Helping Hands

Together with a network of tape trading fans, Big Wu knows how to handle a good time

by Lee Abraham

Jason Fladager radiates serenity. Rightly so. Heís the proud papa of a bouncing baby girl, and his band, Big Wu, is one of the hottest live acts in the country. Fresh off recording a soon-to-be-released studio album of all new material, Fladager and the rest of the Wu crew are loving life. The band has a record deal with Phoenix Rising, and before heading out on the road for their third cross country tour, Big Wu inked an endorsement deal with Snapple - the fruit drink company will promote 20 free shows on college campuses while Wu is on the road.

"Iím really happy right now," says Fladager. "Iím having a good time and I enjoy what Iím doing." The new album, tentatively titled, -Folk Tales For the Blood Shot-, is scheduled for release in May. Expectations are high. Wuís debut, -Tracking Buffalo Through the Bathtub-, took the jamband scene by storm when it was released in Ď97. "We wrote some pretty good songs for the first album and weíre just trying to continue that. I think our songwriting has improved a lot since that album."

Another improvement - communication. Particularly on the road. "Itís changed a lot since our first tour when we were all bickering at each other," laughs Fladager. "We all have learned to really get along with each other and enable each other to be the best possible people we can be. If we donít do that, we suffer... with two hundred shows in a year, we had to find a way." The solution was simple. "We just donít let anything boil over," explains Fladager. "We try and listen to each other, understand what each other needs and work together."

Working together is nothing new. Fladager, and fellow Wu cofounders Terry VanDeWalker on drums and guitarist Chris Castino, have been making music ever since they met in college at St. Olaf in Northfield, Minnesota, eight years ago. "Instead of studying all the time, we played music all the time," says Fladager with a chuckle. In spite of his study habits, Fladager got through school. The next step wasnít quite as easy. "When I got out of college and couldnít figure out what I wanted to do, my Dad told me to go and take the civil service exam," recalls Fladager. "On my way to becoming part of the road crew on a highway, I decided to not do that and pursue the musical stuff. I just said, ĎIím not going to do this. I want to at least give it a shot.í Iím still giving it a shot, you know?"

Deciding to shoot big, Wu moved to the -big- city, in this case Minneapolis. Soon they were playing regularly at a local dive called the Terminal Bar. Lineup shuffles in í95 and í96 brought bassist Andy Miller and Al Oikari on keyboards into the band. Thatís when the Wu stew really started to cook. A few months later, the new Wu took first place honors in a Minneapolis competition, landing a three show slot on the Ď97 HORDE tour. Then came the High Sierra Music Festival in í98. Momentum continued to grow with last yearís grueling schedule "We really hit the road and started pushing the band," says Fladager.

It wasnít easy. Venturing out as the big Wu from a small, Minnesota pond, success was not automatic everywhere they went. "When we come home, we play in front of a couple thousand people," says Fladager. "To go out on the road and occasionally play for five is really challenging. I guess how we deal with that is just try to put on the best show we possibly can. Weíre having a good time, weíre doing it for ourselves, enjoying the music... but weíre not flashy players. Weíre not jumping around all over the place. If people come to see us it looks like weíre concentrating. When we smile, weíre smiling because we canít help it, you know? Weíre not smiling because we want you to buy our album."

Talking to Fladager you get the idea heíd rather let the record company deal with selling CDís and keep his focus on making music. Tape trading is another story. Like most jambands, Big Wu encourages fans to record their live shows and trade the tapes with friends. "Thatís the best way to spread music," say Fladager enthusiastically. "Itís not somebody cramming it in your face and saying, ĎHere youíve got to listen to this.í Itís people who are saying, ĎThis is cool and I want to share it with ya.í And thatís the best." The grassroots networking is paying off. Wu tapes are traded coast to coast and their fans are popping up in towns the band hasnít even been to. "Itís nice to show up in Phoenix and have 200 people already know your music and sing along to the songs and youíve never been there before," says Fladager. "A lot of it has to do with tape trading. I really encourage it and I appreciate it."

Tape trading works for the Wu because they are big on improvisation. Lots of unexpected twists and turns in their rockiní brand of feel good, song based psychedelia. "We all play our instruments the only way we can and we donít fake it," says Fladager. "Weíre up there trying our best to explore and take people to different places and to rock out." Taking people to different places doesnít necessarily involve travel. For the past three years, the Wu have launched their musical explorations from Harmony Park in southern Minnesota at their annual -Big Wu Family Reunion-, memorial day weekend blowout. Over 1,800 people attended last yearís event, setting an attendance record for the venue.

"Itís our festival," says Fladager. "Thereís a lot of kind, conscious people here who know how to handle their good times. And I think we provide an outlet for that." "The community of people here is definitely a family," continues Fladager. "Itís people whoíve grown up around the band. Some people even work for us now. It feels like many hands are holding us up and supporting us. There have been people who have moved from Vermont and Florida, to Minnesota to be closer to the band and the vibration thatís going on here. Itís really something special."