Lunchbox’s Tim Brown and Donna McKean have been making records in their Oakland, California basement for two decades, inspired by 1960s/70s AM-radio pop and TV show theme music, punk, C86, and mod à la The Creation and The Jam. From the sonically-inventive indiepop of The Magic of Sound (1999) to the dub-influenced psychedelia of Evolver (2001) to the critically-acclaimed bubblegum of Lunchbox Loves You (2013), the couple have established a sound all their own. Their new album for Slumberland, After School Special, finds them at the height of their powers of songcraft and performance.
Three Great Things is our series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. In this installment, Tim Brown of Lunchbox tells us about what’s keeping him happy during these trying times — and shares the new video (“I Really Wanna Know”) from he and Donna McKean’s band’s upcoming album, After School Special.
1. Being home
We’ve traveled a lot over the years because I’m a historian and Donna has been tagging along with me on research trips to Germany since the 1990s. Our first European “tour” took place while I was still in grad school at Berkeley, because we were in Berlin and we didn’t want to spend a whole year not playing. But since then, we’ve just stopped and started doing music as the situation dictated. This fall the two worlds have sort of collided because I have a book and a record coming out at the same time, possibly the first time in recorded history that Cambridge University Press and Slumberland Records have been on the same release calendar. But because of the different irons in the fire, our musical activity has always been fractured. During the time we recorded the new LP for example, we lived in Berlin for four months and Munich for six months. I flew back and forth a lot to the East Coast between those longer trips, too. So as weird as it is to be home a lot but not be able to see friends or play shows, we’ve been enjoying being in one place.
Donna’s a nurse and she’s been working a ton. We’ve also been spending time with the cats, ordering takeout from Vegan Mob and Two Mamas Vegan Kitchen, and spending time down in the basement working on some new records. We’re slowly recording a second Hard Left LP (that’s the socialist Oi band we have with Mike from Slumberland and our friends Nicole Thomas and Ashton Rome) and we just recorded the debut LP from Artsick, a new band that Donna is in with Christina Riley from Burnt Palms and Mario Hernandez from Kids on a Crime Spree. There will be big news about that Artsick LP coming soon, and someday hopefully the second Hard Left LP will make the leap from rumor to reality.
2. Being a duo
We’ve really been enjoying doing band stuff on our own, figuring out how to do things that work with just the two of us. Historically, we always tried to have a “band” — we thought that was a mark of legitimacy, rightly or wrongly, and we were focused on playing live and needed a band to do it. We’ve had incredible friends play on our records over the years, most recently Gary Olson, Jeremy Goody, Evelyn Davis, and John Diaz. In the pandemic, we’ve just sort of embraced being a duo which, when you look over the years at the lineups that have revolved around us, we basically are. These days, everything we had planned band-wise has been cancelled anyway (tour in the summer, Sacramento Popfest in the fall). We recently did that “At a Social Distance” live thing on Facebook, playing a bunch of songs from the back catalogue that worked with us just singing and playing together. It was really interesting to think about what songs were good enough to function in that way. And then in connection with the new LP, we’ve been taking our own picture a lot (ha ha), and making music videos, teaching ourselves how to do green screen, edit, and all the rest. Rachel Blumberg did a super animated video for the first single off the LP, Christina Riley made a great one for us, and we’ve made two more ourselves. We’ve pretty much been letting our goofy-nerd cat-obsessive flag fly high. We’ve been releasing Bandcamp Friday singles, with proceeds going to People’s Breakfast Oakland, and using our time at home to do what, for us, amounts to “deep organization” — getting our back catalog up on Bandcamp, cleaning the studio, and putting all the LPs in the living room back in their proper jackets. Motto for the pandemic: file discipline!
3. Being quiet
We’ve been pretty much failing at this, as the forgoing suggests, but we are aspiring Buddhist meditators, and we do sit every day, even if our minds are constantly disturbed by thoughts about our different projects. We’ve also been doing a couple of online retreats with teachers of ours. We try to get out in nature, especially up the Mendocino coast, our traditional stomping ground for feeling dreamy. Lately, with the unholy trifecta of incipient fascism, climate catastrophe and global pandemic, it’s harder to feel dreamy, but maybe even more important to still the mind. Beyond that, we also hope someday to find time to read a book!