London’s Tunng are the best band you still haven’t listened to, as since their 2003 inception, this collective have continued to build and folk and pop templates to create a sound that is experimental, ever-shifting, and always compelling. No two Tunng records sound entirely the same, and the group’s evolving aesthetics do a spectacular job of surprising even the most devoted of long-term fans. Stacked group vocals, electronic drum machines, handclap beats, elaborate-if-understated guitar pluckings getting glitch-edited to hell and back…. There’s rarely a dull moment on their records, which is why being a Tunng fan means that you’re never disappointed.
Yet for their seventh studio album, Tunng Presents…DEAD CLUB, the six-piece focus their attention on our relationship with death. When band member Sam Gender discovered the Max Porter novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it articulated the brutality and visceral nature of death in a way that proved utterly inspiring. Conversations with his bandmates (Mike Lindsay, Becky Jacobs, Ashley Bates, Martin Smith, and Phil Winter) soon lead to the scope of DEAD CLUB going beyond a mere album. The runup to the record’s release saw Tunng issue a zine with lyrics and interviews and even a multi-episode podcast series, where they sat down with doctors, musicians, and philosophers to talk about all the ways death defines and gives meaning to our lives.
It’s so all-encompassing that it’s easy to lose sight of just how pointed the musicality is on DEAD CLUB, which features the group playing around with string sections, vibraphones, oboes, spoken word sections, and some deliciously macabre tales of lives cut short and fates unfulfilled. There’s even a song on there called “Death Is the New Sex”, which should let you know that despite the grim subject matter, DEAD CLUB isn’t a slog by any means. In fact, as on tracks like “A Million Colors”, it can be quite lively.
To help mark the occasion, we broke our Fave Five template a bit to allow all six members to give us their Favorite Songs About Death: one pick from each member. It’s a sprawling collection of artists they brought in, but we wouldn’t expect anything less from a band that metabolizes their influences into such distinct new sonic forms. Deadly or not, here they come.
Sam Genders’ pick: “Top of the World” by Patty Griffin
“Top of the World” is one of those songs that really grabbed me when I was in my early 20s and just starting to get seriously into songwriting. It’s so simple musically, and — on first listen — lyrically too. It sounds a bit like an old sorrowful country classic. Melodically achingly beautiful like most of Patty Griffin‘s songs, although her perfect rendition helps it along.
At some point, it dawned on me that the narrator of the song is dead. I loved that. And I loved the way the song lets you work it out for yourself.
I think it’s a song about regret, about making the most of life and being there for the people who need you. About the fact that once you’re dead, it’s too late for any of that.
It was one of those songs that spurred me on to try and write better lyrics. I also nicked the idea of a dead narrator for Tunng’s song “Jenny Again” on our second album. Thanks, Patty!
Becky Jacobs’s pick: “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix‘s “Little Wing was played at my friend Seb’s funeral. We were 22 and had just finished Uni. Seb was diagnosed with a brain tumor partway into our second year. We were flatmates in the first year and worked at the same stinky takeaway pizza place. He was gorgeous and very musical. He was always going to be a rock star, and then he got ill. The song still sends shivers down my spine. Of course, it reminds me of that day and Seb and how we said goodbye to him. The song isn’t about death. I think it’s about sex. It’s actually a song about life, about celebrating life and youth, and I sort of love how it will always make me think of him.
Martin Smith’s pick: “Naked As We Came” by Iron & Wine
The hushed vocals of Sam and Sarah Beam. Brother and sister harmonies, singing alongside with such tenderness. The delicate acoustic guitar, with beautiful fingerpicking. Stripped back production, short, simple, and cyclical in structure, with just three parts, and open-ended lyrics that mean many things to many people. It’s a song that gently reaches deeper, to feelings of interconnectedness, of enduring love, its inevitable loss. Bound together by universal human themes of time, hope, fear & solace. Taken from the album Our Endless Numbered Days, which says it all, really. Similar melancholy style to Sufjan Stevens, but this song holds a special spot for me. Simply perfect.
Mike Lindsay’s pick: “Oh Death” by Sam Amidon
We first played with Sam Amidon in New York in 2006 and have played together a few times in the years that followed. Every time I’m blown away by his melancholy, beautifully twisted take on traditional American folk music. The song from the album All Is Well has always featured in those early shows and is regularly on my turntable. It is a reworked traditional folk song, and the lyrics are literal and raw. There is a yearning for life here that really inspires me to get busy living! His voice is pure over strange chord inversions and gorgeous string and horn arrangements that bring tears of hope whilst he’s bargaining with Death to let him live another year.
Ashley Bates’ pick: “In the Graveyard” by Nina Nastasia
I love the idea that no matter is created or destroyed (first law of thermodynamics), everything is just energy transformed, so on some quantum level, we will all somehow live forever, at least that’s how I’m going to read it. Nature is sometimes cruel; the cycle of life and death can simply be seen as transformations. That doesn’t stop us from struggling to rationalize and make sense of it all. I’ve picked “In the Graveyard” by Nina Nastasia as I feel it considers that. That deep yearning for what’s no longer here, the nostalgia, the melancholy, the joy of memories — and the desperation. Struggling to come to terms with and learning how to cope. And the feeling that what is lost is somehow still with us. And maybe always will. All of that from just six simple repeating lines. Nice one, Nina!
Phil Winter’s pick: “Bedward the Flying Preacher [ft. Prince Far I]” by Singers & Players
I’ve been a fan of this song for so long. I was just getting into Adrian Sherwood’s productions and had been to some of the early shows. It’s basically a story of a preacher attempting to fly to encourage more people to attend his church services. The day of the event sees a large crowd gather; the preacher launches himself off the roof. Well, have a listen to the tune to find out what happens.