Shudder to Think
Shudder to Think
Ken Micallef of Alternative Press wrote of Shudder to Think: “No other band working today melds hints of classical, free-jazz experimentalism with pop structures through odd-metered phrases, resounding melodies, an unusually theatrical vocalist capable of surreal lyric imagery and a frenetically dissonant lead guitarist whose stage presence precisely mimics the early history of rock and roll.” Long a fixture on the indie scene, Shudder to Think signed with a major label in 1993 and seemed on the road to certain success when lead singer Craig Wedren was diagnosed with cancer after their acclaimed 1994 Pony Express Record. Undaunted, the band recorded another album around Wedren’s recovery process—and in the meantime learned much about themselves and the question of health insurance coverage for artists.
Shudder to Think formed in the mid-1980s in the same thriving Washington, D.C. punk scene that gave birth to Fugazi. Founding members were bassist Stuart Hill, guitarist Chris Matthews, and drummer Mike Russell. For the early part of their career, Shudder to Think’s sound was typical of late eighties hardcore music, much like Fugazi. That sound mutated with the addition of Craig Wedren on vocals. With his background in experimental theater and tonal range that easily hit the high notes as well as the low ones, Wedren brought a new mood to the band. Their early releases—the 1988 single “It Was Arson,” followed by the next year’s LP Curses, Spells, Voodoo, Mooses— were issued on the Sammich label. Two other singles were issued in 1990 before the band cut a deal with Dischord Records, home to other D.C. alternative bands.
The 1991 LP Ten-Spot marked their debut on Dischord, and continued the hardcore thread. The following year Shudder to Think released Funeral at the Movies, which had been recorded in one day. That same year, the band was devastated when founding member Matthews left and returned to his other love, anthropology. In a fortuitous event, Wedren ran into old high-school pal Nathan Larson at a Manhattan club when Larson was playing with his band, Stigmata-A-Go-Go. Back in their teenage days, the two used to make bizarre tapes of atonal music sonically reminiscent of John Cage. Larson accepted Wedren’s invitation to join the band. They suffered another loss that year when founding drummer Russell left, in this case to pursue a career as a math teacher; Jawbox drummer Adam Wade was brought in to replace him.
This new line-up tested itself on Get Your Goat, another Dischord release from 1992. This time, they spent five days in the studio. The songs reflected Wedren and Larson’s interest in more atonal, avant-garde music
Original members include Stuart Hill, bass; Chris Matthews, guitar (left group, 1991); Mike Russell, drums (left group, c. 1991); joined by Craig Wedren, vocals, 1988; Nathan Larson joined as guitarist, 1992; Adam Wade, drums (joined group, c. 1991; left group, c. 1996); Kevin March, (joined group, c. 1996), drums.
Band formed, c. 1986, in Washington, D.C.; released Shudder to Think, Your Choice Live Series, 1992; signed with Epic, 1993; released major-label debut, Poni; Express Record, participated in the Lollapalooza summerfest, 1994; released 50,000 B.C., went on summer tour, 1997.
exemplified by Cage, Thelonius Monk, and John Zorn. Writing about Shudder to Think for Alternative Press, Jim Santo called the new record “an elegant, disturbing dream. Heroic power chords fracture, distort and march, wedging open your brain folds to admit Wedren’s seraphic voice, softly bearing baskets of nightmare lyrics.” Wedren conceded that much had changed between albums—they had matured, “as players and as songwriters and as adults,” the singer told Santo. “There was just more of a sense of subtlety and nuance and dynamics that [was] starting to take hold.”
Larson also brought more of an improv, jazz-influenced feel to Shudder to Think’s stage show. “On tour we’re letting ourselves indulge more and just letting things happen,” Wedren told Santo. “Sometimes it really sucks, but that’s the backlash to something that’s exciting and free.” After Get Your Goat, the band released the 1992 Shudder to Think, Your Choice Live Series record, and became part of the mass wave of indie signings by major labels in 1993. Being picked up by Epic, part of the Sony music empire, offered new horizons. They released their major-label debut, Pony Express Record, in 1994 and joined the Lollapalooza summerfest to support it. Rolling Stone magazine tagged them as a “Generation Next” band thatyear, and lauded Wedren’s voice as” sinuous and powerful, and it winds its way around some of the planet’s most surreal, intriguing lyrics.” However, the band nearly avoided a lawsuit after Wedren went on stage naked at a live show in San Diego.
