The Wag will celebrate the band's 25th Anniversary and the release of their new album, Blue Bottles and Copper Coins, at The Strand Theater in Lakewood on Saturday, March 25, 2023. Based in Monmouth County, the band includes Brian Ostering and his wife Alicia Van Sant, Don Lee, and Joshua Van Ness. All four take turns as lead vocalist through catchy original songs and create an tremendously fun atmosphere on stage. They perform everywhere from coffeehouses and libraries to clubs and concert halls and have played shows in England, Canada, Japan, and the West Coast. Not many bands ever last a decade much less twenty-five, so we reached out to Brian to learn the complete story of the band and talk about the new album and special night.
Let's go back to the very beginning. Were you and Alicia married when the band began? Dating?
Alicia and I were engaged while we were holding auditions for band members. We found our first guitarist, Dan Corboy, one week before we got married in June of 1998. Brian Mowery, our first drummer, joined in September of that year.
Was there any hesitancy to start a band with your significant other?
I never had an issue with having a girlfriend or spouse in the band. I always knew that everyone in the band would have an equal say and I wasn’t worried about any issues coming up. I remember Brian Mowery saying that his fears were doused during the band’s first disagreement when he saw Alicia disagree with me about something. He said, “Okay, we’re good here.” On a different note, I remember a few times when people hit on Alicia right in front of me, but she handled it. I specifically remember a guy asking her what she was doing after the gig. I just turned my head and smiled because I knew exactly what she was going to do. She was gonna help me load in at home and then we’d both be eating a bowl of cereal on the couch together.
What is your favorite thing about having a band with your wife?
I’m doing what I love with the one I love. I can’t beat that!
Where was the band's first ever show and what do you remember about it?
The Brighton Bar in Long Branch on 12/30/98. I remember that it was cold that night and we did a radio interview on Monmouth College Radio (WMCX) right before the gig.
The band is celebrating 25 years, but it hasn't always been easy. One of the roughest periods for the band was when Brian Mowery died. Were there thoughts about ending the band? Did those thoughts ever come up at any other time over the years?
Yes. Music became incredibly sad for us. We didn’t want to even go into our music room any more. The pictures and memories were torture for us. We thought that our original guitarist leaving the prior year was tough and hard to deal with; that was nothing compared to Brian dying. When Brian passed, it was devastating. He had just married Alicia’s sister one week before his death; we lost both a family member and a band member. A few months later, I made it a mission for us to finish the album and Christmas single that we were working on with Brian before he died. Our original guitarist came back to help us, along with our dear friend, Pete Andrews (he recorded most of The Wag albums up to that point in his home studio, and is a great drummer in his own right) to help us finish those records. We were able to finish and release the album “Continuum" the following September on Brian Mowery’s birthday. It was our tribute to him. The Christmas single was released a few months later. I can’t say that I ever thought of ending the band once we got the strength to move forward. Brian wouldn’t have wanted that for us.
Tell me about when Don Lee joined the band. Had he been performing with you for a while before officially joining The Wag?
Towards the end of 2012, we had a few gigs on the books that I still wanted us to perform. They were benefit shows, and those have always been important to The Wag as a band, and to Brian Mowery personally. I remember that Don Lee and Michael Brett both helped us through those events. They are both talented musicians and we had shared the bill with them plenty of times over the years. Brian Mowery had asked Don to join the band when Dan left the previous year, but I think Don was busy recording a solo album. Don had offered to continue to help us do shows while we looked for a guitarist. As he puts it, “But they never looked for a guitarist." LOL! Don was able to play and sing the parts to The Wag songs that we were playing at that time, and was talented enough to quickly learn more of our catalog. His upbeat personality and that of his friend and bongo player, Arielle Strauss, really helped Alicia and I through our most difficult times. The smiles on their faces while we performed helped bring our smiles back. That was so important to me and I’ll never forget that. I should note that we were also supported by many friends and talented musicians during that time too, all of whom helped us greatly.
How about when Joshua Van Ness joined?
We shared the bill with Joshua and his then-band at many shows, too. As we were preparing for our 500th Wag show, Joshua told me that his main instrument was the drums - we only knew him as a guitarist! So he volunteered to be our drummer for that show (we didn’t have anyone to play drums that night) and said that he’d be happy to do it again whenever we needed him. We carried on for a bit with Joshua on drums and Arielle on bongos, whenever either of them were available. I think it was around the time that Arielle moved to San Diego that Joshua started playing with us full-time.
Both have played in other bands and been solo performers. What do these two bring to the band?
