When faced with the choice of whether to graduate from the school of indie rock, it didn’t take Taunton, Mass.’ Wheat much thought. In fact, according to guitarist Ricky Brennan, signing to a major label was “the best and really the only opportunity that presented itself.” Typically these swim-ups can be sticky affairs and, despite the ease with which Brennan claims the decision was made, Wheat’s ascension wasn’t exactly graceful.
It wasn’t so long ago that the trio of Brennan, singer-guitarist Scott Levesque, and drummer Brendan Harney held quite a bit of weight in rarefied music circles. The band’s early records on Chicago’s Sugar Free label were recorded with the help of über-producer Dave Fridmann, Small Factory’s Dave Auchenbach and Red Red Meat’s Brian Deck. But it was their low-fi aesthetic and introspectively mopey song craft (generally relegated to the Stereolab ilk) that urged the UK’s Independent to bestow upon Wheat the descriptor, “lazy brilliance.” As testament to their musical prowess, Brit pop heroes Suede signed the band to their Nude imprint, an arm of Sony Europe, back in 2000.
Today’s Wheat, however, is not the same one that wooed the Brits with quietly tempered wit and hints of guitar feedback. The band’s latest record, Per Second, Per Second, Per Second… Every Second, hardly seems the product of six years’ toil in independent music. Instead, it’s more at home on the stereos of suburban high schoolers crushing on Joe Blow and waiting for the latest entry in the gripping American Pie saga. In fact, Per Second… goes against pretty much everything indie rock aloofly stands for. The production is loud and bright. The hooks are hugely catchy. The vocals are exaggerated and breathy. The lyrics are forthright. The changes are remarkably predictable. So what gives?
“We found ourselves getting pegged with a lot of really mellow, low-fi, dark, dreary, sad, introverted stuff,” says Brennan. “We’re big fans and certainly a lot of that stuff is what brought us together initially, musically, but after a while the whole vibe just started to get really boring.” Add to that Wheat’s annoyance with the indie crowd’s trademark snobbery and the band consciously took a new direction.
Before they knew it, though, plans for the Nude release were dashed as the label flitted about with distribution problems and eventually went belly up. At the same time, Brennan and company gradually morphed from college radio shy guys into commercial radio hit-makers without the public really noticing.
When the dust settled, Wheat found itself with a stylistic facelift, a major label deal and a little cash in pocket, signing to Aware/Columbia. The band went back into the studio and reworked many of the tracks that were slated to appear on the Nude release, to some fans’ and friends’ chagrin. “People who had heard the Nude versions were like, ‘It was a masterpiece. You guys ruined it by rerecording.’ Some people are never gonna be happy,” Brennan shrugs.
With Fridmann’s help again, the band hollowed out their songs into a glistening, commercially viable pop record — a ballsy move for a respected indie band — and braced itself for the backlash. But the damage remained minimal and, more by design than by accident, the band opened itself up to a totally different market, supporting Liz Phair and label-mate John Mayer on tour.
“In our minds, we’ve always been trying to make pop music, in a certain sense. Not necessarily on the scale that John Mayer operates. … For the John Mayer fans, we’re a little edgy and weird. When we play with, say, the Flaming Lips, we’re a little too straightforward,” says Brennan, nailing it.
The songs aren’t terribly challenging, lyrically or instrumentally, and with Fridmann’s not-so-experimental tricks — crystally synth tinkles, echoed “oh yeahs” and “ooh-oohs” — they tread dangerously close to sugary pap. But even music snobs will find the sing-songy hooks on tracks like “I Met a Girl” and “Some Days” virtually impossible to expunge without first belting them out aloud.
“It seems more drastic because there’s nothing between [Per Second… and Wheat’s second record, Hope and Adams]. And because the Nude record didn’t come out, people kind of missed that step in us progressing musically. To us it seems like a real natural evolution. … A lot of it simply has to do with four years going by,” informs Brennan.
Both in the studio and on stage, Wheat now straddles that fine line of commercial acceptance and indie credibility. Call it maturing rather than aging. Rest assured though, that from behind the recorded wall of glitz is sure to emerge a newly explosive yet still contemplative band, ready to indulge indie faithfuls and new joiners alike.
See Wheat at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit) Thursday, Feb. 5, with Hey Mercedes. Call 313-833-9700 for ticket information.E-mail Ken Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.