Q&A: Charles Bissell of the Wrens on the Chinese Democracy of Indie Rock Albums

Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns Charlie Bissell

It’s understandable if you’ve never heard of the Wrens — the New Jersey indie-rock band hasn’t put out a new record since 2003’s The Meadowlands, and nothing in the Wrens’ discography has registered on the mainstream radar. But if you have heard of the Wrens, you probably love them. They’re just that kind of band — even a shred of knowledge requires a level of investigation that essentially denotes positive interest. And if you’re a Wrens fan, you’re also a very patient person: It took seven long years for The Meadowlands to arrive after 1996’s Secaucus became a cult favorite — the period was marked by record-label fights that threatened to cripple the band — but for many it was worth the wait, cinching the Wrens’ status as excellent purveyors of uplifting rock songs that generously dole out raggedly harmonized choruses and climactic guitar crescendos. A year before Arcade Fire released Funeral, the Wrens were synonymous with the sort of emotionally overpowering indie rock that can make closet-size rock clubs feel like Madison Square Garden.

The Meadowlands was acclaimed in its time (Magnet declared it the best album of 2003) and in retrospect (Pitchfork included it among the best records of the ’00s), but the Wrens have faded a bit even in the underground rock press, as the follow-up has wound up taking even longer to come out. If the Wrens have a franchise, it involves eternally delayed albums — the group acknowledges as much on their website, where the tagline is “Keeping folks waiting … since 1989!” But with the 10th anniversary of The Meadowlands coming up in September, there are encouraging signs that the Wrens are finally ready to release new music. Guitarist Charles Bissell has been tweeting about the band’s progress on the record, which is now in the mixing stage. Signs appear to be pointing toward a 2014 release.

I got in touch with Bissell after he saw a column I wrote recently about Chinese Democracy and comeback albums — the Wrens were among the bands with mythical “long wait” records that I mentioned in the piece. We ended up talking on the phone for about an hour last week about the Wrens’ as-yet-untitled fourth album, until he finally had to beg off to eat dinner with his wife and kids.

Thanks for giving me some time today to chat. I appreciate it.

No problem. Thanks for having me. The article was very cool and made me go listen to Chinese Democracy, which was really an accomplishment.

What did you think? Was it better than you expected?

I think the most surprising thing was it came out in 2009. Is that possible?

It was ’08, actually. It came out in November of ’08, right around Thanksgiving.

That’s indicative of so many things in my life right now. If there would’ve been a quiz, I would’ve said 18 months ago, just because it seemed to drag on for so long — between whether it even existed, whether it was going to come and all that kind of stuff, and now I can’t believe that that’s pushing five years ago. I think your thing was pretty spot-on — it does sound like a man who was trying to make the greatest album ever made, or his iteration of what that would be if he locked himself away for, whatever it was, 18 years?

What fascinates me about that album — and here’s the segue to talking about your record — is, when you’re working on something for that long, do you ever run into a situation where there’s a song that you’re no longer interested in? How do you maintain the same narrative thread over the course of so many years?

To the first part, the answer is yeah. And what happens is you make some bold left turn, or that song falls by the wayside. We’re usually working with more than we need, song-wise, so that’s OK that there are a couple drop-offs along the way. In fact, arguably, maybe a few more should’ve dropped off from what we’re currently working on, but we’ll see. You can definitely lose perspective. I mean, I have no idea how Axl Rose was doing that record. Maybe it was in fits and starts, I don’t know. But I get work done every day, or Kevin [Whelan] gets work done every day. And it’s planned around taking care of kids, and jobs, and whatever. So what ends up happening oftentimes is working slowly enough that you end up with a quick to-do list that takes time to implement. It could be like three weeks where you might be working on one song that’s on the operating table. Then you put it aside and you go back to the other 12 songs. Some of those I might not have heard in many months. So in some ways you gain perspective. Time does give you a certain objectivity that allows you to hear it the same way someone else is going to hear it.

It’s my understanding that when you guys made The Meadowlands, you laid down basic tracks and then tinkered with them for several years, adding overdubs and fine-tuning them. Is that how you’re doing it this time as well?

It’s sort of the same. The Meadowlands was even more extreme that way in that all the songs were arranged ahead of time and then the drums were tracked by spring of ’99, and then overdubs for the next three-plus years. Which is a really stupid way to make a record. It was made on the ADAT — do you know what those are, the digital tape thing? That was all the rage in home recording 20 years ago. It’s like the worst of digital and analog. But this time, we’re able to hear a demo in Logic, which is like an Apple Pro Tools kind of thing, and put on some fake drums and record real percussion and then we’d be adding, at least in my songs, adding Jerry’s actual drums long after the real version of the song was recorded. So it’s sort of the same as The Meadowlands in that we’re overdubbing the bejesus out of this record, and that’s how the music comes together, creating the illusion that there’s a band playing in some room somewhere.

