There’s something to be said about the swath of musicians from Boston—as Brandon Hagen put it, “it’s like the biggest small town.” And Vundabar fit right in, their music familiar and catchy.
Their 2015 album Gawk was released on a label guitarist and vocalist Hagen created himself, Gawk Records. Attending one of their live shows gives you a glimpse of the band’s personality: drummer Drew McDonald furiously strikes away at his kit with his tongue lolling out of his mouth, while bassist Grayson Kirtland thrums away, rocking on his heels. Hagen’s probably pinwheeling his arms, practically swallowing the mic. They settled on “Robert Deniro’s downturned lips” as a description of their sound beyond genre names.
Vundabar follows suit in person; Hagen was sipping on a PBR tall boy and McDonald on something on tap when I approached them at Inman Square’s The Druid.
“I’ve been told that whenever I’m excited, I don’t sound like it,” Hagen said. “It’s just the way I talk, it’s just my voice.” Upon being asked if the band was excited to be playing at Boston Calling, he responded: “Yeah, we’re so excited,” in a tone some might mistake for sarcasm if they didn’t know better. Vundabar doesn’t know what to expect, though they’re aware they’re going to have to fight for the crowd’s attention, which will be comprised of upwards of 20,000 people. Of course, due to their early time slot, they recognize not every person is going to make their set.
Listing all of the local bands playing the festival (five!), the pair (Kirtland couldn’t make it to the interview) noted that Boston Calling did well to represent the community it takes place in. From Cousin Stizz to The Hotelier, there are multiple genres represented.
“Boston’s weird in the sense that there are so many different music scenes happening that don’t really cross over,” McDonald said. “It’s cool that [Boston Calling] picked and chose from all of those. We’d never play a show with Cousin Stizz.” Hagen said he wished more venues in the city worked harder to diversify their nightly billings.
“I think festivals are a good space for it because you expect to see a lot of music so it’s more fun if you’re seeing a lot of different kinds of music,” McDonald said.
Vundabar have been bumping the newest Run The Jewels and Kendrick Lamar, and noted some of the local talent they’ve been grooving to lately, including Boston’s Birthing Hips, OG Swaggerdick, and Bat House, as well as Burlington, VT’s Joey Pizza Slice (aka Joey Agresta aka Son of Salami).
“It’s great,” Hagen said of the wealth of local music in Boston. “But there are limitations. Every four years, there are these new groups of people moving in and out.” Citing the notoriously high cost of living in Boston and its surrounding neighborhoods, he said most musicians can’t afford to stick around for too long. But he, McDonald, and Kirtland stay because they like the city and because they have roots—they grew up in suburbs of Boston.
“What I think is cool about Boston is that there is always something cool going on and always good music happening,” McDonald said.
“But you have to go and find it,” Hagen added. “I hope they find a disembodied pair of Deniro lips and think, ‘This is disgusting,’” he said, laughing, when asked what he hopes people find when they discover Vundabar. “No, I don’t know. Something… a good soundtrack to sudoku, good study jams, good for hacking.”
“Oh, I thought you meant hacky-sacking,” McDonald said.
For all their jokes, from 2013’s Antics to Gawk, Vundabar has grown both in sound and quite literally.
“We’re not in high school anymore,” Hagen said. But focusing on musical growth, he said most of the band’s growth has happened due to their almost constant touring. “Holding a job, maintaining relationships… missing a lot of important life events… it sucks,” he said. But touring allows the band to travel and sharpen their live performance every night.
“Over time, we learned to know how we want to work and how we want to produce music,” McDonald said, “and how we want to incorporate what we’re doing at home into a live setting.”
Performing is a central aspect for the band. Noting that it allows for more spontaneity, both agreed that their creativity flourishes when they get up on stage. The studio allows them time to figure things out, sure, but live performances offer an outlet. “I’d just be bored otherwise,” Hagen said. “I really hate seeing three dudes standing on stage, sulking.”
Hagen said Vundabar used to write music with the intention of performing it live eventually, but the band has experienced a shift to focusing on writing good songs and figuring out their live iterations as they go along.
Keeping in stride, Vundabar has new music in the works—two album’s worth, Hagen said—due to release sometime in the near future, though they weren’t sure when exactly. They said they’re taking their time. “We’ve moved away from getting overly precious about: ‘This is the album,’” Hagen said. Booking studio time and scheduling around that has helped to refocus their process. “It used to be a linear thing, like, we wrote one song, we wrote two songs…ten, twelve, then we’d be like, that’s the album.”
“Instead of booking the studio time after [we] wrote the songs, [we] book it before [we’re] done, so [we’re] working on three or four songs at once and it’s more exciting and creates a new level of cohesiveness,” McDonald added. Hagen said that they just needed to try something different and it made the album process more exciting and stimulating creatively.
“Before this change, we’d go into the studio with too many expectations of what we wanted it to sound like,” McDonald said. “It’s unrealistic and it’s really boring. But if you leave it a lot more open-ended when you’re going in there, it leaves room for new fun growth to happen.”
Though it hasn’t all been growth forward—we got into a conversation about formats people listen to music on, rousing the curious cassette as a medium. Though most people in 2017 lack access to tape decks, cassettes remain a popular merchandise for bands. McDonald said part of the fun comes from having something physical to take away from a great show, even if it means you’re just going to go home and listen to it on Spotify. Hagen added that he almost bought some from bargain bin (three for $1: Fine Young Cannibals, “that Counting Crows album,” and a Rod Stewart album) the night before. It’s all in good fun, which is why Hagen said he started his own cassette label, Gawk Records.
“We didn’t have a label, so we made one,” he said. Then he thought he could start releasing other bands—all digitally, most of the time on cassette as well. A lot of the drive for new bands to either create their own or forgo signing to a label entirely comes from financial pressures, according to Hagen. It gets expensive booking recording studios, paying for mastering, and supporting tours—many bands can’t shoulder the debt on their own. This attracts them to signing with a label, who take on a portion of that burden—as well as some creative rights in turn. “We have a DIY ethic, but I think it’s more from a pragmatic place than from feeling, ‘This is what people should do, and they shouldn’t do that,’” he said. “Everyone needs different things… I don’t think it’s necessary anymore to sign to a label.”
“It fosters a community of artists around each other,” McDonald added, referencing the smaller DIY labels, in particular Citrus City Records. “It’s nice to have a more intimate option for release.”
Vundabar’s music, and especially their live shows, promise an intimacy of their own kind: Hagen’s clever, sardonic lyrics interweave effortlessly with McDonald’s rollicking drums and Kirtland’s bass. Be sure to catch Vundabar’s set—the first of the festival—at 2:35 PM on Boston Calling’s Xfinity Red Stage, Friday, May 26th.