The Wrens: Interview
Working Class Heroes

It's been one hell of a roller-coater ride for New Jersey natives The Wrens over
the past ten or so years. Between juggling family and career obligations, the
band has managed to release critically acclaimed studio material, but has also
had to endure shady industry mishaps along the way. With things looking like the
nonsense is finally behind them, The Wrens pulled together years of work and
released one of the best records of 2003, The Meadowlands.  Tiny Mix
Tapes is happy we pinned down Wrens vocalist and guitarist Charles Bissell for
some questions.

Wyatt (Tiny Mix Tapes):
The Meadowlands has garnered an overwhelming amount of critical
acclaim since its commercial release. Has that made you guys re-evaluate the
amount of time you commit to the band?

Charles Bissell (The Wrens):
Well, the response has been such an unbelievable surprise. I guess
"overwhelming" is as good a word as any. In a way, no, it hasn't made us
re-evaluate the time committed, if only because we've been more or less "all
band, all the time" (sounds like a bad radio station tag-line) for as long as I
can remember. That's actually probably hard to believe given how long it's been
between records – believe me, it's even harder to explain (and probably not very
interesting either).

The overly generous response has been a real morale-booster though, and it has
made us re-evaluate playing live and touring. We've been so flatteringly caught
off guard by how well recent shows have gone that we're kind of playing catch-up
trying to set some proper tours for early 2004 now, as well as vowing to anyone
that'll listen that we're actually gonna rehearse... no... really we are...

Wyatt:
Tiny Mix Tapes frowns at making people work hard, so I will spare you explaining
the time gap for now.
 
How did the idea for the
“Special Edition” release of The Meadowlands come about?

Charles: We
figured it'd be a way to offer a little extra sumpin' to the relatively few
people that might have already known about us from our many T.V. appearances in
the ‘60s (mostly on the Dick Cavett show) and also to raise some initial money
up front to help cover the costs of the ‘official' release.

Wyatt: What was the feeling when you guys first finished The
Meadowlands. Did you realize that you guys had hit a bomb?

Charles:
Bomb's good, right? Just kiddin'... thanks so much. There were so many times we
thought we were going to be done – various mastering dates, the party where we
erased the master tapes etc. – that when we finally were done, what I thought
would hit me like an actual bomb didn't even register. It actually took months
to sink in that it was really over. That probably makes it sound overly dramatic
or something, and I definitely don't want to make it out to be anything more
important than the ‘yet another rock record' that it is, but the whole recording
had come to govern our lives so much that I'd fantasize daily – hourly – about
what I'd do when it was finally done (travel, date, lose the weight I put on
making it, play guitar again, visit estranged family & friends, visit the
outdoors etc).

And no, there were still a half-dozen things I'd like to have changed, but
listing them would make me seem like a whiny nut job. Or more of one. And
probably ruin the songs for anyone else. I guess though my review of the record
in all honesty, would be harsher than most people's. Then again, so would my
review of most records period, I guess. Charles Mexico, crank.

Wyatt: 
I guess I should have warned you ahead of time that I
always sneak the use of the word ‘bomb' into my interviews. Anyways, the time
that you guys have taken in between albums has been well publicized. How long
was the album actually in the making? Was it a process of doing a little here
and there or was it done all at once? 

Charles:
More like a process of ruining a little here and there. It ran roughly from Jan
'99 to Jan '03. But that includes most of the summer & fall of 2002 taken off
after we finished the "drunken party & erase the tapes" version. But it also
doesn't count though, that most of the songs were written, at least in
their original versions, in 1998. Pretty sad-ass, no?

So in Jan. '99 we started recording those early versions of 15 songs or so.
Through the Spring, we went back in the basement and totally changed a few of
them and re-recorded all of them. Into the summer we overdubbed and kind of
finished them as originally intended only to get to maybe August or so and
realize it was all terrible and worse, we'd so lost our perspective that we
couldn't tell what was good if you held a copy of Sgt. Pepper's to our
head.

Between then and spring of 2002 was an ennnnnnndlesssss series of overdubs,
re-writes, re-recordings, abandonment, re-re-writings, re-re-re-re-cording etc.
all over the original drum tracks (not smart and definitely not recommended as a
work method) as we kind of re-figured out what it was we really wanted to do &
how to go about it. Funny enough, probably 3/4 or more of what you hear on the
finished CD was all done in less than the last year. Figures.

Wyatt:
With four songwriters how does the writing process go?  Are the songs written
individually and then brought to the group?  How do you decide what songs make
the final cut for an album?

Charles:

Well, Jerry doesn't write so much – he's busy making the world a better place
with his three children (an understandable priority). Most of the basic songs
start with me or Kev writing something Beatles-style with a basic
melodically-driven song on acoustic guitar or occasionally piano (that said
though, Greg's ballad is one of my favorites on the whole darned thing).

Anyway, like most bands, we'll then all play through the basic songs in the
basement and arrange parts, etc. Unlike most bands though, it's at this stage we
tend to ruin ‘em and even more unlike most bands, we'll then try to ‘fix' them
through overdubbing. Even if it takes years, dagnabit! (see above). Lyrics go on
last to match the vocal melody, number of syllables etc, and still fit the mood
of the music.

Stupidly, we stuck with the same dozen+ songs the whole four years. It became
more of an experiment & learning experience than any practical way to make an
album. Again, not recommended. And I'll never do it that way again. Then again,
our heads are in such different places and we feel so much more at the top of
our game now than we did four years ago, I doubt we'd ever get stuck like that
again.

Wyatt:
Do you ever test out new material on each other,
friends, spouses, children first?

Charles:

Nope. Important lesson learned #1: there is no such thing as a demo. Just
alternate versions, mixes & choices.

Wyatt:
After all the record company dances you've been
through, it seems as you've found a good match with Absolutely Kosher Records. 
Why the difference this time?

Charles:
We've known Cory for going on 10 years. We love him. We trust him. And we were
able to set up a really nifty working relationship that's really way more the
way band/label enterprises should work. At least for us, anyway... most
importantly, it just "felt right."

Wyatt:

How do you guys decide where to tour? Geography?
Request? Do you tour where you know you have a solid fan base or do you tour to
help create a fan base in cities you may not have as strong a following in?

Charles:
We're really just getting back into playing live after that four+ year hiatus.
Tours to follow in 2004...

Wyatt:
Giants, Devils, Mets, Nets or Yankees?

Charles:
Well, that depends on which Wren you're talking to, I guess. We all grew up in
South Jersey where Philadelphia is the closest big sports-franchised city. So
that, plus my own family's Philadelphia roots means for me, it's Eagles/Flyers
etc. But in the interest of equal time, Greg and Kev, both way more the athlete
than me, are religious Giants fans.

Wyatt:
What's playing in the tour van currently?

Charles: Our
tour van being still in drydock, we've been renting a friend's which, only being
equipped with AM/FM radio, means a lot of classical, jazz, NPR, Art Bell for the
late-night drives…