Hobo Circus: An Interview with Wheatus

by - April 13, 2023

The most frequently asked question Wheatus hears is, “When did you start releasing music again?”

The band originally began with Brendan B. Brown, lead vocalist and guitarist, who spent a few years developing ideas on his own before deciding to include others on the project. No, this is not the same lineup you saw while watching the music video for “Teenage Dirtbag” in 2000. While Brown is the only remaining member of the ‘original’ lineup, this group of talented musicians has played alongside him for many years.

“It’s important to note that when I started the project I was alone and there was nobody but me for the first two or three years,” Brown said. “I just wanted to see where I could bring it on my own to a certain point and then carry on from there. This incarnation is the longest existing; the first version of this band never even came close to getting this seasoned as far as touring and working in the industry.”

Not only is this incarnation of the band the longest existing, but they have been part of the nonstop release and rerelease of music. While “Teenage Dirtbag” has been their highest global success to date, they are also a uniquely self-sufficient setup.

“All of us wear many hats in the band,” backing vocalist Gabrielle Sterbenz told the crowd at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo. “We’re a band and running a business, so we all [contribute].”

Alongside Brown and Sterbenz, bassist Matthew Milligan and backing vocalist Joey Slater participated in a panel at the convention called Wheatus 2020: Sustaining A Long-Term Artistic Career. They shared that Sterbenz tackles the finances, Milligan handles the logistics of touring and Slater focuses on all aspects of graphic design.

“We have a running joke where we refer to ourselves sometimes as a hobo circus,” Slater said. “People think this is a multi-million dollar production and we show up with trucks of gear; we are six people. We lift stuff ourselves, if stuff has been falling apart we tape it back together, if the cases break we put them in tote bags and show up to the show.”

They are self-managed, far removed from their former partnership with Columbia Records and have been consistently working in the industry, just on a smaller scale. They are aware and 100% OK with people coming to their shows only to see them play “Teenage Dirtbag”.

“The song is bigger than we are,” Milligan said during the panel. “It has a life way beyond our existence. People will know the song but not know our name or our face… I feel like it’s become marketable in our favor because now the song can do all this work on our behalf and we can work separately/alongside it.”

Lead vocalist Brendan B. Brown performing at C2E2.

2020 was supposed to be the year they planned to rerelease their self-titled debut album in honor of its 20th anniversary, but when the world came to a standstill, their priorities changed.

“I think we’ve learned more from the way we work rather than what we’re actually producing,” Slater said. “Prior to the pandemic, we were touring all the time; we were working all the time and it let us take a step back and look at what we had.”

What they had was time. Time to upgrade their software. Time for improvements to their home studio. Time to archive their work and figure out ways to streamline their process.

As the world slowly made its way back to normal, the band found themselves receiving offers to tour the United States - more offers than they normally would get. They jumped at the opportunity, especially since traveling overseas was a temporarily unattainable goal.

In the midst of perfecting a new and improved live show, the unthinkable happened. Brown was dropping off a bass guitar to a longtime friend and local guitar tech who asked him, “Is your band having a resurgence?”

He proceeded to show Brown what his daughter had shown him: viral videos on social media platform TikTok, showcasing photos of people from their teenage years with a sped-up version of “Teenage Dirtbag” as the audio component. It was wild to see users of this platform rapidly catch on to the trend, including some impressive names. Madonna, Lady Gaga, Mark Ruffalo, Lil Nas X… there was a point where if the band even attempted to begin to rehearse the next song, it completely derailed as another video popped up.

“I think that the biggest revelation of it all was I had known of TikTok but didn’t realize what a creative interactive platform it actually is,” Brown said. “You really have to do the work, which is cool because I think what it’s really strong for is if you’re an artist of any kind, music in particular, you can develop and cultivate and make out of nothing by putting your entire career on that platform.”

After all of these wonderfully sudden moments, it finally became time to mix and master not only the 10 original songs on their self-titled album, but 10 additional songs. Brown is using a process called Direct Stream Digital, or DSD, to digitally encode uncompressed audio at a drastically higher resolution than tape. It’s a daunting task, and Brown is genuinely curious if there are any other rock artists attempting this style of mastering.

Once it’s completed and released, they plan to finish what will be their seventh studio album. They are also finalizing a documentary called Wheatus: You Might Die. It has been in the works for more than 10 years and followed them on the road during a time where they truly thought this was their last tour.

“We’re looking at it from a legacy standpoint now,” Brown said. “A ‘let’s try stabilizing this and stop trying to jump from tour to tour with popsicle sticks and glue’ and trying to get to more of a stabilized space where we can call it more professional.”

To answer the question, Wheatus has yet to stop making music. They may get confused with Weezer (who has jokingly played “Teenage Dirtbag” live on many instances without correcting attribution) and they may not be faces you recognize immediately. What they are is more than a 23-year-old song: They are the definition of hard-working. They are fully dedicated to their craft and have a lot more to add to their legacy.

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