By Brian Tucker
Thom Kunz and Joan Childress Wilkerson reunite for a new, full-length album – Accidental Crashes. The two first worked together on Kunz’s debut project Paper Brain. He later produced Wilkerson’s debut EP “iBreak iPhones.”
On December 14th they release the new collaboration on vinyl, CD, and digital formats. In the Q&A below they discuss working together and creating the album.
You first worked together on Paper Brain. Can you describe the connection you had artistically, what perhaps led to work now on three projects?
Thom: During the infant stages of Paper Brain, I remember feeling nervous and excited. It was my first serious music project, I didn’t know what I was doing or who would even want to be involved. It was just an idea. I had something to express.
When I met my wife Liv, I found enough confidence to move forward with my music. Joan was the first person I asked to be on the record. We were already close friends, I knew of her theater background at Columbia, and I said, “I’m working on this sort of dark album. Would you want to sing on it?” She simply said yes and became my safety net as the project developed.
Joan: I remember him leaving the bar and me thinking, “…but wait he’s never heard me sing. Huh.” And then suddenly we were in his house cranking out an album.
Thom: The reason I ended up with all women vocalists (on Paper Brain) is the men never got back in touch. It was a sort of fortunate accident. Joan stepped in for many of those darker, rock songs, and it was exactly what needed to happen.
Joan: After years in film and theatre, I was nervous about collaborating with someone again, but after our first session with “Cuts Like a Song,” I knew we’d be just fine. We were able to have clear, direct communication without any insult. When we got to the end of the project I remember looking at each other and being like, “okay, what’s next?”
Was there discussion about making a full album together while working on Joan’s EP?
Thom: With Joan’s EP iBreak iPhones, she had a clear vision of what she wanted – six songs about six people from her life over the years, all tied to these phones she’d broken, text messages and memories she could no longer access, and those phones she kept like a graveyard in her car. It was so personal and autobiographical, I was so grateful she’d shared the idea with me. We’d already established trust as friends, and after Paper Brain, we’d found trust as artists.
Joan: Those phones are really what brought Thom and I together. He was in my car one night and they were sort of jammed into the exposed center console of my ’99 Corolla. He started cackling and ripped them out of their home and said, “What are these!?” I told him they were mine and I thought I wanted to write an album one day. During Paper Brain it became very clear that Thom was the person I was going to trust with that album.
Thom: Those songs had such a raw, wide range of emotion, and she wanted to keep them rough. That’s when I realized Joan was the kind of gifted singer who can inhabit a song, slip into its bones. It’s not about hitting all the right notes – it’s about being human, about ‘feel’ and performance, about storytelling. I knew we would work together on something else after my Stars in the Black and Blue project with Whitney Pearsall.
Joan: Because it’s very much autobiographical, it helped to have a true writer helping me write. He asked me about and helped me describe them in a way I couldn’t have on my own. I feel like it’s just as much his as it is mine. Sonically, I wanted minimalism. Thom pushed that a little bit, but not in a direction that I felt like was out of my control. It’s not quite the album that I set out to make, it’s a grown up version.
Was working on Accidental Crashes different than her EP, in terms of producing her versus producing and writing with her?
Thom: I played and arranged all the instruments on Accidental Crashes and we collaborated on lyrics. Often vocals were recorded against piano and a few instruments in early stages, and her vocals would influence other instrument layers I’d add thereafter. We both discovered and learned a lot along the way. It felt very organic and full of surprise.
Joan: Accidental Crashes and iBreak iPhones couldn’t be more different. We made iBreak in seven weeks. I would walk into the studio with something, or nothing, and by the time I left two and a half hours later, there was a song. It was insane. It took me something like seven months to finally release the album to the public because the pure speed of the EP freaked me out a little bit.
Thom: For Accidental Crashes we started toying with lyrical ideas, situations, and an overall theme about connections between men and women, love and hate, good and evil, how relationships unravel to reveal their individual, damaged components, when two entities stop functioning as a unit. It all pointed back to this idea of accidental crashes, what comes together successfully, what falls apart, what’s forgiven, what’s left unresolved versus closure, what we cannot fix or control, and this idea extending into social and political contexts, the hangover we felt about the election, the dividing lines, choosing sides. All of our conversations drove the album toward completion.
