It took three feet of snow and three days in a Pine Street studio in 1995 for Burlington band Wide Wail to finally record their first album.
“It was a snowy, snowy day. It was one of those thunder-snowstorms,” recalls David Rosenstein, now 38, on of the band’s founders and a core member over its 12-year lifespan.
Though they’d been together nearly five years at the time, Wide Wail solidified their chunky, guitar-driven sound with that self-titled album — a sound highlighted by Amanda Gustafson’s belting vocals and poetic lyrics laced with subtle irony. It also established the band as a fixture in Burlington’s flourishing live-music scene and nudged them close to national fame.
Now, nearly 10 years after breaking up, the once-popular alt-rock band has dug up its old albums and is rereleasing them online. Proceeds from sales will benefit the continuing cleanup efforts in Vermont following Tropical Storm Irene.
“I decided it would be nice to use the holiday season to make a donation toward a nonprofit that would help people who lost their homes during Hurricane Irene,” says Gustafson, 39, now lead singer of the local art-rock trio Swale. “And as a bonus, they get some Wide Wail music.”
She insists that the band has few followers left, and was surprised to hear from supportive fans after Seven Days plugged the releases in a Soundbites column on November 23.
“I don’t presume that anybody really knows anything about us,” Gustafson says. “I don’t know that we’re even going to make any money.”
Thus, they haven’t picked a charity yet, for fear of promoting what might be a lousy payout. For her part, Gustafson says, “I’m proud of what we did. I think those are good records.”
Indeed, they are.
For $5 each, you can download Wide Wail (1995) and the acclaimed Like It Never Was (1998) on their Bandcamp site, or get single tracks for $1. Through December, all the money will go to Irene victims, says Gustafson.
In addition to the previously available albums, the band is finally releasing a 2002 album, Looking for Tiger, that never saw the light of day. It’s easily the most experimental, if a little disjointed, of Wide Wail’s three albums.
Recording Tiger in New Jersey was a huge departure from their previous studio efforts in Vermont. Calling their recording process “painstaking,” Rosenstein, who played guitar and bass, describes that album’s creation as a “horrific science experiment” during which the band virtually never left the studio. And it yielded manically interesting results.
“Worthy” (track 8), which Rosenstein calls “one of the best songs we ever did,” features an entirely different-sounding Gustafson than is heard on the earlier two albums — imagine Natalie Merchant’s rich, clear alto with the range and playful delivery of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.
“Take Me Home,” a poppy track with a cheery/creepy chorus, a xylophone melody and some of Gustafson’s most demure singing, brings peeping frogs into the background rhythms, seven years before Neko Case’s “Middle Cyclone” went there.
“It was a very special creative alliance, and I think we came up with a lot of stuff that no one’s really heard,” says Rosenstein. “I’m really psyched for it.”
It took 10 days living, sleeping and recording in that Weehawken studio to complete the ambitious 13-track record. But Wide Wail were kind of extreme like that. And their characteristic devotion to the art, and the process, seemed like it might even pay off.
In 1998, the band’s managers, Justin and Dennis Wygmans, then owners of Club Toast, scored an LA recording session with Paul Fox, who had produced the Sugarcubes and XTC. To raise funds for the trip, instead of benefit concerts or pursuing more traditional moneymaking avenues, they went gonzo and painted a house. Then they took the band’s van and drove 55 hours straight, stopping only for an overnight in New Mexico.
“It was a really good time … we were treated very nicely,” said Rosenstein. They stayed in Beverly Hills and worked in Studio A of the A&M Records studios, where “We Are the World” was recorded.
While you can’t find that excellent 1998 demo tape on Bandcamp (yet), it’s at the Vermont Music Library for listening. It was supposedly shopped around by Fox, who claimed of the five people he shared it with, nobody ever “heard that hit,” says Rosenstein.
“There’s sort of a bad taste in my mouth about the LA thing,” he says. “We were all sort of pumped up about it, but nobody ever did anything. Alanis Morissette broke ‘You Oughta Know’ and [record companies] were all looking for that.
Gustafson thinks part of their failure to become a megaband had to do with her, and the band’s, priorities. Though she’d been writing with Rosenstein since they met at a University of Vermont freshman orientation in 1990, and even dropped out of college for Wide Wail, she says they were a practical bunch. They always had day jobs and never did a summer tour.
“I don’t know, I can only speak for myself, but I was never really interested in fame … I’ve never really wanted any part of it,” Gustafson says, as she watches her 3-year-old daughter hang ornaments on the Christmas tree in her home. She now has a 3-month-old, too, and is happy to record in her home studio, with her husband and Swale bandmate, Eric Olsen. Former Wide Wail drummer Jeremy Frederick completes the trio.
Rosenstein now lives in Brooklyn, owns a carpentry firm and has two sons, ages 3 and 5. He agrees with Gustafson to an extent.
“We created this environment to be really creative and productive, and we figured if we did that, everything would just take care of itself,” he says. “And that’s just not how it works. You have to be incredibly ambitious.”
Rosenstein now sees that time in LA as the end of an era in the music industry. The band’s former manager, Dennis Wygmans, echoes the thought.
“Back then, there were some major-label-type people who were very interested in [Wide Wail],” he recalls. “Back then, selling out was a dirty word. You didn’t see bands — at least not cool bands — doing commercials. You didn’t see indie-rock bands shilling for Volvo or something.”
Wygmans, now an entertainment lawyer, opened up a law firm in Winooski last month, but lives in Irene-devastated Windham County. He wants to see a Wide Wail reunion benefit show.
“I think it would be interesting to see what people’s response is,” he says. “It would be great to help out. There are especially a lot of elderly folks who have been displaced.”
Since returning to the area after years in New Jersey, it seems to him there’s a kind of buzz around Burlington’s music scene that he hasn’t heard in ages.
“Maybe [Wide Wail] were more ahead of their time than people realize,” he says. “It would be ironic to release a reissue that is foretelling of things to come.”
Wide Wail’s rereleases are available at widewail.bandcamp.com.