Quit Your Day Job: The Wrens
The Wrens need no introduction, but it has been three years since The Meadowlands, so we figured grieving fans might appreciate insight into how their favorite bird-themed, Jersey-born band otherwise fills the days.
I caught up with Charles Bissell, Jerry MacDonald, Greg Whelan, and Kevin Whelan after they returned from a “mini-tour,” playing shows in Dublin and London. They were happy to give me the dirt, but our conversation called for some heady navigational skills: Correspondences were interrupted by “out of office” replies (one member, you’ll soon learn, was checking in from a conference in Florida), day-to-day child-rearing obstacle courses, notes like “sorry, work was a bit crazed,” and e-mail disclaimers from various businesses: “Please notify the sender immediately by e-mail if you have received this by mistake and delete this e-mail from your system.” Okay!
Well, we powered mightily so Stereogum readers could discover just what The Wrens are up to when not tearing through “Everyone Choose Sides.” And things went so well, they gave us the US premiere of a rare Meadowlands session MP3! That said, it’s a pleasure to introduce you to — at least according to Quit Your Day Job — the hardest working band in indie rock.
STEREOGUM: You teach guitar part time, right? Do any of your students recognize you? What songs do you they want to learn most often?
CHARLES BISSELL (GUITAR): I have started teaching again and yeah, it’s very part-time and out the home here. Actually, the only students I have really, are ones who saw the lessons thing posted on the band website so yeah, pretty much all of them are coming because I’m in the band. So naturally I insist they learn Wrens songs exclusively.
Ok, seriously, it’s probably evenly split between students who are looking to study “guitar” and want to learn technical stuff and songs (Elliot Smith, Pavement, Neko Case have each come up) and folks who are looking to work on songwriting/recording stuff (how guitar parts work in songs, lyrics, etc.). It’s really pretty nifty and satisfying.
STEREOGUM: A friend of yours referred to you as “the only full-time Wren.”
CB: Yep, I am the full-time Wren retiree.
STEREOGUM: When did you make the switch to doing the band mostly full-time?
CB: I taught guitar for 10 years or more, then worked in the finance Department of a big ad agency in Manhattan for 5 1/2 (pretty much while we were making The Meadowlands). Then after the usual corporate mergers and whatnot, I finally got laid off about 2 1/2 years ago. Things were just kind of picking up with the band at that point, so I decided to see if I could swing doing it full-time. Now I figure even if it doesn’t last, I’ll be able to look back on these as my late bohemian years. And it has been pretty cool so far … can I borrow $50?
STEREOGUM: Ha ha. Are you finding less kids want to learn guitar with the advent of electronics and digital recording, etc? Or has the six-string endured?
CB: I don’t know … since I’m seeing a very particular slice of the whole thing (folks that hit up our shabby corner of the internet first). But I did just talk to my old boss at the store I taught at for all those years (we’re stilll friends) and it sounds like things are busy as they’ve ever been. And when I was there, they had hundreds of guitar students every week at any given time. Then again, they probably had half that many sax students say, and that hasn’t been a dominant instrument in pop music since Bill Dogget topped the charts. So rock guitar”s got a little life left.
STEREOGUM: This may drag up bad memories, but: What did you do exactly in the finance department? Job titles like that … always seem so abstract to me. Makes me think of Kafka, for some reason. What were you duties?
CB: My title wasn’t that impressive — I went in as an Administrative Assistant and then got promoted up to ‘Senior Staff Accountant/Accounts Receivable’. That’s really just one of those crap titles that’s created just to lend more weight to the emails I’d have to send to GMC Trucks asking when we could expect payment on the $2.6 million Super Bowl ad they were so keen to run (and that usually sucked – GMC Sonomas, Sierras, Suburbans, and any other group-tested starts-with-“S” truck name inexplicably driving to the top of a Montana butte).
The hilarity here being that I’m neither an accountant nor exactly unfamiliar with “collections” for my own bills (I’ve gotten more ‘when can we expect payment’ letters than you can shake a bad credit report at).
But really, the other Wrens band geeks have much more impressive titles — I think Jerrry is Most Excellent Ur-Presidenté of Planning & Strategy (Budapest office). Here at Wrens Inc., Greg is our VP of Merchandising and Wish Fulfillment. Kev, I believe is Under-Secretary to the Broom Closet.
