In the fall of 2013, I phoned Charles Bissell and asked him about the status of the latest Wrens album. At the time, it had been 10 years since the release of their previous record, the early aughts indie-rock classic The Meadowlands. I asked Bissell, one of the band’s guitarists and primary singer-songwriters, to give me a percentage of how complete the long-awaited follow-up was.
“71.8 percent, plus or minus 35 percent,” he deadpanned.
Bissell was joking, of course, but it did seem at the time that the release was, if not exactly imminent, at least coming up on the near-ish horizon. In 2013, The Wrens had already been working on the album for three years. Then, in 2014, about eight months after we spoke, Bissell tweeted from The Wrens’ account that the record was done, save for some mixing and mastering. But the record — which I had sardonically referred to as the “Chinese Democracy of indie rock albums” — was, in fact, not done. And now Bissell was about to face another serious roadblock: In 2015, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable but treatable blood cancer. As he managed his health issues, work on The Wrens album inched forward. In an interview with the blog Aquarium Drunkard that posted in March of 2020, right before lockdown, Bissell revealed that the album was finally completed in June of 2019. And yet, close to two years later, the sequel to The Meadowlands has still not seen the light of day.
By now, many people might be wondering: Who are The Wrens, and what is The Meadowlands? Formed in 1989, The Wrens have put out just three albums in the past 32 years. On their first two records, 1994’s Silver and 1996’s Secaucus, they come on as a feisty but more or less conventional ’90s indie rock band, all revved-up guitars and Pixies-style whisper-to-a-scream dynamics. Like many underground guitar bands of the era, The Wrens were chewed up and spat out by record companies looking to capitalize on the post-Nirvana alt-rock boom. After the relative commercial failure of Secaucus, they were stranded by their label and left with the husk of a career.
Most bands would’ve broken up, but The Wrens opted instead to stick together — in one profile they liken themselves to the mafia, in which no member is allowed to leave — but also to forgo the usual careerist path taken by most ambitious and buzzy rock bands. Instead, three of the members — bassist Kevin Whelan, guitarist Greg Whelan, and drummer Jerry MacDonald — accepted 9-to-5 white-collar jobs while Bissell worked as a stay-at-home dad. They were still committed to The Wrens, but not at the expense of their “normal” lives.
This leisurely approach to making records — along with Bissell’s penchant for endlessly tinkering with songs — pushed the release of The Meadowlands to 2003, seven years after Secaucus. Arriving at the height of the “return to rock” movement led by glamorous NYC acts like The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Wrens cut a likable everyman figure on The Meadowlands that made them beloved underdogs in the music media. That persona contrasted with the utter majesty of the music — soaring and intense anthems in which every song seems to build to an exhilarating crescendo. (Arcade Fire have cited The Wrens as an influence on their debut album Funeral, which came out the year after The Meadowlands.)
Not since Guided By Voices in the mid-’90s had an indie rock band of regular, workaday dudes made as much of an impression. In 2003, Pitchfork and the New York Times sang their praises. And that cult status lingered — in 2013, several publications marked the 10th anniversary of The Meadowlands. But now even the album’s 10th anniversary, much less its original release date in 2003, seem like a very long time ago. John Mayer’s second album, Heavier Things, came out the same day as The Meadowlands. My Morning Jacket’s breakthrough LP, It Still Moves, also was released on that day. Billie Eilish was a few months shy of her second birthday in September 2003. A child born that year will be allowed to vote in 2021.
The Meadowlands was only a modest commercial success in the early aughts, and the number of stalwarts who still care about The Wrens has dwindled somewhat. But there are still people — myself included — who feel that The Meadowlands is a masterpiece, and regard the eternally delayed followup as both an indie-nerd inside joke and a proposition that inspires genuine anticipation and excitement. Bissell still occasionally hears from Wrens true believers on Twitter. He appreciates — and is kind of amazed — that people still care.
“I know Twitter’s a horrible ugly swirling cesspool of decline and despair,” he said when I reached him earlier this week, “but by and large, any replies or notifications you get are generally just day-making. What’s liberating is I don’t look at this thing careeristically anymore.”
When I asked Bissell about the album, he wouldn’t tell me the title or the label that is putting it out, hopefully — let me emphasize hopefully — at some point in 2021, for reasons he would later explain. But he did share seven songs with me, on the condition that I not reveal any song titles or be overly specific in how I write about them. So I’ll just say this: While it’s hard to say that any album could possibly be worth waiting 18 (or more) years for, the upcoming Wrens LP should not disappoint those who continue to dig out The Meadowlands. It takes the grandness of that album to the next level, with interlocked songs that flow through different movements without seeming convoluted. The songs I heard were beautiful and cathartic; the countless hours spent poring over them are apparent in their sophisticated architecture, but they somehow don’t seem stale or labored. If the rest of the record is as good as what Bissell shared, The Wrens will have made one of indie’s great comeback albums.
