As the vocalist/guitarist for late, great rock act Shudder To Think, Craig Wedren gave life to some of the most original, bizarre and inspiring post-punk music of the 1990s.
As the vocalist/guitarist for late, great rock act Shudder To Think, Craig Wedren gave life to some of the most original, bizarre and inspiring post-punk music of the 1990s. Swept up from Dischord by Epic in the post-Nirvana major-label feeding frenzy, Shudder continued to create compelling music but never struck a chord with mainstream audiences on such challenging releases as 1994's "Pony Express Record" and 1997's "50,000 B.C."
When the band finally split at the end of the century, Wedren found himself overwhelmed. Should he thrust himself into the world of film and TV scoring? A full-fledged solo career? The bubble-gum pop record about which he'd been fantasizing for ages?
Ultimately, the artist has dabbled in all of those areas and then some, and the first commercially released fruit of his labors is the self-titled debut from his band Baby. Released on Wedren's own Nerveland Records, the 11-track set oozes disco-era sexuality thanks to the presence of singers Amy Miles and Alex Edenborough, all the while carried by Wedren's signature vocal swoops. The album also features a re-working of Shudder To Think's "Day Ditty," based off a sample from electronica artist E*vax.
Wedren recently sat down with Billboard.com to discuss the dissolution of Shudder To Think, the evolution of Baby and some of his favorite memories from his formative days in punk rock.
What is the lineage of Baby? How long have you been working on the project?
Just before Shudder To Think stopped playing, we were really branching off in a lot of different directions: commercials, fashion show DJing, bits of remixes and obviously, trying to continue on with Shudder To Think. We were all pretty disenchanted with what had happened to our beloved underground, progressive music revolution, which, as with all so-called underground movements, became really disappointing and commercialized in the end. But we were a part of that. We signed with Epic Records.
We were starting to try out a bunch of different kinds of music. Some of the more exciting music at the time was the resurgence of bubblegum pop, speaking of something that lasted for five seconds. But it was really exciting for awhile: gimme the Archies or "I Think We're Alone Now." I think collectively, as individuals and music lovers, all of us were big fans of classic bubblegum-era music, because when we were kids we listened to AM radio or whatever Mom had tuned in in the Chevy.
There was also sampling technology and how it related to hip-hop production. I was super interested in hip-hop from a production end. Also, more experimental electronic music. All these things were pouring in at once as Shudder To Think was beginning to dissolve.
We'd been together for 12 years. We were sick of each other and frustrated. We loved each other and wanted to preserve all the good that was left and end at the right time. The summer before we broke up, I was staying with my oldest, dearest friend, David Wayne, who used to be in [comedy troupe] "The State," which I did music for. He directed "Wet Hot American Summer." A friend had a beautiful house in the hills of Los Angeles. I was out there working and writing and trying to figure out what the f***.
I had my sampler and keyboard set up right in the living room window overlooking all of Los Angeles. I had my notebook and was scribbling lyrics and thoughts, plus writing all kinds of music, from the artier end of Shudder To Think to more soundtrack-y stuff.
I had a sudden notion that I really wanted to just make a bubblegum record. So, I grabbed a bunch of CDs off the shelf and started sampling them and building these beasts, very simple verse/chorus, verse/chorus, out of used parts. I won't mention which ones for legality sake, but it's self-evident if you listen to the Baby record. It's something very new and futuristic hopefully, but built completely from used parts. This is when I wrote the song "Free Los Angeles," in about five minutes. Little did I know at the time that was going to become the next thing for me.
But this was several years ago. Why did it take so long so mold Baby to your satisfaction?
Around this time, my girlfriend of eight years and I have just broken up. My band of 12 years is in the midst of breaking up. I wound up taking an apartment on Stanton Street, which is where I would live for four years. Everything immediately, hot on the heels of the breakup of the band and me with my girlfriend, just falls to pieces. Nobody will hire me. In the odd occasion they do, it never works out. I got fired off a big TV show. My manager dropped me. My record label drops me. My film and TV agent drops me and my publisher drops me. I was hurting.
But, you know what? One of the main reasons I decided to make music in the first place, on top of it being the best thing in the world, is because it was something I could do. I didn't need to be approved of or hired for it. I've always got my instrument with me, so along those lines, the one thing I could do for myself was wake up every morning and gave myself total freedom. What do you feel like doing? I don't know. Well, turn on the TV. What's on the TV? It's Puff Daddy or some bulls***. But there's a cool squiggly keyboard line in there! Turn off the TV, play some weird squiggly keyboard song and make a song out of it.
Cut to, I now have five or six albums of this kind of thing. This turned out to be the Baby direction. I wanted an infusion of sex, fun, mixed gender and some voices that could take on my songs. I recorded all this music just with me playing it. It was more electronic and sample-based and entirely me just stacking vocal upon vocal. It was a blast for me. But it was very off-putting at times because of the nature of it.
