ho’s your favorite band? Motley Crue, eh? Well, tell me, when you’re lying on the floor of your room, spinning Dr. Feelgood for the seventh consecutive time, reeling from the sheer power of their Crue-ness, what it is you’re worshipping. Talk all you want about Vince Neil’s passion, or Nikki Sixx’s ability to lay down the groove, or, well, Tommy Lee. But the truth is this: you want their lives. You want the excess. You want to be backstage at the Whisky, beer-soaked, coked-up, and babbling incoherently about a multimillion dollar record deal. You want Girls Girls Girls. You don’t want a day job, you want Pamela Anderson. And you will never, ever get these things. It’s a fan’s job to dream; it’s a rock star’s job to live the dream.
My favorite band is The Wrens. They wake up every morning at the crack of the New Jersey dawn, using public transportation to get to their shitty office jobs in New York City. Bruce Springsteen is a fucking charlatan. The Wrens should be the heroes of working-class New Jersey. I, on the other hand, go to an expensive liberal arts college. My earliest class is at 3:30pm, and involves the politics of basket-weaving. I do not want The Wrens’ lives.
However, the greatest art is often a product of great hardship, which means:
a) I am cursed to remain a lowly rock scribe, or at least a basket-weaving politician.
b) The Wrens have recorded the best album of the year.
The Meadowlands is an emotional masterpiece, and a musical apex for a band defined by boundless creativity, an undying work ethic, and a superhuman knack for harmony. The Wrens are the kind of band you want to succeed, if only because they’ve worked harder than you ever will. The Meadowlands gains even deeper resonance when you discover the band’s history of bad luck and missed opportunities.
I took three of The Wrens--Charles Bissell (guitar and vocals), Greg Whelan (guitar), and his baby brother Kevin (bass and vocals)--out to dinner after work on an October evening, to learn more about the trials, tribulations and strewn carcasses that they swept away to record The Meadowlands.
Stylus: You guys have day jobs. What are they?
Greg: He and I [pointing to Kevin] work for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals.
Kevin: I’m an associate, and I work in the regulatory department in the Pfizer library.
Greg: I’m an associate director, and I work in the compliance group.
Charles: I’m a senior staff accountant at Loews Advertising.
Stylus: Do your co-workers know that you’re in this band?
C: They do now!
K: They didn’t before, at least for me…
C: For years it was very much under wraps.
Stylus: What’s it like, waking up this morning, finding out that Pitchfork Media called The Meadowlands the best album of the year, and then going off to work, like it‘s a normal day?
C: We received a letter that said the review was gonna run today, and the rumor was that we were getting a pretty high rating. So I was pretty nervous going into the office today. We don’t have a computer at home, so we actually didn’t know until we got into work. Each of us found out separately.
K: It was awesome. A friend wrote in saying “Hey, congratulations!” so I went to the site, and it just blew my mind, and made my entire day.
Stylus: So you all live in the same house. What’s that like? Who buys groceries?
K: That’s what everyone asks. Never in interviews, but among our friends, people always want to know if we make each other dinner. Everyone--girlfriends, friends, they all want to know.
C: We’re invisible to each other at home. There’s no words exchanged. There’s a series of “fuck you” fingers given out, and that’s about it.
K: Everyone makes their own food. We have our own cabinets. I think that’s why we make such good roommates--we never share.
Stylus: This house has a recording studio in it?
C: That’s putting it charitably. Others would call it the dining room… The last house was really set up well for recording, we just didn’t know enough to use it. This house is considerably smaller, but it gets the job done.
Stylus: So Jerry’s the one who’s married and lives separately…?
K: Yes, since the end of 1996. We all moved in together in ‘91, when he’d just finished college and I was still in college, and we all moved in together in Secaucus.
Stylus: When he got married and left the house, did it change the band’s dynamic?
