Photo Credit: Ted Kuhn
Like the rest of the world, pop music has undergone a technological evolution over the past few decades, which the recent infiltration of electronic dance music onto mainstream airwaves has brought to a head. If you haven't in a while, flip on your radio right now and find the Top 40 station. Dig the densely layered beats, the blatantly over-computerized vocals. A robot could have made this stuff. Were it not for the occasional real-life reminder of the eternally flawed human beings behind the music (paging Ms. Cyrus), it would not be inconceivable to assume that a robot does make this stuff.
If it seems strange to discuss pop radio in the context of an article about experimental rock warriors Tunabunny—a band that's never let a good hook get in the way of a self-subversive arrangement and whose live shows have been known to devolve into sonic gibberish at the drop of a hat—then let me introduce you to the group's latest LP, the vaguely zeitgeisty, frankly stunning Kingdom Technology. On the album, the band strips away some of the detritus with which it willfully muddied up its first three records, shifting the focus instead to its longtime affinity for electronics and incorporating lovely, clear-cut melodies courtesy of vocalists Brigette Herron and Mary Jane Hassell.
Unlike the latest Ellie Goulding smash, however, Kingdom Technology is overtly, even nastily human. The electronics heard here owe more to Kraftwerk than Skrillex, and even the pre-programmed beats somehow feel like they're this close to falling apart. (In fact, the Casiotone rhythm on the hypnotic "Power Breaks" does just that by song's end, slowly dissolving and going out with a massive death-fart of a bass tone.)
The album's humanity is underscored by the fact that, though it's somewhat cleaned up, it feels even more fragmented than its predecessors. On Kingdom Technology, Tunabunny goes from avant-sex-groove ("Save it Up") to plaintive, perfect power-pop ("Coming for You") to no-wave asymmetry ("Good God Awful") to garbage-can synth drone ("Terminal Departure") in the space of 42 minutes.
The band, whose members pointedly chose to respond to Flagpole's email queries as a singular unit, cites the fragmentation as a byproduct of busy schedules. "[It] made it harder to get together and write songs as a band, so we'd go over to [drummer] Jesse [Stinnard]'s one or two at a time and just kind of mess around. Once you put down your guitar/bass/drums, you pick up what's around you."
But some of the record's best moments are also its most collaborative-sounding and musically straightforward, like the aforementioned full-band rocker "Coming for You," which puts anything Bob Pollard has penned over the last five years to shame. Those moments also serve as reminders that Tunabunny has always been a pop group at heart.
"We've crafted tons of Top 40 hits," the band writes, "but so far, they're only getting played in parallel universes." It's a joke, but only sort of; it's fun and not so far-fetched to imagine a bizarro Ryan Seacrest introducing the hilariously staid "Save it Up" as the week's No. 1. In this world, however, Tunabunny will likely never crack the charts, mostly because of its devotion to continually reinventing itself.
Mike Turner, whose Happy Happy Birthday to Me label has released all four of the group's albums, professes amazement at its chameleonic nature. "Tunabunny is the band I have worked the most closely with over the last few years," he says. "[But] I never know what to expect—and that says a lot."
Some of this stems from the fact that, skewed pop hooks aside, in many ways Tunabunny is, as the saying goes, punk as fuck, famously utilizing cheap-o or otherwise discarded gear and taking creative inspiration from its lack of budget. Kingdom Technology, for instance, was recorded on a console salvaged from a UGA dumpster. Read that again: Tunabunny dumpster-dives for sound equipment.
Ironically, the salvaged soundboard was actually an improvement. "We had to dirty it up a little, because we had better equipment this time," says the band. Indeed, it seems Tunabunny's dedication to adaptation stems from more than financial necessity: "It's an effort not to get bored. To us, there's no point in listening to music if you can describe it. If it's easy to explain, then that kind of defeats the purpose of making it in the first place."
Tunabunny is one of 12 acts set to perform at Turner's HHBTM Weekender, a two-day mini-festival that takes over Green Room Friday and Saturday nights. All the artists involved have some sort of association with Turner or his label, including doom-punks Muuy Biien, whose long-awaited second LP drops next month, rising psych-pop band Axxa/Abraxas and Charlie Johnston from long-dormant E6 associates 63 Crayons, performing as 63FOIL. (For the full schedule, see the Calendar.)
Though this weekend's event is not explicitly associated with Athens PopFest, the once-annual, Turner-founded happening whose fate has lain in limbo for several years, it will act as a sort of throwback for fans of that event.
"It's a lot less stress… and way less cost," says Turner, who adds that he originally planned to resurrect the festival for 2014 but became discouraged when he began to consider the time commitment involved. "At this moment, I really don't see it returning unless it was my job," he says. "But the kind of stuff that you have to do, with sponsors and booking, to make an event like that a regular job, I'm not really into."
Even if PopFest really is dead and gone, one glance at this weekend's lineup, like one listen to Tunabunny's new record, proves that pop music is alive and well in Athens, no matter how peculiar—how human—it may be. "We've always thought our songs were hooky and melodic," writes Tunabunny. "Of course, we also think Swell Maps are a bubblegum band."
WHO: HHBTM Weekender
WHERE: Green Room
WHEN: Friday, Mar. 28 & Saturday, Mar. 29, 7 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $6 (each night), $10 (wristband)