Virgin Mobile Festival Preview: Shudder To Think

Shudder To Think, back for some more.

If Shudder To Think doesn't exactly fit in with this year's Virgin Mobile Festival lineup, it's nothing new for the just-reunited band. They've made a career of being outcasts, whether it was as the avant-pop band on D.C. punk label Dischord or as glammed-up rockers during the grunge boom. I got singer/guitarist Craig Wedren on the phone a few days ago and let me tell you, that guy is fun to talk to. And I'm not just saying that because he actually wanted to hear my half-baked indie-rock reunion theories.

Shudder to Think performs Sunday from 1:05 to 1:55. As if you needed another reminder, we will be blogging live from Pimlico all weekend. Check back often.

So I guess you wanted to get in on this whole reunion thing, huh?
Yeah, man, had to do it! Bandwagoneers that we are.

The world demanded it and who are you to deny them?
Exactly. The whole wide world. It's pretty insane, this weird reunion moment that's going on. I feel it's a culmination of weird factors. It has something to do with the access that everybody has to everything all at the same time. What do you have to say about that?

I have many theories, if you actually want to hear them.
Yes, I want to hear your theories.

First I'm slightly disturbed because it's a lot of the old punk rock and indie rock bands that are doing this and they are almost becoming the cliché, the exact opposite of the scene they grew out of. Everybody just has instant access to everything and therefore people feel a certain entitlement to see and have everything. It's like, "I didn't get to see Sonic Youth tour behind 'Daydream Nation.' Well, I should be able to see Sonic Youth play 'Daydream Nation'!" I mean, the music is still great, for the most part. But Mission of Burma playing "Vs." is just a really weird thing to see in 2008. At the same time to say they shouldn't do it and not to make this money they never made the first time around is a jerky, selfish thing to do. Much more selfish than the bands "cashing in."
Yeah, it's a weird thing. I have no idea how this batch of shows is going to go. In a way it's like everyone was working so hard pushing against things when the music was being made, just to try to get people to listen to it. And if it's somehow easier to get people to listen to it and have what you were striving for in the first place, now, that's a nice feeling. If the music still feels vital ... I guess it just depends band by band. I saw the Pixies a few years ago on their reunion thing and it was so much better than any time I saw the Pixies the first go-round.

To be totally honest with you I think (playing an album start-to-finish) is weirder. It's totally splitting hairs but there's something wax museum, mausoleum-esque about watching somebody play their classic album. It's so Pink Floyd, because they're already such a [expletive] weird kind of relic. You expect them to go note-for-note, song-for-song through their nostalgia trip. But I think it's weird, Sonic Youth doing "Daydream Nation." For a minute when this thing happened I think (drummer) Adam Wade said, "Well, let's do 'Pony Express Record.'" And I was like, "No! We have all these awesome songs, let's go play them. It's so fun!" It's just very interesting. I definitely have mixed feelings about it, culturally. But personally, not at all. It's like, great! Half of these are songs when I play solo shows anyway, you know? Awesome.

To go way back, do you feel like you were one of the more out of place bands on Dischord back in the day?
I mean, we were woefully out of place.

Did you take a certain pride in that?
I mean, sure. We were young and punk and full of spunk and kind of, "[Expletive] you, [expletive] this, [expletive] everything!" But it was frustrating to us. Because we always - and this is not a diss on Dischord, we love Dischord. To go back to earlier in our conversation, one of the things about everyone having access to everything equally now is that there's just no more aesthetic scene, style, boundaries. Everybody listens to everything. At the time there just wasn't that. You were black or you were white. You were this or you were that. You were punk or you were a sellout. It was so stupid. And especially in a scene - and I don't blame this on the scene makers, I don't blame this on the Ian MacKayes - it sort of falls to teenagers and especially in prideful, underground, identity-obsessed punk rock scenes there's just absolutely no room for variation. You had to sound like a Dischord band. You had to sound like a D.C. punk rock band. Or else you were outcasts.

And we just didn't fit in. No matter how hard we tried, had we wanted to fit in, we still would not have fit it. We were proud of that because that wasn't what we wanted to do. But we were also really frustrated by that because we really wanted to be popular. We thought that what we were doing was actually way more pop than most of the D.C. punk rock bands. Way more sort of poetic and melodic. And I think we always fancied ourselves - and this is going to sound silly - like Echo and the Bunnymen or the Cure or R.E.M. Just something on a much bigger, broader, underground-but-pop scope. And we were very frustrated by that.

Now at the same time the fact that we were on Dischord really gave us a leg up on so many other bands because there was an automatic, built-in cache and audience for that. Unfortunately, the audience for that were largely very conservative, knuckle-headed, white punk rockers. So there was always this tension or this friction. And in retrospect it's easy to wax poetic about it, hindsight being 20/20, I do think it made us into a more interesting band than we might otherwise have been. But it was definitely a double-edged sword.

(More good stuff after the jump.)

It seems Dischord's legacy, for better or worse, is that very specific sound and mindset. I know you haven't lived here for a while but it seems like the D.C. scene is still trying to get past being known as simply Dischord, and everything that goes with it.
Absolutely. And that notion of labels having such a specific aesthetic, it just isn't relevant right now. It just doesn't make sense with how people make music now and with how people access music now. And again, this is not a diss on Dischord, Dischord was awesome and set the template for every indie label, it's changing the world right now. But I just can't think of a single label in this day and age that only puts out one genre of music. And that was just a sign and a function of the times. So it makes sense that D.C. is still struggling to get out from under the weight of its own legacy. And that sort of demonstrates what I was talking about, that double-edged sword. D.C. is legendary because of Dischord. D.C. is creatively frustrated because of the long shadow of the Dischord sound. Even Fugazi. Fugazi wound up being an art band. But people only want to hear "Waiting Room."