K: No, because he’d always been with the same girl since he was a teenager. In some ways it changed the dynamic, but, as much as we make fun of Jerry, he’s still so dedicated and loves being in this band, and he’s always here…
G: Except for tonight.
K: Except for tonight, the fuckin’ monster!
Stylus: So he has three kids?
K: Three little monsters. Two boy monsters and one girl monster.
Stylus: Big fans of the band?
K: They hate the band! They think we all play drums, so they call us The Drummers.
Stylus: So I first heard of you guys through the Drive-Thru Records compilation a few years back. How did that happen? I remember listening to it, back when I was into pop-punk--whatever was new and horrible--and I remember hearing The Wrens and thinking: “these guys suck! This isn‘t pop-punk at all!” So what were you guys doing on that compilation? Were you planning to sign with Drive-Thru?
C: The Meadowlands was actually started to be on Drive-Thru, back in January of 1999. We’ve known Richard and Stefanie Reines, who own the label, for years, way before they’d coalesced into a purely pop-punk label.
K: They just love music. We love Richard and Stefanie, and they’re from New Jersey, and they’ve always been friends of ours. They helped us out, they brought us out to California and set up shows for us. They’re just…motherfuckers, the nicest people. They said, “we’re starting a label, why don’t you guys join up?” It ended up taking us a long time to get our shit together, and meanwhile Drive-Thru just took off and got really successful.
G: We did, however, record for them on their Duran Duran tribute album. We covered “The Seventh Stranger”.
Stylus: In retrospect, you wouldn’t have fit at all well on their roster.
K: Maybe as Finch’s grandparents.
G: I don’t really see any kid skating a half pipe to “She Sends Kisses”, you know?
Stylus: The support you’ve received from the CMJ Bulletin Board (www.cmj.com/bb) is just insane.
C: It’s crazy. When we put out that early version--the pre-release version--of The Meadowlands with the extra songs, we sold a few copies and then someone clued us into the web board. It was so flattering, because it was really the first feedback we’d had on it, and just unbelievably encouraging. A real morale-booster.
K: We can’t thank anyone enough. I know it’s so un-rock for bands to check out what the fans are saying, but everybody fuckin’ does it. We’re nice enough to admit it. And these strangers are writing nicer shit about us than our parents ever would. Our parents think we suck! For anybody who wrote these nice things, it fuckin’ meant so much to us. We were able to sit down and think: “Okay, we’re not insane.” There definitely was a point where we were questioning our sanity.
C: We were talking about this the other day. The last time we put out a record, the EP, was in ‘97, and none of us were online in any capacity. When we put out Secaucus, it was so different. There was no way to get this sort of instantaneous feedback. We used to go to play a show, for a different record, and sit around all glum thinking that no one’s gonna be there, no one knows we put out a record. Now, with the internet, there’s so much more awareness. It’s so encouraging.
Stylus: So, in a sense, The Wrens have become a sort of cult band. It’s interesting, because there was a point, maybe 3 or 4 years ago, when you could find Secaucus in a number of used bins for 88 cents. There were a lot of people who found the album that way and just fell in love with the band. That’s a great way to find a great band.
K: But that’s a bigger testament to the people who listen to the music. They sometimes search harder than even other musicians or magazines, etc. That’s why the internet, in some ways, has given the power to them. They can write their own review of a show, and everybody doesn’t have to wait for the next Rolling Stone to find the review of the cool band that you like.
Stylus: Everything that’s happened to The Wrens in the past 13 years would make a great movie. To put it bluntly, why does this band have such bad luck?
K: Not only have we had bad luck, but we wanted things to go well so badly. We always wanted to be part of a scene, but we never lived in the right location, etc. We just always wanted to simply be recognized for creating good music, and that’s sort of what’s happening right now. In a way, all that bad luck turned into something really nice. You almost can’t explain it.
