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The Final Curtain: Tunng and their Dead Club

13 December 2020, 08:35

"Death is the new sex / Everybody's talking about it", sing English folktronica band Tunng on their latest album Dead Club, but in actual fact, they're the ones who are pushing to get the conversation started.

“To learn to die is to learn to philosophise. You get wisdom from the fact that you realise there is nothing to fear from death, and therefore there is nothing to fear from anything. What you should concentrate on, therefore, is on the business of living. The meditation of the wise person is the meditation on life...” says Philosopher AC Grayling on the somnambulant and contemplative opening song of Tunng’s latest project, Tunng Presents… Dead Club.

These snippets of tender, wise, and considered thoughts are littered throughout the album, and taken from an eponymous podcast series. Enlisting the help of musician Speech Debelle, palliative care physician Dr Kathryn Mannix, illusionist Derren Brown, Professor Dame Sue Black, philosopher Alain de Botton, and writers Max Porter and Kevin Young; Dead Club is an intensive look our relationship with death, from the perspective of cultures all around the world.

Maintaining an essence of humility as they remind us of our insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe, and putting into perspective the fact that we are mortal beings who have no choice in succumbing to the natural forces in our lives; Dead Club is no doubt a morbid project — especially with the conversations on the podcast being incredibly personal and thought-provoking — but despite this, there are no shortages of heart-warming moments that offer respite from what is still somewhat of a taboo subject to discuss.

“Over the space of a generation, Britain forgot what dying looked like…Medicine kidnapped dying, took it into hospitals, and judged it to be a failure”, says Mannix on the relationship that our nation has with death. Why is that? As we switfly move into a more technologically advanced society, with the view of prolonging life as opposed to trying to get to the root of the ailment and allowing death to be a viable option, surely it would be easier for all involved to be more open to having these difficult conversations in order to minimise the suffering of everyone involved.

Brown speaks in depth about his interest in what he calls “the considered life…putting modern ideas of happiness into a historical context.” If death eventually enriches life; if there’s a sense of freedom that comes from understanding more about what happens to our bodies or those of our loved ones once we pass into the unknown, perhaps we can use Dead Club as the means to facilitate these conversations.

On “Woman”, the anthem that focuses on anthropological archaeology, Porter ruminates on our obsession with understanding the multitudes life. Our knack for struggling to fully let go of, and allow the dead their infinite rest, and our inclination to disturb the remnants of existence from eons ago, as we try and find some semblance of meaning to attach onto our own state of being.

Wrapped up in an ironic chord progression of D-E-A-D, which creates a feeling of melancholia laced with hope, there is a sense of wonder and confusion mixed with humour in normalising our most human elements; Tunng are simply as curious and amateur as we all are on a situation that we’ll inevitably encounter at least once in our lives.

When referencing the art of Swedish death cleaning on “Sdc”, the band maintain this candid process with lyrics about some of the uncomfortable things we may not wish to find in someone else’s home (“A bag of baby clothes / A box of old dildos / Francesca’s white teeth / A thousand scribble notes”), and in their nod to the Wari people of Brazil who eat their dead, they almost make cannibalism seem endearing (“Eat the roaring, blazing rows / Eat the never-ending hugs / Eat the angry and the kindness / Most importantly, your love”). It’s this realistic examination of the human condition that makes the conversation of death more approachable; almost palatable.

BEST FIT: Tunng Presents… Dead Club began its life after Max Porter’s book Grief is the Thing with Feathers was passed around the band. Was this the first time you’d ever done such a thing, and what was it about this topic that was so interesting to you all?

BECKY JACOBS: Me, Sam and Mike [Lindsay] have shared books between the three of us — not necessarily the whole band before. We all read that Murakami book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and we ended up having a song called "The Wind-Up Bird" on one of our records but I don't think we've had anything that's been quite as significant as this, have we?

