Wheat, one of my favorite bands, has a new album coming out. It’s called Wishing Good Things for the World. To celebrate, I dug up an interview I did with Wheat’s drummer/multi-instrumentalist Brendan Harney in 2006 for the now-defunct website Loose Record. It shows all the things I love about these guys: their openness, their goofiness, their humility, and their sheer joy in making music.
DK: Your last album came out in 2003. A year ago on your website you announced Wheat was taking a break, and now you’re back in the studio recording new material. Why did you decide to take a break?
Brendan Harney: You’re digging right into the meat of the whole Wheat story. Let me give you the short answer. When we put out the Per Second record we were on a major label, which was Columbia/Sony. To be frank, it wasn’t working for us and so we basically pushed that plate away. We stopped touring and we were pretty much breaking up. Our guitarist left the band, and Scott (Levesque, singer and co-founder) and I believed that we were done. Things really quickly fell out of our hands, and we just walked away from it. And the best way to put it at the time was to say we were taking a break, though we had nothing to do with the phrasing of that. Over the intervening months Scott and I called each other back and forth and we wanted to do music again but something different, start with a clean slate. But then we said to each other, “This is what Wheat is. We are what Wheat is. Let’s just do it again. We can do a fresh start without changing the name, because there was so much about the band that we loved.”
DK: Why was being on a major record label not a good experience for you?
BH: It wasn’t a good experience for us on so many different levels. When Scott and I started this band it was an art project in a way. We were both painters and everything mattered to us: from the visual of a CD to the posters that you do to the music that you make to the way that your instruments sound and to the things that you say and the way that you say them. We tightly controlled everything. Then when we started recording for a major label that control factor, which we needed to really function as a band, was lost. We didn’t have control over certain things we needed to have control over, and when that happens you no longer believe in what you’re doing. Even if you’re selling more records, the joy in doing what you’re doing — which is the reason why we were doing what we were doing — is gone. I look at cover of the last record and I can’t stand it. It’s someone else’s. This might not be true for everybody on every major label, but in our case everything was a concession; everything was muted and met halfway. The financial part was fine and we had the things that you dream of as a young kid wanting to be a musician, but we felt that what we were doing was mediocre and we were miserable.
DK: An earlier version of Per Second was finished long before the album was finally released. Why did you go back into the studio to re-record the original?
BH: We did a version of Per Second that was picked up by this record label named Nude in London. They went bankrupt and we were fucked as a band. We had this record that was owned by a label that couldn’t do anything with it. Whoever it is that now owns this record, it’s just sitting there and you can’t get it for anything under $50,000. We as a band don’t have enough money to buy it back and I don’t know any small label that does. So this collection of songs we’d been working on for years is just sitting there, and that was the first concession we made, for the only one who could buy this record was a major label. In the interim, we had recorded “I Met a Girl,” and that became the main song the new record would focus on. For us it was just a song that we had recorded with Dave Fridmann, who did it for us for free. Columbia/Sony had the money to buy back that record and send us into the studio to rerecord the songs and make them sonically match “I Met a Girl.”
DK: Which version do you like better?
BH: I like the original version much better. The new version could be anybody’s. There are some songs on there that I think are really beautiful, but when you hear the record it doesn’t have the personality or the sweet moments of the band that I know. The way it was done was contrary to how we had always done things: everything was beat-detected so all the beats were perfect, everything was tuned perfectly. To me, you might as well have a machine play it. You can’t feel a human in it. The cover of the original record is a Wheat design; the cover of the version that was released is a train wreck, an embarrassment to us in many ways.
At the time, we knew we were in a situation that was likely to end quickly and it was going to put us in a bad light. That’s why we put the asterisks behind the band name on the cover of the record. It was our own little thing to show that this was someone different; this was not who we are.
There’s a vibe in our first records you can’t really put your finger on. You sort of trudge through a career as a musician and sometimes you lose something really quickly. We always did everything by instinct. When you let that slip, the band, your music, becomes something else. That’s what happened with the version of Per Second that was finally released.
