With The Wrens still in flux, the NJ band prepares for their first show under a new name and a new direction
After releasing three critically acclaimed albums, ending with 2003’s beloved The Meadowlands, revered indie band The Wrens fell silent.
It seems that intra-band disagreements over when to release new material effectively put the band on permanent hiatus, much to their loyal fans’ despair. Finally, in December 2021, there was something of a breakthrough when three-fourths of The Wrens lineup, under the band name Aeon Station, released the album Observatory (via Sub Pop). The wait for live music from these members will also soon end, with Aeon Station announcing a March 11 show at New York City venue TV Eye.
Calling from his New Jersey home, bassist/vocalist Kevin Whelan discusses why he and other Wrens – his brother, guitarist Greg Whelan, along with drummer Jerry MacDonald – decided it was time to reemerge, even if it meant doing so in a different configuration than their former band. “All I knew is that I wanted to have music out because it’s been twenty years, and that’s a long time,” he says, adding that recording Observatory “really, truly was just for fun, because I didn’t have any expectations of where it would go.”
Whelan was also prompted to form Aeon Station and release new work because of what he calls “life factors”: “My little boy has autism and he’s about to be nine [years old]. I see the struggles that he goes through and how momentary life is. And then having some personal life experiences around COVID and how final and how complex things can be. Your time, you just never get it back. I look at it, in some ways, that I wasted a lot of time for myself. Not because of anybody; it was all personal decisions. But I didn’t want to give up more time and not enjoy it.
“When you are a young artist, you have a lot of great dreams of what’s to be, and all those excitements keep you doing it even when you’re down on your luck and your art’s not going the way it should,” Whelan continues. “But I see, now that I’ve gotten older, that it has flipped where it’s to enjoy it in a way that’s not more ego-driven.”
Whelan’s son also helped inspire the album title specifically, after COVID-related lockdowns prompted Whelan to take him on long drives to pass the time. “He doesn’t really talk, but I was noticing that he was memorizing things, and observing everything happening around him,” Whelan says. “We drove by this sign, ‘This way to the Observatory.’ I was like, ‘That’s a cool word,’ and the meaning struck me. So it really came down to looking at this little boy in my backseat who can’t speak and engage and then, in his way, recanting back to me things. That does tie in to the record: a lot of observations in my life over my late thirties and forties are on this record.”
Upon its release, Observatory earned a wave of positive reviews, and Whelan sounds in awe as he contemplates this warm reception. “I am so humbled and so thankful. It really is amazing,” he says.
As the main songwriter, Whalen is due much of the credit for this success, though he is quick to point out that the album turned out so well because of “the great drumming that Jerry put on it, and also the input and participation from Greg.” He adds that it seemed only natural to bring along his Wrens bandmates on this project. “If you’re with somebody who’s really good and you have a great relationship, there’s really no reason to look for others. To be honest with you, it never crossed my mind.”
Whalen also gives a lot of credit to Tom Beaujour, who mixed the album, as well as performing on and co-producing a number of songs on it. “I can truly say that he’s been a life-changer, and just all-around great person,” he says. “Tom really helped me and helped the music – great moments of being with him in the studio. He’s got a good mentor side to him that says when to support, and when to zone in on how to fix things. His contributions, they really were masterful.” Indie rock veteran Lysa Opfer (Grammercy Arms, Big Lake) also performed on the album.
Still, Aeon Station is clearly Whalen’s baby. He says it seemed entirely natural to write this material by himself, given his past history. “The Wrens have always kind of worked collaboratively in a way, but on our own,” he says. “Working independently was always part of the process. We always joke [it was] a little bit like The Beatles’ White Album. Like, someone’s making a song and you’ve got to bring it in and people will say whether it’s good or not. In The Wrens way, people would make fun of it. So,” he says with a laugh, “if you get out of a session and no one’s ridiculed it, then it kind of had something of substance!
