The boys of Vundabar seem exhausted as I sit with them on the porch. This is the morning after Vundabar unleashed their explosive garage pop upon a D.I.Y. basement show in downtown Madison. I am not surprised at the bags under their eyes, considering they have been playing almost every night for the past two months to build hype for their first full album, GAWK.
On that warm summer night Vundabar played on a tiled kitchen floor that was level with the carpeted area for the admirers. They faced a violently swaying crowd, which quickly became drenched in sweat. Even with little empty space, everyone worked up into a fluid mania. The band, cramped together with their gear, somehow managed to dodge audience members who spilled over onto the tile that separated them from the frenzy on the carpet. After the obligatory comment on the heat, lead-vocalist and guitarist Brandon Hagen said seriously, “We’re only going to play a couple more songs… we don’t want anyone to die.” The crowd groaned; they wanted more.
Vundabar’s songs jump gracefully from tight and quiet melodies to almost unbelievably loud and layered peaks that seem impossible coming from a simple three-piece. Brandon’s voice is clearly inspired by the deep screeching of the Pixies and Violent Femmes, but his falsetto takes this throaty style into broadly accessible territory. Their new album Gawk captures this live sound expertly, and is a clear mature step off of their less eclectic but always enjoyable debut EP, Antics.
Vundabar’s stage presence is an added benefit of catching these boys live, and the punch and glitter in the tunes makes sweating the show out entirely worth it. The Vundabar boys are irreverent and mocking rock-stars, waving their tongues and laughing at their own jokes throughout the set. Brandon ended the set by attempting to swallow the mic and sending the stand crashing to the floor.
The next morning as I sat down with them on a porch swing to talk about life on the road, the state of music in Europe, and being working musicians.
Reid Kurkerewicz: How did Vundabar get started?
Brandon Hagen: Well, it’s very magical. Drew and I started recording at first. I guess we were just one of those bands you make in high school. [Laughs] We did covers and stuff. It was funny. It was embarrassing. Then we started Vundabar as a two piece and sometimes various bass players. In about 2014 we started playing seriously and touring.
Drew McDonald: We started touring really fast.
Why was that?
BH: Mostly because we didn’t initially get a very good response in Boston; it felt like a good idea to get out. It helped us really tighten up and became an all around better band.
RK: That makes sense. You guys don’t seem to fall into that Boston sound to me.
BH: A lot of the people making music in Boston are four or five years older than us, and it makes sense that they’d be into those 90’s bands that are getting connected to the Boston sound. We hop around the different niches of the Boston scene, and we don’t really feel like we have our own scene there.
DM: There’s a lot of cool stuff in Boston, but it definitely feels pretty niche-y.
BH: Yeah, it has a lot of pockets and feels small. But there is a lot to be proud of in Boston right now.
What are you trying to say with the new album?
BH: There is definitely intentionality in the album, and the lyrics have a mission statement, but I don’t like to talk about it. Publically I want to keep it pretty ambiguous. The album’s definitely darker. We’re not really more serious, but with the shit that’s been going on we definitely moved to a darker tone. I don’t really like the word serious, but we’re serious about playing music. We’re still just trying to have a good time.
How do you feel about your tour in Europe?
BH: It was great. With the language barrier I think it helped us learn to communicate with our body language. We got good at Charlie Chaplin-esque movements. I felt like a jester [laughs] just to get people going. Sometimes French crowds can be pretty reserved, but most of the crowds were fantastic. And the food and the wine… Lordy. Very good.
Where’d you go?
DM: We went to Switzerland, Belgium, Sweden, Luxembourg, and the UK.
BH: We got the best response in the UK. People seemed to really dig us. We spent the most of our time in France and the reception was really good.
Do European bands have the same vibe as the American outfits?
BH: Well, artists are more supported by the government. Some of the bands are subsidized, and you can get government checks by writing and performing art. In the US starving artists are a very real thing, but over there artists aren’t scraping. They’re completely comfortable. It’s almost an American thing now. Maybe that’s why we have such good music here, because you have to be really good to make it.
Would you support policies like that here?
BH: Oh sure, I thought it was unbelievable. Again though, getting out of the country showed me how strong American music history is, especially with like the Blues and Jazz. Europe really doesn’t seem to have the same output. We got rock on lock. Universities are starting to take care of musicians here so that’s nice.
So you must all have jobs?
DM: Yep. Brandon and I are both couriers in Boston.
Zachary Ambramo: I’m a floor guy. I do hardwood floors, installation, and refinishing.
RK: Would you rather not work?
BH: I’m fine having to work but I’d love to not have to. I’m lucky to have found a really flexible job. The last two jobs I had I got fired coming home from tour. There’s been a progression with us getting towards being able to make money. It’s cool in that sense, making mistakes, and trying to run basically a small business. You do it all, booking, managing, and merchandising.
It’s tough, but extremely rewarding.
You can listen to Vundabars new album GAWK here: http://vundabar.bandcamp.com/