Wheat: Don’t Look Back

wheat-black390Wheat’s failure to launch on a major label resulted in four years of silence, a re-examination of the rock ‘n’ roll dream and a new vision for its soft-focus harmonic pop. By Matthew Fritch

In some ways, it’s not much of a return when Wheat appears onstage at a bar in Cambridge, Mass., around midnight. It’s not like the Pixies reunion. Hell, it’s not even the second coming of Buffalo Tom. Wheat’s first show in three years occurs at TT the Bear’s Place, not at the larger venue around the corner, the Middle East, which the Afrobeat group Antibalas has sold out tonight. Wheat didn’t get the cover story in the local alt-weekly, but the band scored a nice feature on the inside pages. And TT the Bear’s is pretty close to capacity, assisting the typical college-aged Boston crowd in its weekend ritual of getting blitzed.

One drunken couple alternates between bitter arguing and sloppily making out during Wheat’s set. A girl in a hoodie lies motionless in the fetal position against the back wall. There’s a modern-day Lloyd Dobler doing the Say Anything move: During “Don’t I Hold You,” a heart-tugging pop song featured on the soundtrack to another, not-so-classic Cameron Crowe movie (2005’s Elizabethtown), he holds up his cell phone to broadcast it to someone special on the other end of the line. After the song ends, he leaves.

There’s a slight thinning of the crowd as Wheat progresses through a set of wobbly, melodic songs that artfully teeter on the edge of collapse. Even the old favorites are bent into weird new shapes; what was previously a three-minute guitar-rock tune is now extended to six minutes of divergent vocal harmonies and funereal washes of keyboard chords. Wheat declines to perform its biggest hit: lightweight pop jingle “I Met A Girl.”

This isn’t the same band that some in the audience may have seen opening for Liz Phair or Toad The Wet Sprocket a few years ago; singer/guitarist Scott Levesque and drummer Brendan Harney remain, but the other guitarist and bassist are definitely new. And even if everyone in the crowd knew the tunes from Wheat’s forthcoming album—the band’s first since 2003’s Per Second, Per Second, Per SecondEvery Second, issued by the same label that puts out records by platinum-selling artists John Mayer and Five For Fighting—they’d still find the elongated set a bit challenging.

Earlier in the evening, as a group of Dave Matthews understudies performed opening-act duties, Harney sidled up to me near the bar. “The major-label thing kicked our ass,” he said. “We’ll tell you about it tomorrow. I’m gonna go take a piss and freak out backstage.”

The next morning, Harney is driving me around Rhode Island in a station wagon with a child’s car seat in the back. He, his wife and young son live near Providence, in the kind of picture-postcard village whose main drag consists of nearly a dozen antique shops, a couple churches and an ice-cream parlor. We stop for free-trade coffee near the Brown University campus, then head to Wheat’s practice space across the border in Taunton, Mass., where the rest of the band—Levesque, guitarist Rick Lescault and bassist Luke Herbert—is depositing its gear from the previous night’s show.

Wheat rehearses in a small room on the second floor of a massive former textile mill. Walk around the building and you’ll see that almost every door has been decorated by its residents: weekend rock warriors with names like Nostragarlic and Sin Ritual. Most sport a predictable mix of tacked-up Led Zeppelin gatefold LP covers, Simpsons posters and lewd drawings, and one door is simply adorned with a Jamaican flag.

“We’re just like them,” says Harney, noting that most of the bands consist of regular-dad types with pipe dreams and a set list they’ve been practicing for 20 years. “Some of those bands would lop off an arm to sit down to talk to anybody about their music.”

When Wheat began, the group—Levesque, Harney, guitarist Ricky Brennan and bassist Kenny Madaras—initially decided against doing interviews and tried to maintain an air of anonymity; the sleeve of 1997 debut Medeiros doesn’t list any of the band members’ names. What’s funny about this is that Levesque and Harney are unrepentant motormouths. When telling their music-business hard-luck story—you’ve probably read variations on the theme in articles about Spoon or Nada Surf—they issue tandem accounts of the two-year ordeal in rapid-fire spurts.

