In the span of about a year, Wanz went from being a down on his luck software engineer, to singing one of the most ubiquitous hooks in recent memory. When his deep voice informed us of Macklemore’s want to “pop some tags” on “Thrift Shop,” it launched an indie hip-hop artist to mainstream fame, and put Wanz, who never imagined that he’d gain notoriety in his 50s, firmly in the spotlight, as well. “I still don’t think of myself as that big a deal,” Wanz says, humbly, “because I sing on somebody else’s song.”

Wanz is a big deal to many, however, as “Thrift Shop” has him up for two Grammy Awards, and he says the ceremony is already in his datebook. He hopes to meet Quincy Jones at the event, as he notes Jones has not only been a huge inspiration to him, he’s also, like Wanz, a Seattle guy. “He went to Garfield High School, just like Ben (aka Macklemore). Not very many people know that.”

Something else not very many people know is Wanz’ story. It’s an incredibly gripping one that involves the Seattle music scene during the birth of the grunge era, a personal battle with addiction, and his eventual, unexpected, musical triumph. He sat down with RapReviews to tell us all about it.

Adam Bernard: At the start of 2013 you were working as a software test engineer, correct?

Wanz: To be accurate, I was working as a software test engineer until October 15th of last year.

AB: OK, and up until that point had you pretty much given up on music as a career path?

W: No, that happened in 2008/2009.

AB: So you said, “OK, I’ve had a run, it’s over?”

W: Actually I said, OK, I haven’t had a run, this is never gonna happen, there’s no such thing as an old pop star. I couldn’t think of any pop artist who had not been in the business before, who had a hit, and made a career, after the age of 30. No one. At the time I was 48, 50, years old, and life for me was just in the crapper. (I was) trying to dig myself, mentally, out of a long term relationship that, for me, ended badly. Employment prospects weren’t that promising. I’d been a contract test engineer for Microsoft for, at that time, eight years, nine years, and the prospect of going full time wasn’t even on the horizon because I didn’t have the coding skills. At the time I didn’t have that great a relationship with either one of my sons. My youngest lived with his mom, who I had gotten out of the relationship with, and it was creating hell inside of my brain. My oldest son was kind of lost in the wastelands of beer pong, and partying. He wasn’t listening, either. He was trying to find himself.

AB: It sounds like you were in a long term funk. When, and how, did you break out of that?

W: During that period of time, 2008-2009, Facebook pretty much saved my ass. I discovered a whole side of my father’s family that I never knew existed. I reconnected with a lot of people that I had been through elementary, junior high, high school, and college with, and some musician friends that I hadn’t seen in forever, one of which told me, “Don’t you remember, you’re a musician. Why don’t you write about this shit?” The first song I wrote, I stole this Mr. Mister synth line, and I used the words of my father. He was worried about me, too. He said, “You know something, the thing I admire you about you most,” which was a surprise, because I didn’t know he admired me for anything, he said, “No matter how many times you get knocked down you always get back up,” so the name of the song is “Been Knocked Down Before.”

My youngest had dabbled in music a little bit, and would post just a still shot of himself, and put his beats on YouTube. I thought, what a great idea, I wonder if I could do that. That was 2009. 2009 was (when I was) starting to accumulate gear, and teach myself the recording process that I could do at home, and between that and going to meetings, and going to work, that’s all I did, (that) and wandering around trying to figure out what the fuck romance was, what love was. I had no heart. My heart was crushed. It was destroyed. I’m living just above the poverty line, I really don’t have any emotional gas in the tank, and I’m learning who I used to be from all these people that I’ve known in my primary school years, so I spent most of 2009 going to look for the guy I was in ninth grade, because I started asking people, “Who do you remember?” “Oh, we remember this really happy guy, always had a smile on his face, always singing,” so I went looking for that guy, and I found him.

AB: At that point it became less about never seeing a pop star debut that’s older than 35, and more about doing music because it makes you happy, right?

W: That’s what I started to figure out. After languishing in this town for almost a decade after the likes of Pearl Jam, who are all friends of mine, we used to hang out in the same bars together, Alice in Chains, Jerry (Cantrell) and Sean (Kinney) and Mike Starr and Layne (Staley), we all hung out at the same bars together, Kim Thayil from Soundgarden, these were all friends of mine, and they were out touring the world, making records, making videos, and so on and so forth, and I was sitting in my one bedroom apartment going, “I don’t think this is ever gonna happen for me.”

