Especially around the time of their most perfect album, the major label fundedPony Express Record, Shudder to Think were the best band in the world. Yet no one liked them. Actually, some loved them, while others, like the skinheads in the audience on Shudder’s infamous tour opening for Fugazi (Shudder were the first band to begin outing Dischord Rerecords as an art-rock label), hurled objects and insults in response to singer Craig Wedren’s gayish persona and choppy pop experiments. The band burned brightly, nobly, oddly, and all too briefly. But now in 2008, after a dozen years dormant, Shudder to Think have returned for a string of reunion shows in hopes that the world – now populated with ipod listeners and mashup DJs – will better relate to its Roy Orbisonian mathrock.
MPW: I am a huge fan of your music; it’s really nice to get the chance to talk to you.
C: Thanks man, thank you so much
MPW: So have you ever played New Orleans?
C: Yes but not in many years. It was always very very hit or miss. We’d get literally a few hardcore fans and a bunch of people who were really confused.
MPW: Yeah, that’s almost the rock-n-roll legacy here. I kind of tend toward craving new things musically, things that surprise me, and I don’t fit in very well here in that regard….
C: Yeah, at a certain point we kind of quit going there.
MPW: I saw you open for Fugazi in Tampa and people were throwing coins and shouting “faggot”.
C: Yeah, (sighs) there were some f–king skinheads there.
MPW: I always wondered: was that like, the a, uh…
C: A common occurrence. Pretty much. But granted we didn’t exactly…we kind of…
MPW: Thought it was funny?
C: I dunno funny, but… We’ve always sort of thrived on adversity and almost enjoyed that kind of friction and tension; it has always added to the live experience a little bit. But just the other night we played in Toronto and even though there was no ‘f–k you’ attitude in the audience, I still noticed there’s some almost teenage sort of ‘f–k you’ attitude to the band. Not really in our music, not really in our songs, maybe it’s…
MPW: Sort of in your guitar player?
(mutual laughter. Ed: Nathan Larsen is the truly amazing guitarist who so improved the band when he replaced their original dude. But by Nathan’s own admission he stirred up shit finally demanding that Wedren simplify his complex music)
C: Yes, it could just be in Nathan. But there’s always been something defiant about Shudder to Think just because it’s always been so staunchly it’s own style.
MPW: So having pennies thrown at you has never gotten your goat, so to speak?
C: Well even when it has, it’s never hurt the music. At worst it was a neutral thing, but at best it goaded us on to be more firmly entrenched in our beliefs and our idea of ourselves.
MPW: I wondered, that night in Tampa, if it was just the Fugazi crowd — Fugazi shows had EVERYBODY at them, including a lot of jocks and skins — but did y’all get that negative response everywhere?
C: Very, very, very common. But Fugazi themselves, the further they went, the artier they became. Dischord Records turned out to be this art label that just happened to have its roots in hardcore. But what that hath wrought, in terms of the meathead factor… [Hardcore music culture] is often just like the flipside to country music or something.
MPW: Does Guy Piciotto from Fugazi do anything anymore? God did I like that guy. Such a good singer, great presence, also a great dancer.
C: Oh man, god I know. He produced a Blonde Redhead record a few years back. I see him when I’m in D.C. and he’s always, bless his heart, at my shows, and afterwards he’s always like “I gotta do something!” And I’m like, “Uh, YEAH you’ve got to do something!” I mean, I don’t know about his day to day; I know he’s had a kid but, I’ve had a kid, Ian Makaye’s had a kid, so that’s no excuse! (laughs). If anything it’s more of a reason to, you know, plant your flag!
MPW: Well, another thing there may be no excuse for: I saw pictures from y’all’s recent reunion shows and you’re not playing guitar! You always played second guitar in Shudder.
C: Yeah, and I’ve been playing guitar so much in general these last few years, and the guitar in Shudder is definitely my style of playing but…(pregnant pause)…what happened?
C: Oh, I remember: Mark Watrous who plays with Raconteurs and also in my solo band knows Shudder guitar parts better than Nathan or I do; he cut his teeth learning Shudder songs. He can play keyboards, violin, everything, but when we got to relearning the Shudder songs, it seemed to me like it would be fun to just be a singer for a minute. Plus we did this Barrack Obama rally recently, our first show back together, and Mark and Nathan played guitar and I just sang — ‘just this once.’ But many people, particularly my manager, were like ‘Dude, you have to just be a singer for a little while’. My guitar parts and the syncopation of the vocals keeps me pretty rooted in one spot where I have to focus super hard and not think about anything. So it’s kind of nice just to be the front man crooner, perhaps. Like how David Lee Roth described himself, I wanna be ‘the Jew who sells it’.
