Catching Up With Craig Wedren (Shudder To Think)

Music Features Craig Wedren
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Catching Up With Craig Wedren

Craig Wedren’s new album Wand is his first album of original material in six years. It’s also the first collaboration between Craig Wedren, former (and perhaps future) singer for experimental punks Shudder To Think and Craig Wedren, the composer who has scored films and TV shows including Wet Hot American Summer, The United States Of Tara and the upcoming David Wain film Wanderlust. Wand is a sprawling collection that coalesces Wedren’s various musical obsessions, from strutting, Prince-ish R&B rock to soaring operatic crescendos to twisty, tangled art-rock. There’s an overriding, if typically nonlinear and abstract, narrative to Wand, and Wedren has already “posted:”http://www.pastemagazine.com/blogs/av/2011/09/album-stream-craig-wedren—-wand.html two videos from the album to his website to help elucidate the plot. Directed by Tim Nackashi, who’s made videos for TV On The Radio, Robyn and OK GO, the clips are experimental, interactive pieces that allow the viewer to poke around the world of the video and follow whatever thread of the narrative they want.

Calling from Los Angeles, Wedren is affable and good-humored, and it’s easy to see why he has so many friends that want to take part in his projects. He went to NYU with members of the legendary comic troupe The State, and later scored their MTV show; Thomas Lennon, Ken Marino and David Wain appear in Wand videos, and the album features guest spots from Conor Oberst, Wild Flag drummer Janet Weiss, singer Holly Miranda and members of Shudder To Think. Wedren has been busy in recent years with his scoring work, a Shudder To Think reunion tour and a collaboration with composer Jefferson Friedman and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, but now that he can focus on his own work he’s going to push it as far as he can. Wedren recently talked to Paste about balancing his interests, his plans for more Wand videos and his love of David Lynch.

Paste: Last year you had the ambient album of previously unreleased material which was recorded a while ago, and two years ago you had the Shudder To Think live album, but this is your first release of new material in, what, five, six years?

Craig Wedren: Yeah, it’s been a long time. A really long time. Too long. I plan to correct that.

Paste: What happened?

Wedren: Well, basically, just life. I do a lot of film and TV scoring, and it just sucks up months and months and months of time, and I’m a little bit of a perfectionist when it comes to making records. In the Shudder To Think-era, it was the only thing we were focused on so we would take a year to make a record and work on those ten or twelve songs and get them just right and tour them and record them, and in five years I’ve put the same amount of hours in that it took to make a Shudder To Think record, it’s just that everything was interrupted and disrupted by four months of working on a movie thing and five months on a TV show, and I had a baby and the rest of that. So it was a little bit catch as catch can. I would work on one song every few months for a couple of days or a week, or late night between 12 and 2 every other Wednesday, it kind of got put together like that.

Paste: So it was maybe one song every couple of months for a few years?

Wedren: Yes, exactly. It was just like that. For a while, up until a year ago I had about three to four hours of material that I was working on and trying to figure out what I wanted the album to be. Was it going to be a band album? Was it going to be a more of an ambient, atmospheric, soundtracky kind of thing? Was it going to be a pop record? So at a certain point there was a big shift that happened when I said, “okay, this needs to have all of those elements in there. It’s just ‘me music,’ it doesn’t have to be this or that or any other kind of music.” Once I decided that, everything collapsed on itself and all the music sort of got folded in to the more traditional twelve-song album and I brought in players, a lot of people who were playing in Shudder To Think when we did the reunion tour, so at times it weirdly felt like what Shudder To Think might be doing if we were making records now.

Paste: You’ve mentioned that this is supposed to be a conceptual, story album. Is it difficult to keep the through line clear when you have so many different genres and the songs were written over an extended stop-start period over years?

Wedren: Well, no, actually. The idea to build a series of thematic videos around it came later. I already had most of the material, let’s say I had three-quarters of the material half-way done, at the time when I decided to turn it in to a movie, which helped me finish everything with the movie in mind. But really the songs are not overly or deliberately thematic, it was a collection of music I was working on prior to the movie concept, and a bunch of songs that I had been developing and performing or working on in the studio, some of them for years. Some of them got made up at the last minute. Because I worked on it for so long, it was almost collage-like, the process of making it. But the nuts and bolts of the songs really had been germinating for a while. There were a couple ideas that actually started when I was still in Shudder To Think, and a few when I had my more pop band called Baby, and a few that were written for movies. When I decided to turn it into a movie project, it focused the thing, and I think it allowed me to finish it. It gave it a framework and a structure.