G: Actually, none of it was really bad luck, per se. At the time when we came out, we were doing our own thing. People wanted funk-metal, but we weren’t funk-metal, and then came grunge. We just didn’t fit into that. And now, I don’t know, is it our time to enjoy the fruits of everything we’ve done? The fact that we actually put out a record, and journalist is here from Stylus interviewing us, that’s enough for us.
C: Almost by default, if you’ve been a band for 13 years, and you’re not a major rock band or even a popular indie band, but you’ve stuck it out, you gather enough stories that it almost seems like bad luck.
Stylus: Why did The Meadowlands take 7 years to record?
C: Well, it was 7 years between records, but it really took only 4 years to record, starting in January ‘99, so please!
G: It was only supposed to take a month.
C: We told Richard and Stefanie that we’d be done by February.
G: Well, Jerry recorded all his drums by the end of February ‘99, and the drums have never changed.
C: Well, that’s not exactly true. We did some retooling.
Stylus: I’m pretty convinced that The Meadowlands is going to be some kind of classic. Whether it’s a cult-classic or a classic third album by a band that put out twenty albums is, I guess, up to you guys and your publicist. I’d like to go song by song on this album, and ask a question that is tenuously linked to each song.
1. The House That Guilt Built
“I’m nowhere near/what I dreamed I’d be/I can’t believe/what life has done to me”
Stylus: Secaucus starts off with the fast-paced, rollicking “Yellow Number Three”. Were you purposely going for the opposite?
C: We decided, with the sequencing, that we wanted The Meadowlands to start off slower and end slower.
K: Also, we wanted all our records to be linked together in some way, and every one of our records has a small, short song at the beginning.
Stylus: There’s that line: “I’m nowhere near/where I dreamed I’d be.” It’s sad. When you started The Wrens, what was your goal? Do you think you haven’t reached it?
K: I think now we actually are reaching it. But when we were young, when we started the band, we always expected to do something original and unique, but we also expected all the luxuries on top of it. Sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you had planned.
“Is this why you wanted me/to watch as you walk away/you kept on killing me/and you don’t even want to touch me”
Stylus: “Happy” is not only my favorite song on The Meadowlands; it’s my favorite song of the year. Silver and Secaucus are filled with lyrics that, when comprehensible, are, well, oblique. Were you consciously trying to write lyrics that are more direct?
K: Let me first just say that we all write these songs together. However, this was one of the first Wrens songs where we recorded it all together, everyone wrote their own thing, and it really came together in a special way.
C: It’s one of the only songs where, what you hear on the record is exactly the way it was constructed in the basement. There wasn’t a lot of tweaking. That’s why “Happy” feels better than any other song on the record. It’s more natural, it progresses more naturally.
3. She Sends Kisses
“Past clumsy crushes beneath Thrill Pier/hopes pinned to poses honed in men’s room mirrors/a sophomore at Brown/she worked lost & found/I put your face on her all year”
Stylus: In my notes, I wrote down: “This song is so un-Secaucus.” It’s more Beach Boys than Pixies. Have you guys just mellowed out? What were your musical influences for this record?
K: That’s interesting, because we obviously love both those bands. This song has always been my favorite on the record. In some ways, this is the hardest ballad that we have. Lyrically and musically, it just really worked so well. It’s atmospheric, we tried to blend everything.
Stylus: Well, what are some of your favorite albums, favorite bands? People want to know this stuff. What’s in your Discman or stereo right now?
C: Between the four of us, it’s all pretty different stuff, which is why we end up with records that have that diversity. As much as I love the Interpol record, it’s just so consistent. The Wrens are all over the place, for better or worse.
K: I have the new Radiohead CD in my Discman right now. And I also have The Specials. So between those two…there’s The Wrens.
G: I have U2! All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
K: That’s a good record!
C: I actually just went record shopping. [starts to show us his purchases] Under The Bushes Under The Stars.
Stylus: That’s my absolute favorite Guided By Voices record.
