A Conversation Between Longtime Friends David Wain and Shudder to Think's Craig Wedren
The two met at camp at age four and grew up to collaborate on cult hits like 'Wet Hot American Summer.'
Craig Wedren and David Wain have been friends since they were four years old and have been collaborating artistically together for nearly as long. Most comedy fans know Wain from his work on the 90s MTV sketch show The State, a member of the comedy trio Stella, and the director of the cult classic movie Wet Hot American Summer as well as its Netflix prequel and sequel, in which he also starred. And music fans might know Wedren as the frontman of the beloved DC post-hardcore band Shudder To Think, who released albums on Dischord Records and Epic Records in the 90s and have retained a cultish fanbase that still thrives today. More recently, Wedren released Adult Desire, his first solo album since 2011, along with a 360 VR companion app.
While the duo’s career trajectories veered from each other, they’ve also always maintained a healthy level of overlap and the two friends have collaborated on comedy and music projects from childhood through their time as roommates at NYU and continue to work together today. Wedren has done the music for Wain’s films Role Models and Wet Hot American Summer (the latter of which includes the unforgettable motivational anthem “Higher and Higher”). He also created The State's zeitgeist-capturing theme song.
Upon the release of Adult Desire, we had Wedren and Wain sit down and talk about their creative and personal relationship and how their collective sensibility has fueled so many successful projects over the years. Although they have very different personalities, it’s obvious that the duo shares a unique bond that’s endured for over four decades, and their shared upbringing has helped make the reimagining of their childhood years some of the most absurd and hilarious onscreen moments ever.
Noisey: So how did you two first meet?
Craig Wedren: David, I want you to be the first to answer this because I’ve heard a couple of different stories.
David Wain: There’s so many legends. It’s one of those stories that people retell around the campfire; it’s written down in so many different scrolls. There’s just a real myth around it but I’ll try. My first memory of you was in the cubbies at Park Day Camp. We were maybe four years old and we were in day camp at our synagogue, and since our last names were Wain and Wedren, our little sitting places were right next to each other and that’s where we met.
Wedren: And my mom was the head of waterfront there, which is to say the swimming pool.
Wain: She would twirl the waterfront whistle around her finger, like swing it around one way and roll it around the other way on a chain, and I thought that was the coolest thing I ever saw in my life.
What was the first thing you worked together on as kids?
Wain: Well, I clearly remember that when I was at camp when I was four I was working on a feature for Netflix. I was in post and we fired our composer and we were sort of scrambling because it was kind of a big deal and it had a release date…
Wedren: Then we realized there was no Neflix so the whole thing was a bust. [Laughs] I don’t think we were conscious of starting to work together and I still don’t think we’re conscious of working together, it’s just sort of been this cellular process that started where you’re goofy with your best friend and make up silly stuff. If you’re wired for it, that turns into really silly stuff, and if you’re really fortunate like we have been, it becomes a career. We’re super, super fortunate to maintain a friendship through all of it and I would say, at least as far as I’m concerned, our friendship and working relationship has only gotten more solid. The older we get, the richer it becomes and we’re able to appreciate it.
Wain: But also to get back to exactly what you were asking, I think when we were in our pre-teens, we were all running around with very primitive old VHS video cameras and making little video stuff. So we were doing that together for fun but at the same time Craig was becoming a real musician and playing in a lot of local bands, and we started making some videos of sorts, connected to some of the songs. I guess that would be what I would call our first actual music/filmmaking collaboration.
Wedren: I feel like we should send you a link to the “Something Girl” video because that’s sort of the first official Wain/Wedren collaboration. It was a video from when we were 13 and we made it in David’s basement. It was for an original song by my seventh and eighth grade band which was called Immoral Minority.
Wain: By the way, I was also the manager of the band. It was all about me, actually.
Wedren: I literally remember that moment. I was at your house and I knew you had to be involved and feel like you were in control of it, so you were like, “I’m the manager, my dad’s in radio.” Because David’s dad was a bigwig in Cleveland radio from the 50s through the 90s.
Wain: Yeah. At one point I remember Craig’s band, which was just a group of eighth graders, got featured on this syndicated music show hosted by Toni Tennille.
Wedren: That was when you proved your managerial prowess…
Wain: Right. They came and videotaped one of the shows at the JCC and it was such a big deal. Everyone in town was talking about it and they interviewed his mom and stuff.
Wedren: Presumably because it was Toni Tennille, it was national. What the fuck was she doing in Cleveland with a bunch of teenagers? [Laughs] I presume your dad made that happen?
Wain: I don’t remember. I might have pitched it. I was Mr. Entrepreneur, always printing up posters and stationary and stuff. I was always the guy who really wanted to be a musician and I had drums in my basement and stuff, so I got to a certain level on all the instruments.
Wedren: You’re a good musician and you’ve always been a good piano player. You could always play “Head Over Heels” by The Go-Go’s really well. Also, “Freeze Frame” by The J. Geils Band.
So what was your first professional collaboration?
Wain: Basically, once we started doing The State we were in college, and soon after we got out of college The State sketch comedy troupe started doing stuff at MTV and we brought in Craig to do the theme song and music, so that started the first professional collaboration.
Wedren: I left Cleveland when I was 16 in the fall of 1985, so in between growing up there and being at NYU together I spent two years in Washington DC, and that’s when Shudder To Think formed. In retrospect, we were very precocious but we toured and made a record [1989’s Curses, Spells, Voodoo, Mooses] so when I got to NYU, whenever somebody needed music either for a theatre scene or a student film they would ask me because I was an actual musician and I had a little four-track in my dorm. It happened very naturally. It’s really almost freaky parallels between your career and my career, David. You went from NYU to The New Group into The State and MTV, and I was with Shudder To Think/Dischord Records. Then when we graduated you guys became The State on MTV and Shudder To Think signed to Epic records and became this big, little cult band, whatever it was. We always had this parallel track and we were always familial and collaborative throughout it.
