The Wrens' Charles Bissell takes some time off from taking time off
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The Wrens’ tongue-in-cheek tagline, “Keeping folks waiting since 1989,” pretty much sums up the band’s career. With only three full-length records in its 20-year life span, the New Jersey band is known for taking its carefully calculated time. With no break-ups or official hiatuses to blame, this gradual output has more to do with record-label bureaucracy than artistic stubbornness. After releasing the 1996 sophomore hit Secaucus, the band refused to sign a hefty contract that would have locked it in with Grass Records (later Wind-Up Records)—the label responsible for forcing the likes of Creed upon the world—before spending seven years working on 2003’s The Meadowlands. The Wrens’ guitarist/vocalist Charles Bissell sat down with The A.V. Club before the band’s series of shows at Maxwell's on Thursday and Friday to talk about long layoffs, auditioning for record labels, and maybe, just maybe, starting to record that promised fourth album soon.
The A.V. Club: We'll start with an easy question: When will your next record be out?
Charles Bissell: That’s the easy one? [Laughs.]
AVC: I guess for you guys, that’s not an easy one.
CB: I’m going to go out on limb and say it’ll be done in the spring and out next summer. There’s always lag time—the huge machine that is the record industry needs those few months.
AVC: Why the long gap between Meadowlands and this record?
CB: There’s no easy answer, although part of it [is] we needed a break. The funny thing is, we toured all the time, had jobs, and did a couple weekends a month. The biggest thing I guess was the last record took so darn long to make and a lot of it was pretty boring stuff. A lot of it was how we work as a band and how we brought in songs. I vowed never to do that again—never to take four years [with a record]—but it took five years to ensure that would never happen. [Laughs.]
AVC: Will the next record be named after an area in northeast New Jersey?
CB: We’ll see as it comes together. If it continues our theme, maybe. It depends on what it ends up being about—if we’ll continue a theme or if it’ll be our Zooropa and we’ll be preposterously ironic and put on sunglasses.
AVC: How is your approach to recording an album different now than it used to be?
CB: In the early days, up through Secaucus—what some people call '80s into the '90s—it was the kind of standard band thing where people wrote songs on an acoustic guitar or piano, then brought it to the band. By Meadowlands, we were exhausted and just recorded 15 or 20 half-assed songs then overdubbed the bejesus out of 'em for four years. What you hear is me sitting at a mixing board overdubbing crap. What’s different now is in the last year or two, we bought computers. Is that what they are called? [Laughs.] In a way we are way ahead and its mostly different; we are not writing songs, we are making records. If the stars align and Zeus doesn’t throw thunderbolts, we will have the first song tracked tonight.
AVC: What did you learn from the long, hard layoff after Secaucus?
CB: It’s hard to explain exactly why, but this last layoff was the hard one. With the first one, there was lots of label stuff when Grass became Wind-Up Records—we were recording an eternal résumé for A&R people. Considering we were DIY for so long, I don’t know why we fell into that trap. They wanted to hear what we were doing, but they would never hire the custodian to clean the building and say “if we like the way you clean the building, we’ll hire you.” With musicians, it’s “record 50 songs, and if we like it, we will sign you.” It’s been equally hard this year, with back taxes due, the studio being set up and re-set up, and the computer died—we have to buy new a computer, we have 8 million e-mails. It’s really like owning a small hardware store. It’s not glamorous. I’m a stay-at-home dad most of week, and e-mails eat up my free hours each week. It’s more frustrating than the first break.
AVC: Why was Meadowlands released as a CD-R about a year before its proper release?
CB: We didn’t really release it; I guess copies just get around. That was three and a half years into it, and it just seemed like a preposterously long time. In the summer of '02 we were like, “We’re done.” We had a party and erased the master tapes. Around Thanksgiving, I knew that we had to go back in and change it because it wasn’t good enough, but all that was left were the drums. We’d erased the tapes and it had to be started from scratch. Greg [Whelan, guitarist] got home from work and heard us in the studio working, and he was furious! He thought it was done. [The end result] felt more finished. I’m glad we did it that way.
AVC: Well, after three years, what's another couple months?
CB: Totally. Everything except drums was tracked on after the fact, all the noises on the record happened in the last year. A third of it was during the last three month re-do. It’s definitely not a recommended way to make a record.
AVC: How did the Maxwell’s Meadowlands shows come together?
CB: It came about because it’s our 20th anniversary this year. It was also Merge [Records]’s 20th anniversary, and they had a festival. People reunited, exhumed Lincoln’s body, there was a papal visit. We felt like we were missing our own boat; not a lot of bands get there. If you only put out three records in 20 years, so be it! [Laughs.]