The shelter-in-place orders earlier this year not only effectively ended live music, they also pushed a lot of bands into the world of home recordings. On Oct. 30th, local indie-pop duo Lunchbox returned with After School Special, their first album in 6 years, recorded in their basement. But the recordings were done well before Covid. Basement recording is just what the band does.
Back in the '90s, when the group started self-recording their music, there was a movement to steer clear of studios, with such bands often getting labeled as "lo-fi." Now, while artists scramble to play the role of producer and overdub multiple instruments themselves, technology has advanced to new heights of fidelity. But the DIY, experimental spirit hasn't changed, which is why Lunchbox continues to choose this route, pandemic or otherwise. It helps keep them moving in a creative direction.
"It felt really important for me, personally, to take ownership of the process," says guitarist/singer Tim Brown. "I never really had any other way of doing it. It's nice to own the means of production." The other half of the band, Donna McKean, plays bass and sings.
For many fans, the timing of the cheery, '60s-infused indie-pop songs on After School Special couldn't be better. Different people have told the members in Lunchbox that the ultra-catchy AM-inspired pop songs, punctuated with occasional horn lines, have helped them feel upbeat in otherwise dark times. Though, technically, the songs are danceable, blend rock, pop and R&B sunny jams, and are sonically happy—lots of major chords—the lyrics aren't strictly uplifting.
"It's a record full of songs about death and stuff," Brown says. "From our perspective, it doesn't feel like we're trying to be positive. I think that's just the way the music sounds."
The song "Over Way Too Soon" is from a ghost's point of view. For the video, McKean dresses up as a ghost and haunts Brown. The silly vibe matches the catchy, retro-soul guitar licks, yet, like the lyrics, the background imagery of Oakland's changing cityscapes, complete with "ACAB" and "Black Lives Matter" graffiti, gives it a much more bittersweet and serious undertone.
"We're Buddhists and we think about death a lot," Brown says. "It's not so much that they're about death in a downer way. Rebirth, reincarnation, the dreamlike nature of reality—that kind of stuff. The circle of life, which death is a part of. And they're mixed up with playful themes of animals and whatever."
This dichotomy is all over After School Special. The songs made me feel good at first, but the more time I spent with the material, the more it gave me to think about. Oddly enough, the song that sonically evokes the most melancholy—the psychedelic pop song "Three Cheers for Autumntime"—is one of the album's simplest and most celebratory.
"Autumn is a really meaningful time of year for us," Brown says. "That song maybe is a little bit about retreating from the world, the passage of time. The 'three cheers' part is 'that's our favorite vibe.' We have Indian summer here. September and October are the hottest months, in a way. There's always that feeling when fall comes, that's like a really good feeling."
Recording the album was a process, but when it was time to release it, they were delighted that indie label Slumberland Records stepped up to the task. Brown and McKean have always been big fans of the label but were never able to work with them on previous Lunchbox releases. It's a great diverse platform for the group to re-introduce their eclectic indie-pop basement recordings to a 2020 audience.
"Slumberland is a label that doesn't put out anything bad," Brown says. "Their stuff is pristine, and it combines a bunch of different styles. In some ways, we don't sound like a slumberland band with a capital 'S' and capital 'B.' But that's misleading, because Michael, he puts out bands that have a bunch of different styles. I think that this was kind of a neat release in a way because it has some sounds on it that maybe aren't characteristic of a lot of other bands on the label. But it also is a good fit, if that makes sense."
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