SAM GENDERS: No. I mean, touring is quite conducive to book sharing, because even if you don't intend to, you end up with nothing to read [at a similar time] when someone's just finished a book, so you do it anyway. But I think, because we were already talking about the subject of death before we got the book, that prompted us all to want to read it and understand what it was that the other members of the band were talking about when they said that it’s a great book. For me, the subject of death is interesting because it's part of life, you know? I am someone who thinks a lot about stuff — and I experience quite a lot of anxiety and low mood at various times in my life — I'm drawn to big questions such as ‘what's the point in life?’ and ‘why are we here?’, and to me, death is just a very natural part of that. If anything, it's a little odd that we don't talk about it more, because it's such affects us all so deeply.

JACOBS: I think there's something about that book, and the way that it speaks about the subject, in a way that is very multi-dimensional; it kind of talks about death in so many different ways and I think that was something that felt — if this isn't too crass way to put it — quite Tunng-like because, of course, it's about grief and about pain, but it also looked at other emotions connected to death; stuff around the macabre or even the humorous, ridiculous stuff around death — the sort of bodily kind of side of it which links to some of the things that Max has written for our projects as well. And I think there's something in that.

The prose in the book is really interesting and unusual, and some of it feels like poetry when you read it. I think that that's what felt very Tunng-like about it. [The multi-dimensional aspect] is something that's been part of who we are as a band since we started making music. There have been dark, sombre and melancholy elements to our music but also a kind of playful and light side, and it was that about the book, particularly, that chimed with us. As Sam said; obviously it's enormous, and in no way do we feel like we are experts, but also, it's a universal experience, isn't it? The fact that people find it difficult to talk about made us feel perhaps that's why we should try.

GENDERS: There’s a certain amount of that difficulty because it's a painful thing to talk about, but there is, I think, in our culture, a sort of cultural layer above that which is the kind of taboo that prevents people talking about it. We found people reaching out to us and people opening up to us in ways we've never really experienced before with any other project. And I think with anything that's challenging or confusing or painful, in life, most people want to explore a little bit of [that] and connect with people about it.

It seems as though it just takes one person to start that conversation, and occasionally, the floodgates open. Listening to the podcast, it’s interesting to see how you both took different approaches to asking difficult questions. Were the final conversations unedited recordings or did you have to filter through?

JACOBS: I'd say they were pretty much unfiltered conversations, but really, that's what we set out to do. We weren't setting out to have this conversation in 20 minutes — we wanted the conversation to roll as it did, and for people to be able to listen to that as they choose. I make podcasts; that's my day job. I love listening to podcasts, and if I've got time, I really love long conversations. I know that people don't often have time for them, but I kind of feel like, in many ways, the conversations were quite hard to edit. The one that I tried the hardest with was Speech [Debelle] because I felt it was longer than the others and also had quite a different tone to the others. I wondered if a lot of it felt too much like a therapeutic sort of conversation, but in the end, it felt inappropriate and disrespectful to edit. We discussed it between us, going back and forth a lot, and it just felt so in the moment. I felt so privileged that she wanted to share so much with me, so soon after her brother had died, that it just felt like, who am I to chop this up?

At the end of each podcast episode there are stories from people who are close to you, as well as other members of the band. How did you go about selecting who would tell their personal anecdotes in relation to the stories that came beforehand?

JACOBS: Actually, it was a little bit random. I felt like it was [also] really important to have everybody's voice in the in the series, from the band. Mike and Sam went first, and I didn't know what everybody was going to say. I had no idea and I was actually incredibly moved by what people shared in that kind of format. We’ve known each other a long time and we love each other — we're very old friends and we've had a lot of shared experiences — but some of the stuff that was shared wasn't stuff that we'd discussed before, in that way. I felt like those two set up talks about the project, rather than more personal kind of anecdotes. I think Sam looked at the idea of ‘who are we to be talking about this subject?’, which I thought was important [to have] quite early on.

