For more than a decade now, the Wrens have struggled to contend with record label misadventures and unimaginable bad luck, while still making acclaimed recordings. Now, after the success of their 2003 release The Meadowlands, the Wrens have finally become a hipster household name on their own terms.
In a recent interview with NUVO, vocalist/guitarist Charles Bissell reflected on the stranger-than-fiction trials of being in the right place at the wrong time.
Before their breakthrough to critical acclaim, the Wrens endured many derailments with record labels. Throughout the convolutions of the last decade, Bissell still considers himself a glass-is-half-full sort.
"The cool thing, I guess, is that we don't have any regrets, or at least not in a career sense. I think 10 years ago, we were as bogged down as any band can be with worries of 'making it.' How do we 'make it'? What is 'it' that we're making anyway? Who should we be trying to work with to 'make it' - some producer? Do we need a manager? Which label should we be making it a priority to get noticed by? You know, to 'make it' and all. Luckily for us, we were so pathetic at the business end of things we never did make it back then. Otherwise, I'm sure it would've ruined us, ruined the music and broken up the band sooner than later."
After releasing Silver in 1994 and Secaucus in 1996 on Grass Records, it would be another seven years before the Wrens would release another album.
The Grass Records/Dutch East India label was sold, and the Wrens subsequently became the label's default priority because they felt they had the most commercial appeal. When the label gave the band an ultimatum to either renew a new big money contract or all promotion for the just-released Secaucus would grind to a halt, the guys decided to walk instead.
That may sound a bit crazy, but the band wasn't interested in the new direction the label was headed and disagreed with a lot of the decisions being made regarding the record.
"It ended up with us officially saying no and parting ways while on tour on a phone at a Florida gas station," Bissell said. Support for an impending European tour was pulled as well as all other promotional pushes. It was around that same time that the label signed Creed and swung all their efforts toward promoting them.
The Wrens shook up their representation and started the "courting" process with a line of labels that never came through. "The specifics [of why label negotiations dissolved] were often different from situation to situation but at the heart of it, none of them ever felt 'right,'" Bissell said. "It's pretty much exactly like dating."
In 1998, the Wrens entered into serious negotiations with Interscope Records, but again dissolved right before inking the deal after their A&R representative was fired during a corporate merger.
Without really knowing what to do, in 1999 the Wrens began writing a record that would take four years to complete. "Sometime in that last year or two of making The Meadowlands, we finally purged most of the career worries out of our system and got back our love of the polka. After a long enough time together and some of those careerist ambitions get flattened, you start to realize or remember or something that originally you were doing it because it was musically satisfying and notions of making it had come to ruin all that."
Things weren't looking good. "I think we all thought we'd break up after it was done or at least scale everything to priority. With that in mind, I can't really say why we kept working on it."
Nevertheless, after a grueling four years, The Meadowlands was completed despite Bissell's crushing case of writer's block.
"It took us, or me, at least, a long time to figure out what I was gonna write about. It's easy to overlook the specifics of your own life 'cause they're not interesting enough or they're not what your favorite songs are already about. And I was really, really stumped and depressed about it for a few years. It just seemed so hard. Here we'd put everything into making records and becoming the best band we could be and at least in my case, not gotten married or had children, made an average of $13,000 a year, etc. And yet I couldn't even find anything to write songs about. That's when it dawned on me that maybe THAT was worth writing about."
Choosing to forgo the regular song and dance of trying to secure a label to release the album, the Wrens decided to take it to Cory Brown, an old friend at Absolutely Kosher Records for release. To commemorate the end of the long haul, the master tapes of The Meadowlands were destroyed at the completion party.
Although Bissell can't pinpoint exactly why The Meadowlands hit home with listeners, he thinks its honesty and vulnerability played a large part. "Perhaps even when the specifics are different that a lot of folks can identify with making sacrifices and living with the fallout of the choices you make, whether that's being in a band into your middle years, or getting married or divorced, or sacrificing time with the people that count while you work towards what you thought was important. Or something."
The record itself plays like the perfect cathartic companion soundtrack to the cumulative, distressed period it represents. It's plaintively beautiful and brutal, and if the record achieves anything it is the ability to connect through its different movements and faces, which allow the listener to follow through the thoughts and struggles of its labored makeup.
Leaving what surely must be the worst behind them, according to Bissell, "The only real goal now is to have a good life and part of that would be keeping the polka quality as high as possible."