Interview

Vundabar On Internalized Shame, The Cost Of Dying, & Their New Album Smell Smoke

There are certain topics you’re just not supposed to talk about: death, illness, the astronomical cost of living while dying. The societal taboos around these universal life experiences are meant to stifle emotions and prevent you from dealing with crises in real-time, instead burrowing the pain and confusion deep inside to be resolved at a later date, when it’s less uncomfortable for everyone around us. Brandon Hagen wrote all of Smell Smoke, the third album from Boston’s Vundabar, while performing the unglamorous work of taking care of a sick relative, and his newest songs interrogate the silence surrounding sickness, the ways in which we’re made to feel like we shouldn’t discuss it at all. “Acetone,” its incisive lead single, is about getting eaten from the inside out by this suppression. “Could it burn off all my clothes?” Hagen asks, struggling to maintain a calm and collected front. “I don’t want you to see the way I’ve been/ Doled out a bleached persona.”

Over their first two albums, 2013’s Antics and 2015’s Gawk (both self-released), neighbors-turned-bandmates Hagen and drummer Drew McDonald channeled instability and anxiety into songs that start off tense and unclench dramatically as they go along, the act of playing itself getting them through it. “Acetone” is one of their finest examples of this trial-by-song, and Smell Smoke is ripe with others that sound like the pinnacle of what the Boston group has achieved so far. It feels more focused and cohesive, largely because it’s mostly derived from Hagen’s prolonged experience of watching a loved one deteriorate in front of them, which caused him to question the institutions and perceived safety nets and self-imposed emotional blockades that inevitably fail us.

Smell Smoke’s careening strong structures are sharper and more dynamic than ever, and Hagen’s lyrics are crystal-clear. “There’s nothing poetic about a bed sore,” he sings on “Harvest”; “Hospital receipts, they make a coffin seem so cheap,” he observes on “Big Funny.” Late-album highlight “$$$” spins through propulsive swells: “Do you know how money talks?/ Honey, money doesn’t talk/ Money screams.” On this album, Vundabar manage to sound scorchingly dark and frantically lost while also maintaining a sense of larger-than-life goofy absurdity at how comically bad everything can get.

The band’s new video for “Acetone” (which we’re premiering below) does a good job at highlighting that disparity. Charismatic dancing gives way to an unnerving dramatic throughline where Hagen buries McDonald and then the drummer rises from the dead and tries to bury Hagen instead. “It’s about dealing with loss and not having the facilities to really express what was happening,” Hagen explains. “The video is me trying to bury this person, and in trying to do that, I end up getting buried by them. The intent of the song and video reflect what an inability to verbalize or reconcile an experience or a trauma will lead to.”

Watch the video below, and read on for an interview with Hagen where we talk about the band’s new album.

STEREOGUM: You’ve been around for a while now, and I wanted to know how you feel the band has changed since you started it.

BRANDON HAGEN: I think when we started, our goals and ambitions were pretty small and step-by-step. Our goals were like, Let’s record an album, let’s go on a tour. I guess it’s never really changed from that — we just continued to do that and continued to grow through that. Now, it’s at this point where it’s all-encompassing as far as our time goes. We do everything through our own label, so we have to deal with a lot of the business side of things and we have to be really money-minded. Financially, it’s kind of changed — there’s a larger operating cost, a lot of moving parts. It’s become more of a full-time job.

STEREOGUM: It’s cool that you do all of that yourself. I’m sure you’ve had talks with labels at different points, but why do you think you’ve mostly ended up managing everything yourself for the most part?

HAGEN: I think there’s a million ways to make a music career work, but I think for us, since we started the way we did and we built ourselves up the way we did, it just made the most sense to turn those offers down. I mean, most of what we turn down has always been from a standpoint of what we stand to gain versus what we stand to lose. Basically, being able to pay rent is our number one goal.

STEREOGUM: What does your typical songwriting process like?

HAGEN: I’ll generally write a structure and melodies and chord changes, and then we’ll build out stops and build-ups to the chorus with the band. For this album, though, we had songs written but didn’t really flesh them out as much. We used the studio time to make those decisions kind of last minute, which was really fun. We recorded it at The Headroom in Philly with Keith Abrams, and he had an approach that was conducive to that improv, that let us follow weird ideas. But this was a difficult record to write honestly…

STEREOGUM: I know that a lot of it is about taking care of a loved one that was sick, so I can imagine that’s a very intense process.

