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Wet Hot composer Craig Wedren on crafting First Day Of Camp’s sonic world

Paul Rudd and the First Day Of Camp cast sing "I Am A Wolf, You Are The Moon"
Paul Rudd and the First Day Of Camp cast sing "I Am A Wolf, You Are The Moon"

In Cue & A, music supervisors guide us through the record collections of our favorite television shows.

Since the dissolution of his excellent post-hardcore band Shudder To Think, Craig Wedren—the songwriter-composer for Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camphas primarily focused on creating original songs and score for film and television, including work on Hung, United States Of Tara, and Don’t Trust The B---- In Apartment 23. His film credits include the original Wet Hot American Summer, for which he wrote the soaring rock anthem “Higher And Higher,” making him a shoo-in for the eight-part prequel series. Creators Michael Showalter and David Wain needed a jukebox worth of pop music for their ’80s-set camp movie spoof, but with a pinched music licensing budget, Wedren opted to write and record 30 period-specific originals with a team that included composer Jefferson Friedman. The interview covers the music from the entire TV series, and it discusses major plot points in detail.

The A.V. Club: You’ve been working with David Wain and Michael Showalter for some time now. What’s your standard protocol for working with them?

Craig Wedren: At this point I’ve been making things with David since we were 2 years old, and we’ve been professionally making things together since our early 20s. I’ve been working with Showalter and David since our late teens. So at this point, it’s almost psychic. They’ll give me ideas and we’ll talk about them, or maybe we won’t. They’ll give me a name, a color, a reference... there’s really no set, formal way we work. But in the case of the Wet Hot series, I don’t remember if it started with a conversation or it started with scripts, but I would imagine it was scripts. So it was very clear from those where they needed on-camera music.

AVC: Is the scoring for the series all new, or did you recycle part of the score from the film?

CW: We knew we wanted to use some score and some of the songs from the original movie. I knew that I wanted my team—this was very much a team effort because it’s such a massive amount of very varied music in such a short amount of time, so it was all hands on deck. We knew we wanted to use some of the original score. We wanted there to be new score that had the feel of the original score, and in certain instances, like the Gene/Jonas (Christopher Meloni) scenes, we incorporated bits of the original score. But we knew we were going to need whole new worlds like with The Falcon (Jon Hamm) and a lot of the action stuff in the show that was something completely different.

AVC: Did you do anything to prepare?

CW: I put together a Spotify playlist way at the beginning of the creative process, as soon as I read the scripts. I was thinking back to all of the cassettes we used to listen to at camp. David and I went to a Jewish summer camp in Maine from 1980 through 1985, so that’s very much in our DNA. Everything you see in the show is the truth filtered through this kind of absurdist, surrealist, ridiculous sensibility. So I put together a Spotify playlist of things that were really popular at the time, like Queen or The Cars or Blondie. But there was also this sort of smoosh of hard rock, heavy metal, new wave, and top 40 music that was happening right around then. People hadn’t quite defined their territory so it was this kind of awkward in between moment. It was before MTV started, but after punk, and before new wave had become pop music.

I put everything I could remember and everything I could think of. A lot of those songs wound up being temped into the rough cuts of the show, and the ones that were really working became templates for songs that me and my team worked out. It was a very fun, very natural flow. In the same way that Stripes, or Meatballs, or The Jerk is in our DNA in terms of comic sensibility, the first Pretenders record or “Fox On The Run” by The Sweet is in our DNA too.

“Campers Arrive” (episode one)

The song: “Brass Muscles”
The scene: The characters and conflicts of Camp Firewood are reintroduced and a potent new threat emerges in a musical montage that closes the first episode and features Garbage’s Shirley Manson in a pitch-perfect tribute to The Pretenders.

AVC: Was this consciously intended to be Pretenders homage?

CW: Absolutely. The first two Pretenders records, before half the band died, and to a certain extent the third one, Learning To Crawl, were the most influential, inspiring music to David and I. The Pretenders were me and David’s favorite band, and I’d still put early Pretenders in my top five bands ever. So it was a very conscious tribute to the Pretenders as well as Nick Lowe, who produced a lot of those Stiff Records. I loved Stiff Records and thought about Stiff a lot while writing songs and score for the series because I love the production on those records and that in between moment before things had kind of found their glossy-mag identities. So it was pub rock from the early and mid-’70s in England combining with punk rock or new wave, and Nick Lowe is the king of those things. He’s a truly great songwriter on par with Elvis Costello, but he was more of a producer and a behind-the-scenes writer. So I was thinking about all of those things for “Brass Muscles.”

