And picking up where we left off, here is the remainder of my conversation with Charles Bissell of The Wrens. Click HERE to read part one.
JEFF: Now, something I’ve been curious about, and I asked you this when you played at Northwestern in 2005, but I have the attention span of a gold fish with ADD, so don’t remember the answer.vvBut, everyone in the band has aliases listed on the albums- Jerry (listed as Jerome MACDonnell) and Greg (listed as Whelan G.E.) clearly get their nicknames from their actual names, but what’s the origin for your nickname of Charles Mexico and Kevin’s nickname of Sett?
CHARLES BISSELLvv:I’m kinda brain fried and a little tired, so I can’t even make up a good story, so the actual true story, we were doing our first 7 inch.
JEFF: The Low 7 inch?
CHARLES: Yeah, back in 1993, 15 years ago, and it was a big turning point for us. Sort of musically too, though it’s hard for us to describe it as a turning point when no one’s really heard any of our stuff from before that. There’s a lot of it, and a lot of it is bad, and a lot of it is weird or whatever, and we decided to “begin from scratch,” and we were going to press the 7 inch ourselves. It was the first time we were trying to do something ourselves instead of trying to finagle ourselves onto some label. So, part of this reinvention process involved picking aliases. We actually might the alias thing before for some demo releases we did before that, and by releases I mean like, us walking the streets and handing out our music like fliers for discounted hot wings, most of them being thrown out.
JEFF: Like, outside with home-made cassette tapes?
CHARLES: Yeah, literally given away, that kind of release. So, Sett is short for Somerset, which is short for Somerset Maugham, because Kevin had a thing for his short stories for a while.
JEFF: And the origin for Charles Mexico?
CHARLES: That was the last one we came up with because twice, while we were making Silver, and again while making Secaucus, I, it’s poor timing, but I decided to try to…shit, any of this ringing a bell?
JEFF: Yeah, I remember you saying that Charles Mexico and Sett were both literary? Like, there was a character named Charles Mexico?
CHARLES: There’s a character named Roger Mexico in a Pynchon novel , which at the time struck me as the most absurdly manful kind of name. It was like *deeper voice* Roger Mexico. And I’m…not the most macho man, so it was somewhat ironic, and we chose it because it was kind of joke. I was always going to replace the country, because I liked the country thing, like Charles Somalia or something, but laziness crept in, and by the time we had to turn in the names, it was still Charles Mexico. So we just went with it.
JEFF: Never decided to just go with real names?
CHARLES: Well, back then, it was like, no one knows your band, so it was more fictionalized. It just felt more right at that time to just use the aliases, so it could just seem like more than just four local college boys from New Jersey.
JEFF: No, I get it, it’s like a persona. I mean, I’m sure Kiss was still making music then, so…
CHARLES: *laughs* Yeah, totally. Yeah, we did the face painting thing I think for the tour in 78, and…yeah.
Above: Not the Wrens…Probably
JEFF: Now, switching gears a little bit. Your lyrics seem to be pretty personal, at least to the casual listener, but your vocal style sort of masks them a little bit .I really love Ex-gGrl Collection, but I had to sit down with the lyrics and read along the first couple of times I was listening to it. Is that something that you consciously do, or is that just how your singing style manifests itself?
CHARLES: It’s kind of both. Over the years, that’s what I’ve kind of started singing like. Like, I can’t sing the letter H, so that’s always a W .It’s little goofy technical things like that. The pronunciation goes out the window. I work really hard on the lyrics, but what also happens, at least with me, is that when I pull my head out of my bottom with the completion of the lyrics, a lot of the time it’s just something that’s so…ornate that, well, you get so stuck in the lyrics that you forget about the music. You’re just humming along to yourself, but it becomes eventually…well, I don’t want to say the P-word, but it’s more writing than it is music. Then you go, and you’ve got the record on and you’re singing it, and you’re like *sings rapidly* “four score and seven years ago.” You’re ending up sounding like something from a phenomenally bad rock opera.
JEFF: So, add a little music flair to it and make it less, to use the p-word, poetic?
CHARLES: Yes, *laughs* that is the p-word. So, it’s also just because for me, I’ll concentrate on all the different parts of the song, the arrangement, the guitar, the lyrics, and the lyrics take the longest for me, so that by the time the only way to fit that stuff in there, sometimes, to make it sound like a record I’d want to listen to, the lyrics have to work best really softened. Consonants are rounded, it’s more about the sound of the thing, and it’s stupid to spend so much time on the lyrics if you’re not going to sound them. Like, Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, the lyrics he uses, despite the fact that he’s spewing out as many words a minute as most hip hop artists, you still manage to tell what he’s saying the whole time. I could never make that sound right for me. But maybe in the future I will.
