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Evolutionary Times 

Oakland's Lunchbox rises from the primordial soup of its indie rock past

Wednesday, Mar 6 2002
Down in the ramshackle basement studio of Tim Brown's Rockridge residence, the leader of local band Lunchbox points to a fortune cookie motto taped to a reel-to-reel machine. The slogan -- "The solution to big problems is delay" -- exists as a sort of cheeky calling card for Brown and his cohort, Donna McKean. Not only does Lunchbox favor tons of "tape delay," an effect that adds old-school echo to vocals and instrumentation, but the group takes its own sweet time when making records. Since 1995 the act has released only three albums -- and one of those it disowns.

Patience and persnicketiness have their virtues. What started out as a decent live band playing rather derivative pop songs has, over time, evolved into something murkier and more interesting. Lunchbox -- as the title of its new full-length, Evolver, suggests -- has come a long way from its early days, developing a sound that attempts to bridge the gulf between catchy pop and experimental electronica. While the new record has plenty of drum 'n' bass beats, tape loops, and metaphysical lyrics, Brown and McKean are still making pop music, except that now it sounds like theirs rather than someone else's.

Tim Brown grew up in Pleasanton, an East Bay town known more for its car shows and craft fairs than for its pop music. He got his first taste of the scene in 1988 when he joined the B-Sides, a power-pop band formed by Jamie McCormick and Mario Hernandez, who later founded Ciao Bella. (Hernandez now plays solo as From Bubblegum to Sky.)

"We needed someone who could buy us alcohol, and Tim was older than us," Hernandez says, then quickly adds, "And Tim was a great guitar player too."

The B-Sides broke up around 1991 -- Hernandez places it at "the time Ned's Atomic Dustbin was big" -- and Brown spent time working on his own songs. In 1995 his girlfriend (later his wife), Donna McKean, who'd grown up in Alameda in a musical family, asked Brown to teach her to play bass. Hooking up with a drummer named Steve (who was to be the first of many timekeepers), Brown and McKean took the name Lunchbox for their nascent group.

"We thought [the name] expressed a certain poppiness that corresponded with what we were trying to do," Brown explains. "It was still legitimate to be playing loud, noisy pop at that time -- it still felt relevant."

Brown's early songs took the anarchic energy and tart lyrics of '77 punk bands like the Buzzcocks and the Damned and mixed in the speedy guitar of British '90s icons the Wedding Present and Superchunk. The result was a decent but unspectacular sound far too similar to other local bands, such as Action Slacks, Carlos!, and the Meices. "When I first started out, I don't think that I really had a firm idea of what I wanted to do," Brown says. "I was still trying to write songs like in the B-Sides, but bring other elements in. I don't think those influences mixed very well."

In 1996 Brown received a Fulbright Fellowship to go to Berlin to work on his doctorate in history. Lunchbox's latest drummer (whom Brown declines to name) agreed to go to Germany and tour, as long as the group had an album to sell along the way. The self-titled result, recorded at S.F.'s now-bulldozed Lowdown Studios with revered engineer Greg Freeman, is a perfect re-creation of the band's sound at the time -- which is one reason Brown and McKean like to pretend it doesn't exist.

"It's a good idea to write and record about 50 to 100 songs before you let anyone hear your songs," Brown explains. "When you start out, you're very enthusiastic, you're excited to be in a band, and you want things to happen, but that's putting the horse before the cart."

By the time the pair received copies of the finished record, they were already tired of the material. Brown had begun listening to more skewed pop bands like Rocketship and Hood, as well as drum 'n' bass artists like Roni Size and LTJ Bukem, and felt that his own songs didn't measure up. "I thought, "This music is too frantic and unsophisticated and blah,'" Brown says. "I already wanted to change the style."

Upon returning to Oakland, Brown made another discovery that altered his musical perceptions: Ciao Bella's just-released debut album, 1. "Those guys [McCormick and Hernandez] had been recording ever since the B-Sides broke up, and they made this great record. I saw that there were other ways to make music. ... You make the record first and then if you've made something good, maybe someone will want to put it out."

