By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
DeAngelis and Feltman first played together with guitarist Ben Peeler (who would later join the Mavericks, Miami's seminal country-rock combo) in a group that went by the unlikely name of the Whistling Tinheads. DeAngelis describes it as "an anti-grunge band" that featured original music with more of an English influence (i.e., Rockpile, Nick Lowe, Squeeze) mixed with more obscure covers and the occasional country-rock or rockabilly offering. After the Tinheads broke up, DeAngelis formed the Avenging Lawnmowers of Justice, dropping the country connections entirely. "That band was all about playing concise, humorous little pop tunes about odd stuff like hand puppets, worms, and credit card debt," he remarks. "We did a lot of song parody too. We had a polka medley of hits by Jim Morrison and the Doors, for instance. I think the closest we came to country music was a bluegrass medley of songs by bands whose members had died suffocating in their own vomit."
Around the same time, DeAngelis took a day job as a studio engineer, honing his technical skills by working with up-and-coming bands like the Mavericks and Marilyn Manson, and as a bass player for local funk outfit Raw B Jae and the Liquid Funk, with whom he still occasionally performs. He eventually reunited with Peeler in a short-lived country outfit dubbed the Pitchfork Trio, subsequently coaxing Feltman into the fold before enlisting drummer Jordan Lash. It was Lash who suggested they rename themselves the 18 Wheelers.
That was 1997, but over the next couple of years, the band underwent a pair of further personnel changes. Lash left in 1998, handing the drumming chores over to LaMont, formerly of Nuclear Valdez, a Miami band that had earned its national pedigree after releasing three albums on Epic Records. Peeler departed the following year and was replaced by Gilson, who had spent the previous 25 years playing blues and R&B in California and the Northeast, in addition to serving as lead guitarist for a touring Elvis Presley impersonator. Though the band's roster has been stable since 2002, the Wheelers occasionally augment their live gigs with auxiliary players: guitarist David Brophy of the Little Nicky Trio; pedal steel player Bob Wlos, a onetime member of Americana outfits the Silos and the Atomic Cowboys; and drummers Paul Paitchell and Sam Levin, who occasionally fill in when LaMont isn't available.
"We've got three guys in the band who can sing lead vocal, so any one of us will bring a song in," says DeAngelis. "We'll give it a try ... and if it sounds good, we add it to our repertoire.... We've always done original material in our sets, [but] given the obscurity of many of our cover songs, most people assume our originals are actually cover songs."
Several songs from their sets along with three originals were captured on the band's first CD, 1994's Songs from the Road. DeAngelis says its primary purpose was to provide a demo that would help them get gigs. "The fastest and cheapest way to do it was as a live recording. We set up a sixteen-track recording rig in Tobacco Road one night and just recorded three-hour-long sets of tunes in front of an audience on a Friday night. What made it on the CD was everything that was reasonably in tune, with the least amount of mistakes. That was the criteria for what made it on the album songs that were in tune and in time!"
Though the album opened a few doors and even garnered some overseas sales ("obscure places like the Netherlands and Scandinavia, thanks to the Internet"), the band members claim their forthcoming CD, as yet untitled, will provide a more definitive showcase for their songwriting skills. DeAngelis and Feltman take the bulk of the songwriting credits, and Gibson contributed a pair of tunes. "John has a couple of gems, so I guess he decided that he didn't have to do any more 'cause they were so good," Feltman comments.
"Some of it has been part of our live show for a number of years, and some of it hasn't been performed live yet," DeAngelis says of the album. "A few of the tunes are in a traditional feel, a couple in a more contemporary Americana mold, and a couple sort of defy description. There's some humor in there alongside the crying-in-your-beer stuff.
"We've got some label interest, so I guess we'll see what develops. Right now we just want to make a good CD and keep doing what we're doing."