The streets of Athens want to sell whimsy to me. I drive by a towering green bouncy castle on the way in; a bloke hawks his cellophane-wrapped cotton candy just outside the parking deck on College Ave; up on West Washington, tents filled with prints and crafts (well, I doubt the fidget spinners were handmade) still flank the streets. It’s the first night of AthFest, the annual locals-only block party created by Flagpole Magazine — and after I moved to Atlanta two years ago, I never thought I’d care to revisit that mess ever again.
But the real magic of any festival nests within the venues. And thus, in the packed stage space of the World Famous, Tunabunny remind us all why anyone would blow up inflatables and build elaborate outdoor stages for the sake of live music: playing with pals is FUN. Their set was their playground — Brigette Herron and Jesse Stinnard swap out on the drum throne twice; Scott Creney ditches his bass during “Seek Consequence” to doodle on one of the synths. On “Count to Ten,” Stinnard lays on some hyper, New Order-ish drums to the chorus; it’s too crowded to jive, but I’m bouncing at the top of the bench. When I whoop and holler in applause, an older woman below me looks and grins. “See, that’s how everyone needs to react,” she says. “You’re looking at the best band in Athens.”
Little did she know, that three days ago I talked for two hours with Herron over the phone — she was parked out by the Publix for better reception, and I was (as usual) huddled over my phone. We could have meandered so long because their latest album, a double-LP odyssey suitably named PCP Presents Alice in Wonderland Jr, crackles with an iridescent array of ideas, from the cordial yet misleading jangle of “Nevermind the Cobblestones,” to the pirate radio broadcast of “Oracle,” to the hypnotic round of “Shiftchanger.” We also rambled because Tunabunny was the first Athens band that I started listening to, even before I moved to the Classic City, and I’d faithfully followed their progress from Genius Fatigue (no. 3, 2012) to Kingdom Technology (no.4, 2014). But we also just reveled in the medium of the telephone call, and the spaces we could explore outside of the questions. “It leaves room for surprises,” Herron remarked at one point. “And a fun, unresolved narrative arc.”
“Think of what you could do!”
Like our rambling interview, PCP arose from the desire to explore. Well, sort of. At first, the notion to make a double album was just an in-joke between buds. “There was a dare, and a joke, and then the joke gets a little bit jokier, and then turns into something else,” says Herron. “And then, before you know it, we’re serious, we’re doing this. You have to be careful what you dare us to do, because we’ll totally do it.” (For instance, Stinnard joined the T-bunny squad just before their first UK tour, and thus learned and mastered every beat while on the road.)
Even if the double gauntlet hadn’t been thrown, though, the band would’ve still pushed to some other frontier: “We were wanting to do something different,” Herron explains. “[When] you keep making great single albums, you start thinking, ‘Well, what can we do next? What can we do that will push us even further?’… and we had just finished our second UK tour [in 2014]. We came back with a lot of ideas and material, and new experiences to draw from.” Thus, when HHBTM label head Mike Turner gave Tunabunny the green light for PCP, the gang struck off the beaten path for uncharted pastures. “It made us want to keep trying these new things out, because we have all this space — think of what you could do!”
And so try they did. While Herron noted that every song had a different approach, the core process in forging the melodies was usually constant — brainstorm, come together and play (not “jamming,” she stresses), record, step back and listen together, brainstorm more parts, then record again at Stinnard’s tree house. Now, did that method require a three-year hiatus? Not exactly, but Herron and the gang relished the longer incubation period. “That’s something I’ve been interested in doing in my own life, anyway — that’s been a theme that’s coming up, slowing down and becoming really more present and aware in the moment,” she says. “Been trying to do more meditation, and going deep within the inner self, to understand more about where you are in the world, and how you move in the world.”
I’d always known Tunabunny were a tight-knit bunch, so their highly collaborative (and ergo, leisurely paced) scheme didn’t surprise me. Indeed, I was more startled to hear that “Nevermind the Cobblestones” was the first song that Herron ever co-wrote with partner Creney.
“That was something I never would have done before, but I’m more open to that collaboration now,” she tells me. “I had a few lines, and a few ideas, and then we went to the Tangier Outlets in Commerce, and had some of that — you know that kind of coffee, that comes out of a machine? Like, in a Keurig, but not. An old-school Keurig. So we had that really basic coffee, and then sat in the lounge next to the bathroom, and just wrote it there one afternoon.”
