The day to day of running a record label isn't all fun and games, but LUCKILY... this week was, with the celebration of OWEL's album release show at the House of Independents in Asbury Park, NJ.
For those who aren't aware we've been chronicling our journey of running intheclouds with a weekly Youtube series called Partly/Cloudy Life - our latest episode recaps this past Friday's event. You can watch - be sure to subscribe to our channel for the latest video updates!
For our first installment of 'Calling It In,' I was lucky enough to have a phone chat with Portugal. The Man bassist and founding member Zach Carothers. We discussed the band's meteoric rise, their dedication to activism, and even got some tips for up-and-coming artists - give it a read!
"...Every day, every decision you make, you can do what feels good or you can do what feels bad. Just try to always do the thing that feels good."
Zach: Hi, this is Zach from Portugal. The Man I was supposed to, I think I was supposed to call this number about an interview today?
Nunzio: This is… yeah, that's right. What's up man? How are you doing, this is Nunzio.
Zach: Oh what's up man, how’s it going?
Nunzio: It's good, it's good, how are you?
Zach: Doing pretty good, just kinda cruising around at home just running around doing some errands and stuff.
Nunzio: Nice, awesome. Well, thanks for calling man. I appreciate you taking the time. Really appreciate it.
Zach: Oh no problem! No problem, dude.
Nunzio: Sweet. So, what's going on? What you got going on?
Zach: I'm actually checking out just some doctor's appointments and shit today. Yeah, just kind of running around. We just got home and quite honestly just kinda playing catch up with house stuff and doing a mix of house stuff and then back in the studio... back in the studio recording. Kind of started off the record here in Portland and then we've been down kind of working in L.A. for a few weeks and coming home for a couple weeks and kind of going back and forth just to have an actual balance of work and kind of seeing our family and stuff. When, you know, when we can because this has been a pretty crazy couple of years and we were out on tour for kind of a year and a half.
Nunzio: Yea, so you're on...
Zach: Yeah, so now we're just we're in the studio just kind of, yes, making a new album, gettin' into it... It's good to stay in one spot and just hunker down and get creative.
Nunzio: Dude, awesome. So is this all totally new stuff, or... because I do…
Nunzio: Yeah, okay, cool. Because I do keep hearing about this shelved record that was before Woodstock, after Evil Friends…
Nunzio: Is that stuff ever going to pop out see the light of day or is it just stuff that you just...
Zach: Umm, honestly, it'll come out in a different way. I doubt we're going to push that out...
Zach: …we just tend not to go backwards. I'd like to. We've had tons of songs over the years I thought were really good but didn't match the record enough, or for whatever reason didn't make it on the album. And I really want to finish up some of those and use them for either EPs, or exclusives for films, or something like that for certain different projects and so... However like, the stuff that we didn't put out and we kind of threw away it's not really “thrown away”. Anything that we kind of sift through it and when there's a really good hook or, you know, melody or lyric or chord progression we'll kind of pick and choose the best pieces of it and that can inspire a new song. So it all gets recycled and it gets in different ways I guess.
Zach: Not necessarily that album won't come out because it'll sound like we did back then. We don’t really want to do that. But those ideas, everything that's kind of been out there, will see the light of day. All the good stuff at least, in some form or another.
Nunzio: Sweet. Yeah, so that's an interesting point that you bring up because I always say… I think a lot of people would consider you like “pop” now? Just because you're so popular.
Zach: The one song.
Nunzio: You know what I mean?
Zach: Yeah totally.
Nunzio: You know, and I don't think that's a true statement, that you're a pop artist, you know but I dunno…
Zach: Yeah, I wouldn't say that either, calling us a pop artist…
Nunzio: Right, exactly. But it's like, “oh they're on the radio, they're pop” you know, that’s the thinking. But every one of your records there's totally a progression and it's incremental, you know? Each album kind of goes into this direction of like where you guys are now, you know?
Zach: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Nunzio: It's kind of like, it's all very linear. You know, it's not like overnight you guys changed and you're this “thing”, and I've heard a few of you say in past interviews that timing was important… so what do you think about the timing of the songs, like “Feel it Still” for instance, like is it a timing thing or is it just that great of a song? You know, what do you think?
Zach: Honestly there's a whole lot of variables that go into that.
Zach: It was everything because that song got so big it was just ridiculous, like, nobody could have known that, or known what it was going to be at all. And so it was just everything was kind of perfect. I think it was the right time, the right beat, the right bass line, the right lyric. You just never know with those kind of things… but the universe just really connected with that one, and everything was kind of perfect.
