Brandon Hagen just wants his band Vundabar (that’s pronounced “Voon-duh-bar,” by the way) to be big enough that he can buy a timeshare in the Florida Keys; is that really so much to ask?! On the eve of Vundabar’s latest release Smell Smoke, Hagen takes my call from a New York City bar, after determining that a quaint coffee shop was just that — too quaint that it was uncomfortable, especially to discuss a project so emotional and personally draining.
Smell Smoke is a record about watching the health of a loved one decline at home, while walking out in the world and putting on a face that nothing is out of the ordinary. While writing the record, Hagen decided to be very direct with his lyrics and finally open up about what he had gone through, allowing no room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding. “Songwriting, for me, is a direct mode of communication, in that it’s accessible,” he says. “So I guess the intention was accessibility both in intent and in composition.”
For Hagen (and for many), songwriting and music is the preferred art form for refined reflection and reconciliation, especially when dealing with sentiments of struggle or grief. “For me it’s a way to consolidate it, you know? All of those things are sort of floating, abstract, metaphysical things that manifest physically but…” He pauses for a moment, then chuckles.
“I was talking about it with my mom the other day, and I was just like, ‘Oh, it’s great! I got to like consolidate it all down into this record and here it is and now I can move on.’ It’s just a way to put it into something and be like, ‘That’s there, I can do other things now.’ In a way, there’s so much about music that is also abstract and untouchable, unseeable, sort of unknowable. It can address what you don’t actually have the capacity to express. For me at least.”
For Smell Smoke, Hagen took inspiration from the world-building characteristics of the Cure’s Pornography. “It’s just like a very doomed record,” he explains. “I wouldn’t say it’s a doomed world, but definitely a bit grey, but not devoid of humor. It’s kind of like a little world that’s kind of laughing at themselves.”
I point out that this sentiment might be reflected in the album’s artwork, which features two figures sitting at a table, unnatural smiles plastered to their face. Hagen thinks for a moment, then agrees, though he says he hadn’t considered that previously. “[Smell Smoke] explores a lot of themes but it’s not intent on just one thing. It’s more the exploratory of an environment that’s created on the record. I guess that was the goal: create a little world and explore it.”
It’s clear from the first notes of opening track “Acetone” that this isn’t going to sound like your typical indie rock record or post-punk record or even pop rock record. Vundabar fits cleanly into that crevice between genre, and that’s what makes them so special, and so interesting. It takes more than a cursory listen to gain entrance into the world that Hagen and the band have built for themselves, and it might take a few more before you realize that underneath the fun, bouncing music, there is a heartbreaking story.
It’s a story so intense that it begs the question: How does it feel to play these songs describing a profoundly devastating experience, live in a room full of unfamiliar faces? “I think, for me, it feels good to play them. There’s definitely an element of not wanting to rehash certain things. I mean, you know, I wanted to share those things and like I chose to. That was a choice.”
Smell Smoke is a record that feels like a turning point for Vundabar, with songs so insanely catchy that the rooms are sure to continue growing, the fan base clamoring for more. “Hopefully this is a stepping stone,” Hagen says. “Ideally we’ll do well, people will like us.” He chuckles, then gets serious — but in the way where you can hear the smile behind the straight face, even from across the phone. “Honestly, okay, if I get my timeshare then it’s a success. If I don’t get my timeshare it’s a failure.”