Earlier this year Greg Wheeler and the Poly Mall Cops released their full-length debut album titled Manic Fever. Little Village called the release “a decadent meal from the punk rock buffet,” and across its twelve tracks you’ll find a satisfying blend of fuzzy psych, distorted riffs, and pummeling percussion. Following that up, the band premiered the video for “Itch” on Iowa Public Radio’s website this past week, helping build momentum toward their spot on IPR’s 80/35 side-stage lineup, which goes down Saturday, July 8 in Des Moines. In advance of the show, frontman Greg Wheeler connected for a Q&A to dig in to the band’s multi-year journey to releasing Manic Fever, how they aligned with Kansas City’s High Dive Records for the album, and what inspired him to get deeper into music in the first place. That’s where we dive in, digging into the Cedar Rapids scene that helped nurture his creative path.
villin: In a Q&A you did a couple years ago you said it was a house show in Cedar Rapids that set you down the path of wanting to start playing music. What was it about that experience that inspired you?
Greg Wheeler: Oh, yes. Cedar Rapids had a really cool little scene happening for a while. I saw the Horrors play a show in someone’s living room at one point and it was the first time I had heard that type of garage rock/punk rock. They weren’t like any other punk band in Cedar Rapids. They were coming from a whole different world of influence. They were channeling the kind of stuff that was happening in Memphis, like the Oblivions or the Reatards. It was just so exciting, it kind of opened up a different world of music to me and made me want to play music in a band.
villin: What did the roadmap from Cedar Rapids to Des Moines look like for you musically? What led you from where you were to where you are now?
Greg Wheeler: I moved from Cedar Rapids to Kansas City with Jill [McLain-Meister]. We lived there for years, then moved back to Iowa and landed in Des Moines. As far as what took us there and what brought us back… work.
villin: At what point did you and Jill decide to make music together and how did her influence help shape the sound of the band?
Greg Wheeler: The Wheelers were reaching their end and I wanted to play music more in line with my own personal tastes, as a lot of my writing in the Wheelers was tailored to things I thought the other guys would like and not necessarily what I personally wanted to play. We had gotten to a point where everyone in the band kind of had their own tastes or things they were into, so writing would become a process of like, “is this weird enough for that member?” or “is this too aggressive for this member?” or “is this poppy enough for that member?” I got to a point where writing wasn’t really natural, as I was just stressing myself out trying to please all of my bandmates, so when that started winding down, I started thinking about what I would do next.
I was reluctant to get a band going again, as I just wanted to do what I wanted to do and Jill said, “Well, just play as yourself and then you kind of are laying it out there that it is your band and your thing.” I wasn’t necessarily on board with that at first, but she was real encouraging and basically volunteered herself to play. She said, “I love the songs you write, just teach me how to play them on bass and I’ll do it.” I want to make a point to here to say that there is absolutely no weird drama or bad vibes between any of the Wheelers. I don’t want anyone to misconstrue this. Those guys are still to this day some of my closest friends. Ian is my right hand man in the recording side of Poly Mall Cops, Phil and I play together in our seasonal synth project, The Night Stories, and I’m currently working on sequencing the running order for Jordan’s new solo album, which is going to be absolutely incredible. I love those dudes.
villin: While he wasn’t originally in the group when it got going, what about Eric Hutchison‘s playing style lent itself to the sound you’re going for?
Greg Wheeler: Jill and I played with three drummers before Hutch came into the mix, but the moment we started playing with him, it became pretty clear that he was the right guy for the band. He plays his drums like he absolutely hates them, like he is trying to murder them. He hits them so fucking hard. Like, we don’t need a classically trained jazz drummer or someone doing a bunch of flashy stuff, we need a bruiser and that bruiser is Hutch-Man 5000.
villin: When we first connected you mentioned that the pandemic delayed the process of putting Manic Fever together? When did you first think it’d be released and was it hard juggling expectations with the reality of how its release played out?
