Drummer Jerry MacDonnell would like to talk about his band, the Wrens, and their most recent album, 2003's universally lauded The Meadowlands. First, though, he has some business to take care of. Literally.
"I've got a client on the other line," he says, on the phone from his office in Philadelphia. "Hold on a sec."
The complication is a perfect emblem for the Cape May, New Jersey, band: Of its four members -- MacDonnell, Charles Bissell, and brothers Greg and Kevin Whelan -- only frontman Bissell is, as MacDonnell describes him, a "full-time Wren." The others have day jobs. Actual career-track day jobs, that is, not easily disposed bookstore or coffee-shop jobs.
"Sorry about that," MacDonnell says, chuckling, when he returns to the line. "The trials and tribulations of a day job."
No apology is needed. The Wrens make rock music for adults. Not emotionally stunted, whiny adults, like Counting Crows. Not very, very, very rich adults, like U2. But adults with a second mortgage and credit-card debt, adults who are preparing for a performance review at work. You, in other words. Music that knows the compromises you make between what you want to do and what you must do. The toll this takes on yourself and your relationships. As Bissell sings in "Everyone Choose Sides," one of many highlights on The Meadowlands, "Bored and rural-poor, lord, at thirty-five, right?/I'm the best seventeen-year-old ever."
MacDonnell's voice suddenly grows muffled and distant "That was a hedge-fund guy, looking for a prospect," he tells someone else in his office. His voice draws near again. "Sorry about that."
2) A Footnote at Best
The Wrens are not a new band. You would be forgiven, though, if you thought they were. They've been together since the late '80s, but until The Meadowlands became an indie-rock sensation, you could have written them off as one of countless '90s "alternative" bands. Another group to file behind all those copies of R.E.M.'s Monster in the used-CD bin of your favorite record store.
In the beginning, the Wrens were as brash as any young band. The autobiography on their Web site claims that one of their first gigs was on a ferry between New Jersey and Delaware. Most of the audience members were old enough to have sired a Rolling Stone or a Beatle. After playing a cover of the Pixies' "Debaser," the Wrens lost the gig.
Still, success was seemingly within their reach. In 1994 they released a full-length album, Silver, on Grass Records. In 1996 they released a second album, Secaucus. Both albums were collections of brilliant, hook-heavy post-punk. Both received critical acclaim.
This proved to be a mixed blessing, though. Grass Records had been bought out shortly before the release of Secaucus, primarily for the rights to the Wrens, yet the new regime wanted the band to become more radio-friendly and tried to bully them into signing a lucrative new deal. The band said no, and Grass Records pulled its promotional support for Secaucus. The Wrens left Grass Records. Grass Records changed its name to Wind Up Records. Soon thereafter, the label that had wanted the Wrens to become a mainstream sensation signed an unknown Christian-rock group. They called themselves Creed.
Meanwhile, the Wrens languished. "The music industry, the business part of it, just got so ugly and so frustrating," says MacDonnell. "We kind of lost our way a little bit, musically. It kind of made us step back and try to figure out what the hell we were doing."
3) All's Well in Hell and Here's Hoping
The Wrens record in living rooms. They do so not because they subscribe to some militant lo-fi, DIY aesthetic. It just makes sense for a band that, in some combination of members, has always shared a house to record there, as well. "We'd probably waste a shitload of money [recording in a studio]," says MacDonnell, "and we'd have a record that didn't sound the way that we want it to sound."
That sound is intimate, rough around the edges, dynamic. The Meadowlands opens with "The House That Guilt Built," a brief, simple song -- an electric guitar, a minor-key melody -- set to the ambient noise of a summer night: insects chirping, the rush of traffic on a nearby interstate. This fades into "Happy," which builds gradually from a similarly simple guitar line and a stately rhythm into a wall of guitars and vocal harmonies and a driving beat. It sounds as if the band has come home from a day at the office, warmed up a bit, and then loosed the tension of the day into their music.
But recording at home also has its disadvantages. Like "having too many options," according to MacDonnell. "'Well, let's take a look...let's listen to the nineteenth guitar part.'" He is exaggerating, but only a little. Seven years passed between the releases of Secaucus and The Meadowlands, with only an EP (Abbott 1135, to be re-released this summer, with bonus tracks) released in the interim. When the Wrens finally finished The Meadowlands, they didn't want to succumb to the temptation to tinker with their work one more time. So they erased the master tapes.
4) A Treble Checking That Says We Might Win
"It's been an eighteen-month odyssey," MacDonnell says of the tour that has followed the release of The Meadowlands. Because this tour has been arranged around work and personal obligations, the band has nicknamed it the "Weekends Only" tour. "Of course, we'd rather be doing this full-time," MacDonnell adds, "but, you know, it's kind of where real life and fantasy collide."
At times, though, that collision has been all too real. Near the end of their work on The Meadowlands, within just two months, each member of the Wrens lost a parent. Says MacDonell: "We kind of stepped back and looked at each other and said, 'You know what, we all just got through the hardest thing on the planet. And everything else, who gives a fuck about?' Of course, we want people to like the music, but we're not going to live and die by it. And when we play a show, we literally approach every show like it could be the last one. You just never know. So whether five people are there or a thousand people are there, we play the same show, energy-wise."
Still, MacDonnell seems at peace with the Wrens' future, which in the short term includes preliminary work on a new LP. "If it were all to end now, I think we'd all be completely satisfied and just excited that we got to the point where we are," he says. "We figure anything positive that happens from here on out is like icing on the cake."
5) I'm Back! I'm Back!
A final caveat: If you want to see the Wrens play live, do not be late. MacDonnell, for example, has to catch a six o' clock flight the morning after the Wrens' St. Louis show. "I'm the coach for [my four-year-old-son's] indoor soccer team, so I've got to be back for the team," he says, laughing. "Again, real life colliding with fantasy."
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