The 18-Year Wait for New Wrens Music Is Over. Sort Of.
How do you know it’s time to pull the plug on the band you started as a teenager? Is it when you get married and have kids and buy a house in the …
How do you know it’s time to pull the plug on the band you started as a teenager? Is it when you get married and have kids and buy a house in the deep New Jersey ’burbs? Or when you have a job so serious, they move you to Singapore for two years? Or when you turn 50?
How about when your beloved friend and creative genius of a bandmate can’t let go of the songs he’s been working on for more than a decade?
For 51-year-old Kevin Whelan, the answer is none of the above. “There has never been any rationality to it,” he said. “It was like a marriage that none of us could walk away from.”
Whelan’s band is — or possibly was, we’ll get to that later — the Wrens, four guys from Ocean City, N.J., who put out a series of respectable indie-rock albums in the ’90s and “played way more than our share of empty rooms,” Whelan said. “In my memory, they’re all empty.” As marriages, kids and office jobs applied centrifugal force on the group, Whelan and Charles Bissell, the aforementioned creative genius, hunkered down to write what they expected to be their farewell album, a parting gift to an uncaring world.
The two men are a study in opposites. Whelan is intuitive and freewheeling, a dynamic singer and rousing performer who pours himself into his music. He also happens to be a classically trained pianist. Bissell is cerebral and ruthlessly meticulous, skilled at melding disparate elements — catchy melodies, jagged guitars, complex lyrics, multiple modulations and tempo changes — into infectious rock songs that disguise his torturous process.
When “The Meadowlands” came out in 2003 following a seven-year pause, it was lavished with praise from critics and peers. Matthew Caws of the band Nada Surf, which had its own midcareer renaissance around the same time, described his reaction to the album as “instant adoration, all magic. I understand their songs, but also don’t. Something about them is just out of reach and I find that totally intoxicating.” To their generation of reluctant grown-ups, the Wrens delivered a stirring message: No matter how old and tired and weighed down with life you feel, keep going, because you never know — your best work may yet lie ahead.
But in the 18 years since then, two things have not happened: The Wrens have not broken up, and they have not released another record.
That is about to change, but not in the way that anyone hoped for. Whelan has taken the five songs he wrote for the Wrens’ follow-up to “The Meadowlands,” remixed them, added five new ones and is putting them out as “Observatory” on Dec. 10 under the name Aeon Station, which “sounds like a band,” he said, “but isn’t.” Two of the three other Wrens, Kevin’s brother Greg, who plays guitar, and the drummer Jerry MacDonald, both contribute to the album. There is one conspicuous absence: Charles Bissell.
“I love Kevin. I love Charles. I love Kevin’s album,” said Lysa Opfer, a musician and artist who has been friends with the band since rooming next door to Whelan in college. “But that it came to this? It’s a gut punch.”
IN THE EARLY days of the Wrens, Kevin Whelan had a pompadour and wore his rock aspirations like a crown. Now he manages 400 people at Johnson & Johnson and passes himself off as a suburban dad. “Only a couple of guys at work know,” he said, as we sat outside a coffee shop in Jersey City. “One of them stood in my office and said, ‘I know who you are.’ And I said ‘That’s incorrect!’”
Describing how these last 18 years have slipped by, Whelan never lost his natural cheerfulness. The Wrens’ immediate problem after “The Meadowlands,” he explained, was that they couldn’t go all in. MacDonald, the drummer, had moved to the Philadelphia area and had two kids, on his way to four. Greg Whelan had already restarted his career at the bottom once before; now with a good job at Pfizer, he couldn’t do it again. So the Wrens opted to squeeze their touring into weekends and vacation days.
“It was insane,” Greg Whelan said. “We were in Europe one summer, doing the festival circuit with all these other bands, and we’d be flying back every week. They couldn’t believe it. They were like, Really, you went home and went to work? We blew all our money on airfare.”
Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, who played at a release party for “The Meadowlands,” remembers the different mind-sets of the two bands. “Things were happening for us at the same time, but our attitude was, People care right now, we better take every gig we can get. Because it might not last.”
Even keeping it to weekends was problematic for the Wrens. “I would not tell my wife I was leaving for a gig until the night before,” MacDonald said. “Sometimes she’d say no way and I’d cancel on the guys at the last second.”
Kevin Whelan got increasingly serious about his own job at Pfizer and also about a woman he met there. “We broke up for a while because he said he had to finish his 100 songs,” Mary Ann Coronel, his now wife, said. “I had no idea what he meant. I assumed it was an excuse.”
Those 100 songs were demos for the next Wrens album. Whelan’s creative strategy was volume: force himself to write a huge number of songs, then pick the best. Bissell, by contrast, pored over a small handful of tunes. “The way he would talk about his songs,” Opfer said, “it was as if they were all broken and he needed to fix them.”
Meanwhile, a new Wrens album was said to be coming any minute. In May 2006, no less an authority than The New York Times reported that “the Wrens have a new album scheduled to be delivered in July.”