Nunzio: Yeah, totally. And I feel like there was a point maybe with “In the Mountain, In the Cloud” right, where it kind of started boiling you know?
Zach: Oh yeah.
Nunzio: I saw you guys in 2011 in the city, in New York, for CMJ week and you headlined at Terminal 5 with Givers.
Zach: Oh yeah totally.
Nunzio: And I remember this moment you and John were just kind of giddy about the size of the crowd and just I remember specifically you saying like this is the biggest show we've ever played.
Zach: Yeah it was, totally.
Nunzio: And since then you must have had dozens, or hundreds, of those moments where the shows just keep getting bigger, or like, the opportunities keep getting bigger and you're like “wow”…
Zach: Absolutely. I mean there's always something else which is kind of the thing that drives us and a lot of artists and a lot of entrepreneurs and just the driven people there's always a goal and you're never really done. I don't know if things get harder when you're like The Rolling Stones and you can just do you know a week sold out at Madison Square Garden or something like that. I don't know where you go from there… first band to play on the moon or something. You gotta always keep... You gotta recognize you can't just be somebody that's never pleased or never satisfied. But you do have to keep that hunger and you have to keep working for something bigger and better. And so, no matter what, a lot of what we do we're always thinking about the next thing for sure. Yeah, I remember that show like crazy. That sold out and that was totally at the time the most tickets we've ever sold, for sure.
Nunzio: Yeah, it sticks in my mind because it was so genuine. You guys were like, I think maybe surprised? Even though, as a fan, I was like “why are they so surprised because they're fucking awesome”. But then I guess you just don't really realize it's actually “holy shit that's a big venue, that's a lot of tickets.” You know?
Zach: I think it’s just how it's stacked and how there's, you know, three levels looking down on you. And it's just it's a pretty big and intense crowd. We've had a lot of those kind of milestones over the years and they are... every one is just so special… They've been, you know, since day one for our very first tour... just the feeling of “holy shit guys, we made it”, just because we went to a town that we had never been to before and people knew the words to our songs.
Zach: We're like, “welp, that's it, we made it”. The first time we played in Europe, we’re like “holy shit, that's it, we made it”. You know, there's always so many of those “first times” but they just... Yeah, if we just, don't stop doing that, that's kind of our whole goal.
Nunzio: Yeah. So it's like… now you're at this point where I couldn't possibly imagine more radio play, or bigger shows, you know like, you're doing Coachella, stuff like that. So what do you see as being next? Like, is it maintaining this level or is there another step up, you know, like what do you think it is?
Zach: Oh yeah yeah... we're still growing, we're still getting up there. We have a lot of ways that we can go because of... well, we do and we don’t, in a way. Since “Feel It Still” got so huge but still basically everybody knows the song, or has heard the song, but not everybody knows us. So, which is a good thing and a bad thing, but we still have a lot to do and a lot to build off to make ourselves I guess known a little bit more and the rest of our work known. But it's also those are big shoes to fill when it comes to writing new songs, writing another album, and you can't predict anything like that there's no there's no amount of money or talent or anything that could get us something like “Feel It Still”, like I said it was everything kind of aligned to make that perfect but all we can do is try to do better for ourselves and I'm not saying that we'll ever going to get a song as big as “Feel It Still” but I'm confident that we can write a song that's better. And that's pretty much what we go for every time.
Nunzio: Yeah, and that's awesome... and you said fans know the song but not necessarily you guys. So, have you had experience with new fans that have found you through this new this new-found success looking back at the past records and stuff. What do you think the feeling is for those listeners going back because if you listen to “Waiter: 'You Vultures!'” until “Woodstock,” it's so different.
Zach: Yeah there's a lot of stuff going on. That's the good thing about it. We have a fairly extensive catalog so if a new fan wants to dig deep they surely can. But if you want to just listen to “Feel It Still” on repeat, you can do that as well. And so, it gives us some breathing room for sure. And it's also kind of funny to watch people's faces when you know, if a new fan comes to a show and doesn't know what we sound like except “Feel It Still” and they're expecting 90 minutes of that and they won't get that because there's a lot of metal, a lot of jams, and a lot of other stuff and it's really fun to be in that position to show new people who we are and where we come from.
Nunzio: Don't ever change, because that's the shit. And that's awesome because you guys stick with playing the old stuff and just kind of... that attitude like, “this is us,” like you said, “you have to get to know us,” you know?
Nunzio: So, you guys have... I don't know that a lot of people know how many albums you've had before this you know? Because I feel like when you hear stuff that's on the radio it's kind of like new artists or whatever but you guys have been grinding for a long time. So, what was that like for 10 plus years just touring, putting out records, what was it like and did you see this coming?