Dave (Paul Scheer) in a Stiff Records t-shirt

AVC: How did Shirley Manson get involved?

CW: I sang the demo, but I knew I wanted a female voice. Shirley happens to live up the street from me, and my kid goes to school with Butch Vig’s kid. Butch, his wife, and I have been friends since the ’90s. I didn’t know Shirley, but I know her husband [record producer Billy Bush] and Butch, and they all play music together. I said to Butch one day—literally in the courtyard of primary school—“Do you think Shirley would be into doing this?” She has this kind of tough public persona, so I thought she would be perfect. I thought she would either be really into it, or say, “Get away from me with your dumb knockoff stuff.” He said, “Oh my God, she’ll be so psyched. Give her a call.”

I called her, she and her husband came over and we had the best time. She knocked it out of the park. She’s one of the foremost Pretenders fans in the world and is friends with Chrissie Hynde. I was a little worried when I started writing these songs because I took great care to make sure they were distinct, excellent, well-crafted songs that stood on their own. I didn’t want any knockoffs. There was no reason to spend time doing knockoffs of songs that already exist. But I think there’s something wonderful, when it’s appropriate, to pay tribute to your heroes in an overt way. I’m not trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes. “Down In The Subway” is a Gary Numan tribute and “Brass Muscles” is The Pretenders. I was a little worried like, “I hope people take this as it was intended,” which is why it was even important to make the songs strong on their own, so if you sat down and played any one of those songs on a guitar, you wouldn’t make the connection to it being a Pretenders song or a Gary Numan song.

“Lunch” (episode two)

The song: Donnie Iris, “Ah! Leah!”
The scene: Undercover rock journalist Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks) from Rock & Roll World magazine arrives at Camp Firewood to get the real story of “what the kids are doing when the parents aren’t around.”

CW: That was one of David’s and my favorite songs growing up. We lived in Cleveland, Ohio and it was very popular there when we were about 12. I think it might have just been a regional hit. I’m not sure if it was huge anywhere else. But it’s one of those songs I’ve been wanting to place in a movie or TV show forever because I’ve never heard it. It feels like there are fewer and fewer stones unturned in terms of great pop songs to license that haven’t been done to death, and that’s one of them. When we put it over Lindsay’s entrance, it was just gangbusters. It was perfect, so that became a top priority.

The song: Baby, “Until Summer”
The scene: As Beth (Janeane Garofalo) and Greg (Jason Schwartzman) are escaping the murderous Falcon, “Until Summer” plays when the episode smash cuts to the closing credits.

AVC: You recorded this song with your band Baby years ago. What made you decide to reuse it here?

CW: We had to make this TV show extraordinarily fast, and we hadn’t totally figured out if there was going to be a thematic concept for end credits until the third episode, maybe, and we were sort of trying to relate all of the end theme songs with something that has happened either musically or thematically in the episode. That’s why in the “Auditions” episode you get everybody auditioning with “Heart Attack Love,” and then you get the “radio” version in the end credits. So we were rushing so fast to write all this music that we hadn’t even really thought about end credits, and when we were mixing the second one, we were like, “Oh crap, we need an end credits song.”

I had included “Until Summer” in the Spotify playlist I put together. Production-wise, it’s certainly not of the era. But melodically and feeling-wise, it draws from that moment in all of our lives. It’s got some Blondie and some New Order and some The Cars in there. I thought it was a good chorus and bridge, and it’s a song that never really saw the light of day. I threw it up against the picture and it worked, so we went with it. In a subsequent episode we sort of dialed in the end theme concepts a little bit more, but I was happy that song got grandfathered in.

“Activities” (episode three)

The song: “Turn It Up (Easy Love)”
The scene: J.J. (Zak Orth) tells Lindsay the mysterious tale of Eric (Chris Pine), Camp Firewood’s guitar god and the lead singer of The Rockin’ Knights Of Summer. In a flashback, the Rockin’ Knights strike a chord with “Turn It Up,” but when they attempt to follow it up, Eric’s perfectionist tendencies lead to a band split and a nervous breakdown.

AVC: How did you approach the creation of an Eric song that would represent how his songs sounded prior to “Higher And Higher?”

CW: My friend Isaac Carpenter, who is a great drummer, was over that day. He actually had a hand in writing “I Am A Wolf, You Are The Moon.” David and I had been talking about The Rockin’ Knights Of Summer, which is the name of a real band David had with the original guitar player for my first band in 7th grade, which was called The Immoral Minority. The Immoral Minority had two original songs. One was called “Something Girl,” and the other one was called “Code Red.”

