On any given night in garages and living rooms throughout New Jersey, kids play rock music laced with suburban industrial angst--chords and loud vocals ringing out in the hopes that this song just might be that ticket out of the mundane 9-to-5 work week.
Ten years ago, one such band, The Wrens, nearly achieved that rock and roll dream with their two energy-packed melodic indie rock records, Silver (1994) and Seacaucus (1996).
It was the mid-'90s, and the major record labels were just starting to realize that the independent underground labels had something going. The big fishes started eating up the little guys, and the indie home of The Wrens, Grass Records, became fish food. Not wanting to sign their lives away, all publicity was stopped on Seacaucus, and the Wrens were dropped from the label, which then changed its name and began signing such acts as Creed. And The Wrens, with their wings tucked in, went home to Seacaucus, N.J., to the house where they all lived together, and quietly kept playing rock and roll.
The years came and went, and The Wrens got "real" jobs, in finance and advertising and for Pfizer Pharmaceutical. But the music never stopped; the whole time, the band--Greg Whalen, his brother Kevin, Charles Bissel and Jerry MacDonnell--kept playing and recording in their living room studio. Finally, 2003 arrived, and with it, came a new record from The Wrens. Nearly eight years in the making, The Meadowlands is an improvement on the biting, clever songwriting found on Seacaucus (some favorite song titles from Seacaucus include "I've Made Enough Friends" and "Hats Off to Marriage, Baby"), with more carefully thought-through song structure and instrumentation. The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher) is what happens when an already good band looks around, sees the important things about making music, and just makes it, in their living room on evenings and weekends after work, without caring who'll ever hear it.
"For a while there, we were dealing with all the major label stuff, and it just got so out of hand, and we just weren't doing what we really felt we needed to do," explained guitarist Greg Whelan. "And then one day, we just looked at each other and decided, you know, screw it. This is not worth it; let's just live our lives, enjoy it, and just try to make a good record and just, you know, enjoy everything we have and live both lives, and so far it's been working out. So you don't have to be the art casualty, you know, and never have any money or food or any of that kind of stuff and become a total victim. You can enjoy both parts of it."
But what The Wrens weren't expecting was that many people were still listening to Seacaucus and wondering: What the heck ever happened to The Wrens? That Magnet magazine would name Meadowlands as their No. 1 record of 2003, and that Pitchfork, the online music magazine that never really truly likes anything, would give it a 9.5 rating out of a possible 10? Yet even with all that, The Wrens remain humble, normal guys who just happen to play music with a perfect balance of tortured and beautiful, raw and refined.
"I guess we made a pretty OK record, this one," said Whelan. "But for us, since we worked on it for so long, and we were going through so much different stuff, that by the time we were towards the end, we were just glad we actually had it finished and we pretty much figured we'd put it out, a few of our friends would like it and you know, that would be about it. But apparently, the response has been so great and really, really nice. We feel really, really happy about it."
The Meadowlands shows what time and focus and perseverance can do for a band, and it's rare that a band can emerge from the woodwork after eight years and still make the rock critics jump up and down in glee.
"It's actually been overwhelming and completely surreal for all of us," Whelan said. "We don't feel like we've done anything different than we've done since day one so now it's like OK, well, now maybe it's just the right time."
Despite the rave reviews and the fun of touring and living the rock and roll lifestyle, The Wrens plan on doing what they've been doing the past eight years--working day jobs, and making music in the off hours.
"Sure, we'd all love to do we're doing now, touring and just having fun, yeah sure, that would be awesome," said Whelan. "But you know, if you have to do the other thing to pay the rent, the mortgage, you know, that's completely cool. It's reality, and the fact is, you can actually do both."