Wheatus – Brendan Brown (Interview)

If you don’t know Wheatus I can only assume you are either under the age 13, or failing that you lived under a rock during the earlier 2000s. ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ has become the anthem of a generation, something that front-man Brendan B. Brown is very aware and humble of. We caught up with Brendan as the band to prepare to head over to our shores to support Busted on their arena tour and also play some smaller club shows, including a night at London’s iconic Brooklyn Bowl.

Apologies, I’m a little out of breath (?!)

Me too man, I don’t know what it is about this week but it feels like I haven’t even had a moment to pee, it’s just been like woah!

Music industry stuff, or are you still having to work the nine till five?

No no, we do everything in this band ourselves, we tech our own gear, we build our own cases out, I delivered the gear to the airport myself on Monday morning. When you do it all yourself, and you don’t have a “team” you wear every hat. You’ve got to know how to use a glue gun, you’ve got to know how to change a tyre, the whole thing.

Are you one of these guys that when you are on tour and backstage, you are looking at spreadsheets trying to work out how much merch you’ve sold and stuff?

We’re not counting money that way, it’s more like we’re in the back of the rig with a soldering iron trying to make the connections more robust, that’s more along the lines of what we do. The reason we’ve been able to survive and keep going back and forth to the UK and doing tours is because from a technical stand point we’ve torn it down and rebuilt it once a year, with the goal of making it lighter, more reliable, faster, and it’s like a miniature NASA operation trying to make a better rocket every year, you know? Basically we want to give a show that’s worth the ticket price, and then some. The only way to do that is make sure the crowd is getting the sounds they recognise, so it’s got to be a high-five show, at the same time it has to be incredibly reliable where nothing goes wrong and those two bars are pretty high, you’ve got to keep your tech game sharp and that’s kind of where we come off.

It must put pressure on you, but also give you peace of mind because you aren’t relying on someone else.

Dude when we get over there, we are starting off with a couple of days of rehearsal and basically the point at which I become really relaxed is when I receive all the gear off the truck, I open all the boxes, nothing is smashed, nothing is broken or ruined and all the knobs are intact, and then we plug it in and it works, at that point I can get some rest. It’s a very big technical exercise for me, I designed the rig myself and it’s a little tricky, but I’ve been doing that since the 90s, building out guitars and touring rigs.

It’s interesting that you’ve got the couple of days of rehearsal.

Yeah, well we’re just going to ring it out. We’ve got two sets this tour, one we’ll refer to as the arena set and the other is the club set, and the club set is always by request. We haven’t had a proper set-list sitting on the floor for ten years, we handed it over to the crowd sometime around 2006 and the crowd calls out the tunes which is really good because it keeps us on our toes and gives them the show they want, and not the one we think they want. We can’t do that in the arenas, but if somebody calls something out and I can actually hear it we might change things, but we have a set-list for the arena dates with Busted that we are going to try and stick too, but there are a couple of versions of it.

That must be quite fun, I remember seeing Reel Big Fish, someone shouting ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and they played it, it was brilliant. So it must be great for the fans, because there is the chance you’ll play the most random track on one of your albums, and it could be played specifically for one fan.

That it is exactly how it works, and that is the goal. There was always that kid at the Rush show, that wanted them to play ‘Jacobs Ladder’ and they only recently played that live, which was on their last tour that I saw them but the point is, you want that kid to get what he or she wants, so we do it that way for that reason. The problem that arises is when they shout out a tune from my childhood that I only partially remember how to play, like if some kid is like “Eye of the Beholder from Metallica” I’ll start playing it and then that becomes a tease because we haven’t worked on that, you can’t just improve a Metallica tune on stage that’s not how it works.

So how do you club rehearsals, do you just have a random song generator and just press a button?

No we do round-robin, everyone goes around and picks a song and if we don’t play it really well we play it a few times in a row, and everybody does their picks.

It must be really refreshing to do it that way, because doing 33 dates as you are, doing the same set-list could get depressing. The audience shouting the tracks must be fun, and take the monotony out of it.

Dude, I’ve got to tell you man if somebody offered me a lot of money to do the same set-list every night, I think the partnership would fail. I can’t do it, I really can’t do it. It is just monotony, whatever you enjoy about this, whatever makes you continue doing it even when there’s not enough money too, that thing and I’m an atheist but I’ll use the word, it’s holy, it’s sacramental that thing, you can’t put a price on it. If you try and standardise the set, kill me now!

33 dates, do you just love playing the UK, or is that something you do in the States like 33 solid dates?

In the US it would be a lot more, I think the longest we were out in the US was eight weeks just straight one day off a week and in some cases two, just ploughing through every little town. I grew up listening to Willie Nelson and AC/DC, bands that stayed on the road and that’s what I want to be, that’s why I did this. It’s nice to stay home and make a record and get that right, but as soon as that process is over it’s like “get me out of here”. When we tour the UK, we’ll notice that we’ll do like St Albans and Holyhead and Carlisle and Scunthorpe and Loughborough, these far flung places and that’s our favourite kind of tour to do, because you show up at those spots and you end up making friends for life and that’s not an exaggeration, we have friends and family in these places now.