AB: And last year you got the call from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

W: I actually got a call from an associate of Ryan’s. This guy has his own little label called Street Level Records, and I’d been recording hooks for his rappers all through the 2000s. He’d call me every once in a while, I’d walk in, they’d pay me $25 an hour, $30 if I had to write the hook. Ryan called this guy, and that guy called me.

AB: Now you’re nominated for two Grammys, after being part of one of the biggest songs of the year. Did you get the feeling, when you were recording “Thrift Shop,” that it was going to be something special?

W: Nope. I thought it was gonna be just like everybody else that I’d gone and recorded hooks for, they’d pay me out the door and I’d never hear from them again.

AB: How did you react the first time you heard it on the radio?

W: {*laughs*} The first time I heard it on the radio I was in a van with Ben (aka Macklemore), and Ryan, (as well as) their manager, and a couple of other people. We were on our way from San Diego to Irvine to get in-ear monitors made, and it came on the radio, and the van was completely silent. Inside I’m exploding. Then when it got done, Ben was sitting in front of me, and he just stuck his hand over his shoulder like, give me a little dap, and I gave him a little dap, and I was like oh my God, I can’t believe I just heard that. It was great.

AB: What’s been the most interesting opportunity you’ve received since “Thrift Shop” blew up?

W: I think the most interesting opportunity has come from Twitter. During the West Coast swing that ended about a year ago, the one where I walked away from my job, we worked with a couple of musicians, one whom was Andrew Jocelyn. My son, who was, at the time, 19, was living in my apartment. It was the first time he had ever lived on his own, and he was going through some drama, and I said something philosophical, and Andrew goes, “You should tweet that. That is earth shattering logic. It’s like, yeah, hashtag TheBookOfWanz.” That started this little thing that, every once in a while, when I came up with something that I thought was philosophically true, I’d put #TheBookOfWanz, and it started to get notoriety from my Twitter followers. The most interesting opportunity has been the suggestion over the last year that I publish it. That’s one of the things I’m looking into for 2014.

AB: To make The Book of Wanz an actual book?

W: To make The Book of Wanz into an actual book. To make the whole story of where I came from, from 2007, where I was completely emotionally, financially, devastated, to all of a sudden getting a great job, to reconnecting with both of my sons, to being in an opera with the Seattle Opera, to getting a call to sing on what turned out to be one of the biggest songs of 2013.

AB: Have there been any aspects of fame that you weren’t prepared for?

W: Time management is a skill, and I’m not very good at it. I’m better than I was. (It used to be) I’d go to work, come home, fix something to eat, watch the news, and either I would go to a recovery meeting, or I would sit in my studio and dink around.

AB: When you say a recovery meeting…

W: I’ve been sober 14 years.

AB: Congratulations. That’s amazing, and extremely difficult to do as a musician.

W: Thanks. It’s challenging, but I had a sponsor once who told me, “Until they invent a glass that can climb up your chest and pour itself down your throat, you never ever have to take another drink ever again, even if you want to,” and he was right. I was playing in a touring band, kind of like a contemporary R&B band, and the first time I had been out of town sober, to go play at a bar, at the first break the waitress brought over a tray of Jager shots. I didn’t leave the stage. I sat on the drum riser and stared at them waiting for one of them to just come over, and the longer I waited the more that it started to sink in that this guy was right, and I didn’t have to drink, and after that it’s all become a game, watching people. For the most part people are fine, but some of them, they change, and they turn into the funny and tragic stories that we hear about when people drink. To watch them come in and be perfectly normal, and when they leave, they’re not…

AB: Let’s be fair, some of them walk in jerks, and just get jerk-ier.

W: True, but the nice thing about them is I don’t have to be them. That was the journey of discovery, that all these things that happened between 2007 and 2010 prepared me for what was going to happen. In retrospect, if this would have happened in 2007 I don’t think I would have handled it the way I’ve handled it.

AB: It’s interesting you say that, because I was going to ask in what ways do you think things would be different if you had gained fame at 21 rather than 51?

