Interview with The Wrens

The Declaration – scene – September 15, 2005

By John Ruscher and Jeb Haley

When The Wrens released The Meadowlands in Fall of 2003, seven years after their last full-length, they bowled a perfect strike. The album marked a triumphant return of one of indie rock’s hidden gems: the group, who were once revered as one of the catchiest bands of the mid-90s, had sunken into obscurity after conflicts with their former label left them without a home, but the band pushed forward and, with the support of a steady label (Absolutely Kosher), broke the silence with an album that won them critical acclaim, including “Album of the Year” by Magnet magazine. Last Saturday evening, before a dynamic performance in the Newcomb Ballroom, The Wrens were kind enough to sit down with The Declaration to discuss their journey, sixteen years in the making.—Jeb Haley

Dec: Briefly, how did the Wrens come about?

Greg: I guess it all started when my brother Kevin and I made, like, really bad demo tapes and started sending them out to bars in Jersey. I guess that would have been around 1990 or something.

Kevin: ‘89.

Greg: Yeah, it was earlier than that, back in the 80s, the 1880s. And then all of the sudden that next week we get a call from a club in Jersey saying do you want to open up for a band called The Fixx?

Dec: Wait a second, like “Saved by Zero” Fixx?

Greg: [Laughing] Yeah, that Fixx. They’re British, yeah, so we’re like, “Hey, we’ll open up for this huge band and become rock and roll stars overnight.”

Kevin: Well, then again, they were on come back tour . . . sort of. It was a few years after “Secret Separation” and all of their hits.

Dec: Yeah, but how do you open for The Fixx?

Greg: Well, listen, it gets better. So my brother and I are opening for The Fixx in this sleazy Jersey club and, you know, promoters—they say we have to sell a hundred and seventy-five tickets, fifteen bucks a pop, and anything we don’t sell, we’re liable for the wasted money. Our line of thinking is, “Hey, we’re essentially rock stars next weekend with all the perks and royalties.” So, at that time it was basically just my brother and I, like we had a friend who was drumming but he wasn’t really that into it, and at that time we wanted another member we could just sort of screw with and Charles actually attended the same university we were going to.

Dec: And where was that?

Charles: Kevin and I both went to William Paterson University, which is a state music school in New Jersey. It was pretty well-known for its music program.

Greg: It was pretty good for jazz stuff, or at least it was at the time. It was just a state school, small on landscape and short on transferring credits and that sort of thing. So we also needed a real guitar player and Charles was like, “Alright, well, I’ll do this one show with you.” And almost twenty years later he’s still here.

Charles: [Laughing] Is this the show, Uncle Greg? Wow, they’re really coming out. “Wait, that doesn’t sound like ‘One Thing Leads To Another.’ Play ‘Saved by Zero!’

Dec: What happened to the other drummer?

Charles: We kind of had a mutual separation with him, so we did a search and Jerry was perfect. And it’s been this way ever since.

Dec: And weren’t you originally named Low?

Greg: Yes, we were. We were originally Low, just briefly, through two crucially badly chosen months.

Dec: Were you the original Low?

Greg: No, we missed it, but not by much actually. I think that was the spring of ‘93, so they’d just put out their first record.

Kevin: We made a seven-inch. I mean, I think we actually got that name from the Low record that Bowie made. That was a good record.

Greg: And then when we got the seven-inches back, we had like a thousand or so pressed and then Grass tells us about this other band named Low and I’m like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” So we got a stamp, and just stamped “The Wrens” onto every record. It came to be known as the “Low” seven-inch, so that’s how we refer to it.

Dec: Any story behind the name “The Wrens” or was it just a name?

Greg: Well, you know how it goes. You end up going through books and magazines and shit because all bandnames are stupid. We’re thinking about what genre it’s going to be, what kind of jokes you can make from it, what does it rhyme with . . . but, no, there’s no grand enlightenment or scheme behind it.

Kevin: Well, our thinking at the time was that we chose Low because we’d gone through a bunch of other names and it was right smack in that period when everyone had, like, monosyllabic names. And then you had the “Jesus” factor and the “Boss” factor and all these other names. There were all the one word bands, like Pavement. You know, like one word nouns. So, with The Wrens, we were kind of looking back to the 60s when everyone was The. And I remember right after we changed it, I saw this movie where these kids were having this discussion like, “No! We’re going to choose, like, a classic The band!” But, it doesn’t matter. No one ever accuses us at this point of copying The Commitments.

Charles: They still play, though.

Kevin: Do they really?

Charles: Yeah, I’ve seen them at B.B. King’s a lot.

Greg: [Laughing] Oh no! I thought you were kidding.

Dec: Musically, who inspired you growing up?

Greg: There’s so many.

Kevin: For me, everything from Liberace, of course The Beatles, and then The Police.

Charles: Yeah, all over the place. For me, especially The Pixies.