I guess that's sort of why they stopped, they didn't want to go down that road of the classic rock construct.
Which is a shame. Because I thought they only got better. More interesting and more beautiful the older and more mature they became. And the more risks that they took. But it is what it is. You start off as teenagers and you're knuckleheaded punks and then suddenly, somehow you get really popular and even legendary and it kicks you back in the teeth because you start growing up as an artist.

So after the Dischord years there was the big alt-rock boom which you were right there for, but at the same time, it seems like you didn't really fit in there, again.
Oh, dude, we so didn't fit in, it was crazy. Honestly, we just kind of ducked our heads and rode that wave and hoped for the best. We certainly sold more records and reached more people than ever when we signed to Sony and put out "Pony Express Record," which is ironic because to this day it is our most difficult album. But I mean, come on, we were like the antithesis of grunge. I don't even know what we were. I listen to those records, even "50,000 B.C.," which is ostensibly where we were trying to sell out, but we couldn't figure it out. Which is great. Because it still just sounds like Shudder To Think, and it doesn't sound like any other band.

I saw you guys a few times and there were certainly some people who weren't liking it. They seemed almost afraid of it a little, does that make any sense?
Oh, it makes a ton of sense. We were playing with a lot of different things. The things we were interested were much more gray in tone. They were male and female. They were theatrical and with total integrity. These opposing forces that we loved in Shudder To Think, sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't work. Listening to and looking at certain things we did I want to cringe and crawl under the carpet sometimes. But with that you get all these great chances and risks that paid off. Song structure-wise and lyrically and performance-wise. And people didn't really know what to do with it.

Again, I think it has a lot to do with the time, that as much as there was this so-called alternative "boom," this progressive revolution, it was ultimately very conservative style-wise. People dressed a certain way, people looked for very specific and really dumb, as far as I'm concerned, reference points. It was all very classic rock under the guise and gauze of punk. And that wasn't what we were doing.

Look, Nirvana was a wonderful band. And Pearl Jam have some beautiful, beautiful songs and records. But what they started, I'm sure has Kurt rolling over in his grave and I know has Pearl Jam wanting to stick their fingers down their collective throats. Those albums and those moments were made with genuine artistic and commercial ambition. But they came from a very real place, they came from a punk place of your own thing, set your own rules, world domination. Change the rules. And they did change the rules. But when the rules get changed it doesn't take into account that 99% of the world are sheep. And that you change the rules and then everybody takes whatever you did as the new rule. And that's never what an artist intends. You never want everybody to do the same thing that you do. You want everybody to take the spirit of the thing, which is to keep changing the rules. But that never happens.

We really didn't fit in. We appreciated that so many of our fans and champions were successful musicians and that they all wanted to take us out on the road and help us out, artist to artist. That was a really wonderful thing and we're totally grateful for that. Now, that made it very difficult sometimes. For instance, when we were opening up for Foo Fighters on the first Foo Fighters tour and it was all leftover fratboy Nirvana fanatics who all showed up at the show and thought we were gay monsters. I don't really know quite what they thought. Or people who thought we were somehow insincere or being arch or ironic with our music. In fact, we were being the opposite. There was nothing at arm's length about what we were doing. Everything we were doing we did with total dedication and commitment and passion. As opposed to a lot of the Gen-X slacker bands who were very ironic and arm's length about it but because they were old tennis shoes and cruddy t-shirts and didn't cut their hair, the impression that people got was that they had more integrity because they didn't care. We cared a lot. Probably too much.

At the same time the people who connected with what we were doing connected on a really intense, passionate level. Our fans were nuts. They weren't in the millions but they were a few people from every age, style and sect. So that was very rewarding. It's certainly been that a lot of bands I love are those type of bands. If you have a pet band that you're passionate for you kind of don't want the whole world to fall in love with them. It loses something. Having said that, I would have preferred that the whole world fell in love with Shudder to Think. (Laughs.)

Since Shudder To Think called it a day you've done lots of film soundtrack work. Does that have the same sort of artistic fulfillment?
It has a very different and very complementary creative fulfillment. Making records and promoting them in the traditional way became more and more of a straitjacket for Shudder To Think. Complementing that and balancing it out with the types of creative and commercial challenges that you get when you're working on a film score really completed the pie, musically. It exercises very, very different muscles than just writing a traditional, or even a non-traditional, pop song.

You have very different parameters. You have a scene to support. That scene can be anywhere between two seconds - and I just wrote this big, orchestral battle scene that's like 12 minutes long. These are very, very different assignments than the ones you give yourself and the habits and patterns we get into sitting with a guitar and knowing, "Ok, this is for my band. There are four of us in the band. I know I want to sing, here's where to start with the lyrics." And go from there. One is entirely for yourself, being in a rock band, playing rock songs, which I think so many people get into as a sort of a "[expletive] you" to structure, establishment and traditional jobs.

But then working on a film score is all about getting very specific assignments. "We need this piece of music to be funny, but not cartoony. And it needs to rock. And it needs to express something about you. And something about this main character and something about how feels about this other character, but isn't saying. And it needs to last for 25 seconds. It's a totally fascinating creative process. But one that I think is very difficult for a lot of traditional rock musicians who don't want to be told to do it all. I, personally, love getting very specific assignments because you wind up making music that you would never make left to your own devices and it opens all these little doors and windows that you can then add to your bag of tricks when it comes back to making a song for yourself. It keeps you very limber doing both.

By David Malitz |  August 7, 2008; 11:46 PM ET Virgin Festival
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