In order to facilitate this philosophy, Brown and McKean set up a low-tech recording studio in the basement of their home. Along with yet another drummer, Shannon Handy, the couple spent a year and a half recording material, eventually releasing The Magic of Sound on Magic Marker in 1999.

"My idea was to prove to myself I could record an album by myself and prove that I could write legitimate songs," Brown says of Magic. "Also, we wanted something that expressed more about us, that had more of our personality in it."

Magic retained Brown's penchant for anti-romantic lyrics and singing that sounds like a British chap with too much snot -- literally and figuratively -- up his nose. But the duo slowed down the tempos and added spacey keyboard squiggles and backward guitar loops, as well as '60s pop staples like handclaps, "ba ba" vocals, and trumpet.

"I think Tim was finally able to like the Beatles," says Mario Hernandez about Lunchbox's change. "In the B-Sides, he'd always say, "I just don't get the Beatles,' and I'd think, "You're an idiot!'"

Soon after the album's release, Lunchbox played the first San Francisco Pop Festival, opened for Guided by Voices at Noise Pop, and toured with Bristol's Boyracer and Athens' Masters of the Hemisphere. Even with the growing notoriety, Brown felt put off by some perceptions of the record.

"You used to get annoyed when people would call us a "sunny pop band,' "a happy pop band,'" McKean says to Brown.

"The lyrics are bittersweet, but the music is sunny," Brown responds. "I'm not a sunny person."

As a result, Brown spent the next year writing songs that better fit his personality -- and his growing interest in experimental music.

From first glance at the cover of Evolver, it's obvious that this is a different Lunchbox. In contrast to The Magic of Sound's bright blue and orange jacket, the new record features tiny black-and-gray nature scenes taken directly from McKean's negatives. Even the lettering is subdued and moody, with the small, all-lowercase wording replicated in a hazy fashion. Upon playing Evolver, the change is even more pronounced. While there are a few upbeat rhythms and fast beats, a good listen demands headphones and red light-bulbs. Back in the '60s the record would've been called "trippy."

For the most part, Brown has dispensed with guitars, instead using synthesizers or fragments of old songs to build tunes. For "Tone Poem" Brown uncovered a backward organ part with bells and attached it to a stuttering drum loop, some playful bass, and a sweet vocal by McKean. For "Temperature Is a Constant" Brown crafted a backward Latin rhythm from an optigan, a home organ made by Mattel in the early '70s that he bought from Fuck's drummer, Geoff Soule. On "Sea Life" Brown uses tape delay to make the guitar and synth parts swirl around the room, playing tag with the duo's dreamy vocals. And "Do You Have Love?" seems like three songs in one -- part ambient serenade, part jazzy swing, part drum 'n' bass blitzkrieg.

A wealth of guests adds to the proceedings' varied feel. Cat Five trumpeter Jeremy Goody plays punchy riffs on some tunes and eerie cries during others; Amr Toppozada laces strings around several songs. Boyracer's Stewart Anderson contributes drums, guitar, and glockenspiel to the jittery pop number "Letter From Overend," while Jamie McCormick supplies backward guitar on the Beatles-esque ballad "Particle/Wave." McKean sings lead on three tracks, offering a pretty counterpoint to Brown's sleepy tones, while Soule plays a variety of supple drum parts throughout.

Brown's lyrics have undergone a change as well, adding to what he calls "a certain worldview encoded in the album." By way of explanation, he professes an interest in Fritjof Capra's 1975 book The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, which makes the point that "modern particle physics has come to some of the same conclusions about the nature of reality as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism." Brown also divulges a love for the Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin, which, like Evolver, couches its observations on love and nature in the language of science.

As for what the future holds, Brown and McKean are trying to figure out how to play their new songs live. To that end, they've acquired a 10th drummer, Jay Bronzini (ex-Sushi), and are practicing with him, Toppozada, and Goody. A new EP of songs recorded at the same time as Evolver is due out this month on Stewart Anderson's 555 label, and Brown hopes to tour in the near future. Of course, if a band called Lunchbox comes to town, people might expect something a bit, well, cuter than what they'll get.

"That was a mistake; I fucking hate that name," Brown admits. "That's the iron-clad rule of bands: You always hate your band name."

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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