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In Craig Wedren's world, people really listen--not only for noises but for the spaces that separate the sounds. "Silence is the ultimate dynamic," says the singer of Shudder to Think. "It's polar to what most bands do, but it can be a beautiful reminder. There's so much to listen to in the silence. And if we can throw in a silence where people are as attentive as when the guitars are going, maybe it will alter the way people listen.
"I hate to play teacher, but most people have severely limited listening skills," he continues. "This may sound a little esoteric, but I honestly believe if listening classes were a mandatory part of every child's curriculum, it would be a much more peaceful world. Listening is about not putting up walls or screaming back or tuning things out. We automatically in our culture shut things and people out, and that can be dangerous."
So is Professor Wedren's goal to save the planet? Hardly. Unpretentious and friendly to a fault, Wedren would be the first to admit that he's just the leader of a rock-and-roll band. But Shudder is starting to make an impact on the music world. The outfit's 1993 trek with Smashing Pumpkins won widespread exposure--especially when Wedren played nude in San Diego--and the video for "X-French Tee Shirt," the second single from the group's 1994 release, Pony Express Record, received regular rotation on MTV despite a musical approach that sends writers scrambling for their thesauruses.
Together, the bandmembers (Wedren, childhood friend/guitarist Nathan Larson, bassist Stuart Hill and ex-Jawbox drummer Adam Wade) produce a sound that's very much not for Stone Temple Pilots fans. Jazz-inflected and full of difficult rhythm changes and subtle melodies, its most distinctive characteristic may be Wedren's voice: theatrical, effeminate, unpredictable and powerful. Between falsettos, he displays a prominent vocal tic--a predisposition to put emphasis in all the wrong places--and he wraps abstract, surreal imagery around direct, dissonant guitars, crisp drums and brooding bass lines.
The result is melodic rock music from another galaxy that's exemplified by Pony's first single, the driving "Hit Liquor"; on it, Wedren whispers "Party of mouths, a finger fan courtship/The case of her bones are softer than loose meat" just before he's swept aside by Larson, who lets loose a tangential torrent of searing guitar. Later, "So Into You" finds Wedren's breathy warble giving way to a crashing, cataclysmic racket, while "Gang of $" and "Chakka" feature sing-songy choruses that sometimes spit, sometimes soar. The album as a whole is operatic, punky, aggressive and strangely addictive--an odd mix of rock classicism and avant-garde experimentalism. And that, Wedren says, was no easy task.
"What's strange about Pony Express Record is, it's both hysterical and this wonderful little challenge," he claims. "A lot of what we do is strategizing to dupe people into listening to our music. It's fun to try to pull off that balancing act--to be accessible but demanding.
"The portal, the entranceway into our music, is a tiny, secret one," he goes on. "But there's a lot for people to like once they get into it. It's nice to have an alternative to any of a thousand bands I could name that basically just make music to put on when you're having a barbecue or cleaning house. It's nice to do something that's a little more literary."
Wedren doesn't choose words like "literary" lightly. Much of his musical direction, he says, is a byproduct of his background--specifically, being raised by parents who worked on a college campus in his hometown of Washington, D.C. "They were ambitious and thoughtful to the point of self-bludgeoning. They were so self-demanding and academic," he reveals. "So I was always a thoughtful person and heavily into music, and once I got into punk, that was it. It was always cultivate your thing, see it through."
Experimental theater classes he took at New York University also contributed to Wedren's musical education. "That sculpted my approach to everything I do creatively. It opened my mind to the fact that there are endless chances to take. And they don't need to be forced. Just be available to them and they will happen."
In 1988 Wedren found an outlet for these influences: He hooked up with Hill and original Thinkers Chris Matthews and Mike Russell to form the band, which soon became part of the capital city's famed hardcore scene. After one disc on the tiny Sammich label, the quartet released three albums on Fugazi frontman Ian McKaye's Dischord imprint. The last of those records, 1992's Get Your Goat, merited volumes of critical acclaim and cleared a path for the combo's current deal with Epic Records.
Shudder to Think was just the second Dischord signee (after Jawbox) to jump to a major, and that move won the outfit some enemies among the dogmatic, do-it-yourself ranks of D.C.'s old-school punks. But while Dischord's self-sufficient approach to making music mirrored Wedren's personal direction, Shudder to Think was never really a favorite of the Fugazi faithful. They viewed Shudder's art-rock sound and flamboyant posturing skeptically--a trend that continued on the group's trek with Billy Corgan and company, when, Wedren remembers, he was called a "faggot" by legions of flannel-wearing Pumpkins fans and treated to "lots of fingers in the air."