The classic band story: Young band sign to a major label, have a huge hit and then are never heard of again.
That was almost Wheatus. It could have been Wheatus. Except that their huge hit was more than that; it was an anthem of the nineties, a song that people still hum to themselves at the drop of a beanie. And the other cliche that doesn’t ring true for Wheatus is that they never let that stop them; they fought themselves out of the band-killing major label system and have been plowing forward as a proudly and happily independent band ever since.
(On a personal note it gives me especial pleasure to interview bands whose songs I busked during my years as a musician/bum swilling around Berlin: after interviewing Travis and their letting me off the millions in royalties I surely owe them, now I get to interview Wheatus, whose hit song also paid for the beers many a time).
I digress: Wheatus are a brilliant independent band who have never stopped releasing music, never stopped touring, and show no signs of ever changing that. Instead of major label contracts they run a successful patreon subscription thing (as you will read below), and are more than happy that things have worked out this way. I give you: Wheatus.
indieberlin: Tell us a little bit about your musical background
Matthew: I started playing bass at 14 and jammed with anyone and everyone I could… mostly interested in punk & hardcore back then. I went to NYU to study music and got 3 semesters under my belt before dropping out to join Wheatus… never looked back.
Joey: I played violin from age 7 and then picked up the guitar at 14, that was my start in rock music. I actually started working for Wheatus, in 2007, but I wasn’t performing, I was helping behind-the-scenes and selling merchandise on tour. I eventually started singing in the band in 2015.
Brandon: I started playing piano at 4 years old and then started studying formally around 7 years old. I was also a computer nerd, so I started making the accompaniment music for school musical productions until it was time for college, where I studied classical music.
Gabrielle: I’ve been singing since I was 3 and started doing it professionally out of college. I’ve been playing guitar for about 8 years.
Leo: I’ve been playing the drums since age 12 – beginning with all types of Rock, Progressive Rock, and Metal. My background professionally has mostly been in Pop, Rock, and Hip Hop, both live and in the studio. Educationally, I completed my Bachelor’s in Music and Master’s Degree in Music Education. I also really enjoy singing and playing piano.
Brendan: I’m the guy in the band with essentially zero musical training. I taught myself guitar as a kid and grew up learning how to play along with Rush, AC/DC, Dire Straits, etc. Played in a few different hardcore bands around the NYC in the early 90s… all the while I was in my apartment doing demos on a 4-track tape machine of what would become the 1st Wheatus album. Finally put that band together around 1996 and here we are.
My bandmates are masters of figuring out how to wrap their heads around the weird concepts in my head
indieberlin: How does the songwriting process work for you / in your band?
Joey: Brendan usually records some sort of demo of a track and then one by one we record our individual parts with him, and that’s where we have some influence in our part.
Matthew: Yes, B is usually very specific with what he’s looking for. It’s our job to figure out what’s in his head and try to capture it how he’s imagining it. It can be a real challenge and it’s not unusual for us to spend many weeks doing hundreds of takes on a single song before Brendan feels like we’ve got it right.
Textured, like the furniture in a mansion. There’s a lot of big chunky furniture, but then there’s also long velvety curtains, and there’s some fancy ornaments and vases on the shelves. But then there’s a painting of something weird on the wall, like a clown, or a corgi riding a spaceship.
Brendan: It does vary from song to song. I usually start with a riff or musical idea that really speaks to me and then attach a lyric to it. But there have been songs where the lyric comes first. By the time the song is written I usually have a pretty clear vision of exactly what I want the arrangement to be. My bandmates are masters of figuring out how to wrap their heads around the weird concepts in my head, and they always execute the parts better than I could have hoped.
indieberlin: If you had to describe your music to a deaf person, what would you say?
Joey: Textured, like the furniture in a mansion. There’s a lot of big chunky furniture, but then there’s also long velvety curtains, and there’s some fancy ornaments and vases on the shelves. But then there’s a painting of something weird on the wall, like a clown, or a corgi riding a spaceship.
Matthew: I would say it’s like a mixed breed dog that’s well trained and groomed, but occasionally just runs into a wall at full speed or tumbles down a flight of stairs. The dog doesn’t mind though… its tail keeps wagging the whole time.
Gabrielle: These descriptions are amazing. Ditto.
indieberlin: If your music was a movie, which genre would it be in?
Matthew: I love this question! I’m not sure if this counts as a genre but I would say any movie that has a lot of unexpected plot twists. Just when you think you know what the film is about, all of a sudden a massive shift in tone occurs and leaves you wondering what could possibly happen next. That’s the experience I hope people have while attending one of our concerts.
Joey: Aww, that was a good answer. I don’t have anything better to add.
Everyone else: Same, Matthew’s answer wins.
indieberlin: Where do you get your inspiration from?
Brendan: Many things inspire me…I’ll often turn the sound off on the news and play guitar, writing as I go. Also films help a lot. I can watch a good film and then head outside to experience nature and write. Many times a misunderstanding will lead to something meaningful, and those songs are often quite easy to write. Once in a while I dream a song in its entirety, as with ‘A Fisherman With a Clock’. Sometimes just being alone for a long time can do it.