GENDERS: Mike talks about that insecurity about the subject and the contradiction of everyone wanting to talk about it, but it also being really difficult to talk about — and that felt important. We were a bit worried about people getting the idea that we were acting like we knew what we were talking about and positioning ourselves as some kind of expert voice. And as Becky said, that's what we really wanted to make it clear. That's not what we were doing at all.

"I feel like I'm being more proactive in doing something about personal challenges because I am more aware of the fact that either myself or the person I'm having a conflict with is going to die at some point." - Sam Genders

At the end of the episode with Derren Brown, there's the conversation about how speaking about death requires permission, and sometimes you need to seek trust from someone in order to approach that subject. How would you advise someone who needed to do that?

GENDERS: It’s quite difficult… I'm lucky because we're doing a project about death. So, when people ask me: ‘what are you doing with the band?’ I’d say: ‘we're doing this project about death’ and I pay really close attention to how they respond. If they seem like they're interested, they go a bit further. And then I noticed that there’s sort of three responses — one is a really definite, ‘I do not want to talk about this’. Another is a really emphatic, ‘oh, wow!’ and you end up talking with someone for an hour, in depth about stuff that they may have been really desperate to get off their chests. Then there's a thing in the middle that I would describe as confusion, because it's almost like people are reaching for the cultural template of how do you [begin to] talk about this subject? I haven't really got one in my life. It’s bit more of an uncertain, ongoing process, just as two people trying to gauge what the other person is interested in, but I feel pretty deeply incompetent around this subject, which I think is what attracted me to it.

JACOBS: One of the things I felt like I wanted, personally, from this experience was to learn how to be a better ally to a grieving person. And I think one of the things that jumps out is to just acknowledge it and see it, because it's very hard to know what to say, and I don't think there is a one thing that works for everybody, either, because we're all so different. Some of us want to be private and others want to wail on the rooftops. I think that to not pretend it's not happening is the thing, and I like to think that it’s not something I would have done anyway. It’s wrong to assume that you understand and it is wrong to assume that you can make it better; it's wrong to tell them it'll be okay in a couple of months. One of the things that I find difficult is, I'm quite an emotional person — I know Sam is as well. Sometimes I'll see somebody emotional or grieving and I feel like it’s going to make me feel grief and upset as well. I am self-conscious about that. I wouldn't want to impose my own feelings on somebody else's experience.

This also ties into what Derren Brown said about being interested in the considered life, and that made me think about AC Grayling when he was talking about the elasticity of time. What has this project taught you about the art of time, valuing your life and living the so-called considered life?

GENDERS: This has had a really marked effect on me. For us, it's been a two-year period. It was the end of 2018 when we started, and I definitely feel less afraid of death and less afraid of the state of being dead. I am less afraid of dying, more grateful for my life, and everyone that's in it. I feel like I'm being more proactive in doing something about personal challenges because I am more aware of the fact that either myself or the person I'm having a conflict with is going to die at some point — and life is short — so I feel like I'm making a little bit more of life in that way.

JACOBS: It's a weird time to have that experience, isn't it? Because I think it’s really true that those are the lessons — you should value every moment and value your relationships and say the things that are difficult or important to say. But it's also very hard to appreciate life when you're not able to be with people. One of the saddest things for us as a band is to put this record out and not be able to be in the same room and play gigs, enjoy it together, and just have a drink. So, as you say, it's quite a complex time to have those big realisations about life and how short it is and how precious everything is.

On the song "The Last Day" you sampled Dame Sue Black’s breath, which became a part of the instrumentation, and there’s a soporific feeling in "Carry Me" and "Three Birds", which is slightly ironic because it's like you are gearing up to the big sleep of death. What was the process in choosing the parts of the podcast to sample in the album to capture a specific mood?

GENDERS: It was Mike that sampled Sue's breath, and he's great at building layered textures of sounds. He's also great at making beats and things that have a lot of energy about them. So, it was really a process of constantly trying things. And I know that he is often searching for a sound palette because he doesn't want too many different sounds and wants the record to have a sort of coherent feel as a whole. It really was just a gradual process of seeing which sounds match the mood, I think.