Zach: No, we didn't see that coming. And we knew we were on a steady incline the whole time, we've been growing every year and every album and we didn't know that that's actually pretty rare, but we've been doing this for a long time and it was it was a slow burn... it was a “get rich slow” scheme that we've got going. But it's worth it, it's fun. We've started doing this because we wanted to. We had no expectations. Obviously, we hoped we could just do this for a living and be able to afford an apartment and things like that but we were totally homeless, living in vans for years. We've been comfortable and doing this for quite a while but it's just... it's been very slow and steady, so “Feel It Still” was the first really big spike that we've had and it's pretty cool, and just gives us a whole other level of opportunities, and people to work with, and doors that are unlocked. And we just kind of leveled up on some things and since then we've got invited into a world that we're not from and we've been having a pretty good time in it. It's pretty funny shit.
Nunzio: Yeah and it's awesome, like you said, just being on that steady incline and it wasn't an overnight thing and that's awesome. And I think like I said before, there's definitely a projection between your first album to now it's a linear projection, you know?
Zach: Yeah, I wouldn't have wanted to like, there's no way if we had had this success when I was like 23, I'd be a terrible person and just wouldn't know what to do. I'm totally glad everything worked out how and when it did, and I felt like we built a really strong fanbase... grassroots, just people that have been coming to shows forever, like yourself, and that's what's important. And, you have a hit and that just allows you to kind of fish for new people, new fans, new listeners, and that just casts a net a lot wider than we normally get to. And it's been really amazing to see all angles of the business.
Nunzio: Yeah, and then, so... you know I mean it's well documented so no need to get into it, but you know, moving from Alaska basically to Portland just for the opportunity, right?
Zach: Yeah, yeah. Mm hmm.
Nunzio: Because they were lacking where you guys were. So what were you thinking at that time? Was it “I just want to have some fun with my friends and play music” or was it like “if we're really gonna make a career of this, we have to do this”?
Zach: It was a little bit of both. We didn't think it was going to be a career by any means but we did sacrifice everything, we just decided to do it. Honestly, what's funny is that we kind of did it... a lot of people, there's some kind of myth about people getting into the music industry to make money. I think people are finally coming to grasp with the fact that that's not really how it works. There's not a lot of money, especially when you're starting out, and such a small percentage of people will get to truly make a living off this. So we went out because we kind of realized that you didn't need to make money to do this. I didn't realize that you could be a touring band. The only thing we got in Alaska were bands with names. We didn't get any... nobody had to make it to the next show and just stopped by in Alaska, we were up in the far corner of the world so we didn't understand that. And I moved down to Portland to go to college at first and I started going out to shows and we were out almost every night at some little bar and seeing a band I'd never heard of, from a town I've never heard of for three bucks at some bar and they would just... we'd see them get into a van and go off to the next town and I had no idea you could tour at that level. I thought you needed stage lights and Lear jets and shit, and when we found out “oh you don't need any of that stuff? You can just go and play?” and we just decided to go see whatever we could of the world. And we were extremely poor at the beginning and I wonder how we even made it. It's ridiculous the amount of money that seven people would live off of is just insane. And we had a great time to doing it and we have a lot of fun stories and I wouldn’t change it for the world. There's a lot of uncomfortable sleeping situations and we made friends that would let us crash at their apartment... They might give us some beer or cook us breakfast and for that we'd be like “Alright, well you never have to pay for a show ever again”. A lot of those people from that that first tour still come to our shows and we still take care of them because they took care of us.
Nunzio: Yeah and that's awesome because I mean, I'm a musician and I have a love/hate relationship with touring because it's fucking hard and it's for that one hour or so that you're on stage and then there's a lot of work that goes into it that people don't realize... It's like sleeping in parking lots or like, you know, eating fucking gas station food or whatever, so you know you do need to enjoy it of course but at some point, was there ever a point where you were like “Man is it ever gonna get better?” Where it's kind of like, you know, you've been to Oklahoma City now like eight times and you're like “fuck,” you know?
Zach: Totally. What happened with us was that the carrot was always still dangling in front of our face. We were just like “man, I know I'm broke this year but man, by next Christmas, yeah that's going to be, we're going to be okay and I can buy some presents for my family, and afford to pay some bills or something like that.” And you just keep doing it and it always felt like it was right there and you always feel like you're just about on the edge of making it and losing it and that's kind of where we've always lived and whether things are stable, we make sure there's a certain percentage of stability and instability in our band with everything. When it comes to our set lists, our set design, we're never too prepared. We're very prepared to be unprepared. I don't know exactly if that makes sense but it's never a sure thing and it never has been. It's just been always something that we do and we overthink things quite often and I've kind of found that it's best not to do that. I came to grips with the fact that I'm just going to play music with these guys until I die, no matter what, and I just decided to do that. Luckily I'm at a spot right now where people want to come out watch it and care.