Dec: They’re playing here in a couple of weeks. We’re really excited about it, obviously.

Charles: Are they really? Have you ever seen them before?

Dec: I’ve never seen them and I’m kind of geeked about it.

Kevin: Yeah, they’re always great. Charles actually took me to see them on my twenty-first birthday, 1991. We went and saw them at The Ritz. They were doing, was it the Bossanova record?

Charles: Yeah, Bossanova.

Dec: That’s funny because they’re scheduled to play a couple of days before my twenty-first birthday.

Greg: All right. See, it all comes full circle.

Kevin: I just want to let you know, you’ll go to the concert and the next thing you know you’ll be thirty-five.

Dec: Okay. Meadowlands. Do you guys still have day jobs?

Greg: Yes. Three of us do. Charles has a day job too, he just does all music.

Dec: Right. But is that something that’s by choice?

Greg: No, I mean, the choice would be that we could do music. And maybe one day we’ll possibly get there, but right now it would be hard as adults to do it. You know, Jerry’s got kids and it’s a lifestyle. You could do it at twenty-two.

Kevin: Right, if this was a situation where we were young, twenty-five or something, I mean, sure we’d do it. But for so long we were still living like a punk rock band, in a single house with our rent split four ways. And you’re buying cheap used cars and all

that stuff, but over time you get married, you have kids, and you just have to make a living.

Charles: And not that it comes down to money. But, for instance, Charles went out and looked at minivans recently. That’s just something that happens when you get older.

Dec: How long did you actually live together in Secaucus, N.J.?

Greg: [Laughing] In various combinations until just recently.

Kevin: Sixteen years.

Dec: Oh my goodness.

Charles: We just recently separated.

Dec: And how do you do that? How do you live with . . .

Kevin: Because we’re absolutely fucking insane!

Dec: Lots of fights?

Greg: No, no fights. We were talking about this earlier, actually. We all moved in together in September, 1991, and now finally we’re moving out in September. So it’s been a long, long run.

Dec: One subject you’ve never avoided and have always been perceptive to in your songwriting is your age. You guys are sort of the indie elder statesmen in terms of longevity . . .

Charles: We look good for our age, don’t we?

Dec: You do look good for your age! Can I ask that, by the way, exactly how old are you?

Greg: Seventy-two.

Dec: Seventy-two combined, right?

Kevin: [Laughing] There is no possible way you can do that combination four ways!

Greg: Thirty-six, thirty-five, fourty-two, and Jerry’s also thirty-six.

Dec: Has music kept you young?

Greg: Absolutely. Totally. It may not appear that way but the inner me is joyful. Want to stay young? Get into a band.

Dec: When I saw you guys in D.C., you guys were jumping up and down all over the place, and the band that opened for you was kind of standing there looking like you’d just totally showed them up.

Greg: [Laughing] You know, honestly, it’s just something that we’ve always had in us. I think it’s just a similar energy, you can’t describe it, and we just have it. That’s the one thing, since we’ve always been the same band, it’s just the energy we have. It’s just four people and if it’s not there it’s not magical. You know it’s all about what works. We try to keep ourselves up to shape not just physically but musically. Some bands can just stand there and be amazing. But sometimes you’ll see bands that are just half-assing it and we are not one of those bands.

Kevin: You also don’t want to go the other way, either, where you’re always on guard like the Chili Peppers and you’re like The Monkees. They’re up there exuding what seems to be a whole lot of energy, but they’re not, they’re just displaying it. But that’s an easy target and I don’t want your paper to read “Wrens Hate Chili Peppers” or anything like that.

Greg: It’s one of those things that can’t be a schtick, you know. It has to be real.

Dec: It’s interesting, too, because you guys are hitting your peak so late in your careers. Is there a cap or a window to how long you can keep playing music together? How much longer can you keep going?

Greg: Honestly, right now is the best it’s ever been. If you had to map the height of our career, this would be that pinpoint. Right now.

Kevin: It also goes back to the question you were asking about the time thing, that’s why I hesitate to put it in money terms. In a day to day sense, even with as well as things have gone the past two years, we base everything around our families, around those commitments. And I think having to forge this existence within our work schedules has enabled us to stay together. It also kind of leaves it open-ended, like, where do you draw the line? Well, so what if we do put out another record or two and we stay active for the next few years and then it kind of tapers off. I don’t know. I don’t really see it ending in a weird way—we’ll always be together, we’ve grown up together. Then again, this might be our last tour ever. That’s the beauty of The Wrens!

Dec: I read an interview with Bloc Party recently, and they took this sort of utilitarian stance on the issue, like the individual relationships between members were secondary to the music itself, and “music” was the supreme goal of each member. I think you guys debunk that philosophy in a way because you live together, you make music together, and that relationship is so intrinsic because it definitely seems to define you as a band. Is that creative unity something that’s derived from being so close with one another?

