In celebration of their new release, Live From Home, Shudder To Think is playing a one-night-only show at Bowery Ballroom this evening. This comes after the band reunited last year, ten years after their breakup, and played a limited amount of dates nationwide—this album contains tracks handpicked from that tour. Prior to all this, the band (on Dischord Records) pushed the boundaries of the hardcore punk scene, and their legendary Pony Express Record (appropriately released on Epic) is regarded amongst many as one of the most influential albums in recent years.
Last week one of those whom it influenced, Alex Tween of The Forms, took some time from working on their upcoming EP to talk to frontman Craig Wedren about the past, present and future... oh, and that private island they shared with Pearl Jam back when major labels were throwing money at bands.
You've been quite busy doing a lot of reunion shows with Shudder to Think over the past couple of years. How have they been going? Amazingly well. A total, total pleasure. Just to fuckin' hammer down like that. I don't think any of us have had just cause to go that heavy for about a decade. Did you see one of the shows? We have a very, very, hearty good time.
I saw two of them actually and enjoyed them very much. Over the years, Shudder has been a band that has had a lot of ups and downs, lots of hard luck sometimes. I always felt the band was very underrated. Has the fact that these reunion shows have been so successful been a kind of vindication for you? It was just very satisfying. Part of it, it's not like there were so many more people coming out to the shows, but what felt good was we didn't think anybody was going to show up, and people showed up everywhere we played, but it was more just being able to appreciate it for the first time, because back in the day, we were perpetually discontent with our level or state or stature or popularity. I think it really sort of poisoned the well a little bit. In addition to kind of classically having that attitude and it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy where the stories you tell about yourself are the stories that everybody tells about you, and then it sort of becomes your story. That in addition to that, which I genuinely believe, we had it pretty good. We had it really well. We did okay, and we always thought of ourselves as bigger, or should be as big as Aerosmith or Van Halen.
I think it's increased among audiences as well. While on the Forms' tours, I'll be in places like Columbus, Ohio or Portland, Oregon, and the Pony Express Record in particular will often come up with people I meet. It just is this record that has stayed around because there is no record like it, and it's very special and I think will always resonate. I so hope that you're right. It certainly was, when we made it, we thought that way, and that was the intent. I don't listen to the actual album that much, in part because certain production choices are so of the era and not really what my ears are attuned to now, but just the songs and construction, and that sort of weird, warm, ambitious intention, I love that music and I'm so happy that what we thought we were making and what we felt like what we were making, is actually what continues to seep out there, it's very gratifying.
A little about Shudder's history, you came out in the 90s out of DC's hardcore world. How does Shudder fit in with what, from the outside, seems to be such an aggressively, hyper-masculine scene? We didn't fit in at all. A lot of girls liked us and a lot of gay boys. As far as I'm concerned, given the choice of a crowd full of hyper-masculine dudes or gay boys and girls, it's pretty much no contest. Once people started settling into what we were doing, we knew that the people who were showing up to shows were there because they felt passionately. It wasn't like they were part of the cool scene, at least at first. And it wasn't really like we were doing something that was for everybody else, so it was really nice, it was a real bond and a real sort of secret society, cult-like, enthusiasm and pact.
What's funny though is that later on you opened for more mainstream bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Foo Fighters where the situation was very different. What was it like to be put in those situations, when it seems your preference was to be with your true fans? It was hilariously absurd. Especially when you get into the level of Nirvana, there are so many reasons why people are coming to shows at that point, that don't have anything to do with a passion for songcraft or whatever it was. But all of those bands, maybe with the exception of Grohl's, are highly unique. Pavement are wimpy indie-pop (and I say that with the utmost love and respect for their music). Fugazi turned out to be an art band. Whoever was and wasn't coming to the shows had much more to do with whatever was happening culturally, there was much more in common with us and the artists who were making the music.
That was just a moment, a cultural phenomenon that was very challenging to do all those shows. It really sharpened our game, all of that anger and confrontation. It sharpened us to a bloody blade point on those tours. It was really awesome. We were a great live band at the time, and for many reasons that didn't have to do with the music. In addition to loving the music we were making, which is still true, there were a whole bunch of other factors making us into this crack team at the time, including inter-band tension, which for a long time as with any band can really hone what you're doing to a fine point. It can be really creative before it gets tested. All of those things were very creative factors for a little while.
I remember reading an interview with Kim Deal where she was talking about who was a real punk band these days, and she said Shudder to Think, which was very true in a way because even though the music didn't sound like what people think of as punk music, Shudder was really pushing many boundaries. But I think if the Sex Pistols opened for the Foo Fighters, they probably would have loved it if the audience hated them. Was that your attitude? Did you want everyone to love it? We would have preferred that everybody loved it. Everybody. But second to love, I will take hate any day.
