Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hold Back the Road That Goes... The Story of Shudder to Think part one


Hold Back the Road that Goes...
The Story of Shudder to Think


part one:  introduction/...to the future
 


     Shudder to Think is one of the rarest of all species of rock bands:  a group that is wholly unique and sounds like nothing before or since.  Any influences remain obscured and there is virtually no recognizable trace of their music in the DNA of today.  Their work stands alone.  From their inception in 1986 until their dissolvement in 1998, Shudder to Think carved out one of the most shockingly original and creative bodies of work in rock music history, never once repeating themselves or compromising their artistic integrity or individuality.  They rose up as key figures in the famed Washington DC post-hardcore scene with Fugazi, Jawbox, and Dischord Records and cut a ruthlessly unique path through the grunge years and beyond, outliving many of their contemporaries. They toured around the world with some of that era's biggest bands, such as Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam. The late-great Jeff Buckley considered Shudder to Think as friends and a crucial influence. Dave Grohl, the tastemaker with the golden touch, is a longtime friend and fan, going back to his pre-Nirvana days kicking around the DC scene, and handpicked Shudder as the opening act on the Foo Fighters first headlining tour in 1995. When the band finally closed its doors and split up, its members went on to produce the musical scores for many of your favorite movies and television shows, which continues to this day.  This isn't a group that made a few cool records and sadly missed their opportunity in the spotlight. Shudder to Think is a band of the highest possible pedigree. So why do they remain so under appreciated?  Why are they disappearing from the annals of rock music?  Why don't more people love their work, or even just kinda like it, or, shit, even know about its fucking existence?

     For most people, music is not and should not be a challenge to listen to.  It is a comforting, nostalgic sing along that generally falls into a category of music that they can understand and predict.  I'm not saying that is necessarily wrong, but when a band produces music that doesn't fall so neatly into preconceived classifications, things can get tricky and great bands can fall through the cracks.  Some artists create music that is so unique that it is almost like attempting to understand a foreign language, or trying to find your way in unmapped lands. It is the challenge of it all that is so interesting.  In many ways, Shudder to Think is a kindred spirit to someone like Captain Beefheart, an artist who dared his listeners to follow his creative whims no matter how surreal or absurd. You are asked to trust that artist, and to appreciate their unconventional vision. And if Shudder to Think was my generation's Captain Beefheart, than 1994's Pony Express Record, the band's fifth album and first for Epic Records, is their Trout Mask Replica masterpiece.  [check out Head Medicine's "Forgotten Classics" review HERE] PXR is a gloriously difficult and bizarre slab of alien arena rock; it's twisted and off-kilter rhythms smash headlong into discordant guitar noise, angelic melodies, and peculiar Dada-esque lyrics, yet somehow manages to rawk nearly every second and is highly infectious and catchy once it takes hold.  Pony Express Record is a perfect pop album shattered into a million pieces and assembled back together randomly into a piece of high art.  Abstract Expressionist Pop Deconstructionism. How did four incredible, like-minded musicians find each other, somehow conceive this music out of thin air, and perform it with unparalled razor sharp precision?  Nearly twenty years later, after countless spins, the record is still a puzzling head-scratcher from a creative and technical standpoint. The first few times through this record can be very, um, difficult to say the least.  This is music that requires a more trained and attentive ear to fully reap its many creative rewards without it sounding like a total train wreck. And the fact that it was released on a major label is an incredible accomplishment.  Only in post-Nirvana 1994, when the majors were desperately scooping up every possible indie band and throwing money at them, could an album like this be made. You have to wonder how Epic Records planned to sell this album to the masses; most people, if they did hear the record, were completely confused.  Another factor that kept Shudder to Think from reaching the next level, to be perfectly honest, was their confrontational ambisexual appearance and style in an era of drab flannels and Doc Martin's.  Singer Craig Wedren's inimitable voice and ambiguous personality freaked out most overly straight dudes, but rather than cave in to popular opinion and conform, the band drove even harder into the face of their detractors.  Live, the band was often on the receiving end of vicious homophobic taunts, but Shudder soaked it all up and musically threw it back at the audience ten-fold.  The mainstream flirted with recognizing Shudder to Think as Pony Express Record's most successful single, the mesmerizing "X-French T-Shirt," was a small hit on independent radio and Mtv, but it was not to be. Although there always was and still is a rabid Shudder to Think fan base, it was painfully obvious that the band was far too futuristic for mass appeal.  But many of these aspects that forced Shudder to Think to stand out like a sore thumb in the late-80s/90s are, possibly, a bit more in line with the music of today. Their distinctive and idiosyncratic style might not sound soooo alien, and their sexual ambiguity would be less of an issue.  And, after hearing virtually no one even vaguely attempt to follow the sound of Shudder to Think through the years, it's possible that their destiny lies on a deeper level; to inspire other artists to dig down and find their own unique and impossible-to-follow creative voices.  Maybe after all of these years, Shudder to Think could find their true appreciative audience.

