[Cover photo credit to Ebru Yildiz]
New Jersey-based Alternative band The Wrens released their third album, The Meadowlands to very favorable reviews in 2005, but a fourth, much-anticipated studio album never arrived. Now, with Kevin Whelan as songwriter and other former Wrens members, Greg Whelan, and Jerry MacDonald performing, the album Observatory has been released by Sub Pop under the moniker Aeon Station. The new album brings together several songs that have had a longer history of development with The Wrens and several brand-new pieces that complete a fascinating musical and thematic arc on the subject of change. Sometimes haunting and often very uplifting, Observatory also dismantles ideas of genre pretty firmly not just from one song to the next, but sometimes within the confines of individual songs.
I spoke with Kevin Whelan about following such a long path of development for some of these songs and crafting such a unified album with such a diverse history. We also talked about music fandom, love for vinyl records, and why Whelan feels a “no expectations” approach led to great freedom on Observatory.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Given how long the process has been for some of these songs to release, was starting to talk about the album publicly via Sub Pop a way of realizing that it was finally going to be out in the world?
Kevin Whelan: I must confess, yes. It’s been a surreal experience in the sense that I’ve been not doing this for so long, so then doing it was surreal. Sub Pop are amazing. Talk about an amazing company that helps create communities. When Sub Pop asked me to talk about the songs, I was amazed. It’s not something I’ve been used to doing. I have no internet presence prior to this. It isn’t who I am.
HMS: Are you traditionally someone who would talk about the origin and development of songs, or were you someone who preferred to leave it up to the interpretation of the audience?
KW: I think, even now, as best as I can do, it is up to the interpretation of the audience. It’s the most fun, I think. Then anyone can take it or use it as they will. Art reaches people in so many ways and at so many times that you can’t control it. It’s a wonderful partnership, and I get to grow, and the songs get to grow. When people say that a song really means something to them, that really is the ultimate goal.
HMS: It sounds like, for you, if a song stays with someone and becomes part of their life in some way, that’s what you most appreciate.
KW: I think the first goal is to do it for enjoyment and love, personally, and then absolutely, the second goal is to see if anyone cares. If they do, that absolutely is above money, recognition, reviews, you name it. Because I know how much music means to me. There are songs I have to listen to, or they keep me company. Music is an art form that you can’t help but love. You can take it anywhere, and it changes throughout your life depending on what you do with it. It’s really a special thing.
HMS: I had the sense that you really still consider yourself a fan of music, so thanks for saying that. People can get burned out on listening to music from making music.
KW: I can definitely say that I’m obsessed with music. I think since the time I was ten, when I had a Walkman, I’ve never not had music in my life. I was not always the hippest person who knew all the music, but it’s been constant. I’m such a huge fan. My fandom for all the things that I love shapes my goal. For me, as soon as I’m done making music, I want to listen to other music.
HMS: Given the space of time that we’re talking about, you must have changed in terms of your fandom, incorporating new elements and finding new things. When it came down to putting these songs together, were you concerned about trying to make the style of all the songs work together? I think the songs on the album do go together, stylistically, but I really don’t know how you managed that.
KW: Thank you so much, that’s such a huge compliment. Some of these songs and demos were scratch ideas from back in 2007. I was just trying to map them out back then. In 2006, Facebook had barely been born and the world is so different now. My influences have changed over that time, but I will say that it’s sort of like a photo of any of us. If you look at photos side by side, you see yourself at age 40 and you see yourself at age 19, and you think, “I know both of those people.”
They are similar, but they have changed and grown, had heartaches or successes. But a lot of this relates to Tom Beaujour. He is a great friend who has a great studio. He was very kind in helping make sure that the aesthetic of the songs matched. I didn’t want to have any weird moments where one song sounded like The Wrens and another sounded like Hot Chip! In a way, this is kind of like our lives, since things change and blur over a period of years, and the record sort of blurs as it goes, too. But all the songs work side-by-side.
HMS: Did that kind of thinking affect sequencing on the album at all?
KW: Yes, I have to thank my wife for helping me to figure out the sequencing on this. If someone was stuck on the side of the road and listened to the whole album the whole way through, I would want it to be a journey and an arc. So there are new songs right next to old songs, and that made it extra-fun too.
HMS: Was having Greg and Jerry on it something that helped with continuity too?
KW: I think that’s true for all of us. I’ve done The Wrens for over 30 years! That’s a long time. We lived together for 15 years. You are your parents and kind of can’t run from it, but even that was a group of friends getting back together. I’ve been playing drums with Jerry since he was 15. He’s a killer and did six songs in one afternoon. I think a little bit of that joy is there.
HMS: I understand that five songs were older and five songs were newer on this album. Were any of them in very rough demo form when you started towards the recording process?
KW: Oh, all of them actually. I had to take them from nothing. My wife and I were sitting in the kitchen and wondering, “What constitutes an album?” We googled what an album usually is. We literally looked it up, and asked, “Mathematically, what do we have to do?” Then I wrote enough songs. I’ve never done that before. Our Wrens records were really long, so it was nice to make a nice 38 minute record where everything is palpable. There were no real demos, it was all scratch. Every beat and melody had to come.
HMS: I imagine that setting those parameters for yourself can be kind of freeing, because then you know exactly what you need to do.
KW: I know that it might seem un-artistic, but I had 17 years of being inspired to work with. Funnily enough, that construct really helped.
HMS: How did you know when each of the songs was finished?
KW: One thing, given Covid, was that I had no fear whatsoever. I had no expectations. I was just tired of not doing something. It’s like people who love to go fishing but haven’t in a long time, so they go fishing. That’s really all it was. When you go in with no expectations, the party is always better. With the five new songs, I was moving sections all over the place. I was cutting things, flipping things, trying things, deciding things were good enough and moving on.
