Get to Know the Real Teenage Dirtbag with Wheatus

Interview by Grace Wallace.

Everyone knows the 00’s hit “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus. What everybody may not know is that they own their own record label, advocate for artists’ ownership rights, and are currently on tour. Since releasing their debut album in 1999, the group hasn’t stopped creating, and they don’t plan to any time soon.

WLUW’s Grace Wallace got to chat with Brendan Brown, the lead singer of Wheatus, over Zoom about his thoughts on their TikTok trend, the band’s upcoming releases, and his passion for artists’ ownership.

I think the first thing I wanna talk about, just because I am chronically online, is the resurgence of Teenage Dirtbag on TikTok. It’s had an interesting journey over its history… All my friends who are One Direction lovers know that they sang it on their tour. But, we have this like, new period of like teens and even celebrities, reflecting on their teenage nostalgia with it online by showing their old photos. How’d you find out it was trending or like, and what do you think about the trend?

I have this friend of mine who’s in his sixties, and I used to apprentice under him as a luthier apprentice. I was learning how to fix guitars and violins and things like that when I was about 21. 

All these years later, he’s the guy who fixes our guitars. I bring him all of our stuff to work on whenever we go on tour. I was bringing him our backing vocalist, Joey, one of her basses. He and I talk about old punk rock stuff from the eighties, because he was an eighties New York punk rocker, but we never talk about Wheatus.

I give him the bass and I’m like, “Okay, yeah, man needs this and this.” He goes, “Yeah, that’s nice. So, is your band having some sort of resurgence?” I was like, “Uh… I don’t know. What are you talking about?” He’s like, “Oh, my daughter’s on TikTok blah…” 

That’s how I found out. From there, I saw Matthew the next day and I was like, “I think something is maybe happening,” and he’s like, “Why do you think that?” I was like, “Cause Rick told me it was happening.” And he’s like, “What the f— does Rick know <laugh>?” You know, it was like, came from the wrong sources. It just made no sense…. But, nothing makes sense, so that’s okay. 

Have you had a favorite celebrity or one video that you’ve seen?

Madonna was a really big deal for us… For me as an as an eighties kid, that was like, oh my god! Gaga did one and that freaked me out. Cheech and Chong did one. For me that’s a, like… I remember trying to rent Up in Smoke when I was ten or whatever from local video store and getting denied. Those guys were making weed movies before, like anybody… That was like straight outta “Reefer Madness,” those guys. So, that was crazy.

My personal fav is a draw between Alicia Keys and Heidi Klum because we briefly worked with both of them back in the day. It was nice to see them reach out after all these years, and remember fondly that short time there. 

But yeah, they just keep coming. I saw the Pixies one today for the first time, so that was crazy. It’s all good. It’s like weird and good, you know? 

I’m sure they’ll be like so many new ones by the of the week as well,

Maybe. Yeah. <laugh> At first week we were like, “Oh, this will be over tomorrow.” Then three weeks later, it wasn’t over tomorrow… and Gaga did one… and, you know, it’s still going….

Yeah. And I know you guys have a new song out, um, “Satan’s Orders.” Do you wanna Yeah. Talk a little bit about the inspiration behind this

Yeah! I used to work fixing printers in the nineties in an industrial park on Long Island. Few places more depressing in America than a Long Island industrial park… There was always this, I mean, you know… I know that workplace, problematic workplace people are something we do need to talk about, and not to make light of it, but back then it was, I can say that s— went down that just would never fly today. 

I remember that time being sort of like private about the fact that I was into music and making a record and not wanting to tell anybody, and waiting for your boss to tell you what to do– I hope he doesn’t find out anything about you… That kind of vibe, like keeping a not quiet quitting, but like quiet working, you know? That was kind of what that, what that song is about: the secret identity at work, sort of, you know,

Would you say that most of your inspiration has been drawn from like, personal experiences like that over the years? Or has it evolved with each new album?

