Charles Bissell is a guitarist for, and one of the lead singers of, The Wrens. While they have been mentioned on this very site for their small, unknown part in me not getting a job with pitchfork, most of you reading this are already familiar with The Wrens, having at least seen them all over stereogum and pitchfork, so even if you have not heard their music, you’re aware of them, like the quirky,acclaim mongering underdogs they are. If The Wrens were an oscar nominated movie, they’d be, uh, Slumdog Millionaire?
Cause, uh…the music industry is…like a prison?…and…The Wrens are destiny? I really didn’t think that metaphor through…
While The Wrens have had to deal with an incredible amount of shit from the music industry (their website’s biography sums it up nicely, and makes for an interesting read), The Wrens are responsible for some of the best music to come out of the Indie scene in the past two decades. After releasing the stellar Secaucus to rave reviews in 1996, various record label disputes and a string of bad luck led to a 7 year hiatus before the release of 2003’s The Meadowlands revitalized their career. They celebrated their success by…not releasing another album for 6 years.
But, they’re currently in studio working on their fourth effort, and I caught up with Charles to talk about the new album, current trends in popular Indie music, and what Paul McCartney has in common with Vampire Weekend.
Or at least, that was the initial plan. Charles missed the scheduled interview time, but realized his mistake in time to catch me while I was still awake. Three hours later.
CHARLES BISSELL: Is this Larry King Live?
JEFF: *tries to think of an appropriately witty response, is unable to, mumbles* Well, oh crap, I actually closed my document of questions, ‘cause I don’t want to make them up on the spot, so I’ve got to open that up again
CHARLES: Haha, yeah, I’m, what, three hours late to the party?
JEFF: Yeah, I was actually going to point out, I was talking to my younger brother about this, and I was like, “How much of a wrens style will this be? Am I going to get a call in 2054?” He thought it’d be more around 2050.
CHARLES: Yeah that’s how it’s working, actually.
JEFF: Well, it works for you. But I might as well start off right off the bat, how does it feel to be back in the studio?
CHARLES: Wait, wait, first of all, how’s it been? Because it was really nice meeting you, hanging out with you and playing the billiards.
JEFF: Yeah, I’ve been good. You know, graduated, realized I chose the worst year for college graduation (go class of 2008!). But, yeah, I got a job, started last week, which…really takes a load off of one’s mind.
CHARLES: Yeah, yeah.Good.
JEFF: So, how about you? It’s been an eventful year so far for you and the guys.
CHARLES: Oh, yeah.Yeah, it should be a good year.
JEFF: Fingers crossed, you think the album will come out in 09?
CHARLES: Oh yeah.
JEFF: I’m gonna hold you to that!
CHARLES: I know, I know, like, I know I sound like, “Oh yeah!” I sound like some kind of really psyched up mathlete, but something will come out even by spring, even if it’s just early demo-like things here and there.
JEFF: I love the new demo by the way. I’ve been obsessing about it
CHARLES: Oh cool, thank you. I mean, we’ve been such…anal people for so long, myself especially, that to put something out that’s kind of casual is scary at first, but now we’re planning to flood the market with all kinds of crap.
JEFF: Well, Wrens crap is better than 99% of the good stuff out there, so…
CHARLES: *laughs* Very nice, thank you.
JEFF: Alright, well, I know this is the first time you’ve been playing together since, well, as you said on your website, since the last year that ended with a nine. Are there any growing pains for that?
CHARLES: No, it’s really just the opposite. It’s been so long, we’ve been waiting so long, especially Jerry the drummer. He tracked The Meadowlands songs 10 years ago, and from his perspective at the time, it was just another album, and it’d be done at the end of the year. And it was 3.8 years of overdub on the same drum track, then we took five years off, and so he hasn’t really been doing anything, even way longer than us.
JEFF: He was anxious to get back in there?
