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“It’s been so long since you’ve heard from me / Got a wife and kid that I never see / And I’m nowhere near where I dreamed I’d be / I can’t believe what life’s done to me.”
With these opening lines to their new album, The Meadowlands, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the Wrens, a band that has seen enough of its share of downs that their original name—Low—seems eerily appropriate at times.
The Wrens, made up of guitarist/vocalist Charles Bissell, guitarist Greg Whelan, bassist/vocalist Kevin Whelan and drummer Jerry MacDonnell, came together in the late 1980s, releasing two albums in 1994 and 1996 to strong critical praise and modest commercial success. To all involved, it seemed the New Jersey-based band members were on the cusp of establishing themselves as formidable presence on the independent rock scene.
When Grass, their label, was sold and revamped to eventually become Wind Up Records, home of Creed and the Bachelor himself, Bob Guiney, execs pushed the Wrens to modify their beguiling melodies and accessible lyrics to take them in a more radio-friendly direction. The band refused and was dropped from the label, and their next album didn’t see the light of day for six years. Talk about low.
While the music industry gorged itself on bland modern rock, the Wrens were quietly building up a catalogue of songs and laboring away at their “real” jobs: the Whalen brothers work at Pfizer, Bissell is in the accounts department at an advertising agency and MacDonnell works at a finance company—jobs they continue to hold. Practicing and recording in a house most of the band shares, the Wrens released EPs in 1998 and 2002 and finally launched their comeback with 2003’s The Meadowlands, the band’s most mature and emotionally complex work to date. And patient fans and critics have agreed the wait was well worth it. The Meadowlands received rave reviews online and print press; they also snagged a nod in Village Voice‘s annual Pazz and Jop Critics’ Poll, coming in at number 43 in the paper’s tally of the 240 best albums of 2003.
Finally hitting their high—and their stride—the Wrens have embarked on an exhaustive American tour, playing sold out shows night after night and returning to the daily grind in the morning. The band launched their tour in support of the album in Chicago on January 17, playing two back-to-back sold out shows at Schuba’s. Here’s what band member Greg Whalen had to say about the sights and sounds along comeback road:
PopMatters: How does it feel to be back on tour? Is the experience different or similar than touring with previous albums?
Greg Whalen: It’s great playing again—besides in the basement. The experience is totally different than before. People show up, we sell some merch and the clubs actually pay us more than just $50 bucks and a pizza.
PM: What has audience reaction been like? Both Chicago shows were sold out to enthusiastic crowds. Have you noticed that being universal? Is it similar to your pre-Meadowlands shows?
GW: The audience response has been so cool—totally overwhelming. The fact that after all these years, people are coming to our shows is mind-blowing. And to play sold out shows is just ridiculous.
PM: What about recording the album? It seems to include a lot of references to loss and regret. How autobiographical is it?
GW: 100% autobiographical—although the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
PM:I read that, throughout your search for a label after releasing Secaucus, you were continually recording. Do you have plans to release any of that material?
GW: Yes, we do plan on releasing some of the other stuff we recorded. We intend to re-release our EP Abbott 1135 with added tracks. We are hoping to get this stuff out in the summer.
PM: During this time, you were dropped by your label for refusing to create more radio-friendly music. Looking back on your decision to stick with your own style, how has this affected your career?
GW: Although we went through some dark times, it was what WE needed to do for US. Are we opposed to writing “radio-friendly music,” of course not—it is just all BS that goes with it—all the politics; where ultimately, the music becomes secondary. I think our experience has only made us a better band both in the studio and live. We just don’t care anymore. It’s only music. It’s now fun again.
PM: What is it like living the double life of recording artists with day jobs? Does existing in those two lives help or hinder your creative process?
GW: It really only hinders our sleeping. We have been burning the candle at both ends for so long, we really have no other perspective any longer. Touring gets a bit tough with the day job thing—getting time off, playing all night and then going into work, blah blah blah. The cool thing about touring is that since we drive generally six to eight hours a day, when it’s not your turn behind the wheel you can sleep. Our drummer, who has three kids under the age of five, once he gets in the van, he is out like a light—except of course when it is his turn to drive.
PM: What are your plans after this tour? Will you be putting out another album?
GW: Yes, we are actually all pretty stoked about doing the next record. We have a whole bunch of new tunes—just need to spend some time fooling around with them—hopefully start this summer.
PM: During the six years between Secaucus and The Meadowlands, how did you keep yourselves going and developing musically? Was there ever a point when you wanted to give it up, or did you always know you would eventually do another album?
GW: It was tough for a few years and we were all burned out and we did take some time off from recording—we had to—that’s one reason why it took so long to get the record finished. But the crazy thing is that never once did we feel like giving up. We knew that we would get through the bad times and eventually put out a record that we were happy with.
PM: What kind of expectations do you have for The Meadowlands? Did you expect this much critical and popular acclaim?
GW: Actually we had no expectations for this record. We figured we would put it out, a few of our friends would think it was ok, play some shows and that’s it. What has happened is crazy—totally surreal. The press and all the folks that are supporting us are awesome. If nothing more happens, we would be completely satisfied.