I spoke at length with Bissell about the album and the long and often painful process of making it. The relentlessly reflective and self-critical nature of his artistic sensibility is apparent in the way he speaks — he constantly doubles back and even mocks his own statements as he’s saying them, seemingly convinced that there must be a better take on this particular sentence. He talked about Homer’s The Odyssey acting as a lyrical inspiration for his songs, and I wondered if he also saw the parallels between his band and that classic epic sprawling over the course of 10 years. And he confessed that the biggest obstacle for The Wrens at the moment might be the fact that the members haven’t really operated as a working band in some years. Like the rest of the world, they’ve moved on from The Wrens. But maybe, just maybe, it might be the band’s time again.
The last time we spoke, you said the record was 71.8 percent done.
[Laughs.] That sounds suspiciously specific.
Is the record done now?
It’s all done and has been done for a while, so plans are afoot, I guess. Or something.
You did an interview last year in which you said the record was completed in June of 2019. That interview was published around the time of the pandemic lockdown. If not for Covid, would the record already be out?
Yeah, though not in the way that it probably matters in most things. Just in that I would have had more time during the day to probably finish last nudges of mixes and that sort of stuff, and then deal with more business-y stuff. But it’s not like we handed it in and the record label was just like, “Our backs are against this wall.” I’m sure has happened to so many other musicians with regards to planning to tour.
But the record really was done in June 2019?
I actually played it for a couple label folks that came by the house. Then we had some band stuff to work out, to get everyone back on board again. Kevin’s the other main songwriter, and he’d been living in Asia for a few years, and he just moved back that summer, so we punted any discussions until after the summer. They’re super busy with careers, and there was a lot of, “Hey, let’s get a call going this weekend.” And we couldn’t make it happen, and the next thing you know it’s the holidays. Then in lockdown, we started having Zoom calls and getting to know each other again.
What do you mean?
Like, what do we want to do with this record? What do you guys want to do as far as touring goes? What do I want to do as far as touring goes? For better or worse, the last record to a certain extent, and this one even more so, they weren’t band records. We didn’t sit in a room anymore and put songs together. That’s both good and bad. I don’t know, maybe mostly bad.
You said “plans are afoot.” Can you elaborate?
Last week I spoke with the label people, just really mundane stuff like, “Hey, if we were looking at a fall release, when would you need these masters by?” That sort of stuff. You know how these things work, even putting out a record in fall, we’re like, “We’d want to do a single, that would probably be in June.” Which would mean a video, as I drop to the floor doing innumerable crunches to get back into shape for my shirtless video appearance.
I feel like all my answers are non-answers, on the advice of counsel.
Can you tell me anything about the album? The title? The label? Anything?
In other words, is this a completely fruitless waste of time?
It’s not completely fruitless yet.
I keep saying “The Label” like it’s capital T, capital L, but I’m going to let them announce the record, because they’ve been so infinitely patient. I felt I said this when we spoke seven years ago, because I think it was already in the offing then, I don’t remember.
No, you didn’t have a label yet then.
I think it did happen in 2014, maybe ’15. It’s been at least five years. Wisely they haven’t announced or even set a release date until they have complete masters in hand, which is a really good policy. So they’re going to announce the release date, title, and even that they’re putting it out. Which they wanted to do. I’m more than happy to hand that to them, because they’ve been very, very patient. But I can tell you all about the record itself, for the little that’s worth.
Let’s see, so you and I spoke when, in 2013?
So all of 2013, I was basically doing almost no music, at least on my songs, although we were finishing up Kevin’s songs, that’s the disparity in timing. I was just doing lyrics in 2013, so whenever I spoke to you, I was immersed in lyrics and it wasn’t going great. I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about. Which is the same thing with the last record, The Meadowlands. There’s a lot of bad pieces of paper in a notebook in the basement that have a lot of bad mulling on early versions of those songs. I was finding myself, as an at-home parent, spending all my mental energy working on the record. It really was not a great place to be outlook-wise.
How did you break out of that?
I was looking at translations of Homer, The Odyssey in particular, which I’ve always been into, and suddenly it popped into my head that a lot of things were lining up, a lot of personal things and autobiographical things. In 2013, it had been 10 years since the last record and that was 10 years after the first one, and the whole Odyssey is 10 years of him getting home and he’s stuck on an island for seven of those. The more I thought about it, at least in my readings of it, so much of this lines up, it’s really crazy. That’s the sort of thing that just seems like it’s a recipe for preposterousness, but I was really taken by it in that moment.
I was in that bookstore — it’s Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights — because two of our youngsters were in the Montessori preschool around the corner, and our youngest youngster was in the stroller with me in the bookstore. For his first year or something, he had this super common thing where one of his tear ducts didn’t work quite right, so his eye would seal shut. It gets crusty, it’s kind of gross. You keep wipes with you. So he’d wake up and his eye would basically be sealed shut. I know it sounds goofy and it is goofy, but I’m goofy. I was like, “Should I actually do this or is this just the worst thing ever?” Of course, I look over at him and his one-eyed-ness is staring right back at me like, “All right, I can read a sign from the gods. I’ll do it.” I did actually start mulling it around and I framed my songs that way.
You’ve announced a few times since we last talked that the album is finished and then it never actually came out.