Nunzio: Right, and you know, it can go away at any time, or like you said, there's another step up you can take and, like you said, you've always felt that way. So, before you guys signed to Atlantic you were releasing stuff independently, right?
Zach: Mm hmm.
Nunzio: Did you guys have your own label?
Zach: We did and we do. We usually license, we've kind of done everything. We've been on an indie label we've been on an indie that's owned by a major, we've been on a major, we've got our own label. We've licensed to indie labels and major labels. We've done a little bit of everything. Yes, technically we have our own label. We haven't put anything out really for a while but that's just kind of, you know, it's just paperwork, you know? You can get a business license kind of thing. So we have a label but it's not like we have a building or a vinyl press like you got, or anything like that. But we do have just an imprint that we use.
Nunzio: Now, with this success you guys are having, you guys are big with, you know, you're very active and vocal about political and social issues, right? So, do you think this new platform… like, how do you use the new platform in that respect?
Zach: Lately we kind of realize that, you know, you gotta stand up for something… but when we have the platform that we do and we have as many followers as we have on social media and that come to our shows, we definitely feel a responsibility that you have to do some good and that you have to do something. It's tough to find your thing and find something that you really care about. There's a million ways that you can do good. But we just, we've kind of narrowed it down to a few things that we care greatly about and the main thing that we've been working on lately is doing land acknowledgements for indigenous people, First Nation people, wherever we're on tour, and so wherever we play we ask local indigenous tribes of the area that are from there or have been displaced there to come and we just basically donate a piece of our set. We've got a microphone and an audience and so we just ask if they would like, we just kind of acknowledge that the land that we're about to play on is theirs, and we just, out of respect, ask if they want to do anything or say anything, they will be at the microphone. So, it's been really amazing. Sometimes it's political lectures, sometimes it's poetry, sometimes it's drums and songs and dances and it's been a really great learning experience for us and the audience and it's been super cool. I mean, we grew up in Alaska, and Alaska is one of those places where the native culture is still very... we're very close to it. It's around you, and in the artwork, and the cities, and the people. You're very close to it, you're very in tune with it… and but then we realize that we see that just because of where we're from but then in the books that we were reading we didn't hear hardly anything about them. So that's just something that we kind of wanted to take around with us anywhere we go in the world.
Nunzio: Yeah, and it's awesome that you guys do it because it's not something you hear about often and growing up in New Jersey/New York, it's not something that you really think about because like you said I think in Alaska there's still populations of, you know...
Zach: Yeah, and the artwork, and the street names, and everything. It's still very much a part of that. Even if it has been completely whitewashed, it's still there for the most part, but in a lot of the bigger cities and metropolitan areas it's definitely harder to see.
Nunzio: For sure, so it's great that you guys do that and like you said, I was going to ask you... it's one of the things where I feel like living in this country, or probably anyone in the world right now, you just feel like the problems just are piling on. And how do you pick... there's so many things you want to stand for, right? But it almost gets watered down, you know, you can't be in a million places at once kind of thing, so...
Zach: Yeah exactly. You choose your battle, you take some things that you care about. We do the things that are close to us and so we've got a few indigenous people, education, music education in schools for kids... that's how we met. And then the environment, being from Alaska, but generally it all boils down to just what's right. Just basic human civil rights… and every day, every decision you make, you can do what feels good or you can do what feels bad. Just try to always do the thing that feels good.
Nunzio: Right, yeah, and I was also reminded recently I think from the band's Twitter account that a couple of years ago you collabed with the Smithsonian National Zoo...
Zach: Oh yeah, that was awesome.
Nunzio: …and that's so cool. It was, I believe, a 400 pressing biodegradable vinyl representing each of the last living Sumatran tigers, I believe.
Zach: Yeah, totally. That was honestly one of the coolest things we've ever had a chance to be a part of, that was really, really rad.
Nunzio: And that's so cool. And I've seen you guys, you've been vocal on mental health issues and things like that... and that's something, especially in the music industry, it's under a microscope, you know?
Nunzio: You know, a lot of musicians who suffer and taken their lives, lost their lives, you know. So how important is that to you to be vocal about things like that? I'm sure you've seen touring bands that you're friends with who suffer, you know, fans, and things like that.
Zach: For sure, and we do too.
Nunzio: For sure.
