Amazing Band Alert! If you haven't already fallen in love with Wheat, you soon will. Radios everywhere will soon be playing their hit, "I Met A Girl." Their other mega-single, "Some Days" is bouncing along in the movies, and they're introducing (well, re-introducing for the third time) themselves to the world on a big tour with Liz Phair.
When Wheat’s DIY, lo-fi sound first broke into the scene in 1998 with the CD Madeiros, the band picked up a small but devoted following. By their second album, Hope and Adams, [both on the indie label, Sugar Free] Wheat had taken all the smartness and feeling from that first album and plugged it in, both electronically and energetically. And now, Wheat’s latest endeavor, Per Second, Per Second, Per Second…Every Second [Aware] ventures further into pop rock territory; full of bouncy optimism, but no less intelligent. Today, Wheat is finding themselves on movie soundtracks (Win a Date with Tad Hamilton) and touring with THE diva of alternative rock, Liz Phair. We caught up with Wheat’s drummer Brendan Harney to talk about this ten-year-long, ‘overnight success’:
“We’re pop guys,” Brendan says, “so Per Second is a happy one for us. This is the first record for us where a lot of the pop stuff we really like found its way into the record.”
Wheat has a lot of parallels with tour-mate Liz Phair; they’ve both made uncharacteristically optimistic, poppy albums, tons of new fans, and with that success, have sometimes endured some criticism.
“Yeah. Liz Phair has, obviously, a sort of indie-rock background, and then she came out and did this real pop record, and she was crucified! For the longest time everyone lined up to take a whack at her. It was horrible, you know? I didn’t know her at the time, but she’s really tough. She’s like, ‘fuck ‘em’. She has this idea of what she wants to do and it’s not based on those responses. I give her a lot of credit. Her audience is a real mixed bag and that’s really fun to play in front of. They’re not a real hyper, determined audience in terms of [inserts overly-serious, put-on voice], ‘this is the thing that we like.’
And from Brendan Harney’s tone, he’s speaking from experience…
“One of our favorite bands and friends of ours is the Flaming Lips. But they’re tough to play in support of. Lips fans want a very specific thing. It’s not a terribly open-minded fan base, whereas with Liz it’s a very general audience of all different ages and all different kinds of things that they like. You get the wackiest associations—people will associate you with the nearest thing that sounds like you. A real stereophile can make some really cool comparisons. For others, the closest thing they can relate you to is Train or something. And that’s what you get with a general audience!” he laughs, “but I like it.”
The new Wheat record is certainly a big step away from what some called Wheat’s ‘mope-rock’ early sound. Harney believes that a lot of the old fans have grown up right along with Wheat and are still standing in the audience, but the majority of their crowds today only know the new songs.
“There are always the hard core fans who’ve been in contact with us since Madeiras, but there are a lot of new fans. When you have four years between records, people grow up, have babies…” he laughs.
So, are some of the old fans disappointed about the direction of this baby?
“Oh yeah, for sure. We knew it going into it. We knew it writing it. As a band, we would talk about it a lot. We knew we were gonna alienate some fans. There will always be some fans that wanna keep you in a box --and if you’re not in that box, they’ll no longer be fans. But as an artist, you can’t really worry about it. When you’re making a record, that’s really the one place, at least for a good amount of time, that you can’t really even have fans be in your head. You can’t try to predict one way or another whether they’re gonna like it or not. You just go in, as we’ve done with this and the past two records, and say, ‘what turns us on?’ in terms of song structure, kinds of songs, lyrical content and all those things. You try to excite yourself. You try to entertain yourself. You try to write the song that you wish someone else had written, and in the style you wish they’d written it in. That’s how we approached it, and yes, we did alienate some fans. We knew we were going to and that’s the price you pay for not wanting to repeat yourself.”
It’s clear that Wheat approaches nothing with the formulaic, marketing-minded perspective that’s all too common in the music business today. Even so, they’ve enjoyed critical success and a handful of rabid, passionate fans lurking on message boards and seeking autographs at the back doors of night clubs. Could Per Second be the thing to change all that and launch them into a life of big stadium rock shows, Rolling Stone covers and awards? Maybe.
“Wheat has never been cashing in. But then, we never thought of it as a business or a job. We figured [after Madeiros] if we could make one record, maybe we could do another. With this one, we’re sort of in the same boat. You kind of up the ante in terms of production and stuff that you enjoy, and, well, that costs money. But when you make songs you don’t determine your audience. That’s the beauty of it. You don’t even try to.”
One of the high-ticket costs to producing such a rich, textured sound is genius man-behind-the-scenes, producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev). First climbing on board with Wheat and responsible for their step in the lusher territory back on Hope and Adams, Brendan Harney says Fridmann did Per Second basically on the promise that he’d get paid eventually.
