Music

Craig Wedren Offers Meditative, Experimental Video and Discusses His Work (premiere + interview)

Photo: Meggan Lennon / Grandstand Media

Craig Wedren discusses his latest round of projects, including a new photo book, an upcoming tour with the Messthetics, and his latest video "2Priests".

Craig Wedren has an abundance of projects in the offering at the moment. He has an exhibition opening in San Francisco at the Loin in March, at which time he'll release a book of Polaroids he took in the 1990s, titled My '90s, the collection features snapshots of his life on the road with Shudder to Think as well as his bout with cancer and beyond. There's an April tour with the Messthetics, his score (with friend Anna Waronker) for the Hulu series Shrill, starring Aidy Bryant.

He's also issuing a new video, "2Priests", a song culled from his late 2018 effort, Adult Desire Expanded. True to form, Wedren has delivered a song that has elements of the familiar but quickly departs from it, leaving listeners with the sense that they have experienced something novel, wonderfully strange. Is it ambient? Is it based in the spiritual? Wedren never offers up easy answers there or in the video, which he co-directed with his friend Michael Patrick Jann (The State, Reno 911).

We try to make things together whenever we can," Wedren says, "especially things that don't require time and money because then we can get weird. We can do all the little experiments we've been thinking about but would never fit with the professional gigs we get hired for. We'll say, 'Let's do the who thing on our phones. But we're not even going to get together. I'm going to shoot some stuff, I'll Dropbox it to you, you do whatever you want with it and send it back to me!' We only got together on the last day to make whatever tweaks needed to be done. Completely fun and experimental. It's smeary and dreamlike. I hope people like it."

In a lengthy conversation with PopMatters, Wedren discussed his career as a film and television composer, his upcoming book, and the heart attack he suffered late last year.

You had a number of projects going at the end of last year, some promotional activities scheduled and then you had a heart attack.

Generally speaking I'm a very healthy guy. I don't drink very much and I eat really well and I exercise. I meditate twice a day. But my mom's side of the family makes crazy cholesterol. I also had cancer in my twenties. I had chemo and radiation which can have long-term deleterious effects. I'd kind of forgotten about that because I've been healthy since then. The medical community's best guess is that the combination of genetic cholesterol stuff, mixed with some compromised tissue from the chemo and radiation may have put me in the crosshairs. But I had no idea. There was no indication.

What happened?

A couple of days after Thanksgiving, I was in Florida, visiting my dad with all my cousins. It was you usual Midwestern family Thanksgiving. Overindulgence. It was off my near teetotalling, low carb/no fat diet. I was asleep one night and my body woke me up at about 2 a.m. with the strangest sensation. Completely alien. Like nothing I had ever felt before.

We have this idea of a heart attack as some stabbing pain or being punched. It wasn't like that. It was like this force inside of my chest. I assumed, because of the proximity of Thanksgiving, that it was indigestion or overindulgence. I thought, "I'm going to take my ass to the bathroom and see what's up." I got out of bed and dropped to the floor.

Oh no.

I was in a cold sweat. About five minutes later my wife woke up and put her hand on my chest. She's not normally prone to "visions", but when she put her hand on my chest, she had a vivid image of my chest popping out and these pointy, sharp green crystal shards. She freaked out and called 911. Hollywood Fire Department came down and zipped me to Carter Presbyterian, which is the nearest 24-hour cardiac unit.

The fire department knew right away something was wrong. They put the EKG on me, gave me some nitroglycerine. It was super serious. Within 45 minutes I was on the procedure table. With this ninja of a cardiologist talking me through the process. They didn't want to give me anesthesia because it lowers your heart rate. They catheterized me, put dye up into my heart to figure out what was going on, my right coronary artery, one of the three major ones, was 100 percent blocked.

Whoa.

It was "in the process of dying." It's not that I was in the process of dying, but the artery was. It was a very serious situation. They cleared it out, they put a stent up in there, and I spent a few days in the hospital. Basically, I've been recovering ever since. It definitely took a month-and-a-half or two months to start feeling like myself again.