The tale begins during Wheat’s other four-year recording hiatus, which occurred involuntarily after the demise of Sugar Free, the indie label that released Medeiros and 1999 sophomore effort Hope And Adams. Wheat signed on with U.K. imprint Nude to release Per Second, which had already been recorded, only to see Nude also go under. The band was stuck in limbo—under contract to a defunct label for nearly two years—when Wheat fan and Aware Records A&R man Steve Smith came to a show at TT the Bear’s in April 2002. Wheat signed with Aware, a mid-sized Chicago-based operation that has a joint-venture deal with Columbia/Sony for wide distribution, later that year.

“After we signed to the label, I remember listening to one of their compilations [featuring] a Five For Fighting concert recording,” says Levesque. “We were like, ‘Oh my god, we are literally barbarians compared to how polished they sound.’ Everything I hate about music was on that tape.”

One of the first orders of business was to re-record Per Second to make it sound brighter and more palatable for mainstream radio, a move the band fully endorsed. “There are some edges that were smoothed over,” says guitarist Brennan, who left Wheat in 2004 and is now launching a solo career. “It’s always easy to look back and complain. At the time, it was really, ‘Let’s try it this way. Let’s try everything in tune.’ We wanted to make a big-sounding record. We wanted to throw our hats in the ring; why couldn’t we be as big as Coldplay or whoever?”

When reached by phone for comment, Smith concurs that Wheat was happily gunning for a hit record: “My comment to the band was, ‘Half these songs don’t even have choruses, and it’s still catchy. What happens when we put them in a more proper, mainstream form makes me think we’re going to have one of the biggest records of the year. No doubt.’ We don’t kid anybody about our goals. We want to sell a million records every time out. Whether that makes us a ‘cool’ label or not, I don’t care.”

It’s largely a matter of taste whether Per Second was improved in its latter incarnation. (Listen for yourself: The Nude version can be downloaded for free at www.thiswheat.com.) But what’s obvious is that Levesque and Harney, who conceived Wheat as a conduit for unfettered—and often imperfect—musical expression, betrayed that instinct. Naturally, they’ve come to regret it.

“I stand behind the core of the songwriting,” says Levesque. “But when every nuance is looked at and ironed over and auto-tuned, it’s not art. It’s artifice. It’s decorative molding. It’s nice. Nice sucks.”

For his part, Harney recalls tense moments in the studio while attempting to drum loosely around the beat. “No one could understand that I was actually trying to put these notes in a spot that wasn’t on the one and the three,” he says. “They thought I was too stoned and couldn’t do the right part. There’s an inherent nervousness in the overcrafting of [Per Second]. You make everything ‘right,’ and suddenly it’s all wrong.”

Soon enough, joint decisions between Wheat and Aware became compromises. There was the change to the album artwork: A photo of a woman holding a match was unacceptable to Sony, as such an image was perceived to promote smoking. There were opening slots on tours in which Wheat would drive 14 hours in one direction to play a show, then drive 11 hours back in the other direction for the next date. There was the gig at the House of Blues in Disney World, during which Levesque urged the audience to buy Per Second at a local independent retailer instead of at Virgin’s chain outlet; Virgin stores responded by pulling Per Second from their shelves the next day.

“That was the first horseman,” says Levesque. “That was pestilence.”

Then there was the $200 pair of Diesel brand jeans Levesque donned for the video for “I Met A Girl,” the radio single that also wound up on the Aware-produced soundtrack for 2004 romantic comedy Win A Date With Tad Hamilton! “I remember arguing about it,” says Levesque. “But there’s a whole video crew there and 12 extras, and you look like an asshole rock-star dude. ‘Just put the jeans on. Put on the jeans.’”

What was wrong with the jeans?

“They’re not my jeans!” crows Levesque. “At this point in my life, the jeans I’m wearing are the jeans I chose. I’m not angry that they wanted to change my jeans. I’m angry at myself for saying, ‘All right.’ I’m not mad at the A&R guy or the label or bass player number seven. Shame on everyone a little bit.”

All these perceived transgressions might’ve been overlooked if Per Second was racing up the charts. It wasn’t. Smith estimates the album sold fewer than 30,000 copies.

“I championed that band more than anything,” says Smith, no doubt a little bit bummed about being cast in the role of crassly commercial-minded A&R guy. “I’m not bitter about it, but what’s being put out there from their side, that frustrates me. The band and label are always going to feel different.”

Unable to continue paying its hired touring musicians, Wheat soldiered on as a three-piece for the first half of 2004. The band was slated to be on the second stage of Lollapalooza that summer, but the festival was canceled three weeks before it was supposed to begin.