“Fridmann’s a big part of that for us. He’s been sort of a fifth band member. A real teammate. The possibilities, whatever is in our head, he’s capable of doing. That’s the most amazing thing about the guy. When you imagine a soundscape, he’s got the experience and the know-how. And he’s adventurous as hell. There’s nothing that guy won’t try to do and he’s super-bright. We feel very fortunate. He’s incredibly busy…he has work scheduled for the next couple years of his life, and he doesn’t have to work with anybody he doesn’t like. It really is an honor.”
Wheat’s been getting a lot of recognition and acclaim for new twists and turns in the material done in their live shows. What are they doing differently?
“It’s important to the band that the live show isn’t just regurgitating the album versions,” says Harney. “This isn’t karaoke! There’s a wrinkle in each song that makes it more unique. We feel more ownership of it in terms of the live thing.”
Serious Wheat fans collect and trade another version of Per Second that had a limited release a couple years ago. Harney says that when Hope and Adams came out, they toured Europe and began writing that record. In the meantime, their independent label, Sugar Free, fell apart. Wheat was picked up by the London label, Nude (label for the London Suede and a subsidiary of Sony), and then once they were signed, Sony pulled the funding. Another label, Zomba, jumped in and reinvested, only to pull their funding out after a short time.
“We were stuck and they owned our contract. We were really completely fucked. We couldn’t make a record with anyone else, and we had a record sitting there. We were hosed! The total Evil Label thing.
“We only knew how to do one thing, so we kept writing. We wrote “I Met A Girl” then, that pulled together all the things we like. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to flesh out one of these songs?’ We went to Dave Fridmann.”
Wheat told Fridmann they had no way of paying him, but Harney says his answer was, “I’ll get paid, don’t sweat it. Come on in and do your work.’ That was an amazing favor. We wanted to have one song representative of what it would be if it was done right.”
Evidently, it was done so right that it got the attention of Aware records, backed by Sony, and Sony came in and bought the contract. “They kind of paid for our record twice!” Harney laughs. “It was a crazy and scary time for us, but it proved fruitful because we weren’t a hundred percent happy with that third record anyway. We were able to go back in and shore it up and make it the record we really wanted it to be. Part of that was being able to spend the money, rewriting things we weren’t happy with, but also recording and producing it in the way we were happy with.”
What’s the mystery behind the remake of the beautiful hidden track, “Don’t I Hold You”?
“When we did that song on Hope and Adams, that was the poppiest number on that record, and the one that came the closest to being the song we imagined. In the interim, when we played it live, we picked up the tempo and popness of it, and brought it to the forefront more than it had been. We always thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to give it a second shot?’
The president of Aware loved the song and suggested they do it, he says. “We kind of didn’t want to do a song already on Hope and Adams. Fans already had it and it felt like a cheesy move, you know? So, a hidden track was a way to have it there and not have it there. And I love the new version. We all do. Sonically, it’s the prettiest song on Per Second. It sounds so goddamn good. So warm and beautiful.”
Warm and beautiful, to be sure. But Wheat has also caught some flak for being too dark in nature on both past and present albums. What do they think of that?
“I think we’ve been taken, people have assumed that everything that we do is sort of real serious Art and all that. A lot of tongue and cheek in what we do that goes by most people. When you think about some of our songs, even dark ones like, ‘Go Get the Cops,’ there’s sort of a sad scariness to that song, but there’s also some tongue and cheek. Like in the line, ‘I left my rounds behind.’ We don’t have rounds! It’s comic and grandiose and what you would say when you’re being ridiculously absurd in an argument. When people meet us they are usually surprised at how much cutting up we do. How can that be? This is the band that wrote,‘Don’t I Hold You’! Everything we do, almost all the time has humor in it. A lot of people don’t get it, but it’s in there. We try to leaven everything. When I’m in a fight, my most passionate fight with a person that I love, in the midst of a knock down, drag out, alcohol-induced throw down--just insert something that demonstrates the absurdity of the moment! So, if you’re reading the lyrics or listening to the songs, maybe you can look for those things and try to find the releases in a serious moment.”
Wheat has been touring long and hard on Per Second, having started in January 2003, long before the record’s release in October of last year. In fact, Wheat has toured more on Per Second than on their two previous albums combined. When the shortest break from the road is three days and the longest is only three weeks (Christmas), how do the guys manage personal lives?
“A friend of mine said it well when he said on tour, you’re kind of like a ghost. When you’re on the road you’re alive, right? You’re living and breathing, but you’re really nowhere. You don’t have all the things that make you feel connected. Cuz we are all the kind of guys who were never like, ‘let’s go to the Big City and make it!’ We’ve all stuck around. My parents still live near me. All of us are the same way. New Englanders can be like that. We have really deep roots. Every time we leave, it’s a wacky thing. I feel dislocated and strange, and then when I come back, I feel ghost-like. I’m not really sure where I’m supposed to be. There’s something in my head that’s still moving forward.”
And we can count on that forward momentum to take this band a long, long way.