With Shudder To Think, there was always this dissonance pulling in the opposite direction. I may have been singing like a fairy godmother, but the guitars were digging into each other for blood. That was part of the cool tension. With Baby, because it is straight-up pop music in a lot of ways, there wasn't quite enough tension. It became so gay, which is fine, if you're willing to relegate yourself to that demographic. And that wasn't what I wanted to do. I always felt Baby could reach the widest possible audience.
So bringing Amy and Alex in, after seeing them one night when I was bitching and moaning into my beer, was perfect. Ever since then, it has felt like a real band. It would feel much more like a real band if we could play more often and if we had a rehearsal space. I'd love to be doing a little bit of touring.
I was just watching a Shudder To Think video from 1992, from a three-month period when both Mike Russell and Nathan Larson were in the band. This was after [the Shudder album] "Get Your Goat" was recorded with Chris Matthews but just before it came out. We were so tight. It was like breathing. That kinetic, thoughtless but military precision is rare, hard to achieve and missing. I don't know that Baby will ever be that, because it is such a different beast. But I want Baby to be as great as Baby can possibly be. I love the record. It sounds really great to me.
You have continued to work on film scores like "Laurel Canyon" and "School of Rock." What's next in that department?
I just finished a movie called "P.S.," which is my first properly orchestral score. It's directed and co-written by Dylan Kidd, who made "Roger Dodger," which was quite literally the movie that got me out of the snakepit. I was thinking, wow, I guess I'm not going to make another movie again. I guess I was kidding myself! But Dylan was super vigilant about trying to get me to do the music for "Roger Dodger." It wound up being such a blessing.
"P.S." has Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Topher Grace and Gabriel Byrne. It's about a woman in her late 30s, played by Laura Linney, who is a little bit stuck. She's in admissions at Columbia Art School. Topher applies for admission and he reminds her so much of her first love, who died in a car crash, that she goes into this crazy existential thing. Is he a ghost? Is he real?
I've also been working on this movie called "Boxers and Ballerinas," which these three youngins from D.C. have been working on. They went to Cuba and shot three or four hundred hours of footage of two boxers, one who lives in Miami but is Cuban-American, and one who lives in Cuba, and then two ballerinas from the same scenario. It's a knockout, gorgeous documentary about being a teenager and being on the cusp of having to make real choices.
I went to Cuba to do a lot of preliminary recordings for the movie. We found two guys in their mid-70s who were accompanists for the Cuban ballet school. They were previously touring jazz musicians. I mean, you can't leave Cuba unless you're an athlete or an artist. But there is always the fear you will defect. These two guys came over to one of the directors' apartments for four hours. For a bottle of rum and however much money we could give them out of our pockets, they schooled us. It was a life-changing afternoon. I recorded that, and I am going to use some of the basic melodies in whatever the soundtrack ends up being.
You've had such a wealth of different musical experiences since the early days of Shudder To Think. Do you have any particular favorite memories from the band's formative time?
I am thinking back to the first Shudder To Think tour. [The group's 1989 debut album "Curses, Spells, Voodoo Mooses"] had just come out. Nobody knew who we were, but a guy named Johnny Stiff from New York booked our tour. For instance, we'd be stuck in St. Louis for like seven days without a show, money or a place to stay. We'd be with whatever girl who took us in from the previous show. I literally remember being at this girl's house. She was in high school and her mother would make us get out of our sleeping bags at 8 a.m. It was insane.
Later, I think we were somewhere in New Mexico and staying on the floor of the local promoter's house. It was in some sort of "Poltergeist"-type planned community. I had my sleeping bag in the kitchen because the carpet was so gross. My head was right up against the fridge. I woke up at one point and looked into the promoter's bathroom to see his pregnant girlfriend giving him a blowjob with the door open. I completely lost it. It was the beginning of Shudder, but as far as I was concerned, we should have been on tour with the Cure or R.E.M.
So I called Johnny Stiff and I was screaming. That tour culminated in Los Angeles. Way more than D.C., the L.A. punk scene was what inspired me: X, Black Flag and all those weird SST bands which are much more like Shudder than anything that was going on with Dischord. Poetry and romance and style and theater! I was so psyched.
The day we're playing our show at this place in Long Beach, we think, oh, it's part of L.A. We spend the day at Venice Beach and probably in some sort of weird ersatz Doors tribute, take a bunch of LSD. We get into the van, which was called the Captain's Quarters. It had a chain steering wheel and wall-to-wall carpeting. There's no air conditioning. We're on LSD and it takes two hours in rush hour traffic. We're listening to X and the drugs are wearing off. It's not romantic anymore.
We get to Fender's, which is probably a one or two thousand-capacity place. The door is locked! Somebody calls someone and a promoter eventually shambles up and unlocks the door. He says, I didn't do any promotion because I didn't think anybody was going to come. But there are four or five maximum-security beefcake guards there when we proceed to play in front of not one single person. Not a soul. Actually, there was this teenage Japanese kid who has a fanzine and was kind of a crusty squatter punk. It was us and one other band and I think Swiz. We played for the other bands, coming down from LSD, singing into the black. Not one of the guards even cracked a smile.