"Big in Europe" -- a phrase so ancient that it's become a sort of all-purpose joke even to people outside the music industry -- means you're skirting the issue of your unpopularity at home. It's shorthand for untalented hack artist. It's the classic untraceable dodge to cover up a lack of popularity, the musical equivalent of "my Canadian girlfriend."
Well, listen, smart guy: This slow-fi trio from Massachusetts called Wheat is big in Europe, huge in Europe. And it's probably the best contemporary indie band you've never heard in your life -- and you don't even have a copy of Hope and Adams, the group's latest release on Sugar Free Records. For shame.
Wheat breaks down like so: Scott Levesque on vocals, Ricky Brennan on guitar and Brendan Harney on drums (bass parts were played on guitar, then dropped an octave). All the players hail from Massachusetts, where they went through a truly baffling series of personnel and name changes too long to list here, before finally settling into the current title and lineup. Their first record, 1997's Medeiros, was a local favorite; Nor'east indie fans snapped it up, it got reviewed positively where it did get reviewed and Wheat toured regionally, even heading out along the New York-to-Chicago route on that tour's farthest-flung jaunt.
Then, a couple years later, they went to Europe in support of Hope and Adams, where -- for some reason -- they got famous enough that it was okay to stay for a while.
Wheat has been back in the States now for about two months, touring the Midwest and gearing up for the South-Southwest circuit. "We've been [overseas] five or six times at this point," reports Brennan, whose graceful and melodic guitar work rings through Hope and Adams like a mission bell. "We couldn't really afford to tour for Medeiros; it's really expensive to get out on the road. But in Europe now, for some reason, people seem to have heard of us a lot more. We've been playing a lot of festivals, some smaller venues . . . it's finally to the point where we know we're not going to be playing to an empty house when we go over there." He pauses. "There might be only six people, but the house won't be empty." And he laughs.
Brennan laughs a lot, as well he might. Hope and Adams is a solid record for any band to tour on, a simply scored affair offering chiming guitars and Levesque's softly intoned vocals. Harney's drumming throughout is equally soft, almost understated, but meticulous enough to provide a framework like a metronome: It's that precise. "We've each been one of those six people," Brennan continues, "so we know what it's like to be a fan and come out, and be excited about seeing this band that you know and nobody else does. No matter how many people show up, they came to hear you, and that kind of response is really fantastic for us. Of course [in the States], we're still just planting seeds."
Whether Brennan's conscious of the pun or not, he's precisely on target. On this leg of the tour, Wheat undertakes the rather bizarre task of proving to home audiences what it's already proved abroad. And where other bands might find that daunting or cruelly ironic (or, conversely, take their overseas popularity as a done deal and dare American audiences to disagree), Wheat seems to be anxious to take on the challenge: "We're somewhat confident by now when we play in Europe, which is the big difference between there and here. We know we have to work to blow people away when we play here. We've really been working hard on this tour because we're not anywhere near as well-known."
Wheat might be working extra hard on this tour because its music, subtly and carefully performed, doesn't fit easily into current indie pigeonholes; it's neither raw-sound punkish noodling nor artificially produced synth-pop. Like Morphine, another Massachusetts band that was impossible to describe to anyone who hadn't heard them, Wheat is made up of musicians whose talents are best appreciated when they're playing most quietly. Also, they're hard to ignore; audiences pretending they're going to shows when they actually came out to bullshit loudly with their friends, or who want to hear a band "that sounds like this other band except slower," aren't going to go away happy. Which is fine, obviously, but it can make for some rough onstage moments.
For evidence along these lines, take "Slow Fade," the first song on Hope and Adams to offer actual lyrics: "No one likes it slow/And we take our time/And everyone was rocking/But the band played on . . ./And no one seemed to notice when we disappeared/And no one liked the 'Cinnamon Girl' we tried/We're only trying to do our thing." It takes a precarious balance of humility and confidence to kick off your album with a song about your band's indifferent reception, particularly when you're not very well-known, without turning it into a loud "fuck you" or a coy exercise in ain't-we-cute wiseass. Wheat pulls it off, with a flair that's beginning to earn them overdue notice in their home country.