Last September a surprise single, “Throw It All Away”, debuted seemingly out of nowhere. Credited to TUNS – a group consisting of Halifax music legends Chris Murphy (Sloan) on drums, Matt Murphy (Super Friendz) on guitar and Mike O’Neill (Inbreds) on bass, the jangly little popster was everything kids and kiddos who grew up watching Much East in the ‘90s could want. Over the last year, the trio has played a few festival gigs, the North by Northeast conference, and logged some mileage on a small tour with Zeus. Now TUNS readies the release of its self-titled debut LP on August 26 via Royal Mountain Records.
When I touch base with O’Neill over the phone to talk about the record, he notes that the project actually got started towards the end of 2014, and the disc was tracked in early 2015.
“The reason it’s taken so long is that we’re going to put it out on Royal Mountain,” he says during a break from recording a new solo disc at his friend/writing partner Mike Clattenburg’s house in Halifax. “There was a period where we were going to put it out ourselves, but we really liked the idea of working with Royal Mountain.”
The struggle of releasing music and hoping people find it is something O’Neill is keen to avoid this time around, mentioning that a label team and solid touring are crucial elements to compete with all that other music out there.
“There’s so much music,” he says with a laugh. “With (his third and most recent solo record, 2012’s) Wild Lines, I hired a publicist but I didn’t do a lot of touring, and that hasn’t changed.
“We learned that with TUNS, when we played a bunch of shows with Zeus, it really got the ball rolling. People were talking about it, and I think that’s partly responsible for people like Royal Mountain and some other labels showing interest. So what tends to happen to me is that I’m in this mode where I think that I’ll just put out a record and it’ll be really good and doors will open, but I think you have to at least schedule some time to support it so people will care.”
The people who do care about O’Neill and the two Murphys make up an incredibly loyal fanbase, consisting of former ‘90s kids and a whole whack of new fans discovering the artists classic tunes on YouTube, ripped from VHS dubs off of Much Music.
“(Former Super Friendz guitarist) Charles Austin says so many smart things, and one of them is ‘We’re all 18 on the inside’,” O’Neill says. “Sometimes you wake up and know you’re 45, but you’re still the same person with the same thoughts and you remember what it’s like to be 18. I want to say to you that I’ve got all sorts of perspective and that (making music in 2016 has) gotta be fun (to be worthwhile), but at the same time I think this will be a big deal. I still have this hope that never goes away that even though I don’t make my living making music, I still flirt with the idea of it being my living, but it’s been a very long time since that’s been a possibility. But maybe that was never meant to be and I’m better for it. I’ve certainly had a lot of different experiences that I wouldn’t have had if I’d just been making music all the time.”
Those experiences include writing scripts for film and television with Trailer Park Boys creator Clattenberg (O’Neill mixed sound and played the role of Thomas Collins on the hit Showcase/Netflix series).
“Whenever that kicks into high gear I don’t really have time to work on my music,” he says, implying that in the last few years it’s been easier to collaborate than to work on his solo output. His 2013 LP with Austin musician Devon Sproule, Colours, was a real turning point. “That was really great, it was an occasion where I heard her music and loved it, then got to know each other over the Internet. Mostly what I was doing was contributing some songwriting and staying out of the way. It was a real opportunity to write for a band and not necessarily play or sing all the time.”
Taking that pressure off was something that was very inviting to O’Neill about working with his longtime friends on TUNS, but the band may not have happened if his mom, who lives in Oshawa, didn’t need her hedges trimmed.
“Every couple of months I go to my mom’s, she has a lot of work to do around the house so I go and trim the hedges and do whatever,” he tells us. “At one point, Chris Murphy said ‘Why don’t you and Matt Murphy and I jam sometime?’ We had known each other since ’95, and I think we jammed a few times but we were always in other bands so we were never very ambitious about it, but Chris thought it was time to just have fun and try it.”
Recorded with former Thrush Hermit bassist/recording engineer Ian McGettigan, the TUNS record was born out of loose jams, something strange and new for O’Neill.
“Normally I’m a bit more serious about the music,” he says with a laugh. “I get all serious at home, so I’m not used to the ‘fun’ aspect of playing. I’m a bit of a lone songwriter in that way. Playing with a band and writing together – because Devon and I didn’t even do that, we wrote separately – it takes some of the pressure off. You’re just sort of making stuff up on the spot. We got together two or three times and then we started recording and it turned out really, really well. We all sing, and Chris kind of divided everything so everybody gets the same amount of lead vocals. So I’m quite excited about it.”
So excited, that he’s game to break out of his shell – having not toured west of London since the Inbreds final tour in ’98, he’s actually stoked on the idea of getting back on the road.
“TUNS is absolutely the most fun, because those guys are so funny. It’s just non-stop jokes, and goofing around, and I really look forward to it,” he says. Between O’Neill’s return to the touring circuit and a prominent musical return of sorts for Matt Murphy (who has mostly focused on scoring films and playing the sideman in such bands as City Field and Cookie Duster since ending Super Friendz and Flashing Lights), TUNS is a big damn deal to more than just the fans.
“For me, obviously Chris and I never stopped playing, even though I take big breaks in between. It was Matt that hasn’t really put out anything in a long time, and he’s so good. A lot can be said about his guitar playing, but he’s such a great singer, so I have a new appreciation for his talent. I’m really excited for everyone to hear it.”
Bringing McGettigan into the fold only helped to rep the original Halifax Pop Explosion scene that much more.
“I kind of feel like it was all original members of that ‘90s Halifax scene,” O’Neill echoes. “(When we released the first TUNS single) everyone said it was ‘so indie rock’ but it’s not as though we turn on an ‘indie rock’ switch. Our process when Matt and Chris and I were recording was very much to say to Chris, ‘What’s a cool drum beat?’ and kind of build up a song from there, but we certainly weren’t mining the ‘90s – we are the ‘90s. It’s the point we came of age.”
Visit tunsmusic.com for more information.