Zach: We're not perfect. We chose that one because we're not well, and we're not right, and we're just trying to, you know, with stuff like that there's not a lot of... there's not a science about what to do and what not to do, and every case is different and every person is different, every context is different. But just talking about it, being okay to be open about it, that's one of the biggest things for us at least, that we're pushing for.
Nunzio: And that’s awesome… that’s great. Alright, cool, if there's anything you want to touch on or you know anything, like what you're currently listening to, or anything like that, simple stuff?
Zach: Sadly, it's all pretty much us. When we're in the recording process we get, you know, daily mixes every day. And so, we pretty much just listen constantly to whatever we're recording. This always happens, it burns you out pretty good. But we just are constantly listening... things you get do better, better lyrics, better ideas, and so sadly I'm listening to our demos quite a lot right now. But thank you for reminding me we gotta get back into something good. We're going to a hip hop show tonight, we're going to go see A$AP Rocky tonight here in Portland.
Nunzio: Oh nice!
Zach: Yeah, he's rad. He's a bud and we're going to go hang out. We're bringing a very talented artist from here called The Last Artful, Dodgr, and she is such a badass and so, we're gonna go hang out with her and we're gonna go check out Rocky tonight.
Nunzio: That's awesome. Alright, well, enjoy. I don't want to keep you much longer. So, any last words or whatever?
Zach: Uh Nunz, thank you man and we appreciate you doing your part in the music scene and helping people because starting out is the hardest thing to do. So, what you're doing at that level is perfect, and helping other artists just get on their feet and get a career going.
Nunzio: We appreciate that. Is there anything you'd like to say to an up-and-coming artist? One piece of advice?
Zach: I'd say, early on just find out what you want to say and how you want to say it, and then go for it. A lot of people have talent and a lot of people have drive and they just haven't quite figured out, and same with us, we still don't totally know who and what we want to be and how, but figuring that out and getting people that have common goals is very, very important.
Nunzio: Awesome. Dude, thank you again so much for taking the time.
Zach: Of course, dude!
Nunzio: Appreciate it so much. Enjoy the show tonight.
Zach: Thanks dude.
Nunzio: And best of luck and I hope I'll be seeing you guys soon.
Zach: Absolutely, I'm sure it won't be long until we're on tour back out east.
Nunzio: I can't wait.
Zach: You have a good night man.
Nunzio: You too man, enjoy.
We want to thank Zach for his time and for a truly interesting conversation. Portugal. The Man is a super hardworking group and it has paid off with all of their recent successes. For bands who are just starting out, or trying to find their way, PTM's story is pretty inspirational. If these kids from Alaska can get it done, then there's hope for all of us.
Keep up with all that's going on with the band here.
Our latest Create-A-Store signup is the Baltimore-area band, Body Thief. Their upcoming album, "Travel Glow," is set to be released on March 1, 2019. Earlier this week, the band launched a pre-order for the album including vinyl, CDs, and some cool merch designs which you can find here.
Following the disbanding of Baltimore post-hardcore group Tooth & Claw in 2012, members Sebastian Ramos and Greg Chipkin found themselves with an overwhelming desire create something new; to manifest the same passion for music that had initially brought them together in a musical project that would demonstrate how they had developed personally musically in the time since Tooth & Claw’s breakup. Beginning with an initiative from each member to experiment with new sounds and push each of their individual musical abilities, Ramos and Chipkin recorded three instrumental demos under the name Body Thief, and by late 2013 had completed their lineup in with the addition of Walt Umana on Bass and Daniel Hawkins on vocals. The band began to play shows rigorously around Maryland and D.C., and quickly branched into other Mid Atlantic states as well. By the winter of 2014, the band was scheduled to enter the studio with producer and engineer, Paul Leavitt (All Time Low, Circa Survive, Senses Fail, Have Mercy) to record their debut album, Speak in Hibernation. Musically, Body Thief pairs the post-rock and post-hardcore tendencies of many of their greatest hometown influences with a well-developed musicianship and an ear for sprawling melodies and intense crescendos. On record, Hawkins’ vocals weave throughout the textured instrumentals of Chipkin, Umana and Ramos effortlessly; the highly complicated nature of the music itself doesn’t detract from its accessibility, and instead functions to bring the listener deeper into the captivating melodies and rhythms at play. Their live set replicates this energy, and delivers a totally unique experience for first-time listeners and longtime fans alike. The audience regularly finds themselves on the precipice of a musical tipping point, at which they can just as easily be brought into a frenzied chorus as they can an unpredictable groove. Since the release of their debut album, "Speak In Hibernation", the band has added Andres Soto on guitar, as well as shared the stage alongside various national touring acts, such as Emarosa, Hail The Sun, Tilian Pearson, and more. In late summer of 2018, the band went into the studio to record their follow-up record with Will Beasley (Toothgrinder, Asking Alexandria, Erra).
