Interview: Vocalist David Schellenberg on the Trajectory of Tunic

Tunic’s third full-length album, Wrong Dream, out April 28 via Artoffact Records, is their most ambitious yet. The Winnipeg based trio are still locked into their grimey, 90s, AmRep-influenced take on noise rock, but their latest record sees them adding a wider breadth of sound and texture, expanding outward from the core identity they’ve developed since their 2012 inception. Recording the album just five weeks after the release of its predecessor Quitter, Tunic made a conscious effort to make Wrong Dream something a little bigger, a little more compelling.

Guitarist/vocalist and founding member of the band David Schellenberg took some time to speak to us about the creation of Wrong Dream and what comes next for Tunic.

Quitter came out in October 2021, when did you start writing material that would become Wrong Dream?

We tracked Quitter in January of 2020, we originally were going to put it out that fall and then we didn’t and so we pushed it back. The band was in a real awkward phase. Rory [Ellis] had quit, he was our original bass player, so Dan [Unger, drummer] and I would jam with just the two of us—me just playing bass or me just playing guitar. That probably would have been spring of 2021 that we started to put it together. And then eventually Drew Riekman, who played bass and co-produced the record moved to Winnipeg in the summer of 2021, and so then the three of us started writing together and getting rehearsed. And then we hit the studio for Wrong Dream in November. So I guess four to five weeks after Quitter came out we were in the studio recording Wrong Dream.

Does that timeline have to do with the delays of getting records out these days?

Yeah, exactly. And to be honest, I like to be a record ahead. I like to have something in my back pocket at all times.

How did that period of fluctuation that you mentioned affect writing new songs?

Quitter was very much [that] we were writing together in a room with just three people playing riffs, making noise. I told myself I never wanted to get into home recording, I always wanted to write together, and then obviously with the pandemic I did get into home recording. So I wrote forty or fifty new songs, and I tried to write a lot of the songs to sort of get myself out of muscle memory from Quitter. I wrote a lot of songs starting on bass and then writing lead lines and other stuff on a little Casio SK-1 keyboard. The track that’s out right now, “Whispering”, originally there was no guitar on that track. Originally it was just keyboard and bass and some programmed drums to get myself out of the Quitter headspace. I know I can write songs like that so well, I just wanted to move over here and use some other tools. That’s how a big chunk of the songs on Wrong Dream were written.

Tunic songs are so bass and drum heavy, do you typically start writing on bass instead of guitar?

Actually no. I’m not a very good guitar player and I don’t really consider myself a guitar player. I’m a bass player first who decided to pick up a guitar. So for me it really made sense on the earlier stuff for Rory, who played bass and is such a better musician than myself and could really flesh the songs out by playing the bass—really playing guitar on bass was what he was doing—and so that trend sort of continued even after he left. I would be like, “Okay, the guitar will be this one wiry thing and the bass and the drums will sort of groove and meld and form around.” So a lot of the old stuff I wrote on guitar first and for the new stuff, we didn’t really focus too much on rhythm, it just sort of happened that way. We did put everything under the microscope like a thousand times more on Wrong Dream than we had on anything else because I wanted to purposely make what I feel is a smarter and a little more interesting of a record to listen to than the previous work.

Was there a conscious effort then to try to experiment and explore broader ideas?

Yeah, a hundred percent. I feel like Wrong Dream is a really great representation of what I listen to a lot more. I’m not originally a punk. Like, noise rock wasn’t my original thing, I was an indie rock dork, like a hipster nerd when I was a teenager, and got into punk later. I really like post-rock and bands like Do Make Say Think and I love bands like Spray Paint and Devo and all these OG post-punk bands, and I think Wrong Dream really reflects the Converge/Jesus Lizard/Unwound-loving version of myself but then also this more post-punk, krauty, pretty post-rock thing. It just sort of shows some more personality and we’re not so much more one-dimensional. I’ll always be the toughest critic of my own work, as I think all artists are, and so I just wanted to make a record that had a little more diversity to it sonically.

It was sort of like me allowing myself to be okay with melody maybe for the first time in Tunic recordings and Tunic songs, and me accepting that that was something that I was capable of. I think originally I made very non-melodic music because I didn’t think that I was capable of doing that. I didn’t think I had the chops to do that. I think as I progressed as a songwriter and since I had the time to do revision five, revision six on some of these things I was able to feel more confident and explore those ideas a little bit more.