The first thing that comes to mind is friendship. Making music with your friends is a wonderful thing! They are both very skilled at their instruments and are both great songwriters. Their musical style is slightly different to mine and I think that’s a great thing! It helps The Wag evolve and grow more. Also, they are both professional musicians that know how to handle an audience. That comes from years of leading their own bands in the past. Their booking experience also takes some of the pressure off of me being the primary Wag booker.
Can you believe that Joshua has been in the band for nearly 8 years and Don for over a decade? And for that matter, 25 years for The Wag? It's truly impressive - especially in New Jersey. What are you most proud of over that quarter of a century?
I can’t believe it! It only feels like a few years with Don and Joshua. It definitely doesn’t feel like 25 years of The Wag! I’m most proud of the good that we’ve helped contribute to. I’m proud of the money we helped raise for charities, the food and toys that we’ve helped collect for those in need. I’m also proud of us for pushing on after tragedy struck. That wasn’t easy and it’s still a struggle, at times. I’m also proud to see us playing bigger venues, touring different countries, and still maintaining our humility and gratefulness for everything we achieve. I’m proud each time we put a smile on someone’s face. Being in a band is like riding a roller coaster; there are ups and downs, but the overall ride is thrilling! I truly enjoy it all.
Tell me about the new cd, "Blue Bottles and Copper Coins" -- what inspired the title?
I have this list of album names that I’ve come up with over the years, and “Blue Bottles and Copper Coins” was on that list. I always liked how it sounded, and I thought that the meaning behind it was pretty cool. A long time ago, blue bottles were put outside homes to ward off evil spirits and copper was thought to be used for protection and good luck. Besides the alliteration of the album name, I also like the meaning behind it. Ward off the bad with some good luck!
Is your cover of "These Boots Are Made for Walking" on the new CD?
Yes, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” is the first single from the album; our next single will be a track that all 4 members had a hand in writing, called “Fill It With Love”.
What is your favorite track on the album?
My favorite track changes from day to day. Right now, I’m really into “Breath by Breath.” Joshua wrote that one. I think Alicia gives a great vocal performance, and Don has an excellent guitar solo. I like the little things that I add with the bass too. It’s the first time that we used a drum sample. I just think that the song is haunting and will be a very dramatic song for us to perform live. This record is a first for a few other things too: it's the first time that we added horns on a track (played by Ralph Capasso and Erez Lirov). It’s the first time that all 4 Wag members wrote a song together (“Fill It With Love”), and it’s the first time for Joshua’s daughter Ciara, and his cat Petey, to make an appearance on a Wag record (see “Sweet Summer Nights”).
You have a lot of songwriters in the band, did everyone take part in the writing process? Or did people bring their own songs to the mix?
This is the first time that we all wrote songs together. In the past, we’d each bring fully written songs to the table. Although that still occurs, this time there are a bunch of collaborations. I think it raises the stakes a bit. If someone wrote part of a song, the others in the band really want to put everything they have into trying to finish it off. You want to do your best for your fellow bandmates!
Tell me about the upcoming anniversary show. Will you be playing all or most of the songs from the new cd there? How about previous albums - do you see it as a greatest hits night, too?
Great question! Yes, we will be performing all of the tracks from our new album, plus selected songs from The Wag’s 25 year career, as well as a few of our favorite covers. We want to focus on the new album but also pay tribute to the music that we made throughout our career.
In a way, The Strand is like your home concert venue. What is it like to have that kind of relationship with a venue?
It’s fabulous! They have welcomed us in with open arms. They couldn’t be nicer to us. They took a chance on our Christmas Spectacular show in 2021, and it ended up being a great success. Since then, we’ve been able to introduce our Beatles and Halloween Spectacular shows, and now our album release show. They probably think I’m a little crazy because of the insane things that we bring to their theater for our holiday shows. I can’t imagine other shows having people pop out of coffins, snow falling from the ceiling, and Blue Meanies in the hallways. Not all at the same show, of course! LOL!
We’ve shared the stage with Lisa at a Light of Day show at the Saint. She’s wonderful! This will be our first time performing with Morningside Lane. We've attended a few of their shows in the past and really dig their music. Both MSL and Lisa Bouchelle are excellent performers and put on a fantastic show. We are excited for our Wag fans to meet them and check out their sound!
Finally, you're headed back to England this year for the first time since 2015. Is the entire band going? What does this trip mean to you?
Yes, the entire band will be together as we travel back to England. This is going to be a very exciting tour for us. We’ve already booked a few fun shows, one of which we will be playing with Norda Mullen and her band (Norda joined the Moody Blues as flautist after Ray Thomas retired in 2002 and remained with them until they stopped touring in 2018). She and her band are superb, and they are the nicest people! Touring with The Wag is so much fun and I look forward to doing it more and more!