Brendan B Brown, lead singer and songwriter of US band Wheatus, told David Hennessy about writing their hit Teenage Dirtbag, returning to the UK and Ireland after four years and his Irish roots.
Wheatus, the American band best known for their 2000 hit Teenage Dirtbag, have returned to the UK and Ireland for their first tour in four years. The band used to visit nearly every year until a pandemic stopped them.
The current tour has seen the band need to add extra dates and upgrade venues in many places, due to demand. It is now 23 years since Wheatus released their million-selling eponymous debut album that boasted the popular single they have become synonymous with.
Teenage Dirtbag was written by guitarist and vocalist Brendan B. Brown and has become a cult classic made popular by its relatable coming-of-age lyrics about an unrequited high school romance.
You may remember the video that starred Mena Suvari and Jason Biggs as their characters from teenage rom-com Loser. It has amassed 250 million+ views on YouTube. And thanks to social media, the song has enjoyed a resurgence in recent times.
As the band say themselves, “Teenage years may be fleeting, but it seems Teenage Dirtbag is for life!” The band are also set to release a specially expanded 20-track edition of their debut album on 1 December.
Is it good to be back in UK/Ireland after not being here for a few years?
“Yeah, four and a half years, sure. We tried several times to get back earlier but it just couldn’t come together for whatever reason. Maybe it wasn’t safe enough yet or venues hadn’t gotten back on their feet or something else. But here we are.”
Teenage Dirtbag is now 23 years old, can you believe it?
“Well yeah, I guess in some ways it doesn’t feel any different because it’s still a song we have in our hearts and we have a good time playing so it doesn’t feel old in that sense. But I guess it’s been persisting.”
Can you believe the way audiences still react to it all these years later?
“It’s incredible. We’re very lucky. I said earlier today to somebody that some bands, when they have the one big song, it might not be a song that represents them accurately. They might tire of it, it might become a bit of an act. But we’re lucky that way because Teenage Dirtbag is actually in our hearts and we feel it’s a song that represents the band in a good way.
What do you care how somebody identifies? What difference does it make? It shouldn’t make a difference to you.
“So we don’t really have a problem continuing on with it: It’s not a cover. It wasn’t the A&R guy’s idea. It’s the real thing for us so we try hard to make sure that it sounds right, that we play it right and it’s still emotionally important.”
It’s a joy every single time?
“It really is. It really is. We love playing that song and the build up to it has become quite a bit more fun over the years because we’ve stopped doing set lists so we just have the kids in the front calling out whatever song they want – and they know that they’re gonna get Teenage Dirtbag – so they’re calling all the strange ones that they want to hear live.
“It makes for a wonderful show. Totally interactive. The audience gets what the audience wants. And of course, Dirtbag’s always there. It’s fun.”
Did you know how special it was when you wrote it?
“Well, I had a sense of it being a very strong composition, but by that time, I’d been in the music industry in New York long enough to know that wasn’t all it took and it would need other stars to align.
“So when I was finished writing it, I guess I felt a little bit nervous about the whole thing because I knew it could be a great song that nobody heard. There’s plenty of those. I guess that was the feeling initially at least.”
But the stars definitely aligned in that the song got attached to the movie Loser, starring Jason Biggs, Mena Suvari as well as Greg Kinnear…
“The movie in the United States didn’t do much. And in a sense, neither did the album when it first came out. It went about six months where nothing happened so we got used to it being a flop,” Brendan laughs.
“And then we went to Australia and it was number one. And then it was number two over in the UK. So we never got used to it being a successful song, we spent more months touring empty rooms playing to two people in Lawrence, Kansas who thought that we were Smash Mouth.
“We’ve always kept that sense of humility in that it’s all just sort of preposterous that we’re asking people to let us do this. We’ve never lost that feeling of it being pretty extraordinary and strange. We never got used to being successful and I think that’s one of the reasons that we’re so DIY.
“We’ve been self-managed since 2005 and no record label or any of that. We do all of the management of the tours ourselves until the point that we get our tour manager and she starts working about a month before the tour, but everything else is us. It’s a self-contained operation and being able to rest back on our success never occurred to us.”
