As the old saying goes, sometimes your reputation preceeds you. The idea of becoming such a figure within any given area, community, or even social setting, that the legend is spoken of more than the man. Very few tend to reach that kind of apex within our own state, as Utah for years has been a place where people come-and-go with little root planting. Which is no surprise that when someone does stick around and makes an impact upon anything entertainment related, they become far more high-held than many prior or after. I'm pretty sure the man we're chatting with today had no idea he'd reach that peak, or perhaps even acknowledges it.
Brad Wheeler, the familiar smokey voice you hear on KRCL during your drive home, has been a part of the music scene spanning three decades. Starting out as a bartender in Ogden with a love for the harmonica, his skills and determination helped push a lot of bands to the forefront and brought about more original blues music across the Wasatch Front. Aside the direct musical influence you can find Wheeler every weekday afternoon on community radio, pushing out everything from familiar hits to indie gems to local releases, all with appreciation for those who create. I got a chance to chat with the man about his time here, bands and radio, thoughts on local music and a few other interesting questions.
Rev. Bad Brad Wheeler
Gavin: Hey Brad! First off, tell us a bit about yourself.
Brad: My name is Brad Wheeler, I'm currently a DJ at KRCL 90.9FM Monday through Friday from 2-6PM. I'm also known for my tenure as a bartender and manager of Brewskis in Ogden, a legendary Saloon in Salt Lake City. I'm also a blues musician, who has been performing along the Wasatch Front for over the last twenty years and had been averaging 300 gigs a year until taking my position at KRCL. I have been involved with the Utah Arts Council Artist in Residence Program where, over the last eleven years, I have been able to teach over 12,500 elementary school children how to play harmonica - including the Who, What, When, Where, Why of Blues music. I am a recipient of the Ogden City Mayor’s Awards in the Arts as well the recipient of the Don Baker Award from Ogden’s Friends of Acoustic Music. I'm a Cancer, and I have a cat named Oscar.
Gavin: How did you first take an interest in music, and what were some of your early inspirations?
Brad: Well, my mother was a church organist for the Lutheran Church so we heard a lot of piano around the house, as well as the Organ on Sunday, of course. I always remember being really interested in music as a kid and wanting to take band or learn guitar, but my parents never really thought I’d be the type of kid to practice an instrument. But the interesting thing about music is you don’t have to play to get involved. I got lucky while I was going to college; at 18 I met some folks who worked at the Speedway Cafe. I was able to work there a year or two before it closed. That place was influential on anyone who was ever exposed to it. Ask anyone who’s over 40 and under 60 living in Salt Lake... so so so many bands, so many legendary bands, so many important bands came through the Speedway Cafe. It wasn’t until after the Speedway closed that by some weird chance I was a keg party where I was playing a harmonica I had found while standing in line to get a beer. Eventually, either to embarrass me or to take my place in line, someone dared me to play with the band at the party. By luck I was in the right key, and was able to figure the low notes were on the left and the high notes were on the right. I think due to my Mother playing around us as children, I was able to inherit her ear for being able to improvise, musically speaking.
Gavin: What made you gravitate more toward blues than any other genre?
Brad: After realizing I could play the harmonica, I just got obsessed with it. I wanted to know about other harmonica players, and like anything in American music, if you follow it as far back as you can and track down who influenced who, you’re gonna come face to face with the Blues. Just like you can't make soup without water you cant make any American music without the Blues. All American music either comes from the Blues or is a reaction to the Blues.
Gavin: You were actually living in the U.K. prior to coming to Utah. What brought you out here and what was the appeal that made you stay?
Brad: I actually moved to Utah from Hawaii, when I was eight; I was born in the U.K. My parents are both from Iowa but were stationed in Lakenheath, outside of Cambridge, when I was born. My dad is retired Lt. Col in the Air Force, and the first generation off the farm. I worked as farm labor every summer until I was 18, with my uncle, raising pigs, cows, corn, beans and hay. When I turned 18, I was done with the farm, and I wanted to experience the summer vacations I had heard kids brag about. I think the appeal in staying in Utah, for me, was the desire to have a history tied to one location. When you’re a military brat growing up and moving all the time, eventually staying in one place for a while sounds appealing. Ogden pretty much embraced me as one of their’s and I embraced it as mine.