Paste: So some of these songs are really old, then.

Wedren: Yeah, a couple of them. I don’t know how many songs I had completed a long time ago, but there were a handful of songs that were started a long time ago. “Cupid,” we started working on that in Shudder To Think, but then everyone started bitching at each other and we broke up. I didn’t really want to play that kind of music for a while, I figured I needed some distance from it. Then a few years ago, it was interesting, I was working on a completely different project and I was sitting at my computer, and I was editing drums. Which is a very sort of robotic, pain-staking…mindless isn’t quite the word but it’s almost like an assembly line of one. So I was editing all these drums, occupying one part of my brain, and I was like “Jesus Christ, I need to get free and figure out how to enjoy myself while I do this.” So I put a guitar in my lap as I was doing this very regular activity. I would say 50% of the guitar ideas that you hear on Wand just poured out in a period of maybe four days to a week. Just all of these different riffs and structures that were, unexpectedly and suddenly, a little bit more in the Shudder To Think style that I used to write in. So I recorded them on to my iPhone, or I would do one pass of them in Pro-Tools as I was editing drums, and then when I came back to revisit them later, as I starting to put together Wand, a lot of the guitar ideas had come out in one shot out of the dark side of my brain, suddenly felt a little bit Shudder To Thinky, but … the update that of that, the new version of that. I really hadn’t thought at all in those musical terms for a bunch of years, probably just because it was painful or just not interesting or we had done it to death, or whatever it was. You need distance from an old relationship. So I brought them out, it seemed to go nicely with the new material I was developing, and it all sort of fell in place. If we had finished those songs with Shudder To Think, they just wouldn’t have been right, because we were in such a lousy place at the time with the record label and each other, so it was sort of a blessing that we put them on a high shelf for a minute.

Paste: When you working in spurts, was it hard to keep your enthusiasm up, especially when you had so much else going on in your life?

Wedren: Not at all. It was like when I was a teenager, and I would get home from school. And between school and homework, or between finishing my homework and bed, I would get to play on my four-track machine. It was what I would look forward to all day. So when I finally would have time to get back to working on this material, it was an oasis for me. Because as much as I love film and TV work, film scoring is all about pleasing other people. It’s all about taking notes from other people, it’s all about serving someone else’s vision. And that’s great, I love that. It’s just a very different m.o. from working on your own music. Which is emphatically about not taking direction from other people, it’s about taking direction from your muse, from your passion, your interests or whatever cockamamie idea might come up that day. I find that they’re very complimentary, so by the end of working on a movie or working on a TV show or whatever it was, I was very excited to go in to my own world with my material. I will say that by the end of working on Wand it was frustrating, because it had taken so long and because I felt like I couldn’t fully focus on new material until I had finished it. I was really ready to put it to bed and tie a bow on it, because I’ve always been more about the new shit. I like the new ideas, not so much the old ones. So by the time I finished Wand, I was really ready to make some new stuff. But I couldn’t until I finished Wand, and the fact that it took five years was frustrating. So I feel sort of liberated now.

Paste: So when you got all the material together, what themes did you notice that made you think you could string this together as a concept album?

Wedren: None. (Laughs) Although I know my style enough to know that the way my lyrics work for me, I have very specific…sometimes it will be a still picture photograph. Sometimes it will be more of a short form dramatic narrative, but the way I connect to my lyrics, it’s always very visual, and it’s always very cinematic, and it’s not necessarily narrative, more dream-like. Sort of more intuitively narrative, than literally narrative. That’s just always been the way my lyrics make sense to me. So I knew that despite the fact that there were no overt thematic connections, I knew how I was connecting to these songs and what the songs felt like to me and what the images were and the colors were that I saw as I was playing them and singing them. So I knew it would hang together thematically, I just needed to write a story that felt the way my lyrics felt that told a straighter story. So I did that. There’s actually a friend of mine that sort of put me to the challenge. A friend of mine from childhood is now a life coach, and I was talking to her. At a certain point a few years, I was feeling frustrated like, “I’ve got this record, I love the music but I’m not that excited about making an album and putting another album in to the world. There’s so much music, there’s so many records, what’s the point, blah blah blah.”

Paste: Yeah.

