[18 October 2011]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Craig Wedren hasn’t had a great career at all—he’s actually had two.
The first one stems back from his iconic post-hardcore outfit Shudder to Think, whose early-90s releases on Dischord Records helped define the anything-goes underground/alternative rock scene that was growing in the U.S., rewriting the rulebook well before grunge blew up and took everything with it. Their epic high point came with 1994’s major-label debut Pony Express Record—a hugely undervalued album that showed the group branching out into a wild array of genres while still holding on to their tight melodic instincts—which helped garner the group critical acclaim and a large cult following. Shortly thereafter, Wedren had a battle with Hodgkin’s disease, which he successfully won, a victory that helped drive the band through a few more releases before ultimately calling it a day in 1998.
The second career Wedren had was as a solo artist, and his love of music wound up leading him into the realm of scoring and composing, the results of which can be heard in everything from Reno! 911 to Stella to School of Rock to HBO’s Hung. During this time, he also managed to put out two well-regarded solo albums (and briefly reunite Shudder to Think, of course), but neither discs were as overarching and ambitious as WAND, his latest album. To help promote this disc—which features reworked versions of some of the songs from his scores—he worked friend Tim Nackashi to create special 360-degree music videos which could be interacted with by listeners in conjunction with the music. It is, in short, one of the most ambitious projects he’s yet tackled, although a quick listen to “Are We” (which was featured during the closing scene of the criminally-underappreciated 2002 film The Secret Lives of Dentists) reveals that if anything, Wedren’s talents have only deepened with time.
Taking time out of his busy schedule to sit down with PopMatters, Wedren has taken on our famed 20 Questions to discuss an affinity for the “amoral but ultimately just” Willy Wonka, how making sweet, sweet love can be quite the de-stressor, and how his new album partly is inspired by a Mexican market dealer’s insistence that the wand he was going to sell Wedren not end up in the hands of George W. Bush ...
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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man, a new children’s book by Michael Chabon got me good in the airport about three hours ago, reading it to my son (Lennon, 3).
2. The fictional character most like you?
I’m a great fan of Willie Wonka as portrayed by Gene Wilder, for his wild ambiguity which seems to comprise boundless childlike imagination/psychedelic vision, mad-but-empirical science, great heart and compassion, a total, uniquely individual (and arguably amoral but ultimately just) ethical clarity, and a can-do sense of achieving the impossible; he believes (as I do) in magic, and wind-whips mystery, while simultaneously evoking delight, fright, and momentary, almost dreamlike menace.
3. The greatest album, ever?
This is an impossible question to answer, and one that changes with age. While I do not currently have an all-time favorite record, in past lives I’d have gone with Songs For Swingin’ Lovers by Frank Sinatra, Sticky Fingers, Psychic T.V.‘s Dreams Less Sweet, The Madcap Laughs by Syd Barrett, both Elvis and Little Richard debuts, and in my early-20s, probably Low by David Bowie. I don’t think any of these would necessarily make my current list, though; I’m searching for something.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars is as intrinsic to my DNA as my mother, although I can’t ultimately defend either of their more glaring WTF’s.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Brahms, the ocean, sex, almost any new music, fashion, going to the movies to see a movie, my son, good modern art, live performances by people who I think are better than I am at what they do. Free writing.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I’m proud of the fact that my creativity continues to flower and fruit even as I’ve become a more responsible, dependable individual, husband, and dad. In the past, I’m not sure I believed you could have all of that at once, but I was a punk.
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
I want to be remembered for my music for a long time. And I want a long time to continue making music. I wish more people knew about my music, and I hope they do within my lifetime, so that I can enjoy them enjoying it. I know that’s not cool to say, but I think it’s ridiculous that there’s a stigma against admitting we want folks to love the things we create, assuming we love them, too. It’s about connection, and deeply sparking people’s imaginations and sense of possibility.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Thomas Jefferson, Dr. Seuss, many others I don’t remember at present.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
“Ooh Baby Baby” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. I really admire Moby Dick, too.
10. Your hidden talents . . .?
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
“Ease up on yourself.” I used to be very hard on myself—a tortuous perfectionist, and my own worst friend. My mother particularly would worry about how hard I was on myself. I had—and beat—Hodgkin’s disease when I was in my mid/late-20s, and that was a turning point for me in terms of my relentless, self-directed severity. It might also have something to do with age as well, plus having achieved a modicum of success, but I have a lot more fun now, doing what I love.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
A few years ago, my wife and I were in Mexico for a wedding. While there, we went to a low-rent swap meet—used G.I. Joes and radios—and there was one magical table which stood out like a glistening, glittering mirage from the rest. The table was run by a Brazilian artist who made jewelry, shakers, and other magnificent objects exclusively out of found dead things—bones, skins, furs, twigs, shells, etc. In the center of the table was a very long wand/shaker, which was intensely attractive, and a little bit scary to me. I asked the man if I could buy it, along with a couple of smaller, bone earrings. “Where are you from?”, the artist asked me. Meanwhile, Mexican police were beginning to descend on him and his friends because only Mexican vendors were allowed to set up shop at the market; they were being forced to pack up and leave. Amidst all this, I told the man I was from New York City, and asked him what the wand was made of. “You know Bush?” he asked. I somehow thought—given the language barrier—that he was explaining that the wand handle was made of twigs from a bush. But he was asking me if I knew George W. Bush, who was President at the time. I told the man I knew of George Bush, but did not know him personally. “I cannot sell this to you,” he replied. “Why?” I asked. “Because it must never fall into the hands of George Bush—it is too powerful.” I promised that, if he let me have the wand, I would never ever let it fall into the hands of the Bush administration. Finally, as he was packing up his table and being escorted out, he sold me the scepter. I’ve protected, and used it for good ever since. It became the inspiration/catalyst for my new album, WAND, and it’s accompanying narrative video series.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . .?
APC jeans, Sven clogs, and a precious Cake Like tee shirt.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Either John Cage or Dr. Seuss, both for their brilliance, humanity, and sense of humor.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
Three years into the future, just to peek.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Play in a great band with good friends who are all getting along, and encouraging/inspiring one another creatively and personally, followed by a no-deadline beach read with my wife. Also, swimming and playing in the pool with my son. And making sweet, sweet, love with my wife—that’s a huge de-stressor.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . .?
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
I would always have answered “city”, and that’s still true, but I truly, deeply hate the air in just about every city I go. It’s to do with traffic, which I also abhor.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Please, please, please do what we all know you can and want to. Please.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I just released a new solo album, WAND, and am about to play some shows around that. I’m also figuring out the next chapter in my WAND narrative video series, which my director friend Tim Nackashi and I have been making in a cool new 360-degree panoramic format that allows the viewer to essentially choose their own adventure by navigating around the video using their mouse. I’m also close to completing lyrics for a collaboration with composer Jefferson Friedman; he’s writing the music, I’m writing the words and singing with an orchestra. Amazing. And I just finished scoring the movie Wanderlust, directed by one of my oldest BFF’s David Wain. It’s out in February. Then I’m starting to score a new movie by my other oldest BFF Stuart Blumberg called Thanks For Sharing. David, Stuart, and I have been friends since we were four, and have been making things together since about age nine or ten. And, I recently completed the music for season three of HUNG on HBO, which just started airing.