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Q&A: Craig Wedren

Craig Wedren, former frontman of D.C. post-punk innovators Shudder to Think, has spent the seven years since his band’s demise inundated with O.P.P., i.e. Other People’s Projects. Shudder’s final album was 1998’s soundtrack to First Love, Last Rites, a film whose narrative included an old 45-rpm record player. Wedren and his band wrote songs that replicated the protagonist’s record collection, and brought in vocalists like Billy Corgan, Jeff Buckley, and Liz Phair to sing. While Shudder to Think dissolved that same year, films became Wedren’s bread-and-butter calling; he lent music to films like School of Rock (including the hilariously tongue-in-cheek Creed-like ballad played by Jack Black’s former band in the movie’s final scenes), Roger Dodger, The Secret Lives of Dentists, and Wet Hot American Summer, to name a few.

That last project found Wedren working with longtime pals Michael Showalter, David Wain, and Michael Ian Black, who now employ him as music supervisor for their Stella TV series (read more). Ever the workaholic, Wedren found the time lately to crank out even more film music, this time for Showalter’s forthcoming The Baxter, and to finally record a set of personal songs he’d been tweaking privately since Shudder to Think disbanded. That collection, now known as Lapland, will see daylight later this fall via Conor Oberst’s Team Love imprint. Wedren joined for a few glasses of wine on a sticky summer afternoon near his New York home studio for a journey into Lapland and other locales. How did you arrive in Lapland?

Craig Wedren: Let me totally geek out for a second. I’m not a big sci-fi guy but this friend of mine turned me onto this trilogy called His Dark Materials, and I started reading it and it’s brilliant. It was one of those things where I tore through all three books in three days. In one of the books they were talking about the Laplands, which are the most evocatively named parts of the world. It just says so many things all at once. It’s exotic, it’s fantastic, it’s sexual, and humorous, and sort of warm and homey at the same time. Title-wise, it seemed like a good capsule for me to fit all of the powder of the songs into for this record. For whatever reason, at the time I was reading it — I was probably sitting in the bathtub or something — immediately, I thought of my lap, my fiancee’s lap, my dog lapping the top of my head, which she likes to do. My dog will lick the top of my head for basically as long as I’ll let her. I think the record is 45 minutes.

We’re giving readers a sneak peek at Lapland‘s “Born Curious.” How did that one come together? (Download MP3 of “Born Curious”)

There’s a big romantic scene in The Baxter with Michael [Showalter], who plays the Baxter, and Michelle Williams, and they’re hanging out in a bar. There’s a DJ playing, and I had to write songs that would work dramatically but would also sound like a DJ was playing them. They had, as temp music for that scene, Fischerspooner’s cover of Wire’s “The 15th,” and the Wire version is one of my all-time favorite songs from when I was in high school and college. My song needed to do everything that “The 15th” by Wire does, but I needed to love it as much, if not more, than the original — because of my pride — and it needed to be unique, but done more electro like Fischerspooner. And that’s how I wrote “Born Curious.”

When did the wheels really start turning to make this record a reality?

Conor Oberst, who was a Shudder to Think fan and a Dischord fan — in fact, I think Saddle Creek was based largely on the Dischord model — called me up and asked me to put together a Bright Eyes for one night for this benefit he was doing. So I played this show with him and gave him a CD with acoustic versions of these songs. I really hadn’t given it to him for any other reason than, “Oh, just take a listen to this. I’m going to make a record of it, but I don’t know how. I’d just like to know your thoughts.” And then I saw him a few weeks later and he was like, “Dude, I’d love to put this stuff out.” When Conor — who knows me, knows the things that are important to me — offered to put it out, I was like, “Perfect.” It was a few days in the studio, a few thousand bucks. The recording process was very digital age punk rock: two days and fourteen songs. I’m really curious to see what people think of it. In a certain sense, it might be too normal for some Shudder to Think fans, but in a lot of ways, it sort of feels like the next Shudder to Think record.

With Shudder’s Pony Express Record, you made a major label record that was really hard to swallow, but if you gave it time to settle, it made much more sense. It’s cool to hear that approach is part of this new chapter as well.

