Exclusive Ear Buds Interview : Wheatus
(photo courtesy of Danny Allen)
By: Nunzio Moudatsos, Head of Artist Services
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.
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