By Jason Hall
The desert has a long and storied music history. The Coachella Valley was a winter wonderland in the 50s and 60s for the Hollywood elite. These part time residents included an assortment of amazing entertainers and musicians. We were known for being a destination for musicians, but not necessarily producing amazing musicians. Fast forward a few decades to the early 80s. There were a group of rebellious and young teenagers who were finding their voice through the up and coming punk scene spreading like wildfire through the country.
Sean Wheeler was at the forefront of this group of mischievous teenagers. Wheeler is a descendant of the McKinney family. They were some of the first non-native settlers in the valley. Wheeler’s great grandfather was an integral part in tapping into the rich aquifer running underneath our valley. Wheeler’s grandmother was the first-born Caucasian in Palm Springs. She was born in a tent on the corner of Ramon and Indian Canyon. It seems it is in Wheeler’s blood to be a pioneer as well. Maybe not in the same way his great grandfather did, but in a more in your face, “I don’t give a fuck” sort of way.
Wheeler started and fronted many of the now infamous bands in the early to mid-80s including the often rude and immature Mutual Hatred, the 2nd wave ska band The Sciotics, and the eternally crazy acid trip Zezo Zece Zadfrack and the Dune Buggy Attack Battalion. The latter took its name from an idea Charles Manson had while holed up in the Mojave Desert with his followers. These early days started with parties in Wheeler’s childhood home on San Lorenzo. The parties got wilder and wilder and Wheeler’s notoriety grew.
Towards the end of the 80s, a new musical movement was starting. A band called Katzenjammer was laying the groundwork for the style of music which put the desert scene on the map. Katzenjammer became Sons Of Kyuss and then shortened to Kyuss. Kyuss were the band who coined the term “stoner rock” and now the broader “desert rock.” Sean was never part of this scene although he was an integral part of turning it into what it has become. Nick Oliveri and Brant Bjork were influenced by Wheeler. Generator party originator, Mario “Boomer” Lalli, grew up with Wheeler. So did Alfredo Hernandez. These two were cornerstones in the stoner rock scene even though they were older than the Kyuss kids. Wheeler decided to keep forging his own and separate path.
In the early 90s, Wheeler started his most successful band to date, Throw Rag. Early Throw Rag shows were on par with the craziness of Butthole Surfers shows. Wheeler was never much of a singer; he was most definitely a performer though. He always ended up nude and the audience never knew what to expect. Would the show end after a few songs? Maybe it would end before it ever really began like a certain early SXSW show. Throw Rag was being noticed by several international touring bands and found themselves traveling the world. Wheeler successfully “made it” without being a part of the “stoner rock” scene. He did it like he lived his life, on his own terms.
Now, roughly 25 years later, Wheeler has his fingers in so many pies. He toured with Zander Schloss of Circle Jerks for 8 years. He has released Sun Trash (Wheeler and Troy Van Leeuwen, with many guests including most of Queens of The Stone Age) onto the world after 12 years of sitting on a shelf. He recorded and toured with Fatso Jeston. He was invited to tour with Brant Bjork as a guest vocalist and has become a more integral part of Bjork’s band, even writing and singing on the new album. He’s sung and toured with reggae band David Hilyard’s Rocksteady 7. He’s recorded a solo blues album, Sand In My Blood. He’s currently writing an autobiography. He’s also writing his second solo album. There are plans for Sun Trash and Sand In My Blood to come out on vinyl. And lastly, his live show schedule is about to take off… again. All of this while still finding time for the Throw Rag shows and spending time with his family in his Palm Springs home. Sean Wheeler is a true desert legend, a wizard from this sandy realm.
Coachella Valley Weekly: When did your music career start?
Sean Wheeler: “This punk band, Sin 34, was coming to town. I started a band so that we could open for them. We got together and wrote some songs and did some covers. Mike Bates played guitar, Julie, the singer of Sin 34 played bass, and John Summers played drums. The band was called Mutual Hatred. We quickly changed lineups. Greg Hawthorn played guitar because he played a couple chords. Eric Stewart was a punk rocker who was a little bit younger than me. He played bass. Alfredo (Hernandez) played drums. That was his first band. When we met him, he came from Nelly Kaufman. We were from Raymond Cree. It was 10th grade. He played snare in the marching band or something. That made us decide he was the drummer. Mutual Hatred was a band of 14 and 15 year olds. We played parties at my mom’s house, then all over. We got a show with pre Henry Black Flag, but lost the directions to the party and never found it. We played with Suicidal Tendencies before they even had an album. This compilation called Power wanted us to put a song called “Green Peace Sucks” on it but we broke up right then. It sucked. That didn’t pan out.”
CVW: Do those songs still exist?
Wheeler: “Yeah they do. Have you heard them?”
CVW: No. We’ve talked about them…
Wheeler: “The songs were inappropriate. The hit was ‘Green Peace Sucks.’ All the songs were really quick. We thought bumming people out was punk. I guess it kinda was the idea though. After we broke up, I was trying to make a band with Boomer (Mario Lalli). Herb (Lienau) got him though. That was Dead Issue. Herb, Scott Reader, Boomer and Alfredo Hernandez. That was an awesome band. The Sciotics were the next bigger band I was in. It was the tail end of the second wave of ska. We weren’t very good, but we were excited about dressing up. Zack Husky played guitar, and we had different drummers. It was hard finding drummers in the desert. There was Alfredo and Tony Brown of Unsound.”
CVW: When did Zezo come into play?
