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Photo by Ebru Yildiz
It was quite a surprise to see the iconic New York Times run a feature on the current state of The Wrens, an indie rock band that has been put on a pedestal by a niche of music fans despite only selling thousands, not millions, of records over the course of its on-again, off-again existence.
Like many bands, The Wrens knocked out its full two length albums – Silver (1994), Secaucus (1996) – in quick succession and spent time playing small clubs coast to coast, often in front of a small smattering of fans. When the label they were signed to (Grass Records) changed names (Wind-Up Records), The Wrens were caught in between the old and the new. The label wanted to retain the band but asked them to write more radio-friendly songs to help with the bottom line. The four-piece from New Jersey – Charles Bissell, Kevin Whelan, Greg Whelan, Jerry MacDonald – was not interested and, by declining that opportunity, set forth on a story that would, decades later, become one that documentaries are made of.
The story is out there so won’t be repeated here – the short version is that The Wrens never officially broke up, continued to write music at a snail’s pace, released a critically-acclaimed, but overly-delayed album, The Meadowlands, in 2003, often hinted that new stuff was being worked on without any real deadlines to be met and moved along with relationships, families, and careers as most adults do. Behind-the-scenes, frustration was mounting and some members were more committed to finally getting music out than others. This was the basis for the New York Times article which also revealed that Kevin Whelan, tired of sitting on music, was going to be releasing songs he wrote for The Meadowlands follow-up, as well as new tracks, under the name Aeon Station and that music had a real release date, not something that would be “coming soon”.
Observatory, released by SubPop on December 10, has a familiar sound to The Meadowlands. While The Wrens started out as a spastic, angular, frantic indie rock band in the early ’90s, the passing of time found the band’s music maturing alongside the people who were making that music. Observatory’s collection of ten tracks maintain a somber, but uplifting, cinematic quality. There’s a seasonal warmth that, despite the cover’s blue sky, is an appropriate soundtrack to hunkering down indoors for the winter and letting the music wrap it’s arms around you.
Because The Wrens wasn’t the sole focus of Whelan’s life (the married, father of two, is currently in a management role at Johnson & Johnson), the pressure to meet sales numbers and go through the whole promotional cycle for an album release just isn’t there. When speaking with Whelan on a phone call during a weekday lunch hour, there’s a sense of relief in his voice that the music he’s been working on is finally going to leave his grasp and get out there for listeners who have been clamoring for new material for nearly 20 years.
You’re familiar with The Big Takeover, right?
KEVIN: I’m an old-school punk guy, I know The Big Takeover. As a matter of fact, when we first started the band back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, myself and the drummer, we worked on 57th Street in New York City, and there used to be a book store that was on 57th and Broadway, right on the corner, and in the back they had all the ‘zines and they had Big Takeover. I remember that it was a major goal in our career to get in the Big Takeover magazine. I must confess, I think it was my favorite. I always loved the stories. It wasn’t so punk rock like all the other ones, where you’re like, “Holy crap, what is this?” And they really changed with the times. At that point, in the early ’90s, it was all indie and stuff. They would still have super local punk rock but they would also do melodic stuff. It was thick. It was always a cool feel. The ‘zine had the cool covers. When this interview was pitched to me, I’m still that 21-year-old kid looking to get into the ‘zine. I remember when we first got in there, ages ago, I was losing my mind. I think it was just an okay review, it wasn’t that great [laughs].
When I was in high school, in the late ’80s, I was more into hair metal so I wasn’t reading Big Takeover or Maximum Rock and Roll.
KEVIN: Tom Beaujour recorded half of the record and he helps play on it. He could not be a nicer guy. He was the editor-in-chief of Guitar World back in the day. He has this whole journalist side. If you haven’t read his book [about ’80s hair metal, Nothin But a Good Time], you need to. I did stuff for this record earlier this year and he was like, “I have this book coming out.” He had an advance copy and I was like, “Holy shit, this is awesome.” It was on the New York Times best-seller list.