Wedren: I actually don’t feel that way right now, but at the time I did. And I was working on a movie, maybe it was The Ten, David Wain’s movie. I’m not really sure. And she was like, “what is something that you’ve never done, that you wouldn’t even allow yourself to dream of doing? What’s your greatest dream?” And it literally took me two seconds, I looked down to the work I was doing right then, and I said “oh, I want to make music movies. I want to make movies out of my music.” Not just two-minute music videos, although that’s possible too, but something ambitious. Something almost, like, old-fashioned in the kind of overwrought, kaleidoscopic, psychedelic rock movies of the ’60s and ’70s. And ’80s I guess. So I said “oh shit, I want to make a movie out of this. It’s the perfect way to elevate the record and have people listen to it and see it in sort of a different light. And within days I had written a full-script. No dialogue, because it was all music, but three acts, narrative. So it really went from there, and it was a few years before I found a good collaborator to help me actually put it on film, this guy named Tim Nackashi, who is an old friend and a great video director, and has a similar imagination and process as I do. And once I found him, which again was a solid two or maybe even three years after I wrote the script, it all came together.

Paste: Are you going to make a video for each song on the album?

Wedren: Actually, that’s the goal. I would say a minimum of four videos, but it’s the type of thing that really could go on, and on, and on. I have sort of a theme in mind, a chapter, for really each song on the record. It’s really just a question of time and money. People aren’t throwing millions of dollars at making a surrealist, song by song concept album video in this day and age, so it’s catch as catch can. It’s how I made the record, grab some friends, record some songs, work on it, sit with it and a few months later revisit it. That’s sort of the way we’re approaching the making of the video series too. I hope we can do it for every song, it would really be very satisfying, and I think quite a coup. We just need to find the money, certainly the intention and enthusiasm is there.

Paste: What were the rock movies that influenced your approach?

Wedren: Uhm, I’m a big David Lynch fan, so I was thinking of his movies, even though they’re not rock movies.

Paste: They kind of are.

Wedren: They kind of are. They rock. I was thinking about, I’m a huge fan of Jesus Christ, Superstar, the movie. Which I never even saw until a few years ago, and it’s fucking completely incredible. What else? I was thinking about Kenneth Anger movies. Again, not rock movies but fucking stunners. Even obvious ones, Tommy, The Wall, even Purple Rain, at times. It sort of blows my mind that people aren’t doing this more. I think there’s a renaissance happening now with videos, where videos are becoming more like real short films. But it’s amazing with the technology available that people aren’t trying to make more full-length movies. I guess The Flaming Lips have done a couple? I haven’t seen them. I think having spent so many years working on movies with friends, there’s sort of a built in nuts and bolts approach that we have. It’s important that we be telling a story, it’s important that there be characters, it’s important that it connects. From there, we really can be totally intuitive. And again, in that David Lynch way where you may not be totally sure what’s going on, but you trust him because he’s an expert craftsman. He really is an old-fashioned director in terms of his film values.

Paste: By working on films and television, do you think you’ve absorbed the nuts and bolts of scriptwriting and storytelling by osmosis?

Wedren: Yeah, absolutely. And in the past few years more through consciously wanting to learn it. It’s not that different from the way I and most of my friends learned about music. It was by osmosis. You listened to the radio constantly while growing, you were obsessed with music, all you do is sit around and listen to it, talk about it and try to make it until it feels right, and then suddenly you realize you’re a musician. You wake up one day and you’re a musician, and then at the point … it all just sort of happens naturally when you’re a kid. Then once you’re an adult, you have to become a more conscious discipline. It becomes a little bit more formal, maybe, because you’re not hanging out with your friends all day long talking about music as. I don’t claim to know how to make movies, but I definitely understand drama, story, characters, but I don’t know any of the technical stuff. So that’s why I’m partnering up with good visionary guys who know.

Paste: I feel that with these sort of albums, the storyline is usually more important to the artist as a unifying device than the listener. There’s lots of concept albums that I love, but I still don’t know how Yoshimi beat the pink robots.

Wedren: But that’s fine. Again, relating back to my lyrics style, the ideal situation for me is that the viewer and the listener are creatively engaged, but it sparks something in them and they don’t know what it’s about and they wind plugging in their own interpretation and connecting the dots that way. Part of what we’re doing with this series is really throwing out clues to the story, whether we’re able to logistically, financially and time wise to tell the entire story remains to be seen. But we’re going to throw out enough breadcrumbs that hopefully it will engage people and make for fun conversation. Everything I make, I want people to walk away and want to go make something of their own. When they listen to Wand, I want them to go do whatever creative thing turns them on after they get turned on be music. That’s more important to me, to turn people on creatively than to be like “this is my story, this is a story that I need to tell.” I don’t know about that, the story I need to tell is the story of “if we can make this, you can make anything.”