C: I’ve listened to it twice now, it’s really good. I got all sorts of indie rock stuff, which is sort of unusual. Enon, Longwave…I saw them on TV and liked them, but the album is a little too squeaky and polished. Let’s see, Pedro The Lion, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Songs:Ohia, and a New Jersey band called True Love. Super power-pop, really good.
Stylus: Do you like Big Star?
C: Yes, I have one of their records.
Stylus: Okay, now get the other one.
4. This Boy Is Exhausted
“I guess we’re done/cause every win on this record’s hard won.”
Stylus: This seems like the band’s story in a song. There’s that line: “once a while/we’ll play a show and it makes it worthwhile.” Is that the band’s ethos? You go to work and say, “this sucks, but we get to play a show next week!” Is that why you’re in a band?
G: Well, it’s more direct than that. What we actually meant is that a lot of shows we play are complete shit, and then occasionally we do one good one…
C: And there’s the other crap-end of being in a band, when it’s not worth it. You asked why it took so long to record The Meadowlands…one reason is that we just burn out. We get really tired and uninspired and really exhausted. We lose perspective. But every once in a while, we’d play a show…
G: We’d get to Omaha and it’d be okay.
C: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] Omaha.
Stylus: You guys really threw everything into The Meadowlands, musically and emotionally. Is this your go-for-broke, last-ditch attempt at rock-God status?
K: Yes! Yes! I just love that fucking question. That was beautiful.
Stylus: Well, that’s what I got from listening to the album.
K: Thank God. It’s about fucking time!
“Go thank yourself for nothing/it’s really all you’re good for/every year you wasted/and every half-assed offer”
Stylus: The only thing I can ask about “Hopeless” is are you releasing this as a single? It’s so damn catchy.
K: It’s actually nice because this is the first record where we haven’t had to deal with singles. Before, on the other label, it was always focused on picking a single and pushing it.
Stylus: “A V.P.’s faith is one single long.”
K: That’s right, motherfucker!
Stylus: What was the single from Secaucus?
K, G, C: “Rest Your Head”!
K: And then “Surprise, Honeycomb”.
6. Faster Gun
Stylus: So I’m standing there, front-row, at your concert, wanting to sing all the lyrics, and then you play “Faster Gun”, and neglect to print the fucking lyrics in the liner notes. WHY?!
C: The lyrics are just sort of added sounds. There’s no story behind them, you’re not missing anything.
K: We’ve always done that on every record, leave out lyrics, and lines, as much as we could. In the liner notes from Silver, we only printed one line from each song. We’re just having fun. Labels always imagine that people are fucking stupid, so they say “we gotta put your picture on the cover, we gotta print all the lyrics, etc.” But people are really smart; smarter than the fucking bands.
G: Definitely smarter than the labels.
7. Thirteen Grand
“I thought I had it all figured out/but look who got it wrong”
Stylus: For this song, I was going to ask which of you are married, but that was already answered. The lyric “thirteen grand” is actually in another song [“Everyone Choose Sides”]. You guys are just trying to fuck with your audience?
C: It actually fucks with the band, because every time we say “Thirteen Grand”, I start playing the other song.
8. Boys, You Won’t
“Lived through underrated/getting jaded/to wind up with no one/hiding in new places/getting wasted/singing ‘I guess we’re done’”
Stylus: This song used to sound a lot different when it was “Miss Me” on the Drive-Thru sampler. Yes, I’m hardcore.
K: You are so ghetto hardcore.
G: Kill him, he knows too much.
Stylus: Why’d you change it?
C: Have you heard the old version?
C: And you even have to ask?
Stylus: Alright, good call. But the old version, “Miss Me”, could easily have been a radio single.
C: That was the problem we were getting into.
K: At the time, after the EP, a lot of labels were coming in and asking: “can you guys write hits?” So we demo-ed a bunch of songs for them, and got trapped in that whole routine of trying to make it to the next level.
C: It’s called the Liz Phair Syndrome.
