Detroit quintet Handgrenades are on the cusp of releasing their sophomore album, and song for song, it’s one of the strongest underground indie rock releases of the year. In some ways, Tunnels is more an alternate debut album than a successor to 2012’s The Morning After. There’s a new lineup, with singer-songwriters Nick Chevillet and Andrew Pawelski and drummer Joby Kaslowski joined by fellow songwriter Jesse Shepherd-Bates and keyboardist Joel Sanders. Largely absent are the prior album’s Motown and Beatles emulations, traded in for a more nuanced and esoteric approach influenced by the likes of Radiohead, the National, Jeff Buckley, and Ryan Adams (one song even lifts an Adams lyric). Reflecting the change, the band has nixed the “the” prefacing their name and have ceased capitalizing the “G” as well.
Rather than recreating The Morning After’s immediate pop, Tunnels’s songs are more mature, varied, and chance-taking. The songs effortlessly flow into one another while maintaining a diversity stemming from the authors’ disparate, yet complimentary, styles. There’s the stomping menace of “The Watcher”, the haunting ambience of “Suffocating”, and the stadium-aspiring anthem “A Heart Like Yours”. The jangly, world-weary “Daily Routine” is met by the sparse experimentation of “In Absentia”, while the dour confessionalism of “Denial” is balanced by the surging urgency of “Settle For You”. This isn’t to say the album isn’t still pop-oriented. Each of its 10 songs are laden with hooks, earworming melodies, and catchy refrains, yet they have greater depth and, as such, are longer lasting in the listener’s subconscious.
The album is out Friday, November 4th. In addition to PopMatters streaming it in advance, Handgrenades sat down for an interview to chat about the making of it, how their songcraft has developed, and what’s on their horizon.
How long has Tunnels been in gestation?
Pawelski: Tunnels has been in gestation for about two years now. But, some songs Nick and I wrote were written before Tunnels was even a thought. It just took time to mold them into songs that were good enough to be on an album.
Tunnels bears quite the stylistic change from your debut LP, both in terms of sound and attitude. What factors led to such a drastic, yet arguably logical, shift?
Pawelski: The stylistic change in sound and attitude came because of growth in our band, and growth in ourselves individually. We all go through different things outside of the band, but we can always find a way to relate to each other. The shift might look drastic, but to us, it isn’t. We’re just growing and I feel we’re getting better as songwriters. We don’t even know what our next album will sound like. It could end up being different from Tunnels. In the end, I expect the next album to be better than this one. All of us are already excited to get back to work on writing.
With three songwriters in the band alternating lead vocals, tell me how the writing process goes. Do you guys write songs individually then bring them to the band as a whole, or is it more of a collaborative effort?
Pawelski: Yes, we all write songs individually and bring them to the group, but we all work collaboratively on the songs. Although, whoever brings the song to the table usually has a little more ground to stand on. So if it’s something they feel strongly about — a part, sound, tone, or effect — we’ll hear that person out more. In the end, the goal is to make that song the best it can be. If something doesn’t work out we won’t keep it in the song. “No hard feelings, let’s move on, we can make it better.” That type of thing.
Despite having such disparate songwriting perspectives, the album sounds remarkably coherent and unified. Was there ever a concern the songs would spin off too wildly in different directions and keep it from feeling like a singular work? If so, how was that reined in?
Chevillet: No, not all. We have always felt that no matter which one of us writes a song, or what kind of vibe a song gives off, it will always end up sounding like us. We put in such a group effort that it always turns out being a Handgrenades song. We had that attitude during the writing of this album especially. To be honest, we are also surprised at how cohesive it sounds.
The tracklist is sequenced so well that the album feels like this sidewinding journey. How much focus was there on getting the songs’ order just right?
Shepherd-Bates: There was a lot of effort that went into getting the sequence right on our part. We spent a long time messing around with rearranging the songs until we felt we had the sequence perfect. We sent our sequence to (prodocuer Zach Shipps) and he basically said something to the effect of “That’s really bad. I can do that for you but listen to this instead.” He sent us his own sequence (which was completely different) and it was perfect. We didn’t change a thing, and that’s what you hear when you take that baby for a spin.
The press packet for the album states David Lynch was a big influence on the album. Tell me how his works, be it his films or music, contributed to the album’s development. Am I accurate in assuming “Wrapped in Plastic” is a “Twin Peaks” reference?
Chevillet: I had been watching a lot of David Lynch films and shows during the writing of this album. I feel like Twin Peaks influenced my songwriting the most. It helped me write songs that were darker than my previous work, but also beautiful at the same time. Yes, “Wrapped in Plastic” is a Twin Peaks reference but oddly enough the song is not influenced by the show at all.
Lyrically, the songs are largely dark. The music is atmospheric yet catchy enough to prevent the tunes from ever sounding morose. Was this juxtaposition a conscious aesthetic decision?
