An Oral History Of The Wrens’ The Meadowlands
Ten years ago, three grown men approaching middle age lived in a house together in Secaucus, New Jersey. A recently married fourth was living in a Garden State home to the south. Ostensibly the quartet comprised a band, although they rarely played shows and hadn’t had a release of any sort in more than half a decade. A small number of devoted fans fondly remembered the two fine full-lengths the band had issued many years earlier. On the occasional day it is likely some of these fans wondered to themselves: “Whatever happened to the Wrens?” As it happens, the Wrens were wondering that too. This is the story of The Meadowlands, the classic album that resulted from that weird and difficult passage, and the even stranger aftermath.
Today is the 10th anniversary of the release of The Meadowlands — it finally first saw the light of day on September 9, 2003. A decade after the fact, the sounds, circumstances and eventual triumph of The Meadowlands remains a story as quizzical as it feels compelling. Even given the inarguable, idiosyncratic brilliance of the music in question, there is little previous or current precedent for an obscure band generating a commercial and critical success along the line of the Wrens’ third full-length release. No one we spoke to for this story — not their closest peers, nor the band’s management, nor the label that released the record, nor even the band itself provided anything like a coherent explanation for the extent of The Meadowlands’ impact. Neither was there much in the way of certitude about what it implicated for the band going forward. The Wrens are a cheery bunch to speak with, but one well rooted in the Socratic paradox: “I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing at all.” So it is left to us, ten years later, to try and sort through this most unique of rock and roll tales. You gotta start somewhere, so we begin with the music itself.
The Meadowlands commences with a small gesture — almost an offering — the 1:22 meditation “The House That Guilt Built,” a thematic table setter featuring only a quietly strummed electric, a plaintive vocal, and the sound of crickets chirping restlessly in the background. Amidst a Sunday confessional litany of failed responsibilities and shattered dreams, the track concludes with a kind of thesis statement for The Meadowlands. When the band’s drummer Jerry MacDonald sings: “I can’t believe/ what life’s done to me,” the effect is not one of bitterness, anger, or, the title aside, even shame. Instead it is something more like the sound of wonder — a man surveying the wreckage of his life’s ambitions with the kind of awe befitting the aftermath of a natural disaster. It is an entrée into the Wrens’ peculiarly accepting, almost Buddhist-like reckoning with suffering and disappointment throughout The Meadowlands. This intensely felt, but eerily placid calm in the face of personal ruin is a crucial differentiating point between The Meadowlands and other full-scale breakdown records like John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band or Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night. Those records seek to purge demons real and imagined, to dispel the powers that the past holds over them.
The Meadowlands promises no such catharsis — the demons are present and never going away. Best hope is they don’t fuck with you anymore than is absolutely necessary or appropriate. You can drink and you can drug, and The Meadowlands features plenty of both, but never entertains the illusion that excess provides any real relief. As to Neil Young’s notoriously reductive burn out/fade away dichotomy, the Wrens take no particular position, except to probably assume that the most unpleasant combination of both should likely be expected.
Much has been made of the painstaking recording process for The Meadowlands, and for good reason, as the steadfast commitment to home recording over the conveniences of a more polished but less organic studio atmosphere is as vital to understanding the Wrens as any other factor. In his insightful remarks about the album, Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff, a dear friend of the band, described their preoccupation with salvaging five-year-old drum tracks rather than overdubbing new ones as “my definition of insane.” Sheff is completely correct on the merits — while well enough played, the drums on tracks like the slow-burning “Happy” are fine but far from flawless. The track speeds up and slows down as the band struggles to remain in the pocket — guitar, bass and vocals all vying at length to resolve into something like a common groove. However, when that finally occurs around the final minute of the song, the feeling is transcendent — like a compelling argument ultimately resolved on the best possible terms.