W: Oh, I don’t know. I could have gone a lot of ways. I could have gone the way that Layne went. I could have gone the way that Mike Starr went. I could have gone the way that Kurt (Cobain) went. There are lots of examples of what could have happened. I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much. I’ve been touring for over a year, and nine months of that has been nothing but joy, and wonder. I am happy to be here. The rest of it has just been that sense of accomplishment that I actually got that thing that I’ve wanted all my life.

AB: Have you been able to re-connect, or stay connected, with the rock and grunge musicians you were friends with back in the day?

W: Some of them. We did Voodoo Fest about a month ago, and that was the first time that I had seen Jeff (Ament) and Stoney (Gossard), and Matt (Cameron) and Mike (McCready), from Pearl Jam, in 23 years. We got to sit and have a conversation, and for me that was just amazing. Stoney killed me, he couldn’t stop smiling. There’d be a break in the conversation, I’d look at him, and he’d go, “Goddamn Wanz. Damn happy for ya,” and that’s all he could say. That’s all I remember him saying, just a cheesy grin on his face, “Goddamn Wanz. So damned happy for ya.”

AB: Give me a story from back in the day hanging out with these guys. Something wild, exciting, interesting, or funny.

W: I think the most interesting story had to happen… there was a show at the Central Tavern in Pioneer Square (in 1990), and the whole music community was abuzz because this band that everybody liked, and everybody knew, that hadn’t played out very much, was doing a showcase, and everybody knew that there were going to be people from Geffen, people from CBS, people from various publishing companies were going to be there. To walk in that room, which was completely and totally packed, and to see Andy Wood above the stage, playing on a piano, doing “Chloe,” everybody looked up in wonder, because at that point we knew, we knew that Mookie Blaylock (aka Pearl Jam) was gonna be something. We knew that.

AB: That’s awesome.

W: Yeah, well, it was awesome for about three weeks, because three weeks after that, Andy died (of a heroin overdose). It was an earthquake in the music community.

AB: That was incredibly tragic, and really changed Seattle’s music scene. Macklemore has also changed Seattle’s music scene, and our national music scene, but in doing so he’s become the source of a lot of conversation, not all of it positive. Do you, or Macklemore, pay attention to any of the negative talk?

W: Some things register, but we had a talk about this coming back from Jingle Bell last Friday night. Ben and Ryan are disappointed. They’re disappointed that they’re getting quote-unquote “shit on” by the very people in the neighborhood that they came from. We were trying to put our minds around why that is, and it doesn’t happen anywhere else. It just happens in that one section of Capitol Hill. I know that they’re affected by it, but in this business you can’t just sit and languish in what somebody else says, in somebody else’s opinion. Everybody gets an opinion. Not everybody’s gonna like you. How you deal with that is up to you. Some people go and attack the press, some people get kind of strange, and outside the lines, like your Kanyes, or people like that.

AB: Finally, moving back to your work, I know you recently released a Christmas song, but is a traditional EP, or album, also in the works?

W: A traditional EP is already out there. I did a soft release, meaning I didn’t tell very many people, I didn’t try to enlist people to get behind it because it was so different from “Thrift Shop,” and it was kind of personal. It’s called Wander, and it’s on iTunes. The first three songs represent how I got out of the woods, how I found myself again, the realizations that I came to. The fourth song is the rock I had to put down with the relationship, and the last one I wrote last Christmas Eve. At the time “Thrift Shop” was just starting to gain traction, but they had paid me out the door, and we hadn’t made any other kind of agreement before. I had never been in the position of having a song that was actually on the radio, so I didn’t have any negotiation savvy. They had never had anything be that successful, so they didn’t really know how to pay me, or what to pay me.

AB: But you didn’t just get $30 for doing the hook, right?

W: Up until that point it was just touring monies, and that was barely making ends meet, so I didn’t really have any money to spend on Christmas last year, so the last song on my EP is called “The Greatest Gift,” and I wrote that because with all the commercialization of buying things, what I figured out was the greatest thing I can give is spending the time to create something anyone could have. The chorus is, “The greatest gift you can give doesn’t have a tag with a price, isn’t found in any store, doesn’t have a certain size. The greatest gift isn’t found on any shelf. The greatest gift one can give is when you give yourself.” Time is the only thing we cannot replace, so when you spend time with someone you are giving them the greatest gift you can possibly give them.