     That is why it is so interesting that the band quietly reformed recently for the 20th anniversary celebration of the Black Cat club in Washington DC.  And it wasn't just the most recognized lineup from the Pony Express Record era that got together and played...singer Craig Wedren, guitarist Nathan Larson, bassist Stuart Hill, and drummer Adam Wade... which in itself was quite a shock, but the encore featured original band members Chris Matthews on guitar and drummer Mike Russell in their first Shudder performance in over two decades. Very rarely is a band able to pull something like that together and celebrate their music and friendship so openly.  Wedren and Larson briefly got together in 2008 and toured as Shudder to Think, with drums provided by late-period Shudder drummer Kevin March and Adam Wade taking over for the New Orleans and West Coast dates, but Stuart Hill had completely retired from music after the band's demise.  The tour was commemorated with a fantastic live album, Live From Home, released later in '09, and it was assumed that the band had bid their fans farewell, and commenced their quiet stroll into the sunset.  But this recent Black Cat reunion was an unexpected turn of events.  Suddenly, there is a future and Shudder to Think is standing in the middle of it.



Head Medicine is honored to have had the chance to speak with the members of Shudder to Think about the Black Cat reunion, the rehearsals leading up to the show, and what this all means for the future of the band.  There is also an extended conversation with Craig Wedren on the legacy of Shudder to Think, touring with Foo Fighters back in the day, and their possible influence on Queens of the Stone Age, with the entire in-depth and highly informative phone conversation posted below.  enjoy!

     posters by Phil Noto

the 2013 Black Cat 20th Anniversary reunion

set list: 

Hit Liquor, Shake Your Halo Down, Call of the Playground, Love Catastrophe, She Wears He-Harem, Pebbles, 9 Fingers On You, Beauty Strike,
No Room 9, Kentucky,  Kissi Penny, About Three Dreams, Gang of $, X-French T-shirt

encore: (with Chris Matthews and Mike Russell)
Red House, Lies About the Sky, Day Ditty

final encore:  So Into You


    l to r:  Nathan Larson, Craig Wedren, Stuart Hill, Adam Wade                                                         photo by Tony LaGamba


Head Medicine:  So, how did the show go?


Adam Wade (drummer):  It went very, very well.  I had a great time.. It was great fun.

Nathan Larson (guitarist):  The show went great.  Physically, it's demanding and i was happy that i had been taking care of myself.  On the first song, within ten seconds I had blood all over my guitar and cut up my fingers so I knew it was gonna be a good show cuz that was the way it always used to be. 

Craig Wedren (singer/guitarist):  Yeah, it was pretty great, I gotta say.  Once we plugged into  gear that was similar to what we always used to play on, it was just like, holy shit!  This is Shudder to Think!  Ok, right!  And then the show happened and  it was fucking awesome. We played great, and people were beyond stoked.... it was a party, it was like playing at prom.  To have everybody together, in the same room, on the same page, on the same stage... if anything that was the most meaningful part about it.  While it was completely amazing to play the music with Nathan, Stuart, and Adam, what was truly magical was just having meaningful time with my brothers as a team and as a family.

Stuart Hill (bassist):  I think it went really well.  It definitely met and exceeded my expectations for sure.  You just never know, it's been so long since we played together and we didn't have a whole lot of time to prepare for it because we were so far apart geographically, but i think it went really well.  I think everyone seemed to enjoy it who came out, and the band seemed to certainly enjoy it, so I think it was very successful.