This is a consistent occurrence on The Meadowlands, which often features the sound of a band not only embracing but also insisting upon the consequences of its self-imposed technological limitations. Having had bad experiences in expensive pay-by-the-hour studios, the group was intent on finishing the record on its own terms, under its own supervision. Accomplished on a minuscule budget, with countless overdubs belaboring less than state-of-the-art equipment, the tradeoff is in the occasional sense of lost fidelity. Would-be anthems like “This Boy Is Exhausted” or “Per Second Second” remain powerful, but feel more like miniatures. Quiet moments, better served, invoke the intimacy of the starkest moments of The White Album, an admitted influence.
The Wrens are a family, both figuratively and literally. Besides the quarter-century-long creative collaboration between the group’s main songwriters — guitarist/vocalist Charles Bissell and bassist/vocalist Kevin Whelan — which is a functional brotherhood, there is the actual fact that second guitarist Greg Whelan is also Kevin’s kin by blood. Jerry MacDonald, the drummer, is equally one of the longstanding gang. The group is brilliant but strange (and strangely noble) with regard to the total commitment to keeping the band personnel stable and unchanged no matter the considerable obstacles posed. This has, in theory, cost them professionally, and may continue to do so at a time when a steady stream of Wrens records and tours could generate more revenue now than at any other time. But the Wrens don’t think that way.
The long-running fallacy of The Meadowlands holds that it was a slow-building entity with a certain air of legend in the run-up — something to be compared with the Beach Boys’ Smile. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. While that record was born of expectation, industry hand-holding and a general sense that someone, somewhere, might get rich, The Meadowlands promised something closer to the opposite: No one involved with the recording ever expected it to be heard by more than a few friends, and few in the industry could have cared less.
Paradoxically, any previous pressure blissfully ignored by the Wrens now dogs their long-awaited follow up to The Meadowlands, long in the works and allegedly scheduled to appear sometime next year. Already publications like Grantland have characterized it as the indie-rock equivalent to Chinese Democracy, a humorous, albeit unflattering (and wrongheaded) comparison. As Sheff pointedly puts it, “I think that expectations are kind of the curse of our age. A lot of the time we don’t actually give the artwork the time to communicate what it is. The Meadowlands was such an amazing, wonderful, out-of-nowhere record that it suddenly captured everyone’s imagination. The best thing is to come in and not expect anything at all.”
The future is unwritten, but here’s the story of how The Meadowlands came to be.
THE FIRST PART
The long-running musical institution known as the Wrens commenced formally in 1989. Two years shy of Nevermind and with the Internet a mere distant rumor, there was a cloistered but exciting artistic world where scene politics and the DIY aesthetics still ruled the day. “Indie rock” was not at this time a shorthand for upper class arbiters of a “cool” lifestyle, but rather a literal expression of estrangement from anything well financed or professionally rendered. The closest the band can think to having direct creative contemporaries at this time were the beloved, woefully obscure Dayton-based weirdoes Brainiac. From the start, the Wrens had the songs, chemistry and live presence to suggest a great band in the process of incubating their brilliance. Still no one could be certain if they were just another also-run amidst a Northeast scene larded with talent. Then came the great early records — the catchy, and agitated post-punk entries Silver (1994) and Secaucus (1996), each more brilliant than the last. The Wrens’ talent and tunefulness attracted suitors, and soon they were signed to the esteemed indie label Grass. Things seemed to be going great. Then, in a pattern that would befall the band repeatedly over the years, circumstances changed rapidly and not for the better. Grass was acquired and remade into Wind-Up, a label that quickly signed Creed, Filter, and other acts of like mind. Unsurprisingly, Wind-Up’s interest in the Wrens’ sophisticated art-pop was fleeting.