Paste: With all your commitments, do you think you’ll be touring?

Wedren: We’re definitely going to play some shows. I don’t think it will be a grand tour, it won’t be a year on the road, it will be more deliberate, possibly theatrically specific dates, London, LA, New York, trying to do something with the movie and with the band. A week here and a week there, with a lot of different configurations, I’ll be doing a lot of solo stuff just by myself, playing all this music with a trio, which is beautiful but a lot more atmospheric and a lot less full on, and then there’s the full band.

Paste: What are your ideas about the visual presentation?

Wedren: We’ve been talking to this woman who has done a lot with planetariums around the world. Because we’re shooting a lot of this stuff with 3-D, Panorama, interactive cameras, it kind of lends itself perfectly to a planetarium environment, where you could sit there and watch the entire panorama at once. That would be a pretty thrilling way to watch the movie and hear the music, if we could perform in that type of venue. Then there is the idea of just projecting it in order, out of order, possibly doing something where the music triggers different clips. Right now it’s just lots of talk. It’s all logistics and finances. We could literally do anything, the questions is we have the time and money.

Paste: Clearly you’re busy at the moment, but where do things stand with Shudder To Think? Do you think you’ll ever tour or record again?

Wedren: Interestingly, last week there was a little three-way email going on between me and (guitarist Nathan Larson) and (drummer) Adam Wade about working on some new stuff, literally via remote, and building a recording studio in the back of my new house, which is basically the size of the first few places Shudder To Think recorded back in the Dischord days. Adam Wade lives here in Los Angeles, which is where I live, Nathan lives in New York, (original drummer Kevin March) lives in New York, Stuart (Hill) the bass player has maybe hung up his spurs for good. When we asked him if he wanted to do the reunion tour he didn’t. He mulled it over and decided he was done for good. I think if it was going to happen, because we all have kids and lives and careers and stuff, it would have to start from a purely creative place. What we were talking about before, no commercial pressure. Let’s literally pool all of our current interests together and make whatever the fuck we want, and see what it sounds like. There seems to be group enthusiasm in that direction, and I hope it will come to fruition, because I think all of us are more interesting people than we used to be, so if we could apply that, that dimensionality to making new music, I think that would be great.

Paste: Is it more of a matter of schedules than everyone getting in the same place creatively?

Wedren: I think it’s definitely a matter of schedules, which we can sort out. I would say, it’s probably more of a matter of being able to do it is as mature, grown-up adults and not fall in to our old roles, which led to the band’s demise in the first place. We were all best friends, and we’re all friends again, finally, after ten years or however long it’s been. Since we’re all making music, and I think speaking for myself I’m very satisfied with the music I’m making, I don’t think there’s a piece missing right now. My friendships with those guys and respecting and preserving them at this point is more important to me than making a Shudder To Think record. Having said that, every other day I’ll hear something or see something that will really make me miss doing it. So it will be interesting. You see so many bands that reunite make new music, and either the music sucks because they’re not willing to really go there and get in to the sandbox and get dirty, or the flipside is they fall back in to the old personalities and routines with each other and wind up miserable, like a bunch of miserable old teenagers like they were in the first place. And plus the music sucks because it sounds like it was made by a bunch of miserable old men.
So obviously we don’t want to fall into either of those traps. We’ll just have to make the music, and see what it feels like. I feel like via remote from each of our places rather than sitting in rehearsal space and breathing down each other’s necks with each other’s personalities and idiosyncrasies and little buttons that we push with each other could make for something extraordinary.

Paste: You’ve been friends with funny people for a long time. Did you ever try your hand at sketch comedy?

Wedren: No, there was one time, I remember one time in my early ’20s I wrote out a whole stand up routine, but it was very much in my lyric style, and once it was down on paper in the notebook, that was pretty much all I needed. I definitely didn’t need to get up and try to make people laugh. That’s the most terrifying job that I can think of. With music, pretty much any response other than boredom and yawning is acceptable; you can cry, you can laugh, you can dance, you can sing, you can get mad and that’s all a legitimate reaction to musical action, but when you’re a comedian there’s pretty much only response or you’re failing, and that’s laughter. So no, I never tried my hand at that, I’ve always been the music guy. It’s only when I get around non-comedian friends that I realize that…my comedian friends don’t laugh at my jokes because I’m not the funniest one, but when I’m around normal people they say “hey dude, you’re really funny.” “Really? But I’m a music guy.”

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