Recently, Boston Hassle got the chance to speak with Craig Wedren – musician, composer, founding member of Shudder To Think and solo-artist. After the break up of Shudder To Think in the early 2000’s, Wedren has been focused on composers work, scoring for television and movies, as well as releasing his solo-material. His last solo LP “Adult Desire” came out in 2017. Since the beginning of 2021, he’s already shared the two new solo-pieces – “On My Tongue” and “Going Sane”.
Dan Volohov sat down with Craig Wedren discussing transition to major label and writing “Pony Express Record”, differences between scoring work for TV and films and current projects, musicality and DIY.
After the release of “On My Tongue” you announced that over the course of 2021, you’d be releasing a song per month supporting it with video. What drove you to do this, rather than release an LP ?
Well, I had a collection of songs that felt like an LP, that felt like a record. But my life is such because I do a lot of music for TV and movies right now. And I do a lot of different projects…I felt like if I’d put out the proper record, I would have waited until I was done with a few TV and film projects. And I just wanted to feel like I was always working on my own stuff as well as I work on music for hire. Because, the way I used to work in my own music would get pushed to the side until I was done with film-project. And then, I’d work on my stuff as fast as I could. Get it out there! And then, I’d go back to movies and TV shows.
On my last record – “Adult Desire”, I was working on it at night, and I was working on my TV stuff during the day. Both sides – film and TV side and making a record side, they really fed off and inspired each other. When I was working on both at the same time. And I never felt stuck in one or another. Cause, making a record is like writing a book. You just stuck with your own brain and your own ideas. But if you’re writing a book and writing a few articles, editing something for another writer – you get all of these different inputs that inspire each other.
So, I really like that process, when I was working on “Adult Desire”. But it was really difficult because I was ALL DAY on shows and ALL NIGHT on my record. And I like to spend a lot of time with my family, my friends…So for this one, I thought: “I’d loosen it up!”. Just because of the way music is released these days digitally really doesn’t seem as important…To release a single monumental LP. During COVID, I also started getting into my own videos. Learning, editing software in my little studio – very DIY. I thought: “Oh! It’s better to just focus on one song and one video at a time, while I’m working on other projects!” – and I still feel they’re inspiring each other. But I won’t feel like this great way of having to complete an entire record before I’d put anything out.
So, I’ve been doing it. And I love it – process wise. Because, whenever I get sick with one thing, I’d move to the other and if I get sick of that – I’d move back to the other. So that really works! The thing that I miss – there’s a real feeling of having giving birth. When you put out a record, or when you put out a book, or when the movie comes out…Something substantial like that. It’s not as: “AAAAAAAH!”-feeling with putting out one song at a time. I love the process of it. I think, I like it more! But the product of it…Maybe isn’t quite as satisfying. So, it’s just sort of giving take.
As an artist, you’ve passed through various stages – working with independent labels like Dischord and Team Love, major-label of course. Doesn’t it feel strange when you can run your business literally only by putting your releases out at Bandcamp, and still get some recognition following the same DIY principles?
It feels more natural and DIY which is where I started anyway. Dischord Records back with Shudder To Think was active, was the closest thing you could get making something, putting it out and having this very direct artist-to-fan-relationship. And now, even as independent-minded label as something like Dischord it’s still another step between the artist-and-fan relationship. So, to me, it feels like a quite natural evolution toward artistic freedom. What’s difficult about it as ever and more than ever is cutting through the noise. It’s very-very difficult to reach people to capture their attention for more than 2 or 3 seconds. And then, to have any kind of continuous relationship with them. While previously, there was a longer attention span.
If I was a fan of an artist, I’d give them one, two, three, four, five records…I’d follow the entire arc and really-really sit with everything they released and absorb it. And absorb it again. And a part of it has to do with being really young. When you’re young, you have more time, you’re really a sponge and absorbing more. Almost like a DNA-level. Like the music we hear when we’re from 17 to 23 never leaves! It gets in there. And it’s like a tattoo.
A lot of the people who were for instance Shudder To Think-fans…Now are in their 40’s or 50’s and very busy. Everybody has families. And we aren’t absorbing the same things as deeply as we used to. And when you combine that with the speed and attention competition for sort of digital assault – it’s very-very difficult to feel satisfied that my music and my output is cutting through and reaching people.
Again, it’s more of getting take. More artistic freedom, the ability to finish something and get it out there, connect it to the people who want to hear it. That’s always been a vital…It completes the circle to me! Creating something, if it’s my own music, I usually begin with making something for myself. And then, if it turns me on, I hope and trust that it would turn the other people to. But it doesn’t feel complete until I know it’s reached people and there are or are not turned on. That’s very satisfying. To be able to do that on a regular basis. I don’t know how to do expand the field of reach. But that’s nothing new.