Joan: We talked. We felt things out. We bounced things off Liv, Thom’s equally creative and amazingly patient wife. I remember there being one Monday that we didn’t do anything except go through the lyrics with a fine-tooth comb and change this or that. One word at a time. Because we wanted every word to count. That sounds trite, I know. But as a person who’s been writing songs for a long time, this process felt different. I’m so proud of the finished product. I’m also grateful for a collaborator and friend that I can look at and say, “Is that right? Is that the right word?” and him take a look again.
Is Accidental Crashes a concept album like previous work or more an expression between the two of you? Do you recall things that influenced its soundscape, be it arbitrary (sound bites), something mechanical, or a snippet of music.
Thom: Lyrically, I see this as the culmination of themes we discussed at the bar, during each recording session, and that worked into characters for each song. I remember we went through several lyric drafts for “More,” which is one of my favorite songs on the record. Joan becomes this broken human being. I’m not sure which vocal take we used, but it’s the one that hurt the most and felt like a real person.
Joan: I feel like it’s more of a context album, than a concept album. What Thom said earlier about our hangover after the election is so, painfully accurate. And writing it in that context, in that time was really challenging, and it really affected what and the way we wrote. That being said, the record does exist in its own universe. If you pay attention, there are two perspectives that start in different places, meet in the middle, and move forward. Those voices really speak to what Thom and I were dealing with separately, both from the past and in the present. And therein lays the context.
Thom: Sonically, I was interested in worn-out fragments of sound combined with lush grandeur, which is when the idea of presenting these songs as short stories on found, warped cassettes came into play. I was outside my apartment when an ambulance roared in the distance. It was raining. I hit record on my phone, captured a rough recording, and I knew it would open the record. I imagined someone walking away from the scene of an accident with these cassettes, maybe from one of the cars. On these cassettes were stories. It’s sort of voyeuristic. The album occasionally reminds the listener that he/she is sort of eavesdropping on someone playing them.
Joan: I was going through a lot of Life Stuff at the time and strongly reconsidering where I was and what I was doing. So naturally, I wasn’t getting a whole lot of sleep. I was walking my dog on the beach very early one morning, and the melody & chorus for “Michagain” popped into my head. I barked it into the voice memos app on my iPhone, and that audio file is now the intro on the song. And I think its things like that, those happy accidents that we really let color the record. That was a challenging thing for us to do – the act of “letting.” I’m glad we did.
Can you say what the album is now, what you see it as being about? Tonally, it has a sense of longing, of having had to say goodbye to something. Is that a by-product of making the album, what it now sounds like?
Thom: I think ‘saying goodbye’ and ‘moving on’ are strong themes on this record. It’s either the ones having an affair who need to stop – – “Contempt,” the abusive couple who can’t leave one another – “Home,” and the brave ones who muster the courage to actually movie on – “Out Loud.” And yes, the best connections are those beyond the obvious ones we initially intended. That’s one of the great unconscious things albums can do.
Joan: Yeah, what Thom said. Thinking about it that way makes me realize how dark of a place we were in. Which is fine, it’s just amusing to reflect on.
How important is atmosphere to you or is something that happens more instinctively?
Thom: Atmosphere is very important, and I think I’m learning more with each project. Paper Brain was one big lesson that sort of worked out, and then I felt more confident after Stars in the Black and Blue. Learning something new is my only expectation with each project. To say it happens more instinctively now would be accurate, but it’s also fun getting lost in the woods.
On any given song, there’d be 40-50 tracks, ten of them vocals, and it was about making choices, rerecording some sections, making more choices, until the need to make choices went away. I’d usually visit Joan during her shift at the bar after mixing all day, and it would be weird to see her smiling after I’d spent the day mixing a song like “More” or “Turn Back,” where she’s inhabiting the roles of these painful narrators. She’d be like, “What’s wrong with you!?”
Once we honed in on how we wanted to present the record, finding those moments where the audio could drop into what sounded like old cassettes, the ordering of tracks and their transitions, it was fun to move forward.
It’s been two years since Paper Brain. How do you look back on that experience, from making it to growing as a producer? What have you learned about working with another artist?
