To say Tunng have reinvented themselves on their new album is a bit like remarking that Jay-Z has been doing a bit of rapping lately: flux defines them. Although the people making up the band are more or less the same as the lineup that first took the stage as a loose collective back in 2003, and there's still a beating heart of “sci-fi pop”, the very sound and nature of the band shifts constantly. Or as electronics wizard Phil Winter puts it, “the best thing about working with this band is that we can chuck all the ingredients in, give it a good shake, and see where it lands – see where everyone is and what they want to do.”
In fact, this time around that shake-up has been on a grand scale, and it's a very good job the band are adaptable as they're now more scattered than they've ever been – particularly as founder and songwriter-in-chief Mike Lindsay is now happily settled, working on his own Cheek Mountain Thief project (and about to be married) in Reykjavik, Iceland. “There's a lot happened in this band in the last couple of years” says Mike, “there's been children born, people moving into different places, falling in love, skipping country, broadening horizons... maybe this is a coming-of-age record!”
It's certainly been a challenge. 2010's '...And Then we Saw Land' (the first without co-founder Sam Genders) was the result of Tunng coalescing as a touring unit – its writing process begun in hotel rooms and backstage dressing rooms, with the band used to living in one another's pockets – and then pieced together and finessed over many months of studio tinkering. 'Turbines,' however, is the sound of them having to grab time together when they can and making the most of it. And, perhaps ironically, it's even more of a “band record” than its predecessor.
It began in Iceland with, in Mike's words “a couple of actual jam sessions – the very first time we'd just picked up instruments and gone for it!” This, says Phil, “was the perfect start, as it let us get our coordinates, feel our way a bit, and make sure that the songs started with the potential to be worked up in different ways.” At this stage, there were no words, just building atmospheres and musical themes, finding the common factors that still held the group together. The band picked musical ideas that seemed to be working, and Phil and Mike simply edited these together to form the skeletons of the songs that would form the album.
The band then reconvened in a studio in Dorset for two weeks, all living together and working intensively, then spent some time in album engineer and vintage equipment expert Benge's “synth museum” adding electronic embellishments, before returning later to Dorset to complete the record. They were more or less all present at each stage of the process, unlike all their previous albums when different members would drop in and out of Mike's former east London studio and, as Phil says “me and Mike would spend weeks messing it up!” “Maybe it sounds really normal,” laughs Mike; “maybe that's what you're supposed to do when you write an album, but it was completely new to us.”
It certainly shows that it was a new process, but it clearly suited them. The result, while very obviously different from anything they've done before, is paradoxically the most concentrated essence of Tunng that they've committed to CD yet. Phil again: “it's more concise – not more accessible as such, because I don't believe in that sort of category, but more direct, it's just the essentials, it's delivered straight. Because we had to make the most of the time we had together, it was a case of if something works then that's it, keep it, don't try and tweak it any more. We reviewed it at each stage, ticked off things we needed to do, then moved on.”
In practice, this has led to an album that is instant in its appeal with all of Tunng's natural psychedelia delivered as a direct hit, all the elements working harmoniously together to paint miniature pictures of the band's world. Though it was put together in various sessions, the instant nature of its early jam sessions is still there; it feels more than ever like a living, breathing band. “The electronica is still there,” says Mike, “as texture and synth lines rather than glitch and cut-up used to make actual rhythms. But really it's our sci-fi folk-rock album. There are plenty of guitars and vocally it feels a lot richer, with me and Becky doing a lot of swapping of lines.”
Lyrically it perhaps reflects a band continuing to grow up. Mike characterises it as about “human relations and experiences of the unknown, unpredictability, not being able to control situations and letting them happen, and also about... fantasy people. Ashley wrote a lot of the lyrics, and he's got quite a twisted mind – it turns out – which is nice. That added a new layer to what we do and I think has added to the richness of this record.” The result is certainly rich: throughout the record, whether it's on the celebratory boogie of 'The Village', the strange time-signature-shifting 'Trip Trap' or 'Heavy Rock Warning', the floating cosmic ballad that closes the album, it feels like it's inhabited by a cast of thousands, endless stories of ordinary and extraordinary lives bubbling up through the melodies and textures.
Where this takes Tunng now is another question, though. Just as it was the result of them adapting to circumstances, so 'Turbines' in turn creates a new set of circumstances for them to process. Because these songs were put together in such a short period, albeit split between different sessions in different countries, they are burgeoning with possibility. “This album,” says Phil, “is just the start of the process of these songs.” As the band come together once again to play shows in support of the album, its songs' continuity with the full canon of Tunng compositions will come to the fore, the similarities and differences giving a whole new platform for reinvention. Once again, there is newness in every step in Tunng's career: precisely why, as ever, each song is a breath of fresh air.
Joe Muggs @joemuggs