While listening to much of your solo-material, there’s always a strong feeling of presence of the visual imagery. With songs like “In School”, I found myself thinking that you’re not only painting the picture without any visual picture but also trying to express a feeling. Is this what you’re searching for as an artist ? Like a creative way out of this situation?
Thank you for saying that! That means a lot to me. I hope and certainly, my favorite songs I’ve made have a cinematic or even literary…They’re more like dreams that combine film and memory and literature. It’s sort of the prime or primary source for all media. We have our dreams, we have our desires, it comes with imagery, narrative and a freedom of imagination. So I tend to be attracted by art and music that evokes or otherwise inspires, triggers that part of my dream. And I think, the things I make that I love best, I hope can do that for other people, for listeners. If I can get any of your dreams with my music, if I can inspire you toward whatever it is, you’d uniquely do, then I’d feel very-very satisfied.
So I really-really appreciate that. I also think that I spend a lot of time with visual…Just because of my scoring work. And that’s has always been a big part of me and my friends’ obsession. Doing this whole thing with music and film growing up. Its kind of make sense to me. And I’ve been thinking about it while working on these videos wondering if I really need videos.
Sometimes you have the visual and it narrows ones’ ability to imagine and picture what the film might look like. Like you’re talking about “In School” – I wouldn’t want to make a video for “In School” because there are so many ways listener can go with that. And I want them to have freedom of imagination. That said, I’ve always really enjoyed working visually – whether it’s photography or art or composing for films. So, I’m definitely enjoying exploring the video-thing. But I’m curious to see where it leads.
And when you started your scoring work – firstly as Shudder To Think, working on “First Love, Last Rites” and “High Art” soundtrack, what drove you towards this direction? Do you think you needed a certain creative challenge at that point?
Yes. Absolutely. It had always been in my mind. And I think in a certain extend in Nathan’s [BH – Nathan Larson]. Ever since we were in high school, we wanted to do film music. A lot of the music we’d make after school – the more experimental stuff. We’d go to my house and do the stuff on 4-track with a sampling pedal. And it was always very surreal and ambient and experimental. Which, if I’d play it for people they’d say: “Oh, that sounds like a movie music!” – like I said, my friends and I were always obsessed with movies. When I went to college, most of my friends in college were in the film-school. I was in theater school. But Shudder To Think were already making records there. So, people in the film-school, friends of mine, would come to me and ask me for a music for their films. It started at a very young age. And was always happening. While Shudder To Think was happening. It was just much smaller, more student-film-level. After college, a lot of my friends from school started a comedy group and a TV-show called The State, which was the sketch comedy show at MTV. It was one of the first MTV’s non-music programing shows. And they needed the music! And I’d occasionally do compose for this or that sketch. I did the theme-song for it. So, it was just sort of percolating for a lot of time that by the time, Shudder To Think started doing film scores, we were tired of touring, we were feeling a little bit like we were in a straight-jacket creatively. Because, by that point, it was sort of expected that we were this sort of art-band that would make this sort of not-post-punk-pushing-the-envelope-kind-of-thing. And we were: “Ok! That’s great! And we love doing that! But there are thousands of things we love to do!” and the reason we got into this in the first place was to feel and express creative freedom – whatever it was. We went to bubblegum pop or an album of noise or produce for a soul-singer or do like an orchestral film-soundtrack! We wanted to be able to do all of that! So Epic Records, our label at a time – who were wonderful for the most part! They really didn’t know what to do with that…Because, at that time, they needed to be able to slot you into a very specific category. And they already didn’t know what category we were. And here we’re coming and saying: “Oh! By the way, we want to rip it up and start doing film-soundtracks!” and they were: “We don’t know what to do with that!”. Also, it gets trick legally – who owns a film-soundtrack ? Is it the film-studio ? The producer ? The composers ? OR if you also have a record-label – does it a record-label ? So that’s not really a part of the moneymaking vision. But we were adamant, knew we’re gonna do it. And we did it! They helped! As much as they could. They released a soundtrack for “First Love, Last Rates”. I’m not sure who released the soundtrack for “High Art”. But it was a sort of the beginning of end of Shudder To Think…
Many of the songs on “Pony Express Record” still sound like a combination of diametrical oppositions. But uniting these elements, these accents what made you understand that this part would work with this part, this type of singing would fit for the song like “Hit Liquor?”
