Midwest transplants Jeff Wagner and Pat Crawford are The Tunnel. They recently released Carver Brothers Lullaby, a collection of songs that explore the grittier elements of “sunny” California. But The Tunnel is more than just a band with a sound; Jeff and Pat are a two-man art factory. Mischievous-goodness ensues when a metal drumming graphic artist pairs up with a songwriter who brings a theater background to on-stage presentation. Whether it’s the horror movies they project during shows or the dusky femme fatales in their lyrics and on their posters, it is their work in the visual medium that throws shadows over a landscape of sparse but potent songs.
As a Midwesterner, do you feel like you are seeing California with a fresh perspective, in a way that California natives don’t see it?
JW: I think so. One of the clichés about the Midwest is the law abiding, rule following. “Don’t cross against the light, you!” I still have that ingrained in me. Plus I think there’s a moody introspection in the music that all my friends made—and that I made, too. I think it’s still in there, even if it’s fantastical or gothic.
You’re touching on something there, the gothic. Your music has a west coast-meets-gothic sound.
JW: Carver Brothers Lullaby was definitely the theme we came up with, just to make an album about the vibe that we’ve soaked up being out here, not just in the city, but out in the rural parts of Northern California.
So what is the Carver Brothers theme about?
JW: We tried to come up with an integration of artwork that we collaborated on, it was supposed to be a little more gonzo and synthetic and B-movie—kind of Danny Elfman-esque, kind of crazed, lots of effects. I think it’s really shaped by our experiences out here. We just kept stripping it down and stripping it down and I hope that mood still comes through but it was almost more like a dark folk or country type of sound that came out.
You’re a fan of Denis Johnson, right?
JW: Oh, I love Denis Johnson.
Already Dead comes to mind.
JW: That’s probably my favorite.
PC: I love the spirit of personality [Johnson] catches in his characters. He shows the dark underbelly beneath all this beauty and majesty that’s along the coast. It’s a style of writing I wasn’t familiar with when I first got here.
Did you read [Already Dead] and think, “We’ll add that genre to the mix?” Or was it an ‘a-ha’ moment?
JW: It was one of those weird synchronicities where I found it at just the right time and it totally electrified me. He has that physical, emotional—like sentimental, skeptical—but very physical art that just resonates with me. There aren’t too many writers who can capture all of that in their writing. It’s pretty brutal stuff, but the kind of pure and vulnerable feelings that come through those brutal scenes are just magic.
Like what happens when you put a human being in an extreme situation and watch their reaction?
JW: I don’t have any idea how realistic that is in the real world, but I know in a dramatic setting it can resonate with people who experience outrage and fear and despair in their normal day-to-day lives, but just still try to keep going. Even if it doesn’t involve decapitation or whatever occurs in the dramatic situation.
I went back and listened to your solo work, Jeff Wagner’s Tunnel of Love. That stuff’s quite theatrical.
JW: I’ve been in a few plays with this one director, Karen Penley.
JW: Yeah. They’re really expressionistic and have a lot of music and movement and physicality, so it’s not like realism. It’s something that’s more akin to my music. And I think that’s why we really collaborated well. I’ve done some of the music for her plays, too. But she’s got the same thing, this really physical, primal, articulate way of expressing those emotions that don’t normally get expressed.
When I listen to you guys, I feel like you still have remnants of the theatrical thing going— but just remnants of Danny Elfman. The Tunnel has a harder edge.
JW: Yeah, totally, totally. Pat is super loud. And he’s really good with dynamics, texture, and telling me to stop clipping all my compositions. He’s helped open them up and that combination has really helped produce our style. It’s a physical experience playing with him.
Do you consider yourselves musicians who want to be storytellers, or storytellers who happen to have instruments lying around?
JW: I don’t really consider myself a musician. I feel like more of one with Pat around, though. I like to generate moods and stories and emotions. That’s kind of my goal.
