Just as they were preparing to release their new album ‘Devil for the Fire’, Vundabar’s “Alien Blues” became a viral hit – six years after its release.
Brandon Hagen, lead singer/guitarist for Boston-based alt-rock band Vundabar, has spent the past ten years navigating ambiguous existential crises and turning them into song lyrics. Regardless, there are still some things in life that are too hard to describe.
“I’m just going to show you,” he tells Billboard from North Hampton, Massachusetts. on a Zoom call, he lifts his leg to the camera and rolls up his trouser leg. “It just went!”
His ankle is just like that – wobbly. The so-called Achilles’ heel, the 27-year-old musician’s birth defect that constantly looks discolored and bruised, is something he was often teased for as a child. This, combined with dealing with repressed issues at a young age raging in his Irish-Catholic hometown next door to Twin Peaks, led to what Hagen calls a very “unsettling” youth, which he expressed in the album Vundabar 2015 Gawk and his whimsical but furious single “Alien Blues”.
This song’s path to success has also been a bit shaky. More than half a century after the album’s release, the album’s streams suddenly began to increase by millions, all thanks to a snippet of it going viral on TikTok, seemingly out of nowhere. One is shouting words at his own red-faced reflection in the mirror, while the other is pounding his fists on what looks like the walls of a school toilet stall to the rhythm of Hagen’s high-pitched voice.
“The numbers went up really high,” Hagen recalls of the song’s surge in listeners that began around Thanksgiving last year. “Suddenly it became a big deal where I think we had 100,000 streaming [listenings] a day and that turned into a million a day in two days.” (According to Luminate, formerly MRC Data, the song has amassed 90 million views in the US at the time of publication.)
In the six years between the release of Gawk and the Alien Blues boom, Hagen and bandmates Drew McDonald and Zach Abramo have already released two albums and finished recording another one, their latest project Devil for the Fire, which ceased to exist in Friday (April 15). He became famous for a song he wrote as a teenager: “It’s just a crazy instrument… you should just pick it up and try to use it gracefully” – but he’s long since discovered that there’s a lot more to be angry about than what he felt at 18.
For example, in 2017, Vundabar’s album Smell Smoke explored the futility of caring for a sick loved one in America’s capitalist healthcare system. And Devil for the Fire’s new horror film project, designed to mimic the fact that reality is as unpredictable and plastic as, say, the success achieved by blow up on TikTok, was inspired in part by pandemic life and in part by a heart attack-induced stroke. father Hagen and a subsequent diagnosis of aphasia.
However, Hagen decided to take the acclaim he received from the Alien Blues triumph, belated as it was. “All of our records are slow records,” he says. “People need time to find them, get to know them and distribute them. I don’t care anymore. We’ve just always been a band where we plod along and grow a little, and we plod along and then grow a little and just keep going.”
Below, Hagen talks to Billboard about Vundabar’s new album, touring in the era of the pandemic, and the fallout from TikTok’s “Alien Blues” proliferation.
It makes sense to me that many young people identify with this. I wrote and recorded it when I was about 18. This song is just about feeling alienated, it sounds like a crisis. Being a teenager is weird, and being at a time when people need a release and need to let off steam, this song has it.
This record, in particular, has increased its audience since its release. What happened with TikTok was just the latest iteration of what has been happening since we released it.
When it all happened with “Alien Blues”, it was a real industrial blitz. It’s all based on metadata, so literally on the same day, every major label in the world blew up my phone. It was very confusing and difficult to navigate, especially for an old song that is in our own catalogue.