Just as long as it isn't indifference. Yeah. We were pretty sad at times, we were like okay, this is a fine silver medal. It worked for us, but then it became frustrating and exhausting. We felt like we were repeatedly hitting ourselves, hitting our heads against this sort of glass ceiling. Then we started getting frustrated and we started finding outlets with film scores and writing and all that. Which also has to do with reaching a certain age and stage in life where it's like "I don't really want to get into the band and play 15 songs again." It's way more in the spirit of what we understood to be punk, to continue pushing the boundaries, personal ones, even if it didn't appear punk in any way, shape, or form to the outside world. Which, is why when we started getting into doing soundtracks and other kinds of music, it felt way more pioneering personally and was very much in keeping with what we had always been doing in spirit if not in style.
You mention the soundtrack work and film scoring. Do you have a preference for writing songs for a complete album of your own versus writing for someone else? I like pretty much 50-50 split of weird rock song stuff for me and whoever wants to hear it, and then doing things like film soundtracks or tv shows or writing for people—good creative work for hire and being challenged to do things outside of my comfort zone that I wouldn't necessarily do if left to my own devices. But too much of one or the other becomes a little bit warped.
Are you aware that the song "Higher and Higher" from the training montage in Wet Hot American Summer has this massive cult following? That is funny. I have been collaborating with this friend of mine named Richard Jankovich, he is sort of a Producer electronic remix guy that goes by the name Pocket.. We just collaborated on a song together, and in so doing he introduced me to another guy who was a big Stella fan. We used Higher and Higher in an episode of Stella on Comedy Central, and his wife had written like, a really blog piece about the glory and beauty of Stella, and there's a little bit about "Higher and Higher" in it. And a few days before that it was my birthday, and for my 40th my wife got all my friends to contribute memories or photographs or whatever they had, and my friend Teddy Shapiro who was the co-writer of "Higher and Higher" and the Wet Hot American Summer soundtrack, one of the things he wrote in the little birthday thing was—the very last part of it said something like...he's a very successful film composer, he's done Tropic Thunder and Marley and Me and huge, huge stuff. He wrote at the end that there are some people who think that Higher and Higher is the greatest song ever written, for better or for worse. We just nailed something on that totally not too modest or too proud to admit that that is a high water mark for Teddy and I and we may never hit it again.
When we wrote it, I remember the day that we wrote that song, when it popped out we looked at each other and were like, we both started cracking up and with tears in our eyes, like, that's the best thing we've ever written! So again, not unlike the Pony Express Record, it filled our hearts with joy and amusement that other people connect to that song in the same way that we did when we wrote it, even though it's a total retard spoof.
As is the amazing Creed parody "Heal Me I'm Heartsick" from School of Rock. I remember reading on your blog there were people who wrote you who thought it was real. That kind of spoof—I've been obsessed with that for so long. I'm working on a song like that right now for The United States of Tara (I'm scoring the upcoming season of it). I guess I can't tell you the details of the song, but it's in that spirit, and I'm very very excited about it.
What are your future plans? I know you were working on some recorded material... Basically where it's at is that we're putting out this live record, which we're all super psyched about. I'm sitting on about four hours of material that I somehow want to get out into the world. I've been planning on turning a few hours of it into a movie. The thought is that it'll be a solo record, but depending on peoples' enthusiasm and response and reaction to the Shudder live record and some of the new stuff that we're going to be presenting at the show, which includes a collaboration with with a contemporary classical ensemble called the American Contemporary Music Ensemble or ACME. We're going to be performing some stuff that we've been collaborating on, from older Shudder To Think things retooled for a string ensemble to a collaboration I've been doing with Jefferson Friedman, who's a composer that played in Shudder To Think for a little while. And we're going to smoosh it all together, past, present and future ideas for Shudder to Think, and kind of test the waters and see what people think of it. If everybody's really psyched, great, maybe we'll call it shudder to think, or maybe it'll be Craig Wedren or maybe it'll be ACME. Wo knows. Everything's a little bit by the seat of our pants. Everything that there's been so far with this refigured Shudder to Think has been "okay, let's try this and see what happens. If people are excited, maybe we'll do more of it." So that's kind of our attitude. And we'll see how the show goes, we'll see how the live record goes over, and then we'll do the thing that feels best and weirdest.
