.Lunchbox delivers basement pop

Donna McKean and Tim Brown record bittersweet songs from subterranean Oakland

When Donna McKean and Tim Brown met at the hospital where they worked, something clicked. “We hit it off quickly and became friends,” McKean says. “Given our mutual love of music, it wasn’t long before we decided to form a band. My mom’s a violinist, and I played violin in high school. Since Tim played guitar, I picked up the bass. Since then, I’ve never wanted to play anything else.”

They formed the band Lunchbox almost 30 years ago. “We went from trying to have a band before we were ready to worrying about having a live band and gigging, when we should have been focusing on songwriting and recording,” Brown says. “It wasn’t until we started recording our own music that we realized who we were, artistically.”

McKean bought Brown a 4-track tape deck a few months before the couple moved to Berlin for Brown’s Fulbright Fellowship. Once back in Oakland, they began recording in their basement. The result was their first album, The Magic of Sound.

“Our second album, Evolver, was a collection of dreamy pop songs situated amongst dub and jungle-flavored noisescapes,” Brown says. “Today, we have effectively become a duo, bringing in friends for various parts but doing most of the recording ourselves.”

That’s the approach they bring to Pop and Circumstance, their newest effort. “This is a natural continuation of our previous albums,” Brown says, “but with songs we like even better.”

The album’s music covers a lot of musical ground. McKean’s meandering bass line drives “Don’t Wait Too Long,” a song that explores the rhythms of rock steady, a short-lived Jamaican style that linked ska to reggae. It’s a bittersweet song that observes the end of a relationship, with Brown’s off-beat guitar accents and McKean’s keening harmonies intensifying the song’s emotion. 

“Is This Real” is an R&B tune, driven along with staccato horn stabs, Brown’s chattering guitar and McKean’s yearning vocals. It describes overwhelming feelings of infatuation and the hope that the desired partner is experiencing the same things. Brown sings lead on “All Around The World,” a ballad marked by his abrasive guitar picking and a processed vocal that could be describing the alienated feelings generated by the pandemic lockdown.

“Donna and I pretty much make the records by ourselves,” Brown says. “Then other people come in to do their parts. I lay down the drums first, then guitar and vocals. We do the bass last, or maybe the vocals last, depending. I hum trumpet parts to our friend Jeremy Goody, and he adds trumpet harmonies on a second track.

“Patrick Main, our keyboard player, is a master at getting sounds out of the Farfisa, so we just let him go at it. We avoid making demos. Demos are always better than the actual song, so we just make the actual song,” Brown continues.

McKean says, “We go over everything together and see if it needs more, or less, of something. We’re perfectionists, which can make things difficult. We don’t give up on a song until we’re 100% with it. Tim’s the engineer and producer, but we’re both heavily involved in the recording process, especially with mixing. It’s always the two of us together.”

Brown says he can’t imagine working in a “real” studio. “Donna and I take a lot of time with each song,” he says. “Recording is part of the art process for us. We have a live band for gigs, but there’s no live band when we record.

“The record comes first, then the band learns how to play it, not the other way around,” Brown adds. “Donna does her bass and vocals separately on the record, then puts them together live, which is not without its challenges given the complexity of the bass lines.”

Since McKean and Brown both work day jobs, finding time to perform can be difficult. “We don’t play that often,” Brown says. “Donna is still a nurse and I’m a professor at a university. I have summers off, but we don’t have a good balance between music, work and leisure. We spend way too much time on music. We are sort of ‘naïve’ singers, as they say.

“A live show is trying to sing in tune and struggling to find some measure of insouciance,” Brown continues. “People may think we’re lighthearted bubblegum, but it’s deeper than that. A lot of songs are bittersweet—recognizing life is sad/hard, but finding a way to make it better. Music should be urgent, happy/sad. You shouldn’t be able to get it out of your head after you hear it.”

“Pop and Circumstance” is available on the Slumberland Records website: slumberlandrecs.lsnto.me/pop-and-circumstance. Videos for the LP’s singles are available on the Slumberland Records YouTube page: youtube.com/@SlumberlandRecords.

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