“Wherever your mind takes you”
So far, we’ve only discussed concrete facts: the concert I witnessed, our conversation between car and apartment, the labors of love in construction. But as Herron and I discuss individual chapters in the PCP saga, we advance into the far trickier cerebral journey behind the project, where both listener and songwriter mark the boundaries. When I bring up “Images of Future Selves” — a surreal snapshot of a song that includes the lines “and all the babies would crawl into the basement / look in the mirror and see images of future selves” — I ask if that is a reference to psychologist Jacques Lacan and his “mirror phase” theory. “I didn’t even think about that!” replies Herron, astonished. “But I was in a ladies’ book club for a minute, and that’s what we were studying! We were reading Lacan! But I didn’t even think about that! See, that’s what’s so great about art, right? It makes the subconscious conscious.”
Whenever I suggest an idea about a certain lyric, Herron doesn’t rule me out. “When you make a piece of art, it’s ultimately out of your hands when it leaves,” she says. “And I believe, in my worldview, that there’s not one truth, there are multiple truths. I mean, I do believe in things like climate change, I do think there are concrete facts. But there are multiple ways of looking at truth. I think about a song like a crystal.” So, while the cryptic riddles of “Yellow Heart is My Sky Sign” may have been borrowed phrases from old books or notepads, she welcomes my suggestion that the words mocked the limited vocabulary of internet culture. “That’s part of our approach to writing music together: we try to make it open enough… to the point where it’s not so much analyzing in the moment, or not always being intentional about trying to accomplish a certain thing, but being tapped into a bigger process that allows the creativity to flow through.”
Of course, even if the final destination is left to the listener, Herron usually starts with clear, empowering objectives in mind. With the clockwork-gone-kooky chant of “Count to Ten,” for instance, she explains: “that whole song came from wanting to write a guitar part like Yoko Ono’s ‘Woman Power’.” Meanwhile, the feminist buddy anthem “Me and Nancy” stems from one of Herron’s all-time favorite movies, Daisies by Vera Chytilová, where the two women protagonists run wild in the world and cause mischief wherever they roam. One line even references the SCUM Manifesto, the radical feminist text that calls for the extinction of all men — but only for kicks and giggles, mind. “I don’t really suggest cutting up people,” Herron says, “but I find it all playful and funny. And it is an ode to female-identifying forces in the world running amuck and embracing the chaotic forces in your life. Whatever that may be, wherever your mind takes you. There’s a power in that affectional relationship.”
“I refuse to believe that everything is this bad”
As we talk, I’m reminded often that Herron leads a much busier life than me — and that her mind is much pluckier for it. Even with three-year-old Noam in tow, she’s currently working on a PhD in adult education at the University of Georgia, after earning a Master’s in international policy. Thus, as we talk about her methods of composing, she can raise my Lacan reference with a bit of constructionist theory from Derrida.
“Music with words, or putting things together in certain ways, creates something more powerful than the mere word or the spoken word,” she says. “Not that it’s better in any way, but it takes you somewhere different.”
Indeed, the T-bunnies have made a reputation out of breaking down and rebuilding complex discourse on creativity. Both Herron and Creney once actively conversed with other eclectic intellectuals on Everett True’s wildly divisive music blog/virtual sandbox, Collapse Board; they’ve written circles around their other interviewers with blunt and opaque answers.
But in the three years since Kingdom Technology, Herron admits that she hasn’t kept up with such discussions, or music in general, as much as she used to. “I’m listening to satellite radio right now,” she tells me, “and there’s a college radio channel — and it’s just the worst music! Like, why?! It’s just so bad! Everything can’t be this bad! I refuse to believe that everything is this bad. People are doing really interesting things right now — how do I find them? Maybe you have to keep digging deeper, following networks, look for cool labels, and find local folks and ask, ‘What’s going on in your town? What’s that cool, one-time show that you saw at 11 p.m. at night in this really small town, and there were only three people there, but it was an amazing show? Tell me about that!'”
