For a while now, Throw Rag singer Sean Wheeler—once known for vomiting, getting naked, and doing all manner of unspeakable things onstage, though he apparently doesn't do that anymore—has been telling people that his six-piece rock & roll/cowpunk/ psychobilly/"sailor-rock" band hails from the Salton Sea, a place with which he is currently obsessed. Before that, it was Catalina.
"We're trying to be from places that no one is really from," he says.
To fully understand Wheeler's obsession with the Salton Sea, you must first know something of its complicated history. Before 1905, it was a waterless, salty basin in the Imperial Valley called the Salton Sink. Visionaries figured it could become Central Valley-fertile if it only had water, so they cut a canal from the Colorado River to the basin. The river rushed in—too much and too fast —busting the dams and creating the sea. For a time, it was the perfect desert resort (golf course, yacht club, etc.), but for the past 10 or so years, it's been nothing but a nightmare—a collapsed ecosystem, a stinking ghost town, a salty, watery metaphor for rotting, fetid, decaying death, its shores littered with dead birds and fish. Some think its problems are related to the Air Force's use of the sea in the 1940s as a test range for nuclear bombs. It's considered by many a dead sea, but, paradoxically, its problems really stem from an overabundance of life in an unsuitable environment—a closed environment unable to sustain the cycle of life and death.
"It's such a fucked place," Wheeler says with an odd mixture of awe and excitement. Tomorrow he's taking in a museum presentation about the sea. "It's like a study group," he says. "I've got maps. I'm going to start exploring."
Maybe the frontier spirit is in his blood. Three years ago, Wheeler left Orange County and moved back to Palm Springs, where his family were homesteaders. According to Wheeler, his grandmother was the first white (non-Native American) female born in the area, his grandmother's brother the first male.
Throw Rag's current members, who live all over Southern California (Irvine, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Whittier, Costa Mesa), have been together since 1994, playing a surly, sinewy blend of rock, punk, blues and rockabilly unlike anything else you're likely to hear these days. Their instrumentation alone—which includes a standup bass and a washboard—makes them unforgettable. But for some reason, they've only flirted with big-time success, never getting close enough to sign the compact.
On "The Beast in Me," from Throw Rag's debut full-length "tee-tot," Wheeler sings, "I had a dream/Could not be stopped/The beast in me/Came and fucked it up." Most of the other songs on the album deal with the devil in one form or another as well. From "Race With the Devil": "Like a ship that's sinking/A bad-liver weekend . . ./When you race with the devil/There's 13 reasons why/Off to the races/I guess this means goodbye."
You sense that "racing with the devil" has a specific meaning for Wheeler, but he's loath to talk about it. "It's just, you know, being a pleasure baron, in general,"_he says. "When you race with the devil, there's ultimately a price to pay, and you never know when or what."
What was your price?
"My price?" he asks, measuring his words. Or perhaps stalling. The silence on the phone line yawns. "There have probably been a few," he says finally, quietly. And then, matter-of-factly: "I'm paid in full. I quit racing. I try not to race. Thirteen years of racing."
Racing, like . . . ?
"Well, I think, debauchery in general. Trying to take your rent money to the casino. You know, pushing your luck."
Suddenly you wonder if he's pacing. He sounds like someone who's pacing. He offers the information before you have a chance to ask: "I'm running around my yard right now barefoot, doing figure eights. I don't know why. I think it's because there's no cord on the phone. It feels good. Woo!" he says, trying to change the subject, though he ultimately comes back to it himself.
Wheeler went to a funeral a few days ago "at a big Catholic church in Palm Springs," which got him thinking, again, about all that stuff. "I get confused. . . . I don't believe in a hell outside of what we already go through," he says. "I can't imagine a loving God wanting us to go to a place worse than what we sometimes go through here."
But Wheeler feels his life is no longer hellish. "My life is great right now. All that racing with the devil, if you survive that, it does a soul good."
You get the feeling he thinks you know what he's talking about. You think you do but you're not really sure. The air is so thick with subtext you're afraid to make a move. "I don't think it's a real secret," he says finally. "It's just, it just seems so corny, I mean—obviously—we're talking about drug abuse."
"Whatever," he says. "I'm a garbage can."
You think about the Salton Sea.
"I've been clean for more than three years, though," he says. "Clean and sober."
When people talk about Throw Rag shows these days, they talk only about the amazing performances. Gone is the talk about Wheeler's shocking antics. "Vomiting and nudity—those things were pretty common in my life when I was . . ." he trails off.
Using? you suggest.
Wheeler laughs uncomfortably.
About a year ago, A.J. Nesselrod, formerly of 4 and Filmstar, took the place of original rhythm guitar player Dan Lapham. Nesselrod's talent for organization, mediation and Web design (www.throwrag.com) is, no doubt, another reason Throw Rag has changed in the past year from a talented but inconsistent band into a hard-working, responsible, committed rock machine.
"A.J. doesn't have the hang-ups; he's unbiased," says Wheeler.
But Nesselrod refuses credit for the band's turnaround. He says Throw Rag had already gotten itself back on track when he came aboard. Like everything else, explanations for the band's transformation appear complicated.
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"How many sailors do you know from the desert?" asks Wheeler, referring to Throw Rag's self-described "sailor rock." "None of it makes any sense, and that's the beauty of it."
For the moment, he's making a convincing pass at a devil-may-care attitude, but Nesselrod later calls you and says, as if it's a well-known fact, "Sean's really sort of obsessive."
"I feel like I have a real human side that tends to not want to care about much," Wheeler says. "It's easier being lazy and being out of my mind, and then I have the other human side that cares about a lot and thinks not caring is a cop-out. And they're in conflict, often."
THROW RAG PLAY WITH SMUT PEDDLERS AND THE NEUROTONES IN THE LAVA LOUNGE AT JAVA LANES, 3800 E. PACIFIC COAST HWY., LONG BEACH, (562) 597-6171. FRI., 9 P.M. CALL FOR COVER.