Chris Matthews (original guitarist):  The show was really amazing.  I can't really express how fun it was for me to get to play, and how fun and amazing it was to see the Pony Express line up just pull it off like it had been something that they have been doing every day.  They were just so solid.  God it was fun.


Head Medicine:  How did the reunion come together?

Craig Wedren: This guy Dante started the Black Cat club 20 years ago, and this was the twentieth anniversary, two night festival.  He was in a Dischord band called Grey Matter in the 80s, and was a part of the team and a part of the family and a part of the lore.  Dante sent an email to Nathan and I asking if we would be interested to do a Shudder reunion.  We both thought it was probably a long shot, because when we did the 2008 [reunion] tour, Stuart declared that he had hung up his spurs and was no longer playing music let alone bass.  And then we did a record release show after that tour for a live album we did in '08 called Live From Home, which Nathan didn't want to do.  Nathan is on the Live From Home record, but he didn't want to do the record release show.  I had just assumed that Nathan was out of the picture too.  So when both Nathan and Stuart were excited to do it, that was sort of the green light.

Chris Matthews:  Essentially what Craig decided was that he wanted to bring that Pony Express team back.  Mike and I said, hey, we wanna come and see the show, and Craig was like, you can't just see the show, you guys have to play.


Head Medicine:  Stuart, what was the difference between this reunion and the 2008 reunion when you were retired from music?  What convinced you that this was the right time to get back on stage with Shudder to Think? 


Stuart Hill:  Part of it was just the commitment level.  In 2008, they were doing a series of festivals over multiple weekends.  It would have been doable, but it would have been tough, working full time.  It just would have been a much bigger commitment on my part.   This was more of a one-off deal, it was in DC, so it was easy to get there. 

Head Medicine:  Can you tell us a bit about the rehearsals leading up to the show?

Adam Wade:  The rehearsals were really fun.  We laughed.  I told the guys I haven't laughed that much in years and that felt really good.  Everything seemed a bit easier this time around

Nathan Larson:  We rehearsed in Los Angeles at Craig's place and did a little show at a barbeque in his backyard after we had had four or five days of rehearsals, which was great.  Lottsa kids.

Craig Wedren:  It was sort of an epic odyssey.  I was doing skype rehearsals with Stuart for a month leading up to it. Adam and i were getting together a couple times a week for the month leading up.   Then in the week leading up to the show, Nathan came into town for 4 or 5 days, and then Stuart came in for about 3 days.  We just got into a room together and the second everybody straps it on, it sounds and feels like Shudder to Think and that was really beautiful.  I would say it was the first time the seminal lineup were all harmonious and on the same page. We went through the set in my backyard. We just had a big Sunday barbeque where we invited friends and fans from Los Angeles and their kids if they had them to come and it was really awesome.  It was a very special day. 

Stuart Hill:  It was a lot of work to do one show, and to coordinate rehearsals with everyone's schedules was difficult. There was a period after we all agreed to do it where it seemed like we weren't even going to be able to find a single weekend for everyone to get together and rehearse. So I had some doubts in the middle there that we were actually going to be able to go through with it, but we did manage to find one weekend where we could all get together. We did and it worked out.

Chris Matthews:  Because I have work responsibilities, I wasn't able to come down to DC until the day of the show, so really only at soundcheck did I play the songs.  And we only played each of them once, they are very basic.  I did a lot of practicing on my own at home, but I know the songs, obviously. 

Mike Russell (original drummer):  I was able to do a bit of rehearsing with  them on Friday afternoon at the Black Cat and then we sound checked on Saturday with Chris.  That is it!  Thankfully,  no one complained in my house when I dragged the drums out of storage a couple weeks ago to see if I still knew how to hold a stick.


Head Medicine:  Was there any difficulty in relearning any of the Shudder to Think material?

