This past week I had a great conversation with Kevin Whelan (of The Wrens) who has created a solo album, entitled Observatory, under the moniker of Aeon Station. In this in-depth conversation, we chatted about his inspiration for the new album, how he stayed busy as well as creative during the pandemic, and we had some fun discussing the legacy of Sub Pop Records, too. Observatory is available now on all streaming services, or you can purchase the physical version here.
So thank you again for the opportunity to chat with you today, Kevin. After more than a decade away from the music scene, tell me why you felt the time was right to release this upcoming record with Aeon Station, called Observatory?
Thank you. I’ve always loved music and being involved since I was a kid. And I think the last 10 years have been a unique journey, right? Around marriage, kids, work, and all that. And I think what really was the key impetus this time was, was around COVID, I think it’s got a really sharp lens on a lot of things for people. And that kind of had me it really rekindled my passion to kind of just record and do songs and just enjoy music as I was getting back into it. And that’s what I was doing sort of just quietly in my house, just seeing him again, putting songs together, which I’ve always done my whole life, I’ve always written and put songs together. But COVID was kind of showing, given all the complex stories that have happened around that time, that time is very valuable, and you just can’t replace it. And that’s also coupled with my son, who has nonverbal autism. He’s inspired me in many ways. He has developed an issue and it’s to enjoy what you have, and to enjoy with those that you love.
Nice! Did you find any creative restrictions during COVID, as far as the writing process? Or do you actually find inspiration like you were mentioning?
Yeah, in kind of a weird way, it was a bit inspirational. Because the intention was better, there was zero intention. It was just the enjoyment of doing it. And spending those hours with everybody was just locked in the house and all that kind of stuff. But it was just…it was just that it was just that focus. And I think this kind of isolation helped in many things. It helped a lot of us watch a lot of Netflix. <Laughter> And it helped us also do artistic endeavors a little bit more.
Where did the title come from for Observatory? And what does it mean to you today?
Yeah, great question. Observatory, it comes from my son, where living with autism, he sees things in so many different ways than many other people do. And by him seeing life in a different way, it’s also kind of showing me how to see life in a different way, right? Because it’s not in the norm. It’s not in the way we kind of proceed as normal. But he’s still with me, he’s still engaged. And I just have a different connection so it really is about how we observe everything. And the songs are also about that, how you observe different parts of your life, how you observe interactions with everyone. So it’s around that, and we all do it. And then now kind of we take it in, and then translate.
How old is your son now?
Okay, yeah, I have a 10 year old son. Is he your oldest?
Actually, I have a 10 year old too.
Oh, okay. Nice!
It’s a busy crew, that’s for sure.
Yeah, it’s a fun time. I think I hear him coming through the door getting back from school.
10 is just…it’s the best I think of life, right? And he’s right there with it. He wants to share anything.
So yeah, that’s awesome! Can you tell me about the process for writing your great new single called “Leaves?” Where did the lyrical inspiration come from?
Great, thank you. I would have to say I think “Leaves” is maybe the best song I’ll ever write. And it’s, by far, probably my favorite song that has stayed with me for a long time. It’s been close to 10 years in certain structures and formats. The inspiration for the lyrics are kind of keen…as you go through your life, whether it’s your 30’s or 40’s…But you kind of go and get married and have children and all that. It’s a whole new territory that people just don’t understand. The complexities are really big. And there are times when you win and lose, and I think it’s, it’s really finding that inner strength to kind of find that new purpose. That new you, after kind of hardships or legs kind of been a little difficult to you, how do you look at the new sunrise? And how do you look at that thing and kind of interpret that I think that every single person goes through it. And it’s kind of like at the end, that’s why the song sort of builds up to a sort of a triumph. And it’s like…I got this!
Yeah, and were there certain songs on this record that you felt were easier to write than others? Or was this one of the ones that came to you quickly?
I’ve been writing songs since the 80s. And most of them are really, really bad. <Laughter> But this one I’m proud of as a whole, and I would never say to compete with any of the great songs of all time. But at least for me, and what I can do, “Leaves” was probably the easiest song to write. It was one of those moments that all songwriters like to talk about what just happened. And it just happened. Everything was good. The lyrics, they kind of came out. And it was like, “Oh boy! I guess that’s a good one!”
Yeah, and sometimes the songs that come quickest, some artists will say, those are the ones that end up being singles or big smashes.
It is sort of like that thing where the relationship between the songs is really easy. The friend that you really love, because it’s just always easy with them. Whether you saw them last week or four years ago, it’s just, you’re right back to it. And I think music and art can do the exact same thing.
It’s cool to hear about that dynamic that you’re talking about! So what are some of the lessons you’ve learned from your time in The Wrens? Was there anything that you learned that you put directly back into this record?
That’s life, and I always say…I am always a Wren. No one loves The Wrens more than me. Because I started the band when I was 18. So it’s what has guided many decisions in my life. And I would say everything on this record, I learned with The Wrens. I mean it’s just too long to kind of not say..It’s how you approach songs, how you think about them, what you learn, the structures, the technical side of those things, right? And then the emotional side. Just everything is easy. Or are you just sort of in love with it for a little while, and all that kind of stuff? Because we’ve done it for so many years, and we’ve had so many mistakes along the way, and also successes. So yeah, I would say so many things, but I think I’m kind of growing from that. And what really kind of challenged me here is I got started to mess around with forms of songs and, and verses and choruses and structures. And, I also think I became one for the first time, because I never had any expectations for any of this. So I became brutally honest with myself, and sometimes to the core with the lyrics, where it gets a little tricky. Saying things like, I don’t know if I should write that…Nothing to tell you profoundly, but to me personally, it was revealing a lot. But I said, “Well, I’m going to keep it.”