JACOBS: Ash [Bates] came up with this [idea of] playing on the D-E-A-D notes and chords, and that became like a refrain in the record, which when you say it, it sounds kind of cheesy, but it really worked and leant a vibe and a tone as far as musical palette is concerned, as well as instrumentation.

On the podcast you briefly touched on religion, but you didn’t go into too much depth. What are your thoughts on the relationship between death, spirituality and religion?

GENDERS: I'm fascinated by religion and spirituality and psychology — Jungian psychology and all those things which I see as connected. I don't know if we ever had an explicit conversation about this, but it felt like religion and the afterlife is such a huge conversation that people have very strong personal feelings about, and I think we felt that we hadn't really explored that. By the time lockdown happened, we had to be a bit more careful about our time and how we made things happen, and I had a feeling we could get a bit distracted by that as it is a huge subject which is important and valid in its own right.

We were coming across some realisations, which were very grounded in practical reality, like the Kathryn Mannix stuff where she's giving very practical steps that you can take to improve end of life care. I feel that those steps that she's describing would apply to everybody, regardless of their spiritual orientation, or whether they're an atheist. So, I was drawn to the more practical and scientific side of this general discussion. But that song [The Last Day] is inspired by [the time] I interviewed a near-death experience researcher called Dr. Penny Sartori. So, you've got Becky's interview with Dame Sue Black, the idea of the physicality of the body and the idea that death is the end of everything, but then the lyrics are actually about a near-death experience in a sort of transcendental journey; in a slight comic book kind of way. That’s not to look down on religion or spirituality at all — I'm really fascinated by it. I haven't quite figured out my relationship to it, but it influences me a lot. I'm very attracted to the idea of love and connection, and the idea that there can be meaning in life, but I'm also very attracted to science and the scientific method.

"You should value every moment; value your relationships and say the things that are difficult or important to say, but it's also very hard to appreciate life when you're not able to be with people..." - Becky Jacobs

JACOBS: In the conversation with Kevin Young, we talked about this a bit. He put together this collection of poetry around grief after his father died, and he felt like there wasn't anything to reach for in terms of that kind of material. We talked about the fact that a couple of hundred years ago, religion had a bigger part to play in life and death, and that not everybody, but I would say generally a lot more recently, there's a kind of a leaning away from religion with people looking to other spaces. I suppose one of the things that he was talking about was the fact that poetry, art and music can bring that spiritual comfort and connection that historically, religion might have done. That's not to say that there isn't still a big place for religion. I think that religion is something that definitely comes to people when they're grieving or when somebody is about to die.

We did an interview with a couple of guys from the band Tinariwen and one of the things that felt important about this project is that we try to talk to people with a range of different experiences and from different cultures. Those guys are Muslim; they come from a very kind of small community in Mali, and in their interview, there's quite a lot about religion and faith in the way that they're from extraordinarily different lives to ours in the West. They're not in the podcast because we didn't feel it was appropriate to have a voiceover translation but we’ve produced a scene with the record and they are translated in that.

Of all of the culturally diverse stories that you’ve researched during the making of Dead Club, from the act of eating the dead to other cultures keeping the bodies of their loved ones in the house right up until the funeral, what has been the most surprising thing that you learned on this journey? Were there any that you felt a resonance with?

GENDERS: You know, I mention this all the time, but it's a very simple, practical thing. It’s what Kathryn Mannix says when she talks about the death rattle, which is the sound that a dying person makes the back of their throat. I assumed, like apparently many people do, that it is a sign of discomfort, because it sounds as if the person is suffocating, but what she said is that it's actually a sign of the person being deeply unconscious. When the death rattle is happening, they're absolutely not suffering; they’re too unconscious to be suffering.