STEREOGUM: If — knock on wood twice — the Wrens stopped making money and you had to go back to work full-time, would you up the guitar lessons or try something similar to the ad thing? Or are you done forever with the ‘Senior Staff Accountant/Accounts Receivable’-style gigs?
CB: To the extent that The Meadowlands went well, it’s been liberating in a way, because there was a certain amount of “holy poop, we did it!” and that would enable me at least, to walk away from it more easily. I mean all that in a music sense, not a financial one. So if it all ended completely & all at once, it would make rejoining the secretaries pool much easier.
But a big part of doing this “full time” has been setting things up to be able to earn money around the fact that it’s really not at all “full time,” if that makes sense. It’s only been full-time in that there were so many things we’d put off taking care of for so many years and that required a lot of time in the last year or so. So the work, in a way, has been full-time but the band doesn’t earn full-time money. That probably makes less sense now, right?
It’s a little hard to explain without getting bogged down in unbearably boring detail, but it’s more like, after I got laid off, I decided to see if I could finally do the full-time musician thing. Part of that is The Wrens, but because we’re not all full-time understandably, part of that is teaching guitar, playing solo, playing for other people, maybe soundtracks if that comes up, maybe recording other folks if that opportunity comes up … that kind of stuff.
And if it magically leapt to the point where we could all do it full-time, then yeah, I’d do that as well. It’s all kinda related anyhow. Phewww … maybe I can get a job as full-time interview airbag!
STEREOGUM: You know, I should ask: When can we expect that follow-up to The Meadowlands?
CB: I’m hoping to send the band email next week that ways we’re starting. If it takes more than a month before we have some songs done, I’ll eat my hat.
STEREOGUM: You and Greg commute from NJ to NYC, right?
KEVIN WHELAN (BASS): Yep … we take the 167 bus from Teaneck to Port Authority. It’s a nice commute because we get to jump on the bus lane. I’ve been taking the bus lane since 1991.
STEREOGUM: Has it become a grind?
KW: Well, I struggle with — do I buy a month pass or do I just pay day-to-day? And then it’s such a pain if I don’t have the $3.10 for the dang bus. And sometimes the bus drivers take money, sometimes they don’t. If you only have $20’s, they don’t take ‘em. And since money machines only give out $20’s, it can be a drag. Also, the bus is always hot. You run across Manhattan like a nut, just to catch the bus, find a seat and then begin sweatin’ your ass off.
STEREOGUM: So, read any good books lately?
KW: I use to read but I’m kind of over it now. When I was young I enjoyed reading all the classics but I was sometimes being too much of a Morrissey-wanna-be-poseur. It gets tiring reading all the “set-up”. Ya know? … What a room looks like, blah blah blah. Now I’m into fun history books as long as they focus on the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll parts, not the dates.
STEREOGUM: What sort of history books — Please Kill Me? The Jenna Jameson autobiography? Civil War-sorta stuff?
KW: A Short History of the World by John M. Roberts. And well … no Jenna Jameson. Michelle Wild. But she’s retired.
STEREOGUM: How else do you pass the time?
KW: I always have an iPod … It used to be my Disc-Man and before that it was my Walkman. I don’t think I’ve ever been out without one. I know its nice to enjoy silence and whatnot, but I would start thinking and essentially drive myself crazy. So its nice to listen to new jams and whatnot.
STEREOGUM: What’s on your iPod right now? Or, really, what songs do you go back to the most?
KW: Carlos Vives records.
STEREOGUM: Regarding your job, specifically, can you explain Regulatory Policy & Intelligence?
KW: It sounds very cool right? Well, I sort of do like FBI/CIA type of stuff for Pfizer. We look around the industry and see what is going on, what trends are up and coming, etc.
STEREOGUM: You also do IT training/support?
KW: Oh now …. I’m not IT … Hahahaha, I have the SNL vision of Jimmy Fallon as the annoying computer fix-it guy. And since I barely know how to set my alarm clock, I’m not so techy-advanced.
STEREOGUM: Do your fellow employees know about your band?
KW: To be honest … I’m actually kind of low-key about it. .. I think its because of the years I have spent in offices just working. Ya know? Like to just say, “Oh, I’m in the band and blah blah blah”… People are cool and think its neat but they don’t really understand. And I get kind of protective about it. The Wrens is a special thing and to be lucky enough to be in it, I hold close to my heart so I don’t really chat about it.. HOLY SHIT! That was soooo cheeezy! WhoEVER is reading this! If you vomit on your screen, I completely understand!