It was a very-very intuitive! Particularly, on “Pony Express Record,” but also, on “Get Your Goat” which was our last Dischord release. At least, for myself I was flowing, I was very tuned in. I knew what I was interested in – sonically, esthetically. And synthesizing all of these, like you said, sort of diametric oppositions. Now, nobody thinks twice about it because we all listen to Spotify of shuffle. And so we’re hearing Johnny Cash next to Bach. And it all makes sense. It all works! At that time, though, I guess we were very into music…And still are! So we listened to a lot of different stuff. We were also very into expanding our knowledge base. And wanted to know more about music.
We all grew up in the 70’s and 80’s with radios. There was a lot of rap, a lot of punk, a lot of metal, a lot of new wave, disco. But to get into some of more out-shit – free-jazz, 20’s century contemporary music, you had to sort of make an effort. You had to go and find it. Or to know somebody who was into that music, or in that scene. So, we were really devouring all of that. And it was very clear, at least to me, what was turning me on.
Combining all those elements and all those desperate influences felt like the most natural thing in the world. Like breathing or drinking water. What would not feel natural – to try and mimic and imitate and sound like something that’s already come before. Like I said earlier, what you was interested in was kind of freedom of expression. And we were exploring. And it really came out quite naturally.
There was a lot of effort in terms of learning how to play it well and figuring out how to execute the ideas. But the ideas themselves really-really flowed! Like the guitar-part for “Hit Liquor” or “X-French Tee Shirt”. All those little ego-pieces really happened very naturally. And then, we’d thinker. We’d just repeat parts for hours sometimes. And just play them until they were in our bodies and not in our heads. Then, we’d take them on tour and play shows. And they’d naturally get better. When you’re playing shows with the new material, especially tricky material, after a tour, after a few weeks, you started getting almost immediate unconscious intuitive sense of what parts are and are not working. In some cases, they naturally just evolve without even thinking about it…
I was thinking how to ask you about reaction. At that point, majors started signing the bands and made them sound like Nirvana or Pearl Jam. Just like with many bands, they signed Shudder To Think and you released a record that still sounds unlike any others. Even these days it’s difficult to find the words describing it. What did you feel when it came out? As you said, it was tricky. So, the reaction was also specific…
Yeah. By that point, we were very used to have an extreme polar reaction. People would love us. And the people who would love us would be nuts. Or people would hate us. And they were nuts. So, we had sort of immigrated that into what we did. We sort of embraced that, to a certain extent. We were like: “Great! As long as we’re happy with it – we’d keep challenging ourselves…” – it’s almost like not divide but conquer. But divide and unite. We were sort of like dividing audiences and uniting people who were feeling it.
So, with “Pony Express Record” in particular, I think we had a very-very strong sense of ourselves. And of our kind of mission, for the lack of better word. It was like a humiliation of everything we’ve been doing by that point. We loved all of our records. And felt very strongly about that. But we had a time, money and the support…And a popularity, by that point, that was really at the top of our creative wave. I’d say we were very cocky about it. We were like: “This is the shit! This is gonna blow you away…blah-blah-blah” – which you kind of have to have. In order to keep going through. Especially, if you’re doing something unique or polarizing. And so, we felt great about that.
The critical…It did well. But it didn’t make money. It didn’t make back it’s budget. A lot of people found that record. People still seem to find their way to that record. And I’m so grateful to have had that experience, being able to make that record. And for Epic’s support. We just weren’t selling Pearl Jam-number. If you’re dealing with a corporation like Sony, who owned Epic, they’ve just got other things to think about. So when it didn’t do as well as we had dreamt. Then, it started to feel like our time may be limited. At least, on Epic. We made another record – “50.000 B.C.” which I love…The band really started incorporating more genre-stuff and pop-stuff while still feeling like Shudder To Think. We thought it was great! It was around the same time we started doing film-soundtracks. It was broadening.
I think, because our confidence got really shocked after “Pony Express Record” because the response was so divided. There was definitely that kind of singularity of vision and all-for-one-and-one-for-all-focus that band really needs to have, in order to make it through the tough time.
Just like you I love “50.000 B.C.” within the songs like “Kissesmack Of Past Action” or “Call of the Playground.” But the statics is quite different. You got away from exploring musical structures, and as a result “50,000 B.C.” became less-experimental. What feelings you did you have when you started working on it?
