At first glance, Boston indie rock duo Vundabar seem like a classic homegrown success story. Singer-guitarist Brandon Hagen and drummer Drew McDonald grew up in Scituate, and by the end of high school they were going into the city to play shows. Five years of steady gigging, a few bassists (current one: Grayson Kirtland), and two well-received albums later, Vundabar are no longer our DIY scene’s best-kept secret. Singles from their new album, “Smell Smoke” (which comes out Friday), have earned praise from NPR, Pitchfork, and Spin, while their March 3 date at the Sinclair has already sold out.
Yet it might have never gotten this far if not for the French government.
It’s a long story, but basically: After a French blog covered their 2013 debut, “Antics,” a French promoter contacted Vundabar, starting a chain of events that led to their receiving what Hagen calls a “lump sum,” making them the rare American band to benefit from French arts subsidies. Hagen credits that initial boost with allowing the group to continue operating without a record deal, while giving them the financial security to focus on growing artistically.
“I think it’s interesting from the perspective of an American artist,” says Hagen. “That’s just kind of unheard of here on that scale . . . especially now, when [the US government is] chopping all the money for endowments.”
Money comes up often during a conversation with Hagen. He’s passionate about Boston and its musical history (as evidenced by the homage to local post-punk legends Mission of Burma on “Tonight I’m Wearing Silk”), but rising rents have led him to contemplate moving — maybe to Philadelphia, where seemingly every talented young indie musician is relocating these days. For now, he likes being close to his mother in Weymouth.
“We love Boston; I grew up here, and there’s a lot of great things about the city,” says Hagen. “It’s just not the most hospitable place for artists right now.”
Economic concerns are also present in the deeply personal narrative of “Smell Smoke.” When Hagen was 18, a close relative became seriously ill, and over the next four years Hagen took care of him while simultaneously trying to get his musical career off the ground. The situation made Hagen brutally aware of the cost of keeping a chronically ill person healthy; as the chorus of “$$$” puts it, “Honey, money doesn’t talk/ Money screams.”
While Hagen agonizes over the art/commerce dichotomy as much as any self-respecting indie rocker, his views on the subject are refreshingly pragmatic.
“Part of it is wanting to be like ‘[money] doesn’t matter’ — but it really matters,” says Hagen. “I know humans are just stardust flying through space, blah blah blah, all of that New Age [expletive], but then also Papa needs money so I can buy a sandwich, you know?”
Hagen had never opened up about his family situation before “Smell Smoke,” but he soon realized that the harder he tried to remain stoic in the face of trauma, the more he risked falling into the same patterns of “masculine” behavior that had contributed to his relative’s breakdown.
Though Hagen wrote most of “Smell Smoke” before the Trump presidency, the questions the album raises about health care and capitalism feel extremely timely. Still, Hagen would rather not present his personal struggle as representative of anyone else’s experience.
“It is and isn’t a political album,” says Hagen. “It’s politics happening in a closed room, in someone’s sickness, in a suburb, in an unsexy setting.”
“Smell Smoke” may tackle heavy subject matter, but it does so within jumpy, off-kilter indie rock songs much like those on Vundabar’s first two albums. Anyone who’s seen them live knows how important humor is to this band; it’s the tool they use to connect with audiences while keeping each other entertained. Hagen doesn’t want Vundabar to stop being funny just because he’s singing about tragedy; for him, that juxtaposition of the goofy and serious is a key part of Vundabar’s identity.
“I think our music has always been a sort of Jekyll and Hyde, really dark, but with this whimsy and humor that kind of flips it on its head and makes it absurd,” says Hagen. “I think we’re kind of the Coen brothers of rock. Funny and dark and morbid and silly.”
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