What do you use as far as your litmus tests? I mean, obviously, touring wasn’t a thing during COVID. But who did you test out the material with?
You know, my wife was in the house. And I would just kind of put it past her, and say, “Is this bad?” And she would say yes or no, and she has been helping me for many, many years. She loves music. And she’s been a good critical eye and carries uncritical light. She’ll help me and be like, “Oh, that could be better.” But yeah, it was really kind of going down and saying, “What do you think?” And not even the lyrics were like, “Well, I think I’m kind of seeing stuff a little too close to bone.” And she was like, “Well, you gotta go for so many people.”
So, I understand you actually recorded some of the parts with members of The Wrens, right? So what was that process of getting the band back together, so to speak?
It’s funny, because it is a band, but it’s always been more of a family for so many years. For my whole life, it’s just sort of all intermingled, and in particular my brother, Greg [Whelan], kind of helps out with doing some guitar stuff here and there. But then Jerry MacDonald plays in The Wrens. And so it’s been a long time. Yeah, in that way, it’s sort of just like, let’s just have fun. Let’s go in and have a nice afternoon, and just have some fun. Because we never had that in the past, there was always that pressure of it’s got to be good. It’s got to be this. But that’s sort of what I think in a way or in a weird way kind of helped it. I had no expectations that anyone would ever hear it. So I just kind of let some loose creative ideas come through.
Cool. So I understand that when you guys were coming to the end of the time with The Wrens, there was a teased release that you were going to do with Sub Pop records. And now you’re releasing Observatory on Sub Pop. So why did you feel this was the best place to release this record?
I would kind of say it’s in my heart, and in this way…The Wrens are always a band. It’s our mission to…there was never a disbanding of it. It’s just sort of like, this is the next day. And Sub Pop has been extremely supportive of The Wrens since 2013, or 2014. Really, really great people, but with no promise, right? They never promised me anything. I finished the whole thing. And I didn’t know if I was just going to give it to my wife and friends. But I’m not sure how much you work with Sub Pop, but I would highly recommend anyone out there in the world, to listen to their music, support their music, because those people and those who work with them. They’re just the finest.
Yeah, I’m definitely a frequent buyer of their stuff. I mean, from the early days of the legendary bands that kind of came through the ranks and made their way up to the major labels…You can see the dedication that not only the artists come from, but also the people that work at the label, they care about the music, too!
I feel most of the people that are at Sub Pop have been there forever. Yeah, they really kind of created all these fans. And I don’t know if you know Flight of the Conchords. But, Nirvana, and the list goes on. Wow, what a track record. Father John Misty and Fleet Foxes…
Even in my area…I live in the Maryland area just outside of DC, Beach House is a big deal in my hometown and an important band for the label.
I was just gonna say Beach House are huge, along with some of those references. And they created it, so I think it’s their kind of source of culture. And they could not be any nicer.
That always makes it easier, come decision time on the label to work with, and the artistic creativity and stuff like that. It’s nice to have somebody back in your corner for that. Were there any vivid memories that stood out to you as you reflect back on the Observatory sessions now?
I think the greatest reflection that I have on this is getting a chance to work with Tom Beaujour. Tom not only did the record, but he also released a new book that went on the New York Times’ bestsellers list this year. So the guy is just a busy guy, and the book was called “Nothing But A Good Time.” It talks about the whole hair metal kind of thing. And it’s just an incredible book. But then on top of that, I think for me, was while he was doing that, he would work and kind of help with the songs and his artistic, and his human side of what music needs to be. And he’s worked with so many bands. He just has great experience with trying to get what people are trying to get at. He was very kind, nice, and great.
That’s great to hear, and I’m glad you’re able to kind of reflect on these sessions as you’re getting ready to release Observatory on December 10th. So what are your emotions as you’re about to release this to the world?
It’s just so mixed. The overwhelming one is just appreciation and humility, and respect for everyone who has liked The Wrens. They might want to come and listen to this new music or anyone who might discover this for something new. I am telling you, if only three people listen to it, that’s okay, but it’s already kind of way exceeded my expectations. So all kinds of emotions: excitement, fear, all that all kinds of stuff. But yet very, very lucky, most importantly.
Awesome! The last question I have for you is for you to describe your process for writing songs on this particular record, and also describe the evolution over time. What have you noticed in your own songwriting from previous projects?
I haven’t really mentioned this to anyone. But I did something that was sort of weird. I bought a complete lyric book by Bernie Taupin. Beautiful book. And I then proceeded to listen to every single Elton John song that’s ever been made. Everyone knows “Crocodile Rock,” and all the big ones, but I just kind of just went to the lyric book, like a maniacal sort of theme during COVID just sort of helped me. It sounds like a boring process. But you did see this sort of songwriting kind of genesis, where if you watch them, every Elton John song was written in one prose. It’s sort of a story, almost every time, and it’s usually not that many stanzas. It’s actually a lot shorter than people think. And things like that goes to the magnitude of his writing. But usually they are giving you the verse and the chorus within like the first 35 seconds of every song. So it kind of helped me realize they were doing a formula. So it kind of guided me. I remember reading this quote that Hemingway learned how to write by writing out the books that he gets. I wanted to kind of follow that. So everyone sort of likes at least one Elton John song, you’d be amazed by the structure of these guys. And the speed of these writers.
Yeah, and I think like even like the biopic of Rocketman kind of alluded to some of the behind the scenes of what was going on with the dynamic between Elton and Bernie.
Yeah, it was awesome. So thank you for allowing the long-winded story.
Sure thing! Is there any other quick pitch you want to give to your fans out there to check out Observatory?
Thank you for giving this time. Thank you to anyone who might listen or who might be interested in the music. Really, thank you Adam, for your time today!