Craig Wedren is the last guy you’d ever expect to front a hardcore band, which is precisely why he, and Shudder to Think, are so great.
He was just 17 in 1986 when he auditioned for bassist Stuart Hill, a D.C. native whose previous band, in what may or may not have been a nod to Iggy Pop, was called Stüge. “He was the most hardcore kid,” Wedren says of Hill. “He grew up in that scene. I had just come from Cleveland, so I was a mishmash of punk, and New Wave, and disco, and metal, and Journey, and the Cars.”
Wedren was new to D.C., and had just been kicked out of his band, so he was on the hunt for a new one. That’s when a friend handed him a cassette of Hill’s music. “I was like, ‘I love some hardcore, but I’m so not a hardcore singer.’ But I was pretty desperate. So I went to audition at their rehearsal space, and we all looked at each other, and I come out with my weird—at that point it was like Ozzy meets Siouxsie, you know? It was just like, ‘What?’”
Thankfully, instead of kicking him to the curb, Hill invited Wedren to become the band’s lead singer, kicking off a decade-long saga that made Shudder to Think one of the most influential post-hardcore bands of the 90s—and even fueled dreams of being as big as Van Halen. “’Cause fuck it,” says Wedren today. “Wouldn’t that be a great world?”
It didn’t work out that way, but maybe that’s for the best. Wedren never had to sand down his edges, and he’s found a different kind of musical success, as a prolific composer for film and TV. He also has a new book and exhibition of Polaroids, called My ’90s, that chronicles his friendships and collaborations with an array of cool, creative people—everyone from Stereolab and Foo Fighters to Frances McDormand and the cast of Wet Hot American Summer.
It would be nice if the Polaroids sent a new generation of hipsters back to the Shudder to Think catalogue, but it’s hard to know for sure what they’d make of it. “They were a peculiar band,” says Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, whose Dischord Records released some of Shudder to Think’s best work. “He was so theatrical, and it was so jarring. It wasn’t like everybody was wearing green, and he wore blue or red. It was, rather, everybody was wearing all sorts of things, and he still came off like a nutcase—’cause he was just Craig. I mean, Craig is singular.”
If Craig Wedren’s first encounter with Stuart Hill plays like a scene from Bohemian Rhapsody, well, that’s arguably fitting. Wedren was, in some ways, the Freddie Mercury of the Dischord scene—a strutting, flamboyant peacock with a soaring tenor, purring poetry and wailing refrains over music that evolved over time from guitar-heavy punk to an art student’s deranged idea of arena rock. MacKaye, who embodied Dischord’s prevailing aesthetic—think work shirts and Dickies with a wallet chain dangling from the back pocket, served with a strong dose of left-wing activism—didn’t know what to make of Wedren at first. “He just suddenly appeared wearing a fucking sweater and his belly sticking out. We’re like, ‘What, who is this guy?’ I mean, he was really very annoying onstage, to begin with. Then I just grew to love him. You know? I just loved the guy.”
Fugazi took Shudder to Think on tour, and discovered that audiences were less inclined to embrace Wedren’s androgynous antics. “You’re playing to a bunch of knuckleheads who are just coming out to get into fights,” MacKaye recalls. “Just the sight of Craig would enrage them.” Not that Wedren minded. “He is an agitprop-er. No question. The dude loves to fuck with people.”
In 1995, while touring with Foo Fighters, Wedren would enjoy a similar opportunity to screw with intolerant fans. “It was their very first tour,” Wedren recalls. “They hadn’t yet established themselves quite as Foo Fighters, so it was mostly holdouts from Nirvana. And mostly super-hetero dudes. And we were at our most provocatively, aggressively flamboyant. They were violently opposed to what we were doing, and we loved it. And Foo Fighters loved it, too.”
Shudder to Think’s 1992 album Get Your Goat, released on Dischord, was a time-signature-twisting masterpiece that caught the ears of Eddie Vedder and a not-yet-famous Jeff Buckley. The next year, with an assist from Pearl Jam’s A&R guy, Michael Goldstone, Shudder to Think signed with Epic and set about trying to translate their increasingly weird sound for the masses.