MPW: David Lee Roth is perhaps my favorite person ever.
C: He is one of my favorite human beings of all time. Have you read his book, Crazy From The Heat?
MPW: Oh, my, god.
C: Is that not like a bible?
MPW: I lost track of my copy loaning it to so many people. Now it’s out of print and like $60 on Amazon.
C: It’s a totally unexpected, totally beautiful book like a Zen book.
MPW: Did you go to any of the Van Halen reunion shows?
C: We went to one of the New York ones; it was hit and miss. Dave’s voice was for the most part good. He was able to hit the notes, though I wish he would stop mugging for one second. He’s obviously a crazy person but an inspiring, beautiful… I want to pass that book on to my son.
MPW: You are one of the few people to ever agree with me about him. Although, the chapter where he claims that before every show he gets on his knees and washes every stage he plays on, I don’t believe that.
C: Um, whatever. I choose to believe it.
MPW: Ok. Um. Do your songs have topics to you, or are they just about the beauty of syllables and melodies?
C: Schizo topics, but yes. Line to line can be a different topic. They have general thrusts more than topics. I connect very specific images, very very clear cinematic or dream snapshots. The clearer visuals I have in my head end up as the best lyrics.
MPW: When you all were writing Pony Express Record, how did you not just write all that challenging mathematical stuff but then also memorize it?
C: Repetition. Play, it play it, play it, play it, play it, then take the cassettes home and write vocals, go back and drill them some more, practice till everything was in lockstep. I must have driven people crazy, repeating these riffs over and over and over, trying out every possible vocal and melodic and rhythmic permutation. The repetition was very transcendental in a way.
MPW: Have you ever read that thing on Nathan Larson’s website where he details how the breakup of Shudder to Think was his fault because he ‘got sick of doing the math’?
C: I think I did. It’s kind of his mea culpa?
MPW: It’s really good. But did you agree with him, that you needed to simplify?
C: No. Not at all. I wanted to go further into Pony Express territory. But after Pony Express the bloom was off the rose, and at the end of the day we were a band, and a family, so… Though it broke my heart that the band weren’t all on the same page stylwise anymore. At first it was very difficult, but aside from all the other weird adversarial stuff going on in the band at the time, when I started writing stuff for 50,000 BC, it became this very fun, awesome, growth-inspiring assignment to write something more soulful, more pop, something that would make Nathan happy and would get the band back in lock step with one another. It didn’t really work, because I was still stuck halfway in Pony Express. So I didn’t get that particular assignment right until my solo record, Lapland.
MPW: Since you had already changed bandmembers once, before Pony Express, I wondered why you didn’t just label Lapland a Shudder to Think production.
C: In retrospect it could have been a Shudder record. And if we had made it with Nathan etc, it would have had more bite, which would have been great; though I love that it’s a lite album — as in L-I-T-E — it could use a little more bite. And I didn’t feel like it was OK to make a pop VH1 record as Shudder to Think. I felt too guilty. Though I do adore that record. And depending on what happens withShudder to Think, my new solo record, Wand, may be Shudder to Think. It’s a little more pop, a little more dance music, a little more film score mood music, but still could be a Shudder to Think record, if the current reunion continues. I haven’t discussed this with Nathan or anyone else, but… If we did keep going I would want to play bits from all the music and projects Nathan and I have been associated with through the years; it’s all really good music that could benefit from Shudder to Think sharpening it’s teeth and getting in a room together with it.
MPW: I too love to sing, and I kind of figured out I had a high voice by singing along in the car with Jeff Buckley and Roy Orbison, and y’all. How the hell did you figure out your voice could do that?
C: I started singing when I was 12 in cover bands, and all the early 80’s singers had high voices. So I’m singing like Ozzy Osborne, Siouxie Soux, Journey. Plus everyone’s amps were so much louder; I was singing out of like a little Fender Twin, and the higher the pitch of the voice the more it cut through. So I sang higher to be heard. It was the clearest way to get my melodies out there. Indy bands these days especially, tend to sing a lot lower, but by the time Shudder to Think came around all my habits were in place.
MPW: Maybe because the loud guitars have gotten quieter in modern indy rock, but it seems like singing has definitely made a comeback.
C: Oh yes. Ever since Jeff Buckley and Thom York.