KEVIN WHELAN: So Secaucus came out and it started to do somewhat well and “Surprise Honeycomb” was starting to get recognized and played on different shows, and we thought that international fame was around the corner. It was halfway on tour when we got a call from the label. He said, “Well, boys, I’m not going to give you any more money. If you don’t sign with me today, it’s over.” So, I remember, we sat in the van, we looked at the empty gas tank and we were like, “Well, I guess we’re not signing, let’s get the credit cards out and see how we can get home.” We thought, after that, we were entering our cutting edge years, you know, like, “Now we’re really going to go indie and fuck the man, and we’re going to make it.” And little did we know that was the wilderness years, where we’re just starving. I guess The Meadowlands was still, what Charles, at that point, seven years away?
CHARLES BISSELL: Uh, from being done or being started?
The band persisted and had one last fling with the big business side of the music industry. By 1999, the Wrens had just come out of the wrong end of a grueling, two-year back-and-forth flirtation with the major label Interscope Records, involving a powerful A&R executive with a long-cultivated interest in the group. There had been insinuations and promises, but no actual career-making contract. Against their better judgment, the Wrens had recorded and re-recorded reams of new material at the behest of their would-be benefactor. In the end, in a virtual parody of music business chicanery from eras gone by, the A&R essentially said he “didn’t hear a hit” and lost interest. It was indeed a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll. The entire band was in their 30s. And, it seemed, they were going nowhere.
KEVIN: We spent a long time dancing with Interscope. The dream of getting signed to a major was in our grasp and we had a good A&R guy at the time — he was really into us. We went to a rehearsal studio and he wanted to hear some of the stuff and demo it. This A&R guy said, “You guys get a rehearsal space, I’m gonna come and hear some of your jams and we’ll go from there.” So anyway, like idiots, we decide to get like 80 million friends to come to the studio. The guy walks in and he’s like, “What the fuck is this?” So we play like five or six of the new songs and he just sort of sneaked out at the end, there was barely even a conversation. And we thought, “Oh, I guess that didn’t go very well.”
CHARLES: After Secaucus, we had a couple of flurries where batches of labels were interested, so we did that song and dance but there’s never any advance money involved. So by the time Interscope came along, they were after us to do all of those crazily front-loaded things that labels ask for, where it’s like, “Hey you do all the work — i.e., you spend your whole year or summer, whatever — recording all these songs and then we’ll come and see if we’d like to work with you, and then we’ll pay you for it.”
KEVIN: There were 30 songs and he finally dwindled it down to two that he liked. They were “the hits.” So he’s like, “Redo these two, make the distortion louder,” you know, all the same shit — “want drums louder, vocals louder,” — all that stuff. Then he’s like, “Come to my office, we’ll play it on my big system and we’ll see.” So Charles wrote “This Boy Is Exhausted” and it was essentially about,”Fuck you, you’re not going to sign us anyway, but you’re making us do all this shit in front of you.” I must tell you, it was a beautiful moment to be in a band, sitting in the big crystal office, listening to the music pump out, and watching this guy. And then at the end, he said, “Fuck you, I don’t like you guys either.”
Following still another industry imbroglio gone terribly wrong, the Wrens regrouped in the sort of inimitable fashion unique to their temperament.
KEVIN: So, I think we went out and got drunk and that was it. And Charles said, “Well, let’s make another record.”
CHARLES: We were already exhausted. We were already fried. Nothing had gone as planned and so I said, “To the Meadowlands, boys! Ughhh.”
Reasonable music fans might have hoped or even assumed that the myopic A&R man in question suffered the sort of karmic destiny befitting one who overlooks a masterpiece. Unfortunately, the facts are not so easily palatable.
KEVIN: That A&R guy? Yeah, he signed the Strokes.
TO THE MEADOWLANDS … SLOWLY
By January of 1999, there was seemingly little rationale, resources or commercial outcry for a new Wrens record. The early beginnings of The Meadowlands, painstakingly recorded in their shared home studio felt quixotic at best and borderline delusional at worst. Still, the group applied itself forcefully into the rendering of a homespun masterpiece, one that they had no reasonable expectation would ever be heard by more than a few close followers.
