Interview: Wheatus [May 2016]

By Lais

Wheatus, the band most well-known for their huge hit ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ back in 2000, are currently touring the UK as support to Busted on their arena tour, while also doing some of their own headline shows. We spoke to frontman Brendan B. Brown about still loving life on the road after 21 years of being in the band, embarking on album number seven, and what we can expect from their new music.

Hi Brendan! How are you?

Good thank you! It’s a beautiful morning here in New York. We’re in the studio, at Wheatus HQ.

Are you recording something now then?

Yeah! Album seven is sort of in process. The first two songs are laid out and recorded. The rest – I think about 14 or 15 of them – are all written, but we’re working through. We keep getting these tours so we keep having to hit the pause button.

What’s it sounding like so far?

The first song we’ve worked on is the most complex. We always do that in case we need to revisit it at the end. There’s a lot of metal-style double kick drum on there. It’s certainly not a metal song, but I like to use metal textures. Metal was my first love, and I like to use those soundscapes. The tune itself is a sort of meandering 30s or 40s jazz arrangement that has a lot of really aggressive tones to it. And when I say jazz I mean more like a pop jazz, like a Judy Garland type thing. Very influenced by those chords lately for some reason. And it’s about – in America, we have this problem with baby boomer heroin addiction, where they’re being prescribed these awful opiates that are all over the place for every little thing, and they’re getting hooked on it, and it’s a real scourge over here. I don’t know if you guys are having the same problem, but life expectancy rates for retirees have gone down for the first time in history because of this, and it seems a bit like this is maybe what happened to Prince, although the jury’s still out on that, but this is a real issue here in the States. My parents have friends who’ve had to go to rehab in their retired age. It’s really awful, but that’s what I’m addressing in the song.

Very interesting! It’s great that you’ve got some new material coming.

Yeah, that’s what we keep going for, the reinvention in the studio bit where you get to find a new sound and a new song. The discovery process never gets old.

I know you have to work around tours, but do you have any idea when you might be finished recording?

Well, what I’d like to do after the Busted tour is take a year to record and finish it up sometime around maybe the summer of 2017 and release it then and hit the road at that point. We take a long time to make a record, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re no longer on the major label system. We had to get out of that really quick. In order to make records in that short period of time they would’ve sucked, and I think the thing is we’re more of a tinkering band than a churn them out kind of band. It took me a long time to get ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ right and I think that’s the way to go. Why make something that isn’t as good as it could be? It takes a while.

How are you feeling about the tour? Both the Busted support slot and your headline dates?

It’s fantastic. We did the 15th anniversary tour for our first album back in October 2015 and we really didn’t think we’d be out on the road this quickly, but I’d been talking to James [Bourne, Busted] about doing a tour together since the last time we did it in 2007, so this conversation is nearly a decade old at this point, and we’re finally getting a chance to do it. The stars aligned, so we’re going. It’s really exciting. I don’t know what it’s gonna be like to play the big rooms and then the small rooms, but I would prefer to bring a bit of what we do in the small room to the big room, and not the other way around.

I guess you’ll get the best of both worlds this way.

Yeah. Since our first record we’ve become this pubs and clubs band. We play all these nooks and crannies. We do 35 or 40 shows when we go over there, so it’s every single day, and we do all the little spots. We do the Loughboroughs and the St Albans and the Scunthorpes and all these tiny places. Holyhead’s one of our favourites, and it’s become family, these people who come to these places to see us. We’ll never go over there and just do the big spots. That’s not what we do.

I think a lot of those places get forgotten about, so I bet the people in those places are psyched on you playing there.

Yeah, well, they are, and over time they’ve become our family and friends, and as a band you have to decide what you want to do. Do you want to play every night in every city you could possibly play in or do you just wanna hit the big spots? And we definitely wanna play every night, you know.

You formed in 1995, which is wild. Do you still love being on the road?