The new album showcases another side of Body Thief, with new elements inspired and gained through some of their modern influences. The band's intention was to expand their discography to demonstrate stylistic versatility. With plans to tour the US following its release, Body Thief's sophomore album, "Travel Glow", will be out on March 1st, 2019. Pre-order yours today.
Ever wondered what goes on during day to day here at intheclouds? Well, you're in luck! We've started a new video series to give you a little peak into our life over here on this side of the screen, showing you the ups and downs of running a small business... and an excuse for me to try and learn some slick new video editing techniques.
Ahead of their annual fall tour to the UK/Europe (which is currently taking place), I sat down with Wheatus frontman Brendan B. Brown and bassist Matthew Milligan for a little chat.
Let me preface this with some backstory. I first met the Wheatus folks back around 2011 while living in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. There was a great little network of musicians in our neighborhood, and over the next few years we collaborated on a few musical projects. In 2014 the band was gracious enough to take my previous band on a 5+ week tour throughout the UK and Europe which was just a phenomenal experience.
Fast forward to today - I wanted to feature the band because they are fucking rockers. There's just so much more to the group than just 'Teenage Dirtbag' and I want y'all to know it. We can all learn a lot from these folks, and they're some of the hardest working musicians I've ever been around.
Happy reading, kids.
So, it’s almost time - you're embarking on yet another UK tour in a few days. Congrats on that! You guys have always had a great following in the UK, and your albums have done particularly well there. What do you find unique about music industry over there as opposed to here in the US?
Matthew: In our experience, UK fans have SO much loyalty. In the States it seems like people tend to move on to the next thing enthusiastically, but in the UK when you make a fan, they become one for life. We have some folks over there who have been seeing the band regularly since the very first tour back in 2001.
You’ve definitely spent a lot of time touring there. Tell us about some of your favorite past touring experiences.
Matthew: Oh man, so many things come to mind. We got to play Wembley Arena a couple years ago with Busted... that was especially surreal. We're not the most exciting folks on the road... most nights after the gig you can find us on the bus binge-watching various TV series in the lounge. LOST, The Sopranos, and Dexter have all had some serious marathons over the years. We can also tell you the best cup of coffee available in virtually every town in Britain.
It’s so cool that you guys have found a “home” there in the UK. I feel like people here in the US have this weird perception of Wheatus. One thing I personally wish more people knew about you guys is how much you fucking RIP live. You’ve got a bunch of super talented musicians and vocalists in the band. Why do you think the band is perceived differently over in the UK as opposed to here in the US?
Matthew: Dirtbag was a MUCH bigger song in the UK than in the USA. Virtually everyone you encounter in the UK knows the name Wheatus. In the States, that's just not the case. It puts us in an interesting position actually... it's harder for us to tour in the States, but when we do, audiences have much less of an expectation of what we do. In the UK we've got a platinum album that people know well and expect to hear. In the States, we can play a wide variety of material plus Dirtbag and have people go "Wow that was a cool set... and I think I recognized that one song!"
That’s very true. I mean, I saw it firsthand. The fans over in the UK are really so supportive of you guys and you give it back to them by regularly touring over there almost every year, it seems. How have you been able to maintain that great fanbase there in the UK, and elsewhere abroad, for such a long time?
Matthew: To a certain extent, we're not sure! We've made a 4-6 week tour of the UK/EU sort of our annual tradition, and each time we go back we worry that THIS will be the time no one comes because people have grown tired of us... but it still hasn't happened. Maybe it's because it's been covered a few times over the years, but Teenage Dirtbag has remained a major part of the culture in a few countries, the UK especially. We're grateful, that's for sure.
I’m glad you brought the covers thing up. There have been some awesome covers of Teenage Dirtbag throughout the years. Maybe most famously, One Direction covered the song and included it in their "This Is Us" concert documentary. More recently All Time Low covered Dirtbag as part of their Green Room Sessions series.What’s it like to hear these covers for the first time?
Brendan: I've really never failed to enjoy one. The 1D thing was cool, when they morphed into superheroes. ATL seem to be closer to me personally in their ideas about it... love those guys. Chris Carrabba has done a great version and asked me on stage to play it with him one time. That was super cool ‘cuz I'm very much a fan of his.
Do you have any favorites of the bunch?
Matthew: I was floored the first time I heard Weezer and Dashboard Confessional do it. Those are two acts who meant the world to me as a young aspiring musician... hearing them cover our song still just seems like a dream.