K: So “Miss Me” got pigeonholed as that song that could be a hit. So we tried to make it worse and worse and got more and more depressed. So the old version turned into something so nasty for us, and didn’t fit with the record.
C: We tried to give them what they want, but we still gotta do what we want. You end up cutting the corners somewhere.
Stylus: Both musically and lyrically, “Boys, You Won’t” is a much richer song than “Miss Me”.
K: That’s nice of you to say, because it’s actually the same drumming on both versions. [laughs]
9. Ex-Girl Collection
“Where’s Ann been?/she pours herself a don’t-ask gin/no ice and light on the bitters/I’m done with quitters/‘Charles, I found out/wipe that smile off your mouth/I think it’s tell-me time’”
Stylus: This is another great song…
C: Do you wanna live with us, man?
Stylus: That was gonna be my last question, man, so hold on. Anyway, this is obviously a very personal album. All your albums are self-referential; you’re always mentioning each other’s names and such…
K: We’ve actually never set down our real names in the liner notes of our records.
G: That way, we can walk down the street without being recognized.
K: It’s always just been more fun like that.
Stylus: Fair enough, but I want to know who Beth, Jane, Ann, Britt and Susan are. Those names show up a lot on The Meadowlands, and I want to know if they’re real people, so I can find them for this article.
C: You will absolutely not be able to find them.
Stylus: Well, are they real?
C: In some ways, they’re real. We don’t use actual names…
Stylus: But you guys don’t just make up girls who give you a hard time so you can write songs about them, right?
K: We don’t have to.
C: Well, you’re kind of mixing and matching from your personal experience. But you get into a weird argument there, which is: a lot of people want to hear a song only if it’s based on reality, which is weird because it flips the focus back on to the person who wrote the song. To me, the focus should always be on the person who’s listening to the song, in which case it doesn’t matter if it’s fiction. It’s our job as musicians to put the song together well enough that it doesn’t matter. When you go to see a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, it’s not real, but you still walk out with this wonderful experience, because it’s based on common threads in every life. A lot of songwriters think: “this shit happened to me, and that’s why you should like it.” To me, it’s either just good or not.
10. Per Second Second
“Shot rock-splitter to God/take me home/take me home”
Stylus: Who produced The Meadowlands? Just you guys, on your own?
Stylus: Why are the vocals mixed so low in this song?
G: That’s the question I want answered too, dammit.
K: Greg always forgets…
C: He does this every time, because he’s got a grudge against vocal level. Then you get him in the rehearsal room and you can’t hear yourself sing.
K: Wait a second! Honestly, Charles had his vocals up a little higher. But The Wrens sing more than the fucking Mormon Tabernacle choir.
C: Even before that…the printed lyrics in the liner notes, they used to be part of an actual melody. It just never felt right, so it turned into a sort of talking/yelling part, and then the backup was added, and that’s what Kevin is starting to talk about…
G: We almost made it instrumental.
K: Which is what we wanted. But poor Charles was losing his mind, and eventually he just said “don’t fucking bother me.”
C: I just wanted to find some kind of compromise. So we turned the backup vocal into the lead vocal, which is super-distorted and kind of in the background.
K: But we all love it.
Stylus: It certainly seems that way. You play it every show.
11. Everyone Choose Sides
“Worked these sands/I won’t go back again/quitter quitter one boy bitter - rough luck/man to man hand to hand fight 40”
Stylus: You guys are all around 35, and, as the lyric goes, “fight[ing] 40.”
C: When that line was written we were.
Stylus: How much longer do you want to do this? Is The Meadowlands the last Wrens album, and can I be the first to break it?
K: Absolutely? Haha!
C: That is absolutely a good question.
K: At that point I think we should absolutely leave it there. There’s no more to say on that. I think The Wrens did a fine job with their new record--their new outing--The Meadowlands.
C: What was it you said before? A last-ditch something?
K: Yeah, the fucking “strike for the gods?” What did you say?
Stylus: “Go-for-broke, last-ditch attempt at rock-God status.”
