Brendan B Brown On Life, The Universe, and Wheatus

Wheatus Photo

Wheatus originated in Northport, New York, and are best known for their 2000 single, ‘Teenage Dirtbag’, which broke into the Top 40 UK Official Singles Charts for the second time in March 2011, ten years after its debut at Number 2 on the same chart. 

In that time, the band, whose lead singer, Brendan B Brown is their one constant member, has been through the literal wringer, facing lawsuits, lineup changes, interstate art heist investigations, betrayals, intellectual property theft, physical violence…the works. Their self titled debut album alone has to date sold over 5 million copies worldwide, and yet the band have been unsigned, and without a manager, for close to a decade.

Rather than let all the chaos destroy them, Wheatus took total creative control, and continue to write, record, and tour, and last year commemorated 15 years since their first release. They have taken control of their revenue stream, and feature on their website their “home-made” download system, where fans can buy their music. Currently on tour across the UK and Ireland with Busted, Wheatus will return home to the US to record their seventh studio album. We had the immense pleasure to speak with Brendan.

EP: Hello Brendan! thanks for talking to us!

BBB: No worries Lisa! Thanks for making the time!

EP: You’re touring with Busted at the moment, how did that come about?

BBB: James Bourne and I have been friends since about 2005, a fan introduced us via email, and we wrote a couple of songs for his Son Of Dork record, then we toured together in 2007 and we’ve been talking about doing it again since, and the stars aligned this time.

EP: Very cool! So how’s the tour going so far!

BBB: Really good! It’s a surprise to go from clubs to the big rooms and being received as well as we have and the people have been really kind as well.

EP: Are you finding it a challenge to be performing for so many people who are there for Busted?

BBB: No not really! As opposed to trying to adapt to the arena environment, we brought what we do in the clubs to the big stage, we’re a little less formal than your normal arena band would be. When we do the club shows we let the audience pick the set list, and we’re not doing that in the arenas, although it’s been tempting. We do have some people in the front of the audience shouting out songs, but it’s been really welcoming that a lot of the Busted fans were also around when ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ happened, and so it’s cool that way.

EP: Oh that’s true too! Because they’ve been around forever as well, haven’t they!

BBB: That’s right! 2000 or 2001 I think?

EP: Let’s approach the elephant in the room, and get it out of the way! ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ came out in 2000. It’s sixteen this year! I have a child that age! [BBB laughs] Do you feel the need to move on from that? You’ve released four albums since that, and another on the way…

BBB: Yeah! We’re about to record our seventh studio album! I always really liked the song, it’s never worn on me or any of the band members, it’s a challenging song if played correctly, it’s got this really weird funky slink in the verses that you have to pay attention to. It’s not like you can just phone it in. It’s an uncompromised collection of what my life has been like, and what my life was like when I wrote it, and I’m quite happy that it continues saying that to people.

A friend of mine said, you know when you designed that song, you designed it as a weapon to defend you against the music industry, you don’t need a manager now, you don’t need a lawyer and all this stuff, ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ just goes and does all the stuff. That’s not entirely true, but there’s a bit of that which is accurate.

EP: That sort of leads me into my next question – what’s your take on the music industry as it currently is? Do you think Wheatus would have taken off had you started now? 

BBB: That’s an interesting question! I don’t know that what works for us would work in any other time period, it’s hard to say. I think that if I’d have waited a few years, it’d have been a totally different experience. ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ came out four years before iTunes, and before YouTube, and before all of it, and so we had a little bit of an adaptation period, I think, 2005-2007 we were kinda waiting to see what was going to happen. I don’t know. The honest answer is that we’re not really in the industry. We have our little band, and we play our clubs, and do our club tours, and have our fans who are now our friends, and we try hard to make that experience as worthy of the ticket price as we possibly can – outside of that occasionally speaking to someone like you – we really don’t have an industry network that we can judge. We’re just independent in that way.

EP: Do you think a lot of that you have to owe to ‘Dirtbag’ anyway?

BBB: Absolutely! It’s done all the heavy lifting of a band that came out before the internet, and a band that came out during it, so all that tricky work was done by the song. We’re very fortunate that way.

