The Wagner Quartet, one of the most iconic Ragman projects, is nonetheless difficult to explain. I first became aware of it when Joe told me he was doing a band at school with a kid named Wagner and related to me excitedly that this Wagner had absolutely no pre-existing musical ability whatsoever, knowing that a lack of prior music-making experience was a quality I sought out in collaborators for many of my own projects.
As I understand it now, Joe, Mike, Judd Saul, Ben Echeverria and Wagner were classmates in “Industrial Technology” or whatever “shop class” had turned into by that time in high schools, and were assigned to build a shelf. However, they somehow had convinced the teacher to let them record music instead, in exchange for shelf-building credit. Calling themselves The Shelfbuilders, they recorded the song “Drill You To Hell” using an electric drill as the primary instrument, and Judd left the project, presumably to build an actual shelf, thus inspiring the song “Saul Dust.” Other songs with references to shelves were written, but the project soon switched gears and moved its base of operations to either of Joe’s parents’ houses and was renamed The Wagner Quartet, centered around a persona based on Wagner himself.
Wagner was kind of a shy kid in those days, and I think that the recording sessions that resulted in It’s A Family Thing were intended as a kind of weird ritual to bring him out of his shell and initiate him into the Garage gang. Mike and Joe would write ridiculous and often perverted lyrics and then badger Wagner into reading them over their sloppy, distorted noise compositions, often against his protestations. In at least one song on It’s A Family Thing you can hear Joe and Mike shouting out lines to Wagner in the background, and Wagner muttering “fuck you” into the microphone between lines so that they would only hear it later when playing back the track.
The results of all this, however, turned out to be brilliant. Besides bringing Wagner into the fold, who turned out to be a very creative and fun individual in his own right, the songs on It’s A Family Thing are hilarious and probably totally unlike anything else you’ve ever heard. Following the cassette release, the cover design was printed on sticker paper and cut into shapes designed to fit on light switch covers, with the switch sticking out as the nipple-end of the pacifier, and these stickers found their way into gas station bathrooms throughout Cedar Falls.
The Wagner Quartet, in varying lineups, continued to record for a few more years and even played at least one show.