Fingertips Q&A: Wheat

Brendan Harney and Scott Levesque, of the Boston-based band Wheat, answer five questions about the state of music in the digital age. It’s the first Fingertips Q&A of 2012.

Wheat should probably not even exist at this point. Founded in 1997, the Boston area band has been around long enough to have experienced all the ebbs and flows one expects to see in the career of idiosyncratic, independent bands—the roster changes, the unanticipated hit song, the squabble with the major record company—without, yet, the end result of the group just giving up and going away. If anything, Wheat’s brain trust of Brendan Harney and Scott Levesque seem readier than ever to be doing their difficult-to-describe thing, for whomever is left out there that wants to hear it. I can’t help feeling that the world is a better place as a result.

The band’s most recent full-length album is 2009’s White Ink, Black Ink. But this fall, Wheat announced the intention of releasing three double a-side singles in advance of a sixth album, which will come later in 2012. The first single included the song “House of Kiss,” which was featured here on Fingertips last month. The second single will be arriving this month. In the middle of this flurry of activity, Harney and Levesque were kind enough to stop by, virtually, to tackle the Q&A questions. Both contributed to the answers, as you’ll see.

The Fingertips Q&A, for the uninitiated, is a recurring feature. More than 30 artists to date have participated. The Q&A’s sole intent is to allow actual, workaday 21st-century musicians a forum for discussing the state of music in the digital age. So-called experts and futurists have far too loudly dominated this discussion for too long.

That's Scott Levesque (left) and Brendan Harney (right) in the foreground; Luke Hebert can be seen on the drums in the back; photo credit: Beth Freeman Doreian

Q: Let’s cut to the chase: how do you as musicians cope with the apparent fact that not everybody seems to want to pay for digital music? Do you think recorded music is destined to be free, as some of the pundits insist?

A: (Brendan) Well, that’s the big issue facing artists these days – is kinda like, “if it’s digital and on the web, it’s free.” So, as producers of music (and the same goes for movies, books, etc.), we have to be super careful that we just don’t give the store away. The average consumer of music out there probably has no idea what goes into making a finished product in terms of songs. It not only takes a tremendous amount of time, but also money. So, the bottom line is: if it’s free the bottom will come out completely as far as quality goes. And, no, i don’t think it’s destined to be free. It’s intellectual property, and once it becomes generally understood by those who make music that there needs to be an avenue for compensation, artists will find ways to kinda keep there music out of “free land.” You’re already seeing it—look around and more and more artists post partial songs/videos instead of the whole thing. And physical product is evolving various forms of art and hand-made stuff, etc.

(Scott) I think people shouldn’t download anything that’s not for sale, period. Not like a buddy sending you an amazing mp3, but like you know, a big mass portal thing. It’s a totally new realm. It’s basic thievery and under-handedness. And not the cool robin hood type liberation of wealth from the evil giants in all cases. All an artist has is concept. Some of them are worth paying for. I mean if a guy makes a nice chair, shouldn’t we have to pay him if we like sitting in it over and over again? I buy digital music for some things, but i love objects more. I build shelves in order…I don’t believe I’ve ever flipped through a single pdf of liner notes. I love books! I love the cover, the binding…I love the soul of the object! I can almost feel all of it in my hands when I hold it. It gives home to the gravity of the music, a place to hang your adoration with some books and records. Viva la object!

Q: What do you think of the idea that music is destined for the “cloud”?

A: (Brendan) To me it sorta slowly is taking the beauty and mystery out of the experience. And I truly believe that eventually that will become clear to everyone who loves music. I know this: when I was growing up and first started to buy and collect music for myself, it was important for me to feel that I wasn’t just grabbing whatever blew my way—that I was instead carving out an identity with my music choices. Again, even now, you’re seeing a desire (from a small fraction, granted) for this kind of experience, even in this “everything free and now” cyber world. People will just simply make spaces to create and consume that are not part of the mainstream digital world. Music is rebellion and when this digital world truly becomes (if it’s not already) the “powers that be,” people of all ages will start to rebel against it.

(Scott) Can I get an amen…?

Q: How have your lives as musicians been affected—or not—by the existence of music blogs?

A: (Brendan) I like the music blogs, personally. I like the various and sundry voices. I don’t think it’s ever good when there are one or two sources of music criticism and everything is judged by that. I mean it’s crazy to think of one person’s opinion of a record sorta deciding for everyone whether it’s good or not. But, you never know, because even on the web there have become a few “voices” that have become arbiters of taste. It’s pretty zany!

(Scott) Yeah, I think it’s totally all kinda the same thing, meaning: good taste and refined desire will always get into the mix on a pretty high level. There are some super hip folks both turning people on to new junk, as well as providing a healthy and mutual agreeable platform for artist, writers, musicians, etc. to produce, promote, connect, etc. There’s always more junk, but that’s just basic math.

Q: One obvious thing the digital age has introduced is the ease of two-way communication between artist and fan. Does this feel like a benefit or a distraction, or a little of both?

A: (Brendan) Totally a benefit. You can really present yourself and your work the way you intend without any filtering or morphing by outside influences. It does take some extra time, but it can be truly meaningful and cool to have a running dialog with fans.

(Scott) It’s cool being in touch with folks. I mean, I don’t invite folks in on my writing process. People vote w/ their feet anyway. I and most people I know that do stuff are too busy to let junk like that distract anyhow. It has broken down a few bogus walls in the process between bands and fans but that’s a good thing. Plus, there’s always an off button.

Q: There is clearly way more music available for people to listen to these days than there ever used to be. How do you cope with the reality of an over-saturated market, to put it both economically and bluntly?

A: (Brendan) Yeah, that’s tricky. There’s just soooooo much stuff out there right now. And, as with mostly everything—mostly everything is average at best. I honestly find it hard myself to wade through it. And, you know, that’s another downside to the “cheap and easy.” When it’s cheap and easy, the result usually is crappy. But, you know, that’s the way it is right now. What kinda helps to separate it all is live music—you still have to be able to bring people together physically to advance as a band. And that really, over time, cuts a lot of the waste right outta there. Cream still does rise to the top; that hasn’t changed at all. The bands that people are excited about today are there for a reason—they’re better than most.

(Scott) And it’s not just other music. People, now more than ever, have way many more options as to where and what to do with their time and money. Hip blogs are one way to escape the chaff, but I agree with Bren: good songs, ideas, concepts, etc. will always exist and re-exist. But maybe with just a slightly smaller share of the market.

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