If you have a favorite "only in New York" story, what is it? This is not my favorite, but this is a very good one that came up yesterday. I was having a conversation about Bjork and then subsequently Sugarcubes and KUKL, which was Bjork's first band, with a couple of friends the other day. And I remembered this story which was within the first month of my moving to New York in 1987. Shudder to Think had just started at that point, this isn't a Shudder to Think story but it is a New York story. And I had come to New York to go to NYU. I was going out with a girl at the time and it was right when that Sugarcubes record Life's Too Good came out. We heard that they were playing a secret show at CBGB's under their icelandic name, and so we were like awesome, we have to go. But you had to show up, stand in line and get into the show, so needless to say it was a madhouse out front. It was winter, so it was really cold and you know we were Freshmen in college, so we were probably already drunk when we arrived, and we each had a 40oz of Budweiser in the bag, which we downed while waiting on line. We got a really really good standing position in CBGB's, and I'd say maybe four rows from the stage. And you know how CBGB had those little cocktail, cabaret tables? The little circular ones with the red Italian candles? And so everybody is crammed the fuck in, couldn't breathe. And you definitely couldn't get to the bathroom. And if you got to the bathroom, there was no way you were going to get your sweet-ass position back in front of the stage. So basically we had our position, crammed up against these little teeny tables and our bladders were totally full of Budweiser.
By the time the show started we had to piss so fucking badly. And Christian, the girl I was with, she had the bright idea to take one of these candles, stick it up her skirt, and pee in it. Which she did. And I was like "Christian, you are a sneaky genius." So I'm like, nobody is going to notice if I take my dick out and stick it in one of these candles and pee in it, right? So I got one of these candles, unzip my fly, and fill an entire candle, and I'm not nearly done. I finish the candle, I put it on the table next to me, I grab another candle and fill that one. Three or Four candles later there or however many there were around me for me to grab, I'm covered in my own pee and the tables are covered in my own pee, and still nobody noticed because Bjork is standing 8 feet away from us. Through the show we're complete soaking in our own urine. The Sugarcubes have completely rocked the house. I still have to pee, and we walk out into the cold New York night, and my jeans basically freeze to my leg. I really think that's an only in New York story.
Do you have a similar story about the tours? There are a lot of sordid stories that I remember well. Here are two. One is a well-known story among Shudder fans. When we were on tour with Smashing Pumpkins, we played in San Diego one night and we were playing this huge Airplane hangar, it sounded terrible, and the local radio station was broadcasting the Smashing Pumpkins so we didn't have time to sound check since they were setting up all the broadcast gear. So we just felt very self-pitying and neglected that night. We though, well what are we going to do to grab the audiences attention, because nobody is paying attention and it sounds like shit anyway. So I have the bright idea that we should just play naked. Everybody was excited about the idea. But of course when we get down to the show, I was the only one.
For the same 40th birthday album that my wife made for me, Nathan Larson (Shudder to Think guitarist) sent in a picture that somebody took—probably James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins guitarist)—with a Polaroid camera of me from backstage, of me bending over to pick up my water bottle, like literally with my nutsack hanging all the way down to my knees, but I'm still wearing weird Amish shoes and socks. So that was fun, and then a girl, a 14 year old girl in the audience, went home and told her mom that there was a naked guy on the stage, and the mother tried to press charges against us and the promoter, which of course didn't get past the judge, cause the judge was like "you're a money grubbing retard."
Here's another story from the first Shudder to Think tour. We were sleeping on people's floors, we wound up spending a week or so in St. Louis. This girl who was a punk kid in high school was nice enough to put us up. We were only supposed to stay at her family's house for like one or two nights, but then all of our shows got cancelled, we were totally stuck with no money. And the rule was that it was okay with her parents if we stayed there so long as you left the house when the daughter left the house for school. Every morning at about 7am, the whole band would have to pile into our van and leave the house until the girl got back. And so every day we would go to the Anheuser-Busch tour, where you get two free beers at the end of it, at 9am we would take the tour and would all get what, King Cobra? Or Shlitz? Whatever the malt liquor was. And that would give us a little breakfast buzz. And then later on the same tour we were in Arizona and we were sleeping on the promoter's floor, and I remember very distinctly, I was sleeping on the kitchen floor literally with my head against the refrigerator, so anytime anyone got up in the middle of the night to get water or beer or whatever, they'd knock the door into my head and I'd have to move my head so they could get whatever. During one of these times in the night when I got woken up by someone opening up the refrigerator door on my head, I took a little walk to the bathroom, and looked down the hall to a bedroom door that was open with the pregnant girlfriend of the Promoter giving him a blow job. So squalid, dude.
On the flip side of that is the very last tour that we did was opening for Pearl Jam in Australia, which was awesome. I don't remember which Pearl Jam tour it was, but it was huge. But the record label Sony literally rented Pearl Jam and Shudder to Think (who was just riding their coattails) an entire island off of Sydney for a day. An empty island with wildlife, Pearl Jam, Shudder to Think, record label people, cooks, parasailing, surfing, and girls. Really.
Ups and downs indeed.