Craig Wedren: Interview
Reclaiming the Word ‘Peculiar’
Craig Wedren is the James Joyce of American rock.
His elliptical lyrical phrasing becomes its own language after a few listens,
with its own internal logic and free-associative wordplay. A graduate student
could draw parallels between Joyce's verse and Wedren's attention to structure
and form, his puns and double meanings, and his ability to build a specific
style for each song. That might make for a pretentious term paper, sure, but the
soundtrack would kick major ass.
Wedren's songs with the DC post-punk band Shudder To Think always took a few
repetitions to get. Their angular, sometimes jarring shifts and swivels could be
disorienting at first. Underneath it all, though, they were always playing pop
songs, driven by melody and by Wedren's wide, dramatic vibrato and soaring
falsetto. Each song had a bounty of hooks, but these were mutant hooks that
folded in upon themselves. On Shudder To Think's 1995 masterpiece, Pony
Express Record, each song builds its own improbable architecture. Upon first
glance, it appears that there aren't enough beams or columns for the tune to
support its own weight, but on closer inspection, it's as sturdy as a stone
You can hear echoes of Wedren's work in Travis Morrison's fluidly strange
transitions, in Jeff Buckley's final recordings with Tom Verlaine, and in
Deerhoof's de- and re-constructed pop classicism. No band, though, has ever
matched Shudder To Think's ability to present unconventional song structures
with such muscle and sex and swagger.
Since the band parted ways in 1998, Craig Wedren has kept busy. He's now a
first-call soundtrack composer (The Baxter, P.S.,
Rock, Laurel Canyon, Roger Dodger, Wet Hot American Summer)
and was music supervisor for the Comedy Central series Stella. His next
soundtrack gig is for Reno 911: Miami, a film spinoff of another Comedy
Central show. He has also released an album with the neo-disco band Baby, and
performed with Manhattan's celebrity-studded avant-cabaret troupe, The Citizens
His unconventional, challenging songwriting style has inspired a devoted cult
following that builds with each passing year. One rabid fan is Bright Eyes'
Conor Oberst, who released Wedren's solo debut on his Team Love imprint last
summer. The album,
is a marked change from Shudder To Think's darker edges. Not only is it clearly
the sound of a man deeply in love (he's engaged to writer Meggan Lennon), but
it's the sound of a man pushing to deliver his emotions more directly. The
unpredictable melodies are still stamped clearly with Wedren's signature quirks,
but the writing is more economical, more streamlined, and more disciplined in
its adherence to traditional song craft.
This month, Craig Wedren went on his first tour in several years, a brief West
Coast run of eight shows in nine days. He was backed up by the Dead Science, a
trio whose second full-length (Frost Giant) came out last October on
Absolutely Kosher Records. Before their Oakland show, Wedren was drooling over
the gorgeous concertinas, button boxes, Tex-mex Cantabellas, and assorted
squeeze machines at Smythe's Accordion Center. We sat down with him there, so
the tape of our interview has a sweet, reedy accordion noodling softly in the
background during some of his answers.
How did you hook up with the Dead Science?
The Dead Science contacted me at Thanksgiving. I was at my dad's in Florida for
the annual Wedren Thanksgiving reunion, and losing my mind. I got a message that
the Dead Science had called, and that they wanted to set up a tour, on which
they would be my opening band and my backing band, and that they would book it.
And I thought, "Well, of course, they must be terrible." So I went onto their
website and realized, "Oh, they're good." It just seemed like such an
interesting fit. But I still didn't believe that it would happen, during the
organizing of it, because tours never happen. Cool, weird ideas like that never
actually happen. I went out to Seattle about a week and a half ago. We rehearsed
for three days, and we picked 15 songs, and they kicked ass. We've been on tour
How are their arrangements different from your recorded arrangements?
stuff, they're pretty true to the recorded versions, although everyone in the
Dead Science has their own peculiar – and I want to take back the night with the
meaning of "peculiar," which is, I think a good word – but they each have their
own unique, peculiar styles. We're also doing a few Shudder To Think songs ("Hit
Liquor," "No Rm. 9, Kentucky," "X-French Tee Shirt," and "Red House"), which are
actually a little more true to the original versions. The structure of the
Shudder To Think stuff is so much more integral to the song. The forms on
are more traditional.
Do you think you might record with them at all?
A lot of music that I want to use for my next record is, coincidentally, more
Dead Science-y, in a way. It's a little more like the contemporary classical
composition end of Shudder To Think, but mellow and clean like
And they have less traditional song structures. I think the Dead Science would
be fantastic to work with on that stuff.
On your MySpace page, you wrote that you'd been revisiting the Spanish
Amnesian stuff, which is pretty freaky material.