“Code Red,” the riff went [Hums the riff.], and I thought it would be so great if we could find a tape of “Code Red” and use it as Eric’s pre-”Higher And Higher” song. We had made a recording of “Code Red” in David’s basement when we were like 13 years old. We couldn’t find any original recordings, but that was the starting point. So it was like “Code Red,” mixed with this band Rainbow. It’s like that weird sort of awkward top 40/heavy metal moment with a little bit of early Def Leppard thrown in. Like “Let It Go” from High ’N’ Dry, which was their pre-Pyromania record. Even though that’s technically later than the era Eric would have been in the band, we were just like whatever. Isaac and I banged it out in an hour.

“Auditions” (episode four)

The song: “Heart Attack Love”
The scene: After a series of underwhelming auditions, Katie (Marguerite Moreau) blows everyone away with her rendition of this pop-rock kiss-off, landing her the female lead in the Electro-City musical.

CW: Everybody’s singing this in the audition sequence, so the conversation was “What is this song? Something that was popular in the past year—late 1980 or early 1981—that all the kids would know.” So Jefferson and I wrote “Heart Attack Love,” which is a very Pat Benatar, Kim Carnes, Meat Loaf kind of thing, which is what we were all listening to when we were 11 or 12 years old.

AVC: Who contributed the vocal?

CW: Amy Miles, who is one of my best friends. We were in Baby years ago, and I produced one of her records. We met on the set of the original Wet Hot film because she was married to A.D. Miles (who plays Gary in the series) at the time, and we became great friends and got to make music together. Jefferson and I wrote “Heart Attack Love,” and originally Marguerite sang it on camera and she was great. She’s got a really, really great voice. But we knew we had to have a little more of that radio rock sound. So I called Amy who just kills at that kind of stuff. She’s so good. She did this Pat Benatar vocal and just knocked it out while she was feeding her 3-year-old.

AVC: So many of those ’80s anthems have the word “heart” in them. Did you think about the lyrical tropes of the era when you were working on these songs?

CW: It depended on the song, but I was generally just thinking about the era. And because it’s so much part of my musical DNA and my first impressions of music, it was just there already. I was precocious musically, so from about age 5 to age 17, everything was absorbed and became a part of the stuff I would do later. Something like “heart attack love,” it means something but doesn’t mean anything. A lot of the lyrics Ric Ocasek wrote for The Cars are kind of meaningless and free-associative but they feel right for the song. But I’m also referring back to Marc Bolan & T. Rex glam lyrics, which also normally say nothing but feel so right for the song. “Heart Attack Love” came fairly easily and it was a joy when it popped out.

The song: “Champagne Eyes”
The scene: Super-slacker Andy (Paul Rudd) plays an original song in his audition for Electro-City, the musical Andy hopes will grant him the chance to woo Katie away from her boyfriend, Camp Tiger Claw snob Blake (Josh Charles).

CW: Michael’s note was that he wanted it to be like that song “The Piano Has Been Drinking” by Tom Waits, which is this early Tom Waits song that sounds kind of like he wrote it on absinthe. The lyrics twist and turn and they’re a little bit surreal, and Michael wanted our song to sound like that. He wanted it to feel like Andy might be making it up on the spot, or might have written it five minutes before, or it might be that Andy turns out to the cool guy who is secretly a poet.

AVC: That note gave you a very specific, narrow target. How did you approach that?

CW: I was in Hawaii over Christmas vacation, and I was pissed that I had to write all these songs for Wet Hot, even though I totally wanted to write them, but what I wanted more was a nice vacation with my family. There was a nice rainstorm and everybody was out, and I was just sitting there feeling kind of mopey on the porch. The rain was dripping down and that just kind of popped out. I don’t know, I mean that’s what I do. It’s kind of like an acting job. When people hire me to compose score or songs for something, I have to put on the mask and say “Who is this character?” Having said that, writing surrealist, absurd lyrics with a lot of melody is kind of my thing, what I did with my original band, Shudder To Think. So that was certainly not the hardest or newest assignment. It was like an old, warm leather sofa. It was like, “Oh, this is nice, I remember how to do this.”

“Electro/City” (episode six)

The songs: “Zoot Suit” and the music of Electro-City
The scenes: After hours of painstaking rehearsal, Camp Firewood’s premieres its production of the smash Broadway pop musical about legal injustice in a cruel place to live. Andy and Katie grow closer, as do Ben (Bradley Cooper) and McKinley (Michael Ian Black), who realize their love for each other after their number, “Zoot Suit.”

AVC: Did you create the Electro-City songs from scratch or was that a hands-on collaboration with David and Michael?

