Shawn Wiederhoeft photographed by Andrea Carter
In this series I interview the musicians who lent their talents to the Picket Linesoundtrack, many of them comics enthusiasts and story-tellers in their own rights. Shawn Wiederhoeft is the man behind Madison, Wisconsin’s beloved band Recreation Station. He wrote the song which appears in the Picket Line trailer, and also opens the soundtrack. In interest of full-disclosure (but mostly sibling pride) he is also my brother. Shawn sat down with me on G-Chat to talk about the evolution of sound, dummy lyrics, and what’s better than fame.
B: So, the question I’ve been starting everyone out with: how would you describe the Recreation Station’s sound, to those who haven’t heard it yet?
Shawn: I have no idea, it changes a lot. When it first started, it was more electronica (Stegabach) and then when you and I played the first Recreation Station show at Mother Fools, we were pretty folk. Our last album [Me and My Friends EP] was folky and annoying yelling, and the newest one we’re wrapping up is definitely more rock and less folk. I like to think of it as happy-go-lucky in a way in that if we screw up, who cares, as long as people are having fun!
B: Yeah! It seems like your sound is constantly evolving, sometimes taking really surprising leaps in a new direction or jumping genres entirely. What is it that keeps you changing sounds so regularly?
Shawn: I usually end up hating everything I did, and want to get as far away from it as possible. So, in a way…hatred is my motivation, haha.
B: Haha, I have witnessed that, and it always baffles me, because I am always a fan of whatever you put out!
Shawn: Thanks! You know how it is.
B: Totally. I can relate — we are our own worst critics. Do you feel it keeps you from completing projects?
Shawn: Probably in part. Mostly what keeps me from completing things is when I sit down and know what I want it to be, but I can’t get it there. So I get discouraged and things tend to sit.
B: Does that heighten the sense of accomplishment, then, when you do finish a project? Say for example, the Me & My Friends EP?
B: Or even individual songs?
Shawn: Individual songs mean nothing to me, for some dumb reason. I mean, when I make them that is,
I have it stuck in my head that they’re nothing without others.
B: Which is interesting, because you do put individual songs online. Videos and covers and what not.
Shawn: Yeah, but not really anymore.
B: I guess “Robins and Lilacs” was the last one in a while?
Shawn: Yeah, I liked that one though. Probably because I didn’t write it!
B: It’s a great song! I just listened to the original [by Andrew Holzem].
So you aren’t convinced that the internet has destroyed the need for complete albums?
Shawn: Hm. I’m not convinced of anything. I am really way too naive. Naive musically, that is. But I prefer to be, I suppose.
B: You mentioned covering Andrew Holzem, and you guys have made a lot of music together too. So let’s talk a little bit about collaboration! As the band leader of Recreation Station you’ve involved a number of different musicians with your music. What is that experience like, compared to having a rigidly defined lineup?
Shawn: I really enjoy playing with different lineups. Of course, the sound may never be as tight as I wish, but I am finding that may be why some people like us! When it comes to recording, I am selfish and prefer to be in control of most things. To the point of even trying to record our drums for the upcoming album, haha. But it works out because people I play with trust me, and let me try things while recording.
B: So in the studio you maintain most of the creative control. But when you’re playing outside the context of Recreation Station I imagine that looks different? Your song-making sessions with Andy for example.
Shawn: Definitely. In my studio I like to do my own thing, but live, I want exactly the opposite. I don’t care how talented people are at their instruments. Seeing people get that look in their eye when playing, and realizing they did something cool, is such a nice feeling. At that point I’m just happy to be a part of it, and try to bring something else to the table.
B: It seems like it would be a little foolish (not to mention near impossible) to control the exact musical output at a live event anyway.
Shawn: Haha, yeah. But you would be a lot more expecting of what’s coming up if you had organized practices.
B: Haha, oh who needs that? Like all creative pursuits, there will be perfectionists, and there will be those who learn through the messy act of making. Sounds like you are a little of both.
You wrote the theme song for Picket Line (which appeared in the trailer and opens the soundtrack) under some really rigid guidelines. Essentially, you had to write a song around the timing, length, and feel of a video that came before the song. How did that experience compare to your usual song-writing/recording process? You certainly had to give up some of the control in a situation like that.
Shawn: Yeah, it was fun. I am most productive with guidelines like the ones given anyway. Usually I just come up with fun guitar parts and melodies, record all the music, then think about it and write some words. With the soundtrack, I was given a time limit and a break in the middle which would be a mood change, so it was challenging. Hopefully it gets people excited to buy the book!