HAGEN: It’s hard. I struggled with even being able to verbalize what was happening to me or know how to talk about it. It didn’t even feel like I had the tools to reconcile what I was feeling and experiencing. The album was a way to work through that. I feel like my initial compulsion was to suppress those feelings instead of acknowledging them, and it came to a kind of boil. It was a strange couple years.

STEREOGUM: Do you mind if I ask specifically what was going on?

HAGEN: It was a relative of mine and he just had some pretty debilitating problems with his mental health and his physical health, also, to the point where he was more or less bedridden for four years. I was 18 when it started. It’s easier for me to talk about and understand what was going on in hindsight than while it was happening. Being that age, it felt oddly isolating… This thing that was seemingly so small just becomes the largest pillar in your life, the most looming thing. It’s something that no one would ever know about you unless you were to tell them, unless you say, Hey, this is going on with me. It’s a bizarre process. And I think there’s a lot of stigma around it, there’s a lot of internalized shame in talking about those things.

STEREOGUM: Both my parents died when I was a teenager, and sometimes it’s very hard to tell people. You don’t want to put people off or make them feel uncomfortable, even though it’s not a weird thing to have relatives die or be sick. It can derail whatever conversation you’re in, and then the whole conversation ends up being about that.

HAGEN: Yeah, I’ve had it go that way — where you bring it up and there’s this palpable change in the conversation, where people’s eyes just glass over a little bit. But then there’s the other side of it, where a lot of people I’ve told have had their own shit that they’ve had to deal with, and it helped me experience a greater empathy for them and for me. That’s the goal with having a record about it, I guess.

STEREOGUM: I feel like there have been a lot of albums over the last few years that have dealt with the death of family members, which has been really helpful to me, at least, to know that other people are going through it.

HAGEN: Yeah, totally, just opening that conversation up. I feel like a lot of it hasn’t even necessarily been about death, but unpacking that indoctrinated suppression of emotions. Have you heard the new Alex Cameron album? I really like the way he leans into the opposite of that, developing characters that are hyperbolic, suppressed, toxic male characters while humanizing them, pointing out their flaws, and creating a sense of empathy for them.

STEREOGUM: Do you feel like the songs on the album are mostly autobiographical or do you extrapolate from experiences that you’ve had?

HAGEN: I definitely extrapolate, although on previous albums my experiences were kind of the seeds for it and would develop them into more a surreal narrative or imagery that’s sort of half-truths, or buried enough to not be as splayed open and vulnerable. But with this album, I feel like there was definitely an intent to not dress things up as much.

STEREOGUM: Especially because the album has so much to do with loss, I feel like a lot of the songs on it reckon with the idea that we’re not going to be around forever. Like, we all know we’re going to die one day, but as we grow older we actually start thinking more about what that’s going to look like and how it’s going to feel compared to when you’re, like, 18.

HAGEN: Yeah, totally. I mean, I’m sure my relationship to it when I’m 30 will be different, when I’m 35 it’ll be different. I think awakening to that transience is maybe why you’re bratty at 18 and then you get a little older and you gain a little more empathy for people.

STEREOGUM: Some of the songs on the album, like “$$$” and “Big Funny,” deal with money and the logistics that go into both living and dying. No one really talks about how much money it costs to die, but it’s a big weight on the people that are left behind.

HAGEN: For me, they’re about the logistics of taking care of someone who is ill. You don’t really reconcile with it until you’re facing it… This sort of moral fallacy of saying things like, For the ones I care about, I would do anything. It doesn’t matter how much. I would go to the end of the earth for it. But, in the real world, there are financial limitations to how much can be done. There are limitations to what our health care system is willing to do for people. The songs deal with a lot of the frustration that comes with that. The crookedness of how the United States deals with its ill. “Big Funny” came from a morbid joke that I made with someone when we were figuring out logistics, and I said that it would be cheaper to die than keep a person alive if they’re not in good health. It was a strange, off-hand joke, and I thought, Wow, that’s pretty morbid. So a lot of it is focused on that, and then this completely gutted, vacant moral coding that underlies bottom lines and financial realities that are demeaning.