Yeah, like I saw you were doing a show in Cannock. I’ve never heard of a band playing Cannock!

That’s always my favourite, when someone interviewing us has never heard of a place, it’s so strange to me because the United Kingdom is the size as the North East of America.

I live twenty minutes away from Cannock, I’ve just never heard of a band play Cannock.

See, we are giving everyone a lesson in their own geography!

You’ve obviously got some of the smaller club shows, and then you’ve got the Brooklyn Bowl. Have you played that yet?

No, I was invited on stage to sing at our local Brooklyn Bowl here in Brooklyn where I live, which is right around the corner. So it’s kind of weird to be flying sixty five hundred miles to play the other Brooklyn Bowl.

Bowling and live music, what could go wrong?

I tell you what could go wrong, they could stick a McDonald’s in there!

How come you added dates to the Busted tour? Just because you wanted to do those smaller clubs?

I’ll just be frank with you, it is very very expensive to be over there, the tour bus is close to £1000 a day and you really have to make your money. You can’t just be on vacation, you’ve got to go to work which is fine with us. I had a conversation with our bass player Matthew and he was like “how come we have one day off, you telling me there is nothing we can do that night” and that’s kind of how we are. Sometimes it catches up with us and bites us on the ass, like I had to cancel the Cologne show last year in Germany, because I got real sick. Everyone get the flu, but whether or not it takes you down a notch, there is always that fear in the dressing room when I stand up to walk on stage and I can’t walk across the room because I’m rocking a hundred and three temperature, you’ve got to be careful about that. In general tends to be the exception and not the rule, and we try hard to work every day we’re over there, it’s a childhood dream to do this and it still is.

You looking forward to the arena shows, because it’s a bit different?

Yeah man, absolutely we’ve done a few arena dates. We opened up for the Bare Naked Ladies at the Philadelphia Spectrum one time, and a handful of others. We were lucky enough to do the Manchester Evening News Arena, but generally speaking we are not an arena band, we are a club band, we are a club band by design and we are a club band by aspiration, so I think what we are going to do is bring a bit of what we do in the clubs to the arena and not the other way round.

I’m assuming that you are going to play a few tracks off the ‘Wheatus’ album and no matter how old you are in this country, you will know those songs and will be singing along to them.

Yeah, it’s funny you mention that, I had a conversation with James (Bourne from Busted) about that because I said “what do we do, what kind of set do we do in an arena man” and he was like “you gotta play all the new stuff” and I’m like “you think that’s a good idea?” and he came back with “absolutely ‘Holiday’ is my favourite, you’ve got to have that, you’ve got to have ‘Lemonade’ in there, the first album everybody knows that” and James Bourne you’ve got to trust him on some level because he knows how to get peoples attention with his music, he’s a very very good song writer, so I trust his opinion. So we came up with a set that is basically half and half.

Last year you were over here touring the ‘Wheatus’ album for its anniversary, what do you think it is about that album that captured the heart of a generation?

Like I said, it’s a polaroid of a time before music was changed by the internet, it’s right on that cusp generationally where the grunge era came to an embarrassing close and something else began, who knows quite what that was because that thing was quite short lived, and I think that was due to the fact that the internet was so democratising for people. It didn’t matter what the label said was coming next any more, it just turned into a free for all, which is a good thing. My Dad kind of thinks, and in particular with ‘Teenage Dirtbag’, that everyone has to go through that period in their lives when they are young, being alienated or feeling lonely, and I agree with him to some extent but I don’t want to be flippant about it because I know that for some kids it is much much worse than for others, being alienated in school is not the same for everybody, maybe everybody feels it a little bit but some kids have it much, much worse. We make albums for those kids, I was one of those kids whose social life was negative- zero, so I write music for those ones for who it’s not a common experience.

When you were writing that album, was there any sense of how big it was going to be?

No, I had been through a couple of record deals already, bands that signed management deals so I knew a bit how it worked, and knew it took much more than a song. For that reason I was very protective of who we got involved with, the first guy who offered us control of all the production in the studio was the guy we went with, a guy at Columbia Records. Once we got into the international side of the company and realised that even though we knew this guy and trusted this guy, we had a signed a deal with a multinational entertainment company and we found out quickly that we were incompatible with the rest of the apparatus there and got lucky and got out of that quickly, so only two years were we in the major label system and only for one album cycle and we have been very fortunate and happier ever since. Again, if you don’t have a multinational label putting your stuff out, it takes a little more leg work, but the internet is there for that and we have developed a much more long term and trusted fan base as a result, they are really just our friends and family.

Wheatus play the Brooklyn Bowl in London on the 5th June with tickets available here, and they are out on tour with Busted on the Pigs Can Fly tour for the next couple of weeks.