Teenage Dirtbags, Boy-Band Covers, and Apocalyptic Love

 | A Q&A with Brendan B. Brown, founder and lead vocalist of Wheatus | 

Whether conjuring a fantastical zombie apocalypse or the true-life terror of bully-infested high-school hallways, Brendan B. Brown always manages to channel the same relatable human emotions (awkwardness, vulnerability, lovesickness, agony… ) through his music. Since Brown helped found Wheatus in 1995, the band has constantly reinvented itself, tackling a different kind of story or musical style with each new song. The band’s approach to musicianship—from songwriting to performing, from distributing music to interacting with fans—is always changing.

“As far as styles and genres are concerned,” Brown reflected, “we sort of do everything.”

Take “Teenage Dirtbag,” for instance—the band’s breakthrough hit, a catchy pop-rock anthem of outsider-hood. That track topped charts in 2000 with its familiar storyline of unrequited adolescent love (“Her name is Noel/I have a dream about her … But she doesn’t know who I am”). In the music video, which has racked up over 26 million views on YouTube, Brown laments that “She doesn’t know what she’s missing” as the video cuts to a dream sequence of Noel and the proverbial “Teenage Dirtbag” slowdancing at prom. [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FC3y9llDXuM[/youtube]

The soon-to-be-released “Valentine LP,” meanwhile, subverts high-school tropes with a tale of post-apocalyptic love. The album begins in familiar “Teenage Dirtbag” territory, exploring a summer romance between two gay teenagers who are afraid to come out at their high school. Then, the zombie apocalypse hits, and reality is thrown out the window. Everything goes fantastically awry—as Brown explains, “How do you maintain a romantic relationship while you’re escaping from zombies, teaching each other how to hunt … when you’re just trying to survive?”

This scenario might be far-fetched, but the situation was inspired by real events: the banking crisis of 2007-2008. In the aftermath of that crushing economic collapse, according to Brown, love was rendered impractical. The Valentine LP seeks to dramatize this impracticality on a grander, more monstrous scale.

In 2007, Wheatus adopted a quirky performance style to match their eclectic musical fare. Instead of following a set list, the band takes requests from the audience to decide which songs to play at their concerts. Brown said the band chose to forgo the tradition of set lists in order to keep their shows more dynamic and to avoid falling into a routine:

“When you play every night, if you’re always playing the same set list, it can get really stale,” Brown explained.

Next month, when Wheatus plays at the AS220 Performance Space alongside their touring partners Math the Band, Brown recommends that concert-goers arrive armed with song requests. “If you get into our catalogue and have a favorite song you’re listening to,” Brown says, “chances are we’ll play it for you if you shout it out.”

In preparation for Wheatus’ August 7th concert here at AS220, we talked with Brown about what it’s like to sing about zombies, the recent revival of “Teenage Dirtbag” thanks to a catchy One Direction cover, and why he’s looking forward to playing a show with Kevin Steinhauser and Justine Mainville (Math the Band and AS220 residents!) on their home turf in Providence …

Upcoming Album Release

Right now you’re working on a new album, called the Valentine LP. What can we expect from that?

Valentine UK Tour Poster

Valentine UK Tour Poster

The Valentine LP is our sixth album, featuring ten new songs, and it’s almost finished—we’re gonna put it out in August … We’re racing towards the finish line with this one right now. It’s coming along. We’re almost there!

What is your concept for the album?

Basically, the premise is post-apocalyptic love. The first song on the record is this story about two gay teenagers who are in love, but they can’t come out in high school because they’ll catch a lot of abuse. In the summer, they get a chance to be together, but in school they have to stay apart. Shortly after they decide to come out to everybody in high school, the apocalypse happens. So the album starts out in real life, and it ends up in this crazy post-apocalyptic world.

What kind of apocalypse are we talking about here?

Well, its an odd sort of zombie apocalypse … like, there’s a zombie love song. And of course the zombie threat plays into the original love story: How do you maintain a romantic relationship while you’re escaping from zombies, teaching each other how to hunt … when you’re just trying to survive?

How did you come up with the concept?

Back in 2008, when the banks really started destroying the world, I was thinking a lot about how it’s not practical to be in love anymore—everyone is too busy working; they’re struggling; they’re balancing two jobs … Love is just too expensive. That idea is really what developed into the Valentine LP.

Spontaneous Set Lists

If someone was unfamiliar with your music but decided to come to your concert at AS220, what would you say to prepare them for the show?

One distinctive feature of Wheatus is that we have a lot of different sounding records, so our songs tend to be very different from one another. As far as styles and genres are concerned, we sort of do everything. We are also very eclectic when it comes to our performances. We don’t really do set lists; instead people just shout out songs. So I would suggest that people come [to our AS220 show] prepared with their own requests. If you get into our catalogue and have a favorite song you’re listening to, chances are we’ll play it for you if you shout it out [at the show].

