Wheatus interview: The shocking story behind Teenage Dirtbag
Almost 20 years since their hit single Teenage Dirtbag came out, Wheatus frontman Brendan B Brown is considering its impact.
The song took four years to write and was born out of a dark shadow that was cast over Brendan’s childhood by a crime that happened in the woods behind his house in Northport, New York.
“The narrative of Teenage Dirtbag is entirely fictionalised and only touches on some of the characters I grew up with, but my own upbringing would make for a much darker, less popular song,” says Brendan.
“There was a murder in my town when I was 10 and it turned out to be teenagers who were doing enormous amounts of drugs, lots of PCP and acid, anything they could get their hands on.
"It was a violent place I grew up in, a fishing town on the outskirts of New York. In the in the 70s and 80s a lot of fishermen there couldn’t make a good living any more so the parents were each holding down a job and barely making ends meet. There were a lot of kids with a key to the front door and no one was home.
"There was lots of petty crime and drugs and these kids got involved in some kind of Satan thing and they lured their friend Gary to the woods and stabbed him to death in the name of the devil.
“It happened a block behind my childhood home in the woods. Woods where I had ridden my bike and had gone to catch frogs and snakes. It was my childhood playground that this happened in”
The murderer, Ricky Kasso, was wearing an AC/DC T-shirt at the time of his arrest and was a fan of groups such as Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne. Soon the local community was panicking about a possible link between heavy metal music and Satanism.
Brendan says: “At the age of ten I had a tape case full of AC/DC. I was already a budding atheist, but it was still a religious place, New York in the 80s, and parents and teachers and clergy kind of descended upon us with this question: are you a devil worshipper? Are you into AC/DC? And the hypocrisy of it and the stench of blame shift... I'm not sure I fully understood the concept of hypocrisy when I was ten but I knew something smelled really funny about the whole thing.”
The effect of the crime was to make locals suspicious of anyone who was a fan of heavy metal music and, as a result, Brendan ended up feeling ostracised. Then his parents sent him to a new school out of the local area.
“I left a 6am to catch the train and got home at 8pm and it was like going to work when I was 13. So my social life was minimal,” he says.
Into the space where a social life should have been grew playing the guitar. And Brendan’s one aim was to emulate his favourite band - AC/DC.
“When I was 9 years old and I saw Angus Young from AC/DC on TV I kind of said to myself 'man if there’s any version of that I can for a living I will have it'. I just thought that was so cool.”
Soon, he was playing in bands, but the song that haunted him for four years was Teenage Dirtbag. “It went through many different versions,” he says.
“My early romantic social experiences were extremely limited and clumsy so that doesn’t necessarily make for a big pop hit,”
However, shortly after the Northport murder there was a piece in Rolling Stone magazine about the crime. “That’s where I first read the phrase teenage dirtbag, and it stuck in my mind when I was writing the song.” he says.
“The guitar sound and beat were things that I worked on for four years from ‘95 until ‘99 and then we finally recorded the last version, so it was in the laboratory for a long time and I wanted there to be this feeling of early hip hop, LL Cool J and Public Enemy from the waist down and James Taylor and Metallica, AC/DC and Paul Simon from the waist up. That hybrid took a very long time to pin down and there were a couple of false starts that were terrible.
"When I finally got it , I knew we had invented something that was unique to the song and the composition and nothing else was going to have that so nothing else does.”
Did Brendan think that this awful crime, which had inspired his most successful song, had somehow propelled his career? "I don’t think there is any grand design to it all. I don't think if you suffer you will succeed. I don’t think that dues paying is necessarily a thing, except for what it teaches you how to do. I think that I could just as likely have wound up dead in the woods as having written a hit song. It serves as a reminder to me - don’t mythologise your track in life because it's going to throw you a curveball. It doesn’t fit the myth. I think it is down to chance that all this has happened."
The song was a massive international hit, but when Brendan refused to rehash it on a second album, he says his record company was unimpressed.
"When we were negotiating our second record, Sony was very upset about there not being another Teenage Dirtbag on it, like the sequel, and I thought that would be a really horrible thing to do to just borrow the same recipe you got it right with on something else. And plug it in insist that it is good enough. I think that is garbage.
“We got out of the Sony deal in 2006 and we haven’t looked back. I think, if we had stayed with that system we would never have put out another record worth listening to and we would probably never have been able to tour again. A lot of the bands from that period you don’t hear from anymore. And I was worried about becoming one of those casualties. Doing a lot of work on something you are proud of and having it put on the shelf is a very common story in music. We are dealing with multinational corporations that are never going to care about the humanity of what you are doing.”
The band’s line up has changed considerably over the years but, according to Brendan, there are no hard feelings about the people who have left.
“The number of band members we’ve had might even be up in the 30s,” he says.
“I am still very friendly with at least 28 of them. I have always said to anybody who gets involved with the band that it is a lot of hard work and if you don’t feel like you want to do it any more, just say so. We won’t have any problems with that. It’s definitely not for everybody and I understand. We have had a lot of people come and go , it's been a revolving door and some of them have come back but very seldom does it end badly.”
The band is coming to the Cambridge Junction this month and audiences who have been before will know their shows can be a little unusual.
“We don’t have a set list,” says Brendan. “People can just request a song and we will play it. These people have paid their own money to see the show they should get to hear what they want, not what we think is best. It's a good way to keep us on our toes as musicians we our catalogue is about 75 songs deep. For this tour we have been able to work up about 50 of them in the full electronic arrangement style, anything anybody else shouts for I will do myself in an acoustic style at the font of the stage with no amplification. I'm trying to ride the chaos.”
He’s not impressed with modern musicians who stick to a rigid set of songs. “When the Beatles were in Hamburg they had to play for eight hours and these days you can pay £250 pounds and see someone play for just an hour and 20 minutes and it's a completely structured set and there are lasers and pyrotechnics and all sorts of things to take your eyes off the fact that there’s not a lot of music on display.
“We don't have strobes or lasers or anything - the point is the audience wants something from us musically and we can deliver it.”
Wheatus are playing Cambridge Junction on Wednesday, May 15. Tickets £18.50. Box office: 01223 511 511 or junction.co.uk.