Actually, I just realized that it’s also because I do the lyrics last. When we’re doing songs in the basement there’s a running joke that I sing in an ancient French dialect, so every song I do, we’re doing it, 10, 20 100 times, just to whittle it down from the songs that aren’t quite there, not quite working, whatever. So it starts off with straight phonetic sounds, but as you do it that many times, you always end up with set patterns of fake sound. And then, part of the hard part of the words is matching real words to most of those the fake poetic sounds, the fake vocal sounds, that you kind of start to like. So you’re singing, “Gling ee glog ee glue,” and you’re like, “Everything…thing I do?”“Every….thing rings true?…oh this sucks,” so, the lyrics are actually “Gling ee glog ee glue.”
JEFF: Haha, well, as a sort of follow up question, and this could be potentially awkward, but, obviously, some of your songs have characters. Jane (Jane Fakes a Hug), Anne (Ex-Girl Collection, Per Second Second), Beth (She sends Kisses, Ex-Girl Collection)…are they actual people from your life? And if so, are they real stories, or are they stories that have been fictionalized to make it more fitting with the song?
CHARLES: There is no person named Jane, or person named Beth, they aren’t that close to reality. Some of those, it’s like anything else you do with fiction. There are chunks of it that are true, and tons that aren’t, and sometimes it’s not even the stuff that you’d think. Except 13 months in 6 minutes, that song is completely true, top to bottom. It’s a real person, but they’re not mentioned by name. And I slaved on that one, really only for myself, and yet some of the other things that sound really specific, sometimes they’re true, but there’s been a whole issue with fiction stuff in songs. We’re living in an age where songs are considered that they have to be nonfiction for some reason.
JEFF: Well, I can understand that. Whenever I’ve wanted to…approach a personal situation with fiction, I always make it a completely fictionalized thing and then throw in little hints of what’s true so when I read it, there’s little “ha ha” jokes to myself that are small things that seem realistic, but not as important in the bigger picture, when those small things are just those little tidbits that ring true to you, even if it’s just an aside.
CHARLES: Right. Exactly. I mean, I definitely wrestled with it on The Meadowlands. The album was supposed to be more about the choices you make with anything you do. Like, if our choice was, or my choice was, to stay with how I was living my life, living with the band dudes, and that’s the time that everyone else is getting careers, or getting over it, that kind of stuff, and I’m still breaking up with girls ‘cause they naturally want to take things to the next level, and I’m like, “I can’t leave the band, dude!” At that point, that’s what the record is about. A lot of the facts to it, like fears of money, and those kind of worries, of which all the romance kind of stuff was just a part of it. What’s always funny with that kind of stuff is that, fiction, there’s that whole weird division between…you still there?
JEFF: Yeah, I’m here, I was just listening intently, haha.
CHARLES: *laughs* Oh, sorry, I’m grasping at straws, and my phone just went weird…but at some point in the last 10 years or so, there’s been a non-fiction thing across the board. Songs are more valid if you can actually believe that the person is suffering the stuff they’re singing about, if its addiction, or broken heartedness, or depression, or a collapse offstage. It’s the same way that reality TV took over, while the droll of sitcoms and drama didn’t seem to matter as much. It’s just weird, it’s sort of happened in the past 10 years in particular. And you see it all the time, every trailer of every other movie, it’s based on an actual story because if it is based on an actual story, it’s therefore better, because you can add that ingredient of, “oh my god I can’t believe this ACTUALLY happened!”
It’s just kind of funny, when you’re writing stuff, like, fiction or music, it kind of comes down to a division of goals here. If your goal really is to express what you feel, which I picture as an inwardly directed goal, drawing the focus back on the performer expressing their ‘feelings’ or whatever then that’s one thing, but if your goal is for a person reading or listening to it, for them to experience something, which I see as a more outwardly directed…thing, then those are two kind of different goals, and they have a whole different set of values that go along with it…wow, we’ve certainly gotten serious now, haven’t we?
JEFF: Hahah, yeah, we have! Well, I guess I should go with another retarded question to get us less serious, let’s see…who would win in a fist fight, George Washington or Genghis Kahn?
CHARLES:…Um, I would have to say Genghis Kahn. I mean… yeah, I would say Genghis Kahn.
JEFf: I think the problem is that Washington would be too gentlemanly about it.
CHARLES: Yeah, I think so. Washington would be like, “Now, Mr. Kahn…oh JESUS CHRIST!”
JEFF: Yeah, that’s the general consensus, that there’s not even a question about who would win.
CHARLES: I figure he’s just much more badass than Washington.
