Because anybody can drop a commercial bomb these days (anyone hear the Smashing Pumpkins’ latest? Do the Offspring still exist?), it hardly seems worth mentioning the scores of artists who never even manage to, as they say, blow up. The post-failure scenario for aspiring successes is predictably bleak: You can either regroup, reinvent, or dissolve, and hope the record company won’t stick you with the tab for its fruitless marketing push. All of which makes it interesting to hear Shudder to Think frontman Craig Wedren talk about his band’s last nonhit, 1997’s 50,000 B.C.
“That was actually great,” he says of the record’s failure to sell. “If 50,000 B.C. hadn’t bombed, we probably would have had to make another Shudder to Think record by now like a real Shudder to Think record. And I don’t think any of us were really prepared to do that. After 12 years of being in a pop-rock band, you start to wonder what it is you’re supposed to be. And I had Hodgkins disease and was just recovering from radiation therapy.”
When Wedren says that his band didn’t have to make a “real” Shudder to Think record, he doesn’t mean that Shudder to Think has been inactive. In fact, the onetime local band which played its first gig at d.c. space in 1986 while Wedren was still in high school and recorded for Dischord before leaving for New York and Epic has never been so productive.
Earlier this summer, the band released its ambient score for the movie High Art; just out last week is the soundtrack for the film First Love, Last Rites, a recording filled with summer-ripe pop songs that the band wrote and then recorded with a slew of its famous friends on vocals; in early fall, look for a handful of Shudder to Think originals on the soundtrack to filmmaker Todd Haynes’ latest, Velvet Goldmine. Over the past year, the band has also produced music for three John Bartlett runway collections. Have harDCore’s glammest graduates finally gone Hollywood?
“I have been doing soundtracks since college,” says Wedren, who attended New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing. “A lot of my friends were in film school, and I would occasionally write music for their short films. I was also doing sound design for theater, and a lot of my home recording was much more of a kind of proto-ambient, cinematic thing.” Wedren has also scored commercials and done music for the MTV show The State; bandmate Nathan Larson has his own side projects, a Nike commercial among them. “So did we think we had it in us?” Wedren asks. “Absolutely.”
The musicians’ past experiences may help explain the band’s recent output, but it would be difficult to mistake the music from High Art or First Love for the music of Shudder to Think. Wedren was living with Jesse Peretz (a former Lemonhead and, incidentally, the son of New Republic editor-in-chief Martin Peretz) when the filmmaker first decided to adapt an Ian McEwan short story into a film; thus First Love, Last Rites was the first movie project the band took on. In the movie, the main character listens to a series of 45s that serve as a sort of psychic soundtrack to her teenage romance. Peretz envisioned the music as a collection of classic pop songs Stax-era R&B, Phil Spector-style pop, swooning country, a touch of punk and enlisted Shudder to write them.
The result is a bittersweet virtual beach party in which Shudder takes on the role of backing band to stunning effect. And the guest stars can be thankful the band was working with solid material: on the soaring ballad “I Want Someone Badly,” the late Jeff Buckley weighs in with one of the achiest vocals he ever recorded (it would be his last); Billy Corgan gives notice that he’s still got some fire in him on the punkabilly burner “When I Was Born, I Was Bored”; and the Beach Boys-ish “Automatic Soup” is enough to make you long for the days before Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander became a career blond.
The songs play out as a sort of tribute to indelible radio pop not such a stretch, perhaps, for musicians with more than a decade of bar gigs under their belts. But this is a band whose only sort-of radio song, “X-French Tee Shirt,” contains the following sing-along chorus: “Hold back the road that goes so that the others may do what you let me in just to pour me down their mouths.” But Wedren isn’t bothered by the fact that the ultra-accessible, star-studded soundtrack could catch on with new listeners who wouldn’t know what to do with the angular art punk that Shudder’s spent a career sculpting.
“That could happen,” he says. “Whatever. We can’t worry about it too much. We’re fans of so many different types of music. Maybe [First Love’s] success, if indeed it’s successful, could help direct us to our next record. Right now, we’re psyched to make another record. But we don’t know what it should be. If people go back and don’t like what they hear, that’s all right.”
The contrast between the music on First Love and High Art is starker still. A traditional film score, High Art contains virtually no rock moves; it’s a moody, hook-free ambient soundtrack devised from, among other things, the tones Wedren sampled from rubbing the rims of crystal wine glasses. The music was made soon after the death of Buckley, who, after meeting Shudder to Think at a gig at the old 9:30 Club, became close friends with the band. In the wake of his death last year, the band took a summerlong hiatus, during which it decided it didn’t want to be held “in the straitjacket of writing and rehearsing as a four-piece guitar band.”
The band was “agog” at an initial screening of High Art, Wedren recalls. “The exciting thing about the film was that it would give us the chance to flex our scoring muscles, as opposed to just doing the pop-song thing….And the sounds went absolutely hand in glove with this character of Syd and her sort of sexual odyssey, her dilemma. What is that sound? Is it male? Is it female? Is it keyboard? Is it string? Does it sound like a voice? What’s going on with Syd in the movie is that she’s shooting out in all these different directions and not knowing what’s going to land where.”
Shudder to Think doesn’t yet know where it will land next. The band has begun writing music for its next “real” Shudder to Think record, but as he speaks, Wedren’s in L.A. trying to hustle more scoring work. The actor in him likes playing “the role of a character,” which is how he describes the band’s approach to soundtracking films. And if a good role comes around, the band will take it.
“It’s reinvention time,” Wedren explains. “It’s a slow process.” If another scoring opportunity presents itself, he says, “It will have to feel right. Otherwise, we ain’t gonna do it. Because if there’s one thing that I took away from being sick, [it’s that] I’m not gonna do anything that isn’t from a place of love, because it will kill me.”CP