Tanukichan Finds Direction In The Fuzz
The first thing that jumps out listening to Sundays, the 2018 debut record from Tanukichan, is the peanut butter and jelly combination of the fuzzed-out production and Hannah van Loon’s gentle vocals. Especially given the album’s title – and its languorous blend of dream pop, chillwave, and shoegaze – Sundays captured the feeling of taking a drive on a weekend afternoon when you don’t have anywhere to go or anything to do, but also the looming dread of Monday waiting right around the corner. You’ve got time to yourself, but maybe a little too much time with your own thoughts for your liking.
Much like the music of Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bear, who signed Hannah van Loon aka Tanukichan to his Company Records label and has maintained a role as producer and primary creative partner, Tanukichan’s music possesses the easygoing energy and laid-back appeal that can make it easy to underrate on first glance. I liked Sundays a lot when I first heard it around the time of its release in 2018, but re-visits in the years since have continued to reveal new layers and new favorite songs, deepening my relationship with it and separating Tanukichan in my mind from more uninspiring and maudlin dream pop acts that popped up in the wake of Beach House throughout the 2010s.
That immaculate vibe craftsmanship returns on her long awaited follow-up album GIZMO, but the first thing that jumps out listening to this new album is not the shoegaze guitar tones or dreamy synths. It’s the DRUMS. On every Tanukichan album thus far, the process starts with van Loon demoing all the songs by herself before taking them to Bear to help re-record and engineer them into their final forms, and in interviews for Sundays, van Loon noted that several songs were originally recorded with live drums in mind and eventually replaced with understated drum machines. That low-key, spacious approach worked well on Sundays, but the abundance of punchy live drumming on this new album immediately gives her sound a jolt of energy.
Everything about GIZMO is louder and scrappier than its predecessor — not unlike the pivot that Alvvays made on their recent Blue Rev, which finally brought the looseness and electricity you would get from seeing their live show to a studio recording. But even though the levels and distortion have been cranked up on GIZMO, van Loon’s understated, breathy singing voice acts as a balm that imbues these songs with the same entrancing softness that Sundays possessed.
As I interview van Loon over Zoom, the sunlight pouring into her Oakland apartment from above the potted plants lining the window behind her, the soft-spoken delivery of her singing translates to a similarly mellow personality in conversation. She doesn’t talk loudly or in long rambling sentences, but it would be a mistake to categorize this reserve as a lack of confidence. Her laugh is infectious, and quickly she reminds me of one of my own sisters – the kind of quiet, yet bubbly person who doesn’t need to dominate a conversation or ramble on after they’ve already made their point. That concision is on display in her songwriting, especially on GIZMO, an album that doesn’t waste a word in its brisk 30-minute runtime.
The best testament to this sharpness is “Don’t Give Up,” a song with an optimistic message that shrouds an inherent sarcasm. According to van Loon, “Don’t Give Up” was the hardest song to finish on the album, specifically because of how much it manages to cram into under two minutes. Built on top of breakbeat drums, a piano line, and a searing countermelody, the song’s centerpiece is an enormous psych rock riff with heavily applied tremolo effects that immediately call to mind the work of Kevin Parker. However, unlike some of the hi-fi faux-retro riffs on albums like Currents and The Slow Rush, “Don’t Give Up” sounds like it has some actual grit under its fingernails, while also crucially not overstaying its welcome.
Hannah van Loon’s musical origin story hews close to many rock musician stereotypes: raised by her parents on a steady diet of the Beatles and classical music, branching out from there by listening to alt-rock radio alone in her bedroom and meticulously trying to copy the riffs she heard. This led me to wonder what van Loon’s activation point towards noisier guitar textures was, as shoegaze is a obviously a crucial touchstone of the music of Tanukichan. When asked which bands radicalized her from classical violin and the Beatles towards noisier styles of rock, she doesn’t mention My Bloody Valentine or Ride or Slowdive – instead, she immediately lands on Incubus. While probably not an obvious comparison point you would pick up on first listen, upon inspection it’s easy to connect the dots between Tanukichan and the distinctly West Coast, breezy yet heavy style of alt-rock hits like “Drive.”
As other writers have discussed, the Euro-centrism of the early 2010s shoegaze revival is being supplanted by a new, more vibrant American movement that repurposes the techniques and equipment popularized by those classic Irish and English bands, with new influences and reference points in mind. The best artists of this wave, like the Philadelphia band They Are Gutting A Body Of Water, utilize the same tools as an album like Loveless without being slavishly devoted to sounding as much like Loveless as possible. This is something Tanukichan also does well, separating herself from more derivative contemporaries trying to capture the alt-rock styles of the ’90s like grunge, nu-metal, and shoegaze that end up with something that feels stale and derivative. Even though you can begin to pick apart and analyze the composite influences of the Tanukichan sound once you dig into her background, she has so deeply absorbed these influences that the end product arrives as something that feels present tense and urgent.
The subtly deployed breakbeats and bright synth lines that undergird my favorite track on GIZMO, “Like You,” have a lot in common with the material from the recent TAGABOW album Lucky Styles, and the band’s frontman Douglas also happens to be a huge Tanukichan fan. Since Douglas and I have geeked out over Tanukichan’s music before, I reached out to him for his two cents on the matter. His answer to the question of “What makes Tanukichan special?” articulated some of the same points I was circling around:
I feel like good music should sound and feel like it’s always been there… In the case of Tanukichan, it feels like it’s always been there. It’s timeless. Their music is both a template of the current landscape and of the former landscape. It sounds like it could be from 1995 or 2023. What really gets me excited about music is something that reminds you of something you already love, but it’s reimagined. Tanukichan has a firm grasp on those blueprints. They’re pushing that Duster sound forward. They’re taking all the things that are perfect and free in the Breeders and making it now.