“We just felt like nobody cared anymore,” says Brennan. “No one said it outright, but the phones stopped ringing after that.”

“It’s a bad cliché for artists, but I’m a bad businessperson,” sighs Levesque. “After that record cycle, we fired everybody—including ourselves.”

Says Harney, “We just stopped.”

Taunton is an old mill town in southern Massachusetts, and it’s home to descendants of Portuguese fishermen and what are known as swamp Yankees: working-class Anglos who are New England’s rough equivalent of rednecks. Levesque grew up in Taunton and Harney hails from nearby Fall River, both dots on the map that still seem to be sleeping through their post-industrial decline; each town feels a long way from the area’s blue-blooded suburbs and Ivy League campuses.

In the restaurant of Taunton’s Portuguese soccer club, however, a world-class feast is laid at the table: bowls of kale soup, a plate of marinated pork and peppers with littleneck clams over potatoes, a steak filet topped with an egg, glasses filled nearly to the lip with wine. Both Levesque and Harney claim some degree of Portuguese heritage, and the mysterious title of Wheat’s debut album, Medeiros, is a common surname around here.

Just up the street from the restaurant is the house where Levesque and Harney, who met as art students at UMass-Dartmouth, began sketching out songs at very low decibels so as not to disturb the neighbors. Originally operating under the name Gerl, the duo became Wheat with the addition of guitarist Brennan and used $5,000 from upstart label Sugar Free to record Medeiros with local producer (and former Small Factory singer/guitarist) Dave Auchenbach.

Just as Wheat wasn’t built to be a mainstream band, the group wasn’t exactly tailor-made for indie rock, either. Auchenbach’s warm analog-tape production gave the band a lo-fi glow on Medeiros, and Dave Fridmann decked out Hope And Adams with his typically grandiose Flaming Lips treatment. But Wheat isn’t a band for the detached and jaded set, as the songs are often loaded with sappy, lovelorn lyrics and easy-riding soft-rock hooks.

“Some bands love dissonance and chaos and confusion and anarchy,” says Levesque. “I’m not into it. You can push the envelope, but you can never get just discord. You know how kids go to art school, and it’s the first time they leave their families and they start drawing big phalluses? It’s like that. There are some bands that transcend that, noise-wise, but for the most part, it’s a bunch of copycats.”

In the aftermath of the Aware campaign, Levesque and Harney—both in their late 30s—returned to their wives and children and home-improvement projects. Last fall, after deciding that Per Second shouldn’t be Wheat’s last will and testament, they began work on Everyday I Said A Prayer For Kathy And Made A One Inch Square. Aware, which retained the option to release Wheat’s next album, declined the opportunity, and the band struck a deal with the Rhode Island-based Empyrean label.

Kathy isn’t so much a reflection of Wheat’s past struggles as it is a window into the lives of two guys who are keeping their chins up, balancing creativity and domesticity. Harney’s wife is named Kathy, and the lyrics often concern the kind of romance where two people lean on each other and try to figure out how to be in love until death parts them. Sonically, Wheat veers back toward the ambitious path of Hope And Adams, a potent distillation of Sparklehorse’s intimate orchestrations and the Shins’ sharp songwriting turns. Stocked with sentimental melodies and unguarded pleas—Levesque repeatedly intones “You mean so much more to me than anything” on opener “Closeness”—Kathy will remind listeners why Wheat stood out from the emotionally repressed indie-rock crowd in the first place.

In stark contrast to Per Second’s hit-single clearinghouse pacing, Kathy features several zen-like moments of quietude, giving the album a distinct ebb and flow. One such song, “To, As In Addressing The Grave,” with its church-organ drone and Levesque’s nearly wordless, plaintive vocal, served as the unlikely opening song at the TT the Bear’s gig. Wheat didn’t go out of the pop-music game with a bang, and the only thing the band could do was return with a whisper.

“We were drawing a line,” says Levesque. “People say, ‘You guys were so poised to make it.’ We kind of made it. In a way. For me. The horizon is not a destination. It’s not a place where you can go have a drink and water your horse.”

“To have everything feel right,” adds Harney, “it feels like when we were making Medeiros 10 years ago.”

“You have to decide what making it is,” says Levesque. “Yeah, I made it. I made it today. And tomorrow’s another day, man.”