Shudder To Think’s Craig Wedren
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Creator of the awe-inspiring Pony Express Record, one of the most challenging major-label albums made during the ’90s alt-rock sweepstakes, Shudder To Think was always too forward-thinking and arty to attract a wide audience, even though the band has received plenty of props from bands in high places. After issuing 1997’s 50,000 B.C. and getting involved with a few soundtracks—including First Love, Last Rites and High Art—the band decided to move on to other projects, including more soundtrack work and groups like Baby (led by singer-guitarist Craig Wedren), Guided By Voices (drummer Kevin March), and Hot One and A Camp (both featuring guitarist Nathan Larson). But in 2007, they decided to give the old tunes another spin, which turned into a 2008 tour that found original bassist Stuart Hill declining the offer (“He needed to separate from it permanently, I think, in his own mind,” says Wedren) but Pony Express drummer Adam Wade (who’d gotten the boot back in the day) helping out on the West Coast dates. Now the reunion has been commemorated with a live disc called Live From Home, which is like the best-of album the band never released. But as Wedren explained a week after the record-release show, don’t expect to see Shudder To Think coming through your town anytime soon.
The A.V. Club: If memory serves, at the end of 1998, you guys were playing shows in support of your recent soundtrack work, and then the next thing we knew, you’d broken up.
Craig Wedren: I think we were already sort of wound down by that point—that was kind of a last hurrah. For some reason, in my memory, the last tour we ever did was opening for Pearl Jam in Australia, which was incredible. But maybe we did the soundtrack thing after that—that was all sort of around the same time. By that point, we were certainly over each other, and subsequently we were sort of over it. I had a thought and a hope and sort of a fantasy that we would be able to turn Shudder To Think into this sort of full-service music—that sounds more commercial than I thought of it at the time—but like this kind of thing where we would make records when we made records, and we would do soundtracks, and we would perform, and we would write and produce for other artists. Sort of turn it into more of a grown-up operation that solved all of our frustrations and problems about wanting to do other projects, but having it under the Shudder To Think moniker, even if it was just like a company name or like a brand, for lack of a better word. But I think our personal relationships, certainly Nathan’s and my personal relationship at the time, and our ambitions—we needed to not be doing stuff together. So it just broke down.
AVC: What were the main problems between you and Nathan?
CW: Nathan came into the band six years in, so it was already very much a thing. He came in between Get Your Goat and Pony Express Record. And Nathan wanted to be a frontman, too. We were two frontpeople—very complementary, very much brotherly, for better and for worse—and for a while, that was fantastic, because it really added something to the band. When Nathan and I work together, we push each other to be better, to be the best versions of ourselves. And part of that is creative, but by 1998, it had become destructive. When people start reaching their late 20s or early 30s, you have to figure out some other arrangement, because people need to step out on their own a little more. I needed to be the leader or frontman of whatever I was doing, and Nathan increasingly was really chafing and frustrated because he wanted to do his own thing. And so we were at creative loggerheads—we couldn’t really do anything together at that point.
AVC: Did you consider continuing Shudder without Nathan?
CW: Yeah, we did. Stuart Hill and I talked about it for a minute. We were just both fucking exhausted. [Laughs.] Everybody was sort of in their own version of the same thing—like Stuart, he just wanted to play bass in a band. I wanted to do soundtracks, but I didn’t want to force Stuart to do stuff he didn’t want to do half or more of the time just because I didn’t want to be in a traditional band 100 percent of the time. He was the remaining original member, so it was really him and I who had the discussion. Kevin, I don’t remember what his thought was at the time, but Nathan definitely brought him into Shudder To Think, so I don’t know if he wanted to continue or if he felt an allegiance to Nathan at that point, but basically it all just melted down. For some reason, I remember being in the Chicago airport, and Nathan just quit. Stuart and I looked at each other and we were like, “Can we keep this going?” And then we were both like, “No, let’s like go fucking skiing or something.” [Laughs.]
AVC: You guys went from Dischord to Epic during a time when any indie band that signed to a major was called a sellout.
CW: It’s hilarious.
AVC: It’s funny to think of now, but how did that affect the band at the time?
