began believing in myself again.  I began leaving that childhood dream behind for the reality of ‘it’ not happening for me.

I left Microsoft in 2010 for a software testing job in downtown Seattle and found contentment.  Gainfully employed with a full-time permanent job for the first time in decades, having reconnected with my kids and gotten right with my soul, I thought my life was just gonna play itself out.  I had turned to recording myself, my songs in my apartment content to post them on MySpace, Facebook and ReverbNation so my old friends from grade school, college and the club scene could connect with me and hear what I was up to.  This was my life after ‘the dream’ had faded.

JACK REYNOLDS: How did Macklemore & Ryan Lewis discover you?

WANZ: I got a phone call from a guy named D. Sane who had an independent rap label called Streetlevel Records in Shoreline. He and I had met back in 2000 and I had sung hooks and backgrounds for many of his artists. I had gained the reputation of “Nate Dogg of the Northend” by many rappers and hip-hop heads in N. Seattle.  He asked if I’d ever heard of Macklemore.  I hadn’t.  Turns out Ryan Lewis had called him asking if he knew of any singers that sounded like Nate Dogg. In about an hour, I was meeting Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for the first time.

VIDEO: Wanz describes getting the call from Macklemore:

JACK REYNOLDS: Describe your life at the time when:

WANZ:

  • Macklemore called to record the music video: I was working a day job and hadn’t really thought M&R were that legit.  I thought they were like most of the other rap groups I had sung for; destined for underground popularity but above ground obscurity.  Ryan asked me if I wanted to be in the video and I thought, “why not?”
  • When you left work to record the music video: I got the afternoon off and their manager came to pick me up.  He took me to Leroy’s Menswear on 2nd and Pike.  Through phone communication with Macklemore, the ‘creamcicle suit’ was chosen and I went to the set. I’d never been part of a production like this before with lights, dollies, a really expensive camera, extras… It was kind of surreal for me.

JACK REYNOLDS: What was it like seeing the music video become the (currently) #14th most watched video on YouTube of all time?

WANZ: Well, it wasn’t until the video actually premiered on Aug. 29, 2012 that I actually figured out what was happening.  This Macklemore guy had been touring almost 2 years straight before this.  He’d released more than a few videos and had built a loyal fan base… things I didn’t know the day the video dropped.  So, it was shocking to me that throughout the first hour, the number of views was climbing and climbing. Only then did I think to look at these other videos, his website to see the tour dates, pictures of places and shows he’d already been.  I leaned back in my chair at my desk at work and said to myself, “uh-oh…this is NOT good,” meaning, this guy could be legit! He could be on the verge of breaking through and getting this ‘thrift store’ song on the radio!

After ‘Thrift Shop’ had gone gold, platinum, multi-platinum (in more than a few countries), seeing people completely lose their minds when it came on in clubs…today, it’s still surreal.  I still get people who tweet or Facebook me saying “Thrift Shop just came on the radio and I thought of you!!!” or “I just watched “Thrift Shop” again and it always makes me smile!”  It’s a huge, warm, wet, sloppy fuzzy for me!!!

JACK REYNOLDS: I understand you felt you had long missed your shot at a music career, can you talk about that?

WANZ: In 2012, there hadn’t been an ‘old person’ with a hit record since like Perry Como or Andy Williams (I was guessing). I didn’t feel like kids who buy the majority of music wanted to hear a late 40-something’s music. Hell, they weren’t buying The Eagles, or Jackson Browne…U2 had even fallen off, so why would they pay any attention to me? Watching the music business had been a hobby of mine since junior high school, having worked at a record store for a while, knowing folks in radio, concert promotion, advertising… I had an idea of what kind of song it took to break out, or so I thought.

After going from sharing beers, going to house parties, jams and rehearsals with members of Mokie Blaylock, Soundgarden and AIC, to watching how they went on to fame, I was discouraged.  Somewhere along the way, I had missed my shot and it wasn’t gonna happen for me.  There’s no such thing as an old pop-star…

JACK REYNOLDS: I heard there is an exhibit at Seattle’s Experience Music Project that features “Thrift Shop” and other famous music videos. Talk about that.

WANZ: Now THIS was unexpected! Just after 2013 had begun and ‘Thrift’ was getting airplay, I needed to get a new suit. With the rigors of touring, the original was getting pretty tattered.  So after getting a duplicate, I thought I’d try to organize some kind of fund raiser and auction off the original.  I was advised to hold on to it, it might become part of a museum or something some day. So, I kept it in my closet at home, bought other suits to expand my wardrobe and sure enough, just before the grammys, I was told EMP wanted to include it in an exhibit there.  CRAZY!!!!!

JACK REYNOLDS: Maybe you don’t want to be identified only as “Wanz from Thrift Shop” for the rest of your career? So, who should people look for when they think of you?

WANZ: I will always be “Wanz from Thrift Shop”!! My dad told me, “Always dance with the date that brung ya…” I, however, would like people to discover who I am musically outside of that character in the video.  That had been the major objective this past year. It wasn’t easy.  You meet a lot of people in this business who believe they know what’s best for you. Very few can provide a pathway to achieve that. Most will get what’s best for them, but not so much for you. I’ve sung in choirs since grade school, studied classical, jazz and other forms of music at the college level and have been a singer/songwriter since the mid 80’s. Hopefully moving forward, I’ll be able to turn that experience and knowledge into 3 minute stories set to a tune that will resonate with many, many others. My experience has been that living is more about the similarities between us than the differences.

JACK REYNOLDS: List at least three things (or more) people should know about “Wanz”.

WANZ:
A) I’m sometimes painfully honest.
B) I love to help and encourage others to never give up on themselves.
C) I try to always remain teachable because no one knows everything, especially me.  There’s always something to learn in life.

JACK REYNOLDS: What else should people look out for and learn from your experiences?

WANZ: Folks should look out for a book coming in 2015 called “#TheBookOfWanz” which is made of thoughts and phrases I tweeted out during the M&RL tour. I’m kind of a cerebral guy, I think about stuff a lot. One of the other tour members suggested I tweet those thoughts.  Turns out, kids, parents and others liked them, so I thought I’d turn them into a collection. If it does well, there’s talk of a biography of my story. Apparently, some folks think it’s really special. All I know is it happens to people all the time. If you continue to work at something you’re passionate about, something will happen. It may not lead to fame and riches, but the experience will teach you how important your life can be to others. Those who don’t feel they have a passion or don’t feel important, they need to see and hear about it from folks like us who actually catch lightening in a bottle and have the ride of their lives.


You never really know when your work is going to pay off, so remember to keep at it. We can all learn a little from this incredible story. Huge thanks to WANZ for taking the time to share it with everyone.

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