Pony Express Record was insanely ambitious, flawlessly executed, and hugely influential. Much of the alternative rock of the late-90s is unthinkable without it, and the band Incubus would turn a cover of its most popular track, “X-French Tee Shirt,” into a staple of its live set. But the record didn’t sell. “In retrospect, how could it have done well?” Wedren says. “I mean, really? But, at the time, we had really put all of our eggs in one basket. We had imagined that we would continue to make these awesomely crazy art-rock records. Little did we know that was to be Radiohead’s job.”
Looking back, Wedren wonders if the “heartache and heartbreak” of the album’s commercial failure took a toll on his health. In 1996, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a life-threatening cancer that required chemotherapy and radiation treatment. For seven months, Wedren was in and out of the hospital. The band was sickly, too—“You know, Behind the Music stuff,” Wedren says, citing what he believed was a widening rift between himself and lead guitarist Nathan Larson. “Things had been fractious between me and Nathan for a while. In retrospect, he really needed to try his own thing. He wanted to be a front man—he wanted to, you know, command his own ship. And that wasn’t gonna happen in Shudder to Think unless I somehow conceded all creative vision, which I’m literally constitutionally incapable of doing. For better and for worse—you know what I mean?”
Wedren was still fighting cancer during the writing of Shudder to Think’s follow-up for Epic, 50,000 B.C. “Those were dark days,” he recalls. “But then, I think partly because I had cancer, it kind of brought everybody back together for, like, half a sec. And so we were able to squeeze out this one last little gemstone.”
After Wedren recovered, the band toured Australia and New Zealand with Pearl Jam, “but we knew we were gonna break up. So that was this really beautiful last hurrah.”
By then, Wedren and Larson already had an eye on a new career: writing music for film and TV. “There was always talk: ‘When are we gonna start doing soundtracks? Like, when can we do that?’” Wedren had grown up in Cleveland with David Wain, who would go on to direct Wet Hot American Summer. They both went to N.Y.U., where they befriended Jesse Peretz, the former Lemonheads bassist who is now a prolific film and television director.
In 1993, Wedren and Eli Janney of Girls Against Boys recorded the theme song for Wain’s short-lived but beloved MTV sketch-comedy series The State. Three years later, Peretz enlisted Shudder to Think to help with his feature debut, First Love, Last Rites. “He needed a fake collection of oldie 45s for one of the main characters, ’cause they didn’t have a music budget,” Wedren recalls. “And so we got all of our fans and heroes to sing these genre songs to comprise one of the main characters’ record collections. We were able to call up Jeff Buckley, and Billy Corgan, and Nat Johnson, and all these really wonderful people.”
Today, Wedren lives with his wife, writer-producer Meggan Lennon, and their 10-year-old son in Los Feliz, and runs his own business composing music for film and TV. He’s currently scoring Alison Brie’s Netflix series GLOW and Aidy Bryant’s hotly anticipated Hulu comedy, Shrill. (Larson, for his part, did the music for Peretz’s most recent film, Juliet, Naked, starring Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke.) Wedren also continues to record as a solo artist, and his last release, Adult Desire, layers his signature vocals and surreally catchy lyrics over electro-inflected soundscapes reminiscent of Perfume Genius.
Which brings us to the Polaroid show, My ’90s, which opens this Thursday at the Loin in San Francisco. It all started with a chance encounter with a very analog piece of equipment. “If memory serves, and it sometimes does, we were doing shows with Fugazi in like ’91 or ’92, and I think it was [guitarist and singer] Guy [Picciotto] who had this camera. It was called a Spectra Camera, and you could trick it into doing multiple exposures using the timer,” Wedren recalls. “It was just one of those devices that jibed with my sensibilities. I didn’t let go of that thing till 2005 or 2006, when they stopped making film for it.”
