WHEATUS are presently on their 10th Anniversary
Tour around the UK. Bones recently caught up with front man BRENDAN
B BROWN and support act MC FRONTALOT before their gig at Cardiff Barfly.
Youve just finished the American leg of the tour how did that go?
BB: It was good. We had a good time out there and it got us ready for this tour, which is really what we needed to do. We wanted to come over here and put on a good show.
You seem to come to the UK on a fairly regular basis, do you always get a good reception?
BB: Yes, always. We sold a lot of records here, and the net result is a lot of people are familiar with a lot of songs. We dont get that in other countries. Here they shout out for b-sides and rarer cuts, so its always been very positive for us here.
I notice that your sister Liz Brown stepped in at the last moment when your back up singers left just before the tour. Is there any sibling rivalry, like the Gallagher brothers?
BB: No, really she takes care of me! She catches all of my spills. She helps out quite a bit because Im dealing with any number of multi-issues on the tour, so shes there to pick up the stuff that falls off the table. She really saved the day. She knows the part, shes been in the band, shes totally awesome. Shes a singer songwriter in her own right and plays the bass very well.
This is your 10th Anniversary Tour, do you still have the same enthusiasm as when you started?
BB: More, in fact. Absolutely. I really feel empowered by the crumbling of the music industry. The structure that was there beforehand, in my opinion, was sort of rigid and unadaptable. I feel theyve paid the price and now we get to do what we want to do.
You had a lot of trouble with your early record label Sony.
BB: We did, I think in the end they hated us and they didnt know why. And we didnt know why, they just kind of hated our guts. Its funny how that can develop. I dont think that structure exists as much as it used anymore because its failing as a business model. You kind of realise that they expect you to recognise that they alone are responsible for your success. If you dont 100% relinquish to them, if you dont bow, then youre a problem. If you dont bow down, then dont expect to control any aspect of your own career at all, or even contribute. And when the things that are good do happen, be ready to forfeit the credit and have somebody else be responsible for it. I dont need recognition, Im happy for somebody else to take the credit, as long as its my fucking idea that I have to stand behind. I wasnt comfortable with the whole notion of you have to follow through on our ideas and when they go well, when its a success, we will take the credit. But when theyre not successful you will be out there with your name on the ticket, and well hide in the office, thank you very much. And that was the gist of it with video ideas, who we were interviewing with, magazines that we were on the cover of, whatever it was and however people were to receive us, it was to be their ideas. And when it was good they took the credit and when it was bad we took the blame. So eventually I got very tired of that and began to refuse to do the things I didnt feel good about. After a long period of attempted compromise and trying to reconcile, I realised theyre not interested in any compromise whatsoever. Its a scorched earth policy.
So it is true that it all came to a head when you were told to lip-synch on Top of the Pops?
BB: Yes. There were endless campaigns to have us not play live on television,
despite sold out tours, our success on stage and despite our ability
actually to do so. Their arguments, without exception, continued right
up to the moment of our performance. Five minutes before we were set
to go on national TV they were still trying to convince us to lip-synch.
They never stopped. I cant tell you how absolutely un-nerving
it is to go on stage in front of one hundred and fifty thousand people
at the Princes Trust Party in the Park, with a live television audience
of 11 million, with royalty in the box watching, and have some record
company douche-bag who doesnt know anything about music, who never
stood on stage in his entire life, come over with a new CD and say Ive
just edited youre lip-synch, here youre going to do this
right!, as if youve agreed to it.
MCF: Why would they want that?
BB: Because its cheaper, they dont pay people until after the fact so theyll hold your cheque. This is a multi national corporation
MCF: So its not because they want it to be exactly like the product?
BB: No. What I came to discover was that it was more about their individual radio edits that they wanted to put forward. See, everyone sees youre having a hit and they come to the table and they say I could do this with it, I could make it better, I could have it remixed, I can cut it down from a 4 minute song to a 2 minute 50 second song, and cut 17 odd bars out of your song. And youll go up there and lip-synch it right, its your song. But theyve never been up on stage, they dont realise we do it a certain way every night and its muscle memory at that point. Theyre ignorant to the process of live performance. And not just a little bit they are completely (ignorant).
MCF: Which is so integral to pop music, thats just amazing to me.
BB: I dont think it has been. Look at the results, look what they wrought in the last 20 years of having that sort of policy. Now its a common thing for people to pay £150 to go see an act in a stadium somewhere (Madonna) thats track.
Pic : Rosie
The corporate control of acts seems to have got worse in recent years. Look at Simon Cowell.
BB: Yes. It doesnt matter how talented you are. You could be the next Bob Dylan, quite literally as brilliant, but if you dont suck his dick youre out, and thats it. There is no more merit to the situation.
How do you feel about shows like American Idol?
MCF: American Idol is fading in America. It has a much smaller share of the music audience. It has a huge share of the TV audience and successfully launches 5 records every year, but thats it. The records come out every year but they are not taken seriously by music fans.
BB: People dont take music seriously anymore period.
