Call Me in the Morning
Meet 'Best New Band' Wheeler Brothers
Sawdust coats Handlebars, slabs of plywood covering its walls, and the owner's quick to tell me not to touch the newly stained railings. A massive, straw-colored moustache hides his upper lip. The Fifth Street bar's not idly named Handlebars.
He doesn't know if he wants to put on basketball games or old Burt Reynolds movies on the soon-to-be-installed televisions. His relationship to the Wheeler Brothers? Just solid friends, enough to let the band organize a press meet-up in his almost-finished establishment during South by Southwest 2012.
The door swings in and a rambling entourage spills into the room, a flurry of handshakes, laughs, and shit talk introducing the writer to the Wheeler apparatus. The three brothers, guitarist Nolan Wheeler, bassist Tyler Wheeler, and drummer Patrick Wheeler, plus longtime friends guitarist Danny Matthews and multi-instrumentalist A.J. Molyneaux, are accompanied by a manager, a cameraman recording a tour doc, and their PR representative.
"You're Luke! Great to finally meet you," exclaims Matthews as we climb the stairs to the roof. His elation ricochets around the room. The Wheeler Brothers aren't yet used to the attention.
Portraits and Plaques
The night before this SXSW Music Thursday, the Wheeler Brothers bundled up five Austin Music Awards (see "2011-12 Austin Music Awards," March 16), including Best New Band. They also nabbed plaques for Best Acoustic Guitar, Best Bass, Best Misc. Instrument (for Molyneaux's lap steel), and Best Roots Rock.
"Yeah, Best Roots Rock!" quips Molyneaux with a giggle. "We're roots rock apparently; I had no idea."
These aren't musicians for whom awards figure into their ambition. They look exactly like what they seem – five good friends who happen to be in a band. Debut album Portraits isn't even a year old.
"Winning those awards is humbling and wonderful," says Nolan, "but it's not something we set out as a goal or anything."
Portraits is constructed with the best parts of modest intention. Babbling guitar zeal dots wholesome, organic influences: Neil Young, Paul Simon, Beatles, Stones. Melodies are as pure as the country air, and what may seem unremarkable at first soon reveals itself to be inarguably effective. The Wheelers flaunt a fresh immediacy, as if they wrote 11 exceptions to the rule and put them on an album. A follow-up is already in the works.
The Wheeler Brothers formed a band the way a lot of young men have formed a band, and slowly but surely it coalesced into a serious enterprise. Founded when the Wheeler brothers met Matthews at Louisiana State University, its earliest incarnation was a raucous bar band specializing in covers for college fraternities. Eventually a few original songs were mixed in, they moved back to Austin and hooked up with childhood friend and UT grad Molyneaux, and Portraits was laid to tape.
"The awards and attention just goes back to having a loving local audience," offers Nolan.
With all its members born and raised in Austin, this is another young band deeply in love with its city. On "Call Me in the Morning," Nolan boasts, "Time is arbitrary/Taking me to Austin." His hometown pride anchors the band's identity.
"Hell. Yes. Dude," states the singer, looking me in the eye.
Standing on Handlebars' mahogany rooftop, our gathering mingles only with a few plastic chairs and the early spring warmth. The cameraman marks his perimeter as SXSW rages below. Crowds hustle in every direction all at once, stricken with lateness, earliness, cancellations, rescheduling. Not here on the rooftop, though. Nolan, A.J., and Danny unwind near the edge of the roof to handle most of the talk, with the rest spread out in peripheral conversation.
They share tales from the road, college debauchery, and life lessons. They laugh more than anything else, cheerily busting each other's chops. They're an optimistic bunch playing optimistic music. Talk continues: on mystics in Denver, kangaroo boxing, and an origin story about Matthews that involves ill-fated streaking up and down the LSU dormitories.
"Amateur hour at LSU," shrugs Matthews blithely, burgundy-red hair bouncing down his shoulders in a way that makes him look holy and hippie at the same time.
Transparency comes easy when it's earning a good chuckle. That's why the band keeps a phone number posted on its website for anyone to call at any time.
"Honestly, it's something that was missing with our favorite bands," says Nolan. "As more people come to our shows, it gets harder to remember every name and shake every hand, but we're trying to build a relationship with everyone."
Eventually, consensus tallies hunger and Frank ends up as the obvious solution. We descend the stairs lackadaisically. SXSW isn't the time for a band to look calm, but the Wheeler Brothers look decidedly unfazed. Dozens of shows, interviews, and meetings loom, but right now everything comes easy.
We stroll breezily through the chaos as Molyneaux puts his arm around my shoulder and tells me about his love for Paul Simon's magnum opus, Graceland.
Wheeler Brothers don't fit the mold of your average upstart local band.
"I don't pay for anything when the Wheeler Brothers are in the building," says a fellow writer pointedly a few days after the band picks up my hot dog tab.
The three principles were born into Wheeler Coating Asphalt Inc., originally owned by their now-retired parents, Jack and Lisa. It gave the Wheeler boys many things: wealth, esteem, and a fail-safe for the admittedly risky proposition of making music full time. They're not the first nor the last band welcomed into a world of high-class comfort, but then money doesn't buy good songwriting, talent, or charisma. They pick up tabs because they can.
"I'm lucky to grow up in a family that allowed me to do what I wanted to do," says Nolan carefully a few weeks later by phone.
While the band's ostensibly expensive Facebook ads can hint at something corporate, theirs remains a DIY endeavor, albeit one with better resources than most locals acts. I ask them if wealth can feel like an unhip burden in the face of all the part-time workers in other bands. The familiar warmth seems to drop out of the connection. For the first time, the Wheelers don't sound sure of themselves.
"I mean, we still crash in people's houses to save money on the road," says Matthews. "We cram into hotel rooms. We could afford a van to tour ...."
His voice trails off. The publicist, listening in unannounced, asks me to move on to the next subject. I make sure they know I'm not trying to pass judgment. They don't sound completely convinced.
Born This Way
Dogwood isn't a major stop for a lot of people making the SXSW rounds, just a simple middle-class sports bar far from the epicenter. The Wheeler Brothers happily nuzzle the opportunity.
"You rolling with us to Dogwood?" yawps Molyneaux as we climb into the van.
They're setting up for maybe two dozen people. More filter in, a local crowd for a local band. It feels remarkably routine for a week that couldn't be a poorer representation of Austin's character. The Handlebars' owner materializes near the back of the crowd.
"Could I get a check on that moustache in the back?" cracks Nolan as he feels out his mic stand.
Then they start playing and people start swaying. They look born to play together. Everything falls so neatly into place. They'll be shaking hands in a half-hour. More than anything, and without high stakes or grand artistic endeavors, the Wheeler Brothers story is about a few friends who wanted to be in a band.