EP: How are you liking all this “Wheatus Next Gen” stuff that’s been going on since One Direction have been playing ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ in their concerts – you’ve got this whole new audience coming in – and of course they’re seeing you with Busted as well…

BBB: Well, everyone goes through that stage when they first discover music, then they move onto other things, I think, on Twitter in particular, those that discovered us through One Direction, a certain percentage will meander to our other music, and find things that will appeal to them for the rest of their lives. It’s those connections that I’m most interested in, I think the One Direction cover was fantastic, but I think there’s a bit more to bite into for a kid to say look at our records, and they are, you know, bits and bobs here and there, they’re getting the picture. And it’s sort of a natural occurrence if you like, we don’t have to beat the door, they’re just coming to investigate.

EP: Your music, seems at first listen, to be really up tempo, and fun, and challenging even [BBB laughs] but there’s a whole lot of other darker issues, behind some of the songs – like ‘Lemonade’, for instance – what’s the story there?

BBB: Yeah! Well, you write what you live, it’s the only way for it to make sense. We did leave our wives, and fiancees, and girlfriends when we went on the road the first time, so it was a bit of a shock, and a lot of those songs came out of there. You know, life sucks sometimes, so you’ve got to write about it!

EP: Do you think it helps to have those sorts of experiences happen?

BBB: It’s helpful in the post-analysis, but it’s not the best idea for avoiding mistakes in the future!

EP: I asked around, and I’ve got a few questions that people would like the answers to. Jane wants to know: You say you’re going back to the metal influences of your teens for your next album. Why? How will that work, and which bands were influential?

BBB: Most notably the band that would be the influence would be Metallica, and specifically, the record would be ‘And Justice For All’. It’s unique amongst their recordings in that it doesn’t really have any bass on it, it’s got plenty of low end, but not any bass instruments. I always wanted to see if there was a way of making a record that sounded like that, that actually did have bass. That said, there’s nothing we could ever do to sound like Metallica…

EP: I was going to say, do you think your voice would be up to it?

BBB: [laughs] No! No no no…I will never sing like James Hetfield, and our drummer will never play like Lars [Ulrich] and I could never play the solos that Kirk Hammett pulls off, that’s impossible. It’s like another level of musicianship that nobody is ever going to go near. So the point is that, that record kinda turned me inside out in 1988 when I first heard it, and it’s always been a mysterious point of their career for me, it’s like, wow, how did they get these sounds? And the question you asked – what will it be like – I have no idea! I can guarantee it won’t be anything like Metallica – it’ll just like meander into some weird water that’s undiscovered, and that’s the point of it.

EP: That sounds cool. Katharine would like to know, Are you gluten-free?

BBB [both laugh hard]: Sometimes but not always! I have a hard time saying no to New York bagels and very good Italian bread! We were considering releasing a compilation called, ‘Gluten-free-tus’ [EP laughs]

EP: Sara wants to know, what’s the story behind ‘Teenage Dirtbag’?

BBB: The short story is that everyone goes through that kinda period of alienation, where they feel that they’re misunderstood. For some people that last longer, and is a lot more grave than others, and I don’t want to make light of that, but the back story of the term “dirtbag”, is that in 1984, in the town that I grew up in, there was a Satanic drug-induced teen homicide, in the woods behind my house, and I kinda was walking around with a tape case at the age of 10, full of AC/DC and Iron Maiden, and the kid that did it got arrested with an AC/DC t-shirt on. He was considered a quote unquote, dirtbag, and there were a lot of unhealthy associations made by parents and teachers, and figures of authority, that if you had this shirt, you were a devil worshipper, you were into drugs and so on. So you had to stand up for yourself if that was the music you liked, and that was the extremely alienating experience that the term “dirtbag” was made known to me.

EP: But you weren’t…

BBB: I was! I was…I wasn’t into Satanism or drugs or killing my friends, certainly not, but the music I was something I was on, and AC/DC are still one of my favourite bands.

EP: Quite rightly too! What do you think of AC/DC with Axl Rose then? 

BBB: It’s cool – those guys have nothing to prove, they’ve been around so long, however they need to get the job done, they just get the job done. Brian [Johnson]  is a legend, and will always be, it’s a hard job, you know, playing for the loudest, most badass rock band in the world, you know!

EP: What’s your favourite Wheatus song, apart from ‘Teenage Dirtbag’?

BBB: My favourite song to play live in our set is a song called, ‘Valentine’, which is the title track from our 2013 ‘Valentine’ EP. That’s my favourite to play.

EP: And what’s your favourite *NON* Wheatus song?

