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Wheatus interview: "We're very proud of Teenage Dirtbag"

We caught up with Wheatus frontman Brendan B. Brown ahead of their UK tour to discuss 'Teenage Dirtbag' and whether he ever got to see Iron Maiden...

Lorna Gray

Last updated: 2nd May 2017

Image: Wheatus

A hit that makes a band can also become a hit hated by the band. Plenty of musicians refuse to play the songs that found them fame and they'll do anything to escape the association. This couldn't be further away from the truth for noughties pop rock heroes Wheatus.

Their single 'Teenage Dirtbag' remains one of the most sweetly remembered pieces of 21st Century songwriting, putting the band on the map and become a timeless classic that everybody knows the words to. 

Since its undisputed success since release in 2000, Wheatus haven't stopped releasing new material and they frequently tour across the US and Europe - it seems that fans of the band are no less bored of the track than the band themselves. We caught up with founder and lead singer Brendan B. Brown to discuss the thought processes behind his music and what he loves about touring. 

Your band started back in '95, what sparked the idea to start making music for you personally?

Oh boy, going back when I was a kid? Well, I think Angus Young was kind of the first guy who made me wonder if I could do it. He was a big hero of mine - I dressed as him for Halloween two years in a row. Moving on from that I kind of got into Rush and some hardcore music from the early nineties. I didn't know anybody in the music industry, and neither did my parents, so it was a journey of discovery the whole way  - and it kind of still is.

In some sense, I'll never really know what I'm doing, which is nice but it leads to funny moments here and there. In terms of songwriting inspiration, I think Willie Nelson has always been way up there, Ani DiFranco, Tom Petty - people like that.

How have your influences changed and developed since the band's inception?

I think it's gotten a little richer if we can fast forward from being an AC/DC and Rush fan from the age fourteen until now, I'm 43 years old and about ten years ago I was fortunate enough to work with Carl Thompson - the inventor of the six string bass. It's a very specialised instrument that accommodates the scale of an upright but can be worn around your neck at the same time. He was the only one who could really do it because he's the creator.

His whole deal is that he wants to get to know you before he builds you something and he sat me down a few times and one of those times he played me 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' on his own instrument. He sang along and changed key every two chords. It was flawless and effortless and it just made me think, "Wow, I really don't know what I'm doing, I don't know anything about music, I need to figure this out."

From then I've focussed on the fact 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' is a jazz pop song. Jazz has got a bit of a bad reputation but it's what pop used to be, that's what popular songs were once crafted as, in the jazz format. It was more rich and interesting that they did that and we've lost touch with that side of it, and it was my responsibility as a songwriter to have a visual understanding of those things.

I'm not a schooled musician and I don't know how to read music so everything I do is by ear, so I really had to listen and pay attention and basically start over. From having been ten years old and thinking the most concrete important thing is the rock of AC/DC and now understanding that pop music can be a lot more complex than that, and a lot more interesting.

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On the seventh record we have, I've just not finished a song called 'Lullaby' which I've been playing live every night with the band, it gets there, in a lot of ways. I'm very proud to say it because it's so complicated and it took me about a year to learn how to sing and play it after learning it in parts. It's still a pop song, primarily in a lot of hooks that are memorable, but it's so much more complex than anything I could have possibly done when I made our first record, it's almost like a different band.

I'm excited about that, we also have another single, which isn't anywhere near as complex but it's quite obviously inspired by the same ethic. It's called 'Tipsy', we released it a couple of months ago and it's available on iTunes right now, we'll be playing that as well. That's sort of the bulk of our existence, and it shows where we were and where we've arrived to. 

Over the years Wheatus has undergone a few line up changes, do you think this swapping of members has had an effect on the band's sound? 

Certainly, yeah! Matthew Milligan our bass player in particular, like I said he plays one of those specialised bass guitars. I didn't even know how to write for this instrument when we first started out. Matthew's technique and the way he approaches it are very much part of the equation now for our records.

The first incarnation of Wheatus that you saw on TV and on the radio was a very, very focused and hard-working collection of friends - myself included - but, we could never have done any of the stuff that we're doing now. We just weren't good enough. It's a measure of time, going back to the drawing board every time you go into the studio, trying to recreate the discovery process is how you get there I think.

You've been steadily releasing music throughout the Wheatus career, what makes you keep going?

Keeping it interesting to us. There was this feeling that I had when I first began to find the rhythm of the verse to 'Teenage Dirtbag' - like a thumb, thumb, ring finger, thumb, thumb, ring finger - that was my own sound. I hadn't heard that anywhere on any records before and I thought, "Oh, what's that?"