While it may sound like a feel-good catchy teen anthem, the song has a dark origin behind it with some of the lyrics inspired by a satanic murder that took place near to Brendan B’s home in New York when he was a teenager.
The teenage dirtbag in the title was Brendan. The song was actually inspired by a 1984 murder on Long Island, when Brendan was 10 years old. That summer in the woods behind his house, there was a Satanic, drug-induced ritual teen homicide when Ricky Kasso stabbed Gary Lauwers to death in a frenzy.
Ricky was wearing an AC/DC T-shirt when he was arrested, and was a fan of heavy metal music such as Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. Like the Satanic panic that followed the Manson family’s murder of Sharon Tate, the music Kasso liked was somehow blamed for his crimes and seen as evil.
Imagine how Brendan felt as he had just started to connect to that music. This gives the song its climax with the girl in the song, Noelle, asking him to listen to Iron Maiden with her.
The ‘teenage dirtbag’ in the song is you, isn’t it?
“Sure. A bit. The song has a happier ending. I went to a boys’ Catholic school. There was no Noelle. It was quite a ways away from my home and the reason was because there had been a murder in my hometown. You can look it up, pretty gruesome.
“It happened in the woods near my home very, very close by. If you can take yourself back to the summer of 1984, I had a tape case full of AC/DC. It was the music that I was just beginning to identify with. I was 10 years old. I was just finding this music so empowering and important to me. I really wanted to be Angus Young, I wanted to identify that way.
“And suddenly, this guy gets arrested for murdering his friend, he’s got an AC/DC t shirt on. All the parents and teachers are suddenly very concerned about heavy metal music, and I’m walking around with a pocket full of it.
It makes for a wonderful show. Totally interactive. The audience gets what the audience wants.
“That was the first time I was confronted with any sort of true adult hypocrisy, or I guess you could call it identity politics or something like that where you’re beginning to find yourself but you’re literally told that it’s evil.
“So it was a bit of a struggle to hold on to my love of that music in that environment.
“Then, when I wrote Teenage Dirtbag, although it’s not inspired by the murder, it’s important to note that the scenery – the setting, the danger, and the feeling of it all – is that summer of 1984 in New York. That’s the setting.”
But it has a universal appeal, doesn’t it? I bet you have found going all over the world that feeling like a ‘teenage dirtbag’ was not unique to you..
“You do find it today, I think young people have a broader set of choices. They can see and have access to different points of view, and more different lives.
“I think our big problem these days is that we forgot how to mind our own business and let people be who they are and not trouble ourselves with the things that don’t concern us. What do you care how somebody identifies? What difference does it make? It shouldn’t make a difference to you. Somebody’s happy, so be it. I think we’ve lost that sense.
“My grandmother had that sense. She was a depression-era kid. She knew how to mind her own business. We’ve lost touch with that, I think, in a bad way.
“We accept everybody in this band. We don’t judge and I feel like that’s some part of the Teenage Dirtbag story. The ongoing existence of the song in people’s lives has to do with their ability to see themselves in it. That’s all that counts, this idea that the author is dead. Who cares what I thought? Who cares about the summer of 1984? Satanic panic?
“That doesn’t really matter to somebody who’s discovering the song on their own terms these days. I think it’s more important that people see their own narrative in it and take it for their own.”
You come back to Ireland this month, do you have Irish blood yourself?
“Indeed, yeah. My gran was born in Roscommon, emigrated to New York.
“Sadly, I never met her. She died when my father was very young but we did reconnect with the members of the extended Irish family, the Burkes and the Raffertys and the Gouldings and we do keep in touch a bit. It’s interesting and lovely to meet this group of people who are actually your family.”
Do you feel at home in Ireland?
“I absolutely love it. My partner and I have discussed several times plans to retire there,” Brendan laughs. We always talk about the little stone farmhouse outside of Dublin somewhere. It’s a bit of a financial fantasy at the moment but we do talk about it.”
When asked of Irish influences, Brendan talks of Glen Hansard’s The Frames.