Brendan: The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain probably take the cake for favorite along with SCALA, who did the choir version for the film Bully. Phoebe Bridgers and Mary Lambert are tied for a close second. And then there's Amy Shark who very recently smashed it. I can't decide... it's that thing where they inject their own lives into it and it becomes a better song for it.
And you guys have done a bunch of covers yourselves, from Erasure's "A Little Respect" to Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”. I was also lucky enough to hear your ridiculously good renditions of “The Trees” by Rush and “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction each night on the 2014 UK/Europe tour. There’s a lot of pressure in putting a cover out since your version will always be compared to the originals, so how do you go about picking a cover to perform?
Brendan: It has to be something that's meant a lot to me for some time, otherwise I can't do it justice. I liked “What Makes You Beautiful” the first time I heard it, so that was a no brainer. Rush songs are different though...very high stakes. There is no easy Rush song. Pat is also one of the best singers who's ever lived so the pressure is on. I enjoy the challenge of something I love and have to work very hard to accomplish. “A Little Respect” was a pretty big mountain to climb because of the bravery those guys exude and the challenge of migrating a synth track to a rock format. We did have to track it a few times before we got it right. Yeah, we take covers very seriously.
Have you ever gotten any feedback of your covers from the original performers?
Brendan: Um, no. I'd be afraid to hear it honestly... especially from Rush. Oh my god, I'd die.
Back to Teenage Dirtbag for a second - I mean it’s just such a timeless song. I really think that kids of any generation - back then, now, and in the future - can relate to the message and kind of claim it as their anthem. I love that the song enjoys these spikes in popularity every few years by each new generation of kids. So tell me, what's the true message behind the song?
Brendan: Wow...the real answer is: whatever it means to you. Obviously, when I made it, it came from my life as a kid. 1984, Long Island, Satanic cult murder and drugs, AC/DC and Iron Maiden being somewhat forbidden or very frowned upon, and finding my musical identity in that world. BUT, what it means to me isn't as important as what people make of it when they make it their own. The author is dead... that dirtbag poem survives only because people can make it their own story, that's the real message.
Do you think the message of the song has a different impact now as opposed to back during the time you wrote it?
Brendan: Very much so. As I said, my contemporary identity as a fan of heavy music in 1984 put me into an exceptionally dark category. A “dirtbag” was decidedly NOT a good thing to be back then. Again, it doesn't really matter too much what I lived through and what made me write it. Everyone has their own struggle... everybody has to fight to be free, from bad ideas, or bad cultural pressure, or what have you. Mary Lambert's interpretation of it as a lesbian love story is particularly gratifying in that sense. I love that it can be taken that way.
That is a really amazing interpretation, especially coming from someone like Mary. So why do you think the song is so relatable to people?
Brendan: Someone once said to me that everyone has to go through that first round of feeling like they don't belong to the rest of humanity, where their instincts about what kind of person to be, are at odds with norms or ideas of the herd. It can be terrifying. I looked to music back then to reassure me that my weird ideas about what kind of person to become were OK. I have Malcolm Young (RIP) and Neil Peart and Prince and Steve Harris to thank for the reassurance I needed through that time in my life, among others.
You just named a few artists there who you admire, and I know that at least a few of them are former Columbia Records artists. Kind of goes to show just how much success you’ve had as a band, getting signed onto the same label as some of your heroes. Let’s chat about that because you’ve got an interesting story about being on a major label. Your self-titled debut album was released by Columbia Records [Sony] but despite its worldwide success, your relationship with the label ended on not-so-great terms when they unexpectedly shelved your second album. What was the major label experience like for you and what are some of the pitfalls?
Brendan: The Columbia Records thing was essentially a mismatch. Donnie Ienner [then chairman of Sony], Blair McDonald [then Director of A&R at Sony], and our A&R, Kevin Patrick, understood us and were cool with us producing our own records… but Donnie and Blair left before we finished album #2 and nobody else saw us the way Kevin did, so the relationship was over at that point. You'd think they'd find a way to keep a new band whose first record did well and cost next to nothing but, alas, that's not how it worked back then. It was all for the better though. There were tons of bad ideas thrown at us during that time. It was difficult in that regard, but we avoided most of them. Some of the people who work at labels do so for the wrong reasons. It can be an intensely political viper pit and the art sometimes doesn't survive the self-interest. I've seen some people manage it very well. I'm not one of those people. You have to be ready for that. It's not a situation where you can make of it what you can. A major label is a multi-national corporation; they're not interested in your art project. They're out to make money.