For me, that's really powerful because it's such a simple, practical truth. I find sometimes when I’ve found people a bit hesitant to engage around this subject, it’s because someone has sort of said to me, ‘we just prefer to stay positive, we don't want to talk about this’ — and I struggle with that a little bit. Firstly, because I think that the idea to acknowledge this as negative thinking doesn't make any sense to me, but also, because I've been lucky enough to go on this journey, I've learned all these things which have made my life so much better.

I've not had the experience of the death rattle with anyone, but Kathryn Mannix talks about how repeatedly in her career, she's had the experience of relatives breaking into tears when she's told them because maybe they're with one dying person now, but 10 years ago, someone else they knew died, and they didn't know; no one told them. So they thought they watched a loved one die in great suffering, and that wasn't the case. That is one of the most powerful things I've learned because it shows that things can be gained just from simple discussion and learning more about a subject.

JACOBS: Honestly, I'm not sure, but when you were talking about the eating the dead moment, I suppose I feel like that that really connected. What Sam did with the idea in that song, I find I found very powerful. I feel like absorbing those things — the little things about the person that has died, not literally eating them — but absorbing them as part of your life is a very sort of rich and powerful idea, and it's something that I found very easy to connect to.

Kathryn Mannix’s podcast episode was interesting in terms of thinking about the generational shift between people being surrounded by death as a natural part of life, to now being seen as a failure. What do you think our future holds in terms of our relationship with death and the idea of prolonging life?

JACOBS: It’s really interesting… Atul Gawande is now on Biden’s healthcare taskforce and he’s a big deal American physician but that book [Being Mortal] is about this question and about end of life care and the idea of prolonging existence vs really understanding what a person needs and wants at the end of their life; and the pull between those two experiences and ideas… It’s quite a daunting thought and it’s not a million miles away from something that we might have to think about and talk to our parents about. I have to say I haven’t personally felt able to have that conversation with my parents yet. It’s one thing to say I want our relationship to be better, and it’s another thing to talk about this project, and it’s quite another step to say, ‘So, mum. You know if you end up with this illness or in this condition, what do you want me to do?’ because that’s asking quite a lot of the person, but maybe we should.

At the end of each podcast episode you posed a question to your guests — What do you think your culture does well in its relation to death? What would be your own answers to that question?

GENDERS: I’ve already got one so I’m going to get in there before Becky steals it! I think there’s something about a wake — it’s about 4 pints in at wake — there’s a certain layer of cultural standoffishness that disappears and people start talking very openly or honestly. I’ve had some really wonderful experiences like that; just really connecting with people because all of the bullshit drops away, and because someone you love has died, all the petty quarrels and things seem ridiculous. That’s one for me, and I’m not sure I can sing the praises and say everyone should get drunk, but if we can connect like that without necessarily having to drink — maybe the drink makes it fun —but I think when we connect, that’s fun.

JACOBS: Well my family is Jewish, so I come from that culture. Although I consider myself Jewish, I’m not at all practicing, but something that happens in Jewish culture is firstly, you have a funeral very quickly after the person dies. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that but there’s a longer grieving process called a Shiva — it’s kind of wake-like — where the immediate family are visited by other relatives, and the rabbi, and neighbours. The idea is that you pray, but also, you’re supported day and night by guests and visitors who come and sit with you and talk about the person who has died.

I think Jewish culture acknowledges, to a degree, the scope of grief. The fact that it doesn’t just end once the person is buried; that there is a process. There’s this, which I think is 7 days, which is not long enough, but also there are certain very-religious Jewish communities where I think you have your mirrors covered for a year and you’re not supposed to listen to music for a year and you’re not supposed to set the headstone where the person has been buried at least 10 months after their death. I think those things, although we’ve just produced an album and I wouldn’t say that not listening to music is something that I would do myself, but I think what it does do is acknowledge how long that period is. That it doesn’t just end when the person is buried. That the grief can stay with you for the rest of your life if it’s been a significant loss.

Tunng Presents... Dead Club is out now
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