In Erie County, Wheeler is well known as the longtime president of the Edison Birthplace Association. He helped lead a successful effort to have a statue of Milan native Thomas Edison erected at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. A law authorizing that was finally approved last year, so fund- raising efforts to build the statue are now ramping up.
But rock music nerds from London to New York City to Cleveland know Wheeler as the keyboard player for Pere Ubu, a legendary underground rock band that since the mid-1970s has been one of the world’s best-known obscure rock bands. The band’s new album, “The Lady From Shanghai,” was released Jan. 7 as a CD and an MP3 album and has enjoyed rave reviews.
Wheeler plays an EML 101 synthesizer and theremin. He is in the peculiar position of playing in a famous rock band that most people have never heard of, a band that gets little airplay on commercial radio but is the subject of dozens of videos on YouTube and long, detailed articles on websites such as Wikipedia and Allmusic.com.
The band enjoys a worldwide following. In fact, Pere Ubu is better known in Europe than it is in the U.S. Tour dates to support the new album are being lined up in Europe, and a concert has been booked in Australia, but no U.S. shows have been announced yet.
Wheeler says he’s been recognized on the street in three places: in Manhattan, in London near the Thames River and in Sicily.
“He couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t speak Italian,” Wheeler said. “Wanted his picture taken with me.”
Wheeler’s two public personas come together at his home on Mason Road in rural Milan, where he lives with his wife, Linda, who plays the piano and also played in Cleveland bands.
The home was built in 1823. Thomas Edison’s sister once lived there. The inside decorations include vintage photos of Edison and his wife, and posters promoting Pere Ubu gigs.
The house is shared with several cats and a dog.
Referring to one cat trotting through the porch, Wheeler explains, “That’s Jane Scott, named after the rock writer in Cleveland. We got her about the time Jane passed away.”
Pere Ubu was founded in Cleveland in 1975 and has had a variety of members over the years. The only remaining original member also is the most important one. David Thomas, 59, is the leader, lead singer, the lyricist and the band’s main spokesman. He lives in Brighton, England, and coined the term “avant garage” to describe the band’s sound.
Wheeler joined the band in 1994, replacing the original synthesizer player, Allen Ravenstine.
“Being asked to join was like a guitar player being asked to join the Rolling Stones,” said Wheeler, who says Krautrock artists such as Neu!, Cluster, Tangerine Dream, Can, Kraftwerk, Klaus Schulze, and Moebius were big influences.
The new album, “The Lady From Shanghai,” has received many good reviews. Allmusic.com’s reviewer said the new set “shows that Pere Ubu can tap into paranoia, loathing, and the downright weird with nearly as much ease and eloquence as they did almost four decades before.”
The band’s other members live in locations such as Cleveland, New York City and London, so they recorded their contributions separately.
“We were never together when we did it,” Wheeler said. “It was all pieced together.”
Wheeler’s contributions were recorded at Suma Recording Studio in Painesville.
Wheeler and Ravenstine also have recorded a new 2-CD set, “City Desk” and “Farm Report,” also available as 45-rpm LPs with a label that resembles the one used on Edison’s old recordings. Copies are available at the Edison Birthplace Museum. Wheeler continues to play in a band called Home and Garden, which includes past and current members of Pere Ubu.
Pere Ubu continues to play concerts in Cleveland, typically at Beachland Ballroom, including a show last year, Wheeler said. No local concerts have been announced yet for this year. Information about the band, including solo projects, is at ubuprojex.net.