Well, it was interesting. Because, I really sensed…By the end of supporting “Pony Express Record”, things had gone dark with Nathan, who has been one of my best friends since we were 15 years old. Our relationship was in bad shape. And he was unhappy. He was troubled. Having problems, he probably needed to go and do his own thing. He made A BEAUTIFUL RECORD called Mind Science of the Mind which I think, Epic put out. And it didn’t really get the whole lot of support. I know, that was frustrating and probably heartbreaking for him. I think, he really wanted to be a frontperson. He wanted to front his own project. But I was the singer and kind of primary songwriter in Shudder To Think, when he joined – which was after “Get Your Goat”. Which was tough. I also had a lot of ideas. It would have been a very tough, at that point, to change that dynamics much. I know, he was very unhappy. He had no interest in doing the next “Pony Express Record”. The stuff I was writing and bringing into the practice was very much the next phase after “Pony Express Record”. I’d say – more experimental, more melodic, less snarky…More beautiful…Maybe lush or something like that. The vibe and practice when I’d bring that stuff in was just a brick wall. Especially with Nathan. So, I felt like there was this chasm growing within the band. And possibly factions happening. I started losing a lot of confidence ‘cause there wasn’t think team-mentality around the ideas I was excited about. So, I decided that I would try and write some stuff that would make everyone in band, including myself happy. And the things Nathan and Stuart were interested at that time, musically, were very different to what I was interested in. I was more listening to early Warp records, more experimental-electronic stuff – Squarepusher, Aphex Twin…Nathan and Stuart were more getting into roots, soul, R&B stuff. The stuff which I love! But my feelings always been – there are billions of people who can do it in that way. If there’s something we only can do – we should do that. So, I started writing songs that would appeal to the band. And they did! It really helped! Then I was diagnosed with cancer. I had Hodgkin’s Disease. That was really-really as horrible as it was…It brought us all in the band, back down Earth. And reminded us about what’s important. That we’re brothers and family. And that we love each other, have something very special. So, there was a slight, at least from my point of view. Lightning of the atmosphere. And then, we were really able to work on those 50.000 B.C. songs together with some joy. I know Nathan was still in dark times then. But again, these are just more important things then paddy bears than can come up when you’re in an upcoming rock band. So, it was a good maturing era for us. It gave us this little kind of honeymoon before the divorce.
While relistening, to the discography of Shudder To Think, I came to the idea that this feeling of struggle and its presence is basically dictated by your continuous fight for your identity. Does it make sense?
Em…Yeah. It makes a lot of sense. I remember thinking about that. And it still means to be true. But it was always the case, for me, anyway, as a teenager and throughout my 20’s. Because…(laughter ) – it was interesting. On the one hand, I was very personable and popular. Able to hang out with lots of different groups and types of people.
On the other hand, because of the way I dressed or the way I sang or even the way I spoke sometimes I would literally just get my ass kicked. Like there was always…I’d call it androgyny. I’d just call it naturalness. But I wouldn’t even call it fluidity. I would just call it truth that…At first, I think, I first started feeling comfortable and proud, if that’s the right word, as a teenager, I’m sure it was very theatrical. Intentional, in a certain way. But also, quite truthful. And became a big part of Shudder To Think. And we did! We had t fight to stay ourselves.
Because, there were and are a lot of cultural forces. Not evil, not intentional…Just quite natural. I’m not talking about “us and them” – I don’t believe in that. It’s just like part of life, that forces you to want to be easily-labeled. But I don’t think it’s fundamentally true. So, it did become a big part of our identity. And had been a part of my identity as a teenager, up to that point.
When you’re involved into a scoring work, I guess, there’s always the question of how people would react to the musical imagery you use enhancing some actions, episodes or how musical imagery would react with actors play. Have you ever had the inner conflict? Between what you may like or may not like and what the picture, the scene needs objectively.
Oh, yeah! It’s a fascinating job for that reason. And it feels almost more, like I said, I was trained in college theater. So, scoring often feels as much like acting as it does music-making. You’re entering or creating the musical character. And sometimes it’s one that you’d love outside of the project. And sometimes it’s one that wouldn’t necessary be your style outside of the project. I don’t gravitate towards sitcom pizzicato bop-bop-bop music outside of making it. But when I’m in a project, if that’s what the scene or show calls for. And it enhances the scene or show and makes me, ME feel what’s needed – it’s SO SATISFYING. And I think, I bring for my scoring work, for better and for worse, this doesn’t work for all projects because a lot of shows aren’t really generic stuff. They kind of can plug in.