Sanders: I think most of us feel that writing music is very mood-oriented. Oftentimes, juxtapositions occur from the experimental aspects of songwriting. Songs may have a dark underlying message, but the groove we come up with may send a different message. Music tends to feel more interesting when it isn’t confined to a box.
There’s an old-beyond-one’s-years winsomeness and existential alienation in the songs Chevillet sings lead on, recognizable even in the titles of “Daily Routine”, “Denial”, and “Suffocating”. Yet “Wrapped in Plastic” has this feel of defiant confidence against all odds. How intentional was it to make those four tunes into their own mini song cycle?
Chevillet: Honestly, it wasn’t intentional at all. This is a tough question because I started writing these songs at very different times. Now that I think about it, I finished them around the same time, so I can see how it could have turned out that way. I wrote the bulk of “Denial” around four years ago, but didn’t finish the lyrics until right before we started recording. Shit, let’s just call it intentional. I sound a lot smarter that way.
“Settle For You” features a horn section, which I believe is a first for you guys. How’d it come about to add such a flourish?
Shepherd-Bates: The trombones and saxophones on “Settle For You” play an arrangement that used to be for guitar. As we were recording, I felt like there were too many guitars going on at once and we needed a new voice to be impactful. I booked a session with Zach and had John Raleeh (of Earth Engine and Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas) and Ray Thompson (of the Oscillating Fan Club) lay the tracks down. There’s a call-and-response between the brass and a reverbed-out guitar in the second verse that used to be the original riff. The breakdown and ending are pretty basic arrangements as well. The crazy saxophone flourishes in the breakdown were all Ray; I take absolutely no credit for that whatsoever. At the end we layer more saxophones and trombones with every progression, so it gets real intense real fast. Those guys rule.
“A Heart Like Yours” and “Wrapped in Plastic” both appeared on previous EP 52. Why have them reappear on the LP?
Kaslowski: Those songs really didn’t get the “promo push” we were looking for at the time. We think they fit well on Tunnels and it’s fun to have songs jump albums sometimes. After a little Shipps tweak, it’s almost like we wrote them around the same time.
The album was produced by Zach Shipps (formerly of Electric Six, now of doom-gazers ARC PELT). How involved was he in pushing you guys in the writing or recording processes?
Kaslowski: Zach was spot on. We felt like we were so prepared heading into the studio with hours of demoing under our belt. After laying down the tracks, his ideas started flowing. It’s very refreshing to have an outside take on what we were trying to accomplish. Even if we didn’t use all of his ideas, it helped us think outside of the box and you can hear that.
“The Watcher” is the only duet on the record, with different Shepherd-Bates on the verses and Pawelski on the refrain. What prompted that facet?
Shepherd-Bates: “The Watcher” might be the easiest, most organic song we’ve written as a band. It’s a rare song in which everything we tried pretty much worked. I started playing guitar while everyone was out for a smoke break. Andrew, Nick, and Joby came in and started playing parts that were pretty much what you hear on the record. Nick started singing the verse and I said “Wait, let me try it” and never turned back. I can’t remember if Andrew or I started singing the chorus, but I know it was established that we would be splitting lead vocals at that first run through. Other random things went super easy. We said “Joby, start the song off with a ‘No Diggity’ fill” and it worked for some reason. I insisted on putting wet snaps in the a capella breakdown and that worked. Andrew and I decided to make the song have the darkest subject matter of anything we play (the warped, split self-perception of a sociopath), and somehow that fit into what is essentially a pop song. To answer the question — there wasn’t a lot of thought put into why we would make the song a duet, as it was all quite natural, but once the decision was made, it opened up a concept with which we ran.
Closing tune “Daydream” is this surreal, soundscape of a number and it ends the album as a thematic coda. What are its origins, being such an experimental departure?
Chevillet: Believe it or not, this is one of the oldest songs on the album. Joby and I made a demo of it years ago with our buddy Topher Horn who is a great producer. I had been really inspired by the beats on Radiohead’s King of Limbs. I wanted to create a very spastic beat to sing over. I think Topher called it the “falling down stairs beat” or something like that. The three of us recorded the demo in a day and then it sat for about 3 years, but I was determined to get it on this album. Eventually we brought the demo to the studio and everyone, including Zach just went to town layering tracks and it turned out great. I think it’s Joel’s favorite song.
Once the album drops, what’s on Handgrenades’ horizon?
Pawelski: We hit the road, baby!
11/4 - Bay City, MI - BeMo’s Bar
11/5 - Ferndale, MI - The Loving Touch
11/17 - Indianapolis, IN - Melody Inn
11/18 - Chicago, IL - The Elbo Room
12/1 - Saginaw, MI - White’s Bar
12/2 - Muncie, IN - Be Here Now
12/8 - Buffalo, NY - Mohawk’s
12/9 - New York, NY - Cake Shop
12/16 - Grand Rapids, MI - The Intersection