CHARLES: “Method,” or “methodology” are very generous terms. Because they imply that we had some kind of overarching plan that we implemented and things fell into place.
KEVIN: Oh my god, those years. It’s just so, so painstaking. It’s an awful process making these records. I’m only saying that because Charles and I are so deep into this new one — it’s so painful.
CHARLES: We did our first record on analog half-inch, which is the cool old indie way to go. By the time we got to The Meadowlands we bought a couple ADATs. By the end of recording, I think we were up to four ADATs kind of all following each other. The great thing about ADAT was it was the worst of digital and the worst of tape all in one medium! It was sort of like building your own spacecraft.
KEVIN: And then you would hear it start to break down like some old fucking lawnmower and you’re like, “Oh, no, which one’s going?!” and lights are blinking, and we’re like, “This is a shitty spacecraft and we’re never going to make it.”
WILL SHEFF: I think that the way that they work is insane. I think it’s the most circuitous, tortuous way, and when they were making The Meadowlands, they had those drum tracks for five years. And that is the most ass-backwards way to do anything. And they talk about,”Oh, well the drum tracks were just so perfect.” Well, that sounds like a cool story and that sounds right, and I’m sure that they believe that. But to me, it’s craziness. And then apparently they deleted the masters after they finished that record as some kind of a ceremonial gesture? Everything that they do sounds, to me, like torture.
Not everything was completely insane, of course. Tracks like “Happy” and “13 Grand,” for instance, didn’t have to be worked and re-worked during the recording of The Meadowlands before they were perfect.
CHARLES: What you’re actually hearing on “Happy” is not only the original drum take, but also the two main guitars. I went back and doubled a couple things, but that’s it. I actually took great pains to go back and double my fluky mistakes and inconsistencies from the original guitar recording. But “Happy” went through many iterations prior to starting The Meadowlands — we had recorded it, changed it and reworked it before we finally tracked it for the record, like a normal, respectable band would do. “13 Grand” is basically how it sounded in the basement, frankly. We put it together, put on some harmonies, and the lead part and that’s about it.
The urgent ballad “Boys You Won’t” evolved somewhat differently.
CHARLES: The song that became “Boys You Won’t” is completely different from the original, because there was nothing left of the old version other than the drums. Everything had to be redone from the ground up with whatever was existing. I always kind of picture songs as buildings in New York. New York is such a layered city, where even the most modern building is sometimes sitting on top of this weird sub-base and you’re like, “What is this? This sub-base was built in 1901 and Andy Warhol had this building across the street” and there’s all this weird pre-history built into all these little bits and pieces. And if you’re looking close enough you spot them. You spot them over time. And that’s how it’s always felt to me.
KEVIN: Sometimes I think we might just go to an extreme where we just are crazy. There’s no way around it. We’re just fucking crazy. We’re just weird.
CHARLES: There’s a weird little connector that comes out of “13 Months In 6 Minutes.” The song stays on the guitar solo. It gave me great pleasure to actually play a guitar solo. I was like, “Wow, I get a guitar solo in, finally, after 30 years of playing the damn instrument.” And then it kind of trails off, and then you hear drums come in, but those drums are for some other long-since-gone song. We’ll often have scraps of songs laying around that we’re perfectly willing to throw in because we don’t want to flesh them out into whole songs — that’s not work we’re willing to do. And so I wrote the other little song, just around those drums. But I am not lying, it must have taken me a week of seven four-hour days to get that to line up right. Because there’s no nudging or computer stuff, and there’s no measurable gap between where the previous song ends, and there’s a three-minute gap that had a solo before your drums start in. And I needed to start the other song before that. I’d try it, and it wouldn’t line up, and I’d try it again and it wouldn’t line up. I remember the one time I tried it and downbeat one came in where it is supposed to, I began to sweat profusely and I thought to myself, “if I mess this up now, I will take my own life.”