Wain: I remember when we were like eight or something, your mom was like, “Well, Craig has decided he doesn’t want to become a baseball player, he wants to become a rockstar.”
Wedren: Thank you, KISS.
Wain: Also, our shared dorm room at NYU was decorated exclusively with the wallpaper of KISS posters.
Wedren: That’s right. I remember when we got to NYU, the first week we were like, “Well, we’ve got to find as many KISS posters as we can.” So we walked all over New York City and scooped every… only KISS? I also remember a George Michael poster.
Wain: I think at first it was only KISS and then you were like, “Okay, that’s boring.”
What’s your process like when working on, say, one of the Wet Hot American Summer projects? Having worked together for so long do you know what the other person is thinking?
Wain: We’ve developed a shorthand for sure.
Wedren: I think the shorthand goes back to the contours of a shared sensibility. I always go back to the fact that David’s dad was in radio and I remember your dad bringing home Murmur by R.E.M. in 1982 or something like that and standing at your turntable in your den listening to it and going, “Whoa what is this? This feels like something, it’s awesome,” but we didn’t know quite what it was. Whenever I think about our shorthand now, I think about way before college. Even though there was a lot of shared stuff throughout our life, I think the shorthand goes back to camp and the feelings you have when you’re little before you’re analyzing anything.
Wain: I remember listening to Murmur and thinking, “How the hell does this rock so hard without any distortion?”
Wedren: Yeah, maybe that’s what was so weird about it, I don’t know. But what requires a full hour or two-hour meeting with most other directors can be done in a word with David. Because Wet Hot American Summer is so epic and sprawling and you created it at such a breakneck speed, we didn’t always have a chance to get in a room together. So that shorthand really served us in addition to knowing that I don’t need to prove myself to David. Since I’m coming from sort of a rock background there’s a sense of “Oh, are you really a composer?” or “Can you really compose a score and write songs and produce things?” that you get from some directors. With David, that’s not an issue because he knows what I do.
Wain: Every time we do something I’m always so excited because we know what we can do but I also love to see us push ourselves and go beyond that.
Was there ever a period where you two fell out of touch or has it been pretty constant over the years?
Wedren: I don’t know, I suppose it has an ebb and flow to it, but certainly it’s been pretty constant.
Wain: I’d say, overall, shockingly constant in general. When we were 25 that’s when Shudder To Think got their big record deal and were on Lollapalooza, and I went along with them, videotaping. Actually I don’t know if that has anything to do with what we’re talking about, I just wanted to mention that memory.
Wedren: David came on tour with us when we were on Lollapalooza in 1994 and he had this fake MTV microphone because The State, I think, was on MTV at the time. I think he grabbed one of those little things—it looks like a coffee mug holder to stick on the microphone—that said “MTV News,” and that gave you instant access to anyone in the audience. David was documenting that and our other best friend named Stuart Blumberg, who is equally amazing and is a screenwriter and director, was Shudder To Think’s roadie that summer, so the three of us were on that tour together. Now David has two sons and I have a son and they are four months apart and they are amazing friends so it continues. It’s almost mystical to me, it’s amazing.
Wain: I also have optimism that I feel, collaboratively and creatively, we have so much more to go. I have so many goals vaguely or in my head that I’ve dreamt about doing.
Wedren: I feel the same and also what’s incredible is the amount of excitement over the projects hasn’t really flagged. There’s so much joy and pleasure in creativity and being kind of silly and stupid and creative in a childlike way where it isn’t too serious.
Have you always shared this sensibility? Because what both of you do is so incredibly unique.
Wedren: I think we have similar tastes but I don’t think our personalities are that similar, you know? It’s almost more fun because we occupy different parallel aesthetic places. Does that make sense? What do you think about that?
Wain: With the things that we work on together, there’s no “what is this?” We get it.
Wedren: Yeah, it’s always within this realm of “this is what we do.” There’s no threat of breaking or severing. We created this world and I picture it as a bubble machine that keeps blowing out these things.
What’s a dream project that you would like to work on together?
Wain: I want to do a movie that was inspired by Magnolia that starts with music and then the movie is spun out from the music. That kind of thing has always been a dream at some point.
Wedren: We’ve been talking about that and it feels like, at this point, we are getting closer even though we’ve been talking about it for a long time.
Wain: We’ve developed other stories that are based on our own personal memories and the fact that we went to camp together, which was such a formative experience in our lives. It’s what Wet Hot American Summer is about, so that collaboration is so much more than “Oh, he’s a composer of the music.”
Wedren: I think so much of the reason why Wet Hot American Summer worked is because it’s passionately true… even though it’s taken to really absurd extremes.
Wain: The thing about Wet Hot American Summer is that it’s real, it’s coming from a true nostalgia and love for this period of time.
Wedren: One of the things that I love about Wet Hot American Summer, and what I’m always thinking about when it comes to the music, is that it has this ability to make me laugh in the dumbest way like we did as little kids—and I use the word “dumbest” as the highest possible compliment—and also feel emotional at the same time. I’ll be laughing harder than I can remember at the most absurd, weird joke you guys made up and at the same time I’ll have a tear in my eye because it does feel so umbilically connected to our experience as kids and as teenagers and that is precious to me. At this point, looking backwards through the telescope at our experiences as dreamy as it was when we were kids, it really feels like a dream at age 48, and the fact that we get to sort of regurgitate that for a living, I don’t know how many people get to do that. Probably not too many.
Jonah Bayer is on Twitter.