We ate cold eggs in darkness – not even a decent goddamned meal. And because the elevators at the hotel weren’t running, we had to drag our fuckin’ equipment down the stairwell to the van. Then, on the way out of the city, we blew a tire going 80 [m.p.h.] and almost ended up dead in a ditch.
story by Jessica Young
Jerry MacDonnell is your average thirty-something. He lives in suburban Pennsylvania, coaches his kid’s soccer team and works in the software industry, selling operating platforms to investment consultants. Whatever that means. But MacDonnell also leads a dual life. And while his alter ego happens to own a “rock star” membership card, his long journey to indie prominence has been anything but smooth.
As drummer for steadfast indie rockers The Wrens, he’ll use vacation time next month from his 9-to-5 to tour Europe, where their latest album, The Meadowlands, was recently released. The critically acclaimed LP, released domestically in 2003, has steadily gained the attention of music gurus everywhere. Among the glowing album reviews? The New York Times, for one. “It was almost inconceivable because a piece about Simon and Garfunkel ran right above our review,” MacDonnell recalled. “It’s surreal to get…validation at that level.” To top it off, Little Quill Productions is filming the band for a documentary. Sounds perfect, right? Just wait…
MacDonnell – along with bandmates Greg Whelan (guitar), brother Kevin Whelan (bass) and Charles Bissell (guitar/vocals) – acknowledges that the heart-wrenching back story in The Wrens’ 15-plus-year history would weave a VH1′s “Behind the Music”-worthy tale. Once the band formed out of a New Jersey school orchestra, they were unceremoniously dumped from a regular ferry boat gig after playing the Pixies’ “Debaser” to an elderly crowd as an effective “fuck you” to requests for a lounge act.
During the next decade, substantial record deals eluded them.
Although The Wrens were well received among critics, their personal lives were “in shambles” by the late-‘90s, despite two stellar if not lucrative albums. “It was one fuckin’ thing after another,” MacDonnell said. “We were on tour and frequently went without food just so we could put gas in our van to get to the next show. We decided to reward ourselves once we got to El Paso and get a hotel, swim in the pool and [inhale] Tex-Mex food.”
But 15 miles outside the city, their van broke down.
“Kevin and I hitchhiked in some shady van, and we were sure the driver was going to kidnap us, take us to Mexico and kill us,” he continued. “We finally made it to the gig and had to clear plywood and tools off the decrepit stage. No one was there. We played to a disinterested bartender [talking] on the phone. They paid us $10, and we were completely demoralized.”
The hotel lobby workers felt so bad for The Wrens they offered the band free passes to a local buffet. But then El Paso experienced a power outage. “We ate cold eggs in darkness — not even a decent goddamned meal,” MacDonnell said. “And because the elevators at the hotel weren’t running, we had to drag our fuckin’ equipment down the stairwell to the van. Then, on the way out of the city, we blew a tire going 80 [m.p.h.] and almost ended up dead in a ditch.”
Murphy’s Law: Things got worse.
At the height of the tour for 1996′s Secaucus, The Wrens’ seminal sophomore release, Grass Records labelhead Alan Melzter pulled all promotion after the band didn’t respond to re-signing pressure. “He tried to bully us into a career-long contract, which was a shitty move,” MacDonnell said. “…We opted to stick to our guns.” Enraged at The Wrens’ defiance, Melzter vowed to make the next band to walk through the label’s doors famous at any cost. Enter Creed.
In the ensuing years, The Wrens were jerked around by other labels. Hardly emerging unscathed from the bureaucratic hoops of fire, the band took a 7-year hiatus but continued to cull material for their third full-length album. The Meadowlands finds its closest living relative in Collective Soul’s Dosage, while the construction of funky beats and guitars seem inspired by a tamer song by The Go! Team.
The long-awaited but exultant album was a culmination of the band’s evolved sound and new perspective on life. “You get to the point where you think you’re your own worst enemy,” MacDonnell said. “All the incessant drama made us doubt ourselves and how we were writing, which took us a long time to get over.”
The Wrens threw a drunken hoedown and destroyed master tapes to squelch future musical second-guessing when The Meadowlands was completed. Their upcoming project, due out in summer 2006, will be similarly initiated. “Not that you’re ever completely happy with the results,” MacDonnell said. “It’s like computer software. Something is published and put on the market, but you’re never finished working out the kinks and perfecting the product.”
Instantaneously, the earthy rock star disappears, and the white-collar suburbanite re-emerges. Say hello to them both when they make their way to Chicago this month. If their van doesn’t break down on the way, that is…
The Wrens :: Northwestern University :: Feb. 10.