WILL SHEFF: You have your Neil Youngs of the world and you have your Stanley Kubricks of the world. And Neil Young is very much just like “OK on to the next record keep going, keep going, keep working.” Stanley Kubrick is crafting and crafting and crafting. There are different ways of working. If I fully give myself over to my perfectionist urges, I would probably release a record every 12 years.
In addition to pushing themselves to the edges of sanity trying to work around dated or erratic drum tracks while actualizing their own notions of perfection, the band volitionally limited themselves in other ways, particularly when it came to recording any auxiliary instrumentation.
CHARLES: At the time, Kevin had some very old, uncool synthesizers, which we used for the strings on “13 Grand.” On things like the accordion on “She Sends Kisses” — that’s me playing a guitar synth, which is like this dated, not even cool retro thing. It’s this pickup that you put on your guitar that runs through this, gigantic, pitch-to-volt midi converter that you then run into your crappy synth, just to play the fucking accordion. But it’s just funny because that accordion part went through that much cabling to get there, and we had an accordion in the other room that we probably would have got a much better sound from and had better time recording just by putting a microphone in front of it. But when you get perfect representation of an instrument it often loses its effectiveness because it almost becomes invisible to the listener, for the most part.
WILL SHEFF: Whenever I shake down those things that aren’t working for me on a record, and I pin them down to the ground and made them cooperate, I always felt like it didn’t matter that I did that, and that all that I did was create a more airless and sterile and product. Now that’s not the way it works for the Wrens, I mean, obviously their records don’t feel airless and sterile and they don’t feel worked over, they feel very spontaneous.
Even tracks that were by acclimation “the hits” were not immune to being worked and reworked. The version of “This Boy Is Exhausted” that appears on The Meadowlands is markedly different from that which was rendered for the A&R at Interscope on that fateful day.
CHARLES: That first version of “This Boy Is Exhausted” that we took into Interscope was kind of a middle finger to the guy. We felt the song came out good for what it was, but it had big distorted guitars and sounded like a lot of alterna-rock of the time. Even when it was done I felt like, “Oh man, for the first time I’m getting some good, clear, big distorted guitars… and I can’t use them.” It just felt so instantly jock-rocky and wrong. It then became a thing to see how clean we could get the guitars. I tried to get the rhythm to work without relying on cock rock clichés like big distorted Marshall guitars and so that’s what really changed with that song. That might have been the first one where I went to baritones. On the rhythm, it’s baritone guitars, and so it felt like it got a power just because of the pitch and the range of the instrument. It kind of comes in, in a weird way and it’s like, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting.” But it doesn’t sound like one of those mid-’90s alternative rock bands, which just didn’t feel right from the moment we did it that first time.
Other tracks, like “Everyone Choose Sides” allowed the band to double down in new and unexpected ways.
CHARLES: “Everyone Choose Sides” has a lot of parts, and we’ve never been big on big Mel Bay chords and by the time we got to The Meadowlands we were doing more of those big kind of campfire guitar chords. It’s possible that on the first album there were literally none. We always try to do something different, which is almost too much, because it becomes its own kind of default mode.
It’s what I picture a Clash song being, even though it’s not modeled on any Clash song, it doesn’t sound like a Clash song. I think it may just be one clip I have in my head where they’re playing something live and they’re almost falling over and then Joe Strummer stumbles his way to the mic just in time to belt out the lyric, and that’s what the song should feel like, all sound and melody, and all the other stuff aside. I wanted it to be two clear guitar parts and not too much else — there’s some piano and there’s a couple other doodads, but that’s kind of it. So it’s our pretend Clash.
The band’s forceful insistence on home recording proved both a blessing and a curse over the course of making The Meadowlands. One the one hand, they could overdub endlessly without watching the clock in a traditional studio where costs would continually accrue. On the other hand, they could overdub endlessly without watching the clock at all.