CW: I don’t think it really affected us. We were pretty used to adversity, just because we were always sort of misfits musically and visually. It was just more nonsense to us, and that type of adversity and name-calling was always good fuel for our coal engine. What was difficult—the blessing and the curse of the major label during the alternative boom—was, there was a lot of money and a lot of pressure to sell a lot of records. And a lot of that music, with the exception of Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, a lot of the music being made by artists who had jumped from indies to majors, was still pretty niche and weird. So to sell the number of albums that a major expected, and that we expected by going to a major, was actually very confining for us. And definitely took some of the wind out of our sails, I would say around or just after 50,000 B.C., where we were like, “Wow, this isn’t going to work. How are we going to do what we want to do without bailing on this really awesome situation where we have this whole structure in place to market, produce, promote, pay us?” But we weren’t selling enough records to stay in that position.
AVC: Many of your fans still consider Pony Express Record—your major-label debut—their favorite Shudder album.
CW: Right. It’s definitely the most difficult record we ever made. We made our pop records for Dischord.
AVC: It’s a very challenging record, especially for a major label. So what were the marketing meetings like? Did the label really think they had a commercial hit on their hands?
CW: Yes. [Laughs.] I know, it seems so absurd. Here’s the situation: Michael Goldstone was our A&R person. His two prior signings were Rage Against The Machine and Pearl Jam, so he was untouchable. He was the golden boy of Epic Records. He signed us based on Pony Express Record, which we had already written three-quarters of, and it was like, “Okay, you realize this is what we’re making, so if you’re psyched, we’re very psyched.” [Laughs.] We were definitely aware that our interests were not grunge or alternative or whatever the thing was, so when they agreed to do it, we were like, “Wow, maybe revolution really is possible,” like on an art level. “Maybe if The Beatles can make The White Album or Sgt. Pepper, we can make Pony Express Record”—not to put it in that league, but just in terms of experimentation—“and like sell a million of them. Maybe things really have changed—maybe this whole ‘alternative’ thing isn’t just media hype.” But, you know, come on. To sell millions of records, you’ve really got to make something that can appeal to millions of people, and Pony Express Record is more niche than that. But the marketing meetings were like, “Okay, if you say so, Michael Goldstone.” I think that’s what a lot of people at the label were thinking.
AVC: But the band really thought it could happen, too.
CW: Oh yeah, absolutely. We were like, “Yes, this is the moment where art triumphs over commerce, or where it finds equal footing. We can be the band that is as big as U2 and as weird as Einstürzende Neubauten.”
AVC: There are stories about how Pony Express Record was a difficult record to make with producer Ted Niceley.
CW: It was. Ted was just being a benevolent taskmaster with dog ears, and maybe ghost ears—he would hear things that were either way out of anybody’s ability to perceive, or nonexistent. [Laughs.] We’re not sure still. He would hear tones and rhythm fluctuations and tempo things that the rest of us were not privy to, so we would wind up doing lots of takes of things. Ted, whom I love and adore, he’s an eccentric character—he’s a unique commodity and a fantastic guy, but I think we were all caught up in the moment, and really, it got a little overworked. And Adam Wade was ground down to a fine pulp by this fucking machine called the Russian Dragon. It would somehow monitor whether the drums were ahead of the beat—rushing—or behind the beat—dragging. This was the time before ProTools, so there’s no editing, and Ted was just absolutely adamant—no pun intended—about Adam getting the rhythm completely spot-on. I’m sure sometimes it was a good thing—to a certain extent, it was probably great, because it sharpened our chops and made us aware of our weak points, but after a certain point, it’s like flogging a dead horse. With both Pony Express Record and 50,000 B.C., if I could just loosen up the screws a little bit and let in a little more air and breathing room and naturalness into the performances and the recordings and the mixes, I don’t think they would sound so dated. And believe me, Pony Express Record, it’s a fucking awesome record. I love it. But from a 40-year-old’s perspective, living in 2009, I would love it if it was a little looser. I think the songs might just have more kind of like primal appeal.
AVC: Ted also produced 50,000 B.C., which was more straightforward than Pony Express.
CW: Very deliberately. After Pony Express Record, I had written a ton of stuff which was very much in the feel of Pony Express Record—those types of guitar lines. I guess it was mellower, maybe a little more soulful. It was still pretty abstract and refracted, in a way. And nobody in the band space was responding to it. In retrospect, that was when Nathan was starting to have a really hard time, but I don’t even think he was aware of what was going on for a while with himself. So what I thought was the new hot shit was met with very cool vibes in the room, and that, paired with the label giving us in no uncertain terms, “You guys need to have a hit on this next record, or it’s going to be a really bad scene”—then I got cancer, and I just got really sick for about six or eight months. And the one thing I did while I was sick was write this new album with, ironically, just sort of a sunnier, happier viewpoint. A few weeks ago, I was listening to a lot of 50,000 B.C., because we played a lot of those songs at the show last week, and I love that record. What I always thought at the time was like, we didn’t quite get it to 100 percent—it didn’t ever come to full flower, and part of it was just because I was sick and exhausted, and the rest of the band was just exhausted and worried. So there wasn’t that few percent extra magic energy that makes something go from really good to fucking stupendously great, but I love those songs, even though they’re drawing from a much more classic-rock or sort of traditional-pop songwriting palette.