CHARLES: To say the least, but we all are. I don’t know. We’re recording stuff all the time. I keep on wondering if I’ll look back a year or two from now and go, “What was I thinking?” but it feels very different than all the times since before we put out the first album. That’s what it kind of feels like again, it feels like the first album again. We’ve got a notebook, well, on the computer, Kevin’s got over a hundred demos, and it seems to be coming together in a weird way in that, for the first time some of that stuff that maybe wouldn’t have made a finished record or whatever, well these are different days. You have to put that stuff out in a different context, like on our website, and say, “Hey, this is slightly different than the next album” or whatever.
JEFF: I was going say actually, when you guys were recording your past albums, you were more or less living together in Jersey, and, granted I’m kind of out of date with my stalking. Last time I checked… you were in Brooklyn, Jerry was in Philly, Kevin and Greg…moved? I think Kevin’s in New York too?
CHARLES: Kevin, Greg, and I were actually still together, only…four years ago, kinda unbelievable since we’re all about to enter 60 in about an hour and a half, Greg got married, he moved out, he moved just outside the George Washington bridge area in Jersey, and then Kev and I moved to Brooklyn, when Kevin bought a place literally right around the corner from Greg, and I moved out of there when I was like, “maybe I should look into that whole maturity thing before I retire with Greg.”
JEFF: And was Jerry still in Philadelphia?
CHARLES: Jerry’s still there, and those two guys are still in Jersey, I’m in Brooklyn, but when we convene it’s in Kevin’s house, which is where the studio is, and the mixing board, and kind of like every band in the world right now, which is a big deal for us, now we have an external hard drive and a couple of laptops. For the first time it won’t happen all in one crappy little room, we’ll just take our stuff along.
JEFF: So, is it tricky for Jerry to record with you guys? Is he planning lots of flights on Jet Blue, using vacation time, anything like that?
CHARLES: No, the nature of his job, the financial company he works for has offices in New York so he has to come to New York every week or so. So the end of the work day he’d stop by- it’s only happened once, which was last Monday, but were supposed to go in tomorrow for session number two.
JEFF: Are you gonna do one of your songs or one of Kevin’s?
CHARLES: I actually don’t have any yet…But we’re not gonna do it after all, ‘cause tomorrow is my birthday
JEFF: Oh right, happy birthday tomorrow!
CHARLES: Thank you
JEFF: Is the band gonna get together for any crazy band festivities, like, burping the kid or something?
CHARLES: Totally, we swap the children or something.
JEFF: Child swap, put different hats on them, like the “which baseball hat is the ball under” game on sports jumbotrons, only more like, “which one’s my kid?”
CHARLES: Totally, it’s like a key swap party from the 70’s.
JEFF: Hopefully it doesn’t go that far, but… hahaha… Well, alright, so, actually a question I’m wondering, I’ve met Cory with Absolutely Kosher a few times, he seems like a nice guys, seems like a good guy to work for, what was the difference between the way that Grass Records treated your first two albums and how Absolutely Kosher’s been working with you now?
CHARLES: Well… the easiest way, without getting bogged down in the particulars I guess, though we certainly can go into the bog if you want.
JEFF: Yeah, it’s kind of a baited question, I guess.
CHARLES: I guess so.The simplest way to put it that, with The Meadowlands, we put the record out with Cory as opposed to for grass.
JEFF: It’s more for you, but with someone else helping get it out there.
CHARLES: Well, it’s also just very different times. Even with “indie” labels, they are in a different positions, better and worse, than they were 10 or 15 years ago. The one difference is back then, you’d still by and large sign a contract just go get on a label. Back when we didn’t know as much it was a lot harder to find out things, since now there’s this transparency to everything, you can look for it as for how records get released distribution wise and anything else googleable. It wasn’t fifteen years ago and you’d hand over the bulk of what money a record would make, and all the control on decisions about it, with the agreement that you’d get your album in stores in Indiana when you went on tour.
JEFF: Well, now, we gotta get seriously. In your musical opinion, I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this, but who put the bop in the bop she wop she wop?
CHARLES: *laughs* Well, that would be the Big Bopper.
