The scope of styles offered by Shudder To Think's Craig Wedren is vast. His eclectic 90s output includes memorable scoring/soundtrack moments from Velvet Goldmine, Wet Hot American Summer, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, School of Rock, The State, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Reno 911!, and countless other films, shows, and projects. Wedren's latest endeavor finds him combining forces with composer Jefferson Friedman, along with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, aka ACME, featured together on the collaborative album, On In Love from New Amsterdam Records. Today, he premieres the video for "Tarrying" (directed by Michael Patrick Jann and Joe Kessler, and edited by Jeff Seibenick), glaring wide-eyed through an analog camcorder lens.
Wedren leads the co-composition with ACME, where chanted requests of "please, please, please" emerge from forces of the alien and celestial. The earnest appeal is made by Wedren in an iconic voice he belts out like a mess of out-stretched open arms asking a deity to "let the milk flow." The VCR effect adds an otherworldly quality to the whole presentation. It's like stumbling on a videotaped message from a space cult set to an elaborate symphonic score. The grand arrangement leads you blindly onto the mother-ship with a willing and open heart, as Craig transforms you into believer while retaining a playful weirdness throughout the piece in lyrics like, "we are melting candy." We had the pleasure of getting an inside look at this project, in the following interview with Craig Wedren himself.
How did you begin working with Jefferson Friedman?
I met Jefferson in the late 90's, when he was just a skinny punk.* He joined Shudder To Think for our first (and last, alas) soundtrack music tour, performing music from High Art, First Love, Last Rites, and Velvet Goldmine, as well as our album material, all of which he pretty much already knew, cold.
It was clear from go that Jefferson was a brilliant musical mind, as well as an outstanding piano player. On the flight to San Fran, I remember playing him recordings of what would later become The Spanish Amnesian, a collection of largely ambient/experimental solo recordings with hints of modern classical composition. He was studying at Julliard at the time, and we began hatching a collaboration plan (on the plane —a San Fran plane plan) which, a full decade later, became the seeds of On In Love.
*he's still a skinny punk
Compared to your work with Shudder to Think and your film compositions, what was it like recording On In Love with Friedman for New Amsterdam?
On the one hand, my involvement with On in Love was a hand-in-glove fit; nobody knows my voice and its idiosyncrasies quite like Jefferson, so musically it was (literally) made for me. On the other hand, the writing process was totally inverted, for both of us. We began with lyrics, which for me are always the last ingredient. Then, Jefferson would take my sprawling scrawls and edit them down to what grabbed him, or what best suited his musical concepts. He would then write the music (vocal melodies included) and send me demos, which I would sing over and send back.
When I'm writing my own music, the vocals, no matter how melodically knotty, all come from inside, and therefore feel quite natural in terms of breath and phrasing when I sing them. We knew, in order for these songs to work, that the performances needed to feel human, natural, not heady or intellectual, which can easily happen with classical songs. It took real work to integrate Jefferson's epic melodies naturally into my body, and that was the biggest challenge of our recording process; to find the sweet spot between precision and punk.
ACME, the 'band' on the record — and the ensemble who always performed On In Love live — seem to perpetually exist in that sweet spot. I am in awe of not just their chops, but their feeeel, which they brought to the recording as well. Sick, SICK players. Very rare.
What was the process of recording the Jeff Seibenick video with the multiple video frames that provide these, sparse, evocative and alien feelings?
My good friend Michael Patrick Jann directed the video; Jeff Seibenick was the editor, and Joe Kessler shot it. Michael also helped direct my favorite Shudder To Think video, "9 Fingers On You", many many years ago. We had all (Michael, Jefferson, Jeff, Joe) just completed a TV pilot together called "A To Z", which came out really well, and got picked up for a series on NBC. So, when Jefferson and I needed to make a video, it seemed like a great idea to keep the creative train rolling and indulge in some lo-fi video art together. I'd had an idea for "Tarrying" about people's faces in prayer — the song being about supplication — and Michael really wanted to play with the analogue shimmer of VHS tape, which utterly suited our (non)budget.
We invited friends over to Michael and his wife Lisa LoCicero's house (she of the eyes in the final frame), and it naturally became more of a guided meditation/interrogation vibe, enhanced by the gas-fumes-on-hot-asphalt quality that our team achieved in editing (although I think the VHS camera broke). It came out just right, enhancing the music and entrancing the viewer/listener.
I intend for "Tarrying" to be the first in what will ultimately be a multi-platform, transmedia video album, where each song's respective subject is addressed visually. Before I wrote lyrics, Jefferson and I would decide on an archetypal subject or style for each song, i.e. Drinking Song, Fight Song, Parenthood, which related somehow to the overall subject of love in all its facets (including some of its darker by-products). The goal is to continue this exploration by developing an album-length video series. Stay tuned.
As someone who works in so many different production venues and styles of sound (your contributions to the faux band, Venus in Furs in Velvet Goldmine still weigh heavily on my mind), how do you tap into these alternate realities to find sounds that have universal resonance with people?
Wow, thank you for saying that. I can only hope my music has some universal resonance. As a composer, which is a somewhat solitary job, and recording artist who rarely tours, I often feel invisible. So it's nice to know that people are listening, and feeling some of the things I hope for when they hear my music (even if, in a film score, they don't always consciously hear it).
In answer to your question, I find it much easier to tap into all different kinds of music than I do one specific style or genre, which was part of the frustration Shudder To Think had being a band, where you're expected to create consistent sound album after album, tour after tour, year after year. I think it's much more natural, as a fan of music, to explore, and to let in all sorts of influences — not just musical ones — that then lodge themselves in and filter their way through when the right assignment comes along. I've also always had a knack for being able to hear something and imitate its essence, while still retaining my own voice, like in Velvet Goldmine. It boils down to a soul-thirst for sounds new and old, which I need to somehow devour, then regurgitate in a new form. Or something.
Are you and Jefferson Friedman working on other releases, and are there any other artists or collectives you're hip to lately?
As mentioned above, I just finished composing the score for a great new TV show called "A To Z", for which Jefferson's contributions were invaluable, particularly his gorgeous string arrangements. He also did some beautiful stuff for the new David Wain / Michael Showalter movie I scored with Matt Novack (also an amazing composer), They Came Together, out June 27. I wanna do a great horror movie with Jefferson.
In terms of collectives, again, I can't rave enough about ACME, who was our ensemble for On In Love. They would be my dream-players for the scariest, most beautiful horror score ever (the one Jefferson and I are trying to will to us). Speaking of awesome horror movies, I just started working on a song for and will likely be doing some singing on my friend Karyn Kusama's new movie, The Invitation, whose creative team is a kind of collective in the sense that we're all old friends, our kids go to school together, and everybody is working together. Theodore Shapiro, a friend and frequent collaborator (we did the music for Wet Hot American Summer together, and a song for The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty last year), is composing the score, into which we may weave my voice. In terms of artists I've been into lately, the stuff that's been most exciting and interesting to me has been coming from more abstract, cinematic and frightening electronic artists like Haxan Cloak, Oneohtrix Point Never, Tim Hecker and Ben Frost. I keep going back to Yeezus too, which still knocks me out; similarly, Death Grips. I've also been intrigued by the spate of truly compelling adult/middle-age-themed fare that's been coming out lately, like Benji by Sun Kil Moon, and even Beyonce's last one.
On In Love is available now from New Amsterdam Records.