Gavin: You've got a Bachelors from Weber State in Anthropology/Archaeology, and a minor in Art. What made you choose those classes and Weber, and what was their program like for you?
Brad: I’d been interested in art since I can remember, it was something I enjoyed and was good at while going to high school. While filling my requirements at Weber, I took an Anthropology class and became really interested in it, all of it, Cultural & Physical. I wanted to know about people like myself wanted to know about music. Where did we come from? Why do we do what we do? Where are we going as a species? How’d all this start? Eventually my Art studies really just started to blend in with my Cultural Anthropology studies. Art and Music are both abstract emotional modes of communication that can transcend culture and language. Really it just kinda made sense that they all go together or, I guess I should say, went together.
Gavin: Offhand, how did you end up becoming a reverend and how is that for you performing those kind of duties on the side?
Brad: I was asked by some friends if I would be the officiant at their wedding. I reluctantly agreed, not thinking I’d be the right guy for the job. I got online and became a member of the Universal Life Church, then I went and had a conversation with Fr. Cummins, a former teacher of mine from Catholic high school, to make sure I wasn't doing anything I couldn't be forgiven for or could be cleared up with a few Hail Mary’s. He gave me the go ahead and the rest is history. I never would have thought that it would be something I’d be doing, but to be honest, I enjoy it. It is something I just do on the side. It’s not something I do for money, nor is it something I ever advertise. It’s just something I do to help folks who are in love, and want to get married.
Gavin: When you were first starting out were you more interested in being a DJ or a musician?
Brad: This is really a Chicken or the Egg Question. I was a musician way before I ever became a DJ. As a matter of fact, I was asked by KRCL to take over a show in the afternoon after I retired from bartending and had time on my hands. It wasn’t something I sought out. I only agreed to do it if they promised to take me off the air if I tanked. KRCL made me a DJ, before that I was simply just a fan of KRCL, a major fan of KRCL.
Gavin: How did you first hear about KRCL, and what pushed you to start volunteering for the station?
Brad: Well, a girl I met and dated in college turned me on to KRCL. She was a big fan of the Reggae programming. Another long story short- we dated for about two years, and after she left me I discovered both that I could play Harmonica and that KRCL had Blues programing on Monday nights.
Gavin: When did you eventually come into being involved with KRCL, and what was it like for you building your audience up and creating a following?
Brad: I used to call Truman (a former KRCL DJ) every Monday night while I was managing the Dead Goat Saloon to tell him what Blues shows were going on at the bar, as well as around town. Eventually he asked me if I would write up a list of all the gigs I knew about for the week and announce them over the air via phone in interview; we called it the Blues News. I’ve been doing the Blues News since 1997, thirteen years now. I never really thought about building up an audience as much as I thought about being a part of the community, and talking to the community of folks I had met by attending KRCL events.
Gavin: While you were doing this you were also performing in a number of bands, The Legendary Porch Pounders and Pink Lightnin' are the two big names that come to mind. How is it for you being involved with local music while also playing it on radio for a living?
Brad: Well, the only time it’s weird is when someone asks me to play something on the radio that I’ve been involved with in it’s recording. I'm not a KRCL DJ to further my musical career. If I wanted to do that, I’d be playing more gigs on the road. I took a job at the station to try and help move the station along as it seeks to grow listenership, as well as to pay them back for all it’s done for me. I sometimes feel that being a DJ isn’t all that different then booking the bar at times; to be successful, you need to have knowledge of both music and the local musical community. You have to be able to determine creative genius from flash-in-the-pan fad, to discern the professional from the hobbyist. I still feel like I’m in the service industry, that it’s my job to serve the people the music that they wanna hear.
Gavin: What do you think of the success you've had so far in the different groups you've played in, and are there any projects or albums on the way people can look forward to?
Brad: I’ve been blessed to be a member of local music community; they have sustained and nurtured me in ways that are both profound and humbling. I feel very lucky to be able to do what I do for a living and have been grateful for all of the various groups I’ve been involved in. If I’ve been successful at anything musically it’s because of the support of others.
Gavin: Do you feel any pressure to outperform others or feel you need to be “an example” of local music in that position, or do you really not think about that and just do what you feel like?