I'm hoping to put it all in there and see what filters its way through. There
was a whole other Baby record, and more soundtrack songs which haven't seen the
light of day or don't exist on any recordings, and then there's all of this
darker or weirder Shudder To Think-type stuff. I'm hoping to fold it all in
under my name.
"Whenever I'd get up to my old tricks, like covering something up
or layering something in riddle, lyrically or chord-ally, the two of them would
call me out. They would ask, 'What's the thing that you're trying to cover up?
What's the thing that you're trying to turn into a riddle? Talk about that.'"
How did it feel on
to move to a more direct approach with the writing?
Some people think that
is weird, in that they think it's a sell-out or a compromise. For me at the
time, it was just very honest. That's where I was after Shudder To Think broke
up. It was also the riskiest thing for me, to go straight. It opened up my music
in a lot of ways. I had to get over my snobbery about doing a verse-chorus song,
which started out on 50,000 B.C., and then that snobbery got whipped out
of me doing soundtracks, because they need you to write straight. Now I don't
care if it's traditional or not traditional. "Be My Baby" is as good as Bartok.
How did Jim Harry help you with that process of stripping away?
He was an interesting guy to work with, because he also came from a punk rock
background. He grew up in Minneapolis, and played with Bob Mould, did some
avant-garde theater stuff, and then he just said, "Fuck it. I'm going to do pop
music." He did it much more that I could ever personally deal with. With that
world, you have to be up for it. It's like doing jello shots or tequila. It's
novel every once a while, but it's so not something you want to do every night
of the week. Not in Jim's case, just in my case. He knew where I was coming
from. I was totally broken down after Shudder to Think. I was heartbroken for so
many reasons. The negative way to put it would be that I felt adrift, but the
positive way would be that I was totally open. I was letting everything in, and
trying different stuff. I knew that I wanted to get out of the old Shudder To
Think writing habits. Jim's girlfriend at the time was a pop singer who has a
wonderful ear, and she used to sing in Baby. Whenever I'd get up to my old
tricks, like covering something up or layering something in riddle, lyrically or
chord-ally, the two of them would call me out. They would ask, "What's the thing
that you're trying to cover up? What's the thing that you're trying to turn into
a riddle? Talk about that." There were some tears and some tantrums and
being a baby, but it was an interesting and cathartic experience. We were
intending to sell certain songs to pop bands and boy bands, but frankly it was
so refreshing after the fucking drag of alternative music that was like a lead
coat. "You can't be this, you have to be this." The whole bubblegum thing was so
awesome for a minute, and we were writing tons of those songs. Those original
recordings are so hilariously embarrassing. I can't listen to them.
When are they getting released?
A loooong time from now. Maybe. Some of them filtered into Baby, which had a lot
of elements of that style. The flip side, the more reflective side, turned into
Is Baby ever going to tour?
There are six of us. Everyone's in their thirties and they all live in New York
City with multiple projects, and it was all my stuff. I might be using this as
an excuse, but it was way too much of a schlep to make it worth everybody's
while to take it on the road. Also, it was so unabashed in certain ways that I
had doubts about going out to sell that. Having said that, since I've been on
the road for
there seem to be a string of people who really like Baby, and I thought, "Ah, we
totally should have done a tour." The TV show Bones just used a Baby
song. My grandma tuned into Bones just for that. (He adopts the grandma
voice.) "I don't know where it is. Is that you?" "No, that's Goldfrapp, Grandma.
That's a girl." "Is this you? Oh, I love it!"
I read that you recorded the basics for
in two days. Is that really the case?
The initial idea was to do everything super old-fashioned, live, in two days. We
wanted to record all the instruments, no overdubs, like a live performance. What
I realized was that I'm not good enough to do that. So we recorded it all into
ProTools and I kept the basic tracks of drums and bass, and then I finished
everything in my apartment, which is where I record all of my soundtracks and
demos. I did all of the vocals there, and guitar overdubs, and re-arranged some
There are rumors on PonyExpressRecord.com that there's additional Shudder to
Think material out there. Is that true?
There are rehearsal tapes and maybe two or three songs that we didn't finish or
release for Pony Express Record, but we were never a band to have tons of
leftovers. We just didn't finish things if we didn't think they were awesome. We
never recorded 9,000 songs and picked which would end up on the record. We would
just finish the songs that were the most compelling to us, and there would be
twelve of them. I have been going through rehearsal DATs and cassettes and
transferring them, so there is lots of cool stuff from then. But everything that
was compelling from that time, that I was writing, I still intend on finishing.
To conclude… the Gordon Olsen question. If you had to choose between a stick
of butter and an equitable-sized jar of mayonnaise, which would you eat?
There's something way more badass about walking down the street chomping on a
stick of butter, rather than sitting there spooning little bits of mayonnaise.
My soon-to-be mother-in-law is a butter nut, and she knows a lot about butters,
so I've tasted a lot of really good butter. There's a whole world of butters. I
would roll with the butter.