CHARLES: If someone had told us in January ’99, “Okay boys, here’s what’s going to happen: You’re going to dick around with this outmoded digital technology that runs on tape, and then you’re going to work with the drummer maybe once per song, and then you’re going to overdub the bejeezus out of them to try and make them good, and you’ll be suffering crippling perfectionism and self-doubt, and you’ll be living in a house together and you’ll smell bad, and you’ll put on twenty pounds. But it’ll only last four years…”
KEVIN: And yet again, here we sit, doing Meadowlands 2, right on track.
The Meadowlands became a collaboration between perfectionists with no particular set deadline. Creative breakthroughs were occurring constantly through the process of recording The Meadowlands but there remained the question of how they could ever know that the record was “finished”? This required a special alchemy known only to the members.
CHARLES: It is one of our maxims that has come up over time: “If you have to ask, the answer is no.” So if you’re like, “Well, is this good enough for this song? Is this the way we want the song to go?” If you’re asking, the answer is no. Because when it is right, you want to listen to it and you almost fantasize that you were in the band that is playing that song, you’re like, “Oh, I wish I was those guys. Oh wait! I am. Wait, we didn’t do this.” We were emulating albums like London Calling and the White Album, big, ambitious, perfect albums.
WILL SHEFF: The one time that I didn’t really have any boundaries while recording a record, and that I was able to do what I wanted and take all the time that I wanted was when I did I Am Very Far. And I was going insane. I wasn’t happy. It wasn’t a happy state to be in. So whatever the Wrens are doing works, but to me it sounds like torture. Just the most torturous thing that I could ever imagine.
KEVIN: I had a small epiphany that we were done. I was walking to work with my CD Discman, and I remember listening to it, wondering when we were going to finally put all the tracks together. By the time I got to work I realized how much I enjoyed the walk. I called Charles and was like, “I think this is okay! I think this is pretty good! I just enjoyed the walk. I liked the record.” So I remember that day, I remember where I was on the street where it occurred to me, “Oh my god, I think at least 600 people might like it.”
THE MEADOWLANDS IS RELEASED. “HOLY CRAP. WHAT’S GOING ON?”
As it transpired, on September 9, 2003, roughly four years after they began recording and seven years after their last full-length release, the Wrens finally unveiled their meticulously rendered masterpiece. Quickly it was apparent that more than 600 people were interested.
CHARLES: The first inkling that maybe people really cared was a CMJ show at Pianos on the Lower East Side. I don’t know what we were expecting, but there were just a lot of people there and we were just like, “Holy crap, what’s going on?”
KEVIN: And this is after 14 years of playing to really nobody. I mean, we would play some shows and people would come, but not much. I mean, very, very small. So even at Pianos, it was like, “Oh my god, there’s a lot of people listening. And they’re coming to hear this. Oh no.”
CHARLES: It was the first show where we actually had to say, “Uh, Excuse me” to get to the stage, which means you’ve made some progress — when you have to tell the audience “Pardon me guys, I have to get to the stage” you know you’re someplace new.
In fact, the Wrens’ remarkable ride with The Meadowlands was just beginning. Musically and thematically, The Meadowlands touched a deep nerve with its songs of professional despair, hopeless romantic longing and the brilliant, caustic and backbiting character sketches of those who had seen their promise go unfulfilled.
PHIL SHERIDAN, WRITER, ESPN/MAGNET MAGAZINE: It’s hard to explain my relationship with this particular record. Like a lot of art that deeply affects us, it found me when I needed it most. It was August of 2003. I had just turned 40. And the music brought to mind that point where your youthful drive and obsessions and energies all seem to be fading, where everything in your life is open to question. Your relationships. Your career choices, or lack of same. Every regret you’ve brought upon yourself.
CORY BROWN, ABSOLUTELY KOSHER OWNER, RELEASED THE MEADOWLANDS: It’s a collision of the teenage version of me, combined with the more seasoned music fan and jaded adult I became. It’s my grown-up teenage record, equally art school and blue collar, obvious and obscure.