STEREOGUM: Would you ever want to do the band full-time?
KW: We really do the band full time — Its been in our lives since 1989. I couldn’t imagine it not being there. We might not be full time on the road, but it’s a full-time job. We just fit in another full time job, kids, friends, etc …
STEREOGUM: SO you’re in the 9-5 for the long haul?
KW: Yeah, I would say the 9-5 is here to stay! But ya’ know, “9 to 5″ is a friggin’ awesome Dolly Parton song.
STEREOGUM: You and Kevin commute from NJ to NYC. He told me a bit about it. Does that become a grind?
GREG WHELAN (GUITAR): The fact that we have to commute for the day job, in itself, is a grind … but, it is a necessary evil at this point. We both take the bus, which we pick up at the end of our block. Almost always get a seat going in so I either read, listen to tunes or sleep (this is the best option). On average, door-to-door, is about an hour but of course there are some days when it may take 2.5 hours … even though the City is only a few miles away. The commute home always sucks because everyone is so grumpy, it’s crowded, more traffic, no bus lanes and in the Summer, the smells are enough to kill you.
STEREOGUM: Do you read at all when commuting?
GW: Since I do intense reading all day, my poison of choice is fiction fantasy — right now reading a book called Scar Night by Alan Campbell. Pretty cool concept.
STEREOGUM: What’s the concept?
GW: Well, I just started it so all the details haven’t been provided yet but: “For tonight the people of Deepgate must endure a nightmarish tradition: Scar Night. Each dark moon for two thousand years, the psychotic angel, Carnival, descends to kill one unlucky soul whose blood will sustain her immortality — and for the last four years, Rachel has scaled the rooftops to hunt her. Yet this Scar Night will be different. A cunning traitor has brought enemies to Deepgate’s doorstep, and both Rachel and Dill will find themselves in an uneasy alliance with the blood-thirsty angel. To save their precarious city, they must make a terrifying journey down into the uncharted pit, but what they will find there is far more sinister than the god they were taught to expect.”
STEREOGUM: And what’s getting the most plays on your iTunes right now?
GW: Being an old coot, my usual standards are Yes & Thin Lizzy, but as far as “new” stuff, I really dig The Killers … some cool stuff with great hooks.
STEREOGUM: You were a lawyer? When did you graduate from law school?
GW: Ready for this … 1988. Pretty much always wanted to do the lawyer — even mentioned it in my High School Year book. When I was growing up it either be a lawyer, doctor or CPA … Since I hate math & Organic Chemistry did not sit real well with me … lawyer it was.
STEREOGUM: Now you do contracts for clinical trials. Explain!
GW: I support those drugs that have already made it to market — FDA approval, etc. Once drugs hit the market, Pharm companies continue to run trials — gather continued safety info, compare against competitors or seek new indications (new things the drug might help). So technically, I support Phase IIIb & IV studies. Studies are generally pretty large and complex with a number of players worldwide. In a nutshell, I negotiate those contracts with these other players, which include: laboratories, doctors (referred to as “investigators”), Institutional Review Boards, consultants, project/study management vendors and a bunch of other specialty vendors. Once the contracts are in place, I work with the studies teams to ensure that these other players are abiding by the contracts and of course, create related amendments when necessary. Sounds a bit dry, aye!
STEREOGUM: Do folks on these studies teams know about The Wrens?
GW: They actually do and a bunch come to shows. Once The Meadowlands came out and we had a huge feature in the NY Times and Pitchfork, it sort of “validated” us in the eyes of normal folks. Here in NYC, everyone is either a musician, actor, writer, etc.
STEREOGUM: Do you think you’ll ever leave the job to do the band full-time?
GW: Maybe. The next record will be a big determining factor. With a family to support, it all comes down to $ to pay the mortgage, health insurance and keep my 8 month old in diapers. Right now, it works out fine. We play when we want to and it is always a weekend — the best nights — Mondays suck in every town.
STEREOGUM: You’re in sales, right? What do you sell?
