From Software Testing to Poppin’ Tags: The Story of Wanz from Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”
By now everyone seems to know the catchy hook from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ hit song Thrift Shop. And no one is more surprised by the song’s popularity than Michael Allen Wansley, better known as Wanz, the man behind that deep, velvety voice.
You see, Wanz played in Seattle bands, like The Ghetto Monks, through the 80’s and 90’s but he always kept his day job. He stood by as his musician friends were launched into stardom.
“Kim and Matt from Soundgarden, they get signed and go away. Stoney and Jeff, they go off and do Pearl Jam and Krist Novoselic… Everybody went away! But I was still here. I had bands that were somewhere between Living Colour and Red Hot Chili Peppers. I thought I had a really unique thing going but I never seemed to be able to parlay it into anything.”
So for the past couple of decades, Wanz, a single dad, has done contract work as a software test engineer, sometimes struggling to make ends meet.
“2010 I was sitting in my apartment, around this time of year, and I was looking around my apartment at what I could sell so I could make it through the holidays.”
But then, at the age of 51, his life changed forever.
“Right before the end of June, of 2012, I got a phone call from a guy who usually never calls me. So he says, ‘Have you ever heard of Macklemore?’ Well, I’ve heard of him, but I don’t know him. ‘Well, his producer, Ryan Lewis, called me and they’re looking for a singer who sounds like Nate Dogg.’ And I said, okay. So he takes me down and I meet Ben [Macklemore] and Ryan for the first time. They put me in the booth and 45 minutes later I was going home. And I was done. Like any other session I thought that was the end of it, I’d never hear from them again.”
He was paid a couple hundred bucks to sing about popping tags, which seemed like an awesome deal at the time.
“At the time my rate was: If you want me to come in and sing a hook for you, I’ll charge you $25 an hour. So, working 45 minutes and getting a couple hundred bucks was a pay raise! They wrote me a check. I wonder if it will bounce? So I was, like, waiting at the bank the next day, 9:02am, here I am. Hey! Wow! It actually deposited! Cool!”
But obviously it didn’t end there. A month later, Ryan Lewis called and asked him to be in the Thrift Shop music video and then Wanz was asked to join the tour. At first, Wanz only toured for 10 days, using up all of his paid vacation days. But then he was asked to join the world tour. He asked his boss for extended leave, and his boss said no. Wanz had to make a critical decision.
“We performed a sold out show at the Fillmore in San Francisco, which for me was like Mecca. I used to listen to AM broadcasts of concerts, ‘Bill Graham presents: from The Fillmore in San Francisco!’ I mean, I walked in for sound check and just looked around the room and you could see the posters of people who played there. I just broke down into tears and couldn’t stop crying because it became real – that it was actually happening. The night after that concert, my boss calls me and says, ‘When are you gonna be back? We need you back.’ And I told him, ‘You know, at my age, an opportunity like this is probably not going to happen again. So I’m going to stay out here.’ And I’ve been touring with them ever since.”
Wanz only sings on a single song, so in order to bring him on the tour, he agreed to double as a stage manager and help set up and tear down after shows.
After circling the globe, Wanz joins Macklemore for three sold-out hometown shows at KeyArena this week. The guys also came home to newsstands displaying a Seattle Weekly front page article that reads: “Sellout: How Macklemore Sacrificed His Art For An Audience.”
“I took offense to it because the whole idea of trying to bring someone who is successful down, or find a crack in their armor, is indicative of the society we live in. People like to see successful people fail and I’m not sure why that is. Instead of learning how they got that way and maybe applying it to yourself, you would rather see them fail? To me that makes no sense.”
A hometown paper ripping a hometown success is exactly the opposite of what Wanz represents.
“I try to go out before every show and talk to the kids in line because I used to be them! So I like choppin’ it up with them and they’re out there for so long! To give them personal time with a performer that they’re coming to see, I remember for me that was priceless.”