“One of my favourite bands going back all the way to the summer of 2001 when I discovered them – The Frames. I’ve known of Glen since the film but I remember really getting into the frames in 2001, some time around the For the Birds record. Glen has always been a hero.”
The past twelve months have seen Wheatus explode back into the mainstream with the Teenage Dirtbag photos TikTok trend going hugely viral across social media, with more than two billion views in less than a month.
What has it been like to see the song get another life?
“It’s been really heartening and wonderful. I can’t claim to know why or how these things happen. They’re certainly beyond my control but I guess it feels like, in some sense, people are okay with us continuing as the band, that they’ll be able to give us one more year. That sort of thing,” Brendan laughs. It just feels good to be invited to the party.”
The song has been shared and celebrated recently by Lil Nas X, Madonna, Paris Hilton, Lady Gaga, Chevy Chase, Jon Bon Jovi, Victoria Beckham, Alice Cooper, Millie Bobby Brown, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brooke Shields, Mark Ruffalo, Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera, Heidi Klum, Mark Ronson, LL Cool J, Tony Hawk, Sammy Hagar, Nick Kroll, Lupita Nyong’o, Machine Gun Kelly, Anderson Paak, Jessica Alba, Mick Fleetwood, Sheryl Crow, Chris Pratt and Jamie Lee Curtis, among countless others all pushing the hashtag #teenagedirtbag.
Has there been a particular special moment for you in terms of someone famous finding or endorsing your song?
“I think the day that David Gahan of Depeche Mode introduced himself to me and knew my name, that kind of took me by surprise and was really beautiful.
“Because I love Depeche Mode and I always have. Glen invited me on stage one time unprepared as I was in New Jersey, so that was a shocker. I can’t fill those shoes.
“But then, all these years later when the TikTok thing happened. Quincy Jones did one and I could not believe that we were on his radar in any sense, that the man with that musical genius and intellect and his whole entire intellectual philosophy of music – Basically he’s the king, right?
“He’s like no one else. Quincy Jones is it and that he would even acknowledge something that I wrote on a futon in 1995 in my $250 a month living-room apartment. It just doesn’t compute. That was a big one. That was just crazy. It’s crazy.”
The newfound frenzy around the now 23-year-old anthem has also led the band to recently perform on some of the most prestigious stages of their career. They’ve supported Everclear, Hoobastank, Living Colour, Phantom Planet, The Wallflowers, Eve 6 and Dashboard Confessional at various dates around the United States.
They’ve also performed at high-profile American music festivals such as Audacy Beach Festival (also featuring Muse, Jack White, The 1975, Machine Gun Kelly, etc), Adjacent Festival (also featuring Blink-182, Coheed & Cambria, Turnstile, Jimmy Eat World, with Wheatus taking the stage just before Paramore).
When asked of the band’s live highlights, Brendan says: “This past spring, we were invited in America to play a festival called Adjacent. Now this was a surprise because Paramore was the headliner and we had no idea where they were going to put us.
“We thought we’d be early on the bill for sure and they put us direct support to Paramore on the opposite side stage. And I thought, ‘Well, somebody’s really cocked this one up, this is a mistake. We’re gonna have nobody in front of us’.
“And then every single person at the festival stayed until our very last note and then walked over to the Paramore stage. I had no words. I couldn’t believe that had happened and we had a really good night.
“So my fondest big show memory – I can’t believe I’m saying it but it is true – Most recently, the Adjacent Festival in New Jersey back in May.”
I’ll have to let you go soon, Brendan – you probably have gym class in half an hour – but I was listening to Teenage Dirtbag the other day and it took me back to my school days. Is that also the power of the song, that it takes people back to a time in their lives?
“As long as they can make it their own, yeah. It is. It is a feeling of nostalgia but I think also a feeling of burgeoning identity. Put it this way: We have a lot of parent/child pair-ups at the shows. There’s whole families coming these days.
“There’ll be the nostalgic kid who heard us in high school and their little kid will be there too just finding their identity. It’s multigenerational at this point which is lovely.”