Craig Wedren:  As much as I sort of remember the songs, there were little details of things, especially with 50,000 BC stuff which we didn't play live as much or for as many years as everything else.  It wasn't quite ingrained in the muscle memory.  So picking that stuff apart from the few songs we played from it were sort of like, whoa, this is some detailed puzzle work.   But technology played in our service.  There are some really good shows on youtube.  There was one from '97 in Philadelphia, I think it was actually our very first 50,000 BC show, and someone pretty close to the front row was filming a lot of mine and Nathan's hands playing the chords.  So when there were chords we couldn't remember, we would just turn on that Philly show and just keep hitting pause and copying what it looked like our fingers were doing until the muscle memory kicked in and we would be like, oh yeahhh it goes like this.  The other thing is, since none of us are trained professionals, there is a surprisingly minute amount of fancy finger work.  Once you get the first chord, the second chord just isn't going to be that much of a muscle stretch from the first chord.  You sorta spider around the neck until you find the thing that clicks and you say, oh yeaaahh I remember this... this is where my finger goes.  So it took a little while but I think we were all surprised how much was already in there.  "Kissi Penny" took a little while.  I suppose one or two others, but mostly it was smooth sailing.

Stuart Hill:  Some of the stuff came right back to us.  Certainly a lot of the songs have little intricacies in them and when you are playing them all the time it comes second nature, but when you don't play them for a long time, you tend to forget the little things.  When we were practicing, sometimes someone would remember something and be like "oh, weren't you doing something like this during that part?"


Head Medicine:  What were your thoughts during the performance?

Adam Wade:  Thoughts during the performance?  "Don't fuck up."

Mike Russell:  "Listen to Craig like your life depends on it!" , "Watch Stuart for visual cues", "Let's get this over with, no wait.... please let it never end!"

Stuart Hill:  I definitely had to think more than back in the day. That was the only unfortunate part. It kind of took a lot of concentration to get through the songs.  When we were touring a lot and playing all the time, you just get up there and your fingers would basically be on autopilot.  You could think about other stuff or enjoy the moment a little more, whereas this time I was more focused on what I was doing than what was going on around me. 


Head Medicine:  How was it to be onstage performing with Chris and Mike once again for the first time in over twenty years?

Craig Wedren:  Really great. Mike just stepped in and got behind the kit.  We rehearsed a couple of nights before at the Black Cat, and he just got behind the kit and he sounded just like Mike.  He has a very specific feel and is a really beautiful, natural drummer, so we all just locked right in. Both Adam and Mike.  It's just an embarrassment of riches to play with those drummers.  And Kevin March, but we were keeping it DC for this show, and Kevin is New York based.  But our drummers have been truly, truly amazing and so it just slipped right back in.  Chris couldn't come till soundcheck the night of.  The soundcheck was great. It was beautiful.  And you know, Chris wrote a lot of the music and the songs, he wrote the chords to "Red House" and "Day Ditty," so he just slipped right in, too.  And it was Chris and Nathan, and in some cases me, the three of us playing guitar so it was great.  Unfortunately, there where some tuning issues during the encore which was probably fine in the audience, but it's that thing like oooohhh why couldn't we have flipped it around and had tuning issues in soundcheck and kicked ass during the encore? But nonetheless, it was so spirited.

Chris Matthews:  The greatest thing that happened for me was when we got all set up and Craig introduced us, and I kinda waved at everyone out in the audience, and I really couldn't believe how much recognition, how much support, that people remember I was in the band and that this was the four of us, Craig, Mike, Stuart and I.   We started this thing and that was just fantastic.  

Stuart Hill:  Oh, yeaaahh that was fun!  That was another thing... we just got to rehearse with them the day of the show, so that was also a bit of a wild card how that was going to come across.  But it worked out well, and it was great seeing them and playing with them again, for sure.

    l to r:  Chris Matthews, Craig Wedren, Mike Russell, Stuart Hill                                                     photo by Tony LaGamba


Head Medicine:  What were some other memories from the Black Cat Anniversary weekend? 

Adam Wade:  Seeing old friends and hugging lots of people.  Memory lane.

Nathan Larson:  I also played with my friend Mary Timoney, a really old friend of mine since we were teenagers, and we played with half of Girls Against Boys and James Canty who was in town playing with Ted Leo.  He used to be in The Makeup and Nation of Ulysses.  We did Prince covers which was really, really fun.  It was just great to see everybody and reminisce.  Mostly everybody has kids now so that was kinda the subject of conversation.