You weren’t into that kind of music, were you?
KEVIN: Not like you guys. My brother was. I was always sort of the R.E.M. kind of geek. I didn’t not like it. Some of those stories in the book are mind-bending. I was like, “These people are fucking crazy.”
In 1991, in the same week, I saw Bret Michaels of Poison play a solo show at a half-full 1,500-seat venue and Nirvana play a packed show at a small club. Seeing Nirvana changed my life.
KEVIN: It is like a Beatles moment. It’s like an Ed Sullivan kind of moment. I was an intern at Arista Records. I worked in the publicity department. We were doing acts like Whitney Houston and Sarah McLachlan. There was this woman who was a top publicist person there. The little intern room that we sat in was right off of her office. All we would do was cut the clippings, glue the clippings to a piece of paper. That was the internet back in the day, a bunch of kids clipping articles and sending them out. Every day at lunch, she’d go to the park and buy coke. It was total straight-up old-school rock and roll. She’d go to Central Park and buy some coke and she would come back to her office, shut her door, and blast music. I’m in there and she had an advance copy of Nevermind. I’m sitting there, I heard it through the doors, I heard her in there and it was like the seas parted, like Moses. It was like, “What the fuck is that song?” To this day, that’s a major regret. She invited me and other interns to go see Nirvana at the Ritz show. I was such a nerdy goofball and was like, “I have to go home and practice with the band.” I missed that show!
Are you surprised that there is this whole mythology surrounding the Wrens?
KEVIN: Yes. It never ceases to fail. The only thing I will say about it is that we were always the band right next to the other band. We were always really a band’s band and a critic’s band. It wasn’t like we were trying to be super arty. I think it was just the fact that we were so kind of stupid that we didn’t know, we didn’t have any pretense. When we first went out, we were playing with Brainiac, I used to dress in a flight suit, the drummer used to play with a hockey shirt, Charles would wear Japanese clothes. We thought that was going to make us. And then when we’re playing with bands like Brainiac, they were so cool, but, I think what they liked is that we were so genuine. We just attacked everything with a vengeance. We lived with each other for 15 years.
Our first tour we ever played, the first night was in Omaha, Nebraska and we met Conor Bright Eyes in the parking lot and he’s 14-years-old. We helped him get his first record contract. And then we played in a snowstorm in Canada and this band, Arcade Fire, wanted to open for us. And they blew us away. We brought them down for their first New York show. It was always that circle we were in. I think the other part is we all had jobs. We never made it. People understand that.
I can remember getting my first AOL e-mail address and somehow finding an email address for The Wrens and sending emails to you guys begging you to play a show in my city. I think Jerry and I would trade emails and I was like, “A guy from a band I love is emailing me!” That was a new world for me.
KEVIN: That’s so cool. We answered everything anybody ever wrote to us. We had a P.O. box. We just wanted to be friends with our fans.
Have the songs on Observatory been around for a long time?
KEVIN: It’s sort of a tale of two cities. The inception of this started in 2007, scratches of the songs. Then it came more into focus by 2010, 2011. Then, by all rights, for five of the songs, I was done with all the music by 2013. That’s maybe why other people like us, we’re just so fucking weird. When somebody like Scott Lucas from Local H says, “We’re going to keep playing shows” or our friends in The Hold Steady say, “We’re going to play more shows,” they’re like, “What about you guys? Are you still out there playing?” We’re like, “We’re probably just going to go disappear.”
I think you get a little bit of cred for doing things so bizarrely different. I was done with most of the music in 2013 and they just sat around on a hard drive, just waiting. Then, when Covid hit, and life kind of changed, my son, who’s a big inspiration, has autism and other family stuff, it was like, “I just can’t do this shit anymore. I can’t just sit around and wait.” So I wrote five more songs.
The five songs you wrote are brand new, they weren’t written for The Wrens?
