Vundabar! It’s the German word for ‘wonderful’, but also the name of a young Boston-based garage-pop trio that’s turned heads on both sides of the Atlantic in the past two years.
All in their early 20’s, they go about their work with maturity well beyond their years and a 100% DIY approach that makes their rapid rise even more impressive. But don’t let that convince you that they’re all work and no play – actually Vundabar’s vibe is the exact opposite. Their sound is unconventional, following the path of Modest Mouse and the Pixies towards the fast, raw and weird corners of the indie rock world.
They recorded their latest album, Gawk, in only two days, although it’s the product of a year of touring and growing as a band. It presents a darker, more fleshed-out sound than it’s predecessor, Antics, but delivers the same raw energy and sarcasm that their fan’s love and relate to. They lit up the crowd at Otis with an arsenal of punchy melodies delivered at high volume. We were lucky enough to connect with guitarist and singer Brandon Hagen to find out what turns them up.
How did you guys meet?
Drew (McDonald, drums) and I grew up next door to each other*. He played drums in the highschool band, and I had another group, like a crappy high school band kinda deal that he started playing in. That eventually dissolved, and senior year we started doing Vundabar together as a two piece band. It was a lot of home recording and playing weird shows. We started playing college parties and did a little touring, which was great because we lived in a tiny, boring little beach town, Scituate, MA.
*Vundabar’s third member, Zach Abramo (Bass) joined after high school.
I hear you got a little experience with Garageband (the stock recording program included in all Apple computers) on the first album, right?
Yeah! Antics was recorded entirely on Garageband, just with two microphones. But the days of Garageband have come and gone, and we don't regret it in any way. It works, you can make it work. There are some tricks.
Oh yeah? Like what?
Just some double tracking and a little compression. It’s basic, but you can make it work if you’re making pretty straightforward music. Our production value isn’t that polished anyway.
How did the progression go, from recording at home to where you are now?
Well it was just Drew and I then. We didn’t have any money at all. We didn’t really know how to be a band yet. We were just figuring it out. When we released Antics all we could afford was 200 CD’s, that’s all we could press. We did some touring. I did a press campaign, which didn’t go well, but there were a few blogs that decided to pick it up. I had no idea how to do it, just emailing anyone and everyone. I think the most fruitful part of that was that we got a feature in this French blog, and from that an agent from Paris found our stuff and was like, “Let’s do a European tour”. Which led to our first European tour for two months in 2014. They were some of the biggest crowds we’d ever played. We played to 2000 people some times, and before that the biggest show we’d played was only 500 people. So that was a huge growth period. Going from playing house shows and small clubs to being on festival stages and theatre rooms. It was pretty surreal. I was like 19, so I don’t even really think that I understood that that shit doesn’t just happen.
We finished the European tour in the summer, did a month in the U.S. and then went back in the fall for another month. After that, last winter, we recorded Gawk. We liked the roughness of Antics, and we wanted to maintain that, but make it a little more polished, a little more listenable, and a little more like our live set. Our live set has that roughness, but there’s also something straightforward and good about it, so we wanted Gawk to have that body, which home recording often loses.
We’re completely independent, we pay for everything ourselves, but from all the touring we had enough money that we could afford to do a more proper recording job and album release. We did two days in the studio at Mystic Valley Studio in Medford with Alex Garcias-Rivera. We had spent a year touring, trying these songs out, so we knew exactly what we wanted the album to be and how we were going to play it. We just went in and played our set, and that was the album. It was a hectic two days with not a lot of sleep, but we’re happy with how it came out and Alex was great to work with.
You talk about roughness, and that’s obviously part of your music, but there seems to also be sort of an angsty vibe. Do you agree?
Yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s completely earnest angst. I think there’s also something very sardonic about it, and self aware, and joking with itself. There’s definitely some angst, but I wouldn’t say it’s just pure angstiness. There’s a lot of playfulness as well.
What do you guys listen to?
We’re all over the place. I’ve been listening to the Fall a lot, Fat White Family… I’ve been listening to Cat Stevens lately, and fucking with Leonard Cohen a lot. When Vundabar started we were really stoked on the Oh Sees. Vundabar has a lot of garage music influence. Modest Mouse. I think the Kinks… I think our angst relates a lot more aligned with the way they write these songs that are snotty, but with a sense of humor, poking at things. Also, Nirvana, just in the fact that they were a three-piece with a pop sensibility, but loud and raw sounding.
It seems like you attack subject matter from a really personal place as well.
Yeah, it’s personal, but it’s not isolated to that. It’s also pretty observant. It can be introspective, but its’ also mostly just looking at other people, and there’s a lot of criticism I guess. We try to keep it funny. A lot of it is just acknowledging the absurd and laughing at it.
It seems like a celebration of that, actually.
Exactly, yes. And we try to get that across with our live show too, and just do weird shit and bring in a surrealist vibe. Maybe people like it, and maybe it will freak people out.
What’s a good show for you guys? A good crowd? A good scene?
A good show is one where I follow every impulse I have, and sometimes that doesn’t happen. A lot of people rationalize these reasons why they shouldn’t follow their impulses, but if you act in a way that’s almost coming from your subconscious… like, I feel like at a good show I almost black out. I think that’s when people respond to us the most. It seems like people like us because they see us and think, “Wow, these guys really don’t give a fuck.” Not in an apathetic way, but just that we’re doing what we want to do.
Is there anything that gets in the way of that?
Well, a lot of the stuff surrounding music bogs me down a bit. Like the fashion element, or just people trying really hard to be cool. I don’t think it’s fair for me to define people’s motives for why they go to shows, but sometimes at shows there’s this collective insecurity in the crowd. There’s some kind of tension. Sometimes that bullshit surrounding the music can be exhausting, but we have a way of dealing with that. Most of the time it’s not a big thing. There’s not a lot of ulterior motives anymore, because there’s not a lot of money in music. It’s a hard thing to do. So the people who are doing it are doing so for the right reasons.
Well it seems like Vundabar has this drive to overcome all of that.
Yeah, well you know what it is? It’s people taking themselves too seriously. And that’s kind of the goal of the set, is making people relax, and act themselves.
You released your last album on your own label, Gawk Records. What’s up with that?
Well, we did Gawk, the album to kick off Gawk Records. From there, we’re releasing Horse shepherd of love, doing some tapes and digital stuff. We’re working with Straw Hats, which is some members of The Districts from Philladelphia and some of their friends. It’s a small label that I’m trying to take slow, just doing local music and friend’s stuff that I think should be out there. It’s a way to be involved and help out instead of focusing just on Vundabar. There’s something very narcissistic about music. You’re working at your self a lot. So it’s nice to focus on something else and help other people out.
Vundabar is working on their third album, and can’t seem to stay home very long.