Interviewin’: Brian Whelan of Wheelhouse
Filed under: Interviewin' | Posted by: Bryan
I caught up with Brian Whelan, founder of a great new LA band, Wheelhouse, via email during a break from prepping for his appearance at this weekend’s Sunset Junction Festival. Brian is striking out on his own with Wheelhouse after having previously been the bass player in Merge Records band The Broken West and also performing as an accomplished sideman with numerous L.A. musicians. His versatile, skillful guitar and bass prowess could previously be witnessed alongside contemporary country rock heroes like Mike Stinson, Randy Weeks and the incredible Tony Gilkyson. Brian also played a number of gigs with L.A. singer-songwriter Kip Boardman, in a band that also featured Wheelhouse bassist Rob Douglas (who has also played quite a bit with Stinson, Weeks, Gilkyson and other artists, including Charlie Louvin) and drummer Derrick Brown. Both Douglas and Brown were in the Vapor Records band Everest for a while. Whelan has moved over to guitar and within the past few months, and in less than a dozen gigs with his new band, he’s shown that he’s a new force on the scene, a true West Coast renaissance man and a vibrant songwriter with a lot of musical interests and influences, including straight-up rock ‘n’ roll, pub rock and outlaw country. Check out the interview, in which we chat about his time in The Broken West, a recent stint appearing on “Mad Men” and more after the jump.
When You Awake: I understand that, growing up on the west coast, you split your time between Seattle, WA, and San Jose in northern California. Did the music scenes in either of those two cities have any influence on the music you wanted to make?
Whelan: I wasn’t as influenced by the “scenes” in those towns, although I love them both. I was a little too young to really be hit by grunge in Seattle, and San Jose’s ska scene didn’t influence me too much, although Lee [Pardini] and Kevin [Higuchi], who are playing this weekend with me, are in pretty deep with all that stuff.
When You Awake: What are some of the albums in your collection that you can say have helped shaped your taste in music?
Whelan: My first records were greatest hits comps from Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. These are still the records that most inform my own songs and shows.
When You Awake: Many of When You Awake’s readers might recognize you as the bass player in The Broken West. You guys recorded for Merge and did a lot of touring around the country. How was that experience?
Whelan: It was a great experience overall. I learned a lot about writing from Ross [guitarist Ross Flournoy] and the other folks that worked on the creative end of that band, the songwriters and producers, etc. I think touring at that level is a super struggling experience that I don’t exactly want to duplicate any time soon.
When You Awake: You’ve also played guitar and bass with L.A. country rock luminaries like Randy Weeks, Mike Stinson, Tony Gilkyson? Did playing as a sideman in their bands help shape the direction of the music you’re making with Wheelhouse?
Whelan: I would say that that experience definitely shaped what I’m doing now – those guys are all heroes of mine. All of them are tremendous writers, so that was something that brought me in early on. Playing with Tony is like getting free guitar lessons in some ways – you can hear his licks turning up in my solos if you listen.
When You Awake: You played with Ross in The Broken West, and bassist Rob Douglas and drummer Derrick Brown were in Everest, among many other groups, and you have Mona Elyousef on backing vocals too. It seems like a really solid bunch of players, and all the guys in the band are great musicians.You definitely get to play some rockin’ stuff.
Whelan: Ross has been helping out with the writing and production. Live he plays lead guitar and chain smokes. Mona is along to sing all the harmonies – she’s really great and it’s rare to find someone who sings harmonies well. Rob finds tons of old vinyl and digs up songs that we can cover; sometimes he’ll find stuff that I just listen to over and over – “Dear Dad,” “Shame Shame Shame,” and on and on.
When You Awake: “Decider” is a really great song. Seems like you get to rock out more with this band. And you know I love the covers you’d done, like that Buzzcocks cover “Why Can’t I Touch It?”
Whelan: “Decider” was recorded when I had tendonitis so Ross is playing all guitars, and it features the San Jose rhythm section that will be appearing with me at the Junction on Sunday. This song is from my forthcoming LP that I hope to put out next year.
When You Awake: You recently got to appear on the AMC TV show “Mad Men,” playing the part of a folk singer named “Rudy” – what was that experience like? Any future plans to appear on TV shows?
Whelan: It was a great experience – Jon Hamm told me to steal my costume! So that was great. Ross and I got involved in an indie film called Nesting so you can look for that – our song “Everything” is being used also for that. Beyond that I don’t have any plans for the screen – I just pick up the phone and say “yes.”
Wheelhouse will be taking the stage this Sunday, August 22nd at 2 pm, at the FOLD stage, located at Sunset and Edgecliffe. When You Awake faves Leslie and the Badgers will be playing right after Wheelhouse, and Brian says he hopes to coax another guest performance out of Ms. Stevens (she joined the group earlier this year at the Grand Ole Echo). Maps and schedules can be found at www.sunsetjunction.org.
Brian and the band will also be playing at 8:30 pm TONIGHT (Saturday, Aug. 21st) at the Cinema Bar in Culver City, warming up the stage for the Cheatin’ Kind and Dan Janisch.