Thom: There were recording techniques I was simply figuring out on the spot back then, and I had fewer synths, sequencers, a smaller library of toys, I guess. It taught me how to learn through mistakes, to not be afraid of making them, and when to walk away and refresh my ears and mind. I think it was the best record I could make at the time. I’m grateful for the experience.
Can you share what “Out Loud” is about? It’s a great song to close out the album with.
Joan: I wrote “Out Loud” about a boyfriend I’d gone through a couple of breakups with for various reasons, but mostly because he was supposed to move. And so every time he would get ready to move, we would start to fight, breakup, and then he wouldn’t move. That process became extremely taxing, and then we’d run into each other downtown and flirt with whether or not to do it all over again. And thus, “Out Loud” was born.
In the context of the album, it’s about something else entirely, but I’ll let the listener get there on their own. It’s really amazing how it ended up being the finale to our road trip to heartbreak of an album. I was set on putting it on an entirely different project. But I’m thrilled it’s on this one. It’s where it belongs.
Thom: I have “Out Loud” theories, and that’s the fun part about not really knowing. It was the first song we had, and we both knew it would close the record. In context of the album, I think maybe the narrator is thinking back to the boy who wouldn’t leave and then finally got on the plane and the plane crashed. And now there’s this strange guilt the narrator is feeling. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. I sort of love that I don’t really know.
You’ve done a lot in two years. Are you accomplishing what you set out to do at the pace you wanted, in terms of making albums and creating? I have a feeling you may write an instrumental album or write score for a short film.
Thom: You are correct about the instrumental album. I’ve recently tracked a few instruments on twelve new songs after some long nights with a Moog 15, and I look forward to dressing them up over the beginning part of the New Year and into spring. I see it as a soundtrack to a cool movie that does not exist. I always tell myself I’ll take a break, but then I start tooling around in the studio. That’s my next project.
I have two larger projects in pre-production that will take years, but I’m excited about coming in and out of their respected headspaces when the appropriate moments align. One is a sort of twisted, character-driven musical called “The Night We All Die”, and I’m looking to work with a lot of singers as a rock chorus, singling them out on different leads, all songs taking place on one night. The other project is to revise a horror novel The Immaculate Hotel I’ve kicked around for the last decade and compose an accompanying score, releasing them at the same time. That’s the larger picture. The smaller picture is the collaborations I’ll hopefully find along the way. And the happy accidents
You’re releasing the new album as digital, CD, and vinyl. On Amazon it has instrumental tracks (Disc 2). Great addition, why did you choose to offer that?
Thom: I’ve been listening to a lot of instrumental synth music and soundtracks. Accidental Crashes was the first project where I thought the songs could also stand on their own and have a separate mix. I’ve had some recent luck licensing instrumental versions of Crashes via Songtradr, an agency out of California that places music with music supervisors for TV and film, and companies like Mood Media who provide playlists for businesses around the globe. A few of the songs from “Stars in the Black and Blue” are also pending, and I’m hoping for the best.
The album artwork, is it meant to suggest something – the unraveling of ideas or emotions, or is it simply cool photography?
Thom: Joan and I wanted a broken cassette since it visually represents how the individual stories are delivered to the listener on the album, as much as it represents the deconstruction of a unit into its individual parts that cannot function on their own.
There were probably seventy photos I attempted, and the one on the front cover is what I captured on accident. Kind of fitting too. I love the back cover by Mike Baxter. He snapped it off before our last recording session. There’s something special about those two people walking down Front Street – I don’t see them as Joan and me. And the other two strangers ahead of us make me wonder; I believe they were having an argument.
Joan: Can we all just bask in the glory that is the back cover photo? If I’m not mistaken, it’s the very first photo taken before our last recording session. Our dear friends Charo and Mike Baxter own a photography company that focuses mainly on weddings, and they very sweetly agreed to take some pictures for us. Mike has peeled off on his own to start with music projects, and I really think that he should just shoot anything that moves. Or doesn’t. I love the back cover. My head turned away, Thom’s stoic posture, the light through the trees—it’s all so perfect. Mike captured passive anticipation—the moment before an accidental crash. I don’t identify with the people in the picture, but I do wonder about them.