by Craig Howieson
Station to station – a journey through the years with Kevin Whelan, as he finds balance in the perception-shifting nature of time
The road to how Aeon Station came into being has been well documented. None more so that in the excellent New York Times feature with the the man behind the name, Kevin Whelan, which ran in September of this year, as the project was announced.
For those unfamiliar, Whelan is a founding member of the much adored indie rock outfit, The Wrens, whose third record, the 2003 masterpiece, The Meadowlands, is a cult classic. So beloved was the album that a genuine fervour accompanied the anticipated wait for its follow up; a record that was long discussed and promised, but never quite materialised. Day jobs, family commitments, ill health and an inability to let the songs go, all played their part in holding the album up until finally in 2019 it appeared it was ready to be released. However, some inter-band disagreements couldn’t be worked out, urging Whelan to take the songs he had written and find a new home for them. It may not be the way anyone expected to hear new music from Whelan, but the results are no less vital.
It’s still early in New Jersey as I connect with Whelan. Sat at home, he is about to start work for the day and is fulfilling some press commitments first. Over the course of our chat, it becomes clear that Whelan’s story, and the story of Aeon Station, is not really about The Wrens, or the protracted wait for a new record. It is a story of how time can shape us, and how the lives we lead change our perceptions on a daily basis, making each day brand new.
‘It’s a unique thing. It’s not often that someone works on a record for like 100 years,’ laughs Whelan as I ask him about the gestation period of his new record, Observatory. ‘I started the demos for the record when I was 37, and now I’m 51.’ It seems fitting that his first new record under a new name bears more parallels with a debut than a follow up. The time over which these songs came together would more often be associated with a band or artist at the beginning of their career – offering up a set of songs they have spent their life to date working on, which, as Whelan notes, is what often makes them so special. ‘For a lot of bands, their first records are so great because they are so cared after. I’ve also always had this theory that when bands are making those records no one cares. It’s when people care and they are waiting that it’s hard to follow up really fast on. It’s like Netflix, people think they want more episodes but it’s up to the artist to know when it’s done.’
Observatory shares the same special quality found in many debut records. Although its creation may have been disjointed, it has been tentatively stitched together with great care and attention to detail. It is also rare to have a record provide such an insight into such a significant portion of an artist’s life. ‘It’s definitely autobiographical,’ says Whelan. ‘Because when I started it I was single, The Wrens were still doing tours with The Meadowlands and Charles (Bissel – The Wrens) and I were living together until he moved out to get married. Then I got married and had kids. I lost jobs, moved to Asia, and now I’m here.’
The album’s ten songs were recorded in two distinct phases. Half of the songs (originally intended for The Wrens’ follow up) were done and recorded by 2013. Then as Whelan explains, ‘it was sort of put in the garage and just stayed there, literally as is. And then it was dusted off, and the dusting off was getting it mixed.’ And in-keeping with how things had always been, the creation of Observatory was typically DIY. ‘We never had money,’ says Whelan. ‘There’s these bands going into the studio and shit like that and I was in my basement or recording in the kitchen.’ Whelan’s wife also performs on the record, adding to its sense of homespun domesticity. ‘Some of the times when she’s singing, she’s coming home from work and she’s singing with her work outfit on. So that’s like half of the record, then the next half of the record was really done in a sprint.’
This sprint occurred in 2020. ‘I figured I hadn’t done anything now for seven or eight years and all of a sudden it just came out of me. And I did go into a friend’s studio, nothing radical or big time, just a nice studio and Jerry (MacDonald – The Wrens) did the drums for me in one day. The next day, I went in and did bass, guitars, and pianos and then another day later I did all the vocals. So half the record was like eight years old and the other half was done in like three days.’
Listening back to the record now is akin to glancing through journal entries for Whelan – triggering memories of the where, who and how. ‘Everything is pretty much a first take or a second take. It was not laboured over,’ he recalls. ‘But it was kind of worked up. So I can almost remember everything I recorded, and when I recorded it. And I remember finding those moments when the song sort of came through. Like “oh my god I think that’s it” or “I’m happy with it!”’
The record also provides insight into the shape Whelan’s life has taken over the last few years and how the arc of time has embedded itself within the songs. His life has changed immeasurably since the first drafts were written – to a point he can literally hear himself growing up on tape. ‘My wife and I were talking about it and I was like, “I recorded that when we only had one child.”‘
Whelan and his wife now have two kids, both boys, Jackson and Ryder. And it is his youngest, Ryder – who is autistic – that Whelan credits as the inspiration behind the record’s title, and for radically altering his outlook on life. ‘He doesn’t talk, or very little, and to see how he’s getting through life in the same world he doesn’t know is there is really profound.’
