When your band’s latest work is a multimedia undertaking titled DEAD CLUB, it might seem like the world’s biggest missed marketing opportunity that the album built into the project arrives after the spookiest day of the year. However for London, England folktronica band Tunng (Tuh-ng), the object of DEAD CLUB was never about cashing in on Halloween, trying to start some horror trend, or attempting to scare the pants off of listeners, as album lyricist and band member Sam Genders would explain over the phone from Europe.
“I had been kind of trying to think of different ways that I’m different ways that you could do a project that may be crossed over a little bit into philosophy and science and I mentioned the idea to (bandmate) Mike [Lindsay] of perhaps making an album around death, and this idea of doing research (on it) beforehand.” says Sam Genders, member of Tunng and primary lyricist behind the music of DEAD CLUB.
Indeed, functionally speaking, DEAD CLUB’s concept – never mind its eventual expansion to a podcast of the same name and a 42 page zine/lyric book – was actually born from very pragmatic, almost scholastic inspirations, which began with the book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, written by Max Porter. A book that came to be shared among the members of Tunng over time, Porter’s exploration into the phenomenon of grief and his understanding thereof, served as the initial spark for Genders’ chat with Lindsay, and eventually the rest of the band. Of course, just because it’s easy to outline the linear series of events that led to DEAD CLUB’S conception, don’t mistake that for a quickly embraced or easily agreed upon idea.
“(The band) talked about it a lot really before we even decided to finally do it,” Genders says. “And straightaway, there was a lot of conflict and, a bit of tension, and quite differen––quite a wide variety of opinions. So, it was…right from the start, it was interesting.”
Straightaway, DEAD CLUB can be viewed as a concept album but, for Tunng – and especially for Genders – the interest, intrigue, and intent was meant to go far beyond a record full of songs that have death and grief as main topics. While Porter’s book is the cornerstone that opened the door for the project to get underway, there are plenty of things bands might see or experience on tours or during time together that prompt fun memories and fascinating discussion but never evolve into the focus of a full album. Thus, the larger underlying question remained, of exactly why Genders pursued a deep dive into death, when there are lots of ways to explore philosophy in music? For Genders, the truth of the matter, is actually a matter of illuminating truth.
“I almost find it a little odd that that culturally we’ve sort of acted as if we’re not interested in death because, I feel like it’s such a big such a big part of life and it touches us all in such a powerful way,” Genders explains.
“You know, it’s been interesting doing this project and speaking to friends and just even just within the band. It’s incredible to discover something which is obvious when you think about it. And so the fact that it’s such an important part of life, (but) I think culturally we almost pretend it’s not sometimes, is very interesting to me and somehow attracts me to the subject. And I’m also very interested in things that I find uncomfortable so I had a sort of general fascination around (the topic of death).”
Speaking of truth, with the decision to discuss death and grief, it’s hard not to wonder if and-or how much religion and spirituality came into play as Tunng discerned which facets of loss in death would get a spot of thorough consideration via song lyrics or individual track topics. While faith isn’t based in fact the same way science is, the fact does remain that varying beliefs around an afterlife, or religiously based traditions do stand adjacent and often intertwined with many people, cultures, and countries around the world.
Yet,in spite of the widespread, millennia-old connection between spiritually-centered traditions and beliefs, and the experience of loss through death, DEAD CLUB maintains a respectable distance from the former in relation to the latter. The reason being, not a spurning of theological thinking or metaphysical possibility but more so out of respect to and a recognition of spirituality’s sheer vastness, along with a realization that there is plenty of ubiquitous aspects of the death experience that humans of any religious belief system can connect to and learn from.
“I suppose I feel that evidence and truth is very important and I don’t have any personal experience of anything that’s showing me that there’s an afterlife,” says Genders. “But I’m fascinated by it and I have explored lots of different spiritual ideas and things over the years, so I’m very interested in it. But as the lyric writer, I sort of chose not to explore that (topic) too deeply because I feel it is such a huge subject. I also feel. This is an area where people have really different viewpoints (and) it was almost too big for for this (project).
“It felt like (the concepts we focused on) were ideas that that could help and support people,” he continued.
“Whether they’re sort of an atheist who only believes in science or, whether they belong to any religion, you can still access palliative care, and you can still learn how to be a better ally in grief. So we didn’t we didn’t explore the afterlife, so much.”
Of course, even factoring in all the band’s foresight around delicate theological sub-topics, Tunng’s development of DEAD CLUB ended up facing more than its fair share of added, unexpected controversy during assembly. The arrival of COVID-19 has been an unprecedented logistical challenge for the music world at large. But for Tunng, the actual nature of this current global hurdle – a dangerous, contagious, sometimes fatal disease – itself became a factor of further delicacy for an album centered around death. After careful consideration, unfortunate realities of the present resulted in at least some re-evaluation and departure from original objectives that had yet to be completed.
“There was a possibility I was going to speak to the chaplain of a hospice, and then COVID-19 happened and we kind of stopped a lot (of things we were doing) and just really had to refocus on our working methods and change a few things. So a lot of things we might have done, we didn’t do and some of the songs that might have got written, didn’t get written,” explains Genders.