Brad: Yes, sometimes I feel pressure when I perform; I feel I’ve got expectations to live up to, but I’m not worried about out-performing someone else. I just wanna make sure that I’m not wasting someone’s time who’s come to see me perform, and that when the show’s over they go home entertained. I always wanna do the best job I can. I do feel a responsibility to be “an example” for local music, and I’m also aware of the fact that I’m a representative of the station at all times. Honestly - the caliber of musicians that we have along the Wasatch front - I’m happy to just to hold my own.
Gavin: What was it like for you at the station during the 2008 changes, and how was it taking over the afternoon shift?
Brad: It was tougher than a bar room brawl in biker bar on the 100 block of 25th Street. I felt a huge responsibility not to break the station, that it was important that all the changes that we were making wouldn't be in vain, and that KRCL would continue to receive it’s CPB funding. Currently KRCL has been experiencing it’s highest ratings in it’s 30 year history.
Gavin: Being as involved as you are in music, what kind of plans do you have for our scene, both in creating it and promoting it?
Brad: I think the best thing I can do for the scene is to remind people that it’s there, and to support it. Most of my energy in the last two years has been focused on making sure that KRCL is strong, stable, viable. I think the best thing I can do for the scene is to make sure there’s a community radio station like KRCL to showcase our local music. I cant think of another entity that gives more airwaves or attention to the local music scene than KRCL.
Gavin: Moving onto local, what are your thoughts on the local music scene, both good and bad?
Brad: I appreciate the local scene, I'm a product of the local scene. What’s good about it: We have some very talented performers, and for the most part everyone gets along pretty well. What’s bad about it: We don’t seem to have appreciation for our venues. It’s still mind blowing that in the last ten years we lost two of the most important venues the Wasatch Front had ever known, I'm talking about the Dead Goat Saloon and the Zephyr Club. Those places were very important stops for national touring musicians, they also gave local bands the opportunity to share the stage with big name acts. I miss those places, I also miss the Speedway Cafe... they’re not making venues like they used to. Those places were vessels of history - they inspired musicians.
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?
Brad: I think Salt Lake could use a music festival that coincides with the Sundance Festival. We already have a bunch of out-of-town musicians coming to play private events during that time, why not tap them for a music festival? Austin has added a film festival to the SXSW, why cant Salt Lake City add a music festival to Sundance?
Gavin: What do you think of our current venues, and are there any changes you wish they'd make?
Brad: I think it be nice if some of our venues took more pride in themselves. It’d be nice to see venues going out of their way to make sure that fans and bands are being treated well, and that folks feel that they’re at a quality event at a quality place. l hear more gripes about venues than I do about bands. I think a lot of venues are more concerned with how much they can make or how much they can squeeze out of folks, rather than what kind of experience they can offer fans. I could name a lot of venues off by name that need new PA’s and paint jobs.
Gavin: What are your thoughts on local labels, and do you believe the help or hinder musicians?
Brad: Some labels are started by folks with good intentions who love music and want to help the careers of those artists they feel are important. Some labels are stated by folks who see an opportunity to make money by exploiting the intellectual property and work of others. I haven't had that much experience with local labels. However, I do know Ryan Workman of Pseudo Recordings, as well as Mike Kirkland of Rue recordings; I gotta say both of those guys are class acts and that Salt Lake is lucky to have them. They provide resources to get recordings done, as well as distributed - often two big hurdles for any musician to over come.
Gavin: What's your overall feeling on localized radio, both corporate and community?
Brad: I only know one kind of radio... I sold my soul to Community Radio a long time ago. How do I feel about it? The same way Charlton Heston felt about his guns - if you’re ever gonna try and take community radio away, you’re gonna have to pry it from my cold dead hands.
Gavin: Where do you see Utah entertainment going over the next five years?
Brad: More and more of our bands are touring outside of Utah, and more and more bands have been gaining national exposure and attention. I think it’s only a matter of time before one of our local bands starts breaking big on the national scene and causes the rest of the world to wonder what the hell is going on in Utah - God knows we got the talent.
Gavin: What can we expect from you and KRCL the rest of the year and going into next?
Brad: More Events, More Community, More Music, More Listener-Driven Features, More In-Studios.
Gavin: Aside the obvious, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Brad: Tune In! Turn On & Support your Community Radio Station KRCL 90.9FM.
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