Russian literature is rich with great dramatists like Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky, but local musician Gavin Wheeler didn't name his project Russian Drama in honor of these writers. Rather, the Meridian-based musician drew inspiration from a somewhat less respected art form.
"It's kind of embarrassing, but I used to be big into video games when I was in middle school and high school," Wheeler said. "That was my online moniker, Russian Drama, because I was very fascinated with Soviet [and] Communist culture and art. And drama just seemed to follow me wherever I'd go in high school, so I thought, 'Hey, this is a good name.'"
Regardless of where the name came from, Wheeler has reason to feel proud of it. In two years, the 19-year-old musician has put out three Russian Drama albums, all of which feature a mix of jazzy blues, plaintive folk and mordantly funny lyrics. The latest record, Out of the Woods (self-released, 2017), adds some swinging rockabilly and roaring electric guitar.
As a songwriter, Wheeler strikes a balance between Gothic absurdism and plainspoken candor. He jokes about death and murder on Out of the Woods songs like "The Hearse Song" and "Thrill of the Kill," but his sophomore release also featured "Come with Me," a song about a boy inviting a girl to go camping, eat s'mores and read George Orwell and Virginia Woolf. As idiosyncratic as his lyrics are, though, Wheeler isn't pretentious about his writing.
"It's gotta be natural," he said. "I'm lucky that I'm an awkward enough guy to kind of have that naturally."
Born in Puyallup, Wash., Wheeler and his family moved to Idaho when he was young. Wheeler grew up in Nampa, but whereever he was, music was a constant.
"I've been playing the violin since I was six, maybe," Wheeler said. "So I've been performing my whole life. I was just getting bored with that, so I decided to start playing different instruments, and that led into me actually writing my first song."
The song was "Restless," a somber ballad that would end up on Don't Go Into the Woods (self-released, 2016). After Wheeler wrote it, he found Russian Drama taking on a life of its own.
"I started off doing this just by myself ... and I had never sung before," he said. "But as I kept writing and recording music, I realized I had a vision, so I started to branch out into [different genres]and add people to the band."
One of the most important additions was teacher-musician JD Stefan, who has produced everything Russian Drama has released to date.
"[JD] had an equal part in creating all this music," Wheeler said, adding that Stefan played a big role in arranging his own parts. "For Out of the Woods ... he did a lot of the instrumentation."
Wheeler was introduced to Stefan through a family connection—his father worked with Stefan at the Idaho Arts Charter School. More recently, another family connection helped get Wheeler's music—and his face—in front of millions.
"My mother went to school in a small town in Washington," Wheeler said. "Her best friend in high school grew up and married a TV and film producer." When the friend recently came to visit Wheeler's mother, it was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.
"I'd given her one of my CDs and went, 'Hey, show this to [your husband]," Wheeler said. "Maybe he'll like it.'"
Apparently he liked it so much that Wheeler was flown out to Louisiana to appear on an episode of the CBS show, NCIS: New Orleans where, for a few seconds, the camera pans across Wheeler playing an instrumental version of his song, "What I've Got" on violin.
Wheeler said he's interested in writing music for movies and TV in the future but for now, he plans to move to Washington in the fall and may enroll at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. No matter what his future holds, though, Wheeler is sure one thing won't change.
"Russian Drama really is me," he said. "It was me at the beginning, and it will be me wherever I go."