Even though he doesn’t mind working independently, Whelan also admits that it’s rather bittersweet to reemerge as Aeon Station, as opposed to working with The Wrens as he’d always done before. “I love The Wrens and all that we’ve done,” he says. “I’m the biggest Wrens fan there ever was. I started the band when I was seventeen [years old]. We lived in a house together for fifteen years. Jerry and I, we were just talking about it just the other day, [how] being in The Wrens just defined everything about us. It always has. It always will, because I’ve never not been in the band. I’ve never not had that dream going – and the dream is still there now. It never goes away.”
Whelan’s dreams of becoming a professional musician started when he began taking piano lessons during his childhood in southern New Jersey. “I was incredibly nervous at school. I was super nerdy and really shy. I think a lot of artists start that way,” he says. “I would watch Doctor Who on PBS like a nerd and be totally into it. Then I would play the organ at the church. And, secretly, I was trying to write lyrics like David Bowie. Looking back, if you’re not feeling like you’re accepted into a clique of any sort, or you like being by yourself, art calls people in strong ways to express and explore.”
Forming The Wrens with his brother, MacDonald, and guitarist/vocalist Charles Bissell, the band was immediately embraced as indie darlings when they released their full-length debut album, Silver, in 1994. Whelan theorizes that The Wrens’ underdog story is what attracted fans – and kept them so willing to wait so patiently all these years to hear new material from the members, too.
“I think people have supported the band for so long because they realized we really were just four people that were trying to balance work, life, dreams, hopes, relationships – and always kind of being close, but never making it,” Whelan says. “I mean, we had great accolades – critically, we were always super lucky from day one. But it just never transpired in the way some of the other bands that we were friends with, where they just kind of made it. I think that resonated with people.”
With The Wrens still in flux, much has been made in the media of the fact that Whelan and his Aeon Station bandmates didn’t work with Bissell. Whelan acknowledges this controversy – but, as he puts it, “It’s so multifaceted. I think the way it’s coming across is fair. As fair as it can be. It’s certainly yet another interesting chapter in what has been a life of very interesting chapters!”
Now, looking back on everything he’s done, both with The Wrens and now as Aeon Station, Whelan says simply, “I have no regrets.”
VIDEO: Aeon Station “Fade”
Bonus interview with Jerry MacDonald (drums) and Greg Whelan (guitars) is below.
Interview by Ron Hart
For true school Wrens fans, it’s been very annoying to this controversy cast a shadow over the Aeon album, which is such a fantastic journey that any Wrens fan worth their salt would put right up there with Secaucus. What do you guys think about this?
Jerry: I “get it”… There has been a ton of messaging the past bunch of years about a new Wrens record, but life happens and expectations for what we all want seem to change a bit. So Aeon Station is born and a fun new beginning is also here for ¾ of the Wrens. Would have loved this to be a Wrens record. But, as far as the end result for Observatory, to us, it’s good. The fact that people like it is gravy. It’s a different vibe for sure than Secaucus, which makes sense. I believe the songwriting is super strong and connects much of what we are today back to our families, life, goals, aspirations, whatever. Secaucus did the same thing back in the day, in my opinion.
Greg: I guess we expected it to happen but it is unfortunate. From my perspective, it comes down to the end product and that is what should govern the conversation. And if you allow me to quote you, “Observatory” is a “fantastic journey.” We are really proud of the record. The several tunes that would have wound up on the ever-pending Wrens record were tunes Kevin wrote and we wrapped recording more than a decade ago. The additional tunes Kevin wrote, we recorded over several studio sessions and had a blast doing. The music is moving, the lyrics are deep, and it captures where Kevin is in his life at this time. And thanks for the Secaucus props!
What do you think it is with the music press and their obsession with chasing the story about a follow-up to The Meadowlands? Where do you think that comes from?
Jerry: For anyone that has followed us, enjoyed our music, supported this 30 year journey of these four strange guys from NJ, I believe it’s a logical question. “The Wrens” have communicated, teased, inferred a record has been “done” for years, but it just wasn’t finished on a bunch of levels. Suddenly, Observatory pops out and the world has been surprisingly kind and interested in the why, where, who and how.