Some yes and some no. “Teenage Dirtbag” is a fictionalized narrative. I didn’t actually live anything like that. But it does reflect a certain time and place where I came from. The environment that I grew up in is reflected in that song. The sort of threat of violence and stuff. But it comes from all places. A good song can come from anywhere. One of the songs on our sixth album, The Valentine LP, is called “Fourteen,” and it’s inspired by Joyce Maynard, the author who was sort of derailed by J.D. Salinger when she was a student in college. She’s a brilliant writer, but that notion of the ‘old taking advantage of the young’ in any context, be it knowledge or size difference or anything, it talks about that quite a bit. 

So it can come from personal experience, but then the account can be fictionalized, I guess. It feels a little bit like “me, me, me” if you’re writing about yourself all the time. 

Sometimes it’s fun to like make up a new narrative and like put yourself in a new character’s life.

Exactly, and shape the song so that it’s easy for somebody else to see themselves in it. And not listen to your personal story all the time, you know?

I’ve seen with, along with songwriting, you’ve directed a lot of your music videos, so are those skills that you’ve picked up as you progressed…?

Those were battles of necessity. I do not fancy myself a video director, not by any stretch. I’ve had ideas that have been brought to reality by other people– notably the video for “Lemonade.” Our friend Oliver had a concept for doing the video in Lego characters. Then I was like, “Well, that’s cool, but we need kind of a script.” So he came up with a script and he had this different take on it that like left a huge part of the narrative out, but then I realized that the part of the narrative that it left out is not actually in the song. So I asked him to rewrite it and reshoot this whole second two-thirds of the video. And he did. So that was an example of me sort of directing a video, if you will.

 Uh, the video for “American in Amsterdam,” which was our first single off of our second album, was like the label had hired somebody who kind of went on a bender and spent a lot of money and didn’t come back with anything good. We had to rescue that one, and I was the only one who was willing to work without pay. So along the way I have directed videos by accident mostly. 

The video for, uh, the song I did with Josh Devine and Sandy Beales, a song called “Only You,” uh, that wrote itself because that actually happened… I was attacked on stage while playing a One Direction song in 2014.

Oh my goodness.

Yeah. <laugh> this weird old punk dude rushed the stage. He got mad at me for playing a One Direction song. We were playing “What Makes You Beautiful” as sort of like a response to them playing “Teenage Dirtbag.” You know, it was fun. It was really fun.

This guy didn’t see it that way, so he charged the stage, and Josh and Sandy and I decided that that should be the video narrative for the song “Only You,” which is basically a song about fandom and identity and feeling comfortable with yourself and not worrying about like, who makes fun of you for what music you like or whatever.

Would you say, um, that is one of your favorite videos you’ve done? Or which one is your favorite?

The favorite video that’s really tough. 

I mean, the whole Lego series… “Holiday,” “Only You,” and “Lemonade” are the three in the series that Oliver did with Legos, and I really love them. They’re sort of cute and fun to watch anytime. Favorite video… I think our best video might be the one for “A Little Respect.”

I know that you guys started out Columbia Records, but then you went and founded your own label,  Montauk Mantis, and I was just wondering what that means to you? To own your own label and have independence from other labels in the industry, especially when we’re in this age where the mainstream news right now, like, especially with pop stars like Taylor Swift are kind of like bringing this conversation of artists owning their own work.

So this is interesting. I think more and more artists are gonna be learning about this and calling their own shots. At least I hope that happens. 

To have a record label these days, it’s not as complicated as it used to be. And when we did ours, it was, again, a battle of necessity. We didn’t know what else to do. Taylor is bringing up this concept of master’s ownership, which means that the actual recording is a unique copyright. If I were to record one of  Taylor Swift’s songs, I would own the copyright on the recording itself for making it, and then I would have to pay her. I could do a cover, but I’d have to pay her a hundred percent of the royalties for the song. 

The master’s ownership is a totally different scenario. If you pay for a master to be made, technically you own it, even though you owe that override royalty to the artist. In her case, and in the case of our “Teenage Dirtbag 2020,” which we rerecorded, it’s the same thing. It’s like the Wheatus version, you know? The idea is that a lot of the time in the past, mostly the copyright for that part of the work– the physical recording of it, the one version that everybody knows, for instance–  that unique copyright has often been taken from artists and they never see it again. either because it’s sold by Scooter Braun or bought by Scooter Braun or somebody… Labels are very good at selling catalogs and trading and making it so that you can never even find out who owns it anymore.