You tweeted earlier this month that you’re still working on lyrics for some of your songs, which means you haven’t recorded the vocals yet, but you’ve also begun mixing some of the other songs on the record. If you had to give it a percentage, how done would you say the album is at this point?

71.8 percent, plus or minus 35 percent, though that would put us at over 100 percent done if you went the other way, I think. The record came out an hour ago! Basically, it’s all pretty done. We’re as done as ever going into mixing — the songs sound pretty good, and I’m pretty happy with them in one set of headphones in the universe. In mixing, you have to try to average it so that it sounds sort of good in most people’s headphones.

It’s sort of ironic — we’re talking because you’re like, “Hey, you guys have a new record.” But it’s always been a dream, especially now that we bought a computer in the last five years or so, to have more of a factory, where some stuff’s in development, some stuff’s being finished, some stuff’s right in the thick of things, rather than hand-holding a whole class of songs through each incremental stage. I always wanted to do it the other way, just, like, writing some stuff, working on lyrics on others, mixing a couple, and whatever. You can be mixing, because you advance a song as far as you want and you pack it up and move on to another one and when you open it, unlike before, it’s exactly where you left it. In one sense, you’re always mixing.

How’s that for brevity? I can’t even get an answer out in under three minutes.

Are you guys perfectionists in the studio, or is it just a matter of having normal, everyday lives and that slows things down?

I think it’s all those things. It’s the way the band functions. Jerry, our drummer, lives in Pennsylvania. When he came for The Meadowlands, he lived in South Jersey. So to try to record traditionally — which is to say, you put the songs together and you play them in the basement at rehearsal, and basically record good versions of a performance — would never work for us because that would take decades. By the time we would learn a song and have enough time to get the four of us together in a room, time would end, dinosaurs would begin to rule the planet, and oxygen would be depleted worldwide. There would be no one left to put that glorious disc out to. This is actually sort of fast for us.

I feel like long-delayed albums are your band’s franchise. It’s like you’re going to get one great record from the Wrens every decade.

Maybe with this one now, it does seem to be a pattern. But even saying that, what I’m also then accepting is the other half where you’re like, “Hey, when it comes out, it’s great!” So clearly we take our time, but they’re great! I think this is the last one we’re doing like this. Of course, I said that on the last record, too.

This is maybe a silly question to ask, but do you have a target time frame in mind for when you want to put the album out?

Um, maybe the powers that be are hoping we have it out early enough in spring [of 2014] that you can still do festivals and junk in the summer. We’ll be done this fall, so I would guess by the end of September we’ll already be mastering most of them, we might just be making some corrections and changes and stuff. But then you’re into that no-person’s land of holidays, capital H. So nothing comes out after whenever, November? It automatically will bump into the new year at some point, and that all depends on the label — or not, whatever.

I was going to ask: You don’t have a label right now, right?

No, nothing official, especially if you are asking in terms of like Absolutely Kosher, who put out The Meadowlands. [Absolutely Kosher Records founder Cory Brown is] on hiatus for the time being.

Have you thought about whether you are going to get a label or just try to put it out yourselves?

At the moment, we’re leaning towards a label. It’s a division-of-labor thing. Right now I’m just focusing on finishing up and putting all of those discussions on hold, just because I don’t even really want to think about them. There are different opinions within the band, and we do have a manager we’ve been working with for a few years, except he hasn’t really had to do anything because we haven’t been doing anything. Only now as we’ve started finishing up have we had discussions about it —and we’ve played some music for some labels and did that thing, just seeing what was out there, weighing the advantages and disadvantages. But as you know, this is just a strange time for recorded music. It is such a strange time, and yet at the same time, the advantages of going with a label are almost the same as they ever were, which is they give a stamp of approval, whether your record is on Merge or Splurge Records.

You know, there’s probably a Splurge Records and they will read this and will be like, “How dare he?” But Splurge will be a close second.

Splurge is shaking their fists, saying, “We don’t like the Wrens anyway!”

Yeah! We hate the Worms! It’s all sort of up in the air. We talked to a few labels and got a nice but sizable collection of early rejection notices. I’ve always kind of dreamed about just putting it on Bandcamp, and doing it that way, but that’s me.

How does the new record compare musically with The Meadowlands?

It’s a little different. They sound sort of the same to me, for maybe reasons that other people aren’t as concerned with. When we did The Meadowlands, I thought it was pretty monochromatic. Like, it’s all pretty meat-and-potatoes. There’s not too much creativity — there were certainly no computer plugins, there were no samples, because we didn’t have the means. Now, it’s maybe a little more extended [on the new album]; there’s a lot more long songs. Some of what I’m saying sounds like I am describing our own Chinese Democracy. Some of the songs are long anthems? This is going to be great! And one’s called “October Rain.”