The immediate success of The Meadowlands, which was abetted by great reviews in Pitchfork and other mainstream publications, came as a surprise and caught everybody involved off guard. All too slowly the band realized it had a genuine hit on its hands. Capitalizing on that would prove a different and deeply frustrating matter.
KEVIN: I remember when we were sitting in the house, deciding on whether we should go with [Absolutely Kosher owner] Cory Brown or, what the fuck to do with The Meadowlands and who to talk to. I remember sitting on the couch being like, “Who the fuck’s gonna listen to this? Nobody even likes us, we haven’t played a show in a million years and even the last show we played had all of like eight people at some shitty bar in Manhattan.” So we decided to go with Cory, I mean he was the only one that was asking to put out the record at the time.
CORY BROWN: I’m very proud of the fact that we never ran out of The Meadowlands for at least the first two years, much less in the wake of the album’s incredible reception upon release. What was tremendously challenging was convincing retailers that the album had legs. Even independent retailers, upon release, had no concept that the record would explode the way it did. We kept urging them that the record was bigger than they thought, but it had been seven years since Secaucus and you could still find the cut-out versions of both that record and Silver for $.99 in many used bins (I know, because I’d buy them for friends all the time). Pitchfork backed The Meadowlands all year long because of Ryan Schreiber’s passion for the band and by the time that review appeared, people were talking about the record and about Pitchfork. It was only after that that we could say to retailers about other releases, “It got an 8.9 on Pitchfork” and they understood that as shorthand for “You’d better order up or you’ll run out of this.”
Despite the best efforts of Absolutely Kosher to seize upon the unexpected phenomenon of The Meadowlands, both band and label were hamstrung time and again by logistical concerns that kept a would-be hit album from achieving the commercial status it rightfully deserved.
CHARLES: We’d get an email from Cory that was like, “Dudes, I just took another order for like, 50,000 or something. I’m thinking of pressing like, 3000 more copies” and we were like “3000, Jesus, uh okay.” So yeah, maybe ideally, you know, things in some perfect world still would have been different. But it was still super thrilling and super thrilling for Cory, I think, to see that thing happen. It was like, “Holy crap.”
KEVIN: It started to take off and we were like, “Oh this is amazing, this is fantastic.” The Meadowlands came out and there were all of these great reviews, and we were like, “Oh my god, this could turn into something,” but then very quickly those reviews come and go, and you realize that the label doesn’t have the sort of infrastructure to capitalize. And it’s not Cory’s fault. He just didn’t have the machine in place. He didn’t even have a machine in place.
CORY BROWN: Had I been a larger, more established label with a more aggressive distributor, there was a chance that I could’ve front-loaded store shelves and met demand sooner, but there’s no telling what that might’ve resulted in. The band themselves, after experiencing the excessive spending of Wind-Up on Secaucus, were very focused on promoting the album in a way that worked for them — a big part of why they worked with Absolutely Kosher. Rather than tour for countless weeks at a time after release, they only played shows on weekends.
KEVIN: It became increasingly frustrating, especially after all of what we’ve gone through. People loved the record and we weren’t capitalizing. The Meadowlands was released in Europe and it was all very spotty and bizarre and never cohesive. By the end of The Meadowlands, the band was over. We were done. At one show, we said, “Well, we really probably can’t do any better than this, and we should probably call it a day.” It got very frustrating. It was funny. That was the 20th anniversary of the band.
For all of the goodwill and hard work that had gone into making The Meadowlands, the Wrens’ undisputed masterpiece, one of indie rock’s most bankable and admired bands was still operating at the peak of despair and desperately in the red. When Constant Artists’ manager Ben Dickey, a longtime fan, who also represents indie powerhouses Spoon and Okkervil River, was brought on board to assess the Wrens’ situation, he was startled by the lack of professionalism all around.
