Shudder to Think 1994
Photo: Jesse Peretz / Epic Records

Shudder to Think Look Back on 1994’s ‘Pony Express Record’

Shudder to Think’s Pony Express Record is one of the most enduring releases of the 1990s, evergreen for the very reasons it wasn’t a massive hit upon release.

Pony Express Record
Shudder to Think
13 September 1994

In spring 1995, Shudder to Think, the Washington, DC-based band with a singular swirl of punk and glam anchored by the singular vocals of Craig Wedren, found their way to the MTV Buzz Bin with their video for “X-French Tee Shirt”, the second single from their major label debut Pony Express Record, which was released in September 1994. 

It was surely one of the strangest and most compelling songs to catch on during the alternative rock boom. The video is filled with memorable, provocative images, and Shudder to Think were fully glammed up in the video, bucking the scruffy slacker vibes of many of the music stars of the day. “We were doing the big collars over the suit jackets before U2,” joked lead singer Craig Wedren.

Shudder to Think were as surprised as everyone when the song had a moment that summer. “In fact, an article in Rolling Stone cited ‘X-French Tee Shirt’ as the video that signaled the end of the Buzz Bin,” laughed Wedren. “You know something has jumped the shark when Shudder to Think is in the Buzz Bin,” bassist Stuart Hill added.

The song begins with Wedren saying, “Say what?” and builds around some fragmented guitars to a hugely satisfying main riff, with Wedren singing about giving it up and chewing foil. After about a minute and a half, the track rides out on a different massive riff, and a set of hypnotic lyrics take on a mantra-like quality for the remaining three minutes. It is impossible not to sing along to, made utterly compelling by Wedren’s vocals. It doesn’t exactly sound like a natural fit to slot in after Green Day on the radio. One analysis of the song on YouTube describes it as “wearing the skin of what was popular at the time”. However, it is an enduring track that has fascinated many bands, including Deftones, who have covered it at live shows.

“People still love that song. We were hoping we could be part of a sea change in rock and pop music. We were hoping it would go our way, but that seems like a quaint notion in retrospect,” Wedren said. “We weren’t trying to write hit songs in the sense that we would listen to hits and try to write like that. We were trying to make great songs. We were young and naive enough to think that quality and merit could shine through”. “We also had the belief that if there is a lot of money behind something, it would become successful,” laughed guitarist Nathan Larsen.

While Shudder to Think didn’t achieve massive success, they have been an often-cited reference for many other revered artists, such as Jeff Buckley, who frequently called them his favorite band, and Pearl Jam. They also made an impression on several emo icons, such as Sunny Day Real Estate, Cursive, and Braid.

There will never be a time in the music industry like the 1990s again. Gone are the days when alternative rock dominated the airwaves, and Best Buy and other big-box retailers dedicated large chunks of their floor plans to music at deep discounts to generate sales, hoping consumers would wander over to the car stereos or refrigerators after selecting their favorite music and movies. Shows like MTV’s 120 Minutes and Alternative Nation fed the appetite for loud guitars. Marketing was aggressive, and competition was fierce.

Countless times I took a chance on an unknown band because it was cheaper than a movie ticket. Much of it was forgettable, but those end caps were occasionally stocked with gold. From one of those end caps of emerging artists, I purchased Pony Express Record, barely prepared for what awaited me. I had Get Your Goat, so they were not an unknown quantity, but I knew enough about major label debuts by then to expect the unexpected, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

Three decades later, Pony Express Record is one of the most enduring releases of the 1990s, evergreen for the very reasons it wasn’t a massive hit upon release. In it, Shudder to Think perfected their blend of glam, punk, and new wave even further than before and produced a singular collection of songs that has outlasted far buzzier releases that held sway for a season. 

“We definitely made our strangest record to date. We really did want to have a pop hit, but we made a really weird record,” said Larsen. “[Previous record] Get Your Goat is brighter and poppier. Pony Express is velvety and dark,” said Wedren.

Pony Express Record, while clearly their high point, is also a challenging record, filled with riffs that stop and start and lyrics filled with compelling images that are sinister at times and hilarious at others. Wedren’s lyrics have always been worth trying to unpack, but there is an easy joy in savoring the humor in lines like “Here’s a tip: You can take a lot of abuse if you exchange your skin for leather” or “Scare the piss out of the bedpans.”

Opening track “Hit Liquor” throws down the gauntlet to new listeners and longtime fans, with its stops and starts and Wedren talking about cases of bones being softer than loose meat and spending a day on the belts to get thin before a sinister and sexy growl of “Wanna watch?” kicks the song into yet another riff. It is almost an anti-single, yet it was the first song and video released.

Elsewhere, “Kissi Penny” begins with lyrics that sound like the start of a noir novel but builds to a huge chorus that is then deconstructed by an off-beat. Nearly every song has a memorable hook, but then it gets worked over. “We had a lot of unspoken rules for ourselves. You could work in rock riffs, but you had to break it up into parts. Seven of this chord, three of this chord. It was like a broken version of popular music,” Larsen said.

“We got lumped in with more math rock, but we weren’t trained. It wasn’t technical wizardry. We would break things apart until we made new shapes. It was intuitive. We knew when something worked,” Wedren said.