Wedren’s Polaroids are like proto-Instagrams, thanks to their spontaneity and squarish dimensions. But they’re also inherently more experimental than anything a digital camera could produce. In addition to the multiple exposures, Wedren would frequently scribble on the film as it developed—just to see what would happen. “I was always looking for magic, and you’re limited because you have 8 or 10 chances,” he says. The process allowed for a looseness, a serendipity that wasn’t possible within Shudder to Think’s meticulously crafted music. “Maybe it was like a counterweight,” Wedren acknowledges. “Sort of the equivalent of freewriting. There was a lot of randomness to it. So much of it was luck and flow, and this feeling that it was just an extension of my hand and my eye.”
The images also serve as smeared windows into the seductive, creatively juicy worlds in which Wedren circulated. Backstage at Lollapalooza. A recording session for Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine. The set of Wet Hot American Summer. Backstage with the Citizens Band. Playing or horsing around with Fugazi, Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Pharcyde, and Foo Fighters. Navigating Cannes with Frances McDormand.
It’s all very indie—and very 90s. Whatever that means. As the title, My ’90s, itself suggests, the studied elusiveness of the decade’s most interesting artists makes it hard to get a handle on their cultural legacy. Unlike the eternally self-commemorating Boomers, savvy Gen Xers are wary of making claims that go much beyond “here’s what I experienced.” And even then, it can feel pompous and silly to go on about something like, say, why indie culture and the analog aesthetic felt so rebellious and meaningful. “As the father of a 10-year-old,” Wedren says, “There’s no way to explain or to immerse them in what that was like that isn’t the most hilariously ‘had to walk to school uphill, both ways’ exercise.”
Earlier this year, Wedren had a heart attack. No warning, no nothing. It was his second life-threatening health scare, and he’s only 49 years old. “I’m not sure what happened, honestly,” he says. Ever since his cancer battle, “I’ve become extraordinarily conscious about balance. Whatever I can do to maintain some semblance of sanity, life-work balance, physical and mental health, and just to be a good dad, husband, and happy person. Which I didn’t necessarily used to be. Happy.”
The doctors blame a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol on his mother’s side combined with the long-term after-effects of chemotherapy. “Having lived in Los Angeles for the last 11 years, my psychic has a very different take on it, as you can imagine,” he says with a smile that acknowledges both the L.A. dippiness of this statement and his own belief in it. “That it’s about judgment and comparison—which, interestingly, relates back to where I think my cancer came from. I was driving myself so hard that I was killing myself, making myself sick. There’s some old barbs, some old razor wire in there that I still struggle to untangle. So, to whatever degree you do or don’t buy that, it was a really useful reminder for me. And it resonated. I was like, ‘Yeah, well, that’s something that I still need to focus on.’”
But does anyone ever get over that? I ask. The drive to compete and compare ourselves with others?
“I hope so!” he replies. “Maybe we just, like, befriend it. You know? That’s sort of where I’m at with that. I’m just gonna try and love it like a brother. Love it like a bad brother.”
Wedren says he wishes more people would connect his new music—including the film and TV compositions—to the albums he made with Shudder to Think. He thinks of it as a single oeuvre, and that’s how he’d like other people to view it, too. But even if they don’t, and even if Shudder to Think’s Spotify numbers never come close to, say, Incubus’s, the music Wedren made in the 90s will live on in all the people it’s inspired.
“Sales is not a mark of success. That’s a mark of market,” says MacKaye. “If you think of culture as a jungle, there are those who wade in first with the machetes, and the going is slow. And they often come out bruised or beaten, maybe. But then, once that path is cleared, others come running.” And what’s more hardcore than that?
More Great Stories from Vanity Fair
— Miley Cyrus’s personal memo to the world
— “Men Are Scum”: Inside Facebook’s war on hate speech
— Everything Meghan Markle wore on her trip to Morocco
— About that viral portrait of Meghan . . .
— Look at these Oscar party photos!
Looking for more? Sign up for our daily newsletter and never miss a story.