KEVIN: Yeah. They are totally brand new. I think I started writing them last September. I recorded two days in December. I recorded two days in February with Tom and that was it. I was like, “Okay. old-school punk rock style of recording. We’re good. Let’s move on.”
How do you manage the old stuff with the new stuff? Is it like you’re closing the chapter on The Wrens and starting something new?
KEVIN: It’s a unique thing. Not often do you have a photo of you from college and right next to it the most recent photo of yourself. You know what I mean? That’s sort of a cheesy analogy. In a way, that’s what this is. In some ways, it’s sort of a bit of both. It’s a closing of one thing, like, “I’m never going to be able to wear those jeans again” or “Look at all the hair I had” and then the other one is like, “Alright, I’m hanging in there for who I am and what I am now.” In a way, it’s sort of side-by-side, the old and the new, which is pretty cool. They co-exist.
Are you going to continue to be weird and wait another 5, 6, 10, 15 years before releasing new music?
KEVIN: Probably [laughs]. I will tell you I’m already writing right now. I hope it can go on to be another Wrens record or other music. What’s changed is my relationship. My dream of what it’s going to be. When I was an intern at Arista, my dreams were completely bizarre, they were focused on being famous. And now it’s just do good music, do the best you can with your talent. So, I’m writing now. We’ll see.
Secaucus was just released on vinyl for Record Store Day.
KEVIN: I know, it’s so cool that somebody cares. There’s somebody in some office that said, “Let’s invest some money to make vinyl.” Vinyl’s not cheap. I’m super excited. I wrote them and said, “Thank you so much.”
The Observatory packaging looks great and the vinyl is blue!
KEVIN: I know! It’s kind of nerdy but I’ve never had vinyl with a new release. It looks so cool, I’m super excited. A friend of mine, he takes photos of a lot of bands. He has his own home studio, bands come to his house and play. He’s really deep into Irish bands, he’s a friend here in New Jersey. He’s always taking photos. I asked if he could send me some photos and that photo just connected with me. That was it. I did want something kind of clean and to the point. I didn’t want to go too arty.
Have you been toying around with Aeon Station as a band name for a while?
KEVIN: It was pretty fast. I was just thinking about where I was in life. I didn’t want a “The” band. I’ve already done that. When we named The Wrens, “The” bands were out of vogue. There were bands like Low, Nirvana, Brainiac, Local H. If you look in the early ’90s, there were almost no “The” bands. So, we came up with The Wrens. And then all of a sudden The Strokes came around and then that all changed again. This time around I decided I wanted something a little different.
So how did you land on Aeon Station?
KEVIN: I liked the way the words looked and sounded. In all fairness, you’re at different stations in your life and it’s just taken me a long time to get here. It’s sort of a play on that, it’s taken me eons to get here, just to be comfortable enough and not be an insecure lunatic. I mean, I still am, but … That’s also the reason I didn’t put out music for a long time, I was scared shitless.
Was it pretty easy for you to pull in the other guys from The Wrens, other than Charles, to work on the Aeon Station stuff?
KEVIN: They played on it. Greg’s on it just a little and Jerry’s on it for drums. Look, it’s always been, including Charles too, you figure I’ve known these guys – I’ve known Jerry since I was 15, my brother my whole life and Charles since I was 18. So, it is really a whole family kind of thing. I’ve literally, in 30 years, never played with another band. I’ve never done anything. I’ve never gone on tour with somebody, I’ve never had a side project, I’ve never gone on stage with anyone other than those guys. So, it’s sort of natural to record that way. It was very nice and I was felt supported.
Lyrically, some of the songs read like a break-up letter.