What prompted your band’s decision to forgo set lists?

We came up with the idea way back in 2007, because we were just starting to hate organized set lists; it was very boring. When you play every night, if you’re always playing the same set list, it can get really stale. And what’s worse is that you start to make these brain-fart mistakes, because you’re in such a routine.

What’s it like to go into a show with no idea which songs you’re going to play, especially when you have such an extensive and diverse repertoire of songs?

Well, we’ve always wanted to get into a position where we could play every song we have on demand, but that’s like 60 plus songs—so it’s really hard to learn them all! Even though they’re all our original songs, we still have to work to keep them fresh in our minds and remember how to do them well. We’re always working towards that.

AS220 and Math the Band

What brings you to AS220, and what are your plans for your time in Providence?

Math the Band [the Providence-based electronic duo Justine Mainville and Kevin Steinhauser] came on tour with us a couple of times in the UK, and we love them. They live [in the live/work artist studios] at AS220, so they’ve always been telling us that we need to come do a show [at the Performance Space]. It took us forever, I’ll admit, but finally we were like, “Okay we have to start playing in America again!” So I called them, and they were immediately like “YES! LET’S DO IT.” The last time we played Providence must have been all the way back in 2000 at Lupo’s, and we’re excited to be back in Rhode Island. We’re gonna take a few days off and maybe go to the beach with Math the Band—since we haven’t had any sort of a vacation for a really long time, that’s pretty exciting.

You’ve toured with Math the Band before. How will it be different to play a show with them on their home turf in Providence?

I’m so excited. I can’t wait. I’ve seen what they’re like on tour; like, Kevin lives in a creation zone of his own making. I can’t wait to see them do what they do in their own creative space where they’re from and where they exist.

Do you have any plans to play a song with Math the Band?

I don’t know if anybody in the world except Kevin and Justine will ever be able to play a Math the Band song, because they’re all so nuts. The energy is just insane. But we [in Wheatus] do have some covers in the works, so it’s possible we might collaborate …

You’ve played lots of different kinds of venues, from British pubs to American stadiums. What has been your experience playing small, intimate spaces like the AS220 Performance Space?

For the most part, we do two types of shows—clubs and festivals—and the kind of venue I prefer for those shows is one that’s run by younger people. When a group of young people really cares about having a place to go see a good show, that dynamic creates the best experience for everyone. AS220 is the textbook definition of that type of performance space, from what I can tell. Also, as a musician, when you show up to a pub or a club or anywhere, it’s your job to turn that place into an art space for that night. It doubles up on the energy if where you’re playing is already an art space. It sounds like you guys have all of that at AS220, so I’m really looking forward to the show.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

Kevin and I have a similar affection for jokes that just keep getting repeated. Whenever [Wheatus is] on tour with Math the Band, we’ll get in a circle and do this Elvis Presley dance. Another time on tour, we pissed everybody off when we made up a new lyric for this song. It went, “He drinks the five-hour energy drink…” and we would just repeat it. We got into this loop and we were doing it for twenty minutes and everyone was so angry with us, but once we got started we just couldn’t stop doing it—it was awesome.

Ending Remarks

What played into your decision to release your two previous EPs—The Lightning EP and The Jupiter EP—on a pay-what-you-want scale? How have fans responded to that choice?

We didn’t have anything going for us in the mid-2000s; we didn’t have a record label. It was kind of expected that bands like us would fade away. But we kept on making more records, and we wanted to express our gratitude to the fans that had stuck with us. And they responded with their gratitude by paying for our music. One guy gave us $600 for ten songs. Pay-what-you-want really worked for us, and it was a positive experience. We will set a base price for the Valentine LP, but there will still be freebies on our website, and you can always get our last two records for free.

What is your take on One Direction covering “Teenage Dirtbag” at a recent concert? Have you noticed any changes in your fan base since then?

My thoughts on it are that it’s awesome …

I love their version and what they did with it. I like a lot of their songs as well. As far as the fans go, their fans are insane and kind and sweet and very welcoming, which you wouldn’t assume, considering how fandoms can be. As far as what it’s done to us, since about Februrary or March, we’ve added 60,000 followers on our Twitter account. Their fans are so active on Twitter that I decided I would embrace it and not be irritated by it, and it’s been the best decision. Mostly, we talk about stuff that’s not One Direction and they’re learning our music gradually. And they’re all 13-year-old girls—a band from the late ‘90s usually doesn’t get the chance to be reintroduced to young teenagers all over again.

What does the B. in your middle name stand for?

Everyone always wants to know my middle name! It became obsessive in England, especially. It just became this thing; I didn’t understand why they cared, and they didn’t understand why I wouldn’t tell them … Usually, I just say it stands for Batman.

Wheatus

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Interview by Caitlin Kennedy,

communications intern at AS220;

contact her at caitlin.kennedy@as220.org.