Matthew: I find a lot of inspiration in any bands / artists who go against the grain and make music that is entirely their own. They Might Be Giants, Ween, Daniel Johnston, Frank Zappa… artists who create an entire universe for their fans to inhabit. My hope is that Wheatus does a version of this, even if it’s on a smaller scale.
Leo: I get a lot of inspiration from reading and learning about some of the most successful people ever. Coming to realize the extent of human potential always inspires me to acquire new skills and study from some of the best who have mastered their craft. This inevitably has an impact of my musical work. I’m especially interested in Pop music and love to analyze the characteristics of what has been considered “hip” and “musically in fashion” throughout the different musical eras.
I love all old stuff. Lots of ladies with guitars.
indieberlin: What music do you listen to when you’re touring?
Matthew: I find it difficult to listen to anything that reminds me of the music we play on stage. My brain needs a break when I’m not working, so I find myself listening to a lot of electronic music, jazz, and modern top 40 pop / hip-hop.
Brandon: I agree with Matthew, I tend to focus on the polar opposite during tour, like country music, Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert, some bluegrass.
Gabrielle: I love all old stuff. Lots of ladies with guitars.
Joey: I guess I’m the odd one out here, but I don’t really listen to music on tour, I mostly just listen to podcasts.
Leo: On tour, I listen to comfort music that makes me happy. Usually, as stated by Matthew, not similar at all to what we play onstage. My top favorite artists of all time are Michael Jackson, Queen, and Guns N’ Roses.
indieberlin: What was your biggest stage fuck-up?
Matthew: I got a little too excited once and fell completely backwards in the middle of a song. Brendan said it was like a tree getting chopped down.
Brendan: I once sang the 3rd verse in the place of the 2nd & then I sang verse 3 over again…. A very strange mistake. What made it even more odd is, it happened 2 times in a row & then never again or since. It happened some time in 2007 & never again.
Brandon: I was playing a keyboard solo in our song “Lemonade,” and I was dancing too much and not paying attention and the solo went completely off the tracks. In the moment I thought I would just roll with it and make it even more terrible, might as well make it something people can laugh at, except no one thought it was funny and the band gave me a horrified look.
Joey: Not sure if this counts, but a few tours ago I had the worst cough of my life and I could barely get through one line of a song without coughing uncontrollably. That was like an actual nightmare.
Gabrielle: I never make mistakes on stage (lol).
No one thought it was funny and the band gave me a horrified look
indieberlin: How do you feel about covering a song?
Brendan: We love it! We have two covers prepared for the tour we’re currently on.
Brandon: I love playing covers, but it is kind of bittersweet because it also takes the spot of an original song, so there’s always the risk that you run out of time and there’s still people shouting for original songs you haven’t played.
Joey: Depends on the cover, because some can come across really cheesy. I love the Rush song we’re covering.
Matthew: Generally in favour of covers.
Gabrielle: They’re good in moderation.
indieberlin: Do you prefer to play big festivals / stages or smaller club gigs?
Brendan: Oh man, I can’t choose.
Matthew: They both can be exciting in different ways, but generally speaking I prefer the smaller club shows where we can interact with fans and really see people’s reactions while we’re playing. Those experiences are the most musically satisfying to me.
Gabrielle: Smaller clubs. There’s more time to settle in. Usually in a festival you’re rushing on to stage and rushing off.
Leo: While both can be their own interesting animals, I prefer large festivals and venues. Small venues are a bit more intimate and you feel more of a connection to individual people watching the show, but nothing beats the roar of a packed arena to me.
Regrets? None whatsoever
Joey: The big shows are exciting, but I love the intimacy of small Wheatus shows. We do this thing where we let people call out requests, which always keeps the set-list so fresh and unique from show to show. At the bigger shows we can’t do that though, so we have to actually prepare the show a bit more. I like that small shows allow for more spontaneity.
indieberlin: You had a massive hit single in the 90s with Teenage Dirtbag and then went through a long period of hassle with the major label you were signed to. These days you’re a resolutely independent band. Any regrets?
Brendan: None whatsoever. That was definitely an exciting time, with Teenage Dirtbag being such a big hit, but I’m way more excited about what we get to do now. As an independent band we can do whatever we want, we get to make all the weird music we like, and we get to make all our own decisions. We’re fortunate to have a solid group of fans who support us, and for the past year or so we’ve been doing this thing on Patreon.com where we have a subscription service where we get to share all our bizarre antics from the studio and we do private concerts for the fans where we do funny and strange versions of our own songs, or we share old demos of early songs… that’s the kind of stuff you can’t do as a major label artist because there’s all these other people making decisions for you. As an independent artist, it’s always about the music, and that’s the way we like it.
Wheatus are live on the 26th April in Maze. Get tickets here!
Noel Maurice is one of the founders of indieberlin. Originally from the UK via a childhood in Johannesburg, he has been resident in Berlin since 1991. Describing himself as a ‘recovering musician’, he is the author of The Berlin Diaires, a trilogy detailing the East Berlin art and squat scene of the early 90s, available on Amazon and through this site.