MPW: During the time Shudder came up in the late 80’s early 90s, with many bands, it was usually just whoever in the band could sing in key was the ‘singer’. Rarely was it someone who obviously loved to sing or was born to sing — which, bands shouldn’t have singers unless the person loves to sing.
C: I know. You’ve got to feel that way! It’s singing man! It’s the most direct, primal…
MPW: It’s scary.
C: It is. So scary.
MPW: You can screw up a bunch on guitar and no one notices, but if you sing offkey once, everyone thinks you’re a bad singer.
C: It’s terrifying.
MPW: Do you ever correct people when they say you sing “falsetto”? Like, ‘Actually dude, I just have a high voice. Not doing anything false‘?
C: Yeah, I hate that term. Someone else said I have a truesetto. I hate when people say Roy Orbison sang falsetto…
MPW: Right. Falsetto is for singers who can’t sing high. Mislabeling falsetto is like when a coincidence happens and someone says, ‘wow, how ironic.’ No dude, that’s a coincidence. Anyway though. How long did it take you to get it right, your singing in Shudder to Think. How long did you suffer before it sounded good.
C: I go back and there are eras where I’m more and less comfortable with my voice. There are eras where you’re frustrated with your voice, or you’re trying new things that you haven’t quite mastered — which actually gives the voice a sort of yearning or reaching aspect that I like. But I would say that by the second or third record, I had figured out how to relax and be myself with my voice. Then at the end, on 50,000 BC, I was trying a whole ton of new stuff. My favorite singing though is Lapland. I’m most comfortable with my voice now.
God, there was one weird time when I though I’d lost my voice entirely. It was gone for like 8 months and it was this mystery no doctor or anyone could figure out. Then one day my acupuncturist told me that Chinese medicine believes this happens due to communications in relationships, like, if you have stuff going on in your romantic relationships, he said, sort it out, because there’s blockage. Luckily it’s very treatable. And the next day I got my voice back.
MPW: So I was going to ask you — and maybe this topic gets kind of old for you but — Shudder to Think is now definitely seen as part of the Jeff Buckley legacy. But when that Sketches album came out, my first thought was ‘Wow, he was really listening to Shudder to Think’.
C: Yes, he was a big fan. We met him around Get Your Goat. He showed up at one of our shows and just sort of brooded in the corner. All our friends had been talking about him, telling us ‘this guy is the real deal.’ But at that time, you had no reason to believe anyone who told you someone was really singing. So we were just like ‘Who is this handsome-boy crooner guy’? Then later we mixed Pony Express with Andy Wallace, who’d just finished producing Grace. We were like ‘Well play this Jeff Buckley for us we hear he’s so great blah blah blah’. We were completely transported. And also immediately on the telephone. For this brief inspiring and bittersweet year or two we were kinda familia.
MPW: What did you first think when you heard that Sketches… song ‘The Sky Is a Landfill’? It’s like he gave himself the assignment to write one of your songs!
C: I think that may have been it. Jeff challenged himself more than anyone I know; he was a rigorous motherf–ker. And, you know, some of my demos start out as straight rip-offs, and you mold and shape them until they come out the other end as something more original. ‘The Sky Is A Landfill’ would have been more Jeff Bucklified if it had had a chance to reach the finish line.
MPW: I wasn’t picking on him for unoriginality.
C: I know. [That song] was really flattering. When people used to tell me Jeff would soundcheck with ‘X-French T-Shirt,’ I was so flattered because of all the people I’ve known in my life — and I have known a lot of talented gifted motherf–kers — I’ve never known anyone like that. Jeff was beyond measure; his gift.
MPW: Did you all sing together?
C: Yeah. There are no recordings though. We talked about putting together an a capella singing group, something weird. We’d yack about it but obviously it never came to fruition.
MPW: It seems like today, 2008, would be a nicer day and age almost forShudder to Think.
C: Yes, our music is now much more approachable, especially to younger people whose ears have been molded to every genre. We may work better for Ipod generation people for whom compartments and genres, and what’s punk and what’s indy, it doesn’t exist anymore. So people are now able to hear us without scrambling to understand and define and lump us in with other things. The average ear is quicker now to take in new things, and to listen to Fugazi and Dylan and Stravinsky and Johnny Cash all in ten minutes.
MPW: The stage you’re playing on at VooDoo Fest, by the way, is the best thing at the whole fest. It’s curated by this incredible huge talented 10-piece circusy troupe band. Really well curated music: not traditional New Orleans music, but nothing that would scare away the more conservative tastes, just enlighten them.
C: That sounds amazing.
(Exchange other pleasantries about the music fest. The end.)