CW: They had some of the lyrics written into the script, and I would develop them, edit them, or just leave them as is because in certain cases they were perfect. Then Jefferson and I would write the music for them.

AVC: How much of the “Zoot Suit” lyric did you write?

I think the original script had “Zoot suit / Zoot suit / Z-O-O-T / S-U-I-T,” and then I wrote all those other lyrics. David and Showalter wrote the shape, and I filled in the lyrics, then Jefferson and I wrote the music for it.

AVC: You talked about “putting on the mask” when you’re writing. Was the musical mask the most difficult to wear?

CW: I don’t know if it was the most difficult, because it actually came fairly easily, but the musical stuff was definitely new territory for Jefferson and me. Electro-City is a pop musical, like a 1980s Starlight Express or Xanadu, but it was still new. It took a little bit of taking apart the watch, listening to different musicals and figuring out the rules. Musicals do stuff compositionally and lyrically that are totally forbidden in pop music or anything that was ever considered “cool.” So it’s more like progressive rock or art rock mixed with opera, in a way. You can do crazy hairpin turns in style, tempo, modulation, and lyrical content depending on what the scene calls for. In a way, it’s like a hybrid of pop music writing and film scoring. Depending on the scene, you can make what would be considered crazy choices in a pop song. That was flexing a new muscle. And also the fact that it was limited to these short, in some cases snippets of material, there wasn’t the burden of having to create two hours’ worth of it.

The song: REO Speedwagon, “Keep On Loving You”
The scene: Andy and Katie bring the house down when their characters kiss after a crucial moment in the Electro-City climax, and they realize they might not be acting after all.

AVC: Of the temp songs used, why did this one have to stay given the limited licensing budget?

CW: For me, the best Wet Hot moments and one of the things that distinguishes Wet Hot from other absurdist, modern comedies is that it achieves this combination of being ridiculous, hilarious, and making you cry at the same time. They temped in “Keep On Loving You,” and when we watched it, it was one of those moments where everyone in the room gasped for breath. There wasn’t time for me to try beating “Keep On Loving You.” It was perfect, so we had to find the money for it.

“Staff Party” (episode seven)

The song: “I Am A Wolf, You Are The Moon”
The scene: Andy leads the Camp Firewood counselors in a rousing sing-along.

CW: I knew they needed an acoustic sing-along song all the kids would know. I had started working on this song that wasn’t finished, but that sort of wouldn’t let me go. It just kept popping back into my head. When I read that scene, I thought about it. A lot of times that’s what it takes. There’s always music and ideas floating around that need the right-shaped hole to adapt itself to. So this scene wound up being the right hole for the spirit of “I Am A Wolf,” though I could never exactly figure out what the source material would be. It’s not obviously a Cat Stevens kind of song or a James Taylor kind of song, but having gone to camp in the ’80s, there was still this ’60s and ’70s folk thing happening where everybody knew all the same songs. “You’ve Got A Friend,” “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” that kind of stuff.

So I finished the song and sent it out as a possibility and everybody just really responded to it overwhelmingly. It’s got that sort of bittersweet youth anthem thing. That was kind of why it made so much sense to me, this idea of wanting the world and wanting it now. It kind of works from the vantage point of being young, but also through the looking-glass of us at age 46 reflecting back on being young. Everyone loved it and I didn’t question it until it was time to record it for the end credits, like we did with “Heart Attack Love,” but I couldn’t figure out what the studio version would sound like. I knew it should be a late ’60s, early ’70s thing, which we hadn’t done yet. Jherek Bischoff, who is a member of my team, suggested a kind of Simon And Garfunkel, sort of Roy Orbison thing. I don’t know if that was quite the right choice, but I love it, and it made sense to me as something these kids might know from their parents’ record collections. We talked about these things a lot because we wanted the music to make sense.

AVC: Yeah, that comes through. Before I knew they were originals I tried to Shazam a few of the songs and came up short.

CW: That makes me really happy. That was one of the first things I started hearing. People were tweeting that their Shazam wasn’t working on the songs and they wanted to know where to get them. My first reaction was like, “Yes! It’s totally working.” My second reaction was like, “Oh shit, people will never know me and my friends did all these songs.” [Laughs.]

“Day Is Done” (Episode eight)

The song: “Let’s Rock”
The scene: Blake, furious after Katie stands him up at the Camp Tiger Claw formal, leads an angry mob to Camp Firewood to find Andy and his crew all too eager to rumble.

AVC: This was a moment that clearly needed a specific type of song.