I mean, it’s been a slightly unusual experience,” he continues.
“I had just done a period of two or three months of the most intense research, interviewing people and so, in a way, it was kind of strange because people around me started, you know, considering these some of these ideas (about death and grief), a little more. So the two (things – COVID and death –) sort of merged into each other a little bit; I’d already been exploring these ideas.”
All this said, Genders is swift to contextualize his own individual experience and even a touch of his own emotional bias about the intensity of the situation, given the difference between first, second, and third hand effects. “I’m very lucky in that I haven’t…no one close to me has died, or had COVID-19 so, to a certain extent…I have a two year old daughter (and I’m) tending to a lot of childcare. You know, in some ways, and I’ve been very lucky in the circumstances of my life,” Genders admits.
While Genders never oversteps his opinions beyond himself to others in Tunng or other members of society, especially with regard to experiences surrounding death with COVID-19, it’s intriguing to see the songwriter able to find a bit of connective positive change that us as a unified human race might be turning a corner with, regardless of loss from COVID-19 or not. “It is very interesting to notice that more people are thinking about death and (that) there’s a bit of a cultural movement, I would say, of people having discussions.”
Genders’ observation of at least an increased ability to breach the topic of death and discuss the nuances of its impact on the living, leans into the overall range of emotions and implied circumstances DEAD CLUB’s songs shed light on. Starting the album with a track like “Eating the Dead,” which does in fact see Genders turning to metaphors of such in his lyrics, sets the album off on quite the dramatic, macabre, and even somewhat grisly horror-driven note. Though again, the album wasn’t created for the purpose of superficial shock value.
Lay you on my kitchen table
Cut you open tenderly
Eat your heart and eyes and mouth
Every word you spoke to me
– Lyrics from “Eating the Dead”
“This is one reason (the band) sort of talked about it for quite a while amongst ourselves. We (asked ourselves) ‘Who are we to talk about this subject?’ And we were very concerned how it might affect people you know, whether it could be upsetting for people and it could seem insensitive.” Genders says.
“And I think when it came to writing the lyrics, I guess I was guided by the experiences that I was having in terms of the books I was reading in the conversations the interviews, Becky (Jacobs) and I were doing (on the DEAD CLUB podcast),” he continues. “Not sure I had a specific set of (listeners) in mind. I think we felt, perhaps that the kind of people who listen to Tunng might be open to this discussion because some of these themes have come up before in Tunng’s music, and there’s a sort of history of writing and lyrics about sort of darkness and light and this sort of two sides of life.”
Looking from Genders’ perspective as the primary storyteller on this album, the objective of DEAD CLUB always revolves around neutral curiosity and an acknowledgement of the facts of life. But furthermore, the understanding that both Genders and Tunng as a collective don’t dismiss the very real and individual pain, sadness, anger, or other primarily negative emotions that might arise while exploring DEAD CLUB, really makes the whole project seem far less ominous.
“I think in life, that the things that really hurt that really are the things that you need to express the most you know?” says Genders. “I don’t know where it comes from but, I think there is a bit of a thing in let’s say, Western culture, where we avoid talking about the most painful important things sometimes, and what I’m generally interested in (and) most concerned about really is how people who have the potential to feel hurt by this (album,) feel because that’s, that’s something I would not want. I wouldn’t want to hurt people’s feelings and and if their feelings are hurt, I’d like the opportunity to talk about why. And who knows, maybe in two years time I’ll realize it was, this was a mistake but in the process, I will learn something about communicating ideas so, I would rather discuss it.
Moreover however, the idea of possibly encountering some emotional or mental discomfort also feels less like masochistic listening and more like, at the very least, an appreciation of one band’s interest in dialogue by way of the art form they know best, with others in areas less familiar, helping to fill the gaps, bringing new perspective into the picture.As with any pursuit of change in thinking, Tunng is aware new, especially conventional-bending, ideas don’t catch overnight. But this concept is hardly specific to the content of DEAD CLUB and for a band seven albums in, it’s really more just par for the course in the music business.“We’ve received a few sort of private messages from people, which have been quite moving. And so for some people, it’s like it gives them permission to talk about things (regarding death) that they found very difficult to talk about, and talk about their pain and say ‘This made me cry, or this’…So for some people (DEAD CLUB) is clearly quite cathartic and let’s say, they say it’s helpful. Someone else might really dislike it. So I think an element of it might just be that: For some people it’s just not going to be their thing. But that’s––that’s kind of true of all music and art, isn’t it?”
Fundamentally, DEAD CLUB isn’t about telling others what to feel about death and-or dying. It’s merely an opening volley in a hopefully long lasting conversation, meant to simply make it more okay to acknowledge that death is a fact of life and, that how ever people feel in its midst, are feelings and thoughts that it should be okay to share and not only during conventional occasions representing loss or, within a certain socially acceptable timeframe of mainstream society’s choosing.
“There are so many different preferences and feelings and opinions and thoughts and experiences in relation to death and of course we’re not going to have encapsulated them all and we’re not gonna have got it right for everybody but, it’s a fascinating discussion to be part of,” says Genders.