Music

Free of Rock Star Dreams, the Latest Music From Shudder to Think's Craig Wedren Tackles the Midlife Crisis

Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Photo: Still from "Adult Desire" video via YouTube

Adult Desire is a tender and fearless set of electro-acoustic pop ditties in which Wedren uses his distinctive voice to explore thoughts on sex and aging and family.

When Craig Wedren turned 45 — "literally to the day," he recalled with a laugh — he began to slide into what he refers to openly as a midlife crisis.

A well-regarded musician since he was his in late teens, when he formed the wildly inventive post-punk band Shudder to Think, Wedren suddenly found himself up against the complicated realities of marriage and fatherhood and a body that seems bent on slowly shutting down.

"It was basically my staring-at-the-skull moment," he said, dropping a Hamlet reference to describe an existential funk from which he needed an escape. "But I'm not an affair-and-Corvette kind of guy. I'm a music guy.

"So I made a record."

That record, released in December, is Adult Desire, a tender and fearless set of electro-acoustic pop ditties in which Wedren, now 48, uses his distinctive voice to explore thoughts on sex and aging and family — and how those ideas might coexist for a man in an era of toxic masculinity.

With its unusual song structures and its pretty but thorny textures, the album represented another outlet as well from the rigors of what has become Wedren's day job composing for film and television.

"I really needed a break from assigned work," said the Los Angeles-based musician known for his scores for School of Rock, Wet Hot American Summer and the hit Netflix series GLOW, about the development of a women's wrestling league in the mid-1980s.

"For this I just gave myself free reign to be creative."

Over lunch on a recent afternoon at his tidy home in the Hollywood Hills, Wedren — who's set to perform Monday night at the Hotel Cafe — said he took the prospect of a solo album seriously.

He released his first project under his own name, Lapland, in 2005, after Shudder to Think broke up following a series of increasingly idiosyncratic records that combined soul, punk and glam. (The band, with a second prolific screen composer in guitarist Nathan Larson, has briefly reunited for concerts several times.)

Wedren put out another solo disc, Wand, in 2011. But then he put his career as a performer on hold to concentrate on scoring and raising his son, who's now 9. When he returned to pop, he said, his values had shifted.

"Because things were going well in the film and TV world — and because I wasn't trying to be a rock star anymore — I had no commercial agenda whatsoever," he explained between bites of salad. "So the most important thing to me if I was going to put something out under my name was that it not contribute to the trash heap of samey-sounding music."

Wedren wasn't referring to the Top 40. He said he listens to current music both voraciously "and a little bit vampirically," hunting for sonic inspiration that he can twist into his own weird shapes. On Spotify recently he posted a playlist of songs, including tracks by Rihanna and Kanye West, that helped point him toward Adult Desire. And he spoke enthusiastically about Charli XCX's Pop 2 mixtape.

Yet he knew he wanted Adult Desire to resist the kind of easily identifiable genre markers that he'd embraced for projects like the strummy Lapland, which he called his attempt at "that Middle American AM Gold thing."

The record grew in part from pieces of music that he'd "squirrel away" for himself, he said, after initially developing them while working on scores for others. As an example, he pointed to the title track, which began with a guitar figure he'd composed for Stuart Blumberg's movie Thanks for Sharing but which he didn't end up using.

Eventually he had a hard drive full of disparate fragments that he'd comb through in his home studio at night after he and his wife had put their son to bed.

"Whatever would catch my fancy, I'd start playing with," he said.

Because he'd never had a midlife crisis before, Wedren was writing in his lyrics about topics he hadn't previously addressed. But there's a through-line in his vivid language — especially in its unflinching depiction of the physical body — that connects Adult Desire to earlier music by Shudder to Think. ("I'd like to lick the butter off your stretch mark," goes one memorable line.) Ditto his singing, which can still range from a dramatic whisper to a near-operatic wail.

"We're starting to remix the first few Shudder to Think records because they weren't mixed well originally," he said. "And I was just saying to my wife the other day that we don't give our younger selves the credit we deserve. Listening back to that stuff, the lyric style, the vocal tics — it was all in place from, like, age 17."

Wedren has also been thinking of his younger days as a result of releasing Adult Desire through his own label, Tough Lover. The do-it-yourself experience, he said, reminds him in a strange way of going around Washington, D.C., where Shudder to Think sprang from that city's vibrant hardcore scene, and posting flyers for shows by hand.

"The promise of DIY is really at one's disposal now," he said. "I can design a T-shirt on my phone, and I can post a song (online) that's accessible to the entire world." He laughed with the knowledge of someone who's seen the record industry's radical transformation over the last two decades.

"Of course, it's anybody's guess how you make a living from that."

Indeed, although Adult Desire provided Wedren with a rejuvenating break from his work in Hollywood, the break didn't last for long. He's currently scoring the second season of "GLOW," and he's got several other film jobs on the horizon.

But he's already thinking of making another solo record — something more "externalized" than Adult Desire, he said, with perhaps less worry and more joy.

"I want to get right back to it."

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