What was that trajectory for you starting as an indie rock guy who is now fronting a noise rock band?

There was a lot of bands that bridged that gap into the noisy thing. Godspeed [You! Black Emperor] obviously is a good example of that, and Fugazi and all these bands that crossed over or would be labeled post-rock or something like that on the internet, and so you just fall down that rabbit hole.

And then our original drummer, Sam Neal, who is one of the biggest punk fans I knew of all time. He was listening to Filth by Swans when he was like eleven years old. It was one of those things where I was like, “This just doesn’t make any sense. How was any eleven year old listening to Filth and Cocteau Twins? How were you so ahead of the everything?” So he showed me a lot of really great bands. He showed me No Trend and everything like that. Sam was a big influence. And then expanding on my tastes just sort of getting bored with indie rock and trying to find something that was unpleasant but pleasant to listen to.

When you brought these songs that you had been working on at home to the band, did they begin to twist around and change from their original versions?

It always twisted around and changed and that’s what I actually really love about the band. The song “Indirect” was fast originally, and then Drew was like, “Let’s play it at half the speed and change the vibe of it.” “Empty Husk” had no real structure the first few times that Dan and I played it ourselves. The ending of “My Body, My Blood” was entirely made up on the spot. Dan just started playing this drum beat after the song ended and Drew started playing this bass line and I just started playing this guitar part and we all were like, “Oh, this is really good, let’s record that really quick.”

I would be very bored if my songs just turned out how they were on my computer when I brought them to people. Everything was very collaborative and everyone gets to put their own personality into it. Nothing ever turns out exactly how it was demoed which is nice for me.

Has Tunic always been that way?

Always. I want everyone to be able to put their personality into it. I would say it helps that when Dan first joined the band we were touring the record that Sam, our old drummer played all the drums on. So Dan was playing these Tunic songs every night and then when it was time to write Quitter, Dan was like, “I understand Tunic drums.” Everyone who has come and gone, and it hasn’t really been that many people, but they have been like, “This is what I love about Tunic and this is the stuff that I want to help make.” So we’ve expanded on a similar concept and I think Wrong Dream pushes that gamut a little bit.

You mentioned Drew coming into the band; did he bring something new and different to the band?

Oh, man. So many things. That’s a great question. Drew and I are literal best friends in real life. He fronts a band called Blessed, which is like an indie-math-rock-post-punky thing that’s very cool and wild, and they’re all really great players. I just had the idea that it would be great to work with Drew and just get him to fill in and play bass. I really liked his songwriting. Drew and Drew’s partner lived at my and my partner’s house for six weeks when they first moved to Winnipeg and so Dan would come over and we would just work on these tunes.

Drew bought a white board and wrote the song structures out, which we’ve never done before. We’ve always been like, “Okay, after this many times,” or we’d just look at each other. Drew did a fantastic job of producing and really bringing the songs to where they were supposed to be. Drew looked Dan and I dead in the eyes and was like, “Who are you trying to sound like on this song? Don’t be coy, who is this song trying to rip off?” I’d say this or that and Drew would say, “Well, has that band ever made anything that sounds like that? Then why are you trying to force the part like that into this song?”

We had so much of it there and Drew was really able to piece it together and move some things around and add some really interesting takes. At the top, just after the very beginning of “Whispering” there’s the rhythm before the guitar and the vocals come in. Drew was like, “This is something that would be really cool,” and it’s something that I would never do. So it’s all these really tasteful additions that Drew is capable of, that Drew has an ear for that I don’t.

Drew also played bass on the record; he also played acoustic guitar and piano. He was like, “I can play all these instruments.” I’m like cool, “Here’s my idea for an overdub,” and he’s like, “Great, I’ll go play it.” He just really pushes what Rory was like when Rory was in the band. Rory’s a better guitar player than me; Rory is a better pianist than me. Drew just has that same thing.

Like a utility guy.

Exactly. We could’ve made just a bass-drums-guitar rock record but we decided that we didn’t want to do that. So having Drew be this utility person where we could be like, “We can spend two hours of me trying to figure this out or Drew can do it in ten minutes.” We just decided to go that route.