So there are a lot of orchestras and pianos and crazy time signatures?


But seriously, there are a lot of long songs on the album?

Yeah, there are. It just kind of worked out that way. Those are the ones that came together better. At some point, we kind of pulled back and said, “Oh man, there are many songs that crack the six-minute mark.” Like, there’s one that goes up to at least eight minutes depending on how we chop the ending. When I listen to them, they don’t feel long, which is usually a good sign. And some of them are sort of cheating, like there’s one that is long, but it sort of does the “Day in the Life” trick where there’s another song essentially in the middle of it.

As things are finishing up, you start to talk about songs almost in the role that they play in the record. Like, “Well, this is Kevin’s big rocker” or whatever. “This is Kevin’s big ballad,” “This is Charles’s Simon & Garfunkel rip-off.” To that extent, there’s usually one of each of those on all the previous records. So I feel like I can draw a line from each of these songs to one on each of the previous records. And in that sense, it feels much like The Meadowlands to me.

This is all hypothetical because you haven’t even heard it. I’m like, “And in that sense, it’s exactly like Sgt. Pepper to me.” “And that’s why it’s OK Computer 2014.”

In the minds of Wrens fans, at least, The Meadowlands is an all-time classic record. How much does the burden of following up that album weigh on finishing up the new album?

We’ve certainly thought about it. It’s like hearing your old high school band. You can’t hear it objectively no matter how much time goes by. There’s a couple of songs that when I hear them, I’m like, “Hey, that’s surprisingly really how I was hoping it would come out.” But with a lot of them you’re kind of like, “We dodged a bullet there.” Because in your head, you’re encumbered by baggage where you hear previous versions and sometimes I forget that we took a left turn from that 10 or 12 years ago, where I’m still like, “Oh no, here’s that — oh, that’s right, we did take out the glockenspiel solo.”

You said on Twitter that you were having a hard time lately writing lyrics. Why do you think that is?

When I finally went to go do it, I said, “OK, what am I going to start thinking about this time?” There was already a general theme to this record going back to when we thought we were going to start recording, in like 2004 or ’05 or ’06. Each of us lost a parent within a month of each other, right when The Meadowlandsgot finished. Literally the last couple weeks we were working on the record, my mom died, and Jerry’s father died, and Kevin and Greg’s father died, all within a month. We’d all known each other for 15 years at that point. It was just really strange. But now so much time has gone by that you no longer feel the same way and you don’t reflect on that the same way. It’s just a natural arc of how this stuff goes — it’s very intense for a while, and then over time, it just becomes part of how things are. I think that’s what gave me some sort of angle on it in the last couple months. Because it is just how things are, and I was trying too hard to write about it as if it was 10 years ago, when all of this was just happening, which didn’t feel true and it felt manipulative. It just didn’t feel right. So it’s sort of along those lines. But it’s also, you know, I can see out the front door of the office, and my wife is walking around with our youngest baby who is not quite 5 months, and we have two others who are riding their bikes on the sidewalk, and that’s all pretty good.

Would you say that familial theme is still showing up in the songs?

Yeah, at least it is for me. When we did our first record, it was just a hodgepodge of abstract stuff because I was still just copying the Pixies, essentially. So it was like, demon women that we sent to outer space. Then Secaucus was kind of some story songs and stuff, and we did this EP that not too many people heard, but that was like a whole song cycle, a story from beginning to end which was just an abomination unto the Lord. And then on The Meadowlands, for the first time I realized I could write about stuff that was going on with me, with us, and doing that just felt more right. To answer your other question about pressure from the last record, that’s what we’ve run into, lyric-wise. Here, it’s like, “Well, do I start writing about the same stuff?” because it is still kind of relevant, but it didn’t feel quite right until I realized that it’s OK to accept change in the last 10 years from when we did the last record. That’s what’s going on, so that’s what is written about. Oddly enough, just lyrically so far, this seems to be a far darker record, so make of all that what you will, I don’t know.

Overall, would you say this album has been easier or harder to make than The Meadowlands?

You know, it’s probably comparable but different. One of the differences is like, most of the record label stuff was hashed out by the time we started The Meadowlands, which was just started and completed in a vacuum. It was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter. It’s pre- any Web 2.0 kind of things. There were no comments sections that were running wild. So, in that sense, this time was easier, because here I am on the phone talking to you about it. You know what I mean? There were no phone calls when we were making The Meadowlands, someone very sweetly asking, “Hey, can I write about how it’s going?” Not that there should’ve been, but you just have less fear. You have more of a sense that there are a couple viewers out there — which adds a little pressure, but it’s encouraging, so it probably all washes out.

Filed Under: Music, Charles Bissell, the Wrens, Grantland Q&A

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden