Grief is a lot of things, but it’s easiest to describe by what it’s not. It’s not a physical symptom that can be noticed from far away. It’s not something to be pushed aside. It’s not something to be made light of.It’s not something to be embarrassed of. And right now, it’s no longer a barrier holding Brandon Hagen back — but that doesn’t mean all of those other things didn’t get in his way at first.
Back when he was 18 years old, Hagen was hit with bad news. A loved one in his family was ill. While he knew it was bad, it didn’t strike him as particularly awful — or at least the type of news that could be bottled up and stored out of sight, so friends and acquaintances wouldn’t know what was going on behind closed doors. And so Hagen, the frontman and guitarist in Boston’s beloved poppy surf rock group Vundabar, began a multiple year-long process to grapple with grief before it nearly got the best of him. The band’s newest album, Smell Smoke, was an unintentional outlet for such.
Truthfully, there’s not much that can be said about the loved one that Hagen lost, as he prefers to keep the details removed. We meet at Refuge Cafe on a typically blustery, warm Allston day. As he describes the personality of the person, it’s easy to feel how he was a part of Hagen’s life and why watching him get sick was so painful. But if Hagen wanted to be honest on Vundabar’s third LP, he had to toe two lines—noting details that bring past memories and feelings to life, and preserving the privacy of a loved one’s worsening health—in order to protect the identity of the family member as well.
The defining characteristic of the loved one Hagen watched grow sick is that, because he grew up with an unstable family, he was primed to seek a sense of stability and achievement through the American dream. “I view that as a toxic, Patrick Bateman type of external dream: where you’re working to see progress in a way you can see,” says Hagen. “He subscribed to that in his middle-aged years and then ran into issues when things didn’t work perfectly down the line. He put his stress, his problems, his worries into work. When you buy into that ideal, that your hard work will pay off, and it doesn’t, then it has the potential to drop you. And that’s what happened. He spent his entire life building an identity that collapsed, and watching it was like watching a physical and mental collapse where the way the person viewed themselves collapsed. It changed the way I view capital in general. He felt an incredible sense of shame over not being able to work at that same level because work was the sole validator about why he should be a person.”
At a young age, the hardest part to grapple with the loss of a loved one wasn’t witnessing the life-threatening sickness in action—though it goes without saying that it, obviously, took an unforgettable toll—but rather the complex shame attached to it, an odd but common part of the grieving process. People feel shameful over all sorts of things, especially in times where shame isn’t a necessary or sensible reaction, but Hagen’s struggle with it took a different route, starting with the realization that he had buried it at the start. On the most basic level, the misunderstanding, stigma, and fear of people’s reaction took a toll on him. The fact that he, among several other family members, was kept in the dark about what was happening to this loved one only made it that much more hectic. “It’s such a bizarre thing to go through and try to process when you don’t fully know what’s going on,” he says. “All you know is that you just want to help this person.”
The duality of the life he was living hammered that dizziness in harder. Hagen spent his days as he does now, holed up in the music and art world of the liberal-leaning, idyllic city life of Boston, only to return to the suburbs to visit this severely sick loved one, bracing himself to see where his health was at. And it wasn’t just any suburb. He was returning home to the South Shore town of Scituate. As the most Irish Catholic town in the most Irish Catholic state, that town surrounded him with various outdated pressures of the stiff-lipped religious view — even if Hagen’s parents didn’t subscribe to the religion or the community’s values, and they actively reminded him of such.
“Massachusetts is so catholic and Twin Peaks-y, and [Scituate] especially is a quintessential small town where Irish Catholic repression plays a hand in day-to-day life,” says Hagen. “You think they would be nice because it’s so cute, but there’s a lot of dirt underneath that people love to dig up. So before any of this even happened, there was this weird Irish Catholic vibe looming over me, even though my parents reminded us that our family wasn’t about that. People judge you. There’s unspoken things you just don’t discuss. Something the album touches on is that as much as that’s not me, because I consciously know that that’s not the way you should process information or act, just because there shouldn’t be a stigma doesn’t mean there isn’t one. The way that community, and many others, viewed it impacted how I viewed illnesses in a way, even if I knew from a distance that it shouldn’t.”
This grievance period took place over several years. Naturally, that meant the rest of the band saw Hagen go through this, drummer Drew McDonald in particular. Having a close confident helped him reflect on the loss as it happened, in real time and months later. “Drew was so patient. He knew about it the entire time and was always so supportive,” says Hagen. “I got to a point where I realized I had to let those close to me know about it, so it will give them a context clue of where my reactions were coming from. Drew was so helpful over the years. He’s also an art therapist, like he’s one year away from a degree in it from Lesley, so maybe that plays a part.” He laughs and adds, “Maybe he can put me on his resume.”
There’s a lot to show for their friendship in Smell Smoke. The album feels true to its name: Hagen sounds like he’s becoming aware of loss’s impact on his life, but hasn’t quite felt the flames. Much of the record focuses on the decline the comes from thinking someone will die every day. It’s a degradation that eats away at you. With that, it focuses on cycles, intersections of philosophical ideologies, how those intersect with capital, the dynamics of family, and the balance of love and loss. On “Diver,” rumbling guitar and pop-laced hooks make way for a flood of feelings about accepting your location without resolve. During “Tonight I’m Wearing Silk,” he repurposes a famous Mission of Burma line to reflect on American morality and the vernacular of goodness. During a somewhat masked moment on “Big Funny,” Hagen considers the sobering expense of death: “Hospital receipts, they make a coffin seem so cheap.” The composition feels more progressive and complex than the band’s past releases, and yet Vundabar keep their cool, playing off sloppy delivery with a well-defined, rigid, and smart balance of melodies and overlapping instruments. Truthfully, if you didn’t listen to the lyrics, you wouldn’t know how much pain was buried in the back half of the record because of how sunny the songs sound. Perhaps that’s Vundabar’s greatest trick. The band presents itself with a goofy grin and straightened apparel despite any heavy, disheveled feelings.
“Honestly, working on this record had me thinking a lot about who I am, which sounds dramatic. I just wasn’t ready to process this stuff because I was 18 when it first started, so I sidestepped everything and threw myself into touring,” says Hagen. “Within that is the clash of a metaphysical sense of self versus the validation that I get, even as a musician, as someone who works, gets money in their hand, and then feels good about it. I know that isn’t what I’m comprised of, but it is important — and I got scared of leaning on that reactive feeling too heavily. The irony of that was that whatever leeway [the loved one] was able to make, the costs of dealing with his health dwindled it away, and I started to see myself fitting into that model.”
A blender whirrs so loudly in the cafe that I remember where we are. The way Hagen talks about the multiple year-long process of watching this loved one decline, the stress of potentially toxic living patterns, and the community pressures to hide how you’re feeling carried a dark cloud into the space. Looking outside, the sun is shining bright enough for people to remove their coats and tie them around their waists. When I look back at Hagen, he’s smiling. He has been almost the entire conversation. Every time Hagen talks about ways in which he worries about falling down a similar path, or about investing too much in work, or losing sight of himself, or falling victim to emotion-hidden groupthink, a nervous laugh escapes him. It’s scary, but he’s not scared. Or at least he doesn’t seem to be.
That’s when it becomes apparent that Smell Smoke is equally representative of Vundabar. They want to sound happy. They want to have fun. They always have. Dealing with a family illness and learning to cope didn’t change Hagen or the band dramatically. If anything, it opened his eyes to an important part of reshaping yourself and the way you grow over time — and Vundabar was an outlet for him to make it through that. It’s the embodiment of crawling through struggles with a deceptive grin on your face. He’s mastered the look at his band’s live shows. When a sea of fans are grinning at him, singing along, at a sold out show, eventually his smile dissolves to one of actual happiness, and it comes with a realization that where he’s currently standing onstage probably isn’t that bad after all.