K: There’s the title for your article. That’s perfect. That’s the record.
Stylus: Alright, so I guess you’re just not going to answer my question. Which is cool, in a way…
12. 13 Months In 6 Minutes
“We were done by June/you’d graduate and leave for London soon/your layover at Newark’s near my house/we met for dinner there/just one hour to spare/your 20’s all mapped out/I’m in my driest drought/feeling old and shot and how/and this is what I thought:/I seem to still be caught/I’m a footnote at best/I envy who comes next”
Stylus: This is a very personal song. I was going to ask if it’s a true story, but we already established that…
C: This one actually is a true story, from top to bottom.
Stylus: So who did it happen to?
C: Well…I wrote the words. The song’s about me.
Stylus: This song also got a lot better when you re-recorded it, and added the instrumental at the end. It used to be more like “13 Months in 4 Minutes”.
K: Yeah. That’s some high-level listening, man. And it’s a hard to decision to make to re-record a song.
C: It’s interesting because that first time always makes such an impression. Like, once you read the book the movie can never be as good. To hear the second version of a song and think it’s an improvement is a difficult thing.
13. This Is Not What You Had Planned
“Baby don’t you even know what’s right?/BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAABE, yeah, you’re something/something’ RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT/this is not what you had planned”
Stylus: All I have written down in my notes for this song is: “Explain what happened here!” This song makes the album instantly memorable. So you just came home drunk, found a piano and pressed the record button on a tape recorder?
K: Yeah, that’s exactly how it happened. We’ve all done this, where someone will just walk into a room and start singing and playing a song, immediately right there, top to bottom.
C: We don’t release them. We only release the ones we work 13 months on.
K: When we do it--you know, Charles walks in from dinner and starts playing away--sometimes it’s perfect, but we just forget about it. This is the one time where--ah--never played it before, never sang it before, never wrote lyrics. Recorded at that second. Everything was a one-shot.
Stylus: What was going on in your life at that moment?
K: Actually, that night I broke up with my girlfriend. [laughs] We broke up that night, I got rip-roaring, then I came home and that was it. In all honesty, I was so happy with it that I listened to it the rest of the night, completely stone drunk.
Stylus: Maybe it was worth it breaking up with her…
K: It possibly was. And these guys were so nice, they said “it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. Fuck all your other songs.”
Stylus: My last question: why are you called The Wrens?
K: Our first name--well, we were a lot of different names--but we’re The Wrens because of this 7-inch, four songs long, which we called Low (our band name at the time). So we got the whole thing done, got the pressings of the vinyl, and that day we get a fanzine and we’re like: “shit, there’s already a band called Low.” So we had 1000 7-inches, and we sat around a room with notepads and dictionary, throwing out names, and out of all of them we decided on The Wrens. We all liked the W, we liked everything about it.
Stylus: Well, I’m disappointed, because there’s a story behind the wren, as in the actual bird. Supposedly, and this was years ago, all the birds decided that they were going to have an endurance test, to see which bird was mightiest, and could fly the longest. So, obviously, we all think the eagle is going to win.
Stylus: Well, the wren, at the beginning of the test, told the eagle “you know, I’m kinda lazy, and I don’t really care about this test, so can I just ride on your back?” The eagle said “yeah, whatever, ride on my back. I’m going to win. What do I care?” So the test is happening, the eagle is kicking ass, and every other bird has already given up in defeat. Eventually, the eagle himself gets tired, and falls to the ground in victorious ecstasy. He forgot, of course, that the wren had been sitting on his back. The wren jumped off his back and continued flying, thus proving himself the mightiest of all birds. So basically, wrens are lazy, but fucking smart.
K: Hell yeah! You can’t end this any better.
C: If you need us, we’ll be looking for more successful eagles to ride on the backs of.
(photography of the Wrens by Becca Laurie)
By: Akiva Gottlieb
Published on: 2003-10-20