DK: So why did you include a new version of “Don’t I Hold You,” one of the singles from Hope and Adams, on Per Second?
BH: The record label said, without having any real care at all for the history of the band, “Hey, that song had some plays on the radio in the UK. It’s clearly a song people respond to.” They wanted it on the record, and we said it was impossible. Everything with them was a fight. But they were holding all the cards, and finally we just acquiesced.
DK: It was included on the soundtrack of the movie Elizabethtown as well.
BH: I don’t even know what version is on it. I don’t know how I feel about that song being on a soundtrack. You can control where a song goes, but that way you probably won’t make records for very long. Bands need publicity. In a way the soundtrack was a good thing, because a lot of people who would never have heard that song or known who this band is were now exposed to them. It also seemed to lead people to Hope and Adams somehow and not to Per Second.
I think it’s a beautiful song. You don’t try to make those kinds of songs, but they’re kind of necessary. Look at “Death Car” on Medeiros. It barely made the record because we didn’t care for it that much, but it became NME’s Single of the Week and it sort of put us on the map. But they’re not as precious to the band as they are to others. I really like “Don’t I Hold You,” but it’s not my favorite song on Hope and Adams.
DK: What are some of your favorite Wheat songs?
BH: “Someone with Strengths.” I love playing it. I love the way it sounds. Lyrically it’s got this really beautiful tenderness that never gets hokey. It walks a really cool line. Those are the best ones for me. I love the vocal sound on “Roll the Road.” That’s Scott at his best. It just comes out: there’s nothing singery about it. It’s like he’s talking to you.
DK: What does the new record, Every Day I Said a Prayer for Kathy and Made a One Inch Square, sound like? Where do you place it in the Wheat catalogue?
BH: Those are always the hardest questions to answer. It’s my favorite record, I know that, though I kind of omit Per Second in a lot of ways. It’s not beat detected! Even of the old ones it’s my favorite. The beauty of Medeiros was that it was a whole; it was very specific. It was made by a band that didn’t know what it didn’t know: we didn’t know anything about what we were doing other than that we were full-on making the record we imagined we wanted to play and creating a package that we wanted to see. It was very introspective in a way. Then on Hope and Adams we learned how to take chances, to figure out different parts of songs. We became a band-within-a-band thing. It wasn’t just Scott and I anymore; we had a bass player and Ricky at the time. It was much more of a soup. As an inside person, I love the record but it has a hit-or-missness to it. It’s a little bit all over the map. The new one has a lot of that experimental push that Hope and Adams has but it is also very confident of what it is. You hear it and it feels like a whole, like Medeiros did, but it has a lot more panache. It doesn’t care when it’s strange.
With all due respect to Ricky, it’s liberating to be in this new “zone” now. Recording is always just waiting around for something good to happen, for magic to happen. Yet, magic is very strange, just like beauty is. There are moments on this record that are really strange but they’re so beautiful. And if we had had someone else with us on this record, this beauty might not have been understood. Most people that I find — and this is why much music is of such a mediocre level — tend to pull something that is unfamiliar and try to mold it back into something they can at least reference somewhere musically. Scott and I don’t work that way. We think, “Wow, that’s really beautiful but I don’t know how to connect this with anything I know. I don’t know if anybody else will like this, but I do.”
DK: When do you expect the new record to be finished?
BH: We are about eighty percent through the process of recording it. We’re taking things rather slow right now. We’re trying not to beat it over the head. It’s nice not to be jamming on it every day. If I’m realistic, I would have to say it’ll probably be done sometime in Fall.
DK: How do you approach recording a new album? Do you come to the studio with fully worked out arrangements or do songs take shape inside the studio?