BBB: [Sharp intake of breath] OHHHH MANNN my favourite song, period?

EP: Yeahh! Let’s just do it!

BBB: OH WOOOOOOWWWWW!!! It’s probably ‘Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be’ by AC/DC. But there are so many, you can’t ask me that question!

EP: Sorry! 

BBB: There are Willie Nelson songs in that list, there are Tom Petty songs, there are Prince songs [some others], The Indigo Girls…I could sit here and tell you what my 25,000 favourite songs are you know…

EP: We do this thing called ‘The Essential Weekly Playlist’, and we ask acts to give us their top ten, and we publish it, you know, once a week – so if we get back to you, would you do one for us?

BBB: Yes! Please do!

EP: Cool! I’ll do that. Okay only got a couple more questions to go. We’re coming to see you at Brooklyn Bowl tomorrow night – this is a two parter really – what can we expect from the show, and as everyone in the world has played with Wheatus, if I jump up on the stage tomorrow can I join??

BBB [both laugh] You mean you want to jump up on stage and play with us?!!

EP: [laughing] Nahhhhh not really! I’m just messing! What can we expect tomorrow night?

BBB: Like I said, we let the crowd pick the set list, whatever mood they’re in, that’s the type of show we’ll have. We’ll just do our best to keep up with them and give them the kind of show they want. I would like to play for a long time, the Arena sets have been about a half hour in length, but we like to typically play in clubs for an hour 45, 2 hours…

EP: So it’s just you guys tomorrow? There’s no support?

BBB: Oh no we have two opening acts, we have Gabrielle Sterbenz, who’s also in the band Wheatus, but she’s got her solo act, and our bass player Matthew also has a band with our other backing vocalist, Joey Slater – they’re called The Ventura Project, and they’re going to open up as well.

EP: So basically it’s sort of like, Wheatus but three different versions?

BBB: Well, no the music those two acts play is nothing like Wheatus, but we do have a bit of a family vibe, we do help each other out on stage, but they don’t sound anything like Wheatus.

EP: Oh okay! So – you’re the one constant in Wheatus – do you ever feel like leaving?

BBB: Haha! I don’t think I could if I wanted to! You know, you have moments of, “do I really want to keep doing this?” But that doesn’t really last for long. There’s always another song that pops into your head that you want to bring to life. I mean, I had a four-track and a drum machine that I was writing the first album songs on from 1995, so it’s been over 20 years for me.

EP: So you’ve done your side projects with James Bourne and whatever…

BBB: Yeah! Well I’m writing stuff with James all the time, but I’m also working on an EP with Josh [Devine] and Sandy [Beales] from the One Direction band, the bass player and the drummer, we’re meeting in a few days somewhere near Leicester to record.

EP: One more question – and that is the one that I ask everyone I ever interview. What question do you wish someone would ask you in an interview, but nobody ever does?

BBB: Oh man! Well I like guitar questions, I’m sort of a guitar nerd…so maybe ask me how to turn your acoustic into an electric, that sort of thing. That’s always interesting to chat about. But it does get really kinda nerdy and techy very quickly, I understand why people don’t ask!

EP: How do you do that? Is it just a matter of adding a pickup to the back of the acoustic?

BBB: It’s a matter of finding the right pickup, and doing a lot of special EQ crafting on your pre-amp, and making sure that your midi continuous controller information is robust, and all that sort of techy stuff. It all goes down that tech hole. I warned you!

EP: Not nerdy at all! I impressed myself I knew what a pickup was. Alright! I think that’s it! Thanks for talking to us Brendan! We’ll see you tomorrow and we’ll come and say hi! 

BBB: Lovely talking to you! See you tomorrow!

Wheatus are performing tonight at Brooklyn Bowl, London. See here for further details of this and their remaining tour dates. Check their official website, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more about the band.

About the author

Lisa has been writing for over 20 years, starting as the entertainment editor on her university newspaper. Since then she's written for Popwrapped, Maximum Pop, Celebmix, and ListenOnRepeat.

Lisa loves all good music, with particular fondness for Jedward and David Bowie. She's interviewed Edward Grimes (Jedward), Kevin Godley, Trevor Horn, Paul Young, Peter Cox (Go West), Brendan B Brown (Wheatus), Bruce Foxton (The Jam), among many many more. Lisa is also available for freelance writing - please email lisa@essentiallypop.com

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