Greg: It’s flattering that anyone was/is interested in a post-Meadowlands release. A lot of time has gone by and a million other bands and records have come through since then. For The Meadowlands, we had a good story for folks to write about, we made a good record and we put on a pretty good live show. I imagine it shocked most people that we didn’t take advantage of our “popularity” at the time to put out the follow-up soon thereafter.
In your opinion, what is it that makes Aeon Station distinct from The Wrens, on a songwriting level?
Jerry: At the basic level, it’s from Kevin only. I think he needed to have music… his thoughts, creativity, frustration, passion… all of it… released from his head and shared with his family. It’s life from his perspective and the music/lyrics shaped by his experiences. There are absolutely similarities you will get from it as Aeon Station is born from one of the creative forces behind the Wrens.
Greg: I think Kevin is now free to be creative and pursue his own musical identity and expression, which I think comes through in Observatory. I think his songwriting has matured but it still has that Jersey angst and emotion that helped establish The Wrens. I think for the three of us, we are all in good places in our lives, and now with the opportunity to create new music and play live again, I think that comes through in everything we do and will do as Aeon Station.
Aeon Station will be playing for live audiences this year. How are you guys preparing for heading back out there?
Jerry: We’re excited to perform again. It’s been a long time, but we’ve been having a blast playing consistently most weeks the past several months. We also have more musical weapons this time around with the addition of the very talented Lysa Opfer and Tom Beaujour. Finally, it’s fun… really fun to play together… to have our families experiencing this with us. It’s like the cycle is complete for me. Regardless if we’re performing for a full room or just us and our families, it’ll be amazing to have this back in our lives.
Greg: First, we are totally stoked to be playing out live again. It has been way too long. Kevin, Jerry and I plus two great friends have been rehearsing, and it has been so much fun playing music again. For too long, the enjoyment in playing music was totally missing. But now under the Aeon Station banner, it’s nothing but fun!
How much material was recorded for Observatory? Are you guys planning on heading back into the studio again sooner than later?
Jerry: There were the handful of songs Kevin had ready to go for the Wrens record, and there’s always been a huge number of demos in the wings over the years… scraps of ideas he and Greg have had out there. Kevin started revisiting some additional ideas only a few weeks after he decided he needed to put out some music, and he and Greg showed up in my basement to just “jam”… That was the first time in years. Kevin played us some pieces of songs, and within a week or so, we were sharing files back and forth where I would add different drum tracks, Greg would add his parts, and within a few weeks Kevin said, “Let’s go record these”. We recorded five or six songs with drums in a day, and Kevin went back in and added his parts, and the “record” was finished. Happened super quickly. It was so much fun. We’ll be back in there very soon…
Greg: all options are open. For right now, we are focusing on Observatory and playing shows. My two kids (Sophie (15) and Cullen (12)) have never seen their Dad and Uncle Kevin play live so that alone will be awesome for them to see us (including Kevin’s two sons).
What do you love about being on Sub Pop and what’s your favorite Sub Pop album?
Jerry: There’s simply so much history and impact associated with Sub Pop…I always thought that being a footnote on that label’s history… somehow.. would be so cool. Even now, looking back at signing a contract with Sub Pop was surreal…especially so late in our musical career journey. I remember sitting at lunch with Jonathan Poneman and Tony Kiewel with my Wrens family, and it was just amazing listening to these gentlemen share their experiences, and then to talk about why they wanted to put out a Wrens record…we “made it”. Literally, too many records to choose… unless Prince had a record on Sub Pop… but thank goodness for TgeAfghan Whigs’ Congregation… Nirvana Bleach, of course… Sunny Day Real Estate Diary… The Shins Oh, Inverted World.
Greg: They are just great folks – super supportive and sooooo PATIENT!!! There are a ton of great records but probably Dynamite Steps by the Twilight Singers is my favorite Sub Pop release. I have always been a big Greg Dulli fan. When we were wrapping our European tour for The Meadowlands, we played a bunch of shows with the Twilight Singers. They were supporting their Blackberry Belle record – a perfect record. Mark Lanegan was touring with them. Those were some fun shows!
AUDIO: Aeon Station “Alpine Drive”