BH: It happens in the studio. We go in with a lot of pieces, little half – parts of songs, concepts, lyrical ideas. Most of what we end up doing is ready to be thrown out. Like I said before, you’re waiting to stumble upon something magic and so you work on a song and in the end you’ll say, “Yeah, it’s good but it doesn’t thrill me, it doesn’t make me crazy.” And then you try to find a twist — either lyrically or musically. The way Scott and I usual start a record is we talk about abstract concepts, and often they don’t even have anything to do with music. Ideas about the way we’re thinking. We try to thematically find a few words in a sense and work with them. Take the title of the new record. We knew the title months ago.
DK: Can you tell me a little more about the title? What does it mean?
BH: Scott and I do visual arts, and that’s how we met. Sometimes when you’re doing visual work it’s very frustrating because everything you do or make implies something right off the bat. Even if it’s an abstract idea, words are connected with it that imply something you’re not trying to say. There are a lot of unintended meanings flying around. At the heart of the matter it’s this simple: the only thing you can do at times is something as basic and elementary as making a one-inch square and this square is going to be so completely empty of yourself (since anybody can make a one-inch square — it requires no real artistic skill at all) there is not authorship of it. It’s a remembrance or a mantra in a way.
DK: You once did a demo for The Flaming Lips called “Test Tones.” You recorded your last two records with Dave Fridmann, who also produced The Flaming Lips, and Lips bassist Michael Ivins was studio assistant. You guys also shared the same booking agent. What is your relationship with The Flaming Lips?
BH: That’s the extent of it, really. We did some shows with them. The Lips never used that song — it was tongue-in-cheek. Michael Ivins is a sweetheart. He’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet in your life. I like Wayne a lot too. Theirs is not the kind of music I would want to make, but their vision is very pure. It’s right on the sleeve.
DK: What music do you listen to?
BH: Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way, which is the period when he started using electric bass and keyboard players. It’s crazy music, but it’s so beautiful at the same time. They are not good iPod CDs, though; even if you use the bass booster. They really require speakers. They’re not songs, they’re tonalities, and those need to come out of a wooden box. Wheat records are made in that way too. If you don’t get the tonalities, it becomes kooky music. You’re missing how the music really wraps around you. A lot of band people will say this, but I don’t think in terms of influences. It’s stuff like that Miles Davis record that appeals to me: how sounds fit, tonalities. Radiohead records are also made to be listened to on speakers. The sounds on their last three records are so warm and buttery, and they lose a lot when listened to on computer speakers.
DK: What are some recent albums that you’ve listened to?
BH: That Brian Eno/David Byrne reissue, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, is a beautiful sounding record. They used a lot of found instruments on that one. I bought the new Mogwai record. They sort of do one thing, but I like that one thing. I thought the last White Stripes record was fantastic. It sounds like ass, but it’s the most cohesive in terms of songwriting. The massive simplicity of it is impressive. I also bought the original cast recording of Man of La Mancha. That’s such a beautiful story. How many times have people heard Sinatra sing “My Way” and really understood it? The story of Don Quixote is really about how people view the world. Everything is always supposed to be everything. But every detail of everything really matters. You can see beauty where there is none, and that’s truly amazing.
DK: There aren’t many people I know who are familiar with Wheat. What is your favorite band that only few people have heard of?
BH: Royal Trux. They were a rock band, a girl and a guy. Their story is similar to Wheat’s. They were a good indie band who ended up on a major label for one record, and that didn’t work out. Their music is really weird and strange, and the recordings are really bad. It’s awkward rock n roll that’s incredibly beautiful. When you listen to rock these days, the guitars are bigger than the planet, the drums are pounding, and the guys are yelling. But the Royal Trux played rock ‘n’ roll that’s fucked up and it got under your skin and it was angry and slapdash. It was unlike anything else. It didn’t fall into any category.
DK: Imagine a band would ask you to join them on tour this summer. Which band would you want this to be?
BH: Wheat. I’m really good in this context, but not very good outside this context. I never ever think of wanting to play with anyone else. Even if I’m a fan of a band. As much as I like Radiohead, I don’t want to have to get to know Thom Yorke. Bands are relationships and I like the one I’m in.