Tom was a great help, as well. On the song “Better Love”, I liked it, but I thought the key was too high. I wanted to do the entire song over and put the key down, from D to C, and he said, “No, there’s no reason. You had fun doing it. We’re done.” And I said, “Alright. Let’s get lunch.” It was that casual.
HMS: By the way, I really like that song. I’m glad you included it. It does have a lot of naturalness to it and a little bit of a harder sound. There’s the writing of music, but there’s also the fact that you performed the vocals on these songs. Did you have to prepare much to do that after this time away from music?
KW: To be very honest, I am extremely self-conscious of my voice and my vocals. Anyone who knows me knows this. I’m extremely shy about this. I know good singers. We’ve played with amazing singers and I’ve always had major insecurities that didn’t stop me. Getting back into, again, since there was no expectation, it was a little more natural. On old records, I think we all sang hoping to sound like our idols. On this, it’s more Punk Rock in that way, and I think then it became more genuine. People are incredible listeners and they can hear faking it a mile away. This is 100% genuine, that’s for sure.
HMS: You have a lot of broad themes and ideas apparent in these songs. By placing them in a certain order, and putting “Hold On” at the beginning, which seems like an intro, that does seem to give the album a kind of emotional arc. There’s a certain emotional development or movement. Is that related at all to your life’s development over time?
KW: You’re nailing something that I was at least hoping to try to do. When we started, it was really Indie Rock, singing about crazy things. We were singing about aliens to try to be like The Pixies, and we couldn’t get our groove down, lyrically. Then by The Meadowlands, we sort of caught on. Then, as I got older, I got further away from wanting to write about fantasy. There’s this great John Lennon quote about lyric writing, “Tell the truth and hope that it rhymes.” That’s where I went this time. Life is about change, that’s all that it is. Sometimes you have to weather the storm, and sometimes you don’t. You have to find hope in that.
But what I’m really happy about with the “Intro” is that it also starts the “Fade” song. To be technical, the “Intro” is in a major key, but with the “Fade” song, it’s in a minor key. It starts off a little more dark and eventually leads to a more exalted thing. That is a bit of a theme that wanted to run through the record. With my life, and with everyone that I know and love, we’ve had to weather things quite often.
HMS: I can definitely see that running through. I feel like the music also suggests that theme of change within some of the songs. There’s a rolling, changing tendency. I saw that this record is coming out on vinyl, and playing it like that might illustrate how the songs kind of change into each other as the album goes. Are you happy it’s going to be on vinyl?
KW: Listen, I’m a kid of the 70s and 80s, so when I got the vinyl for this, I put it up on the bathroom sink. It was so cool, I couldn’t believe it. Maybe I should make that more romantic! “It’s in the living room”.
HMS: It’s on the mantel, I’m sure. As a vinyl person, I have to ask: Are you a vinyl collector?
KW: I have my old collection. But I had an older brother, and he had the deep vinyl 70s thing, so I didn’t really have to buy it. I just got to live off of his vinyl. But when you hold the vinyl record, it’s like Eddie Vetter said, “Holding a vinyl is like holding a cereal box when you’re eating cereal.” You’re with it. You’re listening and living with it. What was the first vinyl you bought?
HMS: Well, I stole things from my siblings like you. I know I stole a Duran Duran record.
KW: Listen, now we’re talking. That Rio record changed my life. It may not be hipster to say that. When I was lucky enough to live in Asia for work, we got to see them play in Singapore. It was so cool! We were twenty feet away. They sounded great. All of those records were so good.
HMS: I feel like each particular song of theirs has a feeling that they knew exactly what they were trying to do and what they wanted to accomplish.
KW: When I was making the record, and deep in Covid, I saw on Youtube that John Taylor had started putting up these bass videos. Take a look. He teaches you how to play the bass to his Duran Duran songs, so I’m trying to learn “Rio”. It’s one of the best bass lines that ever happened.
HMS: I should definitely ask you about this video for the song “Fade” that’s been released, too. It’s like a sci-fi epic.
KW: It was a great honor to work with Laurent Briet on that. He has done some Strokes videos and worked with Beyonce and was so gracious. He’s French but was in Spain. He created a concept, making a whole storyboard. When I saw it, I was in awe, and just said, “Thank you”.
HMS: It really is very sensitively done. It’s a great movie on its own, but when you consider it in the context of the music, it really is created so that the music is the perfect soundtrack to it.
KW: It’s him! He got the raw tracks and just told a great story. I knew that I wanted a female hero because the song is about that. It’s about having to get away from something. He took it all and said, “Here’s what we got.”
HMS: It seemed particularly relevant to me to have a female lead because of how much conversation we’ve had during Covid about the pressure and anxiety that women have carried. It doesn’t have to be about that, but it fits.
KW: That encapsulates it. To me, women never get a break. They have to be the best at everything in life. The hero is running away from the city, then dealing with complex issues.
HMS: Do you have any sense of why, as an artist, you don’t feel as bound by genre categories as some people might be?
KW: I think it stems from not “making it” in your life. I have no delusion that the songs are going to be a hit. Someone like Adele faces a lot of pressure and she has to fit some formula, whereas I know that these songs are out of the way. I always joke that my music is like the out of the way, diner-like kitchen that only 15 people can fit in. In that way, that allows you to have something on the menu that otherwise wouldn’t have. I think sometimes when you confine things, that actually does help, so that works in reverse here. I know, “This is not going to be a hit. I’m not going to be successful from these things. If anyone likes it, that’s cool.”