Wheatus’ Brendan B. Brown talks with Mike McGrath-Bryan about hit singles, backline selloffs, and sweaty Cork gigs.
Much is made of the rock ‘n’ roll narrative trope that is the one-hit wonder. Made ever more salient by the firework-trajectory careers of late-stage major-label signups in the throes of corporate impatience for artist development, it’s an old chestnut that has sadly rung true for a lot of artists. Thrust to fame off a big hit before being left to their own devices, it can be tough for an artist in that position to scrabble for higher ground. One outfit that successfully has done so, perhaps against more odds than they’d like to admit, are US pop-rock veterans Wheatus. If the chords and inescapable hook of chart-topping single Teenage Dirtbag don’t immediately ring around your head up on reading that name, you’re probably a tad young for this article, and it’s that recently-minted nostalgia factor that has piqued interest in their Irish tours in recent years. It’s been seventeen years this summer since that pop monolith monopolised radio and TV for months on end, and for singer Brendan B. Brown, the question of retrospection is a tad existential. “I feel pretty lucky – not just for the single, but the fact that we were able to get out of the major-label system just before it crashed, & then start finding a new way, when we did. It’s the single reason we don’t look back with regret, I think. I know most bands from our time didn’t have that luck.”
Of course, to dwell on Teenage Dirtbag would be reducing Wheatus to a one-trick pony entirely, but before the conversation wears on to the present, a comparatively-underlooked aspect of that whole summer was follow-up single A Little Respect, a similar runaway success in the UK charts. One imagines synth-pop purists, prior to that genre’s return to form, being a tad miffed by the band’s big, pop-punk take on the Erasure hit. “I like to think our intentions were good – to honour a great song and maybe help show how timeless it is. It was also nice to piss off the homophobes a bit. At the time, not sure you’ll remember, covering Erasure wasn’t exactly the popular career decision… think, Woodstock 1999. Anyway, I’m an eighties pop purist in some ways, myself. Fact is it’s just a lovely song, we wish we wrote it, tried to record a good version & we hope to continue doing it justice live.”
Nowadays, the band puts the effort into touring – on a completely DIY basis, the band survives on live activity and the secondary market of backline resales. How did the band happen upon that revenue stream, how have they found interacting with dedicated fans and collectors, and has there been much repeat custom? “Well, it was born of necessity (laughs). We’ve been in the red for most of our tours. I think most bands on our level contend with this. Fortunately, live sound technology keeps getting smaller, and the important stuff is more and more in the data realm so… while I can’t imagine J. Mascis selling the rare gems he’s built his sound on, our firewire interfaces became USB, and then became Thunderbolt and so on… computers can help a small band do that. As for collectors, I keep it anonymous. I’m not crazy about the idea of hocking things as collectable. I’ll never sell the things that would draw that crowd. We do have some repeat customers though!”
The band’s seventh album is now enroute for the end of the year, and while the band’s DIY ethic has carried over to the recording, mixing and creation of the album, it’s a callback to personal and professional milestones. “Very much like album one actually, but way more intense. If you listen to the first single from the forthcoming album, Tipsy, you can maybe hear that we’re well off the grid when it comes to traditional chords… Towards the end of our third record, we started to revisit some of the prog and metal I was into as a kid. Four albums later we’re in a comfort zone with that, and I’m excited about how we’ve been able to merge our heavy prog youth with the more candied aspects of a pop melody. Album seven is the first chance we’ve had to settle into having all of the things we’ve ever done, or liked as techniques we can use as we need, I think.”
A mile away from prog and metal, the band hit the road last year to support the recently-reunited pop power-trio Busted. The casual audience not only remembered the band’s star turn, but kids in the audience were singing that couldn’t have existed when the band were a pop property. Brown is still confounded by the reaction.
“Yeah…yikes. Are we that old? (laughs) Ever since the One Direction thing, I’ve learned not to under-estimate a pop audience. I think kids are smarter than they were when I was a teenager – they see through the bullshit, and they kinda just like what they like, you know. That was dangerous when I was younger. The real answer is that, during the tour, we played our song Fourteen second in the set every night… Fourteen is on our sixth album, The Valentine LP. Within a week of the first show it went into third place on our Spotify Top 5. That song has no radio & no TV, we’ve made no video for it, nor have we released it as a single. They listened to it live & sought it out. That was extremely reassuring. Never under-estimate a pop audience & their ability to go deeper.”
The band are back in Cork on the 27th, to kick off their European tour for the summer. It’s far from the band’s first stop here, however. “Oh man… we played a show at a pub called Sober Lane back in 2013. The place was utterly heaving. A real rock show sweat-box. After the madness I went outside and there’s this quiet little town with a stream running through, like a poem stanza from the old country. There’s a lot of music-love hiding under peaceful Cork. I’ll never forget it… impossible. I mean, they gave us a cricket bat!”
The Cork date is part of an extended run of UK and Irish touring, including many non-traditional touring strongholds, including music venues in Navan and Tullamore. Hardly the beaten path for established touring artists? “It’s my favourite thing to do. Honestly, we’ve become that band – the one that always hits the Scunthorpes & the Peterlees & the Invernesses. It’s what we’ve chosen to do – it’s an adventure. I once saw AC/DC’s Malcolm Young say that he never worried about anything because they’d always have clubs to play. That’s a real thing he was talking about, although, I do still worry about other things.”
The road winds on for the band, however, and new creative adventures await, alongside a reunion with some old friends. “We recorded a record at Royal Studios in Memphis with Mike Doughty… I think I’m gonna wind up mixing it, while we work on album seven with the goal of releasing it Christmas 2017. We also have an Australian run to do with Lit, CKY, Alien Ant Farm & Hoobastank in September this year – very much looking forward to that.”
Wheatus play the Old Oak on April 27th. Tickets €10 from the venue’s bar, or cyprusavenue.ie.