You’ve definitely heard of Wheatus and if the name doesn’t ring a bell, their song “Teenage Dirtbag” certainly will.
The anthem of bars and clubs everywhere, “Teenage Dirtbag” continues to resonate with generations of lovelorn youth. I was lucky enough to chat to Wheatus frontman and founder Brendan B Brown ahead of their South African tour.
So, are you looking forward to coming South Africa?
Very much so, yeah. We had a chance to go back in 2001 we did a few shows there and it was spectacular and you know we’re a small band so we don’t always know that we can pull the budget together to come to some place so far away but we really enjoyed the first time so we were happy to see this opportunity come to us and we jumped on it as fast as we could.
That’s so awesome. So, knowing the words to “Teenage Dirtbag” is essentially a rite of passage for teenagers everywhere. I think I’d be hard-pressed to find many people who don’t know the words. Were you surprised when the song gained so much traction worldwide, becoming the teenage anthem it is today?
Yes. When I wrote it I knew that it was a strong narrative but I also knew that it took a lot more than just that to have a connection with people and I figured that someone somewhere would get it but I didn’t have any ideas about it being as big as it has become or something like as you said, a right of passage for most people. I still feel as though the vitality of the song – it’s almost 20… or 25 years old now. I think it’s more to do with people being able to make it their own and interpret the lyrics the way that they see fit and that’s been the cause for its ongoing sort of robustness and not so much what I intended but what other people think of it, that’s why it continues to live.
Well it’s super relatable, I feel like every teenager has been there at some point-ish.
Perhaps, I think some have suffered more than others.
Definitely, some get away with more than others, but its part of the experience of growing up.
The band has been around since 1995 and you’ve sort of been releasing new music and touring since then. How would you say the band has evolved, especially with members leaving and had new ones joining, and you know they each bring their unique sounds with them?
Well we’re still friends with everybody who’s been in the band through the years and we’re playing a show on April 5th at the Mercury Lounge in New York City with the old line-up. Phil and my brother are gonna jump up and Mike McCabe is gonna jump up; but the truth of the matter is that I started the band without any band members. I wrote and demo’d the first two albums, maybe even the first three albums, pretty much before I had a band and the goal there was to try set up a scenario where I knew what I wanted the music to say before I started asking other people to help me say it, so that there was a clear picture of what we were trying to do.
We’ve always been fortunate to have people come into the band who come and want to serve the song and make the song come to life and less concerned with your personal ego or your instrument or anything like that. I’ve had a rule for going for a long time now that if some band member wants to put a song on the record they have to be the commander of the song, they have to tell me what to do and I’ll do anything for it, including on the first record our bass player Rich Liegey wrote and recorded “Punk Ass Bitch”, I had nothing to do with do with that song and then on the second record Mike McCabe contributed with “Dynamite Satchel of Pain” and on the third record Kathryn Froggatt wrote the song “Who would have thought” and instructed me as to how to play it.
So going back the whole way its always been sort of like that, there’s been that standing opportunity to contribute and have it be your own composition and you know that’s kind of been the thing. That’s a little bit different from other bands from what I understand but that’s been us.
I read in an article that you still love playing “Teenage Dirtbag” which is really refreshing because so many bands tend to get tired of playing the songs that made them famous. How have you managed to keep the love alive when it comes to playing it?
That’s a good question. First, I think it’s a pretty difficult song to play correctly, whenever we hire a new drummer, that’s the one that takes the longest to get the sort of [process] right and get the feel right. In the nineties I worked for a long time on that beat, trying to have it be a hip hop, Motown beat from the waist down, and a rock, heavy metal beat from the waist up and its always been a challenge to get that right live, so we pay close attention to make sure that it happens correctly and I think that means that it stays fresh because it’s easy to make mistakes, you can’t sleep on it.
So it keeps you on your toes?
Yeah and that and the audience expects it in a certain way, and we know that so we have to, we must deliver.
I think you definitely have those expectations and that relates to my next question – you’ve been touring for years now and I’m sure have watched your audience change. Do you find that there’s still lots of ’90s kids in the crowd or do you find that your audience is younger now? Are you still getting the same reception?
Believe it or not the audience has gotten a bit younger and I think it has something to do with One Direction covering the song, bunch of young kids come and try figure out what we’re about.
Wheatus is a majority female band now, we are 7-piece and we have more girls in the band than we have boys and I think the demographic has changed accordingly and when these young people show up they realise that we’re sort of a gender neutral band and that kind of opens it up a little bit or has. We’ve always been sort of queer and gender neutral friendly in that regard, going all the way back to the beginning. So yeah, I think it’s opened up a wider acceptance range for people who know that they can come and see us. It’s a party for everybody.
So you’re cool with the kids but you’ve still got the people who remember you from the 90s so you’ve got a broad fanbase which is really nice for bands.
Yeah it is.
As opposed to just having one demographic, you’ve got more variety, more interesting fans.
Yeah, you know we don’t adhere to or have allegiance any particular genre of music or style, so I think we avoid that on purpose. We wanna be open to everybody.
That’s really awesome. So, you’ll be coming to South Africa straight after your North American tour and then you’re off to tour the UK and Europe, am I right?
Yes, yes unfortunately we don’t have a lot of time to hang around in South Africa, we have to come back to Europe and start another tour. The South African date is at the beginning of I think a forty date plus tour that we’re doing.
That’s insane, how do you guys keep up the energy?
It’s really about getting it right on stage and the high wire act of trying to play these songs which can be pretty challenging. The later records have got quite progressive, I don’t know if you’ve heard any of them but from about album four or five and definitely six and now album seven the most, we’ve really challenged ourselves with some compositions that are difficult, very difficult, to play on stage. So yeah, the challenge to get them right keeps us fresh.
You have a good recipe for success then.
Yeah exactly, the repertoire keeps us on our toes and we never do setlists we let the crowd choose what we play.
I saw that you’ve said that, do you find that most crowds are receptive to that?
Very much so, once they realise that they’re part of the show, that its their show as much as it is ours, then we have, almost like, its as close as you can get to making audience into band members.
That’s such a unique experience for the audience, it must be really nice to feel like you’re involved in the performance.
Yeah when they go home that night, they know that they saw their show, and only their show.
Well then I’m very excited to watch you guys play at Lush. So, other than Iron Maiden and girls named Noel, what do you miss most about the ’90s?
Well not much to be honest. The ’90s for me was very hard work. I was working a day job and trying to be a musician. Lots and lots of hard work and very little sleep. I miss Sound Garden, I’m sad about Chris Cornell. I looked to them during the 90s as an example for what a great band could be like. There’s a band called Walt Mink that I was into in the ’90s, that I followed around for a while when I was 19 and 20 years old but aside from that I think there’s not much from the ’90s that… I think for RnB and hip hop the ’90s were definitely a golden age but for rock in America at least and the radio play, I think it became a dark time about halfway through when they signed the Media Consolidation Bill in 1996 and the monopolies began to take over the radio industry in America. I think things took a turn for the worst. So yeah there’s not much I miss about the ’90s to be perfectly honest.
LUSH – A Festival In Clarens – Presented by KykNET and Sunday Times
18, 19 & 20 April 2019
Location: Noah’s Cheese Farm, Clarens
Tickets on sale from https://www.howler.co.za/lushclarens