GIZMO is named after the dog pictured howling on the album cover through a chain link fence, a burly bulldog that van Loon adopted in 2020 from neighbors who were unable to take care of him anymore because he was getting too big for their small apartment. Van Loon’s apartment wasn’t much bigger, but she “would have been sad to see him go” and immediately took him in, becoming her company while writing and demoing this album in isolation. After spending more than a year together, Gizmo tragically died just before the album’s completion. As a result, naming the album GIZMO “just felt right,” so now the pet’s memory lives on – the boisterous personality of her furry companion and the uncertainty and restlessness of her headspace at the time reflected in the record itself.
Perhaps predictably for a pandemic record, one of the central preoccupations of GIZMO is time: how fast it is or isn’t moving, wasting it, somehow running out of it and having too much of it on your hands at the same time. The album’s opening track “Escape” poses this question bluntly: “What if I’m wasting my precious time?” — a nagging thought that continues to rear its head throughout. Perhaps most memorably, it re-appears on “Thin Air,” a new single released today that boasts the album’s lone feature from the Seattle band Enumclaw.
“Thin Air” already existed in some form when van Loon met the members of Enumclaw through Bear, and since Enumclaw were already fans of Tanukichan, the collaboration came about very organically. Laying down an additional guitar part and writing his own lyrics that echo van Loon’s – “If I could find my mind/ I’d quit wasting the time” – the contributions from lead vocalist Aramis Johnson take the song over the top, providing the “something missing” that van Loon was seeking. Layering their vocal parts on top of each other highlights the contrast between their voices, and as much as I have grown to love van Loon’s more introverted performance style, the moment when Johnson detonates into a raspy howl provides a much-needed release for the pent up energy that defines the record’s first half.
Unlike many who turned to religion or swooning romance to bring comfort and stability in a time of mass uncertainty, songs like lead single “Make Believe” project skepticism towards seeing these things as a quick-fix solution to our problems. Van Loon was raised in a strictly religious household, but she doesn’t find comfort in returning to her religious roots, suggesting instead that many of these born-again converts are “Falling fast and falling hard/ Just to have someone to hold.” “Make Believe” is an explicit rejection of this outlook on life that was ingrained in her as a child, but even though religion is “never gonna be a thing” for her personally, this optimistic nihilism anthem manages to find the same liberation and comfort in the open-ended freedom of not believing in anything.
Besides time and faith (or lack thereof), the other central focus of GIZMO is love, as an unresolved romantic conflict hangs in the air of this album like a lingering smell that won’t go away. The anxiety of waiting around and having “better things to do” leads her to wonder on tracks like “Thin Air” if she can afford to “stay around for your love,” but GIZMO is far from the typical heartbreak album. In fact, it seems like van Loon is actively running away from these lovesick feelings. When I bring up lines like “Love songs and roses cling to me/ Like a bad dream” and “I swear I’m not holding on/ But it was worse when you were gone,” van Loon doesn’t answer my question and instead just starts laughing, saying I “hit the nail on the head” with my hypothesis that this is an album of begrudgingly written love songs. She clearly wants to resist the urge to wallow in romantic disappointment and move on to other concerns, but the heart is never as rational or easy to control as we want it to be.
With lines that address a second person who “will always have one foot out the door” contrasted by the relief of the “like you just the way you are” hook, I initially thought “Like You” was another song about being in love despite one’s better judgment, but when I pry further and attempt to tie it into this narrative, van Loon gently pushes back. “Songs can be about a lot of things, you know?” she says, “Like, it doesn’t have to be about one thing, but, but I feel like it’s kind of about me… or maybe someone else.” The true power of “Like You” and GIZMO as a whole comes from that ambiguity; it’s beside the point whether the song is intended to be about loving someone else despite their frustrating flaws or van Loon learning to love herself from a detached second person POV. Tanukichan’s lyricism is far from cryptic and flowery, yet every one of these songs has multiple layers of nuance and double meanings, speaking in plainspoken observations while leaving a surprising amount of room for interpretation.
GIZMO is full of immensely listenable fuzz pop songs that promptly and efficiently deliver the goods, but rarely does it provide neat resolutions. Appropriately, “Mr. Rain,” the most emotional song on GIZMO and the only one that allows itself to stretch things out to the slow motion pace that Sundays excelled in, sends the album out on an inconclusive yet satisfying final note. The fact that there isn’t a track longer than three minutes on the entire A side of GIZMO makes this four-minute closer feel not only earned but towering and epic, its sludgy pace turned even weightier by one of the album’s thickest guitar tones a string quartet lead on the cello by Hannah’s brother Samsun van Loon. The memory of someone she would rather forget continues to haunt her “Like the mist like the rain/ Like a fog that clouds my brain,” but as she sings the lines “I know I’m not moving on/ But maybe that isn’t so wrong/ Finally I can find/ Something like a peace of mind,” she manages to arrive at a place of acceptance.
Life rarely provides us the tidy emotional closure that love stories or religion promise us, but by resisting these short-term solutions and learning to live with and love ourselves unconditionally, maybe we too can find something like a peace of mind. Having all the answers is overrated.
GIZMO is out 3/3 on Company Records.