BEN DICKEY, CONSTANT ARTISTS MANAGEMENT: It’s impossible to overemphasize how disorganized the situation was. Their business was in complete and total disarray, and it hurt them. They certainly could have capitalized more on The Meadowlands. But I think that at the end of the day, they understand that writing the best song possible is going to keep people interested and rooting for them.
KEVIN: We’re just so like a band. We didn’t know the questions to ask. We’re still about the music and we might think we know the other stuff, but we just don’t.
In spite (or perhaps because) of difficulties with distribution, a decided lack of concerted professional strategy, and a light schedule of public appearances, the lore surrounding The Meadowlands continued to grow with each passing year. In an era during which the hype cycle seems to move at an ever more insane and often inane pace, the Wrens were one of few bands to disdain the not insignificant rewards of striking a hot iron and instead went back into their private laboratory indefinitely. The enigma of the ever-growing cult of The Meadowlands remains a source of great speculation.
BEN DICKEY: I feel like they’ve just sort of done their own thing. And now it’s almost retro, which is kind of weird to say. That sort of super hooky, super melodic, super loud rock music. There aren’t like three or four bands that are flying that flag right now. I also feel like they have always been a band about melody and the balance between melody and noise in that pop way. It’s a personal taste thing, but I feel like that never goes out of style.
WILL SHEFF: There’s something very encouraging about a band like the Wrens, but maybe I would also counterbalance that by saying it shouldn’t be taken as evidence that there is hope. I’ve marveled for years at how the Wrens basically get to do all of the things that you’re never supposed to be allowed to do: being older than your average rock band, taking a long time between records, wearing shorts on stage, all things from the unwritten handbook of things you’re not supposed to do if you’re a rock band.
PHIL SHERIDAN: So why did it hit so hard, after such a long gap between albums? Because it’s the best thing anyone released that year, by such a wide margin that it’s not really even fair to compare. It is an album completely out of time, in tune with nothing but itself and the inner lives of the men who made it.
WILL SHEFF: I think the Wrens are in the lucky position of being the exception that proves the rule. The way that the music business works, it’s a faceless, terrifying machine that tears off limbs left and right, and in order to have a corrective for that, the Wrens were selected by the culture to be the heartwarming, outsized underdog tale.
THE HITS KEEP ON COMING
A decade and change after what felt like the longest awaited indie-rock release in years, the Wrens have doubled down with their forthcoming follow up, even longer in gestation and even more anticipated than was The Meadowlands. In classic Wrens fashion, the band principals are enthusiastic if coy, fans are dutifully occupying the edge of their seat, and their loyal and appreciative manager is frozen in a state of deeply committed empathy and urgency.
BEN DICKEY: There have been so many times that it feels like we have an incredible follow-up to The Meadowlands, and let’s do this, but because they’re so DIY, and there are always things left to do. You know, “It’s done…except for the 14th double of Charles’s rhythm guitar,” that kind of thing. It’s frustrating that it feels like it could be finished so many times over and over, and then it’s inevitably not. But they also lie to me all the time about how close to finished they are, so that’s the other thing.
PHIL SHERIDAN: The Wrens have managed the odd trick of being less productive despite the obvious advantage of not being dead. But that’s how I’ll view a new record: as an unexpected and welcome gift.
WILL SHEFF: People bring a tremendous amount of weight to these records. And The Meadowlands, just like everything, is imperfect. As a matter of fact, its imperfections are part of what’s so endearing and beautiful and charming about it. I don’t know if the same level of imperfection is going to be permitted by a sort of capricious, impatient audience this time around. Then again, the Wrens basically defy expectation in everything they do and they basically get away with the exact opposite of what you think is gonna happen every single time. So I think, back to those kinds of rules that they operate under, that it will be totally awesome.
CHARLES: Yeah, we decided that the problem with The Meadowlands is we didn’t wait long enough to start it. That was the problem. We rushed into starting it and that’s why it took four years. So now, we took seven years to start this latest one, and it’s only taken us three to finish it.