Even if you do have a billion dollars and you can buy it back, you might not find out who’s actually in possession. So this is one of those things that’s kind of like a stolen painting, you know, like a, a stolen masterwork. That’s how you should see it. And it’s literally called the master. It’s this thing that you’ve made; that you toiled on it. You worked so hard at perfecting it and you finally got it right and then against all odds, the public actually likes it and it’s in the consciousness and becomes this thing that people care about. You sort of feel that validation and all that stuff, and then, in the end you don’t even have access to it. You kind of can’t even have it, you know, which is weird, but that’s the way it works. 

I think Taylor’s educated a lot of people on the subject and kind of brought up the idea that, well, maybe artists should retain this part of the copyright for their own future. At the very least, if they can’t retain the original copyright, uh, make moves to rerecord it as soon as you’re able contractually so that you do own it before you lose your voice or whatever else happens to artists over time. 

Sp we did that, and the result is our first album has been rerecorded a hundred percent, the first 10 songs that you know of from that record. We own that version. While we were going through the process, we discovered 10 other songs that were put aside over the years because they sounded too much like they belonged on the first album, so we put those 10 together with the original 10 and the 2020 version, which will come out in 2023. Thank you. Covid.

We’ll have 20 songs on it. It’ll have the original 10, and then this sort of alternate universe version of our first album with 10 other songs that nobody’s heard– by now, people have heard a few of them. There are 14 songs from this collection of songs I’m describing currently on Spotify and all streaming services, “Teenage Dirtbag 2020” included, a bunch of other first album songs, and what I like to refer to as their ‘alternate universe’ or ‘anti-matter partners.’ We released them as double A-side singles, so two songs per release. The alternate universe version of “Teenage Dirtbag” is a song called “Mope,” which is, um, in the same key and is sort of a more, more accurately tells my real high school experience, which was sort of as a commuter kid going back and forth towards the city to a boys’ school, which was nothing like what the song kind of hints at, but was way more boring and lonely.

That’s the, like the real “Teenage Dirtbag.” Authentic. If you wanna work hard and make sure that you recreate these things that were once worked on somewhere else by somebody else, it’s a big challenge. It’s kind of boring because you’ve already done it. There’s no discovery in the process. You’re recreating something that already exists that you already did one time, but it is worth it. As tedious as it is, it’s worth it to own your own material again. So I think a lot of artists should try it, you know? 

I’ll have to check that out in 2023!

I know you mentioned, um, you kind of created your own label, you directed the videos out of necessity. Are there any regrets from like, doing things out of necessity? Or are you like happy that those things ended up happening…?

No, there are tons of regrets. I mean, I look back at the person I was and hindsight being what it is and knowing that you could have done a better job or should have made a different decision or whatever… That’s always gonna be there with us. 

We evolved through a very transitional time in music. It was like a big challenge to keep out in front of how things are being made and how records are being delivered to people. That changed like 25 times since we started being a band. So, it was difficult and there are definitely lots of regrets, but I feel like it couldn’t have happened any other way maybe. A lot of this will get into personal psychology and the limits of like what kind of a person you are or whether or not you are smart enough to, you know, and all of that…

And I definitely have my limitations in that regard. But I think that, I think that in the end, we’re still a band and a handful of people around the world still care about coming to see us live. And we have this TikTok thing happening and every so often a new generation picks up on “Teenage Dirtbag: and does something new with it. We’re lucky to have gotten out of the major label system when we did this. The decisions I was making back then were considered to be ludicrously self-destructive, getting off of a major label and fighting with a multinational media corporation and then having them kind of kick me out the door.

People thought I was nuts… And all these years later, we own the masters to our second album. We’re self-distributed, we’re self-sustaining financially. We don’t have any bad contracts lingering in our past where somebody’s getting paid, who’s just passive income for them, and they knew us for a year and now they’re getting royalties… That doesn’t exist in our lives. So lots of artists have had trouble with that and we’re lucky that we don’t. So of all the mistakes, I think it could have been better somehow, but I can’t imagine it because it’s not really my life at the moment. 

Follow Wheatus on Instagram and check them out at October Lounge on Oct. 22!

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