By 2010, the Wrens had stopped playing live, Whelan’s songs were more or less ready to go and the onus was on Bissell to finish his. More announcements came and went. When Opfer took a road-trip for her 40th birthday, Whelan gave her headphones and a rough mix of the new album as a gift. “I listened to it the whole time,” she said. “When the world hears this, I thought, it’s going to blow everything up. They’re going to be like Radiohead.”
In 2013, the finish line was again in sight. A completed album was mastered and submitted to Sub Pop, the Seattle label that formally signed the band the next year. But Bissell backed out, insisting his songs weren’t done. “The songs were great,” Whelan said. “But I always say that. I’m that guy. He’s the other guy. I’m good with the third take, he’s like, I need three years of takes.”
Sub Pop said fine, too. “In my experience, bad stuff tends to come from rushing it, setting artificial deadlines,” the label’s co-president Tony Kiewel said. “The Wrens are different, and I’ve wrestled with what to do. Am I hurting them by being too hands-off?”
BISSELL WAS, BY his own admission, the last Wren to grow up. In 2007, at the age of 44, he married Rachel Warren, who has a flourishing career in medical publishing and also has a band called Palomar, currently on hiatus. Bissell recently met me for a walk in Prospect Park, near where he lives with Warren and their three sons.
He is a stay-at-home dad, he said, “which I would have considered preposterous when I was self-centeredly in my music universe but now I can’t imagine wanting life to be any other way.”
We had been loosely in touch since “The Meadowlands,” when I profiled the band for The Times, occasionally making plans to meet for a drink, though we never did. In 2016, he emailed me two songs, noting that the first half of one had been through 20 versions, had just been rebuilt with a chorus from “like 6 years ago,” undergone a few dozen tempo changes and “that doesn’t even scratch the surface of Lake Ridiculous.” He added that “a good chunk of the songs are hung on the framework of the Odyssey.” It all seemed like a serious departure from the Wrens as we knew them.
That same year, Bissell told me, after several scary bouts with pneumonia, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that attacks plasma cells. He described the five years of treatment that concluded last spring with astonishing stoicism. “I can’t say I looked forward to it,” he said, “but I’d go in there for eight hours on the IV, bring headphones, my computer, it was valuable time.” He is healthy enough now that he is running a half marathon in November.
In 2019, Bissell declared the album fit for release. But first, he wanted to work out “internal band stuff” and this is when, after more than 30 years of calling themselves a band, the Wrens unraveled.
Nobody in the group wants to air dirty laundry, but the nature of the dispute seems clear enough. The original model of four equal partners no longer represented the present reality. Bissell wanted a new business arrangement that reflected not only the work he put into the songs but the band website he built, the social media presence he maintained, all the ways he has kept up the profile of the Wrens over the years while the others pursued outside careers.
“Charles wanted to feel more understood, more heard about what he contributed,” Whelan said. “I was never against that, but when we started talking about how to do it, it got very drawn out and complicated.”
And as it dragged on, Whelan decided he was done waiting.
Earlier this month, I went out to Nuthouse Recording, a studio in Union City, N.J., to listen to “Observatory” with Whelan and Tom Beaujour, who co-produced the album. Whelan drove in from Berkeley Heights, where he and Coronel live with their two boys, Jackson and Ryder, 10 and 8. At 15 months old, Ryder was diagnosed with autism and has limited speech abilities. The difficulty of parenting caused Whelan to stop playing music, but Coronel gently pushed him back into it. “He isn’t himself without music,” she said.
Family became the clarifying force. “When you’re not able to communicate with your son the way you wish you could,” Whelan said as Beaujour fired up “Hold On,” the brooding first track, “I mean, I can’t say it makes your other problems go away. But it does make you reflect on what’s important and how to use your time in valuable ways.”
Whelan plays everything on the album except drums and a few guitar parts, but his voice, as Beaujour put it, is “Kevin’s superpower. He is not fully aware of how good he is, and that’s part of why he is so good. When we were mixing, he kept asking me to turn the vocals down.” Whelan is as equally expressive and in command on the minimalist piano ballads as on the full-blown rockers.
In the several months since Whelan told Bissell about Aeon Station, the two have not spoken. Bissell said that his immediate thought was that the Wrens were dead and he had to make plans for his own album. During the summer, when all three boys were in day camp, he had time to write new songs to add to the eight he says are done. So we could get a Wrens album after all, but delivered in two separate parts, which Bissell said “may be the outcome we were heading for this whole time.”
If “Observatory” is the best music Whelan has ever made, it would be just like the Wrens for Bissell’s new songs to be his best, too. When Whelan sent his music to the label, “I was smitten,” said Kiewel of Sub Pop, which is releasing the album. “It’s got a reflective element you see more in literature than music — consideration of a life lived, choices made.”
Is this a breakup album, I asked Whelan as we listened to the guitar-fueled climax of “Queens,” the first single, with Coronel, pressed into backup vocal duty, ripping out the final refrain, “You said it was all in, you said it was all in.”
“More like post-break-up,” Whelan said, “when you find the strength to get on with your life.”