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."
These responses came to a head in San Diego, where Wedren, tired from a long tour and bored with the foursome's "superfluous" position as opener for one of America's most popular acts, performed au naturel. The exhibition earned Shudder to Think page after page of publicity, as well as threats of a lawsuit from a teenage girl in the audience. But Wedren insists that the in-the-buff incident was no big deal. "We were just thinking `What would up the ante for twenty minutes since everyone's going to hate us anyway?'" he says. "It was just meant as this sort of striptease, burlesque thing, but there have been so many repercussions, and all from such a tiny, little nothing event. There was nothing intentionally political or whatever behind it."
The members of Shudder have grown accustomed to antagonistic feedback. Despite recent successes, they're still more loved by rock critics than by record buyers. But when asked if he's disappointed that Shudder to Think hasn't played better in Peoria, Wedren puts everything in perspective. "If there ever is a right time and a place for a band and that changes, then you're fucked," he declares. "So if there never is, great. If we're always outside the mainstream, great. Just so long as we can do what we do and have a modicum of success...I don't think we've ever been about sort of hit and run, smash, flash in the pan and disappear."
The mesmerizing new single "So Into You" should ensure that Shudder stays around for a while longer--and its next album, set to be recorded this winter in the the group's new base of operations, New York, could win fans with a more streamlined approach. "I just went out and bought a metronome," Wedren notes, "and it forced me to really whittle and hone some of these ideas I've been having. I've been getting this really clean, twangy sound with some of the new stuff. It's much more ballady, with a handful of rockers. It feels almost like a rave-up sort of thing. I imagine it'll be equally multilayered, but some of that layering may be moments of total simplicity.
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"It'll be simple more in vibe than in structure, though," he cautions. "Our minds don't necessarily work in linear fashion." And will Wedren continue his vocal theatrics? "I've never been much of a screamer," he says, laughing. "I'm more of a creamer, a crooner."
To preface the album, Shudder to Think is touring with ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl's new unit, Foo Fighters. Like the band's jaunt with Smashing Pumpkins, this latest outing has already fallen prey to scads of publicity, most of it predictably focused on Grohl. But Wedren is typically calm about the circuslike environment in which he finds himself. "It should rock, and if it doesn't, we'll just come home. The hype is kind of a fun thing to be swept up in, anyway. It's fun, because the pressure's not on us. It's sort of all around us, and we can enjoy it without getting caught in the undertow."
And, at the very least, the journey should give Wedren a chance to sit back and watch--and to keep his ears open. "When I'm not planning on listening to something but it completely draws me in and I don't listen to it chunk by chunk but moment by moment, I so much prefer that," he says. "That's definitely what we strive for."
Foo Fighters, with Shudder to Think and Bare Minimum. 8 p.m. Wednesday, August 2, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $10, 444-SEAT or 830-2525.