Kevin: Yeah, at this level of being so close, it just has to. Even socially when one of us is not there, it’s just not the same, the whole dynamic is different. If two of us are there, it’s different. I’m glad you mentioned that because it really is kind of interesting. The way we play on stage, that’s because of so many years and so much time together.

Greg: And that utilitarian line of thinking, there’s just something, well . . . In a way it doesn’t matter almost. What it implies is that you’d be okay with cutting other people out of the picture. Music is so interpersonal. And, you know, I love that Bloc Party record. But, for us, it’s not even about how good records are made—although I want to make a good record—it’s just the result of a long process.

Dec: I feel like musically there isn’t really a spokesperson or a cultural voice, and if there is a voice it’s definitely muted or stifled. Of course, you compare that to the 60s, when musicians were revered as cultural figures and really influenced the thinking of a lot of people. What then is the responsibility of music in this cultural context? Do musicians share those same responsibilities today?

Greg: We were just talking about this. We talk about this a lot, actually. One of the songs we play is called “Shock Rock-Splitter to God,” but it was originally “Shock Co-Captain to God,” and when the song was done I stewed over this for a while, like, “We’ve got to take this out!” Even though I knew it had nothing to do with anything, and it was about some abstracted friggin’ dream I had about Jesus showing up or something, I just couldn’t sit with it like that. The wording at that time seemed inappropriate. We had just finished an album at the time primarily about ourselves and when all of that happened we were asking ourselves, “Are we doing the right thing?” I mean this is just another record about being in a band and breaking up with girlfriends and not having money, and it seemed kind of self-indulgent at the time. But by the time it came out, a couple of years had gone by and everyone’s life had settled back to normal. And now with Katrina we’re doing the standard stuff: we’re doing benefits, we have an online auction, and we’ve contributed. But the thing about the 60s, not only was rock really coming together as blips on the screen, but it was only rock. . . . Your time and dollars weren’t divided among obscenely complex video games and the Internet and movie rentals and travel. I don’t think rock will ever have that exclusive presence again. It doesn’t matter how good you are, the playing fields are always going to be different, but I think that message can still be communicated. The one thing that pops in my head is when Conor [Oberst] did the Tonight Show dressed in that George Bush cowboy outfit.

Dec: Yeah, I saw that.

Greg: And we know him from way back, he’s a good friend.

Dec: Right. Didn’t Commander Venus catch one of your first shows in Omaha?

Greg: Exactly. It’s so funny because we were just hanging out with Robb who runs Saddle Creek last night in D.C., and we were talking about that very show. It’s really cool. But, going back to Conor, that was one of the few times that I’ve seen it done so outwardly. It’s one thing to sort of do it behind the scenes, but he didn’t hold back. It was his shining moment. Even if he never puts out another record, he will be known for that. It was just so awesome, making such a statement in that cowboy outfit in that context, but what it did in the big picture it’s hard to ever say. So it’s difficult. I think the opportunities aren’t there, and it’s also easy to glamorize what happened then, you know? I wonder if we were sitting here in 1967, what would our perception be? Or as we drive from D.C. to here, would the people along the way be like, “We’re going to change the world!” We know it’s different because it’s past tense. So, I don’t know, I think it’s a tough question to answer.

Dec: You guys have always been so staunchly independent. What are your feelings about the recent exploitation of independent music? Maybe “exploitation” is too strong of a word, but there definitely seems to be an effort on the part of the media to manipulate this particular strain of music, which incidentally coincides with a sort of cultural backlash against most of the stuff you hear on the radio. I mean, you hear people talking all the time about the O.C. and all of these other opportunities for exposure on television programs, commercials, etc. I think Death Cab’s recent album debuted at number four and sold, like, 90,000 copies the first day.

Kevin: Wow. Yeah, and whenever I hear stuff like that I think are the numbers just going to get bigger and bigger? Like 90,000 albums in the first day, what would that have done in 1985? Would that have put that album at number four? I don’t even know. And I wonder, too, if it wasn’t for that exposure, if they didn’t have 100,000 rabid fans in front of T.V. sets, twenty or thirty years ago would it have done that same? Maybe I struggle to grasp what exactly makes a band popular because it’s not just the music, it’s definitely the exposure. I guess my feelings are mixed about that sort of thing. The very fact that people are using music in T.V. shows, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You could justify it. You could say it really serves the show, and you’re okay with it. For some bands, in fact I know of bands who will have one song on a show like that and make more money off of that than they would touring their entire lives. But I know what you’re saying. It is weird seeing it happen and that sold-out debate is more resonant now than in years past.

Dec: What can we expect from the next album?

Greg: [Laughing] Lots of pussy singles. It should be coming out next spring, maybe. Hopefully. Charles and I might be pushing a hundred before it comes out. The CD might come with an ear trumpet. That is, if we make it past this show right now.

Jeb Haley and John Ruscher are a third-year English majors who will be interviewing Zombie Wren-quist next week.

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