KEVIN: I can definitely see how it’s read that way. And, there’s part of that in there, absolutely. But I would say it’s sort of finding – you’ve had big changes in your own life where you’ve left things – it’s sort of like that moment where you think, “It’s all going to be okay.” It’s kind of a bummer and it sucks but you’re trying to go more to where you need to go at that moment or at that station in life. It’s about hope and positivity of that next step. It takes a lot of guts for everyone, like changing a job, moving to a new place, having a new relationship. That’s where I was aiming.
Music is a weird thing. People want bands to stay together forever and can’t understand why you can’t get along. I equate it to personal relationships, which is really want being in a band is. Your parents or friends might want you to get back together with an ex, because they liked that ex, but you know that you’ve moved on and you aren’t together for a reason and you won’t get back together just to make other people happy.
KEVIN: Everyone has that perception. “I really liked you with the girlfriend three girlfriends ago.” But, I will tell you, I’ve never not been in The Wrens. I’ve never left, there’s no breakup, there’s no signed document. It defined who I’ve been my whole life, I’ve never not been in that band with those people. I think that’s the healthy part of it. Is everything great? No, that’s for sure. It’s the way that you frame it. Life pushes you forward. Even this situation is weird. It’s never normal [laughs]. It’s not like, “I hate them and they stole my money.” I don’t even have that. We don’t even know how to break up right and, well, we kind of didn’t.
I’ve spent a lot of time focused on album sequencing in the last year. It’s like putting together a puzzle, some songs just work well followed by others. How did you decide on the sequencing of the record?
KEVIN: That’s a great question. With the guys, or by myself, it’s always been a really meticulous discussed, debated process. It’s sort of like a movie with all the scenes cut up. And it’s a generational thing. We grew up with albums. We grew up with those experiences where you had to listen to the whole side because you didn’t want to have to stand up and flip it. That’s just the way we listened to music. I think with this record, I had a structure but then my wife, who has been so supportive and just so amazing through this whole friggin thing, she kind of helped me change the order. She was like, “It has a cinematic quality but it’s not being revealed in a couple of the other iterations.” There would be times I’d put them in order and shuffle them around and think about the story I wanted to tell. I’m quite pleased with this sequence, just like I was with The Meadowlands. I’m pleased with this sequence because it has cinematic vibes here and there. It feels like a whole circle type of thing.
The first side ends with “Queen,” this ballad, but you flip it over and it goes back into this more up-and-in-your-face song.
Is there a live element to Aeon Station?
KEVIN: Absolutely. I’m just trying figure it out. I can’t wait to go play music again and enjoy. In a super humble way, I’m very happy with how the record came out. My goal really was that if 3 people liked the record, I’m absolutely fine and very happy. It really is like the old days. If we play a show and 5 people come, great. Let’s have a good time and just enjoy it.
You work for Johnson & Johnson. Do your co-workers know your music history?
KEVIN: A few, the ones that are kind of into music. Even my wife, I met her at work when I worked at Pfizer, no one would know I’m in a band. I love it, believe me. In some ways, I don’t even talk about it because I love it so much. It’s another weird phrase. I never talk about music outside, even if I go to a bar, “Hey, I’m in band,” I’ve never said that in my entire life. It’s so part of me that it’s such a precious thing. If someone knows, that’s great, that’s amazing. At work, I love the company, they’re extremely supportive in making sure you have a well-balanced life and you have these pursuits. I’ve been at companies that aren’t like that, but J&J is remarkably into this stuff. They really like having well-rounded people.
Years ago, I interviewed Joey Allen from the band Warrant. He has a day job. He said, when he’s at work, he’s just another guy. His co-workers likely don’t know he was in a band that, back in the day, were featured hourly on MTV. He gets to do the weekend warrior-style touring, playing music with his friends while being an office worker during the week.
KEVIN: I think that is what is making my experience a lot of fun and kind of emblematic of what everyone does. You’re a writer, it’s not like you hang up with me and you’re no longer a writer and now you’re someone at work. You’re always that person, you can co-exist. I think artists that are into creative things, it feeds that other part but it doesn’t start and stop at the front door.
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