In the nineties, there was this guiltless feeling of discovery that we're constantly trying to reattain. The only way to really do it, because you know when you do it, is to stumble across something new. It takes a long time and there are so many misses, which is one the reasons it takes us three or four years to make a record - and it's why they're all quite different from one another. 

I can't believe you brought up 'Teenage Dirtbag' before I did, you must get asked about it in every interview...

Yeah, of course I do, and I'm happy about it by the way.

Was there ever any temptation to hang up the towel in making music and live off the royalties of that track once it became a success? 

Well, it certainly would have been an easier financial life! I'd have paid off my house by now and I'd have no mortgage. But then, oh God it sounds like hell! It sounds like pure hell to have not made records since. Look, we're all going to die, none of us are getting out of here alive and you can't take your house with you. You can certainly leave something behind that people feel like they need to cherish. That's what's worth more than money.

I know I'm spewing isms from ages but it's true. there are plenty of artists, musicians - I mean I think I'd call them stars - who care about money, but I don't think Prince ever did. Prince cared about his music. The guy kept going and kept doing interesting things. People are going to be discovering Prince's music for the next hundred years, maybe even longer than that. That's worth more than paying your bills while you're here. 

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Definitely, especially if it's what you enjoy doing creatively. 

The worst thing would be if we kept making our first record over and over again, and that's what the record company wanted. It's a multi-national corporation and they want something for you that you're one hundred percent positive will kill you. You can't do that, you have to run away and do something else, and we did and I'm happy we did that. 

Have your feelings towards that song ever changed at all? 

Never!

That surprises me!

Never, I always look forward to playing it on stage every night. It's never gotten old, it's never gotten boring. It's still a real thing for us. 

Some bands grow to detest the songs that fond them fame so it's nice to hear you're still in love with it. In terms of playing it live, I imagine you always play it last? 

No, actually we don't always play it last. We don't do an encore and we let the crowds pick the songs, there are no setlists. We tend to push it off until the end, but it's rarely the very last song. I think we'd be in a terrible position if our biggest hit was a cover, and if the song didn't mean anything to us then we'd probably feel that way.

We're very proud of 'Teenage Dirtbag' and the truth is that it's allowed us to continue without a record label or management or any of that nonsense and it ticks all those boxes for us so we're happy to have it. 

I can't resist asking this - but have you been to see Iron Maiden

Oh yeah! When I was a kid, I'd never got the chance to see Iron Maiden. I did see AC/DC, in Madison Square Garden when I was thirteen without my parents. Prior to that, Maiden were touring but I didn't really have the opportunity to go and one of the reasons was because there was this horrific teen drug-induced satan murder near my house when I was a kid. There was this whole thing about the number of the beast and all of the teachers and the parents were terrified.

It essentially sounded like kids reenacting lyrics in the woods but it wasn't at all - that was preposterous, it was just a lot of drugs and terrible parenting. At the time it would have been very difficult for me to go see Iron Maiden at ten years old with all of that going on. I did have and I still do have Powerslave on vinyl, and I still have a lot of the other records as well, but my big first concert was AC/DC. That was the one, and I did come to see Maiden later on, I've seen them quite a few times.

We hooked up with Bruce Dickinson in August of 2001, and we did one of our singles with him at Abbey Road. We recorded 'Wannabe Gangsta' and he sang on that. So we've really come close to the Iron Maiden thing in our lives and I still have the video of that happening and I watch it all the time. It's a big deal. 

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You're headed out on a UK tour, what is it you love the most about playing in the UK? 

The fact that we can do so many club shows. I've always felt like a tour didn't always get to clicking until we've been on the road for about two weeks. The tours other's do only tend to last about two weeks but for me that's where I get to the point where we start delivering good shows.

That's why I love the UK because we have the ability to play smaller shows and more of them. I think we just broke the forty mark on this tour now. I'm really excited to see what we sound like by our 30th show. 

You're one of those bands that seem to always be on the road, is that something you love? 

Oh yeah, when I ten years old it's all I could think about. I really didn't understand how we had to learn a lot and figure out taking our own kit and all that, because it's independent touring. It's definitely what we're trying to do, certainly. If I could stay on the road for three hundred days of the year I would do it.

Wheatus come to the UK this May, hitting Preston's LiVe venue and performing at Leestock Music Festival

Preston - LiVe, Friday 5th May

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Leestock Music Festival - Suffolk, Melford Hall, Saturday 27th - Sunday 28th May

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