Pony Express Record offered evidence of both the new and old Shudder to Think. There were long rests between chords, an unusual sonic device not customarily heard in alternative rock tunes. Other songs, such as the single” X-French T-shirt,” were quite accessible; its video even received heavy air play on MTV. NOW magazine’s Matt Galloway called the record “bombastic” in its entirety, asserting it “stretched the band’s angular, abstruse pop formula past its already distended boundaries.” The formula seemed to be working. “Our music may be a lot to grasp,” Larson told Micallef in Alternative Press,” but that’s the beauty of it and also something to aspire to.”
Further prosperity and acclaim for the band, however, was put on hold when Wedren was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1995. He had not been feeling well, but assumed it was simply a broken heart. They had not been offered health insurance when they signed with Epic in 1993 (few bands are), and after numerous phone calls learned that Wedren, as a lead singer, was actually covered under an American Federation of Television and Radio Artists insurance plan. At the time of the devastating news, the band was writing songs for a new album. Working at a slower pace around Wedren’s radiation therapy, they completed it the same day he finished the treatments. “It was really important for meto continue working,” Wedren told NOW’s Galloway. “That was the one thing I did continue to do. I was so drained, it was hard to do anything except sit up and strum a guitar, and that was terrifying.”
Fortunately, Wedren went into a successful remission. “Cancer changed everything,” he told Galloway. Wade, disinclined to the pressures, left the group. Wedren also wrote songs for a movie soundtrack called First Love, Last Rites, the work of former Lemonhead Jesse Peretz. It broadened Wedren’s songwriting abilities. “The songs for the movie weren’t what you’d call typical Shudder to Think songs, but I was loving them, and I realized we’d created a ghetto identity for ourselves and we needed to break out of it,” the singer told the Washington Post.
Shudder to Think released 50,000 B.C., their second full-length work for Epic, in 1997. It evinced a less arty, more mainstream sound. Wedren tried to explain: “We didn’t want to be ghettoized as an ’art band’ or ’that difficult band,’” he told Galloway. “We’ve always just written songs and done them our own way. All the time-signature stuff and atonal stuff is just aesthetic earmarks, not the soul and substance of the song. But that’s what it started to sound like to us. It didn’t feel ambitious at all.” Critics expecting the usual Shudder to Think sound were confused. Reviewing it for Drop-D magazine, Rodney Gitzel called 50,000 B.C .” unremarkable.”
The band toured in the summer of 1997, and continued to plan advances into new territory. “When you’re little, you learn songs off the radio and you get every single word wrong and you love your words. I try to write music like that, as if it were another song, but with words I want to hear,” Wedren told Micallef in Alternative Press.
“It Was Arson,” Sammich, 1988.
“Catch of the Day,” Trout, 1990.
“Medusa Seven,” Hoss, 1990.
“Hit Liquor,” Dischord, 1994.
Curses, Spells, Voodoo, Mooses, Sammich, 1989.
Ten-Spot, Dischord, 1990.
Funeral at the Movies, Dischord, 1991.
Get Your Goat, Dischord, 1992.
Shudder to Think, Your Choice Live Series, Semaphore, 1992.
Pony Express Record, Sony, 1994.
50,000 B.C., Sony, 1997.
Alternative Press, October 1992; January, 1995.
Drop-D, June 13, 1997.
NOW, May 1, 1997.
Rolling Stone, July 14, 1994, p. 72.
Washington Post, March 7, 1997.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the public relations firm, Nasty Little Man
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Shudder to Think
Shuja, or Shudja, also known as al-Hasib al-Misri, or Abu Kamil Shuja'ibn Aslam ibn Muhammad ibn Shuja