JEFF: But, everyone’s feeling all patriotic now, what with the inauguration and everything, everyone was waving flags and saying they love their country again, I was just hoping for some rebirth in the faith in our founding fathers.
CHARLES: Well, I mean, I think that faith was always there. We’re just living in a more pragmatic time, and…yeah, Genghis, 2 to 1.
JEFF: Haha, those are his odds? We’ll have to have a UFC fight for it.
CHARLES: Totally.The cage fight, definitely Genghis. But, better more important leader? Washington.
JEFF: Definitely. But, you have to give Kahn credit, there are something like 40 million direct descendants of him or something, some absurd number like that.
CHARLES: Oh yeah, ‘cause he had like 8 times as many children as Bach, and all of his kids were prolific.
JEFF: Bach had a lot of children?
CHARLES: Bach had like 18, like 17 by his first wife or something *laughs* and you know, back then, they’d say “over nine of them lived!”
JEFF: Wow, 18 kids? Oh, I’m being told it was 21 kids *voice in the background* “20.” Ah, my friend Ross is here, and he apparently knows how many kids Bach had. Here I was, unaware of his potency, I guess.
CHARLES: These are the kinds of things you need to know if you’re gonna have your own blog.
JEFF: Well, I guess you can Wikipedia that stuff.
CHARLES: You’d need a second monitor for instant knowledge, so you can be on the ready right away with that.
JEFF: Today, I actually had to get a wiki answer today. My friend asked how tall Danny Devito was, and I said four foot eleven, and she said, “Oh, so he’s a legal midget,” and that didn’t sound right to me. So I had to wiki answer how short you have to be to be legally a midget. Turns out, four foot two is the cut off.
CHARLES: But then you get in the same thing. With me, before even finishing the challenge, I’d have to wiki up dwarf AND midget, and it’s such a running joke, but I’m not sure what the preferred term is.
JEFF: I think it’s little people.
CHARLES: I know it’s little people…
JEFF: And I think dwarf is okay, if they have bigger heads, then they’re dwarfs.
CHARLES: I don’t know man, we’re getting into, like, that scene in the movie where we’re debating semantics and that one little person actor comes in and is like, “God, fuck man.”
JEFF: I think we just turned into a deleted scene from Seinfeld. Which is fitting, the 90’s were fun. They had twice as many Wren’s albums as the 00s have had so far.
CHARLES :Hey, that’s true, come to think of it. I actually kind of forget that we’re almost done with this decade.
JEFF: Okay, so, last question I have- describe what you think the end result of your new album will be, in 6 words or less.
CHARLES: End result of the new album?
JEFF: Yeah, the one you’re working on right now. Tentative title “Genghis Kahn would beat up George Washington in a fist fight.”
CHARLES: *laughs* Tentatively titled? Definitely titled. Um, we will bring in 2010?
JEFF: *counts on his hand* Alright, that works.Well, thanks for taking the time for this.
CHARLES: Yeah, I’m sorry about that late thing, I never space out like that.
JEFF: Yeah, I was sullenly by my phone like, “You can’t go! He’s gonna call!” But don’t worry about it, haha. Anyway, I’ll still be on your message board making crude remixes of your songs (For the tracks Per Second Second and Everyone Chooses Sides, the band posted clips of the otherwise hard-to-make-out lyrics sung by a female computer voice.I recorded the recording of Per Second Second over the instrumentals of the real song while bored).
CHARLES: Oh I saw that! I was meaning to check it out, but I’m still tweaking out stuff for the website, every time I fix something I find out I broke something else, so I’m never on there for long. The funny thing is, you only beat us by, maybe a month. I almost closed my last solo show playing the computerized version of the lyrics over my instrumentals, dammit!
JEFF: Well, I literally did it on audacity in 2 seconds, so it’s not really good. It doesn’t fully work, ‘cause the vocals are slower on the computer version, but…yeah, it was just me messing around after work, I’m sure if you guys had your hand on it, you’d actually be able to make it sound awesome. Well anyway, I know it’s late there, so I’ll let you go and wish you and happy birthday…I guess in half an hour, haha.
CHARLES: *laughs* Thank you.
JEFF: Oh, one last thing, when you start touring again, you need to make sure Chicago is one of your first stops, ‘cause I am on a withdrawal of live Wrens shows.
CHARLES: Okay, yeah, well I think it’s generally agreed that one of our first shows will probably be in Chicago. We’re playing South By Southwest, though it’s not working out the way we hoped, we won’t have the whole record, we’ll barely have new stuff out, but by early summer, we’ll definitely be out there playing shows again.
JEFF: Great, awesome. Hopefully I’ll see you out here in Chicago in the summer.
CHARLES: Sounds good, see you later.