Then once the Columbia deal ended, you began releasing everything else independently on your own label, Montauk Mantis. What do you like, or dislike, about being an independent artist?
Brendan: You get to craft your interactions and delivery of music to people who like it in your own way. That also means you have to do everything yourself. I've never really minded that, so it's a good fit. Sometimes things fall off the table. While I love making good records, I'm not a very ambitious person so I think the little ecosystem we have is designed from that energy. It's gonna be different for everyone, but that's what's cool about it... what works for us may not work for you, but you'll find your own ideas are better for you anyway.
It’s a bit easier these days to release music independently, and here at INTHECLOUDS we work with a ton of those types of bands. We’re always trying to come up with ways to help bands do their own thing, get heard by some new ears, and continue to grow. What advice can you give to indie bands that don’t have label support?
Brendan: Always make your own records! Unique mistakes are better than copy-cat perfections. I love records that survive on their individualism. I think they last longer. Listen to EVERYTHING. There are good ideas everywhere. Also, make sure you have something to say; empathy and adversity can be renewable resources for humanity in your music. That's why it connects, so do that! Listen and feel.
Agreed, good advice! Once the music is created It’s super important that bands can get their tunes out there and get heard. That’s made a bit easier these days with streaming services. How do you feel about being an indie artist in this digital streaming era?
Matthew: As an artist it's definitely got its ups and downs. You can get your music out there so quickly and effortlessly that it's still a surreal process... but the competition to get the attention of listeners has never been more fierce. You feel it as a listener too. Unlimited access to everything is overwhelming, and I've usually got a huge backlog of new artists/albums I'm eager to check out but haven't had the time to sit down with yet.
Yeah, that’s for sure. I think that’s why physical media is important these days. We’re in the midst of a vinyl resurgence that started a few years back and cassettes are starting to make their comeback too. It’s pretty essential to have a physical item for fans grab in this digital age. Thoughts?
Matthew: When I wasn't working with Wheatus I ran a record store for about 8 years... it's definitely been a wild time for physical media. I think it's a combination of things, including excellent marketing and creating a new collector's market. But more than that, I do believe that there's a whole younger generation of music fans who have grown up in the world of listening to music entirely on the computer, in the background, in a passive way. Actually playing a record demands your attention in a way that a Spotify link or YouTube clip just can't, in my opinion. It's an experience. If you're a music fan, having that experience for the first time is really powerful.
What platforms do you prefer to listen on, personally?
Matthew: I've got a pretty substantial vinyl collection at this point... in fact I've really got way more than my small apartment should have to handle. So, I always love getting to drop the needle on something. But when I'm out of the house I've got an Apple Music subscription that I've come to appreciate more than I originally expected.
Completely random, but I have to bring this next topic up. We’re living in strange times and the political atmosphere is super volatile. Brendan, you’re a very active Twitter user and you certainly don't shy away from getting political on there. There’s a lot of discussion lately about artists/entertainers and their role in politics. How has the current, or past, political climate impacted your writing?
Brendan: Well, I find myself illustrating the perils of monarchy more than I used to. It's too bad... that's not a joke. I'm also aware that there are a lot of people who are not benefiting at all from this nationalist populism asshattery we're in the middle of. I'm interested in those people, their view of things, and find myself writing on those narratives lately. Representative government is about maintaining a healthy argument, in the public sphere. Fugazi and Ani DiFranco, early, early examples for me and I feel obligated to speak. I also have a degree in history and find it impossible to ignore the re-emergence of deadly patterns from the 20th century. If you don't know your history, stick around and you'll get to learn by doing.
Right, and I personally admire that you use your platform to discuss these things. Just in general, I know there are people out there who hate when artists speak up about politics. So what do you say to those out there who believe that artists shouldn't voice their political opinions and just “stick to their art?”
Brendan: Fuck those people. Seriously, do I have to point out the idiocy of expressing the political view that someone else should keep their political views to themselves? Why don't those people keep THAT idea to THEMselves? Dingbats. But... in the interest of ending on a positive :) note...thank you very much for thinking of us and for reaching out. We do not take your attention for granted. Much love!
I want to thank BBB and Matthew of Wheatus for taking the time to chat with me in the midst of their fall craziness. If you didn't already check it out, the band was awesome enough to curate our November Ear Buds cassette mixtape. Each song on the mixtape includes a solo or side project of each member of the band.
Wheatus is: Brendan B Brown / Guitar & Vocal Matthew Milligan / Bass Brandon Ticer / Keyboards Leo Freire / Drums Joey Slater / Backing Vocal Gabrielle Sterbenz / Backing Vocal Karlie Bruce / Backing Vocal