JERRY MACDONALD (DRUMS): I work for a large, publicly traded financial services company called SEI (NASDAQ: SEIC). I work for the Investment Manager Services division where I sell operation processing outsourcing technology platforms to investment managers. Sounds sexy right? In other words, SEI can help money managers focus on the most important pieces of their business — managing portfolios, picking stocks/bonds, getting new clients, raising assets — by outsourcing the most labor intensive and costly operations technology infrastructure to my firm. I sell them entire technology platforms and services that operationally support any type of investment vehicle (from mutual funds to the most exotic hedge fund strategies). It’s the most complete outsourcing offering that exists in the industry … which is a good thing for me.
STEREOGUM: That sounds intense. Hmm, can you put it into layman’s terms?
JM: Sure – I sell a technology platform as well as a team of people to act as an extension of an investment manager’s staff to help them run the parts of their money management business that are typically the most labor intensive and costly. So a person can decide that they want to open up an investment company but do not want to hire dozens of people and invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement all the required technology to support all the reporting and analytic requirements that the regulators mandate. So, that new money manager can license an entire “back and middle” office solution (people and technology from SEI) to do all the stuff that impedes on their time to focus on managing their portfolios, servicing their clients and scaling their business. It’s really an impressive set of solutions that I sell … I actually love my (day)job.
STEREOGUM: Is this something you went to school for?
JM: Nope. The band is the only reason I am an effective sales person. But this is how it started: I was originally a percussion performance major at Towson University in MD, but I recognized in my junior year that I was facing entering my post college life with a very expensive piece of paper that stated I knew how to play drums. So I switched majors to obtain a business degree with the strategy to get a good paying business job to pay bills so I could look for the right kind of music career. I met the Wrens going into my senior year and it all fell into place like I hoped. I always had sales jobs after college at very cool corporations, i.e., Columbia Artists Management (I was a booking rep for huge classical tours), Shade Global (I solicited corporate sponsorships for museums, for Ken Burns’s documentaries, ’96 Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team … I actually had a part in getting the Wheaties box for the team!).
I eventually landed at a small money management firm as a marketing person and quickly discovered that the financial services and technology industries paid the most. So I searched for a sales job that played in both industries … and here I am.
STEREOGUM: You’re around Philadelphia. How do you get to work?
JM: Unbelievably, I live 4.6 miles from my office. My commute takes me through 2 neighborhoods and past a Starbucks and enables me to get in to the office in less than 10 minutes. Fantastic.
STEREOGUM: I grew up in Southern NJ, often took the high-speed line into Philadelphia. How’s the rest of public transportation?
JM: I don’t deal with any public transportation other than taking the train to NYC from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station … 70 minutes and I’m in the Big Apple. However, driving on the highways around Philadelphia – HELL.
STEREOGUM: I feel like there’s always traffic in that area.
JM: OH MY GOODNESS – it’s become a joke to drive on any of the highways. My old commute was 12 miles and took me anywhere from 25 minutes to 70 minutes depending on how the wind was blowing that day. NUTS. Although, The Wrens have driven all over the earth … and I can’t remember many places at all that don’t have some type of major traffic issues. I think we’re simply at a point where the population has outgrown the outdated infrastructure that was not planned to support so many folks driving in our shiny cars and trucks.
STEREOGUM: So, you’re currently at some sort of conference in Miami, right?
JM: I am at a conference at the Doral (golf course) Resort for an industry organization that focuses on regulatory and technology trends for one type of money manager that I sell into – mutual funds (like VanGuard and Fidelity). It’s funny … It’s very difficult at these conferences … taking folks out to insanely lovely meals, playing golf at some of the countries finest golf courses … however, I am away from my family and that’s a drag.
STEREOGUM: Is it tough coming back from, I’m guessing, triumphant shows in Dublin and London and then heading to a golf course for a conference?
JM: It’s tough … it’s where real life intersects rock fantasy. It’s about managing the many hats that we all wear and needing to wear each one as best you can … you know?
STEREOGUM: Do you imagine you’ll ever quit your day job?
JM: There are two answers: “No way” and “Absolutely” … it all comes down to making sure my bride and I can take care of our 3 kids as best as possible. Let’s see what happens with the next record … we’ll revisit this question!
STEREOGUM: Taking your lead — Any idea when we might see that next record?
JERRY: Knowing us I think it’s fair to estimate late 2007, or even early or late 2008 … but certainly no later than late 2010!
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