AVC: Did you record while you were still sick?
CW: Oh yeah. I had gone through chemotherapy six months, and then I went through a month of radiation exactly when I was doing all of my vocals. My doctor was like, “If you have the energy, you should absolutely record—the best thing for your health is to do something you love and to not sit around thinking about it.” He was like, “But I’m warning you: Any morning, you might wake up and never be able to sing again, just from the radiation. Or it might just dry you up.” Because I was getting radiated in my chest and neck, and it dries you up, and it’s tough to know what the long-term effects are until you’re far away from it. So I was just chugging gallons of water. Carl Glanville, who engineered the thing—because between all of my lines, I’m chugging so much water that it was audible, he had to go back and erase all the water things. So it was dramatic, but we actually had a really good time making that record. We were all very excited about that album and the music on it. Once we got it together and did it, none of us had any doubts about 50,000 B.C.
AVC: You figured this was the one that had the hits on it?
CW: We totally did. But always with Shudder To Think, we were sort of in our own bubble. Our idea of what a hit was was out of step with what was actually happening in the world. We were not capable at the time of making something that sounded like anybody else. Even if we were making what in our minds was a commercial hit, it was still bizarro-world radio. So we were like, “Yeah, man, on pop radio in our world, they’re playing ‘All Eyes Are Different’ or ‘Beauty Strike’ or something. But not in America.
AVC: So lack of commercial success played into your decision to break up the band.
CW: Absolutely. It was like, “Well, what are we going to do next?” It all had at that point become less instinctive and more calculated, because there were a lot more people with a lot more money at stake with specific expectations about what we needed to do. And we were always commercially ambitious, too—we were like, “We want to be huge on our own terms.” But it’s like we almost couldn’t figure out what our own terms were anymore. We didn’t want to make another Pony Express Record. We wanted to do whatever the next exciting thing was, and what was really exciting to me was to make a super-pop album. But that was probably more just because it was sort of in the ether, in the zeitgeist—that was right before the whole pop thing happened and wiped out alternative. It was like boy bands and bubblegum disco and stuff, and that was actually really refreshing for like a minute, because it wasn’t so navel-gazing and dark and brooding and annoying. But how we would have pulled off that hat trick, and how we would be looking back on it now if we had done that, it’s probably good that we broke up. [Laughs.]
AVC: Wasn’t Baby sort of your attempt to have a quasi boy band?
CW: Yeah, I was totally genuine in wanting to do some weird version, some fresh take on pop or disco or whatever it was. I had used up all of my goodwill drink tickets with the rest of the band on Pony Express Record, which was very much a band effort, but stemmed from me in large part—by no means could I, would I, or should I take the credit for that record, but the style of it, the sort of vision for it, and a lot of the energy to make it was coming from me, and like writing that I was doing at the time. And when that sort of was a disappointment, and then we made 50,000 B.C., which I wrote a lot of, too, and tried to make it something that would appeal more to the rest of the band and to the rest of the world, and then that so did not catch fire, there’s no way I could have walked into the room being like, “You guys, let’s make a gay club record—let’s make a Pet Shop Boys album!” It just wasn’t going to happen. And Nathan and I were on such different pages—I was totally into electronic music and dance music at the time, and he was 100 percent old-school soul stuff. I certainly loved old-school soul stuff, and he probably liked a lot of dance music and pop music, but there was no way to get on the same page.
AVC: So what eventually brought you guys back together?
CW: Our mutual friend Rain Phoenix, who I know from this cabaret troupe called Citizens Band that I perform with sometimes, she was in a band—they were doing a residency somewhere in New York and she invited me to play, and also invited Nathan and Nina [Persson], or A Camp, to play, and we wound up doing it on the same night. So it was me, A Camp, and Rain’s band, and Kevin was playing with both A Camp and me, so we were just like, “Let’s do a few Shudder songs.” Nathan and I, over the years—basically, annually, we would sort of have a sit-down, hash-it-out session to greater or lesser effect, so around 2007 it was like, “The past is the past,” and we were pretty cool with each other, and it seemed like that was kind of the thing to do. Nathan came out at the end of my set and we played like four or five Shudder songs, and it was great. It felt very groovy, real natural. And then after that, my wife [Meggan Lennon, sister of The State/Reno 911!’s Thomas Lennon] and I were involved in a bunch of Obama campaign stuff—we were putting on this big day-before-primary-election, get-out-the-vote-to-younger-college-age-people show of comedy and music, and that seemed like a very worthy excuse to do something under the Shudder moniker. I don’t know how the tour happened. I think it was a booking agent who was like, “Dude, I want to book a Shudder To Think tour,” and we’re like, “If we can fly everywhere, only play on the weekend, and only do major markets, we will be there.” [Laughs.] Because we all have families and we all have other music-making careers, and that was really the only practical way to do it.
AVC: How did the tour go?
CW: It was great. Musically, it was awesome. People showed up to the shows for the most part, so we were very happy on all of those levels. But all we could do was play old songs—it’s very not Shudder To Think in the sense that Shudder To Think had always been about the new shit. Like, whenever you would come to a Shudder To Think show, the stuff we were the most psyched about playing was the most recent stuff that was getting hammered out in the rehearsal space. And there was none of that, so it sort of existed in its own little bubble. I look back on it like it was some strange dream.
AVC: But as for the songs you did play, did it feel like old times? Was it easy to step back into it?
CW: It was very easy. And I think we’re all better at our respective instruments now, and way less worried or wrapped up in the trappings. Our careers didn’t depend on it; we weren’t doing it to try and sell a million records. We weren’t going to get dropped by a record label if we didn’t dot-dot-dot. So it really was just like, “Let’s get up there and play these magical songs together.” In terms of it being like old times, Stuart Hill didn’t play, [bassist] Jesse Krakow did, who plays in my solo band and has been invaluable because he knows Shudder songs better than we do at this point. So it wasn’t exactly like old times, and [guitarist] Mark Watrous was playing, too, who also plays in my band, so it was a little bit of a fresh take. It was in between—on the one hand, it was like, “Yeah, let’s do this, this is awesome,” and on the other hand, it was like, “What is this?” It was like going on a romantic vacation with your ex-wife: “The sex is awesome, we’re so much better at fucking than we used to be. Okay, gotta go back to our families now.” It’s like, what?
AVC: But you and Nathan were presumably getting along.
CW: Yeah, totally. And speaking of wives, my wife was really pushing for that tour to happen, because she was like, “Dude, whatever it is creatively, whatever it is musically, it’s going to be so good for you and Nathan’s friendship.” Which, like, whatever happened 10 years ago for a couple of years—you know, we were real best friends growing up in high school, and on and off throughout our adulthood—but I think overall, it was really good. He and I were talking about this last week: It was great for getting along outside of the band, and just being able to be normal Craig-and-Nathan friends, but the second we got back into band mode, it was just like weirdly frozen, like vibe-wise and relationship-wise. It’s not to say we couldn’t do music together, I just don’t think it could be Shudder To Think. It’s not to say we couldn’t make some new amazing music together, but I think it would have to be completely untethered.
AVC: Why do you think that is?
CW: I don’t know. Maybe it’s just falling into old roles. He and I need to maybe have a little more postmortem about it at some point, but in general, it was such a good experience. And in general, outside of the band Shudder To Think, it was really good for Nathan and I. Not in a way that is good for fans, but in a way that’s good for us. [Laughs.]
AVC: You only played two songs from 50,000 B.C. on the tour last year, and the new live record only has “Call Of The Playground.” Were you intentionally avoiding that album?
CW: Last week, we played like six songs from 50,000 B.C., which was so fun I wish we would have done it last year, but honestly, we couldn’t remember the chords. It was literally just circumstantial—we got together to rehearse for the tour, and the only ones we could remember at the time on short order were “Call Of The Playground” and “The Man Who Rolls.” But Mark Watrous and Jesse Krakow and Kevin March nailed it down last week. Because all of us had to remember this stuff, and Nathan couldn’t remember some parts of “Beauty Strike,” and so for the tour, we did the ones that sounded best in the not a lot of rehearsal time we had. And then last week, we just made a determined effort to pay some respect to 50,000 B.C.
AVC: So when you were on tour, was there any talk of writing new stuff?
CW: No. Literally none. Like not once. [Laughs.]
AVC: Does that seem weird to you?
