With ‘Dead Club’, Tunng have been on a journey that’s taken them beyond the album, beyond music, beyond life itself. Sam Genders and Becky Jacobs explain why they’re tackling death head on

Death is complicated. Confusing. We don’t know what happens when we die. We don’t know how to handle our own death or other people’s. We usually don’t want to talk about it, either.

We have never been so far removed from the concept of dying. We live apart from our loved ones, we live long lives, and we export the dying, for the most part, to hospital. Much of this is the result of positive human progress – improved housing, improved opportunities, advances in communication and medicine – but we have lost something along the way. We have lost our powerful connection to death.

‘Dead Club’, the latest album from experimental folk gems Tunng, is an exploration of the great beyond – not just the act of dying itself, but what happens to the world around us after we’re gone, how we grieve, and even how we can prepare for our own end. And they’ve not done it by halves.

Alongside the record, Tunng’s ‘Dead Club’ project includes hours of discussion with palliative care experts, philosophers, authors and anthropologists. Many of them are sampled on the album and they all appear in an accompanying podcast series. Max Porter, the author of ‘Grief Is The Thing With Feathers’, supplies two original stories and there’s a 12-page zine too. It’s an immersive, hugely ambitious work, reflecting the import and nuance of its subject matter.

“I’ve had a bit of an interest in the topic over the years,” says Tunng frontman Sam Genders. “Possibly because, having experienced anxiety and low moods, I’ve reached out and tried to find reasons why, to figure out what life is all about. Then ‘Grief Is The Thing With Feathers’ was passed around the band and that was the lift-off point for the project. We were all discussing it.”

Max Porter’s novel follows the fortunes of a bereaved husband. Soon after the loss of his wife, he and his sons are visited by Crow – a giant bird, a metaphor for the wild ambiguity of grief. The man’s thoughts exist in prose, Crow’s in visceral, explicit poetry. Tunng’s co-vocalist Becky Jacobs was suitably inspired to work alongside Genders on the research and interview element, utilising skills from her day job as a radio producer.

“Max’s book touched us in different ways,” says Jacobs. “It’s quite an acquired taste because of its mix of prose and poetry. It’s not just about grief and sadness and loss – it looks at every aspect of death, including the bodily side of it, some of the ridiculous stuff that happens. Max talked to Sam about that in the podcast and it’s stayed with me.”

The first lines of the album’s opener, ‘Eating The Dead’, capture some of this same ambiguity: “Lay you on the kitchen table / Cut you open tenderly / Eat your heart and eyes and mouth / Every word you spoke to me.”

“You might think it’s gruesome, but it’s about taking sustenance from those you love,” explains Genders. “It’s got two sides – the challenging and difficult side, and the emotional side. When I read Max’s book, it felt more authentic somehow, because it covers lots of elements of the human experience.

“I can’t speak for everybody, but it feels to me that facing pain can be easier and more enriching when you accept the full truth of it. We sometimes pretend this difficult bit doesn’t exist, but then there’s the stuff you’re not dealing with or getting support for. It’s all there, churning around inside you. Continually pressing it down so that you’re mostly OK, but having this uncomfortable thing inside you, affecting your feelings or behaviour, can ultimately be more difficult.”

Our mental picture of death is often skewed by Hollywood imagery – heroism, tragedy or mysticism. ‘Star Wars’ has us conditioned to believe that, if we’ve lived our lives in the right way, our demise will be a graceful fade, leaving only a pile of clothes. So when we witness the passing of a loved one, it often feels alien. Take the ‘Dead Club’ podcast with palliative care doctor Kathryn Mannix, discussing the misconception of the “death rattle” – the seemingly laboured, strained breathing as a person dies.

“People don’t realise it’s a sign that someone is deeply unconscious and not in pain,” says Genders. “I didn’t know that before. I thought it was painful. In her book, ‘With The End In Mind’, Kathryn talks about explaining this to relatives who are in tears because they think they’ve witnessed an agonising end, but actually that’s not what they’ve seen. This is why we should be talking about these things more.”

It’s not just the physical that Tunng draw on across ‘Dead Club’, it’s the philosophical too. Their conversation with philosopher AC Grayling is one of the podcast’s highlights and is sampled on the album. Grayling’s cut-glass meditative clarity on the topic, born from his truly challenging personal experiences, is beyond inspirational – it feels like essential knowledge. It’s the sort of foundational listening that should be issued as part of a human being starter pack. You may experience your own dying, he proposes, but not your own death. That will be the experience of others.

“To learn to die is to learn to philosophise,” he says. “You get wisdom from the fact you realise there is nothing to fear from it. Therefore what you should concentrate on is all the business of living. The meditation of the wise person is the meditation on living, not death, because death is nothing to us.”

