Teenage Dirtbag came out in 2000. 14 years later, it’s still going. And so are Wheatus, the American alternative rock group that formed five years before in Northport, New York. Last Tuesday, Concrete and UEA:TV sat down with Brendan Brown, the band’s lead singer, in advance of their Welcome Week gig in the LCR.
This is the fourth time that Wheatus have played UEA, but only the third time that Brown will be able to remember. He doesn’t say why…
They come to the UK “About once a year – maybe once every year and a half”, and they normally fit in a handful of freshers’ events. And university crowds have their own unique character. “It’s a little bit more light hearted. There aren’t as many musos in the crowd…” Musos? “Musically inclined individuals.
“And it’s kind of a challenge to keep up with uni crowds because they’re drunk. And you can’t really get drunk. You can’t drink on the job”.
Over 20 years, what is it that keeps the group together? “I just love to play guitar and write songs, and sing them. I love it. The band is, tighter and – I don’t know – just better at what we do these days. So it’s getting more exciting on that front”.
Do they like doing things together? “Well typically in Wheatus I write the songs. But we work them up together in the studio and in rehearsal. So we get them to a certain point before we record and then we drop them down. So it’s quite interactive”.
Has that tight bond helped them? “Matthew Milligan, our bass player, is the oldest standing member besides me. He’s been in since 2006, I think. But the first three Wheatus records are so different from one another that it’s almost as if the same band couldn’t have done them anyway, which was kind of convenient because after the first record… Phil wanted to do a solo thing. He wanted to go off on his own. We’re still friends: he mixed our last album.
“We do have this sort of little group of musicians who’ve been in and out of Wheatus and we’re all still friends. And we chat and work on each other’s stuff if it’s required. So it’s more like a – it’s more like a music collective in terms of the personnel.
“And the ideas for songs on albums tend to come from me. If somebody has an idea for a song, it’s you duty to respect the origin point of the idea and figure it out – figure it out together: what is it? Look, I mean, even the Beatles: it wasn’t collaborative. They were in the studio for so long together, but it was still either George’s song, or John’s song, or Paul’s that they were working on. And they worked together to make the guy’s idea happen – the guy who came up with it.
“That’s not to be construed as a Beatles comparison!” Brown jabs the air keenly with a Sharpie. We point out that Beatles comparisons are not necessarily bad. “No – but it is if I make it!”
Brown continues: “The idea is king, you know? If Matthew wrote a song and said ‘Hey! I want it to go on a Wheatus record’ and he said “Oh, and by the way: in order to fulfil this idea you have to stand on your head and play the kazoo”, I would do it! I’d figure it out – see what he’s on about. It’s my obligation because he’s got an idea.
“We kind of see each other as vehicles for the idea. And Gabrielle’s record – she’s one of my backing vocalists, she’s got this solo record coming out – the ideas that are going down on that come from her.”
How did this collective of Wheatus-affiliated musicans come together? “Oh, man. That’s like 25 different stories! Generally speaking, you kind of bump into each other because of what you’re doing.
“This is one story – I’ll tell you one story. Matthew, our bass player, and I met because his best friend from high school went to a very, sort of, exclusive ACDC show at Roseland ballroom in New York in – I think it was 2002 or 2003. And it was really hard to get in: he had won a contest or something like that. Kreg, his friend, came up to me and asked for a photograph and then said “My friend’s a bass player – do you need a bass player?” And it turned out I did. So we kept in touch and eventually Matthew wound up in the band. That was a sort of like a fan moment that turned into friends”.
And where did the name come from? It’s pretty unusual. “It’s what my dad used to call me, and my sister and my brother when we were little kids… I think it’s a sort of devolved version of the word little”.
So what’s coming up next for Wheatus? “We’re making another record when we get back. I’m also doing a collaborative side project with Josh Devine and Sandy Beales from the One Direction band”. As in Harry Styles One Direction? It’s a daft question, but one doesn’t expect to come across Wheatus and Simon Cowell’s crooning quintet in the same sentence.
“Well there’s the backing band on stage behind them – and they are really good. And I’m in a side project with Josh and Sandy, the bass player and the drummer. We don’t have a name for it yet but we’re gonna come up with one. And it’s very, sort of, not Wheatus-y”.
Two directions? New direction? “Both direction”, Brown suggests. “Those guys are heavily influenced by a lot of new metal – Alien Ant Farm, for example. They’re like a progressive, new metal band; they’re very influenced by Linkin Park and stuff. It’s the generation after me.
“And, of course song-writing wise, I do some of it. But it isn’t like it is in Wheatus. We actually jam the songs into being. And we’ve had such limited time to do this, but everytime we get together: within 20 minutes we’ve got something. So it’s a really strong chemistry, and we’re excited about holding on to it.
“There was a time when pop could be exclusive of musical talent and still be very successful. But I haven’t seen that in the One Direction organisation. Those guys are very good at what they do. Zayn is one of the best singers I’ve heard in my life! It’s a real thing if you ask me”.
Teenage Dirtbag: does Brown love it or hate it? Some artists, when they are known for one song above all others, find that they eventually turn against their greatest hit. “No! I think that sometimes happens when your first big hit doesn’t represent you accurately. And we’re fortunate in that way. Teenage Dirtbag is very much a good ambassador of what we do and what we’re about. And I’m proud to have it out there – slogging away after all these years! It’s pretty funny how it just keeps popping it’s head back up like a cockroach”.