Wheeler: “I think in the mid to late 80s. We were ahead of ourselves. We had a TR-707 drum machine when they first came out. We were doing stuff with samples and drum machines with rock ’n roll. That was pre Ministry. You know, Nick (Oliveri) and Brant (Bjork) were at a Zezo show when they were kids. They were there to see D.I. It was a good night for us. They told me it was totally life changing for those guys. Every time I’d see them, they’d bring up that show. It was a trip in that band. It was me, Joe Dillon, Scotty Brooks, and Dan Lapim. There were some other random guys, it just didn’t work out.”
CVW: Throw Rag was a national and sometimes international band you fronted. When did that start?
Wheeler: “It was a weird time for me in the desert. I was way into going to LA and seeing bands. I’d go see Guns ’N’ Roses at the troubadour in LA. I was into that sort of music. SST Records kinda fell into this sort of jazz thing. It seemed like punk rock was disappearing.”
CVW: Was that why SST picked up Sorta Quartet?
Wheeler: “Yeah. I was having a hard time in my life and moved to Orange County. That was when I put together Throw Rag. Our first show was at Rhythm And Brews. Our second show was there too. Boomer was so rad. Pulp Fiction just came out and he let us open for Dick Dale. He was a big deal then. Throw Rag is still going. The first two years, I wasn’t sober. There was a lot of craziness and nudity. I messed up a lot of opportunities. Sublime’s manager loved us, but I didn’t believe he was really their manager, so I ignored him. When Brad died, I saw that dude on MTV talking about Sublime and realized I messed up.”
CVW: You guys still became successful even after all the bullshit.
Wheeler: “Well, I mean, I was sober after two years with Throw Rag. That’s when all the opportunities came. We toured with Flogging Molly, Stiff Little Fingers, The Circle Jerks, The Damned, Queens Of The Stoned Age, Reverend Horton Heat multiple times, Southern Culture on The Skids, and Andre W.K. It’s funny. I wasn’t connected to the stoner rock scene at all, but I’ve been fly the flag for the desert forever. These dudes were all about the desert. I toured with Rancid selling merch and one day on the bus, they asked, ‘Hey man, you know those Kyuss guys?’ I told them, ‘yeah, I know those Kyuss guys.’ They told me how popular they were. I was like, ‘What?! Bullshit man.’ They told me that Kyuss was really popular in Europe. I never realized that. It blew my mind. That helped me with getting European tours. Just the connection to the desert.”
CVW: Man. I could talk to you for days about the past. What’s going on now?
Wheeler: “Sean and Zander stopped touring and I was at a loss. I was concerned about what I was going to do. Almost immediately, Boomer took me to these Robby Krieger (The Doors) sessions which still haven’t come out. Then The Mutants project happened. These three guys from England were recording an album up at Rancho De La Luna. It was this guy Chris (Constantinou of Adam and The Ants), this guy Space, and Rat Scabies from The Damned. Dave Catching, and Bingo Richie, and Chris Goss were on it. They called me up and I sang on that album. Then Mark Lanegan called me and asked me to throw a band together to tour with him. I got this friend Billy Pitman who plays guitar with Jimmy Vaughn to come out with me. It was well received. Then Brant called me. He wanted me to come and support him on a European tour. It ended up that the money was all tied up. He then asked if I would just sing with him…. Actually, knowing me, I probably suggested it. So two years ago, I stopped playing with Zander and didn’t know what to do. Then I do and album with Robby Krieger, play in a band with one of my idols, Rat Scabies, tour with Mark Lanegan, and joined Brants Band. All that happened in 5 months. Now I’ve been touring with Brant for two years, and even wrote a couple songs on his new album, Mankind Woman which comes out September 14. I also made a solo record with Billy Pitman called Sand In My Blood. Those songs are the songs I’m playing with The Reluctant Messenger. That’s Danny McGough of Tom Waits and Dave Davies on keyboards, Billy Pitman, and Gregory Boaz of Tex & The Horseheads on bass. We’re playin on Thursday, September 6, at Pappy and Harriet’s. Plus, I just got off of 8 weeks of touring supporting an album I recorded with Dave Hilyard’s Rocksteady 7. That album was number 6 on the Billboard reggae charts. That was pretty rad.”
CVW: I saw you on that tour in San Diego and thought, ‘is there a genre Sean can’t sing on?’
Wheeler: “Two years ago if you were to tell me, ‘you’re going to sing with a stoner rock band, make a blues album, and sing on a reggae album,’ I would have said, ‘Are you kidding me man? Get the fuck outta here.’ Never would I have thought I’d be doing any of those things. I was never really a singer. I was a frontman. I have been working on my singing. I’ve finally been finding my voice over the past 8 to 10 years. It feels good.”
CVW: Yeah man. Your singing has gotten really good. You were always a performer more than a singer. And you’re a hell of a frontman. There’s a reason you were voted best frontman at this year’s CVMAs.
Wheeler: “I’m shocked that I won that. It was such an honor. There are a ton of local frontmen who are working hard every day. And they’re playing local shows. I play a lot of shows every year, but not nearly enough in the low desert. I’d like to play more, but it’s difficult with my tour schedule. I mean, I am 100% desert, but I didn’t expect to win. I was so stoked. I can’t thank our community enough. I love the desert. For me, it’s always about the desert.”
CVW: I think you are recognized in our scene as a pioneer, and a lot of people know who you are. Most people I know take the time to see you when you play locally because you have a reputation as being a true frontman.
Wheeler was also given the “Pioneer Award” at the 2015 CV Music Awards.
Sean Wheeler will be performing with The Reluctant Messengers Thursday, September 6, at Pappy and Harriet’s.