Remember the story where four guys meet up in Athens, Ga., play a birthday party for a friend in a local abandoned church, sign a record deal, maintain artistic control and credibility, get tagged by Rolling Stone as the most important band in America and become millionaires?
Well, this story isn't like that. This story isn't like that at all.
The story of The Wrens-more than once referred to as "the unluckiest band in America"-is about as far from a rock 'n' roll fairy tale as you can imagine:
The Wrens form in 1989 when Greg Whelan, a Catholic, graduates from the law school at Mormon outpost Brigham Young University, returns home to south Jersey, passes the bar exam and decides he's really not that interested in practicing law.
Early on, the band is offered an opening slot for The Fixx. And then The Fixx cancel. The group is subsequently fired from a gig as house band on a ferry that connects New Jersey and Delaware for performing the Pixies' "Debaser" on a boat filled with senior citizens.
But The Wrens persevere.
All four members-guitarist Whelan, his younger brother and bassist Kevin, guitarist Charles Bissell and drummer Jerry MacDonald-move upstate to share a house in Secaucus, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. The group is approached by indie label Grass Records after sending a demo tape. Negotiations only last one phone call. A contract is faxed over and signed. In 1994, the band releases their first album, Silver, and garner positive reviews. Their luck is changing.
"I think the first record," Greg Whelan says, "was more kind of punky. Well, not necessarily punky, but a lot of fast-tempo sort of songs. I think we had, like, 26 songs on the CD or something, because we figured we might not get the chance to make another one. So we figured, what the hell-just throw everything on there that we had."
Everything they had added up to 22 songs.
Record No. 2, titled Secaucus in honor of their adopted hometown, is released in 1996. Reviews are even better. The band begins a serious tour.
"I don't want to use a corny word like "mature,'" Whelan says, "but with Secaucus we started to develop. Our songwriting got a little bit better. We were compared to the Pixies and that kind of stuff, but we took it as a compliment. They're definitely an influence."
Rich guy and label neophyte Alan Melzter purchases Grass Records. He offers the band a $1 million to re-sign with his newly acquired label. While their agreement with Grass was four pages long, Melzter sends over a contract the size of a textbook.
"He wanted to make us superstars and all that kind of stuff," Whelan recalls. "And we knew with the kind of record we were putting out, and what we were all about, he just wasn't going to be able to do that. We weren't like the easy sell to commercial radio. And we understood that."
The Wrens refuse to sign on the dotted line. Melzter cuts off tour support completely, leaving the band to find their own way home. Melzter later changes the name of his label to Wind-Up and signs Creed, the "easy sell to commercial radio" band he was looking for. And not unlike Jimmy Hoffa, rumored to be buried in the end zone of nearby Giants Stadium, The Wrens pretty much disappear.
"We didn't play out live for, like, four years," Whelan says.
Drummer Jerry MacDonald gets married and moves to Pennsylvania. Bissell and the Whelan brothers continue to share a house, take temp jobs to pay the bills and begin a daily commute to Manhattan-which helps explain the nearly seven-year gap between Secaucus and the group's third album, The Meadowlands.
"There was a while there where we were completely burned out, because we were doing all the touring stuff and doing all the label bullshit," says Whelan. "We had started the record and then we kind of stopped. We would take a few months off here and there and all that kind of stuff. But really, within the last two years, that's when we went back and looked at what we already had.
"The songs were re-recorded, like, 8,000 times. It was kind of like we were Steely Dan. We stripped everything down except the drums. We just went through and stripped everything, and that took time. And plus, having day jobs, there's only so many hours in the day."
The Meadowlands, recorded in the dining-room studio of the Secaucus house where Whelan, Whelan and Bissell still reside, is The Wrens' most personal album yet. Lyrics address not only former relationships, but also dealing with A&R reps ("a V.P.'s faith is one single long"), their battle with Melzter ("I've walked away from more than you imagine and I sleep just fine"), temp work and growing old ("13 grand, a year in the meadowland, bored and rural-poor, lord, at 35, right?").
Having three members of the band in a house full of recording equipment does have its advantages.
"Charles and I were sitting around one night and we're in the house and the crickets were really, really loud, so we figured we'd just go out and record them," Whelan says of the insects that open The Meadowlands' first track, "The House That Guilt Built."
Whelan went outside on the semi-suburban, tree-lined street of the previously unromanticized Secaucus (one of the band's neighbors is the actor who played the Ty-D-Bol Man on TV commercials) and served as a mic stand.
"We were actually borrowing this, like, $4,000 Neumann microphone that you usually use to record vocals, and Charles and I just ran a really long cord out there. I'm holding the mic outside, he goes inside, hits record, and everything just came through."
The Meadowlands' centerpiece is "This Boy is Exhausted," a power-pop confession of disillusionment turned defiant ("I can't type, I can't temp, I'm way past college, no ways out, no back doors, not anymore... but then once in a while, we'll play a show, then it makes it worthwhile, our sights are set low"). The song stands as a statement of purpose-The Wrens' equivalent of what "We're An American Band" was to Grand Funk Railroad.
The group's third CD has received even more critical notice than the first two. The Wrens have been featured in such mainstream press as The New York Times and Chicago Tribune and self-proclaimed "dean of rock critics" Robert Christgau called The Meadowlands "a real winner and a magnum opus." The Wrens now use their accumulated vacation time (all four members work permanent jobs for such un-rock 'n' roll corporations as Pfizer) to tour.
And life, for now, is good again.
But in hindsight, how hard is it to walk away from a million-dollar contract only to face a world of New York City temp jobs?
"Once everything stopped and no more A&R people really cared, it was kind of like, "Oh, man, did we screw up?'" Whelan admits. "It didn't even really come down to the money, per se, because we could've negotiated for less records. It was just like the whole vibe that we were getting at the time. [Melzter] was just right out of the box, starting new and a lot of his ideas were way over the top and kind of cheesy. It just didn't feel right.
"But actually, when we were on the road in southern Florida, we really were going to tell him that we were going to sign. At that point we were like, "We're tired of the shit. We might as well get some money out of the deal.'
"We were going to tell him we were going to sign, but we were running low on cash. Through our A&R person we asked if he would flip us that month's rent, and he said no. So for us, we were like, "You know what? He won't flip us this rent so fuck it, we're done.'
"That just put it in perspective."
So after shaking off a career's worth of bad karma and being raised from the rock 'n' roll dead, what's next for a no-longer-young band from New Jersey with critical acclaim and real jobs in the real world?
"We really don't put any pressure on ourselves anymore," says Whelan. "Now it's pretty much whatever happens happens. We're going to enjoy it. If it comes to a point down the road where we have to make another decision, then, you know, at that point we'll look at it. We have a lot of other factors to weigh, but we're just enjoying it for what it is and going with the flow."
The Wrens play with John Vanderslice and The Advantage at The Casbah, 8:30 p.m. on February 24. $7. 619-232-HELL.