What makes ‘Dead Club’ work is Tunng’s seamless incorporation of such gargantuan sentiments into compositions about dining on memories of your loved ones. To revisit ‘Eating The Dead’, Grayling’s voice reverberates across a pulsating and tender electronic backing, punctuating Genders’ verses. The pulse slows to a stop by the song’s close.

Few bands could pull off the intricate emotional balance required, but that has always been one of Tunng’s strengths. The group have a uniquely discerning ear and also a desire to push boundaries, which spurred the immersive research and subsequent understanding that fuelled this project.

Not content with reading, Genders and Jacobs sought out people and spoke to them directly. Whether visiting a death cafe in Sheffield to discuss grief, or embracing the concept of Swedish death cleaning (sorting your possessions before you die so loved ones don’t have to make those decisions), they had the conversations they are encouraging others to have and witnessed first-hand how someone like AC Grayling grapples with the issue.

“Because this is such a big subject, we always felt it was important to research it and talk about why we did it,” explains Genders. “But I didn’t realise how inspiring doing the research would be. It made the writing really easy. I feel like it’s changed my life. I’m a slightly different person and a better one than I was two years ago.”

It’s strange to think of death changing your life, but Tunng are by no means alone in wanting to open up that discourse. In her time working as an audio producer, Jacobs notes she has never had such a positive response to their interview requests.

“There’s a real interest in this,” adds Genders. “It may seem a bit tactless to talk about death at a time like this but, regardless of Covid, when we started we thought, ‘No one’s talking about this’. Then, as we began investigating, we discovered that’s actually not true. There’s a big movement in talking about it and we just happened to join the discussion at a time when it’s really gaining momentum.”

Such an interchange can also be viewed as part of something looming even larger in our collective consciousness. The limitations of the reductionist forces of liberal cancel culture and right-wing populism that have swept the globe in recent years have been viscerally exposed in 2020.

Whether it’s racial inequality, pay cheques or politics, it now feels like there is a growing desire to re-examine difficult issues, or at least to have the debate. We’re realising it might be better to say something and risk getting it a bit wrong, than to say nothing at all.

“Several conversations Sam had didn’t make it into the podcast series,” says Jacobs. “But I learned a lot just from listening to them. Like how, when someone dies, you feel very raw and how not saying anything is actually the very worst thing. Expressing something clumsily is usually better than pretending it hasn’t happened.

“I know somebody whose partner was killed in an accident several years ago. A mutual acquaintance saw her and didn’t say a thing, which was so painful for her. That came up a lot. When you’re bereaved, you don’t want to pretend that person never existed. You want them to stay with you, so it’s very touching when someone says, ‘They did this…’ or ‘I remember that…’, and shares those memories. To avoid saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve been thinking of you’, not for a malevolent reason, but because you’re too afraid of your own emotional state, is quite sad.”

‘Dead Club’ might not appeal to everyone, but just by being out there it’s likely to reach someone at the right time and create a connection. Are Tunng prepared for the public reaction to the album?

“Sam has pondered that a lot,” says Jacobs. “We’ve tried to consider the ways we can engage with individuals on social media if something comes up. Some may be wondering who we are to be talking about this and we’ve asked ourselves how best we can respond to the question, ‘Why do you know about this?’. The answer is, ‘We don’t, but we’re interested in discussing it’.

“Sam has also been very aware of sharing groups, support lines and websites, posting the message that we understand how death can provoke strong feelings and that, if you need somewhere to go with them, help is available. It’s a difficult line to tread because we can’t take responsibility for our audience, but we can share things that might support them if it does provoke an intense response.”

“I’m quite uncomfortable about telling others what they should do,” adds Genders. “But I know how engaging with these things has made me feel. Already, more than anything else I’ve been involved with, I’ve had people sending me messages because they’ve heard the podcast or they’ve listened to the music.”

So much of our focus is on what death takes away from us, not on what it gives us. In some ways, and though it might not seem like a good trade, it can be a gift – a ticket to something else, a wider view, picking you up and leaving you in another place. What has studying it given Tunng?

“A great deal of appreciation for my life and the people in my life,” says Genders immediately.

“That’s true,” agrees Jacobs. “It’s about trying to say things to the people in your life while they’re alive, rather than eulogising when they’ve gone. It’s about tidying your life in a practical sense and not leaving a great mess – emotionally or materially.”

“The AC Grayling session stood out for me,” says Genders. “I’ve learned that talking about death is talking about life. They’re two sides of the same coin. As the project has progressed, I haven’t become depressed or maudlin – I’ve felt exactly the opposite. I’ve become more grateful for my life, for my friends’ lives, and less afraid of dying, of being dead. The more I’ve learned, the more enriched I’ve felt. And when you feel like that, you want to share it with other people.”

‘Dead Club’ is out on Full Time Hobby. The eight-part ‘Tunng Presents The Dead Club’ podcast is available via tunng.co.uk

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