PC: And I definitely feel like I have picked up on that and I try to fill that out. For me it’s always been music first. Being a drummer, you don’t always necessarily have as much input, musically, melodically. Structurally, yes, so I try to help with composition and the structure if I can. But I rely on the other musicians to lay that foundation and I fill in the rest. Whoever I play with I try to get an understanding and an empathy for where they’re coming from and just try to fully realize that.
So what’s coming up?
PC: We have 3 new songs recorded as a three piece and we’re going to go back into the studio to finish other new stuff, with my brother Chris at a studio called SQ. We want to finish out these recordings. But we decided that Carver Brothers is the last CD we’ll do. I just don’t think it’s relevant anymore.
What will you do?
PC: Vinyl. Vinyl with an MP3 download. As a musician and somebody who works in design, not necessarily marketing, but you’re studying cultural trends, being in tune with music lovers, I only really buy vinyl unless a band I love has nothing else. I’ve gotten rid of CD’s. It makes the most sense to me with people listening to their music digitally; I wouldn’t give somebody a CD. It’s pointless. You put it in your CD, you rip it, you shelve it. People don’t get out CD’s anymore. I don’t. I have a turntable and my digital music. And they complement one another. So for us it makes sense. It’s safe to say we both love vinyl. Coming from the DIY scene. Coming from collecting records in the Midwest and going to all the little indie stores. We wanna put out a beautiful piece of vinyl with really nice packaging and have a free download. It’s the best of both worlds. It really ties in with our visual aesthetic of the beautiful packaging and they also get a really easy, simple download.
JW: Let’s face it, that’s one of the great things about vinyl: Bigger, better artwork.
PC: Especially when you get the record and it’s like a gatefold or there’s a nice insert, its something unique you were never able to capture with CD’s. Even with our CD’s that we went with a very tactile kind of packaging, recycle chipboard. It feels like a miniature gatefold LP.
Where are your favorite places to play on tour?
PC: Yeah, Durango.
JW: Durango people are crazy!
PC: We have some friends out there who organize cycling events and we’ve gone and played these big…festivals? Festival isn’t the right word.
JW: DIY extreme sports festivals?
PC: We played at the single speed world championships, which is a race hosted in a different city every year. What’s cool about it is they’re doing the same thing with bikes and with film and art that we’re doing with our music. We’ve gone out there to play The Rally of the Dead, which is a zombie-themed mountain bike race. Everybody dresses up as zombies, fully covered in blood and wearing skull masks and riding up giant mountains on their single speed bikes. It’s crazy! It’s a week of debauchery, drunkenness, and basically celebrating and being alive. We’re more in touch with people of that same spirit. If people are doing something artistic and inspiring, then we wanna be a part of it.
What is your favorite place to play in San Francisco?
PC: I think our best shows have been at the Hemlock Tavern.
The Hemlock is a cool space.
JW: It also has a very Lynch vibe, which I love. Speaking of David Lynch, in theory, I really like playing at Li Po Lounge. But it’s not really set up for acoustics, so that’s kind of the downside. It’s a bar in Chinatown. Talk about DIY…
PC: It’s very, very DIY. It’s the basement of a dive bar in Chinatown that has this crazy façade. It looks like a giant boulder landed in the middle of Chinatown. Then they bored a hole in front of it and added a door. And there’s a random assortment of shady characters hanging out.
JW: You could definitely write a song about the characters hanging out there.
PC: Our friends set up the show. They had a movie projector set up and played our favorite B-movies behind us.
JW: And I think we projected Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts, by Sogo Ishii.
PC: We also projected Perverella.
JW: That one got some negative reactions from the audience.
PC: It could’ve been the giant monster with a huge erect penis chasing that group of women. It was hilarious. I turned around at one point and said, “Yes! Perfect!”
So who makes up your ideal audience?
PC: Social misfits. I honestly think it would be people like us.
Interview & photos by Matthew Monte
Illustrations courtesy The Tunnel; Stage banner by the Slow Poisoner
Be sure to visit The Tunnel’s official website for art, shows, and new releases.