The last few weeks have been good. I might actually feel better than I did before. It was definitely a kick in the ass reminder of reasons to live.

Everyone I know who has gone through that process says that there's an unexpected emotional thing that happens. For some it's depression in the classic sense, others describe it as this, "Where the hell am I? What am I doing?" feeling. But it's intense.

I'm still going through that. It's unpredictable. I experienced this to a certain extent after I had cancer. There's this whole euphoria of living, renewed take on life, super dialed-in focus mixed with grief, anger, feelings of "Why me?" They just sort of ping-pong. No rhyme or reason. With this, they're literally in your heart; it feels like those feelings are magnified. The doctors told me that I would go through a whole range of emotions. I have.

Today, I feel great. I feel super-positive. I've been loving making music. But, a lot of times, I'm finding that, socially, I feel that there's a sort of membrane between me and my friends and my family, all the people that I love. It's kind of like a depression. I've never been prone to classic depression but this experience has had a lot of things in common with what my friends who do struggle with depression describe. The deep funk, the feeling of being removed, almost like you're in a dream. Wanting to run but you're trying to push through molasses, just to move or to connect.

Yeah.

I've always been about connection and music is about connection. My personality is about connection. Friends, family, love. It's been scary at times, demoralizing. I don't know when it's about to strike. It's been better these last few weeks, when it finally lifted, this sort lead blanket, it was, like, "I feel so good! Oh my God!" Then, "Wham!" I was back in it again. It's a mortality trip.

I would have to think so.

It sounds cliché but I really don't know how much time I have left. It might be 50 years. It might be, God knows, a day. I'm trying to stay focused on the now while also figuring out how I want to spend the rest of my life. How do I want the hours of my day and the days of my life to feel? What will be the quality and the texture? Those are things I've always thought about but it's easy to push them aside when you're young. I feel like I don't officially have time to wait on making decisions that will make the rest of my life better.

I've come to an age where my circle of friends is getting smaller. People die. Either of disease or by taking their own lives. You can't help but think about those things anyway at a point and then to have something like this happen, I would imagine, only amplifies it.

Absolutely. I'm looking around the room I'm in. It's beautiful. When I was in the hospital, I didn't want to watch Netflix, I didn't want to escape at all. I was, literally, marveling at a generic, institutional clock on the wall. It's like every clock that's in every public school in America. I'd taken it for granted my entire life. Never really looked at it. I thought, "A clock! My God!"

[Laughs.]

Think about what went into that even existing. Time, the discovery of time, on down the line. It was like sketch comedy-level ruminations. "Lime green paint! It's all over the walls! It's incredible!" There's been a lot of that. It's a little silly but it's also enjoyable.

What was it like when you got home and played a note?

Playing music was a little funny for me but listening to music was exquisite. It was right around Christmas, I was lying under our tree, next to my turntable. I was just listening to records and reading and drawing. I used to love to draw, but I don't really do it that much anymore. I was really doing a lot of that before I started getting back into music.

I think my hesitation was about going into my studio, which I associate with my work space. I wanted nothing to do with anything that reminded me of obligation.

Hmmm.

I had started working on a Christmas song before I had my heart attack. I wanted to get it done before Christmas. That was actually a great, great, fun thing to sink my teeth into. It wasn't something serious. It was something I cared deeply about but there were no stakes. Nobody was waiting for this obscure Jewish musician's Christmas song. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

There was one week between Thanksgiving and Christmas where my team and I had to do an episode of the TV show New Amsterdam, which I'm scoring right now. I thought, "Hey, this is one week. I know the holidays are coming, so I'll have three or four weeks off after it's done, so I'm going to dive in."

It was terrible.

I wasn't ready for it at the time.

How so?

In addition to everything else, the episode happened to be about a doctor who had cancer and who had collapsed and had to be medevac and then there's his panicked wife who has to perform a tracheotomy with a pen. Then he spends the whole episode on death's door in a hospital. He doesn't know whether he's going to live or die. There are flashbacks to his entire relationship with his wife.

