Learning to Fly
The members of the Wrens read off like a PTA roll call. Guitarist Greg Whelan and his bassist brother Kevin work for Pfizer in New Jersey and use their vacation time to tour. Drummer Jerry MacDonnell, a father of three, also holds a corporate job, as did singer/guitarist Charles Bissell up until two months ago, and the band members' ages range from 33 to 40. It's not what you'd expect from a band that has received unanimous critical praise in the past year, including accolades from indie-music haven Pitchfork Media, but before the success, the foursome's 9-to-5 grind was all they had, thanks to numerous fallouts with the music business.
After recording two promising albums in the mid-'90s, Silver and Secaucus, the Wrens not only endured musical obscurity but also got dropped by Grass Records in 1996 when the band didn't concede to label requests for radio-friendlier singles. In the following years, the band unsuccessfully flirted with labels like Geffen and Atlantic and then resigned themselves to recording an album for a friend's small-fry record label. Oh, and that album took four years to complete.
"By the time we started [recording] in the beginning of '99, there was a sense that we'd been messing around for all the wrong reasons," Bissell says. "We almost lost sight of what we thought was good after dealing with label crap for three years."
The Wrens perform Friday, August 20, at Hailey's, with Magnolia Electric Co. and Western Keys.
Work on The Meadowlands began that year in a house that the bandmates shared, and, as Bissell puts it, the initial reason for recording was "just to get a record done." They completed that very task in only a few months, but the result was far from the final product released in 2003.
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"By that spring, [the album] was kind of winding up," Bissell says. "But there was a certain looking-around-the-room, where we all kind of realized that it was a piece of...poop. I was just kind of like, 'I don't really like where we've ended up musically.'
"We grew up in a time when it was assumed that you start a band, you cut a record on a smaller label and eventually you sign to a big label, just like your heroes did, like Springsteen or whatever," Bissell continues. "And if that is your goal, you're, of course, willing to...not exactly compromise, but in the end, that's what ends up happening, and you don't even realize it."
When the Wrens found themselves falling into that pattern, they took a step back from recording, at which point they began to ground themselves in jobs, families and the like. Oddly enough, it wasn't until the music stopped being a priority that the Wrens were finally able to step forward musically.
"For each of us, that meant pursuing a normal job because it meant getting out of debt, but for me, it also meant taking a break from rock music...for about two and a half years," Bissell says. "All I listened to was the classical station on the AM clock radio at work. But we continued messing around with the album, and I gradually got back into what I liked about music, which actually started by listening to jazz, and then gradually I got back into songs again, caught up on new records. Suddenly, it became much clearer. 'This is what we like in records. This is what our goals used to be in making an album.'"
"We were so frustrated, going around in a circle, and finally, one day we just looked at each other and said, 'Who gives a shit?'" Whelan says. "It was very therapeutic to just stop caring about it. Like, let's make songs the way we think they should sound. A few of our fans, if they're still around and they like it, they'll buy it. We had no expectations. Once we took all that crap off the table and had fun with it again, things seemed to turn around."
That's an understatement. The Meadowlands jumps from crackling riffs to somber piano tracks to all-out ear blasters, which are held together by poetic stories of loss, growth and disappointment. By not trying to pound out lots of short tracks, the band gives songs room to blast off.
"We grew up listening to good '70s records where people actually made albums," Whelan says. "It wasn't for that one hit single, and after a while, that was your least favorite song anyway. So we wanted to make a record like the people we grew up with would make."
Papers and magazines nationwide have heaped praise on the Wrens this year, but the biggest push has come from the Internet, as The Meadowlands benefited not just from Pitchfork's near-perfect reviews but also MP3 trading and Internet bulletin boards, which spread the Wrens' music in ways MTV and radio may never have.
"If nothing ever happened, we'd be a little hurt, but we'd still say, 'We made a good record,'" Whelan says. "It seems like maybe people are so frustrated with the kind of music that's out there now, and people are more willing to find music and listen to it and embrace it, as opposed to getting MTV and all that culture shoved down their throats."
"When [Secaucus] came out in '96, you had no sense of 'Does anybody like it?'" Bissell says. "You'd see a few print reviews, but there's no sense, no idea. Now, because of the online community, you have a much more immediate sense of what people like. That's what the Internet has enabled everybody to do. If you come up with something that satisfies yourself, there's some small group of people that will probably be into it also."
That group of people has been pretty substantial, actually, as proven by sellout concerts in San Francisco, Chicago and Boston this year. At this year's SXSW conference in Austin, the Wrens' show was so crowded that fans piled up against the venue's windows to catch a glimpse. The sellout list would probably be longer if the band was able to tour more often, but the band seems content with the limited number of concerts, and not just because of day jobs back in Jersey.
While he and Whelan gush over the attention they've received in the past year, they also express insecurities over how long the success will last. Not something you'd expect from a hot indie band, but with the Wrens, perhaps that's the point.
"Every single show beforehand, we still get nervous," Bissell says. "Not so much about the playing part, even though we never rehearse, but more like, after all these years, you're really waiting for the next show where there's only four people again. It's still a shock when someone's singing the words to a song...in the audience."
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