How do you pare down those forty or fifty songs you had written to the nine that end up on Wrong Dream?

A lot of that, to be honest, was just me being like, “Well, I have no idea how that goes, and I have no idea how to play this, and I don’t know how to do this again,” so there’s ten songs out the window. Then I would do it again and take out another ten, and then I had maybe like twenty or something like that and I would take them to Drew and Dan and there would be some stuff where Dan and I would be like, “This is really good,” and then Drew would be like, “This isn’t a song. This is just a really good riff that we should try and save for later.” There was a bunch of things where he’s like, “These are just ideas.” Drew was able to be like, “These are the actual songs.” So he pulled out maybe thirteen or fourteen songs and then we dumped a couple on the way just sort of focused on the nine that are on the record.

Was he able to bring an outside perspective being the new member of the band?

Yeah, and he is someone that Dan and I both really trust and Tunic has toured with Blessed a bunch. There’s no ego or anything like that. There’s no bullshit there, which is really nice. Drew is producing other people now and, to be honest, this Tunic record was sort of his foyer into being like, “Let me help you write songs that aren’t my songs that make your songs better.” He’s like, “Your songs are good and you have all these great ideas, I think I can help them be better.” So that’s really what he did. That’s the first time also that we worked with anyone like that. I don’t think that we would be okay with that with someone who wasn’t such a close friend and already so close to the project.

What are your memories of the recording process for this one?

Seth Manchester was the one who recorded it and Seth is a fucking monster. He’s made so many incredible records from Lightning Bolt to Lingua Ignota to the last Kal Marks records, The Body, all this amazing noisy stuff. We practiced a lot and we very much wrote down all the overdubs that we wanted to do and what we wanted things to sound like with sonic references and tonal references. So when we were recording it was like, “Well, we want this to sound like this guitar part,” and Seth was so good at his job that he just got it. A bunch of times we had references that he made, so he was like, “I made this in this room. I know how to make that sound.” Seth literally had a child two weeks before that recording started and so it was his first time really out of the house in two weeks and he just came in so tired every day. He had like spitup on him and he just totally crushed it. We really have to give it to Seth about how great of an engineer that he is.

It was quick; we finished a day early. I think we booked seven days and I think we only used six. We tracked the whole thing in four and a half and then Seth mixed the thing in a day and a half, which is wild. Then we had a whole other day that we were going to do revisions for the mixing and we were just like, “Nope, we’re good.” I’ve never been so understood by an audio engineer, by someone who is recording the project before. There’s some really blown out moments and Seth was just like, “I’m going to crank this knob, I’m going to blow this to shit,” and we’re just like, “Great, let’s do that.” He just really got it. I have to give him full credit for that.

That’s fast, was any of it tracked live?

No, actually. None of it was. We did drums for a day, Drew banged out all the bass in two hours [laughs] and then guitar. I played some of the guitar with Dan in the room and I don’t think we used any of it, but I know that Drew recorded in the studio with Seth, and I sat down with Dan and I did all my—I thought that my scratch tracks were going to be used and Seth was like, “Nope, do it again.” So I did them all again. I guess I did my guitars in a day and a bit and then I started to lose my voice so we tried to squeeze the vocals in.

I was like, “Let’s do two weeks,” and Seth was like, “Absolutely not, we’ll do a week max.” My original email to him was like, “I want to do fourteen days, maybe twelve days,” and he was like, “No, if this record is not done in seven days then it’s not going to be done.”

So you were just really well rehearsed?

Yeah, that was really it. It’s all digital, none of it is on tape or anything like that. We were just really practiced. It’s the first record that I ever practiced at home by myself for. I’ve never put on my headphones and been like, ‘Okay, time to practice guitar for my band.’ That wasn’t cool, but that is cool actually. That’s dedication, and I want to be good and I want to make something good and I know that Dan does the same thing too. Dan went to the jam space, and we all played the songs a bunch on our own so that when we could get together to record that we wouldn’t be wasting anybody’s time. We knew we didn’t have a ton of time.

To me the distortion on the vocals really stands out as something interesting about the album.