Normally, what we do, because it's an hour-long show, is that I'll assign different themes or different storylines to different members of my team. So, I thought, "Hey, I'm recovering. I'll take the romantic storyline." I did that, completely forgetting that the whole spine of it is this guy is dying in the hospital and his wife's losing her shit, trying to keep him alive and well. That was an exact mirror to what was happening in my life! [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

The short answer? Working on music for me, without stakes? That was a total joy. But now I'm back in full production mode, and I just love it. Even with deadlines. The vitality and vividness and the flow of just making music have stayed. I have a lot more perspective.

You've also got this book, My '90s, featuring your photographs. I started college in 1991. I look at these images today and say, "That's exactly that time." You really captured something.

That's exactly when I started using the camera that I took those photos with, 1991. Maybe '92.

Some of the idiosyncrasies in the photos came down to the camera you were using at the time.

It was a Polaroid Spectra. I think they started making them around that time. I'm almost positive that it was Guy Picciotto from Fugazi who turned me onto it. Or somebody who was on this tour Shudder To Think was on with them in the early '90s. It wasn't cheap, but it was very plastic-y. It wasn't classy or cool or classic.

Somehow this camera spoke to me, and you could trick it into doing as many exposures as you wanted. They do make other cameras where you can do double exposures but this you could five, six, 10, whatever you wanted. It had a broader range of unintentional experimental possibilities. From the moment I was shown this camera, I knew exactly what to do with it.

It's like when a kid who is wired for guitar gets their first guitar. Somehow the instrument fits perfectly for them. This camera was like that. I've had other gear like that. The Akai S950 sampler, some looping pedals. You never quite know when a piece of gear is going to fall from the sky and open a portal that shifts you down your next adventure. In this case it was 10 or 15 years of creative output and obsession.

Absolutely.

It wasn't a fancy camera. Sometimes things come out and companies get the design wrong and you think, "Wow. This is really cheesy and cheap-looking." That was the Spectra camera. I had it my hip all the time. That happened to coincide with being in my 20s, being in Shudder to Think. We were touring everywhere, all over the world with really amazing other bands and artists. We were often playing mundane sites. Somehow, through the lens of this camera, everything was rendered kaleidoscopic and dreamlike. Even when I was making these pictures they already felt like a memory. More like a dream memory.

There was something about the blurry edges and the multiple exposures. Often times, the late night location added to all of that. It was, to me, poetry.

But I didn't know if anyone else was interested in it at the time. My friends liked the pictures, and I liked the pictures. I was trying to find a venue where I could show them or make a book of them. Every few years something would come up, and it would always fall through. I just figured it wasn't time yet.

And now there's both a show and a book.

Sean Coryell, who has this company called Eye Contact, helped. And the San Francisco gallery, The Loin had had somebody drop out. I got a call, asking if I worked in any other media besides music. It seemed like the perfect fit. It seemed like the perfect time because, like you were saying, you were in college in the '90s. There's a '90s moment happening right now. There's nothing fetish-y about it. It's just this quality of it being your time.

I'm fascinated by finding unexpected properties in gear or devices. That sounds like an interest of yours as well.

My M.O. in Shudder to Think was, "We have a guitar. We know C, G, F, A, E, but fuck that." What new chords can we make? Where can I put my fingers that will make a sound that is thrilling?" I am always looking for that. I think it has to do with my growing up in punk and so-called alternative music. For me, it was never about a formula or a format or a style or genre, it was the message that you can do whatever the fuck you want to do.

I'm always looking for the thing that isn't being done. If it's being done, somebody else is probably doing it better! [Laughs.]

I guess you're taking a punk rock attitude to your score work as well.

One hundred percent. You wouldn't recognize it as punk because when I'm working on a medical drama for a major network, it still needs to fit a certain format. In the same way that Shudder to Think was part of the D.C. punk and alternative world, and yet wasn't. There were certain touchstones from that world even though we didn't sound like anybody else. If I'm scoring a romantic comedy, it's still going to sound like one but there are going to be things you don't get from anybody else. At least that's what I like to think. If I always hit the mark? That's certainly up for argument.

I think that ties into what we were talking about before: How do you want to spend your life?

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