It’s a typical January afternoon in Allston, but inside Twin Donuts, time seems to stand still. The cafe’s atmosphere is partially responsible — the building has been a local landmark in Union Square since the 1950s, and its retro interior suggests that it hasn't gone through many major updates since then — but mostly, it's due to the sudden nostalgia of Brandon Hagen and Drew McDonald, the duo behind Boston rock band Vundabar.
They've opted for cold drinks in spite of the frigid weather, and are watching a fluffy Hallmark-movie snow dust the intersection out the window as they reflect on the neighborhood's role in their own history.
Though Hagen and McDonald grew up as neighbors in the South Shore town of Scituate, Boston’s music scene was a draw since they’d become friends in their early teens. At 15, they made the hour-or-so trek into Allston and schemed their way into an underground show in a warehouse just a few streets away from Twin Donuts. The pair felt out of place at their age, but they were unfazed -- and inspired. Within the next year, they formed Vundabar with the goal of writing short, high-energy pop songs with a ragged rock edge, an influence borrowed from those first few DIY shows.
Now 22 and 23, Hagen and McDonald have mastered an approach to writing songs that would satisfy their teenage selves: It’s a clash of fat, gritty chords and crisp melodies that most closely resembles a version of surf punk with no chill whatsoever. But the hooks are another story. Hagen stretches and snaps words like Silly Putty, often favoring a sudden falsetto that candy-coats lyrical nuances and assures that the songs will wedge in your brain for hours, even if you don’t know the words.
“I think we’ve always used humor as a really great way to confront real things. It comes naturally to us.”Drew McDonald
On the band’s two previous albums, “Antics” in 2013 and “Gawk” in 2015, the effect was playful, but shot a wink toward darker, more complicated ideas beneath the surface. “Smell Smoke,” Vundabar’s third full-length release (out Feb. 23 on their own label, also named Gawk) picks up in similar sonic territory, but digs into more personal topics for the first time. Prior to recording, Hagen had spent several years juggling a rigorous touring schedule while caring for a close family member who was in severely declining physical and mental health. It was a private struggle, something he could only share with two close friends. He still speaks cautiously about it in order to protect his family’s privacy.
“This was a person who grew up really broke and without a lot of stability, so his stability was what he could make and how much he could succeed in that context, and that came to weigh in as he got older,” says Hagen. “It just completely leveled him in a way that I felt was very tied into capitalism and masculinity and suppression, and I saw a lot of what I was doing in response to it in him, which was scary.”
He and McDonald both attribute part of that mentality to Scituate’s social fabric. “We grew up in this little New England town that has this f-----’ 'Twin Peaks' thing going on, this glossed-over appearance of a ‘happy little town.’ And because of that small-town thing, there’s all these dirty secrets and darkness, but we don’t talk about that. We don’t acknowledge it. So part of [the album] was confronting that impasse and dissecting it, like, ‘Why do I do this? Why is it so hard to say that things are not OK?' ” says Hagen.
That thought grew more and more prominent while Vundabar toured -- but by all outward appearances, both he and the band seemed to be thriving. Their live show had developed a reputation for a certain kind of goofy, chaotic charisma, and Hagen felt obligated to uphold that persona on the road, even though he was privately struggling with thoughts of his family’s situation. Offstage, he was becoming stoic and withdrawn. “Everything just came to a peak where it was just like, ‘I need to drastically change myself or bad things are gonna happen,' ” says Hagen.
That effort to change and open up became the driving force behind “Smell Smoke.” The chorus of lead single “Acetone” offers a snapshot of Hagen’s mindset at the time: “Don’t want you to see the way I’ve been/ Doled out a bleached persona.” “Harvest” jitters with post-punk claustrophobia, “Hold A Light” mourns in near a capella howls, and “No People to Person” dissociates entirely: “There is no person to people this vehicle/ there’s not a soul to fill the tank.” But it’s not always so dark. A smirk flickers through on “Tonight I’m Wearing Silk,” skewering the absurdity of dealing with one’s own persona, and album closer “A Man Loses a Hat” hints at a sense of overcoming grief and starting to move on.
Live, the tracks of “Smell Smoke” — like the rest of Vundabar’s material — take on joyful new dimensions. While the band’s experimental, playfully disheveled edge still evokes Allston DIY spaces, they’re best suited to larger stages and proper lighting, because Vundabar's message is something else entirely when seen, not just heard. (Their March 3 show at the Sinclair in Cambridge, part of a national tour, is sold out.)
“I think we’ve always used humor as a really great way to confront real things,” says McDonald. “It comes naturally to us.”
“It’s our default just to act stupid and silly and make fools of ourselves. I feel a lot better trying to convince an audience that they’re having a good time if I’m actually, truly having a good time, so it’s like, ‘F--- it. We’ll just do what we do and maybe people will like it,” says Hagen.
Now untangled from the persona that Hagen dissects on the album, “having a good time” translates into irreverent stage banter and a compulsively watchable half-dancing, half-flailing presence that runs deeper than showmanship alone. It’s Vundabar in their most authentic form: a casual reminder that happiness can overtake grief, even when the two are in close quarters.
Karen Muller is a freelance music journalist whose work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Bitch Magazine, Impose, and elsewhere.