But for me, I approach all my scoring work similarly to my record-making work. Which is to say: I need to feel satisfied first. I need to fall in love with the music I’m making. Otherwise, I’m doing a wrong path. There’re so many composers who’re very successful and in a loveless marriage to their work. Because of my experience with Shudder To Think and my own music, I know what it feels like to be in love. And so, I ask for that of myself and of the whatever…The cosmos. And usually, if I’m doing a silly little comedy, I usually really love it! Part of the reason is it’s not forever. It’s very-very finite. You get to play a character – musically. And it’s tricky. But it’s AWESOME.
I still remember “Role Models” soundtrack you composed. And still astonished with the fact how good your music fit with the characters that were portrayed. But how different is your approach if we’d speak about scoring work for TV and for movies?
With the television show, usually I tend to like to put together teams. I think, because of my band-background. For every show I put together a team, we get to work together and it’s awesome. We have about one week per episode, per show. I’m working on two shows right now that are hour-long shows. One is called New Amsterdam and the other is called The Republic Of Sarah. We usually have maybe five days to do the first path of an hours work of music. Or maybe not an hour-long! Maybe 42 minutes without commercials and so let’s say there’s 20 to 30 minutes of music in that. So, had to create a lot of music REALLY-REALLY fast. We send it in and we hopefully, very quickly get notes from producers.
We do our revisions and then, we get the show mixed and it’s on the air. A movie is usually had between like 3 and 9 months. To work on movie that’s an hour and half. So that’s like 2 episodes of TV. We do two episodes of TV in two weeks. And one movie we do in 6 months. So, it’s a very different process.
Working on TV has made me a better film-composer because I’m not as precious as I used to be, about every little thing…I used to thinker for every single moment and sound and it got to be too much, it felt too precious, it felt too controlled. TV is kind of more punk. You go just GO! You wind up your skills and muscles in that way that I can bring it back to a movie and take it a little bit more time but too much time. I think, it really serves it.
There was an expression “weird zone” you used once. Speaking about some specific things of your mindset, did you always get this weird zone you could relate to in some creative aspects, or there was just a moment when it became like your comfort zone, creatively?
For sure! Starting with when I was 15. I’ve told this story before but it’s an important one – speaking about “Role Models” and growing up, one of my best friends is the director of “Role Models” – David Wain. We grew up together in Cleveland, Ohio and his father was in radio – so dude got the great basement which had some cool gear there. There was a drum-kit and an amplifier. And the microphone and two-track real-to-real tape recorded. We used to make music down there and make videos and do recordings…I supposed we were 14 or 15, my friend Matt Fields and I were making music…I remember at that time we were very into the bands – Tones on Tail, a Bauhaus offshoot and The Residents. We had this little Rhodes keyboard and a bass.
We made two songs, two original songs together that started with: “Let’s do something like Tones On Tail and The Residents – something like that!”. I don’t remember the song…Oh, actually I do! Um-pa-pa! Tun-tun-tun! It’s just coming back to me! But it was the first time…I’d already been singing in cover bands for few years. With one of these cover-bands we had a couple of original songs…But they were very much like Top40 Hard-Rock type of sound. They were good but they weren’t unique.
I remember, doing these two songs and at the end of it: “That’s it! That’s the portal! That’s the space! These sounds and feels like us! It doesn’t sound and feel like anybody else!” – maybe it does if I’d listen to it now, it may sound like a thousand of things. But it was that space of recognizing the feeling. And then, that feeling became the practice. Practicing being in that feeling. Which then develops, like a muscle.
At the beginning of our conversation you mentioned that you had this division – doing your day job during the day and writing an LP at night. Did you manage to find the balance with what you’re doing now?
Oh, yeah! It’s wonderful! I mean, one of the blessings of COVID…I’m not saying that COVID has been blessing. But there have been blessings with it. One of them, in addition to spend the quality time with my family is that all production ground to a hot for about 10 months. So, I’ve just been working. And I’ve been working INCREDIBLY hard and consistently right up to shut down. So that time gave me a chance to get this whole collection of songs up to a certain point. I got everything between 75 and 85% done.
So now, it’s just great. I grab stuff when I feel and work on it. It’s more about completion. I take it and send to my friends saying: “I need upright bass for this! And some strings for that!”. But the balance between these two is really-really great right now. Especially, with video – I just have the final cut of the video I’m working on one of my monitors. I’ve been working on a TV score on another of my monitors. I’ve been able to literally move back and forth and really flew it away. Which is great. Because, the people I’m working with now, making TV shows, are much more experienced and skilled ( laughs ) than I am at editing and visual. So, I get information and clever ideas from film and TV stuff and sort of be able to make the mess of it in my videos.
Photo credit: Peter Barreras