Since I finished this, I’m totally ready to make a weird record. I’m so glad this stuff is off the shelves; I love every song on this record. That’s sort of my pact with myself, that I won’t put out a song that I think is filler. Having said that, I’m itching to let my freak flag fly a little bit more. I don’t think I’d like to go any further into grown-upsville. Right now I’m doing all of this music for Stella, and TV is this hairy beast for which you have to be constantly cranking out music. Unlike movies, there’s no time for reflection, or to get people into one room to think things over. It’s all about gut instinct, and the ability to jump genres, especially with something like Stella.

They had a really rough day today [after the New York Times bashed the upstart comedy].

Yeah, a really unfair, rough day. Obviously, I’m totally biased, but I totally think that Stella, while weird as hell, is a really brilliant television show. You can hate it, and a lot of people do, but there’s something really unique going on there. It’s like Pony Express Record, but comedy. Jokes within jokes within jokes within jokes. You can peel the onion forever. It’s like Wet Hot American Summer: It’s not for everybody, but the people who like it are insane about it.

I’m very curious about your working relationship with Michael Showalter and the Stella guys. With the films, you have so much time to work, whereas Stella seems like it would be much more hyperactive with timing.

It’s rigorous, a whole different way of working. We did the pilot, and we had a lot more time to work on the theme song and to establish the basic sound and feel of the music for the show, and that went very well, again, because I think I know them so well. Once the series got picked up, I used the basic themes I’d started for the pilot as a springboard, so it wasn’t a total mystery what the music needed to sound and feel like… One of the hard things is working on it alone. It’s kind of ironic to be working on a comedy for 16 hours a day all by yourself in a dark room. It’s not very funny.

Do the Stella guys come over and play?

There’s not really time. They’re writing, directing, producing, and editing at the exact same time that I’m doing all of the music. It’s a phone call or e-mails or sometimes David comes over for a bit. They all had to come over the other day to record a sort of barbershop quartet thing, but it’s ironically very remote just because of the schedule.

Now, you know Michael from college, and David from…?

David and I have been best friends since we were four, and David and I went to college together and then he got into The State with all of our college friends, and that’s been my crew ever since. Lucky for me. Keeping me in stiches and employment… It’s really very familial, the whole world we operate in.

How difficult is it sometimes to work through creative battles within that family?

Usually, it’s pretty easy. Knock wood. There’s an enormous amount of respect. We’re all fans, not just friends, and that’s what brought us together in the first place. We know that we go through hard times and we work through the crap and work on it until it’s good. There haven’t been too many ruffles with that whole crew. Again, saying that makes me nervous.

I can’t think of anything more rewarding than doing something like that with a group of friends. It sounds like you have this amazing network of brothers in sisters with whom you engage in a creative process.

It’s ideal. Lately, there have been times where I’m like, “How long can this last?” And then I realize that it’s basically lasted my entire life. We’re basically doing the same thing we did since we were nine years old: David’s making stupid movies of himself, and I make music for them. This is interesting: Dylan Kidd, who made the movies Roger Dodger and P.S., which I did the music for, is writing a movie now [tentatively titled Urban Tribes] with Ira Glass who does This American Life on NPR. The script is based on an article in the Times or something last year that was about how there’s this new trend within our generation of a tribal, friendship-based family unit that’s sort of replaced the old school concept of people getting married, splitting off, and starting their own families… There’s no reason we can’t do this for our entire lives.

Editor’s Note: Normally, a personal angle isn’t my preferred tact for an interview, but talking about Craig Wedren is an entirely different thing for me. When I was a high school senior, obsessed with the tail-end of D.C.’s Dischord heyday, Shudder to Think was unquestionably the most engaging, mind-blowing, and unique act in my record collection, particularly thanks to Shudder’s brilliantly wild major label debut, 1994’s Pony Express Record. I nervously approached Wedren after a Shudder to Think gig one night and asked if he’d talk with me for a piece in my high school paper; he gladly obliged and gave me two whole hours of post-show wisdom that became my first ever published rock’n’roll profile. If you’d like to read it, click here (300K, JPG file).