Of course, as student and mother, Herron can’t venture downtown as often to see those late night shows herself. And while Athens has served her and Tunabunny well, as both an artistic community and a home base after traveling abroad, she’s felt an inexplicable tug toward the wide-open deserts out West — specifically, to Bisbee, Arizona. Others might try to justify that migration bug with some existential crisis or creative slump, but not Herron.
“They say that, as you grow older, if you stay in a place for a very long time, your allergies just get worse and worse,” she says, “so maybe my allergies have gotten worse enough, and my body is telling me I need to go somewhere dry!” It’s sort of a joke — but then, so was a double album. “They have a radio station there, so we’ll have a morning show there. And [we’ll] open up some kind of artist retreat/writing center, so everyone from Athens and Atlanta can come out west, and it can be their home away from home!”
Even if she is only shifting sand castles, her type of fantasy reflects the abstract altruism at the heart of Tunabunny’s work — coded but sincere gestures of hope and concern for other non-conforming creatives. Mind, I don’t think that Herron’s impulse to move out was born on a whim. In the two years since I skipped town, Athens has catered even more to its omnipresent undergrad population, as Urban Outfitters, J.Crew, and luxury apartments settled onto the west end of Clayton Street. A few weeks back, I even stumbled into a Musician’s Warehouse just behind the Georgia Theatre — a scandalous addition indeed, considering that the family-owned Chick Piano on Clayton has catered to downtown’s music gear needs for seven decades now. The chain store’s presence disoriented Herron, too, during her last trek to town, while she and a group of writers were out scrawling poems in chalk on the sidewalks. “I kept looking at it,” she says, “and I was like, ‘I know I told y’all I grew up here, but I don’t know where we are! I’m lost!’… So we wrote all our poems outside the Musician’s Warehouse! And someone wrote lots of anti-capitalist stuff all over the pavement.”
“Why do you need permission?”
At any rate, even if Herron can’t find her way downtown anymore, she and the rest of the T-bunnies certainly aren’t total recluses to the scene. Stinnard has kicked around town for years with his revolving hodgepodge crew Antlered Antlord, which Hassel also joined back in 2015. (On PCP, Herron wrote the loopy campfire sing-along “Winter’s Mind” to resemble the surreal, Guided-By-Voices-ish stuff that Stinnard usually pens for himself.) Though Herron can’t stay out too late, she’s still jumped in several times at Experimentique Night, the women-only open mic night at Ciné hosted by Eureka California’s Marie Uhler.
“It’s so interesting when you give people freedom and just say, ‘Hey! Try something you’ve never done before, and have a blast!'” Herron declares. “I love when you just allow people to be heard, the power of that, when you give people the permission to do that stuff. [But] you know, that makes me mad, because it’s like — ‘Why do you need permission?!’ But that’s reality. Sometimes you do need someone to tell you, ‘No, it’s OK. I’m behind you. Just do it.'”
Tunabunny will also definitely play more gigs in the next few months. Like last year, they’ll grace the Georgia Theatre August 12th for the Athens Popfest. Unlike last year, they’re opening for acid disco legends ESG (in what should be the most dynamic and goddamn danceable night ever under that roof — and that’s saying something, given last year’s unstoppable double-whammy of Gauche and Shopping). Herron also teases some dates in Atlanta soon, though she can’t pin down when. Beyond that, nothing else looms on the Tunabunny calendar, although Herron “would like to do a million things… like Sanford Stadium! That’s been my dream forever, to play Sanford Stadium.” To my knowledge, the only bands to perform between the hedges have been college marching bands — not like that’d stop Herron, though: “I’ll just join a marching band!” she exclaims.
All joking aside, though, Herron really just hopes that the open world of PCP inspires other outsiders to overcome their inhibitions and create. “So many people aren’t heard, or feel like they’re not heard,” she says, “and I feel very lucky to have a vehicle where people can hear the things we do. My biggest hope is that the people who need this kind of art or music will find it, and it does some good in the world. And then they can make their own! That’s what I hope happens, is that it helps people find their own ways of being creative, whatever that is in their lives. Being more fully themselves, and being more passionate, and kind, and doing amazing things.”
Tunabunny will celebrate the release of PCP Presents Alice in Wonderland Jr on Fri., July 14 at Ciné Athens. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $5.