JEFF: Of course. Just a fair warning, I have thrown in a couple of purposely retarded questions in here. Now, I know it’s really early on in the recording process, and you’ve done Pulled Fences, and your demo and…is there a title for that yet? I downloaded it, it was just random letters…
CHARLES: I asked Kevin, and he sent an email with 5 possibilities, in this new Wrensian age where everything is democratized .He was like, “How about this and this and this,” and I was like, how about “Memory Almost Full,” and we’ll use one of those obligatory photos of a 60 or 70 year old Paul McCartney photo with that pose he sort of does where he’s pulling on his jacket like he’s 20, you know, that pose he does?
JEFF: Like, I’m 20 still, I’m the shit.
CHARLES: Yeah, and he kinda still is. So, yeah, for a while, we were calling it “Memory Almost Full.” But I think it’s something different now. [The song has since been titled “Marked Up”-Ed] We just decided it. That is the name of the new McCartney record, right?
JEFF: You know, I’m not gonna lie, I’ve not really been following the more current McCartney stuff.
CHARLES: Dog Gum! Please.
JEFF: It’s so droll. So, anyway, I’ve been following the trickle of songs that have been coming out the past couple of years, and Kevin is doing the slower, prettier, building songs, and you’ve been doing the more lush reinventions of songs by bands like TMBG or REM. Do you think this is indicative of how the new album will sound, or will it be more of a mix of sounds?
CHARLES : See, now, you’re getting all serious…if we can’t rip on McCartney for a while…
JEFF: Well, I don’t know! I just feel like I don’t have that much on him! I’m used to making fun of bands that are a lot easier to pick on.
CHARLES: Well, for me, I would make fun of Vampire Weekend or something, because to me they’re like, I’m as likely to meet them as I would Paul McCartney, but in reality…maybe I’m not? It’s not so impossible that I go to a club, and Vampire Weekend is like, “Hey, you’re a jerk.”
JEFF: See, I was hearing about Vampire Weekend for like a year before they suddenly exploded, but they’re one of those bands, and I’m going to do the whole blasphemy thing, but like…last year’s bands, Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes? You know how there are bands you listen to and you think, “This music is good, the songs are pretty…I’m not really feeling it, why is everyone so in love with these bands?I’m surprised.”
CHARLES: That’s a good question right there. I’ve got my theories on that, what did you come up with?
JEFF: Umm. You know? I haven’t come up with anything good, I think that it’s a nice mix of…they sound like stuff from the past, but they’re a little different so they can be quirky, and it’s a generally inoffensive sound? But…it doesn’t seem like it does that much for me…and I’ll give more credit to Fleet Foxes in that they’ll grow on me, and I’ve not really been able to listen to them enough to give them a chance, and it’s not that I listen to them and they’re bad, it’s that, I listen to them, and I don’t go crazy about them.
CHARLES: Also, the other thing I was going to say to all that, two sides of the same coin, is that, I think it’s easy to underestimate how it’s like the graduating class of college, like how NCAA basketball teams are totally different every four years, it’s easy to underestimate the number of people who are waking up and deciding what music they think is cool. There’s something to be said about that, millions of people are turning 18 or 21 or whatever where they are like, “Hey, this band I saw on late night TV, I’m gonna buy their album”, and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I’m saying that it’s just like all those people in 1967 who were like, “The Strawberry Alarm Clock? LET’S GO! Da da dum dum,” I mean, cause they’re like, “Fuck, we’re 1967, this is what we want to listen to!” You didn’t want to listen to doo-wop in 1967 ‘cause you’d miss the whole thing.
JEFF: I think it’s easier for the people who are younger to get really into music. Like, my musical tastes, what have you, I started off listening to some really bad music. In 8th grade I was listening to Smash Mouth, The Offspring, what have you. It wasn’t until Junior year in high school that my friends got me into the Strokes, and then I got into Wilco and Spoon, and, actually that’s how I found out about you guys.Amazon.com’s editor’s picks listed The Meadowlands as one of the top albums .And I saw Secaucus was selling used for 70 bucks, and I was like, “That HAS to be good!” So I downloaded both the albums, and by the time I listened to them, I got really into it, but that was during my period where I was crazy into music. I think there’s a good 4-5 year period where you’re younger when it’s really easy to get obsessed with music, and just really follow what’s going on, and a lot of people I know who were into the early 00’s kind of indie music, and who are now into their mid 20s, they’re receptive to it, but they don’t go out to try to find stuff, so they just listen to what’s readily accessible for that genre.