Greg Wheeler: Yeah, so… we recorded the bulk of the album in January and February of 2020, with the original intent being to drop a ten song album in the summer of 2020. Then pandemic hit… the world shut down, we weren’t practicing and we weren’t playing shows. Since we weren’t doing those things, I spent extra time on overdubbing more guitar and getting better vocal takes than I probably would have otherwise. Ian “Prince Fletcher” Williams and I spent more time on mixing then we probably would have originally, too. So, cut to mid-2021 and the pandemic has created supply chain issues for pressing vinyl and major labels have started sending a ton of jobs to the same plants us little guys use and the turnaround time just got insane. So, once it became clear the album wasn’t going to be out til even later, we realized we should put a couple more songs on it, because the other tracks were going to be very old to us by the time the album was in hand, so we tracked two songs I wrote over pandemic, then we got it out the door. It’s for the better though, because it would have been self-released if pandemic didn’t happen, our conversations with High Dive Records occurred over pandemic.
villin: How did you connect with High Dive Records and what made the Kansas City label a good fit for Manic Fever?
Greg Wheeler: Well, as mentioned earlier, Jill and I lived in KC for some time, so we went to lots of shows and saw tons of the acts on the label down there. Since moving back to Iowa, we have always tried to be hospitable and give touring bands places to stay when they come through, as any musician that tours knows, finding a comfortable and safe space to stay isn’t always easy. So, we’ve had various High Dive homies crash at our house and spent a lot of time becoming close friends with many of them over the years. And of course we’ve played shows with plenty of High Dive acts. A lot of the musicians on that label are almost like extended family now.
When Manic Fever was done and awaiting its turn to be pressed, Marty from Ebony Tusks listened to it and sent it on to Jeff (who runs High Dive) to check out. Jeff loved it and wanted to help and since we were in that long pandemic turnaround, that was possible. If COVID hadn’t happened, the album likely would have been self released in 2020. Everything happens for a reason.
villin: You’ve been playing a crazy number of shows – how’d the High Dive anniversary go?
Greg Wheeler: Yeah, we’re just trying to put in the work and promote the album. Man, that anniversary was a lot of fun. We love our label mates and the community that Jeff has created, so it’s always fun to be around those people, but it was awesome to see so many folks come out to celebrate the label and it’s artists. KC native Heidi Gardner (of SNL fame) even came out, which is pretty rad to see she supports the music scene down there still. Only bummer was we didn’t get to attend night two of the celebration, because Jill fractured her ankle on a jog. We ended up spending a chunk of the day in an ER.
villin: Oh no! That sucks about her ankle – I hope it heals quickly!
Greg Wheeler: So do we! Very high chance she’ll be in a cast or a boot for the remaining shows this summer.
villin: Haha. There’s probably at least a couple people who wanna know the truth about her ankle injury!
Greg Wheeler: She truly fractured it on a jog! She wanted to go for a run through our old neighborhood and she wiped out. Not the most rock and roll story, I know.
villin: Where did you draw visual inspiration from when producing the “Nothing” video. How would you explain the look and vibe you were going for with it?
Greg Wheeler: I honestly don’t think the video is visually astounding or anything. I grew up on VHS and use to make stupid little movies with friends on my Sony 8MM camera growing up, so the concept for the video was really, like… let’s hang out in downtown Des Moines for a day and shoot each other like we’re making home movies. I shot some selfie type inserts singing the lyrics then dumped all the footage into my computer and obsessively edited it for a week or two. It is a an incredibly DIY video. Our next video, “Itch,” is a much more “professional” video. We conceptualized that one, then had our good friend Bo Becker (Glass Ox, Modern Life Is War) shoot and edit it. He absolutely killed it. It turned out better than I could have hoped for. If anyone needs some great video work done, hit up Bo’s video production company, Transpiritus.
villin: I enjoyed scrolling back through old updates from the band, and even other past groups like the Slats or the Wheelers, and can’t help but see a sort of Midwestern sandwich in terms of your music’s reach – with Kansas City and Minneapolis butting up on either side of the Poly Mall Cops’ home of Des Moines. How do you think the Midwest has shaped your relationship with music along the way and what makes it such a good backdrop for the kind of music you make?
Greg Wheeler: Well, growing up in the Midwest has lead to… playing music around the Midwest. I’ve been playing in bands since I was 16 and at first I was just playing with anyone who wanted to play, regardless if it was music I was into or not. I just wanted to play music. That got me to the point where I had a better understanding of how bands work and introduced me to different people, which put me in a spot to start building bands that played music more in my wheelhouse.