Review: Wheatus @ McClusky’s, Kingston



The band are most famous for their hit song ‘Teenage Dirtbag’.

By Sarah Ward

Rachel has seen Wheatus once before. Last time she went to catch their support act, MC Lars. Tonight, her expectations are not high. “There’s a reason they only have two songs anyone knows,” she says.

Wheatus may only have had a couple of hits, most famously ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ which 13 years after its release still hovers around the U.K charts, but the New York band just made their sixth album.

Like all but their debut album, The Valentine LP is being self-released. Things are going well for a band that a lot of people don’t realise still exist: they have sold out several nights on this tour, and 200 people bought pre-sale tickets for their Kingston show.

Tonight they’re playing at McCluskeys, a place that more resembles a multi-storey car park than a nightclub. The crowd are mostly young, students at the local colleges, and older men, watching the students dance.

James, a 23-year-old accountant, is standing by the merchandise stall, wearing a Wheatus t-shirt. He’s mostly into thrash metal, he says, but came tonight on an impulse.

“I just thought it would be quite cool to see them ­– it reminds me of being eleven or twelve and getting drunk with my friends.”

Was he a teenage dirtbag?

“Just a bit,” he says. “More of a loose edge.”

Whatever a teenage dirtbag is, no-one will admit to having been one. It’s a generational, semi-mythical concept, like the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ of American mumblecore movies. In a parallel universe they probably dated. In this one though, with McCluskeys’ rigorous ID checks it’s unlikely there will be anyone here young enough to relate to Wheatus’ high-school-blues themes as anything more than nostalgia.

Their songs may channel a certain sweetness but in conversation Brendan B. Brown is acerbic, switching between Wikileaks and the role of the internet in breaking down social myths, to why young people aren’t buying records.

Watching Wheatus live, they’re like a band designed by a Nickleodeon animator. Their enthusiasm is palpable, but things have not been smooth for the group. In 2005 they split from Sony after the label failed to release or promote the band’s second album.

Like Radiohead, who championed the idea, they’ve been distributing music on a pay-what-you like basis from their website. Brendan says it is not music piracy which is making the music industry obsolete, but the people running it.

“We got lucky getting out of the deal with Sony,” he says. “People are turned off from music because it doesn’t represent youth culture, it represents the nostalgia of the baby boomer generation, and no-one’s going to buy into that.”

No longer does anyone make attempts to coerce them into leather trousers or parody music videos. Things are better this way.

“I was never good at manipulating that,” Brendan says, but he admires people who do; artists like Beck and Richard Ashcroft who manage to navigate artistic integrity through the gates of major record labels.

Joey Slater, half of The Ventura Project, who opened for Wheatus, is running the merchandise stall. She guesses that Kingston is a student town because they haven’t sold many hoodies, the best sellers on this tour.

“We haven’t sold many t-shirts tonight—maybe twenty—but in student cities we always sell a lot of stickers.”

Joey’s been doing merchandise for Wheatus for six years. Originally from Gloucestershire, her involvement with the New York band goes back much further, to 2000, when Teenage Dirtbag was Number 2 in the U.K charts.

“Because I had that first album, I went to see them… I met Brendan at a gig when I was 14 and we stayed in touch. Seven years later I started working with them.

“Everyone loves Teenage Dirtbag,” she says. “Especially a crowd like this who remembers it from 2000.”

There’s something intrinsically generous about Wheatus’ attitude, from the small talk they make between songs with the wasted crowd, to Brendan’s willingness to hang out at the merchandise stall for a meet’n’greet after the show. No one freaks out when I accidentally call them ‘Weezer.’ Matthew says that happens all the time.

“The UK is a home from home,” he says, which is why they come over to tour almost every year. “Dirtbag was a bigger hit in the UK than the US. It’s not an anthem there like it is here.”

Of the hour-long set, Wheatus only play four songs that the crowd knows all the words to, and three of those are covers: Green Day’s proto-Dirtbag ‘Basketcase’, Erasure’s ‘A Little Respect’, long ago adopted by Wheatus, and ‘What Makes You Beautiful’, by Britain’s national obsession, One Direction.

“They performed ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ on tour,” Matthew says. “It’s our way of paying back. They’re introducing Wheatus to a whole new audience.”

That connection is one that Brendan says has given him some insight to the way that youth culture has changed since he began writing about it.

“I’ve been introduced to One Direction fandom on Twitter,” he says. “So much has changed since I was that age – they’re so much smarter. They don’t have to be reliant on adults for information.”

He has a lot of sympathy for the young, and it’s a constant point of reference. The ‘geek rock’ thing is something that Brendan says he cultivated unknowingly, as a response to the hierarchy of school.

“I still write from that point of view a bit just because I feel as though adults aren’t quite as involved as they think they are,” he says, adding that the idea that youth should be a cause for celebration is a false one. So too is the idea of innocence – Brendan would call it ‘naivety’ – one that a generation with instant access to information is shedding at a rapid rate.

Commercial success comes with a barb, and another ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ is not something Brendan would want to repeat.

“Most of what we did to accomplish that we’ve rejected. We just dipped a toe into that system for a minute.

“Financially it would make things easier but I would never accept a pay-check big enough to entertain the major record label’s bad ideas.”

Sony may have produced the band and promoted them, but they did not write the song that keeps drawing in crowds each time Wheatus tour. Brendan’s bandmates talk about it reverentially.

“I was 14 or 15 when ‘Dirtbag’ came out,” Matthew says.

“I was a straight A student at school, a total goody two shoes. I loved the song but I wasn’t a dirtbag.”

So, was the gig a nostalgic experience?

“Almost,” Rachel says, “but without the hope of turning 13 and being invited to Iron Maiden concerts all the time.”

Photo courtesy of tonyaaagh, with thanks.

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