Craig Wedren:  It was really cool to see everybody, and everyone genuinely seems to be doing really well.  There still seems to be quite a bit of creativity gushing.


Head Medicine:  In your opinion, other than Shudder to Think, who put on the best performance that weekend?

Craig Wedren:  For me, it was all about New Wet Kojak.  I thought it was sooo amazing.  Scott [McCloud] in particular was looser and weirder than the Girls Against Boys set, which was solid, but New Wet was stranger and way up my alley. It was pretty amazing. 

Stuart Hill:  The biggest surprise to me was New Wet Kojak.   They were just awesome.  All of the other bands were great, but they were what I was expecting.  But i tell ya, New Wet Kojak was awesome.  That was really enjoyable watching them play.


Head Medicine:  Was this the reawakening of any musical aspirations with (or without) Shudder to Think,  or was it a nice tidy bow on something beautiful from the past? 

Adam Wade:  I don't know yet.  It was certainly a bow to the past, and I would like to think we could do something more cuz I miss those guys.  I miss making music with that band.  So time will tell.

Craig Wedren:   Honestly, if we all lived in the same place, it would be a no-brainer.  But Nathan lives in New York, Adam and I live in LA, and Stuart lives in South Carolina, and just because there is so little money in making music now, there would have to be some kind of sensible way of doing it.  I'm not saying there isn't a sensible way of doing it, I just haven't quite thought of it yet.  We are just going to see how everybody feels in a little while, and maybe start talking about what a reasonable and feasible and profitable, or at least not money sucking way of doing it [would be]. 

Nathan Larson:  Not for me.  It was just a lovely thing to do and really fun to always play that music.  I don't have any particular desire to continue doing that kind of thing with this particular band, but that doesn't mean that we won't do this kind of a reunion thing in the future, and it doesn't mean that we won't work together in a different context, especially Craig and I.   We do plenty of film stuff and there's no reason why we wouldn't do something together.

Stuart Hill:  I would say "to be determined."  It definitely makes you remember all the great things that we did and all the fun we had and all the potential that was there/is there.  All of the other guys are still playing music, me not so much, so it's a little tougher for me to try to get back into it. We have talked about doing other shows, but with everybody's schedules and where everybody is at geographically, it just kinda makes it difficult.  I don't know.. I don't know what will happen. But we will see what unfolds and take it from there. 

Chris Matthews:  In the end, I know I don't in any rational way regret leaving the band and going into archeology and becoming a professor... that's great.  But any time I really think about it, I miss Shudder to Think. I miss being a musician, as much as I could miss anything. Maybe that's a sign that I'm really lucky and don't have a lot of loss in my life and things to miss.  But it was special to be able to redo that, and it still feels special.  Maybe it was a reawakening, but the reawakening probably started a couple years ago.  There is a great organization here that someone in town started called Parents Who Rock.  So all of us with kids who don't have a lot of time to be in bands but played music or always wanted to play music get a chance to get together and hang out with each other for an afternoon or in the evening and play a few songs.  Parents Who Rock always does fundraisers, usually two or three a year, where they let people like us come out and play three or four songs and raise money for various causes in our community.  The aspirations are always there, maybe they are more reawakened now, I don't know. But really, the whole playing with the band was a nice tidy bow on top of something beautiful.  Whether anything I do in the future becomes anything more than playing a few covers with other old folks in town, I don't know.  It's not in the plans, but I wouldn't mind trying to make it work. 


Mike Russell:  It was a generous, lovely gift from dear old friends who besides being astonishing musicians, are the best people I can ever imagine having been in a band with.

     photo by Tony LaGamba

Head Medicine:  Craig, there have been a lot of 90s reunions lately.  Why do you think that is happening so much right now? 

Craig Wedren:  I wonder what somebody who is like 23 would have to say about the state of 90s reunions.  Does it look like to them the shitty Beach Boys reunions that happened while we were growing up?  Or is it something that they missed that is part of the lore that they are able to relive?  Does it have something to do with the internet, the digitalization of music and this sort of historical excavation of things where everybody from the age of 15 to 50 is able to survey the entire history of music at once, so there is an almost clinical aspect to it?  I don't know.  It's very strange.