We had some really great distortion on our very first ever 7-inch, the Disappointment 7-inch that Matt Castore from this band Condominium recorded in Minneapolis, and I always have referenced that distortion. It was just literally a blown PA speaker that Matt used. I always used that as a reference and I think Seth is the only other person who has gotten close to dialing that in.

I really like how the record sounds. We’re already recording with Seth again in August to make the next record. Seth made the Tunic/Bummer record. He’s a great guy to work with.

So just like with Wrong Dream and Quitter, you have the next one in the works?

We have finished the Tunic and Bummer record, which will come out. We made a collaborative record with that band Bummer and then they broke up, so kind of annoying, but c’est la vie, it’s just how it goes. All those people are still homies. Matt and Mike are awesome dudes. So that’s done and that will come out at some point and then we’re recording—we just wrapped the writing for all of the first versions of all the songs for the fourth record and we’re going to track that this summer, I think. I guess we’re not really going to be a record ahead. We also may be making another collaborative record with a different artist in Berlin, but nothing is really totally confirmed there. But we like to make records. That’s fun. So we’ll just keep doing it.

What is the Tunic/Bummer record like sonically? How was it writing with another band?

It’s heavier. We actually all referred to the Tunic and Bummer record as very dumb. It’s a very dumb, riff heavy—it has some real, and when I say stock I mean stock in the best way, it has some real stock moments. I think because we all knew that since it wasn’t solely a Bummer record or solely a Tunic record that we could make a record that was not so—and this is mostly Tunic—not so self-serious, and we could have a lot of fun with it.

The great thing about that record is that all of those songs were written in the room at the time. Nothing was premeditated with the Tunic and Bummer record. We literally got into the room with each other and it was like, “Okay, let’s write a song. Someone play a riff, someone make up a riff right now.” We did, and then we would make the song like, “It would be cool if we had a song that was kind of sad or this BPM.” And so it’s really, really heavy, it’s really, really dumb, and it’s a true rock n roll record. I’ve never played so many power chords in my life. That’s something that I’ve avoided my whole life. But there’s a couple moments that sound like straight thrash metal songs. It’s a funny one; it’s pretty wild.

Stepping back to Wrong Dream, what does the title represent?

Wrong Dream is an unused lyric. It’s from the first song on the record, “Sounds Repeat,” which is about an old friend of mine and a former roommate of mine, and actually a former roommate and friend of Dan’s too, who passed away from eventually alcoholism. The lyric is “You let it win, you let it take you / Never thought it would happen so soon” and then I just keep repeating “so soon” in the song, but on my actual lyric sheet it says, “Because you chased the wrong dream.” This person was someone who was infatuated by the great poets—the Bukowski’s and the Hemingway’s and all these, essentially drunks, but cultural phenoms. So to be like, damn he chased that dream of trying to be like them and that’s ultimately what led to his early passing.

But also at the same time, Wrong Dream is also about—I made a livable amount of money during the pandemic for the first time ever in my entire life and so that’s also like chasing the wrong dream. Like, I can be stable if I didn’t chase music, if I didn’t chase this band. So it’s sort of like a double-edged sword. A wrong dream is like a life path that takes you to maybe a not so great place.

Is there a specific song or moment on Wrong Dream that really stands out to you?

Oh yeah. Everyone who I show the record talks about the last song, “Empty Husk” being such a strange, but also really great Tunic song that they think is really cool. I think that’s cool. I like the whole record; I think there’s parts of it that I really love. I love that we added the sheet metal getting hit on “My Body, My Blood” at like the eleventh hour. We were mixing when we went and recorded that. That was really cool. “Indirect” to me is such a fun song with the drum machine and there’s a power chord at the end and there’s just that nice groove that makes me think of Spray Paint, which I think is really cool. “Protected” is a wild song because it’s kind of Slint-y, then it has an absolute, what we refer to as Seth-style of it being blown-out so hard and distorted.

I guess every song that I’ve mentioned right now are all songs that pushed what I thought we were capable of doing and so that’s the more interesting thing to me. They were songs that I never thought that I would write or there’s parts that I never thought that I would be capable of making, or sounds on records that I never though I would have. I love track one, whatever it’s called [laughs]. It’s just such a great rock song, but I knew that I was capable of making songs like that. The songs that have those outlier bits that we talked about earlier, that all really stands out to me.

Photo courtesy of Adam Kelly.

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