CW: Yeah, definitely. Originally they had temped in “Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy” by Bad Company, so we knew that was going to be a song moment. And I knew I wanted the score to flow seamlessly into it, so it would be like a rock opera moment. I personally did not think “Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy” was enhancing the scene enough to push for it as one of the important songs to license. I thought I could beat it—not as a song, but as a dramatic moment. Jefferson and I were sitting around with another member of my team, Matt Novack, who is the composer for Childrens Hospital. We were writing that whole huge climax section, which is wall-to-wall score and pretty big orchestral score surrounding “Let’s Rock” and “Higher And Higher” in the finale. We knew we wanted it to be this big rock opera moment.

If I knew a moment wanted a song, but I didn’t know what it wanted, I would just click play on whatever song popped into my mind on Spotify or iTunes. So I played “We Will Rock You,” which obviously worked because it’s “We Will Rock You.” I played “Tusk” by Fleetwood Mac, which worked really well in a totally different way. I wanted to capture this sort of dread in it. I didn’t want it to be, like, a triumphant anthem. “We Will Rock You” and “Tusk,” they’re songs that were scary to me as a kid, but also totally anthemic and they transcend the era in which they were made. I wanted the song to have the word “rock” in it, like so many of those classic rock-anthem songs. Lyrically we hadn’t done that yet, and it seemed very era-appropriate. Jefferson had this chord progression he was working on, but he was frustrated with it, so I took the parts he thought were good and started from there. It has my favorite lyric from the Wet Hot songs, which is “School’s through / What you wanna do / Let’s rock,” and the next line is “Kids rule / Ridin’ with the deuce / Let’s rock.”

AVC: That’s awesome.

CW: I love it. “Ridin’ with the deuce” is, to me, the perfect Wet Hot lyric, because it sounds exactly correct for that moment, and it makes absolutely no sense. I might get “Ridin’ with the deuce” tattooed on my back.

The song: “Higher And Higher”
The scene: Just when it seems the summer will be ruined by an outbreak of inter-camp violence, Eric climbs onto the roof and soothes the brawlers with Wet Hot’s signature anthem. He saves friendship with his song!

AVC: I would assume using “Higher And Higher” for the series was a no-brainer.

CW: Actually, at first, “Higher And Higher” was not written into the script. We were talking about it being like, “Okay, so I’ll write a new, original song that will be the ‘Higher And Higher’ of the series.” But I’d sort of laugh to myself like, “Good luck with that,” because that’s not something you can plan for. You just kind of make it and hopefully it turns out to be something wonderful. And during that conversation, I think it was Showalter who said, “Why don’t we just make ‘Higher And Higher’ the song that Eric’s working on the whole time,” which completely opened up that character and defined his arc.

AVC: How difficult was it to expand “Higher And Higher” to fit this much more significant role?

CW: It was mainly hard because it was terrifying. It’s something that a lot of people love, including Theodore Shapiro and I, who wrote it. It means a lot to us, and I wanted to do right by it. There were a few lines that were written for it 15 years ago but that were never used. So that was easy, those were already done and approved. But there needed to be a second verse, and I wanted to do a slightly overwrought, Bono-esque kind of breakdown for it. And I love U2, so I don’t mean that as an insult. I was mainly scared to approach it.

It’s like doing a cover of one of your favorite songs. If I’m not feeling particularly inspired but I want to make music, I’ll just do a highly interpretative cover of something I love. It’s one thing to do a cover of like a Duran Duran song, because I love Duran Duran, but it’s not definitive or religious in any way. I feel like it’s just clay and I can do whatever I want with it. But I’d never cover a song by X or The Pretenders because those are my two favorite bands and I have nothing to add or to say about their original recordings. Because of what “Higher And Higher” became—this sort of cult anthem to a very passionate group—I was terrified of doing it wrong. I just wanted it to be great, and it took a long time to get the lyrics together.

AVC: Was the music easier to work with because so much of it was in place?

CW: In terms of the actual track, we only had the two-track stereo version from the movie, there no multi-tracks. So I had to edit together this mega-mix of it with me singing the new vocals, including the speech over the breakdown. Chris Pine sang along to that on the top of the roof, and we recorded his vocal. Once we edited the scene together, I took it and rebuilt the whole track around his performance. Then he came back in and sang it to picture in the studio.

By the way, his performance on the roof was great. It was just that he was singing along to speakers that were blasting the original version at the same time. So it was sort of an interesting reverse engineering of that song. My fear about it was that I didn’t want it to be like this recent trend where classic rock artists are going back into their vaults and adding new vocals to unfinished material. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I didn’t want it to be that. Chris did an amazing job.