Shudder to Think are not a band that have blended. Ever. They sounded like nothing else on their label, the punk institution Dischord Records. In spite of or maybe because of that, the group cultivated a devoted following. “Our A&R at Sony signed us in large part because of the connection we had with our fans,” said Wedren.

That year, two Dischord bands, Shudder to Think and Jawbox, made the leap to the majors. The stakes were high. It was a decade where music fans had the privilege of weighing in on bands’ career choices, crying “sell out” when their favorites signed to majors, made music videos, and got on the radio. Looking back, it seems absurd not to want your favorite bands to be able to eat and pay rent, and several of the best records of the decade were made by groups that made the leap from indie to the majors. 

For Shudder to Think, the decision to move to Sony made sense, but was not without reservation. “It’s not like we wanted to leave Dischord, but we wanted our music to reach the most people and we wanted to make a living making music,” said Wedren. “Things were rigid. For something that was supposed to be about freedom and play, it turned out to have quite a few rules. Not just Dischord, but the scene in general.” 

“And the rule at Dischord is that you are supposed to break up after two records,” joked drummer Adam Wade, a veteran of Shudder to Think and Jawbox. The label has a little of one or two albums that are worth your time. He’s not wrong.

“Laughter aside, the feeling of not wanting to disappoint people was also very real,” said Larsen.

Small ripples of a backlash started even before Pony Express Record. “We did have a fan picket our show once when we were opening for Smashing Pumpkins,” Wedren said. “At a Smashing Pumpkins show? Come on. Their rise from indie to major stardom was perfectly calibrated. I think it was mostly in defense of Dischord”.

“I thought, ‘It’s working! One person is paying attention!’” laughed Larsen. 

“Young people are very strict. They are still figuring it out, and they really, really let you know it”, Wedren added. “If the rules are more important than the music, they probably won’t stay on the ride for very long.” Wade added, “That whole thing is so archaic now. Many bands would be thrilled to get a commercial today”.

As part of the transition to Sony, Shudder to Think released a single on Dischord that contained two eventual Pony Express Record songs, “Hit Liquor” and “Rm. 9, Kentucky”. “I felt good about that, ending things with the single release on Dischord,” Larsen said. “Although years later, I did find out that Ian [Mackaye, lead singer of Fugazi and owner of Dischord] was mad at us for leaving.”

As for recording Pony Express Record, the label changed, but some of the processes remained the same. They worked with Dischord stalwart Ted Nicely, as did Jawbox for their major label debut. Nicely had also worked with Girls Against Boys and Fugazi. “We recorded analog in a big room, so it has a lot of space, giving it a widescreen quality. There is room to explore within it,” Wedren said.

For Wade, this was the first time using a click track. “We called it the Russian Dragon, as in ‘Are you rushin’ or are you draggin’? It was brutal, but this record could not be as great as it is without that”, he said. 

The album’s sound is calibrated. Songs stop on a dime and go someplace else completely from there. A cover of “So Into You” comes out of left field toward the record’s end but is of a piece with the rest of the songs, so much so that it hardly even sounds like a cover. Wedren’s vocals begin several songs before the music kicks in. And with its provocative images in the lyrics, like the best art, Pony Express Record‘s rewards are revealed as you spend more time with it.

“It was a great record to play live. We would just lock in during the best shows,” Wedren said. I can confirm. Their show touring this record at St. Andrews Hall in Detroit was a marvel. 

Despite the uniqueness of their sound and the record, Sony had their backs. “Our A&R, Michael Goldstone, was really supportive without exception. He’d had some big successes, so he could really invest in us,” Wedren said.

A surprise hit like “X-French Tee Shirt” is a tough act to follow, and while there were other music videos from Pony Express Record, none of them caught on. The band encountered some darker times when Wedren was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (he has recovered), but they released one more record with Sony, 50 Million B.C., in 1997 before parting ways.

While wrapping up things with Sony, Shudder to Think began to pivot to scoring indie films, including High Art and First Love, Last Rites. They did break up in 1998 but have reunited a couple of times for shows. Since then, Hill hasn’t been playing music, and Wade does so sparingly. Wedren and Larsen, however, have each released solo projects and found further success in scoring. Larsen scored films such as Todd Solondz’s Storytelling and Palindromes, as well as Lukas Moodysson’s devastating Lilya 4EVER, among others. Wedren is best known for his work on films like Wet Hot American Summer and School of Rock. More recently, he has been working on television, most notably with friend and That Dog member Anna Waronker on the Yellowjackets score. He also released an excellent solo record earlier this year.

As for a celebration of Pony Express Record, the music is tied up at Sony, so there isn’t a reissue on the horizon. “It’s a whole rigmarole, trying to get it back out there,” Wedren said. “You can probably get a CD of it on the cheap, though,” Larsen laughed. With band members doing their own things, a victory lap tour also seems unlikely.

Shudder to Think are thankful that Pony Express Record has endured and continues to find new listeners. “We all wanted to do something unique. We all got it in our collective craw; it became the engine of the band for the whole run, and Pony Express Record is the pinnacle of that,” Wade said. “It’s awesome how passionately people feel about the record and “X-French Tee Shirt,” Wedren said. “It didn’t wind up changing the scene, but it reared its head above the surface of the water.”