STEREOGUM: I feel like that ties back to the internalized shame that comes from dealing with this stuff. When you’re actually going through it, you have to face these hardships that are part of the reality of it: dealing with how to pay for things, figuring out how much things cost… This nitty gritty stuff that having a conversation about is difficult because it comes across as crass. You want to take care of a loved one, but how much is going to cost?

HAGEN: There’s this detached, far-off, maybe literary idealized version of what that looks like, and then there’s the less glamorous reality.

STEREOGUM: What do you want the takeaway for this album to be for someone who listens to it?

HAGEN: It deals with a number of things. It’s not devoid of hope and it’s not devoid of humor, I don’t think, but when I think about the record I see it operating on two planes: this small, insular experience that felt isolating and hyper-specific, and then having that experience in the current socioeconomic political position that I’m in as an American. It’s definitely an American album, a reflection on what being an American means right now, a defunct language of morals and ideals that you’re taught and use and are bore into you.

STEREOGUM: Growing up in this country you’re supposed to pursue this vaguely defined dream, and even if you think that’s bullshit from an early age, it’s something that still ingrained in you and provides a contrast to the reality of actually living here.

HAGEN: The person who fell ill… He built himself up on an ideal of what a successful American man is. And then when he found out that when he no longer could work — to be used up in a capitalist, occupational sense — he was kind of put out to pasture. It leveled him. Seeing that happen made me reflect on what it means for me as an American, as a man, as someone who, despite not believing in those ideals, still has them ingrained in me. And as much as I want to say I don’t believe in those ideals, the bottom line is that the reason this band can continue to exist is by making a certain amount of money. It’s like… I’m not just what I can make, but at the same time, I can’t continue to do this unless I meet that. Like I was saying earlier, there’s this fallacy of I would do anything for this person, but it’s all a limitation of what I can actually do and what are government programs are going to do. The album’s kind of trying to point out the absurdity.

Tour dates (w/ Ratboys):
03/02 Brooklyn, NY @ Market Hotel
03/03 Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
03/05 Wallingford, CT @ WAMLEG
03/06 Philadelphia, PA @ philaMOCA
03/07 Washington, DC @ DC9
03/08 Richmond, VA @ Strange Matter
03/09 Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle (back room)
03/10 Savannah, GA @ Savannah Stopover Music Festival
03/11 Orlando, FL @ Will’s Pub
03/13 New Orleans, LA @ Gasa Gasa
03/17 Dallas, TX @ Trees
03/20 Denver, CO @ Lost Lake Lounge
03/21 Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court
03/22 Boise, ID @ Treefort Music Fest
03/23 Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios
03/24 Seattle, WA @ Barboza
03/27 San Francisco, CA @ Rickshaw Stop
03/28 San Luis Obispo, CA @ SLO Brew
03/30 Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo
03/31 San Diego, CA @ Soda Bar
04/01 Phoenix, AZ @ The Rebel Lounge
04/04 St Louis, MO @ Blueberry Hill Duck Room
04/05 Madison, WI @ The Frequency
04/06 Minneapolis, MN @ 7th St Entry
04/07 Chicago, IL @ Beat Kitchen
04/08 Milwaukee, WI @ Shank Hall
04/10 Lakewood, OH @ Mahall’s
04/12 Montreal, QC @ Bar Le Ritz PDB
04/13 Burlington, VT @ ArtsRiot
04/14 Portland, ME @ Space Gallery
04/25 Jena, Germany @ Glashaus
04/26 Berlin, Germany @ ACUD
04/27 Copenhagen, Denmark @ Loppen
04/28 Hamburg, Germany @ Goldener Salon
04/30 Brighton, UK @ The Hope & Ruin
05/02 London, UK @ The Lexington
05/03 Birmingham, UK @ The Sunflower Lounge
05/04 Manchester, UK @ Castle Hotel
05/07 Glasgow, UK @ The Hug And Pint
05/08 Edinburgh, UK @ Sneaky Pete’s
05/09 Sheffield, UK @ Picture House Social
05/11 Cambridge, UK @ The Portland Arms
05/14 Barcelona, Spain @ Meteoro

Smell Smoke is out 2/23. Pre-order it here.

Tags: Vundabar