It was really just to make me finish and hand it in. Somehow if I went ahead and said it out loud, then I’d be forced to be done. But it didn’t really change anything, because I couldn’t solve the songs, I couldn’t figure out how to make them work. So you can want to be done, but that doesn’t mean you will be.
Now it’s done, if that makes sense.
Is that Odyssey theme still a part of the record?
It absolutely is, but I sort of distanced myself from it, at least mentally for a while. I was doing these listening things here at the house, and I would talk about this stuff and then I’d sort of poo-poo it. Maybe it sounds like I am now, I don’t know. But it wasn’t like I handed out lyric sheets. I still want the record to work just as music, just as a record should. You shouldn’t need a libretto.
When you were talking about The Odyssey, it occurred to me that the making of the two most recent Wrens album has been like an epic journey. Do you feel like there’s something about that, perhaps unconsciously, which appeals to you? The idea that making art has to be difficult and time-consuming in order to be valid?
I sometimes wonder that, too. I’m not really a naturally talented musician, but I work really hard and everything seems to come harder, and that’s fine. But the flip side to that is I don’t think something of mine is good if I didn’t work really hard, because that’s been my measure of getting shit done.
I can’t stress to you how miserable it was. The last one was bad, but this one was really bad. If there had been an easy out, I definitely would have taken it. But I’m happy where it ended up and I still feel that way.
There’s a song called “Three Types Of Reading Ambiguity” on YouTube. Is that close to the version that’s on the record?
It’s probably not that different, because I threw that one out there for a couple different benefits. There’s a connector section that I know I fixed, and by fixed I mean I completely changed it. There’s a different vocal, there’s a different chord progression, coming out of the beginning half going into the little middle connector. So that part would be different and sonically, the mix would be very different. But the rest of it probably is not too different, but I don’t know for sure because the last thing I’m going to do is search “Wrens” on YouTube.
That song is quite long. Is that representative of the rest of the album?
Sadly, it is more representative than I think I would like it to be. There is one that sounds like McCartney was like, “Band On The Run and Venus On Mars aren’t quite ambitious enough, let me staple them together with bolts on their neck.” That’s actually the album opener. Part of it is that it’s less of a band record, we never once played these songs as a band, which is really not great. The last record, we did put together as a band, and then I just changed stuff for three and a half years afterwards.
So, on this upcoming record, you guys worked remotely?
Yeah. Specifically, Kevin got together with Jerry, that’s the drummer, and they went over just his songs. They did that on their own. Then Kevin largely would put stuff on there, he knew where he wanted to go and then you bring them over to my house and we’d maybe do a mix.
My songs started as demos with the built-in Logic drums, and then the songs were demoed out. When I spoke to you, I was like, “These are finished songs now. Let’s just replace the drums with a live performance, done.” But they weren’t done as a band. I said that after the last record, but I am adamant now — we can’t do that again. You can always do it a little bit, but it is not a good way to do good work. As you change these things, it’s like there’s a multilevel chess game that you lose and lose again at, because you go, “This just isn’t good, so what if I adjust the melody?” So you dick around with that for like a week or two, and then you realize that maybe the chord progression, in fact, in the chorus isn’t so great, so you spend a day or two redoing that. Then you’re like, “This is so much better, even with this version of the melody, let me just record that.” So now you record guitars and basses and whatever else that follows this new chord progression and the vocals, and that might take a week. Only you realize at the end that in fact, those guitar parts aren’t so good and the new progression isn’t that great, but the bass is actually the thing. So you go with that new bass part, and now you build a new progression and new guitars around that. So you’re constantly moving each piece into place and it takes a while, only to realize that most of those don’t go there.
But in a room with musicians, when you’re actually playing and putting something together, you’re all making these decisions at the same time. You changing your part in relation to the kick drum part that’s changing right now in real time. It must be 100 times faster, I would guess.
That’s not a small part of what has taken so long. It’s not the only thing, but it’s a big part.
Did you ever feel like you lost perspective on the record?
One way I lost perspective, I really didn’t gain again until a year or two ago, and that’s just sonically. The only reason The Meadowlands came out even serviceably is because I finally learned to mix in A/B, and go like, “That’s how loud the drums are in this song or the vocals are this bright,” that sort of thing. For some reason during this record, I was really afraid to do that because everything sounded so horrible. Then I would mix into this cul-de-sac of sonic badness. Only in the last couple years did I’d finally go, “Come on, I can do this.”
If each song took a month, it was usually about a year until I came back, at least a year, to that first song again. Then as things finished up, that got shorter. So that time away is always my objectivity maker.
Do you feel any regret that it has taken this long to finish the record? Again, I am operating on the assumption that the record really is done and will be out this year.
I guess I don’t feel … I think at one time, I would have felt regret. What’s liberating is I don’t look at this thing careeristically anymore. What’s weird for me is that it’s 17 years after The Meadowlands, I’m talking to you to do an interview. I’m like, “Isn’t that nice? They liked your last record and they’re looking forward to the next one.” That’s honestly the level I look at it now, in a big picture way. So I think this record will come out and I’m proud of it, I think. It’s pretty good, I think.