You've heard it before. If it's not the oldest cliché in the business, it's the best-known: "We're big in Europe."
"Big in Europe"--a phrase so ancient that it's become a sort of all-purpose joke even to people outside the music industry--means you're skirting the issue of your unpopularity at home. It's shorthand for untalented hack artist. It's the classic untraceable dodge to cover up a lack of popularity, the musical equivalent of "my Canadian girlfriend."
Well, listen, smart guy: This slow-fi trio from Massachusetts called Wheat is big in Europe, huge in Europe. And it's probably the best contemporary indie band you've never heard in your life--and you don't even have a copy of Hope and Adams, the group's latest release on Sugar Free Records. For shame.
Wheat performs September 22 at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios. Centro-matic opens.
Wheat breaks down like so: Scott Levesque on vocals, Ricky Brennan on guitar, and Brendan Harney on drums (bass parts were played on guitar, then dropped an octave). All the players hail from Massachusetts, where they endured a truly baffling series of personnel and name changes too long to list here, before finally settling into the current title and lineup. Their first record, 1997's Medeiros, was a local favorite; As nor'east indie fans snapped it up, it got reviewed positively where it did get reviewed and Wheat toured regionally, even heading along the New York-to-Chicago route on that tour's farthest-flung jaunt.
Then, a couple years later, they went to Europe in support of Hope and Adams, where--for some reason--they got famous enough that it was OK to stay for a while.
Wheat has been back in the States now for about two months, touring the Midwest and gearing up for the South-Southwest circuit. "We've been [overseas] five or six times at this point," reports Brennan, whose graceful and melodic guitar work rings through Hope and Adams like a mission bell. "We couldn't really afford to tour for Medeiros; it's really expensive to get out on the road. But in Europe now, for some reason, people seem to have heard of us a lot more. We've been playing a lot of festivals, some smaller venues...It's finally to the point where we know we're not going to be playing to an empty house when we go over there." He pauses. "There might be only six people, but the house won't be empty." And he laughs.
Brennan laughs a lot, as well he might. Hope and Adams is a solid record for any band to tour on, a simply scored affair offering chiming guitars and Levesque's softly intoned vocals. Harney's drumming throughout is equally soft, almost understated, but meticulous enough to provide a framework like a metronome: It's that precise. "We've each been one of those six people," Brennan continues, "so we know what it's like to be a fan and come out, and be excited about seeing this band that you know and nobody else does. No matter how many people show up, they came to hear you, and that kind of response is really fantastic for us. Of course [in the States], we're still just planting seeds."
Whether Brennan's conscious of the pun or not, he's precisely on target. On this leg of the tour, Wheat undertakes the rather bizarre task of proving to home audiences what it has already proved abroad. And where other bands might find that daunting or cruelly ironic (or, conversely, take their overseas popularity as a done deal and dare American audiences to disagree), Wheat seems to be anxious to take on the challenge: "We're somewhat confident by now when we play in Europe, which is the big difference between there and here. We know we have to work to blow people away when we play here. We've really been working hard on this tour because we're not anywhere near as well-known."
Wheat might be working extra hard on this tour because its music, subtly and carefully performed, doesn't fit easily into current indie pigeonholes; it's neither raw-sound punkish noodling nor artificially produced synth-pop. Like Morphine, another Massachusetts band that was impossible to describe to anyone who hadn't heard them, Wheat is made up of musicians whose talents are best appreciated when they're playing most quietly. Also, they're hard to ignore; audiences pretending they're going to shows when they actually would go to bullshit loudly with their friends, or who want to hear a band "that sounds like this other band except slower," aren't going to leave happy. Which is fine, obviously, but it can make for some rough onstage moments.
For evidence along these lines, listen to "Slow Fade," the first song on Hope and Adams to offer actual lyrics: "No one likes it slow/And we take our time/And everyone was rocking/But the band played on.../And no one seemed to notice when we disappeared/And no one liked the 'Cinnamon Girl' we tried/We're only trying to do our thing." It takes a precarious balance of humility and confidence to kick off your album with a song about your band's indifferent reception, particularly when you're not very well-known, without turning it into a loud "fuck you" or a coy exercise in ain't-we-cute wiseass. Wheat pulls it off, with a flair that's beginning to earn them overdue notice in their home country.
"It's not like we're out of touch with the attention we're starting to get," says Brennan, after a long and thoughtful pause, of the rumble surrounding Hope and Adams. "But you can get to a point where you really start to get distracted by the things people are saying about you. You're there writing or taping and you think, 'Oh, wait, this person said they hated this about the last album, so we'd better change that...and this person liked this, so let's turn that up...' It just gets you really preoccupied. The important thing is showing up, playing the music, writing the songs. That's what matters."
It mattered even more over two snowed-in weeks in January 1999, when Wheat worked pretty much round-the-clock to record and mix Hope and Adams with producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips' masterwork The Soft Bulletin) at Fridmann's Tarbox Studios in Cassadaga, New York. "I was driving the van out to the studio, and it was starting to snow," recalls Brennan. "And by the time I got there, three feet of snow was on the ground, which isn't out of place for western New York, but it locked us in. We didn't go anywhere at night, we just worked on the album. I used to go to sleep thinking about guitar parts I was supposed to play the next morning."
The vibe at Tarbox, a country house converted into a recording studio plus a kitchen and bedrooms, undoubtedy contributed to the nature and consistency of the record's sound. As with The Soft Bulletin, Fridmann's nuanced work on Hope and Adams brings each player's instrument to the fore at various points, deepens the atmosphere with light echo and strings and somehow manages to keep all the parts separate while producing an album that sounds so cohesive it might have been played on a single instrument.
"Fridmann is so good in the studio," Brennan enthuses. "We didn't have a lot of time to get the record made, and he taught us how to do things fast and accurately. Even though we're looking forward to taking a lot more time to do the next record, that experience with him taught us so much about what you can do with a deadline; it was essential to the sound of the album."
In fact--though this is the kind of comparison Brennan and Co. might rightly ignore--those who were blown away by The Soft Bulletin will find Hope and Adams an extremely gratifying and intelligent purchase (and like Bulletin, Hope--released last October--graced a number of '99 critics' Top 10 lists). Not because it sounds like that album, though in places you'll hear undertones; simply because Wheat plays pop music that never condescends to its audience, never delivers an expected phrase and never takes the easy lyrical or musical path.
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Because Wheat can cop an opening melody from Tom Petty's "Free Falling" for the album's closer "Roll the Road," and make you forget where it's from before the first verse is over. Because Levesque can sing an entire line from "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" on the song "Body Talk (part 2)" like he wrote it, can work it into the just-unfamiliar-enough chord progression like it was written for that song. Because imagery like "Your love is a parking lot/With pot holes and faded lines/And the kids don't hang/Because the cops just chase them out" don't appear on every album you run across. Hope and Adams is a flat-out poetic piece of work, as musically solid as it is literate.
"When people come out to see you," says Brennan, "when they say, 'I've never heard of you guys, but you blew me away tonight; I'm going to check out your albums and play you for my friends' and all that, it's completely satisfying. After you've invested all that time and effort into something, a response like that definitely makes you feel like it was all worthwhile."
If that response prevails on the U.S. tour, Wheat will have deserved it, but that doesn't make the contrast any less poignant; scant weeks ago, Brennan was watching Nine Inch Nails and Oasis perform from stageside at a summer festival in Belgium, a festival at which Wheat shared the bill. Now it's clubs and smaller dates for the next couple of months or so, and the band, as Levesque sings, plays on.
Maybe this time around--by way of creating balance in the universe--the crowds will even get into their "Cinnamon Girl."