CHARLES: Well, there are so many easy jokes about how I’m perpetually a year or two behind music. I’ve not heard from so many of the current bands. You mentioned Fleet Foxes, I think I’ve only heard 3 or so songs by them, and that’s because I saw them on Conan or something once. Part of me thinks, like you were saying, there’s a bit of that nostalgia factor. I mean, really all music sounds like something that came before, but as you said, if you’re not in that phase that most people eventually go into, that transition where they’re going into finding your own music, which happens in your teens or early 20’s or whatever. If you’re not that way, it’s hard not to become that crotchety old Muppet in the balcony, listening to Vampire Weekend and saying, “Oh, we liked that the first time…when we called it Graceland!” It’s harder to get excited about stuff, but it’s really cool to see people are getting excited about it.
JEFF: I hear you.Hell, I’m only 22, and I’m already finding myself being like, “Eh, kids nowadays, with their rock music and their make out parties they just ehhhhhh.”
CHARLES: Yeah, exactly. Well, but what I wonder what I would be saying if I were 40 years older, and I heard the Rolling Stones in 1965, and I would be like, “Oh, man, how many black R&B records did they steal from?” Would I be doing that same thing? Like, The White Album comes out, and I’d go, “Hey, I have a Stockenhusen record too, fuck you Paul McCartney!” Hey, we’re on Paul McCartney again!
JEFF: Haha, well, I think it’s easier for me, for my generation, to make Ringo Starr jokes because he and George Carlin were of course… the conductor for Thomas the Tank Engine.
CHARLES: *laughs* Oh my god I forgot that!
JEFF: Alright, well, I guess, sort of in the vein of current music… if you could kidnap a family member of a currently popular rock band, what band would it be, and what would be your ransom demands?
CHARLES: *laughs* A family member of a currently popular band?
JEFF: Yeah, you kidnap their wife, or daughter, or a member of their posse, and you say, “These are my demands.”
CHARLES: Wow…that question IS left field.It’s not even out of left field. Other left field questions come from that question. Um…I’ve already got the answer in mind, but I can’t think of who I want to stick it too, but the obvious answer would be, for them to not make any more records.
JEFF:Well, I can offer a suggestion- I’m on record as having an intense hatred for all things Nickelback, do you think they’d be kidnap worthy?
CHARLES: Well, yeah that’d be an easy one.I wasn’t thinking broadly enough, clearly. I was still thinking indie, since we were talking about Fleet Foxes and stuff, so I was trying to think of an Indie band…I mean going top 40, you could go with anyone. Nickelback would be real easy- you’ve seen that clip of them getting pelted off a stage in Lisbon right?
JEFF: No, but I’m going to youtube it tonight now
CHARLES: Well, it was maybe a year ago, and they were basically driven off the stage in some HUGE venue, which I’m kind of confused about, ‘cause you’d think the crowd would be there for them, but maybe not, maybe it was a festival or something, but there was this sort of vow of vengeance like, “You’ve heard the last of Nickelback!”
JEFF: Well, I heard about something like that like 6 years ago in Illinois to Limp Bizkit. They were playing Ozfest, and they got booed off the stage. People actually brought fruit and vegetables to throw at them, and Fred Durst said various homophobic slurs, and then left the stage after 10 minutes.
CHARLES: *laughs* Hot.
JEFF:America is awesome.
That’s it for part one of the interview. Click here for part two, where Charles and Jeff discuss the early years of the band, Charles’ lyric writing process, the belief that music has to be nonfiction, and the vitality of Genghis Kahn.