Head Medicine:  How do you view Shudder to Think's musical legacy in today's world?

Craig Wedren:  On the one hand, I'm like, wow, we really have been relegated to the invisible annals of history.  There's very little trace of us. And it makes me mad and sad and at times it has left me questioning, in the absence of any feedback, whether we weren't just deluded.  Because we really thought, and still think, that we are a fucking world class band.  I will say, getting together these last few weeks reminded all of us, oh shit, we weren't wrong.  This was a really special band and this music is very special and very unique.  So the other part of me is like, no, the fact that there is nobody who sounds like us is because we achieved what we intended, which is to be a band who sounds like nobody but us and could only come from us.  So i guess in a way, it was sorta like, you get what you asked for.

Head Medicine:  One of the very few instances where I can hear some possible recent Shudder to Think influence is on the last couple of albums by Queens of the Stone Age.  I hear it in the falsetto voice, in the weird time signatures, the odd pop music deconstruction... do you agree?

Craig Wedren:  Yeah, I noticed that too.  In fact, I love ...Like Clockwork, it think it's a really great record.  And I think one of the reasons I think that is it kind of imprints or maps certain sensibilities that Shudder to Think and I have.  Intentionally or not, I have no idea.  I would be very curious to know if there was, but I always assume that no one knows who the fuck we are and I'm always surprised to find out who is listening or has a soft spot.  It certainly wouldn't surprise me. I know that Dave Grohl is a crazy fan, so I guess it's possible.

Head Medicine:  Speaking of Grohl, the first time I saw Shudder to Think live was when you were opening for Foo Fighters on their first headlining club tour in 1995.  It was pretty amazing.

Craig Wedren:  Wow, that was an intense moment.  There was a lot of band/audience friction on that tour that was really fun.  It was the first Foo Fighters tour, so it was essentially Nirvana fans, and a lot of Nirvana fans at that time were... kinda fratty, kinda douchey.  And we were at our most challengingly flamboyant. We just liked to get people's goat.  Cuz the whole alternative thing was sooo macho, so conservative, and so male, and it was so hetero that we thought it was funny.  And kinda sad, coming out of the 80s and the 70s which were so much more experimental, sexually and aesthetically, so we were really pushing that.  And the more conservative the audience, the more we pushed out. So on that tour in particular, there were a lot of really upset straight dudes screaming at us to our enjoyment.  But now it's not a big deal.   Music is so much more experimental, culture is so much more pansexual that it just really is not an issue.  I think we were right. If you look back, it was so stupid and so opposite to what the so called alternative culture alleged, which was that this is an alternative... this is a place you can express yourself and be free and invent... but it really wasn't.  It was rigid.  It was stifling in many ways. In that respect, I think it's a better world.





NEXT:
 


HEAD MEDICINE would like to graciously thank Craig Wedren, Nathan Larson, Adam Wade, Stuart Hill, Chris Matthews, and Mike Russell for their time and effort, as well as Marco LaGamba for the advice and Shudder knowledge and insight.  thank you, guys.

~writing and interview by Kojak

Stay tuned for future installments of "Hold Back the Road That Goes...  The Story of Shudder to Think."  This is a planned multi-chapter project that will preserve, in one place, the oral history of this great band.  follow HEAD MEDICINE on Fakebook for future updates



5 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this great article/interview and I look forward to the future installments. I have loved Shudder to Think since the early 90's and to this day fall back on their albums all the time. Please play a reunion show in Chicago!

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  2. I was speaking to Craig right before their D.C. gigs and told him how, in hearing 'Panic at the Discos" music so much on my daughters iPod, I thought I heard quite a Shudder to Think Influence on their earlier work and perhaps this new work of "Panics..." could be their "Pony Express Record"? It's not quite as far out there but...

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  4. Ted! You must have a chat with Ted... the sculptor of PXR.

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  5. Great to see someone diving deep into Shudder to Think's past. A much overlooked and misunderstood band. Many thanks Kojak and i look forward to learning more about this uniquely talented band.

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