CW: In retrospect it does. At the time, it seemed like pretty much the only option. [Laughs]. That’s weird that you mention that—I hadn’t even thought about that. I guess that’s really strange. You know what? That’s not true. Nathan and I traveled from New York to Boston together—I’d been working on this solo record for a couple years now called Wand, and I had thought this for a minute, I was like, “This could easily be the next Shudder To Think record. It feels like the next Shudder To Think record.” Now, a lot of fans would be like, “Whoa, this doesn’t sound like Shudder To Think,” but to me it feels like part of that arc. I said, “Dude, I’m making this record and I would love for you to play guitar on it.” I think I even said to him, “This album could so easily be a Shudder album. Do you want to play guitar on it?” And he thought about it for a minute, and he was like, “No, I can’t.” And to his credit, as opposed to 10 or 15 years ago when we were all less self-aware, he was like, “You know what? I can’t do that. I need to either be the leader of my own shit or in a total background role, and anything that’s under the name Shudder To Think is sort of neither fish nor fowl. I wouldn’t be happy, you wouldn’t be happy, we wouldn’t be happy.” I was a bit crestfallen for a couple hours, but he was absolutely right. But then a month or so later we were talking again, he was like, “I would love to just play guitar on a couple songs, like not as a Shudder To Think thing.” And so that seemed great, but it just never happened.
AVC: Last week’s performance in New York was the one and only show in support of the live album, and Nathan wasn’t involved. Does that mean the reunion is over?
CW: [Laughs.] I don’t know. I always like to leave the door cracked open a little bit for potential future in anything, because nothing ever seems final. What happened was, when we were first talking about doing this record-release show, my manager called me and Nathan and was like, “Hey, Team Love wants to do a record release, and Bowery Ballroom wants to put it on. Are you guys down?” And Nathan was in the middle of a ton of A Camp stuff, so A Camp management was giving Nathan a lot of pressure to keep his schedule open, and so he was like, “You know what? I just can’t give you an answer. I’m not going to know until the last minute, but it looks like there’s going to be a bunch of A Camp promo stuff then, and I’m getting a lot of pressure to not overextend, so I’m just going to do that. By all means do it—here’s my blessing.” But then cut to last week: I got to New York, and we’re starting to rehearse, and Kevin pulls me aside, and he’s like, “Just so it’s not weird, you should know Nathan’s in New York.” I thought he was in Sweden doing A Camp stuff, and that was a whole awkward thing for a minute, until I talked to Nathan the next day and he was like, “Dude, the last week’s worth of A Camp stuff got blown out, so we came back to New York.” Kevin and I were like, “Well, do the show, like do at least a handful of songs.” And I think Stuart, a year ago, he sort of thought about it, and then he’s like, “You know, it’s moving-on time. We did it last year, it was awesome, let’s leave it be.”
I sort of took it as, “Okay, we’ll treat this as like a new kind of Shudder To Think show. Let’s combine it with some of the orchestral stuff that we’ve been combining with some old Shudder To Think stuff, and new pieces that I’ve been writing for collaborating with this guy Jefferson Friedman, who had been the touring keyboardist for Shudder To Think and is now a classical composer.” Even if it’s not technically Shudder To Think, it so feels in the spirit of the thing. And without Nathan there, it felt like we had free rein to try new stuff, which sort of goes back to what I was saying before, about feeling creatively very frozen as long as both Nathan and I were in the band with no clear, clean agreement as to how to proceed with new material. And so it was like, “Fuck it, some people are going to be really bummed out and feel like, ‘Where’s Nathan? This isn’t really Shudder To Think.’ But some people are going to be way into it, and it’s one show, so let’s see how it goes.” It was a good show; unfortunately, it wasn’t like a great Shudder To Think show. I think it was one of those days where we’re having technical problems, soundcheck was weird, the show was paced a little bit funny. So it was about 80 percent, and I feel like if we’d kicked ass, if it had sounded great and it flowed, then I would have felt like, “Okay, I don’t really care what people think. Some people are bummed that Nathan’s not here—it doesn’t matter. If some people think it’s weird that we’re playing things that are tangential, I don’t really care.” But unfortunately, after the show I was like, “Fuck, I wish that had just been like a 10-percent-better show, just so we could walk away feeling like, ‘Okay, what do you people think?’”
AVC: That just means you have a reason to go out and do it again, to make sure that’s not the final Shudder show.
CW: I don’t know. Certainly the next day I was like, “I don’t want to do any more Shudder To Think shows.” [Laughs.]
AVC: So do you think you could do Shudder again?
CW: Sure, of course, absolutely. But it would really have to feel right, and it would have to be more clear than it is right now, that it could be all the things that I and whoever the other bandmates are need it to be. And I think certainly for me and Nathan and Kevin and Adam and whoever else, at this point to do it would be more limiting than freeing.