The despair which Whelan and his wife were thrown into on news of their son’s diagnosis, coupled with the incalculable challenges that presented themselves as a result, also instilled a resilience and optimism within them, and a sharp focus on the importance of time. ‘Everyone gets fucked over, you gotta dig in, you gotta punch up and get through it,’ says Whelan. ‘Sometimes, it’s just like “fuck it,” because it is all make believe. This is just a moment in time and you are really just a shadow, constantly. It really does kind of bring that into focus a lot more. When normal parents might worry about playdates, that’s gone – we don’t even have that. So you look at it in a whole different way and that gives you this courage, this sort of positivity in the moment you have.’
Whelan notes that the ‘heaviness and intensity’ of his son’s condition allowed for a positive catharsis to creep into his songwriting. Observatory is a collection of relatable but study stories of, yes hardship, but also resilience and perseverance. Dreams are left out to dry in a mid-life sun, only to be thrashed into life by a typhoon carrying them in new directions. Whelan has always specialised in anthems that are just skewed enough for them to be relatable, and tracks like Queens and Air carry on that noble tradition and make a bold claim for being among his finest songs to date.
Not unlike his time with The Wrens, Whelan balances Aeon Station with his full time job. But unlike many other musicians who perhaps subsidise their creative pursuits with a host of part-time endeavours, Whelan holds down a demanding role as an executive for Johnson and Johnson – a job that his life is built around, and one that Aeon Station will always likely be secondary to. ‘It’s a decision you make and it was kinda made young,’ explains Whelan on the balancing act he carries out between his work and passion project. ‘Jerry – the drummer of The Wrens who is my best friend and an amazing person – and I were secretaries together, and we worked in the same office. I remember getting our first record contract that came through the fax machine. We were sitting there, two twenty-three year olds at the time, awatching our future thinking we’re gonna become U2 or Pulp or Blur or Oasis or whoever. And I think our first contract was like $1500 for the first record, so, out of necessity, we had jobs. We were definitely one of those types of bands.’ He then adds, far too modestly, ‘but I think it’s also we were never really that good in reality. We were never The Hold Steady. We never got that buzz that was gonna get us on The Letterman Show, or that kind of thing. So we had to pay rent. But it wasn’t like a decision of “well, I’m either gonna pay rent then I’m gonna give up music.” You just do it!’
In the notes accompanying his record’s press release, Whelan writes that Observatory is about never letting go of your dreams and passion. His dedication to his art, and his perseverance in making sure these songs are heard is a testament to that. ‘You do it cause you love it,’ he states matter of factly – ‘it’s who you are.’ The goalposts may have moved, and the prize’s changed, but there is a palpable contentment felt when chatting to Whelan about where he now finds himself. ‘I am the luckiest person and I am happy. We thought that we were gonna be rich and famous and that never worked out. It changes, but you don’t give it up. And I am a testament to that.’
As well as finding contentment for himself, Whelan is also grateful for the friends he has made along the way – whose level of success followed a different path to his own. ‘I have seen the other side,’ he shares. ‘I have so many amazing stories. I met Conor from Bright Eyes when he was 14 in a parking lot coming to our show. He was just a little kid clutching his t-shirt and we took him on his first tour. And we met the Arcade Fire in a snowstorm in Canada and brought them to their first show, and then a year later they were singing with David Bowie in Central Park. And The Hold Steady, they are like friends, we had our vans burn down together, and then all of a sudden they are on The Letterman Show and we were like “holy shit.” So I’ve seen all these different angles of it. I was never jealous of it – my version is just different.’
Like all lives, Whelan’s has been punctuated by highs and lows. He has had his fair share of body blows and bum deals, and life has provided plenty of challenges for him to face. But there has also been a catalog of successes: artistically, personally and professionally. And with the slow passing of time, he has found a balance that has left him with a sense of fulfilment. Observatory follows that journey – detailing the moments when we have to grit our teeth and step forth into new days of opportunity. ‘How do you manage the uncertainty of the future when you are living in the present?’ Whelan ventures towards the end of our call. It is a key theme of the record, which he says is ‘like a road map for me and my wife. The best times are ahead, and also times that will not be – they are also ahead. I hope Observatory is something that people can take in any way that they want to help or inspire… even for a moment.’
Just before we hang up, Whelan jokes that ‘this could be the end of anyone ever wanting to talk about music with me… and I would be fine with that.’ But he is also hopeful of being able to make more records. I will not be alone in sharing that hope with him – that and the hope that Observatory marks the beginning of a second chapter for the New Jersey songwriter.
If you’d like to support us by subscribing to our zine, click here – it’s just £6 a year for four copies (inc p&p).