Flyin’ under the radar: The Wrens still have their day jobs – and a sizeable indie following

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By MATT MEDVED

It took seven years of record label limbo and working day jobs before New Jersey rockers the Wrens could release their critically acclaimed third album, The Meadowlands, in 2003.

And although they still have their day jobs, you won’t sense any bitterness onstage when the Wrens play Norris University Center’s Louis Room Friday, Feb. 10 as part of a Niteskool production.

“Once we got to the point where we just looked at each other and realized, ‘This is all bullshit. Let’s not worry about anything and try and make a record that we like and go out and play shows the way we want to play them and just have fun again,'” says guitarist Greg Whelan. “Then all of a sudden things completely turned around. So now for us, this is the greatest thing.”

The quirky indie quartet seemed to be on the brink of widespread success after releasing their sophomore effort Secaucus in 1996 to excellent reviews. However, halfway into the following tour, the Wrens were told by their label Grass Records, under the new ownership of Alan Melzter, that they would have to sign a million-dollar contract and make their music more radio friendly or promotion for Secaucus would cease.

“(Melzter) was looking for the next big thing,” Whelan says. “He wanted to make it in the record industry, so obviously he needed a pop kind of format to get onto the radio because he had a lot of money to put behind it.”

The Wrens – consisting of guitarist/vocalist Charles Bissell, bassist/vocalist Kevin Whelan, drummer Jerry MacDonnell and Whelan – chose not to re-sign, and Grass Records eventually became Wind-Up Records, later home to the platinum-selling band Creed.

“We did re-record a couple tunes for him and they came out absolutely atrocious,” Whelan says. “Plus (Melzter) had never run a record label before. We didn’t want to sign away the rest of our lives to see if he could do it or if he would just give up after a year or whatever. That’s the risk you take in signing.”

The positive feedback that Secaucus garnered caused considerable interest in the band among other record labels, but it was difficult to find a successful fit.

“That’s when the A&R dogs, you know, they just come out flocking,” Whelan says. “So for one whole tour they were at every single show. I think by the time we got home, they had completely forgotten about us anyways. It just goes like that – whatever appears to be the flavor of the day. They’ll do anything for a quick fix.”

The Wrens began recording The Meadowlands on their own in 1999 and were in a position to be signed by then fledgling Drive-Thru Records, which had been started by two friends. But delays in finishing the album doomed the prospective deal when Drive-Thru became very successful catering to the pop-punk community.

“At that time we didn’t really know if the kind of music we were writing would fit with their label per se,” Whelan says. “I can’t really see some of our tunes playing to kids like, skating in a half pipe at Warped Tour.”

Putting their major label woes behind them, the Wrens decided on Absolutely Kosher Records, a label run by longtime friend Cory Brown, for The Meadowlands’ release.

“We’d always joked about him starting a label and doing a record with him,” Whelan says. “So for us it was just a good thing. We’re friends. It’s business, but it’s a really cool deal, and it works well for us and it makes sense. I mean, he doesn’t have Alan Melzter’s money, but it works.”

The album quickly received high accolades, including a scintillating review by Pitchfork Media, which gave it some of the highest marks of the year. Since the release, Whelan says that he has noticed a diversity of age groups at the band’s notoriously high-energy live shows.

“We have young kids who come to the shows who are into the records,” Whelan says. “Then we have the people who we knew throughout the years who will come. And then you’ve got older people. The fact of us being older. The drummer’s got kids. We’ve all got shitty day jobs. I think a lot of people our age can actually kind of relate to us. We kind of enjoy the fact that we’re kind of like them but we’re doing this. Different age groups have been able to pick up different things on it, which has been really cool and really weird.”

A documentary produced by Little Quill Productions is on the way, as well as a U.K. tour and a new album. Whelan hints they will stick with Absolutely Kosher for the new release.

“Everything seems to be going really cool right now. So we’ll probably just continue doing what we’re doing,” Whelan says. “First we’re trying to concentrate on finishing the damn thing.”

Whelan says that although they could quit their day jobs, the band is holding on a while longer at this stage in their lives and still manages to tour every weekend.

“For us, it’s not all of our eggs in one basket any longer,” Whelan says. “We can do all kinds of things and just have fun with it. There’s not that ridiculous pressure you put on yourself, like, ‘Put it out there. Can we do this? Can we do that?’ Just go out there and play music. It’s not like we’re curing cancer or something.”

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~ by Matt Medved on February 9, 2006.

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