MCF: I dont know if I agree with that. I think that the change of distribution, all the internet stuff, has allowed a lot of people to get into it. It used to be only the colleague radio audience that was interested in small label and no-label music. I feel like that has expanded a bit.
BB I think that on-line distribution being completely unleashed has empowered the underground element.
MCF: You no longer has centralised distribution even in radio stations. You dont have to be close to WFMU to hear their play list, anybody can put it on their computer. There has grown up a huge underground social network of people DJing for each other, just by e-mailing MP3s. It seems like interest in music is stronger than it was 10 years ago. Ten years ago was sort of a nadir, being told You will listen to N-Sync, you will listen to Britney. It was difficult to get into other stuff unless you had top notch internet skill, which people didnt have back then.
BB: I think that regime caused critical damage to what I would refer to as, the non-musically engaged music fan. I feel previously there was a certain amount of consumer music that was positive, its base line was higher. But that lip-synching regime, with its corporate quarterly profit reporting, wore them down. People got sick of buying CDs for $21.99, and having only one track on it that anybody cared about, whilst the rest was purposeful filler. I think that the general interest in music among non-musical people is down and that the real chunk of sales and retail that has been removed.
MCF: Also most of those people that had previously been making albums in the last 35 years had help from the record companies to steer them towards the 3 singles that were needed to sell the album. And now that consumer can hear the albums for free they can check out the whole of the album not just the single that the radio is pushing. When I was young my friend Andre and I would save up our allowance and buy a tape at the mall, and we had a pact that we had to know that we really liked 4 songs before we would spend our money.
BB: When I was a kid in the 80s I remember there was a lot of music proliferated on the radio and MTV, and then there were acts that only touched MTV and the radio every once in a while. And those acts were a sort of doorway into a more serious realm of music. When I was about 9 years old I was a Dire Straits fan because I had heard Money for Nothing on the radio. And I found Sting was singing back up and that led me to the back catalogue of the Police. Then I got into AC/DC which became my rocknroll foundation. Then once in a blue moon theyd play a band called Rush on the radio and I wanted to know why they had such a strange name. That led to a more serious musical discovery that was personal, but still based in retail as I was buying these damn tapes to find out what this band was about. And I feel that there isnt simply any sort of avenue like that anymore for discovery of more substantial music for kids. Its real bullshit and dead ends.
Looking over your career you seem to write songs that are emotional, even vitriolic. Im thinking particularly of Lemonade. How does it feel to be on stage bearing your soul and venting your anger?
BB: Its fantastic. Have you heard of Kurt Vonnegut? He was an
American post transcendental sci-fi writer. He survived the bombing
of Dresden, as a US POW, trapped in a meat locker. He went on to write
a book about it that the CIA tried to classify called Slaughterhouse
5. And his particular style of bare reality description is a big
influence in my lyrical delivery. Its not necessarily vitriolic
if it just a description of actual events. If theyre absurd and
ridiculous thats not my fault. Lemonade was a true story and I
want to be honest. Being a phoney is pretty terrifying, getting caught
out as a fake, like lip-synching, is really scary. I have a base level
of paranoia about being a phoney. And I have an even bigger base level
of paranoia of being a phoney because someone else insisted on it. Which
was what was happening with the label. Its a little embarrassing
sometimes, but its not as horrible as being a fake. You tell your
true story and you can sleep a little bit better.
BB: Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, Ani Defranco, Fugazi, Prince. Im drawn to these solitary control freaks. Those are my heroes.
And what albums would you say have influenced you?
BB: Probably the single greatest influential album of my life was Synchronicity, just because I won it in a candy drive in 4th grade. I won both Synchronicity and Thriller on vinyl.
And did you see The Police when they recently reformed?
BB: I did. I saw them when they came to Madison Square Gardens. They havent figured out a way to hide the fact that theyre a bunch of fucking arseholes. They hate each other's guts and you can hear it. They fight over the songs. Stuart wanting to speed it up, Sting wanting to slow it down, Andy Summers being angry at both of them for not getting along. How could that survive?
You live in New York. Why do you think its spawned so many influential bands?
BB: So many influential, but unsuccessful, bands! Most are not from New York, they just go there to be seen. Ive always thought that New York was a secondary music market. Thats an odd thing to say, because its like the capital of the world, bit I feel like its a secondary music market. New York is a place that you cant appreciate from the inside, I dont believe in being a Manhattanite I think thats a waste of a New York experience. I think that the real experience of New York is to live on the skirt of it and look at it. To be in Brooklyn, to be in Queens, to be in Staten Island, to be on Long Island in New Jersey and get a birds-eye view of what the fuck its all about. To let it seep into you, into your own imagination. You see I lived in Manhattan in the 90s and I found it made me a very efficient person, but I didnt really know what the city looked like from the outside. Its an insular place, thats the down side of New York city, Manhattan can be an incredibly inward looking place and you can forget about the rest of the world.
MCF: The whole hipster culture will know about all kinds of things that will never escape New York. Theyre too cool for the rest of America, but also theyre too insular.
Thanks also to Jane at Wheatus Street Team for arranging it and Grumpy Leigh for taping it all.