B: Yeah, when the trailer came out there was a whole lot of buzz about “who was that band on the video??” So hopefully you got to see some of that feedback!
I just have a few more questions if you have some more time?
Shawn: Sure thing.
B: Your songs vary from silly sounds and lyrics to downright, gut-wrenching seriousness. Is there a conscious direction to which way a song will go when you start to write it?
Shawn: Sometimes yes, usually no. Sometimes I start a song with the intention of saying something serious, but then I start writing and the words won’t come, so it becomes not-so-serious and vice versa. I am not so good with words, which is why I try to rely more on catchiness as my crutch. Sometimes I sing things that aren’t even real words!
B: You’re inventing new words!
Shawn: But then it’s funny when people tell me what they thought I said.
B: Haha, yeah. It’s like those Sigur Ros videos where people try to decipher the lyrics of their invented language. So are they dummy lyrics that you later decide not to replace, or did you always intend to keep the made-up words in there?
Shawn: No, just dummy words. I’m getting away from that, but my last EP had plenty… shhh! Actually, that’s a way I work a lot. Record dummy lyrics, and then go back and listen to what I sang and see if I can make sense of any of the cool parts. Kind of like creating a silhouette for drawing characters.
B: So, the music comes more readily than the lyrics?
Shawn: All the time. That’s why when I used to play with Brian Hurlbut [Author & the Autopilot] we made so many songs. Because I just worried about the music and he wrote the words. My words mean little to me, ha. Not sure if that’s good or bad, but it is. If I was trying to be a real musician I would care, but if it’s for fun, I don’t.
B: Well, then it becomes that interesting thing of, what do your self-described meaningless lyrics mean to a listener? Because what seems simple or nonsense to you could really speak deeply to someone else.
Because the emotion present on your EP certainly doesn’t sound meaningless!
Shawn: Yeah, I mean, their is meaningful stuff in there. There are just also parts where there is no meaning.
B: And it’s a mystery which parts are which.
Shawn: Haha, yeah.
B: I think that’s a totally fair approach, though! I do the same in my writing… to be completely vulnerable is really risking everything, but to slip the truth in there, well, it’s a way to maintain your sanity, and your privacy.
Shawn: Yup. I agree. I’m proud to say, though, the upcoming EP is completely thought out.
B: It’s more intentional, lyrically?
Shawn: Yeah, I actually wrote words that mean things!
B: What a concept! You mentioned that you would try harder if you were trying to be a real musician… (which many would argue you already are). Does the fact that you’re trying harder (at least lyrically) on the new EP mean that you are taking a step in that direction?
Shawn: Haha, no. And I didn’t mean it as in, “woe is me.” I just meant that I know I’ll never be well-known, or write life-changing songs. And that is completely fine with me! I am just not into that scene when it comes down to it. I don’t feel I connect with those people usually, and that’s cool. I connect better with people who do things because they enjoy them and are just fun to be around! Of course all musicians do it because they enjoy it. I guess I mean people who could write a great song, and be fine if only their friends heard it. Our new EP is definitely more serious, but it is by no means my announcement that I am “going for it”.
B: Yeah, I hear what you’re saying. And I’d agree, and say it’s probably more meaningful to connect with your friends and family over something you sincerely love, than to reach thousands or even millions of people with a song that you didn’t actually write for them, and maybe only wrote to make a lot of money. Not that that’s necessarily what professional musicians are about, but some are.
Shawn: Totally, and I have nothing against those that do.
B: But it certainly doesn’t devalue what you do, as a person (a very talented person) who chooses to keep his talents more local. Although, like it or not, your music has at least made it as far as Portland now.
Shawn: YAY! Haha, I do like being heard as much as I can.
B: Totally, it’s a great feeling! But if that’s the main point of doing it, we’ll never be satisfied. It’s something I have to realize in my own art as well.
Shawn: Yeah, money and fame are the most meaningless motivators!
B: And yet they are probably the most common motivators. Or maybe I’m being cynical about it. I know
they creep up on even the best intentioned, though. Have to beat them back with a guitar!
Shawn: GET BACK!!! ZOOMMMMGGG GET AWYYYAY!
B: Haha, well, I think this is good.
Shawn: They got me.
B: Aw crap.
Shawn: No, just kidding.
Check out more from the Recreation Station and listen to the Me & My Friends EP at therecreationstation.bandcamp.com!