Absolutely. Growing up I idolised AC/DC and Rush and Willie Nelson and Prince and people who were always on the road. Fugazi would play anywhere: a boys club, a gymnasium, a garage. I always felt like that’s the whole point of it: get out, play anywhere, play everything, do it all. So that’s where we ended up. I mean, Willie Nelson is still playing. At 83, he’s still killing these places. On the road again is where we’re headed, always.

It’s awesome that you can still enjoy it after all this time.

Well, when I was 10 years old I decided I wanted to do that. Those young ideas can be pretty tenacious and stubborn.

So you’ve living your 10 year old dream.

Yeah, so to speak. I mean, it’s a little more complicated and risky financially than I thought it would be, but that has more to do with what happened to the music industry than anything else.

I can imagine it’s difficult, but at least you’re doing what you love. I saw you’re playing at the Brooklyn Bowl in London.

Yeah, it’s a little weird. I live very close to the Brooklyn Bowl in New York, and I’ve seen Fishbone there and a couple of other good shows, but never actually played there myself. i was invited on stage once but the fact that we’re going to London to play a place called the Brooklyn Bowl is a little weird. We’re gonna try not to make any Brooklyn jokes, but I’m afraid that someone’s gonna wind up rolling their eyes at some point.

Do you play a lot of early stuff on tour? Or is it a mixture?

We haven’t done setlists for over 10 years now. We have been letting the crowd call it out. It really works well. We learn somewhere in the neighbourhood of 45 songs. The ratio is we learn about as many songs as we have gigs, which is usually around the 35-40 spot and we practise them really hard in rehearsal and soundcheck and if they get called out they get called out. I’d say the majority of what we’ll do this time, especially in the clubs, is some of the newer stuff, but that’s because that’s the type of crowd and that’s what they want. But the first album has worked its way in there pretty heavily, but those songs are short so they go quick, but for the arena dates, we’ve been messing around with two sets. One of them is a couple songs from the first record with a lot of newer stuff, and the other is a different version of that, but everyone’s gonna get their ‘A Little Respect’ and everyone’s gonna get their ‘Teenage Dirtbag’. Occasionally we don’t play ‘A Little Respect’ in the clubs – that happens every once in a while – but that’s just because the crowd is up for something else.

That’s great, because then every show you play is different.

Every show we play is the one that the crowd wants, and that’s different for us, but we work hard on putting aside what we want from the show, and let the crowd have it their way.

So last year was the 15th anniversary of your debut self-titled album. Does it feel like it’s been 15 years?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t know how to answer that. In some ways, it does. When I look at all our catalogues of what we have to learn before we go on tour and what we know getting onstage having worked on 40 or so tunes, and of course the fact that ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ happened before music on the internet, it makes it a snapshot, so it makes it easier to say that was then, and it’s frozen in polaroid. But then, Prince having died recently, I’ve always been a huge fan and it’s got me revisiting everything. There is no timeline for Prince, but he was always amazing. If you listen to every song in every period, you’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s my favourite too’, so I feel like I’d rather approach it that way, and obviously it’s a high bar he set, but I’d much rather approach it from that standpoint of it being a timeless experience that goes on infinitely and in all directions, which plays into the whole ‘on the road again’ vibe.

Is there anything else you want to cover while we’re here?

Well, the touring we’re doing in the clubs, we’re having The Ventura Project and Gabrielle Sterbenz open for us. They’ve been with us before. That’s because they’re members of Wheatus who have their own other bands, so it’s a whole big family thing we do. I’m also working on a couple of things that are interesting. I have an EP I wrote and am in the process of recording with Josh Devine and Sandy Beales from the One Direction band. I believe Josh and Sandy may join us onstage at a couple of the Busted dates to play one of the songs we put out together last year, ‘Only You’. And that’s gonna be fun, a bit of a guest appearance, but aside from that – god, there’s so much going on. I’m mixing some records for friends, this group called Hand Job Academy, an all girl rap group from Brooklyn. I worked on a Janet Devlin track. She came to Wheatus HQ in New York and we recorded something that we wrote together so I’m pretty excited about that. So there’s a couple of things brewing! It’s an exciting time.


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